When Therapy Goes Bad: a client’s account of a five-year therapeutic relationship


I first met Alison Calladine, private therapist, in May 2017. My mental health had been deteriorating over the previous two years and, as was the norm at the time, there was no help whatsoever for people with BPD. In desperation, my wife and I re-mortgaged our house to pay for the weekly therapy sessions. 

With the encouragement of Alison, I became somewhat of an activist for those with BPD, raising awareness of the lack of support, and of the number of women with BPD in prison. I have since spoken at the Supreme Court and at an event at the House of Commons. I have participated in various projects, including assessing the level of care for those with cancer in prison, and have discussed my lived experience with students of both nursing and social work. There is a lot to do and a long way to go, but I have passion and determination and, until recently, I had my weekly therapy sessions with Alison.

Also in 2017, I set up a support group, where people with BPD could meet and support each other. It started with a handful of attendees. Now, five years later, over 250 people have passed through the service, some from overseas. This group is my pride and joy, because it provides those affected by BPD, including their families and friends, a space in which to connect with like-minded people. There is no judgement, but plenty of empathy. I wish I had had something like that when I was in crisis.

When I first met Alison and knew we would be entering a therapeutic relationship, I asked her to never tell me anything personal about her or her family. I promised never to ask. That way, I said, I would not become attached to her. We stuck to that rule, and for the first few years it wasn’t a problem, but then things began to change.

I became oversensitive about some of her statements, taking them personally, ruminating over what she probably saw as innocuous remarks. I felt myself becoming needy and it was making me unhappy. On one occasion I upset her with my ‘hurtful’ (I will come back to this later) comment. She was offended, and I suddenly realised how easy it would be to lose her. I was careful not to upset her again. The relationship was too valuable to me, and I could not take the risk of it ending.

Weekly therapy sessions for five years may seem excessive to some, but it’s not actually that unusual. Whilst it is true that many with BPD dread endings and do not react well when a relationship comes to an end, it is not in itself a good reason for carrying on the somewhat expensive sessions with a private therapist. Most would eventually overcome the initial distress and move on. However, for those of us who have a severe attachment problem, it is not so clear cut.

Some years ago, I was attached to someone in a position of authority. Unfortunately, she thought it was funny and it fed her ego. It jeopardised my recovery and I was, and still am, grateful to Alison for being there so that I could talk it out. In many ways, my therapy functioned as a form of maintenance. The various problems I encountered in my work, and in my daily life, were discussed with Alison so that I could rationalise, rather than seeing it in black and white (a typical BPD trait).

Perhaps inevitably, I became attached to Alison. Many people who do not generally have attachment issues also become attached to their therapist. This is understandable because the relationship is geared towards what is best for the client. A good therapist shows their client empathy, kindness, and understanding. This may not be familiar to the client, and it can become addictive. However, severe attachment (which can form part of BPD or be a disorder in its own right) is different to ‘normal’ attachment because of the extreme emotions and behaviour it can generate. It is no exaggeration to say that, for some, the belief that such a relationship is coming to an end can bring immediate thoughts of suicide. I cannot overstate how distressing this condition is.

My attachment to Alison developed after around three years. I tried to hide it from her, partly because I was embarrassed, but also because I didn’t feel comfortable enough to bring it up.  Although we had discussed my issues with attachment in detail over the years, we never addressed my feelings towards her. There were clues as to how I felt, and I assumed she knew. One day, I told her that I dreaded the day she would say the therapy had to end. She said it could be open-ended and that, barring a disaster, she would always be there. I wasn’t naïve enough (or was perhaps too cynical) to believe that, but it did make me feel better. I assumed that the issue of my attachment to her was a no-go area, and that was fine with me.

My therapeutic relationship with Alison began to break down the day I discovered she had moved from Chesterfield to Belfast, without telling me. A member of my support group had asked me to recommend a private therapist and I gave them Alison’s details. I had done it many times before. This time I was asked if I had got her details correct because this therapist lived, not just in another part of the UK, but another country within the UK. I checked Alison’s website and the counselling directory and found that she had, indeed, opened up another practice and had already started working from there. I had seen her, online from her practice in Chesterfield, the previous week and had no idea what she was about to do.

Things started to make sense. Until lockdown I saw her face to face at her practice, but then like many others, she changed to online until it was safer, and then operated a hybrid system with both face-to-face and online. I carried on seeing her online. However, after a few months she stopped seeing people face to face altogether. She didn’t tell me, I found out from a support group member who she had begun treating. I asked her if she was giving up her practice and she replied that she hadn’t thought that far ahead yet. I didn’t know what she meant but tried not to think about it. A couple of weeks later she told me that she had been busy doing other things and that her practice was only a small part of what she did. I asked if she was giving up therapy and she assured me she wasn’t. My reaction at that time, I thought, could leave her in no doubt as to how I felt about her, but we didn’t talk about it.

The feelings of hurt and abandonment, when realising that Alison had moved away from the area, were overwhelming, and my immediate thought was suicide. I can appreciate that this reaction must be difficult to understand by those who do not suffer from this horrible condition. After all, I could still see her online, so what’s the problem? I will try to explain, briefly, how it made me feel (as with everything, no two people’s feelings and experiences are the same). To me, it’s simple; knowing where she was when at work in Chesterfield made me feel secure. Although I would come to know where she worked in Ireland, it wasn’t the same, she might as well have been on Mars. Attachment issues are developed primarily through childhood experiences of abandonment. For me, it’s vital that I know that the subject of my attachment is not too far away. Naturally, I didn’t know where she was outside working hours, and I neither wanted nor needed to.

After finding out about Alison’s move to Ireland I made a 20-minute video explaining how I felt. I talked about my attachment to her and about my thoughts of suicide. Most of the video was taken up by me trying to talk without crying. In all the time I had been seeing her, I had never cried in front of her. I suggested that she spend the first 20 minutes of our next session watching the video and I would join in afterwards. That way, I wasn’t expecting her to do anything in her personal time.

The final session

As arranged, I joined Alison after 20 minutes. I immediately asked her why she hadn’t told me of the move, and that’s when I began to see a side of Alison that I had never seen before. She was defensive and angry. She told me that it was her practice, she could do what she wanted, and it was absolutely nothing to do with me. I said that I wasn’t trying to tell her how to run her practice but that she had misjudged how I would react, given my attachment to her. 

Her reaction to this was pure, genuine, shock. She had no idea, saying ‘you said you wouldn’t get attached to me’. I thought this was a rather naïve comment but didn’t say so because I was getting the feeling that she might end the session. It suddenly dawned on me that she hadn’t watched the video, that’s why it was news to her. She said she had experienced technology problems and couldn’t watch it. I didn’t believe her but again, didn’t say so.

I can only describe Alison’s behaviour from then on as nasty and unprofessional. She lost her temper completely and showed a complete lack of empathy or compassion. I realised that this was going to be the final session and, for the first time in five years, I started to cry in front of her. I was distraught; she said ‘look at you, you’re a mess’. I started to get flashbacks to the times I spoke to mental health services, and I felt like I was going backwards. I was torn between trying to hang on to the relationship and maintaining some semblance of self-respect. I ended the session abruptly when she looked at the clock and said nastily, ‘come on, you have 2 minutes left’.

Almost every waking minute for the next week or so was spent thinking about Alison. We still had sessions booked in, so I re-sent the video and paid her another £20. Even though I had already paid her to watch it she still hadn’t seen it and I knew she had no intention of doing so unless I paid her again. I was hoping we could discuss it at the next session.

Although I was hurting, I was becoming angry and started to think of the things she had said and done over the years. Going back to paragraph five of this article, the reason I had offended Alison was because I said I didn’t like it when she yawned when listening to me. We were having a review of how therapy was going. She said she was offended by my comment. I tried to lighten it by asking if I was boring, but she twisted it so that it looked like I thought I was boring. Another time, when there had been a substantial period of silence between us (as happens in therapy) she said, ‘this is your time, you fill it’. I should have realised with these comments that she was getting fed up, but I was attached so I would never have ended it.

After a few days she sent me a message. I assumed she had seen the video because all it said was, ‘I understand’. I wrote back to say that I wanted to cancel all future sessions. At first, I was proud of myself; I had never broken off an attachment before and I knew it was the right thing to do. However, she replied immediately, acknowledging that she had cancelled, and I suddenly realised that I would never speak to her again. I panicked, she was my safety net and I couldn’t face the future without having her there. I emailed her, apologising and asking her if we could resume the sessions. She didn’t reply and I sent several of what I can only call begging emails. She still wouldn’t reply and so I sent a message begging her to reply. I apologised for everything, even though I didn’t know what I had done wrong. It was one of the lowest points in my life. I was embarrassing and humiliating myself. Eventually, she sent a short message saying that she was standing by her decision.

The future

It’s now three months since I last spoke to Alison. The hurt has subsided, and I know the anger will eventually. What I am concerned about though, is the possibility of her treating others like she did me. The fact that she didn’t pick up my attachment to her shows me that she doesn’t have the insight and awareness needed to meet the responsibilities of a therapist. There are many private therapists out there and I would urge people to shop around. I now have a new therapist and it’s going well. I cried in front of her at the third session and so already, I know it’s going to be different.