Grey and NB in Therapy: on CBT and the sneakiness of therapeutic abuse

This post is a submission to the June 2015 Carnival of Aces on the topic of mental health.

[Content warnings: self-blame, gaslighting, abuse, invalidation.]

A couple years ago, after an Ace Uncon session, I started a wikispace for ranking ace-competent mental health practitioners.

I was over-ambitious: I built all this framework around therapists vs psychiatrists, rating nb/trans competency, listing specialty and mode, even an instruction page on “how to call and interview someone to fill in this wiki.”

I started freezing up pretty soon, about how empty it was, and consent/vulnerability of talking about people this way, and what if we turned up in google results and they could recognize who was talking about them? The only filled-in profile was about my therapist and it expressed some hesitancy; but shouldn’t I try bringing it up with him again, to be fair to him?

So I let the wikispace expire.

Fast-forward a few years, and I’m glad to see there’s a new project that I don’t have to spearhead, but I’m nervous again. So nervous.

How do I quantify my experience with that therapist? Do I drop names? I’m certain he’s still billing himself as a gender specialist and poly/ace friendly. And I mean, I was extra-complicated, is it really his fault I got messed up, that CBT backfired so hard?

Yes, actually. Yes, it’s his fault.

Sometimes now I even call that experience abusive. Certainly gaslighting.

There was so much “you overattach to labels and overthink everything” as a Solution? But most of all, the “this again?” was the worst. The “we’ve covered this, you’re not X, that’s your disordered thinking again.”

And any time I mentioned that, it was all awkward and unanticipated and sorry-you-feel-that-way(-it’s-your-brain-again)(-couldn’t-have-known).

And that was mostly about my grey aceness. “Pff, when you have a partner and sex is accessible, you’re NOT asexual in any way.” (Oh really? Is that why I went sex-repulsed for months mid-relationship and got dumped? Because once sex is “easily available,” I stop feeling complicated about it, right?)

But sometimes it was about my questioning what was abuse. And sneakily it started to feel like it was about my gender, too, except that one would never be said outright because he knew I would–not leave, but challenge.

I didn’t leave, even though I’d gotten steadily worse. I was masking it okay. Every symptom that cropped up was “weird, but isolated.”

I even moved away and took a one-hour $20 each way train to see him, still. I’ve always thought ‘loyalty’ is one of my hyperstrong qualities; never been able to leave.

Then last summer I realized I was autistic, and he laughed at the mere idea, and I isolated until I ended up in the psych hospital.

I’d even tried to schedule a new appointment with old therapist but he wasn’t urgently available. He sent me some local referrals and I read their websites and…wow, they sounded awful. Even about gender, they sounded outdated and gross and…was this what my therapist thought was competency?

While in the hospital I set up new appointments with new people, somatic-based because that just seemed right for my dissociated state. I was immediately upfront about a long list: nonbinary, transitioning, femme, grey, ace, glitchy and nonhuman, toxic experiences with activists, felt out-of-sync with last therapist (how will you check in?). Plus the whole, autistic, OCD, dissociation, depression, suicidality, intrusive thoughts, magical thinking (vs spirituality?? help), dysphoria, wanting to Reset and feeling like I do every two years just drop everyone-and-thing and reinvent myself, continuity, difficulty with memory and intensity and spottiness…
My new therapist (and indeed all three I interviewed) is fantastic. Still an intern when we first talked, got licensed the next week.

Seems to me that the newer folks in the field are more flexible and more savvy. Helps, too, to find folks who want to work with activists, and have that experience and training.

We’ve had a few conversations about aceness, greyness, sex. Repulsion, alcohol, trauma. How it affects me, what it feels like.

And I really would like to fix — the trauma parts, the having-sex-and-it-turns-out-traumatizing-as-hell parts, the conflicted feelings and the using alcohol to bypass inhibitions, the somatic flashbacks…the sense that I did this to myself. And the despair of ever untangling this (+sexual intrusive thoughts, +states of consciousness and oblivion-seeking and self-harm, +religious upbringing…).

But. New therapist has been very clear, asked good questions. And I’ve been able to articulate: I would like to unravel this stuff, but not with a Goal of Sex and/or Allosexuality. The priority is feeling safe, and whole, and in control of my decisions. And she’s 110% on board.

It helps that we’re using the lenses of autistic + PTSD + somewhere on bipolar spectrum + OCD, rather than just “depression/OCD, use CBT now.”  It helps that we use somatic, and trauma theory, and stuff for sensory overwhelm, and are slowly investigating OCD treatments.

It helps that we hold therapy as potentially dangerous.

And it helps that I feel…safe, and whole, and. Not having to reframe. And neither expecting her to Know. (In fact, given my increasing resistance to feeling like other people think they Know me rather than asking…)

She asks how we’re doing. She initiates check-in about our process. She asks how I want to structure a session. We’ve hit the right amount of guidance and intervention and…acceptance.

It helps that I came in more firmly about who I am and what I wanted help with. With old therapist, I saw him for four years, and I started while still figuring my core identities out, and he always seemed bemused by them. Tolerating my silly direction. I have walls against that now, a more settled identity, distress generated less by worries than by memories.

I would never have started therapy if it wasn’t a transition requirement.

Even though I can identify a major depressive episode and OCD onset when I was a teen, even though I had many questions about others’ truthfulness and telling friend from foe, even though I had bullying trauma and religious/bigoted upbringing to process… I only started and stayed in therapy because I knew I would need therapist letters.

It was still barely enough, actually. I’ve pushed the medical transition envelope a lot. Surgery without hormones, with special modifications; hormone blockers; another surgery never before done this way… I needed History, and Currently In Therapy, and signatures, and I got them.

And yknow, reading those damn letters… My new therapist consulted multiple experts and samples, and wrote a very broad and affirming letter about “we’ve discussed xyz consequences, and Cor has total agency.” This after two sessions. It…made me cry a little.

Because previous letters were “have seen this amount of time, has this gender identity, wants this body modification, has this history, has this mental illness which is not enough to affect transition decisions, has stayed consistent about wishes over x time…” And all avoiding pronouns. No singular they, no co. Just constantly reusing my name. “To avoid confusion.”

God, the difference is striking. And yknow? I probably needed the medicalized one, to make the agency letter approved.

Medical system, eh.

So. All of this, to say. Being grey has actually been the most obvious clash with my therapists, has brought out hidden beliefs about validity. Has been probably the least addressed piece of me. And I really could use a little help sorting that area, especially re: trauma and other brain stuff.

Therapy can do harm. It really can. CBT (and DBT) is especially gaslighting. And I really do hold my old therapist responsible for seeing my abusive relationships form/continue, and pumping me full of “abuse is a buzzword.”

Even when my surface needs were getting met (letters, someone to talk to/keep up to date on my mental state, depression)…there was a lot that was deeply wrong.

Yet I’m still reluctant to pass any sort of “rating” of ace-compentency or, reveal who he was. I feel like he’d know, and–and shake his head about me “guessing wrong about what he thinks” and just being so amusingly/irritatingly/ childishly inaccurate and stubborn.

That says a lot, doesn’t it.

Anyway: dear aces. Please be careful. And know too that just because someone believes asexuality is real…they may not believe you. Or greyness. Or they may just not be good for you.

Stay safe, loves.

24 thoughts on “Grey and NB in Therapy: on CBT and the sneakiness of therapeutic abuse

  1. If you wanted confirmation that that therapist did wrong by you… yeah. He sounds awful. I’ve gotten that kind of dismissiveness from people in other situations, not therapy, and it seems like such a small thing but it’s incredibly hurtful. It’s not actually a small thing, to watch someone mentally sorting you into a little box and dismissing everything you have to say, even if they’re calm and polite about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. ❤

      I still have a hard time like–he was so good at explaining why it was silly that I felt he thought something bad/wrong about me. And I still feel like, I should give him a chance to explain his side? And maybe it's all a misunderstanding and my brain twisting everything?

      And then I step back and go, whoa, no, that's fucked up, and that's what therapy with him did to me was tell me it was all in my head and to trust his perspective more than mine.

      It's still hard to break though. I cling to knowing that even when he explained himself and I believed him, the sense of wrong came creeping back later.


    • hahahahaha. I mean, it was in the context of me freaking out about online callouts/allegations of abuse, but it was definitely this hierarchy of “REAL abuse is SERIOUS unlike what you’re seeing.”

      And like. Seriously– he convinced me I was cheating and it was my fault, when I was massively drunk and (now am able to articulate I was) unable to consent? And just…that so fed into “need to Atone” which camoflauged abuse so well.

      Ugh. I think he’s very much of the not-bad-enough school of thought, around abuse, autism, consent… For a while I thought he was so valuable in saying there can be bad sexual experiences that were consensual. Which is where I spun off into grey-consent frameworks and never considered PTSD or abuse.


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