Care in Mind Clinical Psychologist, Dr Christy Laganis, shares her unique take on adapting to life in lockdown.
Rather than being based in an open-office, trying to drown out the chitter-chatter around me, the majority of my days are now spent in my living room speaking to people online – it’s a bit weird. I was recently introduced to a new support worker, he asked me a question which took me by surprise, and I had to pause to think. The question was simple enough but few people other than my supervisor, manager and ‘buddy’ have taken the time to ask. The question: “how are you coping with all of this?”
As a Clinical Psychologist, I spend most of my time listening to how people cope, or if I’m being truthful, trying to get people to acknowledge how they are coping. So, I should probably be comfortable talking about feelings-right?
I think a common misperception of Clinical Psychologists is that we somehow do feelings better than everyone else or that we like them because we spend so much time going on about them. I’m mindful that I can’t speak on behalf of all Clinical Psychologists but let me be clear in saying “I do not like talking about my feelings!”. I do not enjoy it, it makes me uncomfortable and if there was any other way of not talking about my feelings, I would jump on it. So, no I certainly do not do feelings better than anybody else, and I often feel like an imposter when others have the expectation that I do. I feel just as awkward as anyone else. However, I’ve learnt that awkward doesn’t hurt you and I can survive it. Contrarily when I’ve opted out of ‘doing feelings’, they’ve caught up with me and bitten me on the backside. I’ve had my fair share of being bitten, so, nowadays I try to prevent this from happening, by yes, you’ve guessed it – talking about how I feel.
So back to the question at hand, how am I coping with all of this? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Some days, I feel like I’m doing perfectly “fine”. Let me explain my fine. The biggest change for me at work has been that we are no longer able to work face to face with people. This means that all clinical sessions, staff supports, meetings, assessments and supervisions are now conducted online via Teams. Basically, I spend most of my days on Teams. Prior to all of this, I’ve never used technology to complete a session, so not only is this my first pandemic, this is the first time I’ve ever worked this way.
I’ve resisted online working in the past because as a therapist so much of what we do depends upon dealing with the feelings in the room. My own feelings act as a kind of sat-nav for navigating the feelings in the session. We call this transference and my stance has always been, I need to be in the room to get this. So, when we first got told to work from home my initial response was well, I can’t do therapy as I don’t have one of the most important tools that I rely on. I don’t like it when I don’t know what I’m doing, it makes me anxious. I managed this by consulting the guidance and trying to find out everything I could about online ways of delivering therapy. I read a lot and I spoke to colleagues who have done this before but mostly it just left me unsatisfied because I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.
Now in the very initial days of the lockdown, I probably wasn’t that fine actually – all the changes felt overwhelming and for someone who usually prides themselves on dealing okay with change – I couldn’t understand why I was struggling. It took a friend to highlight to me that this wasn’t like change I’ve ever experienced before. Yes, there was changes to the way I work, but alongside this I couldn’t leave my house, I couldn’t see loved ones, I was also playing various what if’s in my head. The biggest one being what if my loved ones in the ‘vulnerable group’ got COVID-19? Weirdly, I think the lockdown helped me as it contained my biggest anxiety and that is what if I’m the person to give somebody else coronavirus and they die? Being told not to leave my house helped me manage this fear as prior to that I was still completing sessions, going to wards/houses and also seeing those loved ones in the vulnerable group. So, my friend was right, I’ve never experienced change like this so it made sense why the early days were so tough.
Now, I’m more settled. Yes, completing sessions online is different but it’s nowhere near as bad as what I thought it was. I’ve had difficulties with my internet so it’s been cutting out more frequently than you would hope for, usually in the poorest of timed moments, so that’s been a bit stressful. It’s also very different to have work in your own home. If it’s been a difficult session, meeting etc, usually I can deal with it by leaving it at work, but quite literally now I cannot escape it. Instead I have to live with it in my home. I’ve found this more difficult than what I thought I would.
Working from home is therefore a tricky one. On the one hand I acknowledge and am grateful for the fact that I am still able to work from the comfort and safety of my own home, whilst others do not have the opportunity, but it does also come with its own challenges. When we first got told that we’d be working from home, I thought great I’ll have more time to catch up with all those things that I can never quite get around to. How wrong I was. I don’t fully understand why but it feels like I’m busier than ever and often finish the day with the feeling that I’ve not been productive enough. This makes me feel like I need to work more in order to make up for it. I like to feel useful; I like to feel helpful and I like feeling productive. Working from home for me means that I don’t feel any of these things. I feel guilty that others have to go into work and face challenges that I do not, I feel helpless that I can’t support the teams or young people I work with in the ways that I would like to, I feel bad for not being there during a time when it would be really useful for people to show up and if I’m honest I feel I’m not working at my best.
Perspective is important and I’m working hard to manage expectations. The world right now is collectively experiencing trauma and therefore it doesn’t make sense to be at your best and to know what to do for the best. Currently, the best we can hope for is survival and we all have to find our own way to survive.
These are the things I’m trying to hold in mind to help me survive. Feeling in control is important to me so during this I’ve had to do something which does not come naturally to me and that is to accept, right now I have very little control. Some days, I’m better at doing this than others but I’m doing better than I ever thought I could. Judgement does not and will not help, nor is me working all hours because I feel like I’ve not done enough.
In discussing all the suggested activities for the young people during lockdown, a support worker commented the best moment of their shifts recently was when staff and young people were just sitting together in the garden talking. When we’re anxious, some of us respond by trying to do more but this reminded me that often it’s not about being exceptional or how much you do but it’s just about being there and having a shared experience. Social distancing isn’t conducive for this but as Paul Gilbert, founder of compassion focussed therapy, has highlighted, we can safely relate during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I’m trying to find ways to still show up even if it’s not in person or my best, it’s the best I can manage right now.
To the support worker who took the opportunity to check-in with me, thank you for reminding me that sometimes I need it too. Instead of feeling guilty for “having it easier”, I’m trying to practice feeling gratitude for the things I’m fortunate to have. I’m also trying not to rubbish my feelings because “others have it worse than me right now”, it doesn’t help them if I do this and it certainly doesn’t help me.
In writing this blog I’ve realised that I don’t think I am fine actually. Whilst I think I am adapting to this new normal, it doesn’t mean I’m fine. It doesn’t mean that it’s normal because it’s not, nor do I want it to be. Instead, a more accurate response to the question is I’m surviving and I’m learning. One of the things I’ve learnt is I have a lot of things I’m grateful for.
Here are some of the things that I’m grateful for at Care in Mind: I’m grateful to the residential staff that are showing up to support our young people, even though this may mean placing yourself at risk-thank you for being courageous. I’m grateful to all the head office staff and management who are still working tirelessly to ensure that the young people’s care remains to a good standard and that residential staff have all that they need to ensure they remain safe. I’m grateful to my clinical colleagues for the random check-ins and helping me to remain grounded in what we’re trying to achieve, which is a better future for the young people we work with. I’m grateful to Maggie (Service-user Co-ordinator) and Dom (Best Practice Facilitator) for trying to ensure that there remains a place for fun and play amidst the uncertainty. I’m grateful that we have the technology that allows us to remain connected. I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with such amazing young people. Whilst much of what we’re trying to achieve is to support young people through difficult times, the current pandemic has shone a light on that they have much to teach us also. So, I’m grateful to learn from their courage, strength and resiliency-they have this surviving thing nailed.
Writing this blog has felt cringe and a bit exposing; it’s also my first time at writing a blog so it’s yet another thing that I don’t really know what I’m doing. The reason why I did it is because I’m witnessing lots of compassion towards others, especially at Care in Mind, but I am worried that people sometimes forget to take care of themselves. It doesn’t come naturally to many of us to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities and during an international pandemic, it’s easy to dismiss them as unimportant or compare ourselves to others who have it worse. So, I just wanted to show there is space for your feelings/vulnerability and it doesn’t take away space from others. Our vulnerability is the thing which unites us in humanity, and it will be this which allows us to safely relate during these testing times.
I hope everyone stays safe and remains connected; doing the best you can do right now-whatever that might be.