Being able to go to therapy is a privilege. I’m grateful to OpenPathCollective.org for connecting me to an affordable counselor, who I’ve been seeing for the past three years. Being able to continue therapy, even during a global pandemic? It’s been a lifesaver, a constant in my life as everything else is in flux and uncertain. I am happy we live in the 21st century and I can do my sessions virtually and yet I have to admit, it’s not as fulfilling and is layered with awkward and confusing moments that leave me exhausted. Here’s why.
1. Having a Neutral Space To Go To
Our homes, for better or worse, carry a lot of memories. It’s where we unwind, sleep, eat, and live our life. Therapy is a neutral space where we go to process our life, so moving therapy sessions away from that safe space into my own home has been less than ideal.
I miss the small enclosed space where I’d sit on her couch, directly across from her. I miss the comfort of the pillows on the couch and being surrounded by her books and degrees. Being in her office was a reprieve from my daily life, a safe space I could go to and deal with the emotionally heavy stuff. Somehow doing that in my own apartment feels even heavier and harder to process.
My apartment is full of emotional landmines that can clutter this process. On top of that, my home is where I work (even so pre-pandemic), so my attention is always fractured thinking of the next thing on my to-do list.
2. Being Able to Read Body Language and Emotion
Over a period of three years, my therapist has seen me through the end of a 9-year partnership — the original reason I went back to therapy. She’s seen me confront my issues and learn how to stand on my own two feet again.
All of this work was done in a caring environment where I felt comfortable sharing my emotions. Part of that was because I could instantaneously see her facial expressions and read her body language as I shared.
Having that immediate feedback fueled the relationship and created a feeling of comfort and safety. Virtual therapy makes it difficult to discern her body language, leading to a facsimile of that same comfort. Sometimes the video lags and reactions are delayed and I’m left unsure if or what she is reacting to. I find my mind going into overdrive trying to decipher what’s actually going on.
It’s also awkward to not really have the ability to make eye contact. Over video, there’s the perpetual question of “Where should I look?”. You can try to have meaningful eye contact but it’s being muted through the screen, as eyes dart from looking at yourself self-consciously over video and back to the other person.
3. The Invasion of Space is Jarring
For me, therapy is a dedicated 50-minutes each week where I can focus on me. I can focus on dealing with my shit and engage in some real self-care, not the kind that beauty and wellness brands want to sell you.
I can leave my old self behind as I walk through her doors and settle in. Now, with virtual therapy, we are both in our homes. The first time we did a virtual session, it was jarring to see her in her own home. It’s like seeing your elementary school teacher out in the wild at the grocery store — and not even recognizing them. Seeing my own therapist in her native habitat felt weird.
Though she is a professional, the line between personal and private felt a little more blurry. Suddenly, there wasn’t this very clear and strict therapist and client relationship feeling, but a feeling like I was invited to her home for tea.
On top of that, I was worried about her seeing my apartment too. You know how you try to clean the house and make it all nice before people come over? I have that extra stress during therapy and the paranoia that maybe my place isn’t good enough. It’s vulnerable to allow people into our homes.
And in our homes, there are other distractions as well. During the first virtual session, my therapist’s dog was vying for her attention as my therapist tried to stay focused on me. It was an unexpected disruption and I could tell she wasn’t sure what to do. It was awkward for me, wondering do I address the elephant (dog) in the room or not? For better or worse, I acted like nothing happened, which didn’t sit very well with me. My pets weren’t much better with my cats jumping on the table without a care in the world, disrupting any sense of flow.
The whole experience was and still is jarring. You’re getting so much new visual information and having to literally open up your home to another person.
4. I’m Paranoid About Who Can Hear Us
When I go to therapy, I can see my therapist has taken all of the precautions to ensure that the space is sound-proof and that our session is truly confidential. In this new setup, I am paranoid my neighbors can hear me.
I live in an apartment complex with such thin walls I can literally hear my neighbor sneeze. How could they not hear me talk about my issues of the week? On her end, I wonder who is in her home with her? Can they hear her talking to me? In virtual therapy, there’s always a bit of my guard up. I don’t feel I can truly relax and let go and dive deep given the current circumstances.
5. The Ritual Gave Me Structure
Though it took more time out of my day, I had a whole ritual and routine with therapy. I’d walk the 30 minutes to her office and I’d patiently sit in the waiting room until it was my time. My therapist opening the door was her way of saying she’s ready for me.
That was my cue to let go of whatever else I was thinking of. It was time to let go of “work me” and time to dive into therapy. I’d get situated on her couch and get comfortable.
At the end of our sessions, it was almost a weird dance of who gets up to leave first. Many times she would, opening the door for me. I would leave as she closed the door behind me.
As she closed the door behind me, I’d leave all of my “stuff” in that room and re-enter the real world to live my life. Having this structure helped me manage and compartmentalize different parts of my life.
Now, it seems work to therapy to leisure to sleep all just meld into one weird, confusing haze without much separation. I long for some separation and being able to compartmentalize.
It’s clear my mental health thrived on routine — one I worked very hard at creating over the past three years. Go boxing, go to therapy, go on walks with friends. Much of that has been on hold and the mental health toll is real.
My therapist reminds me we’re all regressing in some ways, and the tools we’ve had for coping are not all accessible — and for me, part of that was in-person sessions. Many parts of my routine that held my mental health together are not available in the same way.
Boxing was a huge anxiety reduction tool for me, but without bags and mitts, shadow boxing at home just isn’t the same. Nor are the virtual sessions online for therapy. The first month of all of this, I was a mess. It’s getting easier, slowly, as I turn to dance classes instead and try to meditate and read more — but establishing a routine that is predictable is an uphill battle when everything feels so unpredictable.
I’m grateful that I can continue seeing my therapist on our normal schedule. This new situation has made me realize how much I took for granted and how important those seemingly small details of our in-person sessions are to the process. Even though virtual therapy is new for me and less than ideal, the sense of normalcy I get from seeing her on schedule is comforting. I guess we’re all making adjustments and at the end of the day, I’d rather get help virtually than not at all.
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