The Summer Break From a Therapist's Perspective
It is common for therapists to take a long break over the summer
This break can be challenging for clients, especially those who have difficulty around abandonment
Therapist Camilla Nicholls responds to a letter from a therapy client
“New York is full of people who are crazy until Labor Day” says a character in Woody Allen’s film Play it Again Sam, decrying the therapeutic practice of many psychotherapists of taking off the month of August as holiday. It is not as common practice as it used to be, but still many therapists find that a long summer break is a necessity rather than a luxury. The analytic brain needs a rest, active listening and empathy need a reboot.
But as Woody Allen implies, some clients find a four-week break very difficult to bear, particularly those who have experienced great loss, rejection, or abandonment in their lives. For these clients, therapists taking a long holiday can feel like a powerful re-enactment of the original trauma and the weeks can pass slowly without the regular contact that provides a form of healthy containment.
In the 1991 comedy, What About Bob?, the client (Bill Murray) is so desperate at the idea of a month without sessions that he tracks down his therapist to his summer holiday home and moves in. Every therapist’s nightmare? Maybe. Or maybe not. The relationship with a client is necessarily close. For months on end we meet once or twice a week (for some it can be even more frequently) we see more of each other than we do of all but our closest family and friends. So although there is a genuine need for therapists to recharge their mental batteries, the missing and sense of loss that clients feel during the break is not always one-sided. We follow the ongoing narratives of our clients closely – the web and weave of relationships, the highs and lows of professional engagement and although there is no expectation that we will always hear the satisfactory (or unsatisfactory) conclusion of a particular story sometimes the long break can feel like we are missing essential episodes of a Scandi Noir series.
The benefits of the therapeutic break
What often gets overlooked when considering the long break is just how positively therapeutic it can be for both client and therapist, but in particular the client. Unconscious processing continues between regular sessions with beneficial results and during the long break there is the potential for the processing to be at a deeper level. Much as many children seem to grow and develop in the long summer holidays, returning to school re-formed into quite different people, so clients can return to the consulting room with the equivalent of a new hairstyle, a new favourite band, a new outlook on their social and political milieu. Issues may not be resolved in the absence of the therapist but the additional space and time can allow them to be consciously and, importantly unconsciously, mulched over in highly productive ways.
Even if the therapist plans to have no direct contact with clients during the long break it is rarely spent entirely away from the work of the consulting room. The occasional session will need to be scheduled for a client's wellbeing, records will require updating and there is the maintenance of the consulting room itself. By making ourselves available at all times other than the breaks it leaves no time to generally primp up couches, cushions, chairs and rugs. Some of the stricter psychoanalysts might find even this practice too disruptive of the formal framework within which they practice, but for the rest of us removal of the everyday stains of tears, traumas, spilt takeaway coffees and the daily grime that attaches to us all - particularly in cities - is only really possible in the long break. A clean, fresh consulting room can tell clients they’ve been held in mind, cared about and are welcomed back.