Therapy From Home During the COVID Crisis

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I messaged my therapist on Tuesday, telling her that I wasn’t finding our remote video sessions helpful and asked if we could simply connect via a telephone call. Three years ago, when we first met, I’d have been too scared to highlight my own needs to her, god forbid that I should upset her; my inner voice would have spoken, “you’re getting ideas above your station Sue, who do you think you are?” After all, she was the expert. What did I know? This simple act alone is an indication of how far I’ve travelled, of how much I value myself now and of how our relationship has developed – to feel safe enough and to trust her enough to say stop, wait, this isn’t working. That’s a strange yet growing feeling.

If I pondered longer, there’s probably a lot more I could tell you about personal growth and one or two of my achievements over the last three years. There’s also a lot I could tell you about the despair and excruciating pain I’ve felt, but that’s not why I’m writing this piece, so let’s return to my remote sessions.

“I’m interested to know why you aren’t finding the video calls helpful,” she asks me. I’m certain that the question comes from a place of curiosity and the familiar, gentle tone of her voice instils a sense of safety in me, inviting me to explore the issue with her.

I struggle to begin with, taking a moment to gather my thoughts and find the words to respond in a coherent fashion. It’s something about contamination, containment, control and safety, I utter. Unsure of whether I’ve made myself clear, I ask “does that make sense?”

Contamination of my home, of my personal space, of my mind, of my body, of my soul – these have been places that others have poisoned in the past, and trying to rid myself of that toxic poison has been an exhausting endeavour. Now, faced with literally bringing that poison and those demons back into my own home and speak of their existence, I’m beginning to feel their threat even more. After a video session, I’ve wandered around waving a sage smudge stick, I’ve opened the windows, played music – both loudly and softly – and written and drawn the venom down on paper, placing it in a sealed box, all in an effort to cleanse my home in the hope that it will return to a  place of tranquillity for me.

Containment of the raging turmoil that has come with digging deep into the abyss that is my past, containment of the dance between despair and hope that is my present, and containment of the uncertainty that is my future. At least when we were meeting face-to-face, in the safe space held between the four walls of her room, there was the potential to leave that all behind when our hour was over. I was able to walk out of the session having left it there with her, shut away, and hoping that it would stay put until we would meet again the following week. A seemingly good plan, but there have been many occasions when the ghosts of that turmoil have seeped out, haunting me and screaming in my head as I desperately try to engage in a life outside of the therapy room.

Control of the environment. The sense of safety and familiarity I feel when in the room where I sit and speak the unspeakable. A sense which has grown in me over the past three years. The driveway, the door through which I enter her premises, the stairs I climb to the room, the chair I sit on, the chair she sits on, the empty third chair, the large wall-hanging, the low table with a box of soft, white tissues, a glass of water, a small bowl of pebbles, and some tiny bottles of essential oils, the bookcases filled with titles I want to read and some I’m sure I recognise, the Russian dolls placed on a bookcase behind her chair, her desk scattered with paperwork – do some of those papers contain notes she’s written about our sessions, about me? The rug beneath my feet, the plants and cut flowers placed discreetly around the room and that storage chest which guards the muck until I return to pick it out again the following week. All of this is familiar, all of this feels safe, yet all of this is inaccessible to me now.

Control of my boundaries. I’ve invited and accepted my therapist into my life and shared with her my innermost secrets, and she probably knows more or less all there is to know about me. She’s seen my pain, seen my fears, seen my guilt, seen my despair, seen my joy, seen my shame, and seen my self-disgust. But she hasn’t seen my home. My home is the one area of my life that my therapist hasn’t physically entered, it is the one domain of my life she hasn’t seen, and where I have the control that I need. During the time we’ve been working together, she’s been my anchor, and at times my crutch. She’s nurtured me as well as empowered me. She’s annoyingly honest with me, without judging me. She’s skilful at stating the obvious, and more importantly the not so obvious. She’s held me without touching me and has offered me the precious gift of a safe space where I’m learning to spread my wings and fly. In some ways she resembles the mother I never had, and in many ways she resembles my closest friends. I’m no longer ashamed to say that I often long for her to be those people, but I know she can be neither. My friends have come to my home and have sat with me on my sofa, eaten with me at my table, danced and sang with me in my kitchen, and laughed and cried with me on my living room floor. As much as I would like her to, she will never share these intimate moments with me, nor should she. Her physical presence does not belong in my home, it belongs in my soul.

Problem explored; problem resolved. Over the past three years, I’ve dug deep into the very core of my being, uncovering the parts of me that were holding on to terror, to shame, and to sadness, and at the same time discovering parts of me that I didn’t know existed. As I’ve stepped into the abyss of abuse and trauma, I’ve often felt stripped naked, terrified and exhausted and there have been many times when I’ve walked out of the therapy room feeling as if I’ve been put back and forth through a mangle a thousand times.

Throughout the time we’ve been working together, safety has been at the top of our list. Attempting to embed a felt sense of safety has been an ongoing process and one that we revisit time and time again.  As we explored our concerns about doing therapy from home, I began to grasp the extent of the trust that has evolved in and between us. Trust in myself, trust in our relationship and trust in the consistency of the therapeutic space between us. It’s staggering yet wonderful for me to think that, after years of betrayal, I could possibly trust anyone or anything again.

I knew that I would be heard as I tried to express all my above concerns. I recounted to her how sitting alone at home whilst holding my phone and watching her face suddenly freeze or turn into a mass of pixels, did not feel a very therapeutic or safe space for me. As that familiar feeling of despair began to seep back in, I hoped that we could somehow come up with a way to meet face to face again. We talked about a walk-and-talk session or a session in the fields near to the therapy room. There were concerns about privacy and whether I’d feel safe enough. I wondered whether it would be possible to use her EMDR equipment in an open space – having briefly experimented with this approach virtually, I knew I needed to have her present when working with this modality. After some creative thinking, we have managed to come up with a solution that suits us both and are now meeting in person, whilst maintaining appropriate distancing guidelines. We are not in that same familiar therapy room, but we are as close to it as possible, and the delicate nature of my healing can continue to unfold.

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Sue is a self-employed gardener, enthusiastic linguist & a mum to 3 children. She experienced repeated & sadistic abuse in childhood and spent 18 years as a service user within the UK's mental health system. Sue now draws upon these experiences to support the training of mental health and social care students attending the University of Worcester. She has worked in peer support roles both in statutory and third sector organisations and is currently involved in a local peer-led support group for people withdrawing from psychiatric medications. Sue is also studying part-time for a Masters degree in Social & Therapeutic Horticulture at Coventry University