Clinician's Quandary

My New Normal, Part 2

Therapeutic Discoveries in the Time of Coronavirus

Psychotherapy Networker
My New Normal, Part 2

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically shifted how almost every therapist works nowadays, in ways both expected and unexpected. Although we’re all in this together, no two stories are the same. In this follow-up to our popular blog on therapy in the age of coronavirus, three more therapists share what this new normal looks like for them.

1) New Worlds, New Roles

I’m a registered play therapist and, prior to the stay-at-home order, I practiced in a large office with a well-stocked playroom at my disposal. Moving to a home office and doing therapy via video chat has been a journey, but a surprisingly positive one so far. I’ve found that although I don’t have my playroom at home and can’t use these tools remotely, I can still do play therapy. I’m finding new ways to be creative and flexible. I give young clients and their parents instructions on how they can use tools or toys in their own homes for our play therapy sessions. Most of all, I’m continuing to see the incredible value of the therapeutic relationship.

I’m also continuing to see the importance of getting parents involved in my work with their kids. I’ve always believed that strengthening a child’s attachment system is crucial for lasting change. By including parents and other caregivers in teletherapy, I’m seeing things unfold that I suspect might not have working at my office. One child, for example, has been teaching me how to do arts and crafts with her siblings. She’s literally shown me what her home—her world—looks and feels like in real time. Another client, a charming, rambunctious kindergartener who’s prone to dysregulation, recently got upset during one of our teletherapy sessions. Since his mother heard him from the next room, she was able to soothe him by gently pulling him onto her lap and snuggling him for a few minutes. I didn’t even need to intervene. It was beautiful to be able to witness this healing moment with the two of them.

Doing therapy from home isn’t always easy. It’s overwhelming, complicated, and beautiful all at once. It’s also blended my roles as a therapist, mom, homeschool teacher, referee, cheerleader, playmate, and partner. It’s been hard to give my older, teenage kids autonomy while also setting rules and boundaries and finding time for us to connect and engage. Other times I have to shoo them out of the room when I have to do work. Every member of my family has shed a few tears as we navigate these changes, but we’ve had some incredibly meaningful and joyful moments too.  I’m looking forward to life returning to normal, whenever that time comes.

Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, RPTS
Salt Lake City, UT


2) Stories of Personal Transformation

“What are you noticing about yourself this week?”

For 20 years, this has been an opening line I’ve often delivered to my clients. Sometimes, it kicks off a discussion about how they’re feeling about a relationship, or their work or hobbies.

But over the last month, this question has taken on a whole new meaning. Many people can’t lean on external sources for fodder for this inquiry, like a job, social interaction, or exciting adventure. Everything’s downshifted. My clients are now able—some might say “forced”—to look inside themselves, and they’re making some pretty interesting discoveries.

Some self-proclaimed lifelong introverts, for example, are discovering how powerfully they miss hugs and casual social contact. Meanwhile, some of my erstwhile extroverts are finding this downtime restorative. Some of my busy-ness addicts are grappling with the void of distraction, while others are finding the so-called monsters they were trying to outpace are nothing more than a yapping dog. Some are noticing how the existential threats affect their mind and body, and others are surprised (and at times guilty) to find they’re sleeping better, eating better, and connecting with loved ones more than ever before.

That’s what I’ve noticed about my therapy practice this month—that in the absence of so much doing and distracting, people are learning about themselves in ways they never have before. It’s one part of our work that I hope will continue long after this isolation ends.

Ryan Howes, PhD
Pasadena, CA


3) Rethinking “Essential”

My client Maxine works as a cashier for a home improvement chain, which is considered an essential business. She’s glad to have a job, but working there during this time is causing her a great deal of anxiety. She lives at home with her 60-year-old mother and rightly fears that she could bring home the virus and spread it to her mother and others in her apartment complex.

As Maxine described her work to me, I visualized being in her shoes, on the front lines of human interaction during the pandemic, even as we’re being told over and over again to practice physical distancing and stay home. I visualized ringing up cans of paint, rolls of wallpaper, area rugs, and light fixtures, all the while fearing exposure to a debilitating virus, just for the sake of a customer’s home improvement project, perhaps something undertaken out of boredom or guilt at being unproductive during a stay-at-home order. The more I imaged what Maxine was going through, the more I felt her anxiety.

Our society is locked in a crisis between economy and personal safety. Maxine has no choice but to work, pandemic or not. There’s no mental health day off for her, no option to work from home, and sadly, no understanding from her managers of the fear she feels simply walking into the store each day. Surely, she’s not the only employee who feels this way.

As a therapist, I’m listening to Maxine’s story. But hearing it makes me realize how important it is that all of us—therapists and non-therapists—listen to these stories and think deeply about what’s essential right now and what isn’t. If we have food, we can cook at home. If a DIY project can wait, we should consider waiting. It could save someone like Maxine a great deal of anxiety. Many people are asking what they can do and feeling helpless. Being compassionate and fully understanding the impact of our behaviors on others is a great place to start.

Phil Lane, LSW
Roxbury Township, NJ

Read the precursor to this blog, My New Normal: How Our Work Has Changed Since Coronavirus.

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