Preparing for Your Therapist’s Extended Leave
Imagine for a moment that you are preparing for your regular therapy appointment. Maybe you are sitting at your computer, your morning beverage in hand getting ready to click the telehealth link. Or, maybe you have driven to the office to sit, face-to-face, across from your therapist. You are anticipating what you may talk about today and how you may feel afterward.
Then during this appointment, your therapist shares that in the near future they will be taking leave that may last a few weeks or even several months.
And that is when the feelings come…
These feelings might be surprising, contradictory, or confusing. There might be some excitement for your therapist if the reason that they are taking the leave is something to be celebrated, like pregnancy for example, or an extended vacation. Or, there might be some concern for your therapist if they have shared that there is a medical reason that they have to take this leave.
Underneath these feelings, you might think “but what about me?” You might feel anxiety and worry, not only for your therapist but also for you and your therapeutic process, after all, you spent weeks, months, or even years learning to trust them, to be comfortable with them. Now they are about to leave, for whatever reason, and you may feel hurt, abandoned, or afraid.
These feelings are perfectly normal.
Your therapist is aware that these feelings may arise in the news of their leave. Therapists are ethically required to communicate this information with as much time as possible to prepare you for their time away. They know that it might be hard for you and that they need to help you with your feelings and ensure that you have access to appropriate support in their absence, when possible, reasonable, and of course only if that is what you want to occur.
If your knee jerk reaction is to “dump them before they leave you”, they want to hear that, especially if you normally have a hard time establishing trusting relationships with people. Your therapist is not leaving YOU. They care about you just as much as they did before the change in their circumstances that warranted this announcement.
AND we, therapists, are also humans and our human bodies tend to do all sorts of weird things – from growing humans inside, to getting injured from sneezing (I am not saying that it happened to me, but I am not saying that it didn’t). And sometimes we have to take care of our bodies so we feel well enough to support you. You know that whole thing about leading by example, right?
It might take you some time to recognize the feelings that you are experiencing and your therapist can help you to process them. This may even help you resolve something else along the way. Once you and your therapist have a chance to address your feelings and fears they might begin the process of planning for next steps.
Depending on the extent of their leave, they might talk to you about getting temporary coverage with another provider, or transferring permanently to another provider. It is important to communicate your needs to them during this discussion and planning process. Tell them whether you would like to stick with the same schedule or type of therapy, or if you have preferences for specific identities for a therapist and/or their lived experience.
Your therapist might be limited to a small pool of other providers to whom they can refer you, or they might have access to many providers. They might give you a list of names and you give you space to decide whether you would like to meet with any of them. You might want to avoid doing it. You might even get an idea that if you postpone making a decision, your therapist will not go on their leave. These impulses are normal if your go-to coping strategy is avoidance. Please, consider sharing this with your therapist so they can help you address the underlying fears.
Eventually, you might choose one or more people to meet with. You can ask your therapist to have a phone or video conference with the provider(s) that you choose. Especially if you are usually shy around new people. Your therapist might share a bit about you and what usually helps you feel supported. They will encourage you to ask questions of your potential new therapist as well.
Finally and hopefully, you will identify a person that you wouldn’t mind seeing while your therapist is out. Your therapist might discuss with you their plan for returning to work, if they have one. If they know the length of their expected leave, they might give you an option to check in around the time of their expected return. Some agencies have policies about changing therapists, however, know that it is your right to choose with whom you would prefer to work. While still seeing your therapist before their leave, it might be hard for you to imagine having the same level of trust with anyone else, but over time you can learn to appreciate your new therapist and might want to stay with them long term.
Just remember, it is your choice to make, as you are the driving force of your healing.
Lola Ryan, LCSW: Lola is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and founding member of the Pulse Wellness Cooperative. Lola works with adults of diverse backgrounds and experiences to help them understand themselves, integrate lived experiences, identify their needs, and improve their relationships at work, at home, and in their community.