April 26th, 2020
Words by Dagny Safon · Illustration by Nina Sepahpour
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, my therapy sessions have moved online
The week before the world shut down, I finally found the one: my perfect therapist. Stella, as I’ll call her, is actually the fourth therapist I’ve seen in the last four years. The first was a well-meaning woman in her early thirties with a thick brunette bob, who provided services through my college’s mental health center. I felt awkward sitting in our appointments, unsure if I was filling the silence with the “right” words. A few weeks after our first session, I transferred to a university closer to my home in Washington. There, I saw another woman, older this time. Tressa or Teresa or Tessa made it the longest. After a year in sun-bleached southern California, the Washington winter inspired a seasonal depression in me like no other, and for months I sat on Tressa or Teresa or Tessa’s green velvet chair with gold trim, which looked like it belonged in the lobby of a fancy hotel. This time, our conversations didn’t make me feel awkward or uncomfortable, but she seemed more set on simply having me talk for the hour, rather than providing any kind of guidance. I knew my third therapist wasn’t right for me when she asked me, a mixed-race person, "What are you?" The question struck me as proof that she couldn’t provide the kind of help I needed, when my mental health is so wrapped up in my racial identity. I wish I’d had some sharp retort ready to snap back with, or that I could have pulled off the perfect eye roll, but in the moment, I simply laughed, kept each answer brief for the rest of the consultation, and then avoided scheduling another appointment.
Finally, after filtering through endless PsychologyToday profiles looking for a therapist of color in the very white city of Bellingham, my college town, I found her. At our first session, Stella seemed more culturally competent than therapist three, understanding how race and gender can play a role in depression and in the way we handle our emotions. She was also more spiritual than therapist two, drawing a connection between the brain, the body, and the universe. Because I am interested in energetic healing and non-Western medicine, I was excited to have this in common with her. And unlike with therapist one, I didn’t feel awkward for not knowing what to say in moments of silence, perhaps because I felt naturally more at ease around her. (When I got home from our consultation, I immediately journaled about her and had to refrain from drawing hearts around her name, like Lane Kim swooning over Dave Rygalski in "Gilmore Girls".)
Two days after our first session, I received a text from Stella: As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, our therapy sessions needed to move online. I would have to video chat with her from the bedroom where I experienced the heaviest symptoms of my depression. I felt the same way I did when all my classes moved online, when the first case of the virus was declared in the States, and when our big summer travel plans had to be postponed: panicked about the lack of control I had over my own life. I was afraid that everything I was hoping to get from therapy would no longer be attainable: to be lifted from my depression, to feel able to navigate my relationships in healthier ways, to be relieved from my often debilitating anxieties. But what bothered me even more than the idea of virtual therapy, which seemed manageable though intimidating, was having my expectations upended. This seemed to be my pattern: the postponement of holiday plans and the switch from in-person to online classes were manageable changes in themselves. But navigating my expectations and accepting that I would have to give up the way I had envisioned my year proved harder.
Even though I had only been there once, Stella’s office was a refuge from my daily life. Being there had felt like physically and emotionally stepping out of my own head and into a space that was just for healing. My depression didn’t overwhelm my ability to find clarity in my own thoughts. I remembered reading online that doing homework on your bed trains your brain to associate the space with labor rather than sleep. Could the same be true of my bedroom? What if my associations of experiencing emotional pain here hindered my capacity to heal?
The next week, I sat in the Telehealth virtual waiting room for the first time, trying to distract myself from overthinking all of the possible scenarios. Would she be able to hear me well enough? Would it be awkward getting used to video chatting? What if the platform didn’t work on my computer, and we had to abandon working together entirely? I read my book nervously, repeatedly running my fingers over the corners of the pages. I was distracted by my phone vibrating and put it on Do Not Disturb. In a way, it all felt oddly familiar, mirroring how I would hold myself in a real waiting room. There were fewer health magazines, but I was just as fidgety.
I jumped a little in my seat when Stella joined the session, startled by her sudden entry into the space. She saw the corner of the book I was reading - Kurt Vonnegut’s “A Man Without A Country” - and smiled largely as she told me it was one of her favorites. It’s one of my favorites as well (I was rereading), so I pressed my lips into a shy smile as I set the book aside. This spontaneous connection felt like a sign that I was in the right place. Stella was quick to acknowledge that the virtual situation wasn’t ideal, and she wanted to double-check that my space felt safe and private, but then she just as quickly reassured me that everything we could do in person, we could also do online. It was a little annoying to see a thumbnail of my face in the bottom corner of the screen, and sporadic drops in the wifi meant we sometimes spoke over each other without realizing.
It felt odd to see into Stella’s home: her white walls were surprisingly bare, with a pile of clutter in the bottom corner of the screen. A child’s playset? A small chair? A disassembled bookshelf? I couldn’t tell exactly, and felt briefly embarrassed that I was trying to analyze her home. Even though I was also welcoming Stella into my room, glimpsing into her space felt especially like an opening, as if she was admitting that she was putting as much trust in me as I was in her.
Sitting in my bedroom, with a screen separating us, I felt less shy. There was an ease to our interaction, as if we had both been there before. I imagine it’s similar to the purpose of a confessional booth: the barrier created by the computer screen actually made me feel more able to talk about my most challenging moments, my scariest thoughts. Video chatting is something I’m used to, and the virtual session with Stella felt reminiscent of laptop conversations with friends, which allowed for the session to almost feel like I was talking to a loved one.
The hardest part of undergoing remote therapy has been losing the transition time after the session: when I hang up the chat I am suddenly alone, and often still quite emotional. I don’t get to walk out of the office, get an immediate breath of fresh air, and gather myself in the built-in protective space of my car before returning home to my roommates. Instead, I’ve had to create that for myself by building in additional time to take a walk or to journal before leaving my bedroom.
My housemates time their grocery runs and walks with my sessions, and as I learned after my first video session with Stella, they turn on the house fan when they return in order to dull out any sounds coming from my bedroom. I’m grateful they do, because it made it easier to cry during the first online session, and every other one afterward. While different from all the experiences I’ve ever had in therapy, in some ways virtual sessions actually hold more normalcy for me than in-person therapy. Maybe I am more open, more vulnerable, more excited to talk in these virtual spaces than I would be otherwise. After all, even inviting Stella into my space was an act of vulnerability, and it set the stage for more openness to follow. Perhaps without either of us being afforded a neutral third space in Stella’s office, we can actually work more deeply.
I’m grateful that online therapy feels so comfortable, and that this is a resource available to me during these times. But even more than that, it’s reassuring that even big diversions from my highest expectations can still provide me with the comfort and safety that I need, especially right now. I’ve struggled with the idea of silver linings recently, feeling almost crass or insensitive for finding the good amidst the bad. So perhaps rather than a silver lining, this can be something good despite the fear, the anxiety, the disappointment. These days and weeks feel unsure, new, scary, so there is deep, life-affirming magic in finding people who make you feel safe, even if you only get to see them through your computer screen.
Dagny Safon is a writer, artist, and student living in Bellingham, Washington. She primarily works in nonfiction and hybrid writing, printmaking, visual journaling, and is dabbling in digital illustration. More than anything, Dagny loves using her art to support the creative and professional endeavors of her peers and close friends.
Nina Sepahpour is a textile designer and freelance illustrator from Melbourne, Australia. You can check out her work at www.ninasepahpour.com and follow her @ninasepahpour