I’ve been told to go get therapy by more than one person.
It’s not a lie. I’ve needed therapy for years, but I’m not in therapy due to lack of trying. I’m not in therapy because I can’t find a therapist that is safe for me or won’t cause me more trauma.
The thing is, I’ve tried. When the pandemic started I found a wonderful therapist, but as the pandemic went on and things started opening up again, I was told I needed to move to a more permanent therapy program, even though I was making good progress with my current therapist.
So, despite having OCD, ADHD, PTSD, and anxiety, all things that make change difficult, I sucked it up and got a recommendation for a permanent placement at the behavioral health program at the place where I was seeing my therapist (my former therapist was recommended by my primary care doctor, which is why I went to her initially – she was recommended as a great doctor for trans people and she was incredibly safe).
My first appointment I was nervous, but the new therapist was not male (I prefer female or non-binary therapists and doctors for safety reasons). She was supposed to be trauma-informed and was a lesbian. So, I assumed she would be safe.
During the first session, she asked me about my trauma and we talked about some of the trauma relating to mistreatment as a disabled person, but when it turned to me being trans I mentioned my dead name is a source of trauma. I started to explain how my dead name was often used by people to harass and torment me and was starting to explain why the name was so triggering for me.
Without a thought the therapist blurted out, interrupting me “what was your dead name?!”
Shocked and emotional because I was relating traumatic experiences, I looked at her and said “what!?!”
She looked back at me across the video, and for a second I wondered maybe if she was recognizing that that’s not an appropriate question to ask a trans person, but she once again very clearly said, “your dead name, the one that is so harmful, what was it?”
Shocked, I quickly replied back, “I don’t tell people that!”
She nodded. “Ahhh. That’s fine. I understand.”
But the damage had already been done. It hadn’t even been 20 minutes into our session and she’d already asked me an incredibly triggering traumatic question, despite being a trauma-informed therapist!
Luckily, the session was only a get to know you session, so it was only half an hour. It wasn’t too long before she was scheduling my first actual appointment. She set it for at least a month in advance, so I had some time to think.
For a week or two, I just told myself it was no big deal, and I could get over it. But I just kept going back to the fact that she was supposed to be trauma-informed and she triggered my trauma within 10 minutes of meeting me! What would that mean for all of the other trauma I had and the PTSD that comes from so many different sources?
For the first week, I didn’t even tell Ashtyn, but after having a nightmare where people were screaming a shortened version of my dead name at me, I felt compelled to share and she was horrified. She told me I was not overreacting. She told me that therapist was inappropriate and that I should not go back and see her. She told me a trauma-informed therapist should not be causing harm to someone that has experienced high levels of trauma and has PTSD as a diagnosis.
I agreed but pondered how I would handle things. I was going to try to go to my next appointment and give the therapist another try because I don’t know. I thought that I was overreacting about this. However, after the dream, I realized that not talking about this wasn’t helping me. Subconsciously, I needed to get help and talk to someone about this.
With Ashtyn’s support, I ended up reaching out to my old therapist who said if I ever felt uncomfortable with this new therapist I could message her, and we would talk. She was horrified. The thing is my previous therapist had worked with trans youth on the street. She knew asking someone’s dead name was inappropriate.
My former therapist told me about how you couldn’t make mistakes like this with trans youth who were often living in homelessness because it could literally be life-and-death. I began to think about all of the other trans people she could be harming unintentionally, and with my previous therapist’s help, I reported the therapist so no one else would go through this again.
After canceling the appointment the previous month I was told that the therapist would be dealt with. They would talk to her and also get her better educated on how to work with trans patients, so this never happened again. I thought this would be the end of it, and we could all move on with our lives, but I was wrong.
Two or so weeks after I connected with my former therapist, I received a shocking phone call. The head of the behavioral health department was on the phone and he wanted to talk to me. At first, he wanted to know all about me being trans and what that meant, and then he wanted to check in on the “real story” of what happened with the therapist.
For the next 10 to 20 minutes, I was gaslit, spoken over, spoken down to, and treated like a “little missy.” I call it being treated like a little missy because that’s what older men used to call me, especially when I was female-identified when they were mansplaining and speaking over me in a misogynistic way.
I experienced misogyny, most likely because he could see in my file that I was afab, and people like me can still experience misogyny when people deny our gender identity. To him, I was not a trans person. I was just another “former female ” he could bully and intimidate.
I was flabbergasted as he asked me repeatedly whether the therapist said the term “dead name” or not. I didn’t remember if she used the exact phrase, but I made it clear that I knew exactly what she was asking and I didn’t appreciate him implying I didn’t.
From there he went on to accuse me of having an inappropriate relationship with my previous therapist. I insisted I only went back to her because I knew I could trust her and she told me she wanted to make sure the transition was smooth.
He insisted that I didn’t try hard enough and that I just planned to sabotage everything because I wanted more time with my previous therapist. I insisted that I would not have tried with a new therapist if I wasn’t interested in getting help, and that’s when he brought up how I was going to end up dead if I didn’t get back into therapy right away.
” After all, I was suicidal.”
I was suicidal?! Where did he get that from? Sure, I’d experienced suicidal ideation as a teenager, and I tried to hurt myself when I was 19, but I had just turned 40. I had long since moved past suicidal ideation, mostly because it hurt like hell recovering the first time! But hey, whatever deters you from thinking you don’t deserve to live I say stick with it!
I digress, “I’m not suicidal!” I proclaimed to him emphatically. “But you are, ” he said insisting that I didn’t even know my own body or thoughts. “If you don’t get into therapy and get help now you’re always going to be stuck like you are, and you’re probably going to kill yourself as a result.”
I was stunned. He had determined my own mental health for me, which was not at all accurate. I was not suicidal. He kept insisting I was depressed despite having no diagnosis of depression. “I’m anxious. I’m traumatized. I have PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was just diagnosed with ADHD! I’m not depressed!” I remember nearly shouting at him in the hopes that if I spoke louder it would get through his brain and make him stop.
I’m not even sure how the phone call ended, but I remember being emotionally exhausted by the entire experience. Without a second of hesitation, I called my previous therapist again and I told her that I desperately needed to talk to her boss who was another head of the program but did not answer to this man.
My therapist and her supervisor went through everything with me. Once they had the entire story I was told things would be handled. A few weeks later I was told that every single therapist in their program was now getting education and training on how to interact with trans people.
I’m grateful that that is what happened, but I have not signed up for therapy again.
People tell me to go to therapy, but when I try to go to therapy it’s complicated. It’s not always easy, and some of us have to go through hell, to find help if we can even find help at all.
Please give people grace if they don’t go to therapy. You might not know why they haven’t, and there might be a very valid reason for it. I know in my case it was.
I hold up hope that maybe one day I can get back in therapy, but I’m scared to try. I hope no one ever holds that against me again.
One response to “The Reality of Finding a Therapist When You Are Marginalized”
Thanks for posting this, Dominick. My partner and I both have TBI and were traumatized by multiple therapists, which wound up so bad that my partner separated from me and didn’t talk to me for 6 months in 2019 and we’ve been having to work back from there. Because I was listening to the therapists (because that’s what you’re supposed to do), I wasn’t listening to my partner. Turns out my partner has aphasia that affects his ability to understand verbal communication and verbally express himself, especially in emotionally charged situations. So that, like, entirely rules out talk therapy. But therapists always treat him as resistant because they’re not prepared to recognize aphasia. After we figured this out, we went back to address this with our intersectional feminist, anticapitalist therapists who specialize in treating parents, and they refused to acknowledge or address the harm they caused to both of us. I didn’t have clinical PTSD before that, but I sure got it from therapy. Triggered by loud noises, totally inconsolable and unable to function, for MONTHS. Oh, and also, my partner’s brain cancer was recurring when they were getting down on him for all his “resistance” and “bad behavior.” So we jumped from PTSD-riddled separation due to therapy, to me trying to be trustworthy enough to him through the PTSD and brain cancer symptoms in order to be there to help him (bc I’m the only person who could). We’re getting there in the end but there are still loud echoes. There’s something fundamentally ableist and otherwise oppressive about the current iteration of psychotherapeutic knowledge and training. We’ll be avoiding therapists forever, thanks. The more people I tell about this, the more people are like “yeah, me too, but I can’t tell anyone.” How do we protect people from what is considered a universal unequivocal good, and compel what people consider a universal unequivocal good to be less harmful to the people who arguably, theoretically, need it most.