An Open Letter To My Former Therapist

We met when I was 20, just starting my senior year of college. I didn't know what was happening to me at the time. I was suddenly gripped with overwhelming anxiety at the sound of airplanes flying overhead. And that anxiety was beginning to seep into other areas of my life.

I knew you were the right therapist for me as soon as I heard your voice. I didn't know how to find a good therapist really. This was 1984 and there were no Google searches, Yelp reviews, or Healthgrades. The internet wouldn't be a reality for most of us for another decade. I had a big yellow phone book and looked up psychotherapist. I called and left messages for about five of them. That's all the energy I had. The first one that called back wanted me to tell her my life story over the phone before she would schedule with me. Stating my problem over the phone made me feel awkward and ridiculous, and I knew I would not choose her to share my deepest thoughts. The second call was you.

I liked your voice immediately. You were calm and reassuring. No pressure to explain what my problems were over the phone. Just, yes, you'd be happy to see me.

That began a 24-year-relationship - not continuous, but sporadic. As a college student, you helped me understand my panic attacks and anxiety, and lo and behold, they diminished. Together, we opened a Pandora's box and over time, you helped me deal with all of it. You were unflappable and compassionate throughout the process, which in therapy, is never linear and often comes in bursts.

You were there the day the Challenger exploded. I had come to therapy numbed from watching TV coverage, the sight of the explosion in the air seared into my memory. Even more traumatic was the sight of Christa McAuliffe's parents looking into the sky with pain etched on their faces. I still see those images in my mind. But your presence reminded me that while horrible things happen in the world, safety still existed.

Fifteen years later, you were there again to remind me that the world was not coming to an end when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. You were there for all the pain and grief that entered my life. I knew I could call and you would always be there, a touchstone whenever I needed you -- a reminder that I could face what was coming next with grace and might.

I hadn't seen you in eight years, but I felt the need to return to therapy recently. Each stage of life seems to bring new challenges and I knew it was time. Even though I had moved across the country, I was planning a visit back east anyhow, so I could just pop in like I always had.

Your email telling me that you had retired hit me hard, I cannot lie. In my mind, you will always be somewhere around the age of 50, so how could that be possible? The reality of time passing for both of us came into full view. I was genuinely happy for you. At last you can live easy, not responsible for others' care, instead just relaxing and enjoying your grandchildren.

I came face-to-face with the fact that I was looking at this next phase of life without my steady guide, without the person who had all my history, knew my blind spots, and could quickly put me on the path to clarity and purpose. But in all those years of therapy and having your strength to draw from, I knew that I could face what came next, that the foundation had been built steadily and securely.

Several years back, I remember reading about Jennifer Aniston's grief when her therapist died. It was so strikingly candid, and it touched me. If you've been lucky enough to find the right therapist for you, you guard it like a precious secret. But you always know in the back of your mind that it will not last forever.

And that time has come for me.

Which brings me to this: Thank you. Thank you for being the professional you were. Thank you for calling me back that September day in 1984. Thank you for becoming a psychologist and dedicating your career to helping others. I'm trying to pay that forward.

Author's note: Ginette Langer, PhD was in private practice for many years in Worcester, Massachusetts. I am sure I am not alone in missing her.

Earlier on Huff/Post50: