Editor’s Note: This month, that is January 2021, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Work and The Workplace, where we invite various articles to highlight the profound changes that our workplaces may or may not have undergone and the effect that these changes have had on our personal and professional lives and ways of living in the time of the pandemic. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Vaidehi Chilwarwar
Lately, I begin each session by asking, ‘Am I audible?’. Almost always, the person seeking therapy and I check and re-check the audio-video connections before diving into tales of pain. Often, the WiFi connection doesn’t stand the test of time. Conversations stop suddenly. And we go back to square one. This is the new normal in a therapy session. What isn’t normal is the impact these virtual services had on fellow therapists.
Dramatic and dreadful, the year 2020 seemed more like a 20-20 match. In the midst of this restricted innings, mental health practitioners felt no less than a withered umpire. Therapists worked in 2019 and before that too, but evidently pandemic stretched their labour in four different directions. Absence of domestic help in urban spaces added to the woes. Colleagues were portraying ten different roles in a mono act play—making meals in the morning, conducting webinars in the afternoon and washing dishes at night. These roles were neither separate nor clearly defined.
Malvika Fernandes, a therapist located in Mumbai, declared that, “I was frustrated with sweeping-swapping—to the point where I was in tears.” Like millions of women, her struggles between having a jam-packed work schedule and household responsibilities seemed non-negotiable. The financial dip, globally, made these negotiations even tougher. In the midst of emotional breakdowns, no one wished to be ‘broke’. Hence, working tirelessly seemed the only resort.
Ironically, the pandemic put humans on pause. However, therapists did not touch this pause button. Pain seemed permanent and help remained insufficient. Unlike freelancers, Malvika’s work hours stretched from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm (unusually heavy for a mental health practitioner). This meant sitting in one room, feeling physically restrained and more lethargic. Drawing energy, routinely, from people like pani-puri waale dada and rickshaw waale uncle, the absolute absence of human interaction hit her hard.
In therapy, she admitted, “My interaction with clients had also changed. In the first 15 minutes, the clients also ask me about how I am and I am more honest with them. Although I am your therapist, I am also figuring out a lot of things.” These micro-bombs of energetic ‘hello-hi’s suddenly vanished like a jinnee from many lives. Evidently, it created a sense of disconnection and fatigue—an antidote to therapeutic practice.
Sporadically, the social lockdown pricked emotional agony. Beyond the therapy sessions, psychologists were virtually omnipresent—audio calls, online webinars, overscheduled therapy sessions for starters. These efforts seemed like watering an infected plant. Merely useless. And we welcomed our inevitable ally—Compassion fatigue!
As a counsellor who worked in a crisis helpline, Ketaki Mhatre explained, “After the pandemic, I saw my work quadruple almost overnight. My usual work of helping people deal with emotional distress transitioned into crisis containment without any warning. Suddenly I had to take up that role so much more often and more promptly than I ever had.” While introspecting, she said, “As an empath, I have always prided myself for the way I like to have deep and meaningful involvements with loved ones. Yet after a point, I found my emotional fatigue to be so overwhelming that the thought and the effort that I would have to make in order to sustain the aforementioned involvement seemed exhausting even before starting.”
Working around crisis intervention, she recognised a relatively higher moral-ethical responsibility. Her experiences highlight another area of concern – an automated response to be empathetic.
‘Exhaustion’ – the term, seemingly failed to capture therapists’ internal dilemma. Imagine, what happens if one feels so drained that they don’t wish to talk to family and friends-not even to themselves? Clicking that ‘join the meet’ button becomes monumentally taxing. That mobile screen appears like a dragon ready to gulp all the energy.
Adding to this sentiment, Ketaki recognised, “For me personally, as someone who worked on the telephone medium, my job required me to be available and alert. And because of the aforementioned burnout, I found myself conditioned to experience unpleasant emotions even when I just looked at my phone.” With a hint of social disconnection with friends, she said, “While the pandemic related social fatigue and the peculiar passage of time are major contributing factors, I still couldn’t help but feel bad or angry at myself for not having made an effort.”
Therapists involved in trauma and suicide prevention may resonate with Ketaki’s experiences of feeling empty and numb. These instances depict enormous demands around therapists’ ‘emotional presence’—professionally as well as personally. After a glance at these narratives, drifting away from loved ones and seeking escapes, seemed all the more valid.
The duration of the lockdown kept stretching and so did our patience. Noticing the negative impacts, Malvika decided, “to reduce clients post September because I realised it was taking a toll on my mental health. I felt that a lot of content that I was consuming in my personal and professional life was the same- job issues, family issues, lonely feelings. I had to prioritize my mental health because I started seeing physical symptoms of anxiety and depression. And definitely, I felt overworked.”
She acknowledged her social and financial privileges to be able to pause. Naturally, this was accompanied by two-fold losses of learning and earning. Currently, she chooses to give herself ample time to stare at the wall, engage in journaling and prefers walking instead of holding more therapy sessions. Despite slowly moving towards a resilient 2021, therapists continue to feel overworked. These voices scream for a pause. We already prescribe these pathways to people in therapy. Regardless, a gentle reminder seems harmless.
- Deliberate Living – Deliberate living probably involves focusing on what will be a longer impact of an act. Maybe it’s time we give ourselves permission to simply be. Similar to the meetings in the movie Dead Poets Society that began by invoking Henry David Thoreau’s words, we can create an intention for each day or week and look at life from a distance. Possibly, we can grab a few emotional vitamins that may re-fuel us. It could be those moments of ‘nothingness’ or a day of joyful plays.
- Attention Resistance – Talking about digital declutter in the book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport says, “minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.” Applying this wisdom in our emotional worlds seems a necessity. A fulfilling day may involve deliberate elimination too—of unwanted news, information, overwhelming conversations and numbing experiences. Virtual presence is infinite. But our attention and empathies are not. Though connectivity seems one ‘click’ away, the question is—is the click really clicking? And if not, can we resist it?
- Generosity of Receiving – Therapists lives revolve around ‘giving’—emotions, compassion, and resources. Opening up to accept care and support may do wonders. It could be a quote from a client, a warm hug from your partner or a cup of hot coffee from your mother. It is time we understand that we deserve kindness too. From ourselves and from people who wish to offer it authentically. People who are habituated to ‘give’, can switch roles and ‘receive’ this time.
To summarise our journey in 2020, Sadaf Vidha, a freelance writer and a therapist, aptly said,
‘This year felt bigger than any exam given!’
We do not know if we have passed or failed. Regardless, we are attempting all the questions.
- Compassion Fatigue among Healthcare, Emergency and Community Service Workers: A Systematic Review. International journal of environmental research and public health.
- The Generosity of Allowing others to be Generous to you by Anke Verhees
- On Receiving Generosity by Don Handrick
Vaidehi Chilwarwar is professionally engaged as a psychologist and arts based therapist. She works with individuals and groups on therapeutic platforms. Her doctoral research revolves around exploring arts based and community driven practices of coping and resilience. Explorations around mental wellbeing are central to her learning and living. Lately, podcasts, poetry, DIY videos and sleep occupy her spare time. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.
Featured Image Source: The New York Times