Chapter 74: When Will I Be Ready To Leave Group Therapy? “Hello I must be going.”
There’s a law in physics that states: ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. That law could just as easily apply to the process of group therapy. Emotional growth is not linear; its uneven- one step forward two steps back. Some group members want to leave group therapy soon after it begins, some want to leave even before it begins. Such was the case with Anita.
Anita found me through an internet search. She sent me an e-mail inquiring about my group therapy practice. I am generally wary of communicating over the internet with group members, prospective or otherwise, there’s no confidentiality, it’s too impersonal and there’s simply so much room for distortion. I told her to call me and we’d talk about it. But Anita was wary too. She didn’t want to talk about it, she wanted the anonymity of texting. I answered some of her factual questions, my credentials, where my office was located, whether I accept insurance and such but stopped short of addressing her more emotionally laden concerns. I told her to call me when she was ready. She said that she’d think about it. Some weeks later, she did call; and when we met I was pleasantly surprised to find her bright, articulate and psychologically minded. Anita told me why she was so leery. Her last group therapy experience was a disaster. Anita had been in a ‘cult-like’ group where members had all sorts of complicated relationship with the leader and with each other. She told me that the group shamed her when she refused to participate in outside the group events. Group members performed menial tasks for the leader; they acted as her valet, attending to her personal needs— chauffeuring her around town, painting her office, running errands, walking her dog and the like. She was made to feel crazy for not going along tom get along. Although Anita knew she needed group, she was still skittish about giving it another try. I said: “After what you’ve been through, there’s every reason to be skittish.” I told her that my rule about outside the group contact was clear. There wasn’t any. I said: ”No Outside the group contact. Nada. Members are known to each other on a first name basis and there’s no communicating not even in the waiting room.” She seemed somewhat reassured and agreed to give it a try. Often new group member sit quietly for some weeks, watching the interaction and getting a sense of how group therapy works, but not Anita. She jumped right in, feet first. She was quite open, likeable, emotionally savvy and related easily to the problems of others. The group warmly welcomed her. Initially, Anita’s main problem was like many new members’ problem, she couldn’t distinguish a thought from a feeling. Since she wasn’t a novice at group, I would correct when she mixed up the two. For instance, Anita told Sam: “I feel that you’re a lonely guy.” I said: “As soon as you say ‘I feel that’ you’re off a feeling and into a thought.” In frustration, she came to the next group meeting with a ‘cheat sheet’ of feelings, with emojis, to help her find her emotions. Several weeks later, feeling safer in group, Anita took a risk and shared with the group her horrific last group therapy experience. Group members were appalled and incredulous. Wilma said: “I can’t believe such things go on.” I told Anita: “There’s a term for what you experienced in that group; it’s called gaslighting.” She asked: “What does that mean?” Eugene said: “I can answer that. It means mind-fucking. You last group fucked with your mind and the leader didn’t protect you. In fact, she supported the group’s attacks on you by keeping quiet. She left you twisting in the wind, as Nixon used to say.” I said: “You were made to feel crazy for standing up for yourself.” She said: “You’re right. This is mind-blowing. I never thought of it that way. That’s exactly what happened to me. The group told me that my ‘stubbornness’ was the reason I couldn’t be emotionally intimate with people in my life ”. At the start of the next meeting she asked me:” When will I be ready to leave group therapy?” I replied: “When you can do for yourself what the group does for you, then you’ll be ready to leave. Anita said:” I want to be on the fast track out of here. How long is it then?” I told her, half-kiddingly: “If you put into words all your thoughts and feelings toward the other members, you’ll be ready to go in six months!” She said:” Why so long?” I answered her question with a question:” What’s the urgency?” It was then that Anita dropped a bomb. She said: “Before joining the group, I decided to move to L.A. by the end of the year. I’d like to wrap this up by Christmas.” Felicia was incredulous: “You just got here and now you’re leaving?” I said: “ ’Hello I must be going.’ How come you didn’t tell us this before?” Anita said: “Why should I? What I do is nobody’s business. Besides, it doesn’t mean anything.” I said: “Of course it means something. By not telling us that you planned to leave in at the end of the year means, that you had a foot and a half out the door even before you started group. The treatment was over before it even began”. She said: “Well I’m talking now.” I said: What did you expect from group? Participating in group will bring up feelings you don’t want to have” She asked: “Like what?“ I said: “Like betrayal. You trusted your last group leader and she betrayed that trust by accusing you of being mentally ill because you refused to follow her—lockstep like the others. It’s no wonder that you’re wary here. You should be. Look. No one wants to feel emotional pain but the theory is that if you go through it, maybe something better is on the other side.” Marc said:” I only know you a short time but I’d really miss you if you left”. Henrietta said: “I know you’ve been through and back with group therapy. I’d miss you too. Besides this group would never let Pepper fuck with your mind like your other group leader did”. I said: “You’re brave for having given group a try again. ‘Once burned twice shy’. It takes courage to be here. Why don’t you stay long enough for us to understand your urgency to flee? “’Anita said: “I’ll think about it.”