During this pandemic, like many fellow therapists used to working face to face, for the foreseeable future I will be meeting my clients (and my own therapist) exclusively online. It is the first time I have worked in this way, and there was almost no time to learn or prepare. I watched some webinars and read some guidelines and bought a book about online therapy that I may never read.
As someone who even avoids phone calls if I can possibly email or meet in “real life” instead, I felt some real apprehension about making this transition. I struggled to put my finger on what it was I feared would be lost in translation if we couldn’t be physically in the same room together.
Porges’ polyvagal theory explains how deeply and vitally interconnected we are by our autonomic nervous systems. Far below our conscious awareness we pick up cues about how safe (or not) we feel in relationships (neuroception) and we regulate one another physiologically through tone, gesture, expression, breathing, eye contact (co-regulation).
How much of this minute subtlety I feared would be lost in the electromagnetic waves between our screens? (Yes, I know I don’t understand how computers work, what’s the IT equivalent of neuroception? But actually however it works, how fascinating is that? A whole other complex dimension of computery communication, layered over the already fantastically complex human one, in every online encounter!)
How interesting too, and confusing, that this virus means it is actually not physically safe for us to be together. Now being interdependent and interconnected, caring for one another, means staying six feet apart. A couple of weeks ago, just as “social distancing” was being introduced, a woman veered away from me in the street, turned away and covered her mouth as she passed me. Rationally of course I know she was sensibly following guidance and protecting us both, but what I felt very powerfully was shame: I was potentially infectious, dangerous, to be avoided. And this was a stranger in the street, so consider the significance of having to physically “distance” from your therapist, on whom you usually rely for safety and co-regulation (even if your attachment style is less ambivalent than mine).
I feel the strangeness of the situation as my client and I arrive together online, adjusting our screens and our volume controls, peering at our settings, sometimes waving, “I can see you but I can’t hear you yet!” We experience and talk about the strangeness and how it feels. We notice and trip over the almost imperceptible time-lag, bumping clumsily into each other. We acknowledge the memory of what it was like to be together, our embodied knowledge of togetherness. We talk about some other stuff. And slowly, gradually, we realise that the strangeness of the monitors and the occasional screen-freeze are no longer figural, and we are beginning to find our way back to each other.
I didn’t plan on visiting this online world. I am already anticipating the feelings of being reunited with my therapist and my clients, when we are eventually able to be together safely in the same physical space again. I can’t wait for that day. But until then I remain curious and open to what else I might learn about myself and the people I’ll be spending time with here, and what journeys of discovery we might make together!
I am so grateful for the awesome technology (the stuff of science fiction till very recently) that allows us to stay connected. Seriously, what magic is this that allows you and I, miles apart though we are, to open a window into each other’s homes; to be alone in our own separate spaces, and also, at the very same time, to be together. (And maybe, who knows, maybe even to meet each other’s cats).