How I Freed Myself from Emotional Blackmail
"You need a therapist who is as strong-willed as you are," my physician said when I turned to her for advice. She knew my penchant for going through therapists like Murphy Brown went through secretaries. She made a referral, adding, "Rona* is a bit unorthodox. She won't put up with bulls***."
The thought of having someone I could trust to force me to open up was a surprising relief, so I made an appointment.
The sunrise ferry ride to the island off Seattle where Rona lived, followed by the drive down a road that wound through tall trees, felt as if I were traveling out of my world, away from myself. Her office—the screened-in porch of her cabin—seemed plucked out of a fairy tale, a place where I might be transformed. The symphony of the forest waking up, the piney smell of the outdoors mingling with sandalwood incense, cradled me as I sank into a futon couch with satiny pillows.
Rona sat across from me in a wooden rocker. She was in her mid-50s, with cropped salt-and-pepper hair and the wizened face and kindhearted demeanor of Yoda's mother, with a dash of deadpan humor. She was easy to open up with, to trust—at least, at first.
I confided that I felt like a fake, pretending to be a confident journalist, wife, mother. I was anxious and depressed. I was afraid I might somehow harm my children by being emotionally distant. Maybe I wasn't a good enough mother and didn't deserve my husband's love.
"Think of me as your surrogate mother," Rona said, her voice low and soothing. "I'll be on your shoulder, guiding you to make good decisions."
That sounded wonderful, like a gift. My own mom lived across the country, and we never had the kind of relationship where I asked for advice.
I quickly learned about Rona's unorthodox methods. One time, I entered the porch without ringing the doorbell. She snatched my check and ordered me to leave because I was rude. Another time, I went to use the bathroom in her house and she locked me out of the office/porch. "Ask if you may please come in and I'll open the door," she said. She made me ask again and again, each time more humiliating.
Several times during that first year, I tried to end our relationship. Rona used my fears about not being a good enough mother as emotional blackmail. "If you quit therapy," she said, "I'll get a court order to have your children taken away." It still stings that I believed she could have me declared an unfit parent because I wanted to learn how to love more fully.
More and more, I dreaded the weekly ferry ride. Still, I got something out of our meetings. Rona often did provide good advice. What my physician didn't know when she referred me—and I wouldn't learn until years later—was that Rona suffered from post-stroke mood disorder. She could be perfectly rational one session, coaxing me to be more compassionate with myself. The next week, she might accuse me of being evil and untrustworthy. I never knew which therapist I would get.
Rona demanded my respect, yet sometimes she yelled into my face to make a point. Once, she actually grabbed my breast to shock me into submission when I refused to agree with her. The worst part: I believed this abuse was my fault. She was the therapist. I was the patient. I was ashamed to tell anyone, even my husband, that I felt trapped.
Two years into this toxic relationship, Rona was diagnosed with breast cancer. She referred me to another therapist while she underwent surgery and chemotherapy. "John* will be like your uncle, taking care of you until I can again," she explained.
During my first session with John, I repeated this. He rolled his eyes and let loose a deep sigh. "Jen, you are perfectly capable of making your own decisions," he said.
Rona called a few months later, when she felt better. I didn't want to continue our sessions, but I was still afraid of her. I told John I felt like an emotional hostage. "Yes, you're right," he said. "But you're the one who's keeping yourself hostage, not Rona. That's true with all of your relationships."
Those words startled me—and I suspected he was right. I had believed for so long that I wasn't a good person and didn't deserve love; it was easy to believe Rona when she reinforced my fears. Now, though, I was done punishing myself.
I had to confront Rona, but I kept putting it off. I wrote many unsent letters to sort out my feelings. Finally, I set up an appointment. During the ferry ride, I kept practicing what I wanted to say, terrified I would come under some kind of spell when I saw her. My heart was pounding in my throat, seeing her in that wooden rocker, through the porch screen. I knocked on the door and shakily handed her a check when she opened it.
"Here's what you're wrong about," I said, afraid to set foot in the sunroom that had become like a prison. "I am not evil. I am a good mother. I don't need you on my shoulder, helping me to make decisions."
Rona slammed the door in my face. I forced myself to walk slowly down the stone path to my car. My legs were wobbly, my breath coming fast, but I was smiling.
It took a long time for me to completely stop thinking of myself as Rona's victim. Once I did, something miraculous happened: I began trusting myself more as a mother, wife and daughter. I worked harder on my relationships. I judged myself and others less. I did become closer with my family—better able to love others because I was more compassionate with myself.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy
Jennifer Haupt is the author of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills, the intertwining story of three women searching for family, set against the backdrop of post-genocide Rwanda.