WARNING: TV Show Spoilers Included!

Purpose of Therapy:

Ms. Jessica Jones entered my office and threw herself down on the couch, arms crossed in her leather jacket, eyes glaring at the floor. When I welcome her to therapy she says “We can skip the bullshit introductions, okay? You’re my 4th shrink; one taught me street signs for my trauma flashbacks, one hypnotized me into remembering more of my trauma, and one was court-mandated to teach me to throw a rubber ball to control the anger resulting from my trauma.”

    “So what’s my job going to be?”, I ask.
    “My sister set this up because she thinks I have trouble with relationships,” she lets out a long sigh. “Probably from my trauma.”

After an hour-long interview with this surly woman, I learned that Ms. Jones had been engaging in casual sex for several months, and had abruptly cut off from her sister and former business associate. She spent most of her time drinking and working, which, according to her, “has worked just fine for me so far.”

    “Then why are you here?” I asked. Her sister had left a message on Ms. Jones’ phone and one of my cards outside her door, appointment time written on the back.

    Ms. Jones sends a darting, appraising glance my way, then she sighs and says “I met someone. Good guy, with a good kid. I don’t want to F this up, if I can help it.” She looks down and away from me, embarrassed and defiant.

Process of Therapy:

Working with Jessica Jones was anything but easy; it’s hard to count the number of times she angrily shut down, missed sessions, hurled insults at me, or walked out in the middle of our sessions. This happened most often early on, during the phase of the therapeutic relationship when therapist and client are getting to know each other, and when the client is learning whether the therapist is trustworthy, safe, caring. Ms. Jones’ behaviors early on are common in clients struggling with a few different things: Bipolar Disorders, Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Borderline Personality Disorder, and insecure attachment issues (leading specifically, in this case, to an Avoidant Attachment Style). Any one could fit, but I had a feeling one was really at the core.

    “I don’t know why we keep talking about my life; you just see me as a ‘disorder’ anyways; just fix me and let’s be done.”

    “We both know that’s not true, nor how it works. How do you really think I see you?” She aims a defiant stare at me, huffs irritably, and says “I don’t know.”

    “Do you want to know?” I’m asking her to take a risk in our relationship: can she risk emotional vulnerability?

    “I could care less what you think of me! Are we done?!” She stands up to leave. She pushes people away, and avoids risking closeness.

    “Nope.” I wait, smiling, patient, until she hurls herself back on the couch with a groan. I start again.

    “Honestly? I see you as a good person, who has been through a TON of trauma…”

    “…Yeah but I was still a jerk as a…”

    “…kid, yes I know, I was getting to that. Before all the trauma, you were growing up in a family full of sometimes quiet, sometimes explosive, but ever present tension between your parents. You didn’t consciously know it at the time, but you found out later they were on the brink of divorce before the car crash that killed your dad and brother. Kids are smart, sometimes too smart for their own good, and I bet you especially so. Do you know how that risk of divorce impacts a kid? How that tension in the household eats away at the kid’s sense of stability, of trusting that their parents are okay, and the family is okay, which means everything is okay, including the kid? That all starts to fall apart. So a kid’s sense of security in herself and in her world starts to crumble, and she has to find a way to cope with it. Being a “jerk”, as you describe it, or being irritable, surly, pushing people away, keeping to yourself, starting to drink, listening to music that matches your sense of pain, anger, isolation…you add to that an excess of horrific trauma, and all of those traits, all of those ways of coping, become intensified. You’re trying to cope. To survive. Physically and emotionally. Relationships are difficult because you don’t trust people to be available and safe, and maybe you don’t feel you deserve them in the first place. So you avoid them, and avoid and deny your need for closeness. That is your attachment style, Avoidant. Nothing is or ever was wrong with you, not even when you were a kid. The people you attached to, who were supposed to give you a sense of safety and security in yourself and in relationships, were too caught up in their own stuff to be able to provide security for you. So you learned to cope by avoiding and pushing away.”

Jessica sat in silence, still staring at the ground, but with tears running down her face. “Am I on to something here?” I ask softly, checking in with her. She nods.

Trauma impacts people in different ways, ways that can be isolating, tragic, destructive, and compelling, eliciting from others the compassion for human suffering that each of us holds. Part of what makes the story of Jessica Jones so compelling, however, is not that her story is so tragic, her powers so extraordinary, or her reactions so dramatic.

While all of the above are true, what really draws people in is how human she is. How relatable it is to yearn to be loved and valued, but feel fearful of being rejected or abandoned. Every person has felt that at some point or another, in big ways or small, and every person has a different way of responding to either seek reassurance or protect themselves.

Every therapist (and most clients who have had good experiences in therapy) know that the key to improvement isn’t JUST about the therapist’s knowledge or JUST about the client’s diligence; the real key for a client’s success in therapy is the sense of safety and care within the therapeutic relationship. A relationship where they can feel accepted, even in their worst, most shameful or vulnerable moments. For people like Jessica, sometimes the hardest work to do is to walk in the door. From there, both client and therapist have to work, take risks, stretch themselves, to forge a trusting, safe relationship, a secure attachment, from which real growth and change can begin.

By Mary Ingram, LMFT of Thriveworks Philadephia