It was mid-March and I was wondering what on Earth the big deal was about this virus people were talking about. There were only like 10 people in the whole country who had it. Clients were telling me that Glastonbury was discussing closing school. “For how long?” I wondered, “Like a couple of weeks?” Colleagues and clients alike were laughing along with me. One told me he might show up in a beekeeper outfit to keep me safe at our next session. It all seemed like Much ado about Nothing. And then…
It shifted so suddenly. Within a day or two. Schools were closing all over the state. Colleagues in the area stopped working in their offices. Out of six providers, I was the only one left in my office suite. I was being urged by friends and family to stop seeing clients in person. But I didn’t want to…
Therapy is a second career for me. I didn’t start doing it professionally until I was forty-two years old. But from the beginning, I knew I was damn good at it. Not only did I hear it consistently from co-workers and supervisors and clients, I felt it in my soul. I had found my calling. And it was all about families and couples for me. Relationships. That was my passion.
I moved to my current office in 2016. I was so happy. It was absolutely beautiful! Spacious, with three good-sized windows, I painted it the perfect calming color: Beach Glass by Benjamin Moore. I loved being in my office. I loved popping into my suite-mates’ offices to touch base. I loved offering my clients coffee, tea or water. In my office, I felt truly like a Relationship Expert.
So you can see why I had some resistance to leaving it. And to doing therapy online. Online? It seemed so impersonal. What about the energy of the room? What about all of the visual cues that I pick up in person. Like when I meet with a couple and they sit on opposite sides of the couch, clinging desperately to their respective arm rests, and how I can literally feel their disconnect. Or when a client is crying and I automatically pass them the tissues, as a way of showing my compassion.
And yet, on March 20th, I grabbed my files, gave my succulents some extra water, turned off my lights, and closed up shop. For how long I wasn’t sure.
At home, I had my distraught College Junior whose entire world had just been upended, and had begrudgingly come home from her dorm, her school life that she loved more than anything abruptly ending for the year. I also had my sixteen year old son, time split between his Dad’s and my house, who seemed to be more than a little okay with not going to school But he would get bored. I knew he would.
Anxiety was getting the best of me. Some clients were discontinuing “For now. Until you are back in the office.” But I didn’t know when that would be. Would I even be able to keep my practice full? How was I going to work when I had kids in the house? And what about partner? How can we live in separate states during a pandemic? Spoiler alert…we didn’t. We moved in officially and got engaged. So then there were four…
But I had no choice, and so armed with a tripod, I set up my Iphone on data, in order to get the best reception, and began my journey into online therapy. It wasn’t ideal. I was seeing couples on a screen that was 3 by 6 inches. They were sometimes freezing, delayed, or there was an echo. I interrupted them because I couldn’t tell they weren’t done talking. It was frustrating. My “I hate telehealth” narrative was persistent and told to anyone who wasn’t a client. I didn’t feel as effective. I wasn’t an expert. It all seemed like a sham. I felt like a mediocre therapist providing mediocre therapy. And that lasted a few weeks, maybe longer.
There were, however, certain things that were happening online that were quite spectacular and I couldn’t suppress that fact forever. For example, I now truly did have a window into my clients’ home life. I got to see their pets, their children, how their rooms were set up. I got teasers of what their relationships were like with their kids, and how they parented. When they wanted to prove to me that their kitchen was indeed clean, and their partner had unrealistic expectations, they could. And it became fun. And sometimes delightful! I looked forward to the dogs, cats and babies making their appearances. Sometimes clients would take me outside and I could hear the birds and the neighbors, or see the front porch sanctuary they set up upon my recommendation.
Clients seemed less stressed, despite their relationship problems. They weren’t scrambling to get anywhere, or to find babysitting for our session. Traffic wasn’t an issue. For my part, it was quite nice to be able to flow from session to laundry to getting mail, to talking to my family. I was starting to enjoy the benefits of no commute, having dinner together every night, and the overall efficiency of working from home.
The most miraculous thing of all, was that I started to pick up clients’ energy right though that iPhone! I didn’t need a couch to tell me what was going on with them. I felt it through their tone, saw it on their face, and therapy became the same as it always was: a shared, connected experience between us. I was the expert again. New client inquiries started to come in and I was able to confidently discuss telehealth as a viable option. Through feedback I knew that my new clients as well as my former ones liked online therapy, and they were getting the same outcomes that were reported in the office.
I don’t know when I will be going back. I don’t know how it would feel to see clients behind masks, both theirs and mine. I don’t know what would happen if one of us had a coughing fit, was sneezing, or how I would feel if they told me they had been at a party or on a plane. I don’t know if I can keep up with the rigorous sanitation standards that private practices offices have to keep up with. I don’t know how I can coordinate not having my clients run into my other six suite- mates’ clients or if that’s even possible. I just don’t know.
But this I do know. Online therapy can be every bit as effective an option as in-person. Factoring in that it’s also the safer, more convenient and private way, it may even be a little better.