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When you cry, the blur of your tears makes him look exactly like your dad, which makes you cry more. (Image: Tina Tiller)
When you cry, the blur of your tears makes him look exactly like your dad, which makes you cry more. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 4, 2024

Tips and tricks for when your therapist looks like your dad

When you cry, the blur of your tears makes him look exactly like your dad, which makes you cry more. (Image: Tina Tiller)
When you cry, the blur of your tears makes him look exactly like your dad, which makes you cry more. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Tip one: let yourself be nurtured by this big old man. Tip two: don’t ask him to adopt you. 

So, you’ve arrived at your first session with a new therapist. He tells you to make yourself comfortable and you opt for the tweed armchair, hoping it makes you look like a robust, stable person, rather than the couch (too lazy) or the wooden stool in the corner (beyond help).

Once the pleasantries – and agreement on where to send your invoice to – are over, something about him catches your attention. His hairline; jawline; the arch of his brow. That familiar glint in his eye; the smile your mother fell for. You know this man.

You might have seen him every day of your life, or only at weekends, or on annual trips to stay with him and his new family. You might know him from a few photos; the ones you found when you were home alone and went searching. 

You could get up and leave, you think, over the sound of your drumming heart; bolt out the door shouting that you’ve left all the taps on at home. Or you could tell him the hour is up. You are paying him here. You make the rules in this room. 

But something makes you stay. You notice that every word he says gives you a little jolt of warmth. You wonder if it’s dopamine as you disassociate a little, letting his voice wash over you. He’s speaking with clarity and confidence, telling you about his experience and methodology. You don’t hear much: you’re busy looking for signs. Does he recognise you as his daughter? Is this cosmic coincidence one-way? Is this just a job to him? 

“I love you too, Dad. I mean… sorry, what did you ask me?” (Photo: Getty)

After the session, you leave in a golden haze, like you’re strolling home from a new lover’s house. So warmed; so held; so full of loving potential. 

You wonder if he’ll show up next time and of course he does; it’s his office. Every week, he’s there waiting; a fresh glass of water, cushion and blanket resting on the armchair. Within just a few sessions, you tell him things you’ve never said out loud before. Buried parts of you feel safe to emerge. They see this man and trust him, so they rush your insides, demanding to be heard all at once. Sometimes you have to stop talking and ask him to help you breathe. 

He listens and nods; one set of fingers weaved into the other like kin. He smiles when you need him to; looks concerned when you don’t expect him to. Sometimes he laughs at your jokes. Sometimes he doesn’t, and you feel bereft. He listens, believes you, validates how you feel, and never pushes you to explain yourself more than you’re ready to.

When you cry, the blur of your tears makes him look exactly like your dad, which makes you cry more. This only serves to make the illusion more exact. Part of you is unsure; still flinches when he gives you a certain look. But a bigger part of you knows it is a gift. Use it, you urge yourself. Let yourself be nurtured by this big old man.

As the weekly sessions go on, a tear deep inside you begins restitching itself. You have panic attacks less often, and when you do, you hear his voice in your head, reminding you to breathe. Your nerves, previously exposed, begin to sink into your skin. You go whole weeks without crying. You start to have empathy for people you used to hate. You believe it’s called healing, but it feels too cheesy to ever name it that. 

He tells you he has a wife and four children. You picture the six of them curled up together like dormice in a children’s book, braiding their sweet tails over the side of their bed. The dream family you never got to be a part of. Must be nice, you find yourself thinking, teeth clenched, in bed, in work meetings, over coffee with a friend, in the backs of rainy Ubers. Must be nice. 

You know it’s ridiculous, but you Google it anyway. 

What is the maximum age for adoption in New Zealand? 

It’s 19. Even if he wanted to, you’re 10 years too late. 

The only role you can imagine him wanting with you (beyond therapist) is a lover, maybe. It’s not what you want, but it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve accepted sex when what you actually wanted was to be nurtured. You have known for a long time that being a lover is the unfathered daughter’s consolation prize. Nothing about this feels strange to you. 

The thoughts get more frequent and intense. You consider lingering outside his office just to see  what direction he leaves. You see men in supermarkets with their children and they catch you staring right at them. You imagine scenarios in which you’re left alone together, not as client and therapist, but as two humans. If there was a power cut that locked you in his building; if there was an earthquake…

In clear moments, you feel concerned about these thoughts and convinced that finding a new therapist is the right thing to do. Maybe a woman this time, you think, an old, old woman who looks nothing like your mother. Maybe online sessions with her camera off.

You decide to make your next session with him your final one. You make the decision sitting in your bedroom alone, clutching your body and crying. You don’t want to lose him. Disturbing thoughts about him aside, the therapy is working; you are no longer free-falling through your life. 

In the sadness, you have a soothing idea: what if you just told him all of it? What if you told him you think of his kids and cry at how immensely lucky they are? That you can’t stop yourself from thinking up ways to be alone with him outside of your sessions? What if you told him every fucked-up, hideous secret you’ve been harbouring inside you? You know, the sort of things you might only tell your therapist.

You arrive, whole body shaking, and sit on the same tweed chair. It takes you half the session to be able to speak. You stare at the floor. You tell him everything. When you’re done, you feel a surge of grief; sure this is the last time you’ll ever see him. 

When you finally look up, his face is smiling gently, warm as ever. He takes off his glasses and you look into his eyes – your eyes, your grandmother’s eyes. 

It dawns on you that you’re not in trouble. You have not failed therapy. With all the care of an adult cradling a newborn, he tells you that what you feel is normal. That when we have unstable adults to attach to as babies, the baby inside us will search and search for a secure attachment. Sometimes they find it in a partner, sometimes a trusted friend, and yes, sometimes a therapist. He tells you it’s OK you want a dad; it’s the most natural thing in the world. For a moment, you feel like the most natural thing in the world.

He explains the concept of relational therapy; tells you the space between you is where the work will take place. He says you did the exact right thing: to let him see you, all of you. He’s proud of you for it. 

I’m glad you feel safe with me, he says, leaning in, but it’s not forever. My work is to help shift the power back to you, so that one day, the need you have for me will be something you can hold and care for on your own. I never want to have more power over you than you have over yourself. 

And in that moment, you realise all resemblance to your father is gone.

Keep going!