Seeking therapy requires a lot of courage. Sharing your most intimate thoughts and feelings with a complete stranger is a vulnerable act, and so, it can be extremely distressing and disturbing when you have a bad experience. It might even tarnish your view of the entire process and system.
Just one bad experience can shut a person down, leave them disintegrated and even disgusted at the entire mental health system. In India, thanks to the non-existence of government licensing bodies for counselling psychologists, I feel simply anyone hangs a board of a ‘Counsellor’ and does more harm than good due to lack of adequate skills, training and supervision. Over the past few months, I’ve had a volume of clients who’ve come to me recounting tales of horror about their bad experience, and some of these stories have given me goosebumps. With their permission, I am sharing some of their experiences here. Names are not revealed for obvious reasons – to protect the client’s identity by maintaining anonymity and confidentiality which are like the corner-stones of any therapeutic process.
“I have had an eating disorder since I was 16 years old. I binge-eat, feel guilty every time I look in the mirror because I am so ugly and promise myself that from tomorrow, I shall go on a diet and exercise regularly. I can barely even do it for a day! I give in to my cravings and then feel like such a loser! Who will love me when I am so fat and ugly?
The last therapist I visited agreed with me. She told me, and these are her exact words, “I know you are not good-looking. Obviously no one will want to be with a fat person like you. I think our therapeutic goal should be to work towards ensuring you are alright being by yourself because yes, you are right, relationships, marriage, love, it will not come to you.”
I was so stunned at her statement! Are you joking? Like, seriously? She caught me staring at her and gave me a sickly sweet smile. I asked her, suddenly feeling very weak in the knee, “Do you really think I won’t ever find a man to love me just because I am fat and ugly?” She answered, “Men love young, good-looking women and since you aren’t pretty and neither are you getting any younger with each passing day, I feel it’s best we keep our goals realistic and just work towards making you okay being single. Is that alright?”
I wanted to scream at her, tell her “no” it isn’t alright because I do not want to remain single my whole life, I want a partner, but every time I protested, she scolded me and admonished me as if I was a school-going kid and not a twenty-nine-year-old woman. I cannot believe that I went to her for therapy for a good three months before I was convinced that she wasn’t the right fit for me. Hell! She wasn’t the right fit for anyone. Who was she to tell me what I could or could not have in life? I had not given her that power.”
“At an office-picnic, I was sexually assaulted by a colleague of mine. It was an overnight picnic and he assaulted me when I was alone in my room. I know what you are thinking, “Why did you let him in the room?”, “You should have known better,” but how was I to know? That very same afternoon, I had slipped and almost drowned under a waterfall – he pulled me out of the waters and saved my life. In my head, he was a decent guy, a brave guy; I’d have drowned had he not been there! But then, how could he do that to me? I don’t think I can ever get over that episode – it was so traumatic!
I tried seeking help before but my last therapist actually said, “Why don’t you just change your perspective? He saved your life and you just repaid him by awarding him that physical experience with you…There is no need to feel guilty or bad about it. You can just move on and treat this as an act of service.”
Just hearing these words made my blood boil. She was a woman, a therapist and seriously, these were the words coming out of her mouth! I felt like vomiting! I just thanked her, told her that her advice really made a difference to me, and I never visited her a second time.”
“My husband and I were having regular fights because of hectic work-schedules and I decided to see a marriage counsellor just so that I could vent and get it all out of the system.
My marriage counsellor never listened to my problems. We never even got to discussing what the issues were! The session began with her asking me when I got married, how many years it has been, whether we have any children and then she asked for my and my husband’s date of birth. Then she tsked and said that all issues in my life were happening because my husband and I were a bad astrological match, and she enquired if we had done any special pujas at the time of the wedding to ward off the negative effects of the doshas.
At that time, I was so gobsmacked – was I visiting a marriage counsellor or an astrologer? I just dismissed the entire process of counselling as ridiculous – some hokum-pokum in a disguised form – and never visited another mental health practitioner until today that is almost four years later.”
“Three months ago, my boyfriend committed suicide. He had been going through a lot, and after a while I realized that I just could not be there with him anymore until he figured his shit out. We broke up, but we got back together again because he just begged me to take him back. He said that he just could not live without me…Just words…Two weeks later, I caught him making out with another girl, and later discovered that he had been cheating on me quite a bit even while we had been together.
I was outraged and I just walked out of his house. The next day, I went to my native-place. He tried calling me a lot of times but I did not receive his call. Finally he texted me to give him one chance to explain himself. I answered his call just to get done with it, and he again sobbed and told me how difficult life was, how his family just did not understand him, and how he’d be all alone if I left him. I was mad at him – he was not even apologizing for having cheated on me! I yelled at him, told him that I will never speak to him again and that I never want to see his face.
The next day he had hung himself. His friend texted me to give him the news. I was upset and immediately booked an appointment with the therapist, and was lucky (at least that’s what I thought at that moment) to get an appointment for the very next day. The therapist did not hear me out from start to finish. He kept interrupting me and passing comments that, to be honest, in hindsight, were quite offensive. When I told him that I feel guilty because perhaps, if I’d not told him that I never want to see your face, he could still be alive. The therapist actually had the audacity to tell me, “Well you can’t be feeling that guilty considering you are sitting here, and trying to make yourself feel better despite holding yourself responsible for his suicide…Shouldn’t you be at his funeral?”
How could a therapist say that? How can anyone say that, as a matter of fact? I felt even more depressed after my visit to this therapist and swore off therapists, and had my friend not dragged me here, I just would not have come. This is the first time I am sharing with someone how that therapist messed me up – I felt even guiltier after that session, and I had not even thought that was possible!”
“Once, I visited a therapist who actually needed therapy for herself! Like, big time! She asked me a lot of questions about my childhood, deciphered that my relationship with my father was troubled and then made this swooping statement, “I had so many issues with my father. Fathers can never understand daughters. I have never been able to forgive my father for what he did to me. I blame him for so many things that is wrong with my life. It’s very difficult to work through resolving issues with parents – I can testify that because of my personal experience…”
I never went back to her. If she was not competent enough to handle her own issues, why was she a practising therapist? Also, why should I go to a therapist who says that my issues with my father can never be resolved?
“I went to a therapist when I was feeling confused about my sexual orientation and identity. The therapist told me that there is no need for me to be confused. He said, “Homosexuality is a phenomenon that has just been invented by the media and it is untrue. No boy can ever be attracted to another boy. It isn’t natural. Get these silly notions out of your head and focus on your studies!”
Needless to say, I never visited him again. After three years, I decided to visit another counsellor for some career advice. In the intake-form, I mentioned my relationship status as partnered. As we were discussing my career options, in the middle of the conversation, the counsellor asked me what plans had my girlfriend made regarding her career. I just told her that I don’t have a girlfriend. She then pointed to that column where I’d written ‘Partnered’ and stared at me. I stared back, and she realized what I meant. She just remarked, “Oh! No wonder you are so confused! The youth of today think simply everything and anything is possible; they go against the laws of nature and then they come seeking professional help. You find yourself a nice girl, and all these doubts you have will be sorted.”
After that, I decided never to see a mental health practitioner again, and even if I had to, I would never reveal my sexual orientation. They are all so judgmental!
Hearing these experiences made me cringe. Are there really so many incompetent mental health practitioners out there? In India, there are very few people who seek professional help. With such harrowing experiences, I am scared that even fewer people will seek help.
I wish to create a directory, at some point of time, of therapists who are genuinely good at their job, and for this, my dear reader, I seek your help. If you know of a good counsellor or therapist, anywhere in India, do share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I personally have a list of mental health practitioners who know what they are doing! Please give the details based on your personal experience with that practitioner alone, and not based on anything you’ve heard through someone else. That will help us preserve the integrity of the list. Also, if you would like to share some of your personal bad experiences with a therapist, feel free to write. We’ll hear you out!