We are coming up on a year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation full-force, causing the shut down of schools and businesses and forcing most of us to shelter-in-place. And it’s not over yet. As that reality sinks in, it’s easy to feel discouraged, depressed, even despairing.
It might help to reflect a little, on how this year has changed us, individually and collectively. Taking inventory not just of our losses, but also what we may have gained: perhaps a new perspective, or a greater tolerance for uncertainty, or a newfound ability to be patient, or more appreciation for simple pleasures that we used to take for granted.
For me the biggest change has been in how I work, both as a therapist and as a mindfulness teacher. Moving to a telehealth practice was an adjustment, not just to the technology, but also to how it changed my relationships with my patients. I’ve noticed losses as well as gains.
Some patients chose not to continue therapy once I switched to telehealth, so I don’t know how they’re doing, though most have continued. I am meeting more regularly with many, in part because it’s now easier for them to dial in from home, rather than battling traffic, but also because the support I offer has been more needed. The fact that most insurance companies have been covering copays during the pandemic also helps. But this means that I have fewer openings for new patients, at a time when there are more people seeking therapy.
There is definitely something that gets lost in doing therapy via Zoom – I can’t see my patients’ body language, or sense their emotional energy. On the other hand, I’ve been able to meet their pets or their kids, and they’re usually more relaxed because they’re at home. I’ve also noticed that patients are more likely to ask how I’m doing, am I staying safe, and feeling well. I have stayed safe and well, and try to convey that by smiling while making eye contact with the tiny camera on my laptop. Below my silk blouse or sweater set, I wear yoga pants and flip-flops, so I suppose I am more relaxed as well.
I also do phone sessions, with patients who can’t figure out the technology, or need to call from their cars (their only private space), or who simply prefer a voice-only connection. Some take a walk while they talk, and I may listen while walking around my home office or kitchen, quietly straightening things. Needing to keep my hands busy while listening, I dug out my old knitting needles, ordered yarn, and started knitting during some phone sessions. Lacking visual cues, I ask more questions about how the patient feels, and probably interrupt more. Sometimes I think I talk too much because I can’t tell what’s happening in the silent pauses.
I look forward to the day when we can return to the office and I can see my patients fully, hear their breathing, directly sense their agitation or calm. When we can make real eye contact, and wear pants and street shoes. But I can’t predict when that day will come. Nor can I know what percentage of patients will prefer to continue with telehealth, but I am sure some will. So I can imagine a hybrid practice, where patients choose how to connect with me, and no one has to cancel because of traffic or not having a babysitter, which may make therapy more accessible.
While my license limits me to therapy with California residents only, my mindfulness classes, also now on Zoom, have begun to include people from other parts of the country, and no longer are limited by when I can get access to a conference room or classroom.
Making the transition to teaching mindfulness online had its challenges, as my students from the first class last spring will testify, but each week I have learned something new, or figured out how to adapt a lesson to the online format. I have access to things I couldn’t offer in person before, like showing videos; my students can do the practices in the privacy and comfort of their homes, and we can all enjoy a moment of levity with the cameo of a pet or child.
In my personal life, I can also see how the year has changed me. At first, I was most aware of what the pandemic had deprived me of – attending the ballet, symphony, and jazz concerts, a long-planned trip to Paris, being able to hug friends and family – but after a while, I began to discover the benefits and opportunities that this crisis presented as well.
Where others panicked when hair salons were shuttered, I saw an opportunity: I had been coloring my hair for years, starting when I was in my 30s, and now that I’m in my 60s it seemed like a good time to let nature take its course. By the time I was able to see my hairdresser again, I was glad to have my shoulder-length locks shorn, but told her “I’m good with the gray!”
With less going out, I’ve had more opportunity to read, and I’ve focused on educating myself about the history of race issues in this country, from 400 years ago to the present. I’ve learned that it wasn’t just in the South that non-whites were prevented from attending good schools, buying homes in nice neighborhoods, and owning businesses; that the federal government has aided local governments to systematically bypass civil rights laws for decades; that voter suppression activities have increased in the past decade; that even minority law enforcement officers are influenced by unconscious racial bias; and that we have in this country a caste system, that arbitrarily places “whites” in the dominant caste and “non-whites” insubordinate castes, with the descendants of slaves treated much like India’s “untouchable” caste.
I now have a clearer understanding of the causes of our political polarization and racial discord, and a deeper understanding of the ways my white privilege has benefitted me, even though I never believed I was in any way better than people whose skin color was different than mine.
I’m also aware of my “pandemic privilege:” I have a job that can be done remotely, and a comfortable home to work from; I’ve had no loss in income, while saving money I would have spent on clothes and vacations; I don’t have school-age children whose virtual learning has to be constantly supervised, nor elderly parents locked up in facilities that don’t allow visitors. I have much sympathy for everyone who isn’t so privileged, and at the same time, I’m glad that I don’t have those stressors so that I am free to focus on helping my patients and students.
These are some of the ways this past year of dealing with the pandemic has changed me – tell me, how has it changed you?