Are we at normal yet? A psychologist opens up about living, and working, in the time of COVID
'I know it's not just my profession struggling through this'
On Thursday, Newfoundland and Labrador relaxed more COVID-19 restrictions, and moved into what's called Alert Level 2. The province may stay in this state until a vaccine is made available, and the province can finally move to Alert Level 1. It's been a challenging time — including for mental health professionals who have been helping people cope. Registered psychologist Janine Hubbard prepared this guest column, in the form of a letter to a client.
We're moving into Alert Level 2 and attempting to return to a state of normalcy. We've been starting to resume psychology services over the past few weeks, and I need you to know that I'm incredibly excited to be able to provide more services including face-to-face visits and assessments.
But I need you to know that at the same time I'm mourning.
I'm mourning the loss of the services I was once able to provide. These included the warm and inviting office, full of comfy chairs, soft pillows, a welcoming snack and beverage, toys to fidget with to reduce your anxiety, and carefully collected resources, books and handouts. The treasure chest full of silly fun things for clients of all ages.
My office that once smelled of freshly made hot chocolate or tea/coffee now has an overwhelming aroma of cleaning fluids and hand sanitizer.
That once-comfy chair has now been covered in plastic, or replaced with something easy to clean, but not nearly as inviting; vinyl folding chairs were not what I had in mind for a psychology office — although hopefully they'll find a new home one day being used for large parties and social get-togethers.
Masks are something we're still all trying to figure out.
I'm mourning the loss of watching your thoughts and emotions expressed through body language and small facial expressions, now to be hidden behind a mask.
Equally I'm worried about how you'll interpret my words, as filtered through a surgical mask. So much of our therapy work together involves the nonverbal cues, and the quiet whispers, that I'm afraid will be lost.
I'm excited that we can bond and connect over your choice of superhero or animal print fabric as a new form of icebreaker. Unfortunately I'm regulated to wear a surgical mask, so I don't get to show off my cool collection (I'm especially proud of the Harry Potter one!).
Normal and natural to feel nervous
I'm used to you feeling nervous, particularly on your first session. That's normal and natural.
However, this is the first time in my career where I'll have to confront an underlying suspicion and fear of you as you enter my office. And while you may have been nervous in the past, we've never before navigated a mutual fear and feeling of potential physical threat to one another. I can no longer guarantee you complete confidentiality, as I may need to release your name in the event that contact tracing is required. I'm concerned how/if that might interfere with our therapeutic process.
I worry that the start of each visit needs to begin with what feels more like a security check and interrogation of symptoms, rather than our usual casual chat and catchup on life events. There's the signage on the door, completion of health check forms, immediately sending you off to wash your hands. Again, I'm sure we'll get used to it, be able to chat and joke while we go through all the necessary steps.
Personally, I'm particularly excited to resume assessments once again, to help you figure out why you're struggling with your learning, your focus/attention, why you're not getting the grades you'd like, despite all your hard work.
Giving you the proper diagnosis and recommendations can be truly life altering. I spent years training on how to interpret all of those test results. But none of that training will help me to interpret results in a life when you've been out of school for months, when dysregulated sleep and high anxiety/poor concentration has become a way of life. Test norms weren't designed to account for a global pandemic!
I know we'll figure it out — I am lucky to be part of a large and supportive professional community where we'll consult and research and come up with the answers. But in the meantime I'm nervous.
I know, like all things in life, we'll adjust, and figure it out, and make it work.
I know you're coming to see me to benefit from my training, insights, empathy and skills, not the material trappings of the office.
Together we will find newfound skills and some advantages to our new reality, such as virtual sessions where you're able to show me your pets and home.
I know it's not just my profession struggling through this.
All of my wonderful colleagues in the health and helping professions are stressed and struggling, but figuring it out.
But in the meantime, I'm still mourning.