The aviator – a therapist without earrings
I am sitting at mission control. It is an ironical title that describes my 'new look' therapy room desk. I have every bit of tech I can find. My iMac, iPad, iPhone and I. All of whom are trying to stay connected in a time of disconnect and fragmentation.
In December 2019 I said to a colleague “I am so looking forward to 2020”. We both laughed together at my delight in 20 20 vision alongside the beautiful symmetry of those numbers. Little did I know that 2020 would be so far from symmetrical clarity.
As a therapist, my time through this period has had distinct marks and emotional flavours that we have all probably felt.
If I were Grayson Perry my sculpture of a therapist would be someone whose head and heart have rapid through traffic. They would have big feet embedded in the earth, their ears would be immense and their big heart full of sense. Out of their heads would flow many thoughts and wonderings, which would twine together to form wonderful insight. My therapist, in the time of COVID-19, looks somewhat different.
There would be a big block of density between the head and heart. The heart has a shield over it; the ears would be folded into a headset and holding onto a facemask that would prevent us from smelling, sensing or taking in what is around us. The sculpture’s head would still be huge but the thoughts would be whirling and curled and probably unable to join up with any other thoughts: and our feet – well they are floating on jelly. This time is surreal.
What most therapists really love about their work, other than the interest, intimacy, challenge and extraordinariness of what we do, is being ‘ in the zone.’ I love that moment too; when all is shut out bar the here and now and that other psyche. It is the kind of focus that is exacting and also calming. In the zen of that moment we attune, mirror, relate and think. All the other bits of our lives drop away for those fifty minutes.
The huge challenge at the start of this pandemic was the inability to do that. I was utterly pre-occupied as were my clients. Our thoughts were completely constrained by the pandemic and our brains could not process what was happening.
Mix this preoccupation with feeling shocked and zen disappears. “Is this really happening” echoes in our heads? This little island has been swept up like the rest of the world. Any kind of special immunity was swept away too. The challenge to our sense of control and omnipotence was evident in the rush for toilet rolls and pasta, or in my case seeds and compost. A desperate need to ensure a future – to reassure ourselves we have control. A compulsive need, despite knowing it is an illusion.
In therapy, we nod sagely at one another as we say "we work perpetually in the unknown". We approach every session without “memory or desire”. Well, I can tell you COVID blew that out of the water, for me. This place is truly uncertain. Every time there is a fact it dissolves as it can’t stand the rigour of science. I am left following my nose. I am left in the here and now. I am left hardly able to remember my pre-COVID life.
In lockdown, we actually locked down in all senses of the word. There was a seal between our hearts and heads. I think this is a result of shock and overwhelm.
Of course in therapy, our job is to open up those channels between what we feel and think and let them speak to each other.
The therapeutic tool seemed at odds as to where we were and to some degree are in this nation.
At this point, there is equality. We are all in this, there are no exceptions. The fiction that both clients and therapists buy into, is that we represent a certain internal object. We may seem whole, sure, consistent spacious, able, open, calm or ideal. COVID-19 has whipped away that camouflage to expose our very humanity. Once the varnish is stripped we are left with ourselves, exposed.
There is a beauty in that reality and authenticity but, I also wonder, if there is angst not only for us but also our clients.
What has my role become? Given that we too are in the swim of this, can we have one foot on the bank? Can we be of any help?
If we are to be of use, how will that look? Is it to stay conscious? Is it to contain? Is it to make better? Is any of that possible anyway?
These questions ricocheted around my head as I continued to see clients online and helped the Centre to move to online working too. Consistency seemed vital and not just for the sake of routine but to represent resilience.
I battle the desire to disappear under the duvet and wake up in the summer of 2021. Then, I feel heavy with guilt for wishing my life away, when as we know, it is so precious.
I lie in bed and see the back of my husband’s head. His ears stick up in a certain way and I cannot bear that he might be ill or worse. Out of that place I say, “Let me go to Tesco tomorrow. Don’t you. I am sure I am more immune. It seems to affect men more than women.”
I understand that in this madness I am trying to protect those attachments that I cannot bear to be without. That fear is sharp and pricks at me. When this happens I find myself cleaning the Amazon delivery with an anti-bac wipe. “Have I covered that spot? Is this the right thing? Will it work anyway?”
My other tactic is to be blasé. "Well, there is nothing I can know or do so just put the flippin’ shopping away and stop fussing.” The fussing, you see, is telling me I am scared, and none of us likes to be scared.
So now, here am I along with many millions sending out Zoom invitations and wearing a gaming headset so that I can hear and not shout and protect my client’s confidentiality. I have given up on earrings.
I have found my clients who suffer from early trauma and who are quite often alone and isolated in their daily fears have found an odd solidarity in the populace. Their lifelong lockdown suddenly has commonality with others. Their lack of power or control is a universal feeling. The fear of the future is acceptable and definitely reasonable.
Other clients are fearful, anxious and angry. We so need someone to blame. The conspiracy theories run rife through us to cover over the shame of not knowing. I find myself joining in the conversation, putting my feelings in there too. I am shocked at myself and tell myself to stop this. This is not therapy, this is chatting. Yet, it seems that my clients are not so shocked and still let me be alongside their lives and let me look in and know how they are.
It was very strange to try to contain and be conscious for others when I felt distracted, anxious, unknowing and very tired myself.
I find myself thinking about the early messages that as babies, and little ones, we need, to help us form ourselves. The thread of consistency, continuation, endurance and survival give a message of holding and out of that, we build our inner lives. Our present lives have been dispersed and our attachments disrupted, so we need someone to hold that thread of continuation.
The following weeks are curious. The lockdown takes another hue. Some of my clients are at home, some with their parents and children. Homeschooling has begun and all the provocation that brings. The memories of their own parents and teachers are alive. Being little and not getting it right is present. They suddenly see even more of their projections. Fear of failure and not being a good enough teacher let alone parent, flare.
This time is a smudgy time for all. Our boundaries and our children’s are blurred. “Are you being mummy now or teacher?” “Can you indeed be both?”
As a therapist online, I am aware of my clients not coming to my therapy rooms. I hear how they miss that definition. They are being challenged to bring the therapy into their homes or cars or wherever it is possible for the WIFI to work. They are missing the space before and after the sessions that define our work together.
I am seeing in a literal sense more of them. I see children sometimes, pets on occasion and often a cup of something in a favourite mug. The wallpaper is on show. What, as a therapist should I do with all this. Well, as I repetitively mutter – ‘bring it into the room or screen’, I should say. I will also hold these memories and experiences for a time when we will return.
As a therapist, I like to do things with consideration. I like to take my time and move with my energy. I like to compost things until I know it is ripe and it is the moment.
Well indeed! We have all been catapulted. We were going one way and now we are going another. We have had to turn a container ship on a sixpence. We are transitioning without choice.
The plasticity of our brains that is held and supported by our ego strength makes this possible, to some degree. Self-awareness allows us to tolerate some of our feelings which affords us some presence.
The nuances of online work are beginning to show. I find myself working very hard to hear and be alongside my clients. I am a visual person so I am drawing on very little information before me – it is but a snapshot. My eyes are as large as a chameleons and my ears are fizzing beneath the gaming headset.
I have been unmasked as have my clients. We are flying forward inevitably to a future that is truly unknown. Will I ever bother with earrings again? Will I remember not to wear slippers when I see my clients face to face? When will that be? I don’t know. That is a much-used mantra – “I don’t know”, but I do wonder. I wonder what it will be like for us therapists, and our clients, as we move through these clouds to the next space. Any illusion of an idealized object has been utterly shaken. It is no bad thing though, that as therapists, we are leaning into our own humanness. In this place, we may truly meet the other on the bridge.
None of us has a reference book. We are all helping to fly the plane.
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