Therapy in a pandemic

This week has been a lot, to say the least. I was aware but not overly concerned last week when talking to clients about COVID-19, and we laughed about not finding toilet paper or different ways to make sure you were washing your hands long enough. The panic did not set in for me at all until Sunday getting several emails at once from clients and our clinic asking us to start teletherapy ASAP. My own panic hit a peak on Tuesday night when the bars and restaurants closed and I realized I had scheduled an email to publicize a happy hour set for 3/25 for a board I sit on. Immediately after the email went out, I received several replies ranging from “Hey did you mean to send this.” to “YOU KNOW THE BARS ARE CLOSED AND THIS IS TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE, RIGHT?” (seriously.) and I had a full-on panic attack.

Not only am I concerned about my own life (I have a wedding in 8 weeks that has been thousands in saving and over a year and a half planning), my licensure (my final exam was postponed indefinitely), my job (clients cancelling, trying frantically to figure out teletherapy), and my loved ones, but I have a responsibility to the clients I see and the members of the association where I serve on the board. I don’t have a life where I can take a few weeks off and just chill at home. I do the helping and a lot of times no one is there to help me.

I wanted to write this for the other helpers out there, the parents, the healthcare workers, and the people let go from jobs and feeling alone or those whose jobs are not supporting them in ways they need it. I know there are plenty of you out there that are going through life now with a heaviness that feels as though you can’t take any more, and yet you know you have to because if you don’t do it, no one will. People might say to you to reach out, ask for help, take a break, but it can feel impossible to do it. You find yourself in a conversation you’ve been looking forward to, to ask someone else for guidance or get some space to talk, and find that instead you’re thrown again into a helper role when someone else seems to need you. You feel resentful and lost when there doesn’t feel like anyone is there for you even though you seem to be there for everyone.

I have been struggling with a lot of this, so I feel I’m both a credible resource and absolutely someone who doesn’t follow their own advice. I decided I’m going to use this crisis to make sure I connect with people, but also that I don’t hide my emotions or pretend I’m ok when I’m not. I am not going to put up with conversations where others try to scare me into feeling more anxious about the crisis than I already am. I am not going to be emotional support for people in my life if I simply don’t have it in me at that moment. I am not going to change my boundaries for respectful communication just because it’s online or in text instead of in person. I am going to turn to that self-critical internal voice that often suggests I’m being selfish and need to ignore my needs and do the task in front of me, and tell it to STFU. I am going to put myself first, figure out what I need, and force myself to take breaks and say no when I can’t do any more.

If you have a hard time saying no to others and yes to yourself, maybe this is a time to start turning that around. Maybe with all the chaos this is a time you can do a little less of the things you hate doing and a little more of what you love. You do not need to be the perfect employee, the perfect spouse, the perfect parent, the perfect size or shape, or perfect anything. A client once told me, “It’s so terrible to be perfect.” Even if you got to that perfection, it would mean a lifetime of misery and fatigue to maintain it. So just don’t. Give yourself permission to be sad, to deal with what you need to, and to take time.

A pandemic really throws into relief what is important to us. I realized that even if we can’t get married in the beautiful hall that we’ve reserved (cross your fingers for us!), my fiance and I get to spend every day together now. Most days I can’t wait to leave the office so I can get home and see him, and now we’re here all day. Sure, we’ll get sick of each other, but this is time we don’t usually get. We spent time working side by side and playing youtube videos of music we’re embarrassed to like and learning other things about each other.

One thought that has also helped me was to think about not just my own resilience, but the resilience of people in general. When I found out my licensure test was cancelled, I started to think about all the other bad things that had happened to me in my life and how it seemed like the end of the world but it wasn’t. I remembered being stuck in an airport in Lisbon after 15 hours of travel on no sleep with a cancelled flight and a stolen bag and crying off and on for 9 hours thinking I would never get home. I remembered the years of living in debt and the total hopelessness of having job after job that got me nowhere and barely paid my bills. I remembered living by myself in a strange country where people treated me like I was stupid because I couldn’t speak right or do things like use the post office and I covered my bed with towels because I didn’t have enough blankets. I watched over and over when the news showed people jumping from the Twin Towers and went to school after so many mass shootings. I got through all of those things and I can talk about them easily because it’s impossible to remember how much something hurt when it was happening. That’s the gift our emotions give us.

My life has really not been that hard. For people who have suffered trauma, these kinds of crises are much harder for them than for me. I get to see the resilience of human beings every day when I talk to my clients. If you want to know how resilient people are, call your grandparents or read the stories of immigrants. People have lived through so much uncertainty and pain and they are still able to keep going. The Great Depression happened basically overnight and there was no Venmo or GoFundMe or government benefits programs to help them. Our society figured out that there were huge gaps in what we needed to support our citizens because of this tragedy. This crisis is different and the lessons learned are going to be different. We are all learning how important our grocery stores, schools, daycares, warehouses, truckers, and farmers are to support the backbone of our lives. People are losing their jobs and they may take years to recover, and I for one plan to be on the side that supports them and backs up their needs in any way that I can.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, I am so thankful right now that we have the ability to reach each other with the technology we have now.

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