Dear Angela: If you’re reading this, I’m sorry.
A few weeks ago, I was grabbing dinner with my new best friend — yup, I somehow scored a new best friend as an adult! — and decided to tell her about the thing I’m the most ashamed of doing in 2018.
“I ghosted on my therapist, and I feel really bad about it.”
“You did what?”
“I ghosted on my therapist,” I repeated, louder this time, so that she could hear me, and the next table could hear me, and the waiter taking orders across the restaurant could hear me and spit in my Cobb salad on behalf of the American Psychological Association.
For those fortunate enough not to know, ghosting is millennial dating jargon for being a giant coward — rather than tell someone you don’t want to go out again, you stop answering their text messages, their phone calls, their DMs, and, of course, their smoke signals. Ghosting on your therapist is a similar type of disappearing act: After seeing a therapist once, twice, 13 times, you ignore their post-session voicemail about scheduling your next session, thereby “ending” treatment. I’m not proud to admit that this year, at 29 years old, I ghosted on Angela, the first therapist I ever saw. But I’ve learned how to approach the issue in a more mature way if it comes up again. And finding myself in this situation made me realize that all relationships, romantic or not, deserve respect.
I’d thought about going to therapy many times. But I didn’t take the plunge until a Facebook ad popped up on my newsfeed this past January. It was from Angela’s therapy group, encouraging me to swing by and experience an hour of transformation. I must have been feeling extra down in the dumps, because I changed out of my stained pajamas, picked up the phone, and walked into her office a few hours later.
I’d envisioned a tweedy office with wooden bookshelves and a fainting couch. Instead, I found myself sitting in an office chair inside a co-working space. The disappointment didn’t end there, though. An hour later, I left my first-ever therapy session feeling neglected and mistreated.
Perhaps I had an unrealistic understanding of what therapy was supposed to be.
I thought a therapist was a person you pay to comfort you and cheer you across emotional finish lines. I thought a therapist was a person you visit once a week, who tells you how smart, pretty, and talented you are, and encourages you to reach for the stars, seize the day, and 55 other clichés. I thought a therapist was a person who opens their arms and offers you a bear-hug while you cry your eyes out over an ex-boyfriend who once said you had bug eyes.
But it wasn’t like that with Angela. I cried to her and she handed me a lotion-infused tissue, and all I could think and say was, “Why would anyone want to use a tissue infused with lotion?” Before I knew it, our session was over, and I’d wasted 45 minutes ranting about the tissue industry.
Having Angela as a therapist meant leaving therapy each week with a homework assignment to call this person or say sorry to that person. When you didn’t do your homework, you received an eye roll and a talking to: “For therapy to work, Jen, you must do the work.”
Having Angela as a therapist meant feeling self-conscious as she wrote down everything you said, circling some words and starring others, and wondering what she did with those notes afterward. Did they go into a “Jen Glantz” file that she pulled out whenever she needed a good laugh?
That’s as much as I can say about having Angela as a therapist because our time together was short-lived. After three weeks, and more judgmental glances than I could stand, I ghosted on Angela. First, I neglected to call her to schedule our next appointment. Then I didn’t respond when she texted, emailed, and called me to ask when I’d like to come in next. And then she backed off, like most ghostees eventually do.
It wasn’t until I confessed this almighty sin to my new best friend that I wondered if I’d hurt Angela’s feelings. Before then, it hadn’t even occurred to me that therapists had feelings — but of course they do. They’re human. And when I remembered that, I felt sad about what I’d done.
I wanted to see what another therapist would say about being ghosted. So I reached out to Shannon Kalberg, a friend of mine who’s a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles and a clinical professor at Pepperdine University.
“It can be jarring and disconcerting to the therapist when a client ghosts,” Shannon told me via email. “After all, we’re human too and work all day trying to forge genuine connections with people. I find myself thinking about clients at times and say to myself, ‘I wonder what happened to them? Are they OK?’ It’s surprising how calming it is to get an email from a former client simply stating that they are alright.”’
Well, Angela, if you’re reading this, please know that I’m mostly OK. What happened to me was that I didn’t like therapy, basically. I thought it would feel like a trip to the petting zoo, where cuddly animals make me gag on smiles and remind me that there’s good in the world. Instead, our sessions felt like sanctimonious lectures from my 97-year-old grandmother.
I couldn’t be the only person who’s ghosted on a therapist, though, right? To my relief, Shannon confirmed that I’m not.
“People ghost on their therapists for a number of reasons,” she told me, “but the two most common ones I see are [that] the alliance has been broken or finances are tight.”
By the “alliance being broken,” Shannon explained, she meant that “a therapist might have communicated something harsh, negative, painful, mean, or callused.” This could be caused by a number of behaviors — maybe a therapist yawns or drifts off during a session, or even talks too much about their personal life.
But rather than cease therapy with no explanation, like I did, a client should just say something. “This could be turned into a learning experience,” Shannon said, “if the client confronts and processes the broken alliance in the session, i.e., ‘It felt really painful when you laughed at me when I was crying.”’
After confessing to my new friend over dinner what I’d done, I thought about dialing up Angela and saying sorry, or sending her an email letting her know that she was right — I wasn’t ready to put in the work required for therapy to work. But I didn’t. I just vowed that I’d do better next time, if there was a next time.
If I feel the urge to ghost on another therapist, Shannon said, I should suppress that urge and email the therapist 48 hours before our next scheduled appointment to let them know that I want to “pause” therapy and will reach back out again when I’m ready.
So, I promise you, Future Angela, that I won’t ghost on you without sending a pre-ghosting email. And I might even follow up with a forget-me-not, like an Edible Arrangement or a box of tissues — this time, sans lotion.