Disclaimer: These are just some thoughts of one therapist. Use them if they are helpful. Discard all others.
This is the question that bounced around in me during the first 2 weeks of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Ironically, this question was not a conscious one, but instead one that nagged the back of my unconscious. In fact, this questioning of my chosen profession only surfaced as I sat down to write one day. I was attempting to get my arms around what was bugging me, only to have a professional existential crisis on my hands amidst the real, ever present crisis of the COVID-19.
If I am honest, my knee jerk response was one of survival. Like everyone else, I was concerned both for my personal, physical, and economic well being and I became quickly worried about the impact this would have on friends, clients, and everyone on a national and global level. The uncertainties seemed so big and the issues of racial injustice, wage inequality, the powerful getting more power, mortals running the government, and people putting their lives on the line to help other humans struggling to stay alive, started me thinking, “Maybe this psychotherapy stuff is bullshit, and I should be doing some work that actually helps someone. I should be a doctor, a nurse, or a grocer.”
To be honest, the last couple of months seeing clients via Telehealth while the COVID-19 crisis has moved closer has at many junctures felt awkward. As I provide assistance exploring a client’s internal world in an apocalyptic environment, we are both aware of the shaky ground of our society and safety. Growing up in the south, many old houses had storm bunkers that were build into the ground in case of a nuclear attack from Russia or a tornado from God. I have often imagined that I and my clients are huddled in our respective storm bunkers trying to do therapy via video while there is a tornado swirling around outside for both of us. I hope that the bunker my clients are in is going to keep them safe, that the bunker that I am in will keep me safe. And in the middle of the therapy session, I can start to feel the anxiety crescendo. I start to lose my bearings as to why therapy even matters given the crisis that looms for both of us.
And then I stop.
I check in with my body.
I begin to hear my soul.
Clarity begins to settle in as I realize my anxiety ridden existential crisis is my wrestling with my own fear and sense of powerlessness. I have privilege, and yet I am fearful about what kind of world is being created around me and what pain may be around the corner. I do not like that there are things I will not be able to change. I think this wrestling match in my soul makes me tired. I am trying to contain the anxiety of my client, when I am questioning so much of my own reality and attempting to metabolize my own fear. I am afraid of the tornado as much as my client is. To hold both fears in tension is what I believe I am tasked to do as a therapist.
My work is to teach my clients to breathe while practicing my own breathing so that we can weather this storm in such a way that we are not creating trauma in our bodies and our brains. As I sit with my clients, I am offering them connection not just with me, but with themselves. I teach them how to check in with all of their being. I remind them to play games in their bunkers, listen to their children, stay connected to their spouse, and do what they can while breathing, staying aware of the present moment while they are in their bunker, grieving their loss, and finding appropriate ways to distract, react, and live as authentically as they can.
As therapists, my hope is that we are readying our clients and ourselves for when the storms pass, when we will step out into the sunlight. Trees, power lines, and debris will be strewn everywhere. Demolished homes, lost lives, and an ever changed reality will meet us. But, we will be ready to finish out the grieving process both emotionally and bodily and begin the process of rebuilding. In the end, I hope that we will construct a more kind, gracious, and thoughtful society.
Our work cannot happen if we are caught in our own anxiety. Consequently, I hope that we are all leaving time to complete the our own personal stress cycles. I hope that we can all let ourselves cry, breathe, talk, and receive comfort from our loved ones and friends. I hope that we make sure to connect with our friends, go on walks, drink good wine, and eat good food, create something, and sleep. We are all trying to do something new, which means that it takes more energy. It is a bit nerve racking. We are all experiencing a tornado, while we try and learn a new skill and be an emotional container for another while we experience our own fear. May we all breathe, relax our body, listen to our souls, and hope in what we are growing in ourselves and our clients and its long term possible impact on us, our clients, and society at large.