I saw my therapist weekly for two years. Then he let slip he’d been watching me. Had he crossed a line?

<span>Morwenna Ferrier.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Guardian</span>
Morwenna Ferrier.Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Guardian

Just under a decade ago, I began seeing a therapist who, for reasons that will become clear, I will refer to only as James. I was in my late 20s, living in London and more stably employed than many of my friends, but also sleeping on my sister’s sofa and eating rice noodles on her floor following a dismantling breakup. Work became my life while the rest of it quietly fell apart. Whenever something major like this happens to me, which is not often, I usually do one of two things: leave the country or return to therapy.

I have been in and out of one kind of treatment or another since I was eight: school counselling, grief counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy, various forms of Freudian and Jungian psychotherapy – roughly in that order. I would almost consider myself a veteran. Not that it always works, of course. Of my six therapists – a coterie of old men, young women, and one who had seemed ageless until he died of old age – most were forgettable, their words, pauses and therapy rooms blurred and confined to memory. But I believe in psychotherapy as both a healing tool and an absolute social imperative. When I run out of money, it is one of the last things to go – somewhere between milk and the hairdresser.

I had been half-heartedly shopping around for a new therapist for about a year, but following the breakup decided to knuckle down and find someone. In one week I spoke to three candidates on the phone, repeating “my story” like a rote monologue. None of them grabbed me.

One of the main reasons I have been in therapy is what therapists call the split, or how I seem in contrast with how I really feel

James came recommended by a friend who had just stopped seeing him after two years. The psychoanalyst Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund) would have argued against taking her recommendation: though not unethical, a social crossover can create conflicts of interest. However, there seemed to be no obvious crossover. And when I brought up her name on that first call, he quickly and correctly shut me down. During our chat, I was struck by how curious he sounded, as if everything I said was new and surprising to him. James became my fifth therapist, and at that stage my most highly qualified.

The first meeting took place in his flat, a mansion block in Hackney. Each 50-minute session began and ended the same way. I would come in, remove my shoes and sit down on a sofa in his over-lit living room. He would call out from the kitchen and then appear, pushing the door with his elbow while carrying a pot of tea on a square tray prettily decoupaged by his niece. “So, here we are,” he would usually say. “And how are you?” Regardless of what we had spoken about, upon leaving he would always call out: “OK, see you then!” down the stairwell. I welcomed the levity in his voice, particularly when a session had been difficult.

* * *

James and I met weekly for two years before he announced he was moving his practice to south London. The death or departure of a therapist is the stuff of lore. Even a month off can feel utterly destabilising, as Judith Rossner’s novel August, named after the month therapists go on holiday, alluded to, with one character seeing the intermission as confirmation that everyone she knows will abandon her in the end. It’s not uncommon for those in therapy, myself included, to steer themselves into catastrophe before the September return for the same reason. The journey to sessions would be twice as long, but so be it, I thought.

James’s new practice was a top room in a large Victorian house near a graveyard. The walk from the station was up a 20-minute incline, and the building was encircled by loud A-road traffic. Inside, it was only partly renovated, a blend of wood panelling and bad motivational art. There was no couch, just institutional wipe-clean chairs and cheap tissues decanted into pretty boxes. It was also cold, and no matter the season, I’d get home in the dark. But I preferred it to the flat. It felt proper.

Shortly after this move, I began taking notes during our sessions, partly because I would also write down questions on the commute over, and partly because it helped me focus, writing as he spoke. I had begun to find some of his guidance, when offered (rarely, and in extremis), a little baggy. At times it verged on inept. I didn’t know if it was his workload, or maybe me, but it was strange to see James as suddenly fallible. The notes acted as a reference. Reading them back now, I can see things had taken a turn long before I realised.

* * *

One of the main reasons I have been in therapy as an adult is what therapists before and since have called the split, or how I seem in contrast with how I really feel. Most of us have this and can usually contain it, in that we all try to live honestly while constructing ourselves appropriately in the wider world. But James had seized on the idea that my split was more pronounced than simply a social contract. The words he used were: “highly functioning”, “fragile” and, occasionally, “damaged”. This stemmed, he said, from a catalogue of betrayals in my childhood, though I had a knack for seeking them out. I was oddly delighted by this diagnosis. At last, I thought, someone more melodramatic than me.

I was talking about the split, again, when James stopped to tell me he had observed the way I walked down the street – the way I carried myself – and how at odds it was with the person sitting in front of his orchid right now. He said it lightly, as if he had gleaned something new and radical, and that was an entirely normal thing to tell a patient. I was unsettled. But I was also – and I didn’t want to admit this – flattered. “When did you see me?” I asked. He told me he had been on his bike to work and had passed me on the street. But he also said he had watched me walking up the hill from the window.

If our sessions contained a surprising amount of reciprocity – favourite books and countries, preferred tea sweeteners – things had never felt untoward. As I left that wind-whipped evening, I wondered if he was watching me. I would then wonder every time I left, though no part of me wanted to look back and find out.

The following month was a bad one. It was spring half-term. The early evening train had emptied of children, so for once I got a seat. But as I walked to my session through his fancy neighbourhood fringed with plane trees, I felt unsettled again. By the time I had reached the graveyard, I was angry. James had made things weird and now I would have to spend my money discussing his weirdness.

Earlier, in the train toilet, I had practised what I would say, how to keep it spare but forthright, so he couldn’t row back. But once inside, our session began with James telling me he had news: he was going through some personal stuff, and at the end of autumn he would be leaving the country for a few months. He would return eventually and he hoped I’d be OK until then. My anger turned to panic. I said nothing.

I looked at the clock, and felt sick. Twelve minutes left. That was it. Then I’d never have to see him again

James was middle-aged, petite with soft edges, dark hair and kind eyes that half-mooned when he smiled, which was a lot. He never wore shoes during sessions, which meant he could fold his entire body into a chair, making him look even smaller. But he had charisma, a certain confidence. In those early days of transference – in therapy-speak, this is the entirely normal idea that a patient transfers their feelings, usually about a parent, on to their therapist – it was important that he liked me. But it also came easily. Previous therapists had always seemed more detached, with a franker, more probing technique. I realised that in the absence of my own father, James had adopted an almost paternal role.

Then, a few weeks later, the weirdness returned. “You look good today,” said James, one session, as he poured the tea. Once again, I took note. Did he just say that? Was that OK? I had never given much thought to how I looked in there, arriving most weeks either wet from rain or grey from the commute. As for James, his sexuality hadn’t crossed my mind. Now it did. For the first time I felt almost relieved he was going away. I scribbled something in my notebook, something I can’t decipher now, and we moved on.

* * *

Early autumn arrived. The leaves were turning, but it was still warm. My life had become more settled. I was off the sofa and in my own flat. I had also just started seeing someone and was in that rare, unslept state of permanent enthusiasm. It was my final therapy session with James, and I felt OK with that. I just needed to get through it. I was wearing a summer dress and heavy boots, and in the heat of that low-ceilinged back room where so much of my life had risen into words, it suddenly dawned on me that our working relationship had transcended something transactional.

We were discussing a person’s ability to change. James was talking while I looked around the room, which was laid out differently. No orchid or tissues, just two chairs anchored by a large rug. He must have packed, I thought. I wasn’t convinced one could, I said, talking about myself. Leaning back in his chair, James told me that change was really quite simple. “Take you,” he said. “There’s no reason you can’t change how you feel, or what you do, or what you want. Or,” he said, “take me. I have a lot of affairs, and I used to feel bad about them. Now, when I have affairs, I don’t. So you see, Morwenna, anything can happen.” He paused, fixing his eyes on me, then smiled.

At first I had no idea what he meant. Then, I thought I did. As he spoke, I was leaning on my left elbow, holding my notebook flat with one hand and writing with the other, looking out of his window. I immediately swung round to look at him. My instinct was to freeze, though I also knew I couldn’t let him see me do this. Panicking, I aimed at something in between, a performance that – not unlike walking or breathing – is surprisingly hard to do once you start thinking about it too much.

I knew, as women always do, that a line had been crossed, that the trust had curdled. I also knew he had taken my money

After what felt like a normal amount of time, I pretended to write down what he had just said. There was no need to keep a record because I knew I’d never forget it. In hindsight, I was going through the motions of tonic immobility: play dead, wait for the threat to pass, then scarper. That’s also why I remember the rug. I finally understood what it meant to have the rug pulled out from under you. I looked at the clock, and felt sick. Twelve minutes left. That was it. Then I’d never have to see him again.

I don’t remember leaving. I imagine it was quick and I was friendly, pretending I did not want him to leave as much as I did. But I remember him closing the door with his habitual, “See you.” Halfway down the hill, I rang a friend, who didn’t pick up, then I rang my mother. She had always kept her thoughts on therapy to herself. But that day she said she thought James was, however indirectly, letting me know he was open to an infidelity. With me, with someone else, who could say. But she never doubted what I felt at that moment.

* * *

There is, of course, every chance I had got this wrong – that I had mistaken oversharing for a pass, simple candour for a loaded confession. Or that, at best, he had failed to exercise restraint, and at worst, hijacked our session. Not wanting to sound mad, or arrogant, or both, I didn’t really talk about it. And yet I knew, as women always do, that a line had been crossed, that the trust had curdled. I also knew he had taken my money, held power as an analyst and introduced another element into our dynamic.

So what really had happened? Transference and countertransference are fairly normal in therapy, and “not inherently harmful”, said Stefan Walters, a counsellor registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, when I ran through events with James 10 years on. Transference comes from the patient, whereas countertransference “is the opposite, ie when a therapist puts the client into that place – either because of someone who they might be reminded of, or because they are drawn into something they are going through”.

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Perhaps the hinted-at turmoil in James’s life had spooled out into the room, and he was trying to draw me in, as if picking up a train and popping it on to a different track. “The difference is, a good therapist knows not to let that enter the relationship,” Walters said. What happened to me was “a total violation of the relationship”.

After that day, I had no intention of speaking to James again. But some time after he left, I got pregnant. It was accidental, and after a long period of indecision, I had an abortion. Except that the abortion didn’t work, and two months later I was told I would have to have another one “to complete the first”, making an already difficult process even harder. It was painful, violent and upsetting. In my desperation, I Skyped James. We spoke briefly. He was, as ever, calm and caring. But I regretted calling him when, a few months later, he emailed to ask if I would like to pick things back up.

I was half expecting it, but I didn’t write back for a while. I had already found a new therapist – a woman – whom I still see now, and who has been transformative. She suggested reporting James and that he could lose his licence because of what happened. I decided not to. He still practises.

I did reply eventually, dancing around the details to tell him it was over. James’s response came quickly. He said telling him must have been hard, as was hearing how I felt. He suggested meeting me, ostensibly for free. Strangely enough, I was tempted. Just as when you break up with a partner and you realise the only person who can truly understand what the break meant is that other person, on some paradoxical level I felt James was the only person who would truly understand what this betrayal meant. I wrote this down, in an email, but I knew better than to send it. I never heard from James again.

Some identifying details have been changed.

In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393. In the US, call or text Mental Health America at 988 or chat In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978.