Marking Time: Some Reflections from a Psychotherapist during the early Covid-19 lockdown

Marking Time: Covid-19
by Christopher Murray

Published in ‘Inside Out,’ No 91. Summer 2020. The Irish Journal for Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy

This piece began as a way of journaling personal responses to the impact of Covid-19. It is somewhat of a ramble and is spoken from different voices. When I read through to edit, I was surprised how raw it felt.

I need to capture this
I woke up this morning and the first thing on my mind was Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19). There is an invisible threat coming towards my front door and I feel unprotected, vulnerable. Walking around the supermarket on 12th March a rising fear and panic was palpable whilst observing the shelves of toilet rolls, tissues and baby products emptying along with vitamin C with Zinc, and hand sanitiser. Panic was spreading amongst we humans as fast as the virus was approaching or indeed was among us already.

On the journey home I decided to begin to offer my clients and supervisees the option of continuing our work online, stopping at my office in order to close it up, collecting plants and other essentials required to work from home. I felt sad and uncertain as I locked the door, leaving a space filled with certainty.

As a psychotherapist I am used to people coming into that safe space knowing somehow, I can be there for and with them in the best way possible, as mutually as I can with my own uncertainties about the future. I feel vulnerable.

The first online video session changed all of that, somehow, we were at a level, to all intents and purposes in the same boat, no matter how much I might not want to have been. Clients were in their home and I was in mine, no longer was the work taking place in my space, this was a shared space.

Offering Psychotherapy and Supervision online using video platforms is a familiar way of working to me, yet this Covid-19 experience was discombobulating, and, in the session, I wondered if I could be of use, given that we were under the same threat. During the session I noticed my own worries interrupting, then sharing anxieties about Covid-19 with the client, wondering if therapy is possible, or if I can hold myself enough to be there for them. At times I was able to and at other times not, and towards the end I asked if it was useful and was told that it was; by connecting, sharing, saying out loud what was unspoken. Still, I wondered.

By that stage I had picked up a last click and collect and was self-isolating with my partner, managing to obtain disposable gloves before the price skyrocketed. I was amazed how the panic had infiltrated life in those times, making the acquiring of blue disposable gloves seem like a life saver when those on the front line of health services were the ones at grave risk. I felt all over the place and at the same time attempting to be there for, and with someone else, both of us all over the place. It was hard.

Working from home and the significance of private spaces
By the end of that first day, 16th March 2020, I was exhausted. Two people were self-isolating, one whose partner had possible contact with someone with Covid-19, another didn’t have a private space to call from. I realised through the day and in talking to therapists who consult with me, the importance of the therapy space in providing privacy and safety. It is a bit of a cliché, the idea of providing a safe space; I came to realise that having or offering a private space might be more useful these days.

Many were struggling to find private spaces in their home, full of family members or friends, and with the lockdown heading off in the car to find privacy stopped being an option. Sadly, some were unable to continue their therapy due to the unavailability of private spaces.

Whether I should or not, I had never considered the possibility that some people might not have access to the private spaces that I have at home. I felt privileged and entitled and a bit ashamed for not considering this. I recognised the importance of a therapy space differently; offering privacy more than safety.

I recalled a number of years ago when I was applying for accreditation, a colleague with whom I consulted brought my attention to a section in my application where I described the importance of my room, it’s ambiance and energy, the light, the ever changing tree outside the window, as all contributing to the success of therapy. He pointed to the field outside his window and told me that if I had two chairs in the field, I would offer the same service as I do in my room. I guess he was right to a degree, but not now, not with Covid-19. I miss my room, remembering that it also offers me privacy.

As I moved into the second day working from home, I rose early and drove nervously to my office to bring home some essentials, grateful the building was empty. It must have been the quietest St Patrick’s day on record, and I saw one lone soul wearing an Ireland rugby jersey. Back home and in sessions, people talked constantly about the impact of Covid-19 on themselves, family and friends and were keen to know how I was managing and if I was safe.

I was happy to have these exchanges and noticed waves of anxiety similar to those I would have had as a child, then as I drifted into those waves, I found it difficult to be present for the others. Still, we managed and as the first waves of ‘what on earth is going on?’ receded in the sessions, we managed to move into what I guess I call ‘work.’

Of course, as I remind those who consult with me, it is all work, not just the bits where I feel I am being useful. People were saying that it was helpful simply to check in, talk, ask questions, connect, say what they were unable to say to others or that hadn’t yet been formulated yet.

I did notice the times between sessions when I would have contact with my partner, in contrast to being in my office where my time was my own and I could process client work. At home I found many distractions, then proceeded to eat a full lunch with dessert in the middle of the day leaving me with those dreadful afternoon dips.

It was helpful to begin to recognise and take account of the differences emerging.

Having time to spare: love and compassion.
Well, Easter has passed, and the country remains on lockdown with social distancing still in effect. I have settled into a routine that lacks the rituals of BC (Before Covid-19).

Getting up at a certain time, preparing for and taking a journey to work, having appointments, lunch, more appointments and closing the office before the return journey home, being greeted by a loved one and sharing something about our day, sharing food, relaxing, watching some TV, preparing for bed and so on. The rituals of Ostara and other festivals, Friday night release in the pubs and clubs, sports events, the ebb and flow of the commuter world, aeroplanes passing overhead, holidays, day trips to the hills or beaches, meals out, shopping, family/friend gatherings, all suspended. The removal of such rituals leaves us with time on our hands, literally.

Electronic gadgets of all sorts now indicate and monitor our movements, steps, heart rate, sleep as if we need to keep an eye on ourselves whilst we go about our busy time defined lives. I wonder how our stress levels have changed AC (after Covid-19). Personally, I gave my smartwatch away.

I have conversations with people telling me how relaxed they feel, not having to get up and go every day, beginning to ‘be’ in time well spent rather than placing material considerations above self-empowerment. It feels as if the world has entered a long mindfulness practice where we are able to stop, take a breath or two, look around and be present in the moment. It seems there is a different quality of experience to being in ‘time’ and being in ‘the moment’, where the moment is not time-bound.

In a way, time requires movement, doing, action, pace, outcome, places to be, people to see, children to drop and collect, shopping to be had; births, marriages, funerals to attend. Moments require nothing more than presence. I wonder with hope that we continue having moments as these AC (After Covid-19).

I find the fluidity of the days somewhat calming at times and then somewhat disturbing. So, for instance today I found it hard to remember what I did yesterday, then eventually remembered. I had arisen at 6.45am to run at 7am for 45 minutes, then had a two-hour WhatsApp painting session with a friend from an art class. We meet for a catch up at 10am, paint, check in at 11am, paint, then check out at noon. Our connection deepens as we share what might have be hidden in class. On that day we painted a portrait of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, whose work and life we love. I was surprised that I hadn’t remembered.

Whenever I pause in the midst of Covid-19 I become aware of opposite qualities of being human, reflecting the light and dark moments in our daily lives. I acknowledge those who show extraordinary compassion, benevolence and thought for others, open hearts, radiating love and healing, people who refuse to sell themselves for financial gain, “I am not for sale.” They are in contrast to those who are despotic and cruel, prepared to exploit the crisis for personal and financial gain, protecting their vulnerability by gaining power over others.

During this crisis take time for yourself, to be with yourself, to acknowledge any grief and loneliness or betrayal. Be patient with yourself as you would another. Be gentle and tender with yourself and others, and where possible spend some time in nature, your garden if you have one, on your daily walk or run. Remember giving service to others is a wonderful gift, but be mindful and notice if you are tired, burnt out, resentful, giving out of guilt or obligation.

Take a step back at times, love yourself enough to say ‘no’ to demands on your time and energy.

Love is boundless within and around us. Love is not a zoo animal, an attraction at a museum, it cannot be tamed or destroyed except when we lose faith in it or end up in a cruel, abusive relationship, and even then we may continue to have love, to give and become open to receive it.

Can you stop for a moment and find love in your heart, not for a person or an object, simply the feeling of love? Let it fill you up and know that it is within you and that you do not possess it as it belongs to us all. Be mindful that we have limits in our giving and just as when we are hungry or thirsty, we need replenishment.

So, find love, give it freely and know when you need to be replenished. You will know when that is.

Find your voice to ask for love and to say no when you feel you need to.

I know that I am deeply connected to my history, our history and that of the earth, the solar system, the Milky Way and all of the other galaxies in the cosmos. Sometimes our personal history’s may feel cumbersome, like a weight, holding us down and holding us back. When I feel this pull, I open myself up to the scale of the cosmos, the unimaginable length of cosmic time, the millions and billions of humans that have come before. I recently watched a programme celebrating thirty years of the Hubble telescope showing a deep field photo of a forming galaxy from 12 billion years ago, that is how long the light took to arrive at the telescope. In those moments the connection between myself standing on this planet and the unimaginable vastness of the universe, shifts something in me for a moment, a spiritual moment of wonder.

Feeling anxious is ok
Today I awoke feeling anxious in my belly and found it hard to shake, I even tried to shake my body, yet the anxiety wouldn’t budge. What I noticed was that my mind searched for meaning, for what was causing my anxiety and really, I couldn’t find anything that made sense, and of course, there were lots of possible contenders. I wondered where and when I might get our next food delivery, all slots were taken. Is it safe to go running? Will I catch Covid-19? Will the world ever be the same again? Will there be riots as I watch Trump backing right wing, armed-to-the-teeth, people standing on the steps of a State Senate building challenging self-isolation and social distancing? The possibilities ramped up and yet I knew that my anxiety was simply non-specific anxiety as described by the American Statistical and Diagnostic Manual of the Mental Disorders version 5, from the American Psychiatric Association (DSM5 for short), reassuring eh?

When I shared with my partner, I was able to breathe once again and acknowledge that my anxiety was familiar to me. In the past I would have woken daily with the same feeling in my belly, it persisted for years in my childhood into early adulthood. It was a relief to acknowledge an old friend popping up to say hello. I took some more deep breaths.

Later in the day, during an online conversation with three others, someone mentioned how this pandemic, this crisis, is affecting us all, and it occurred to me that the feeling in my belly from earlier was a younger part of me, my little boy, afraid of the uncertainty and unsure that any of the grown-ups, including adult me, the public, the politicians, the scientists, will be able to make everything ok.

Not surprisingly, I have an interest in working with parts of the self, to help the person notice, acknowledge and give a voice to them all without judgment. This crisis is frightening for all of us and it makes the younger parts of us feel unsafe, insecure and anxious. When the adults and children are all anxious, finding ways to reassure becomes challenging.

What I try is to stop, check in with my inner world, offer reassurances, give a voice to those older anxieties that are easily triggered at these times and remembering to breathe. I have also found writing this daily collection of random thoughts and experiences, without judgment, to be helpful.

Early on in the pandemic I began to reach out inviting colleagues to meet for support in groups as well as increasing peer consultation as a way of managing my anxieties away from clients. It has been important for me to reach out to others, sharing these feelings and know that I am not alone, that others are in the same boat.

After this morning’s near meltdown, I feel calmer in acknowledging all aspects of myself and my body’s reactions.

Pausing for Now.
As I read over this piece, reflecting on the unpredictable world of Covid-19, I barely recognise the person who wrote it. This is an odd experience.

To meet the challenges, I employed my usual pragmatism by increasing time between clients, managing technology more effectively, increasing support and supervision, limiting exposure to the torrent of news, keeping this journal and maintaining self-care.

However, pragmatism was not sufficient in itself. I discovered that when I opened up to experience the energy around, my body was flooded by an unending source of love and compassion, that felt gentle, soothing and connected. That is what kept me grounded more than anything else.

Christopher Murray M.A., MIAHIP, ICP, EAP, UKCP, Reiki Master,
is in his 40th year working as a psychotherapist and supervisor, currently in private practice in Belfast.

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