“I am another human being, and therefore dangerous,” says Claire Entwistle as she discusses whether remote working in the lockdown era of Zoom is a sensible precaution or a dystopian nightmare for body psychotherapists. What will the New Normal mean for body psychotherapy, she asks, and provides her own vision of working with returning “3-D clients.”
COVID-19 arrived, and perhaps nothing will ever be the same again. ‘And so it shouldn’t’, people say. ‘We need a new normal’. In some ways, no doubt. But at least in the old normal I could hold therapy sessions without me or my client vanishing into thin air mid-sentence, or apparently speaking through a mouthful of water, or intermittently having to rely on lip-reading rather than vocals. At least all the communication problems were in the room, created by us and in theory at least, fixable by us.
That COVID had its eye on my work came as a shock. It seemed that no sooner were politicians declaring a crisis of unknown proportions, than lockdown was announced. Don’t go out. Don’t go to work. Don’t meet with your clients, in effect. Don’t see them for three weeks, I think it was initially. But we all knew what it really meant: Don’t see your clients indefinitely.
Don’t see your clients! But this is body psychotherapy. Some therapists work remotely all the time, including some who have done a body psychotherapy training. I respect their decision, I don’t question the quality of their work, I understand the many rationales for working remotely. But.
But it isn’t the way I have ever chosen to go, in my twenty-plus years of practice, except where working face to face is impossible for some reason, and a phone call or Zoom session seems better than nothing. I use touch in my work quite a lot, and my sense of how we are sitting or standing and what that means, and subtle changes in posture – a shrug or a shrinking, a tapping of the foot, a leaning forward or away. The possibility of a hug or a handshake at the end of the session. The – oh, everything.
Still, it was a choice between working remotely or stopping work without notice, and the first seemed the better option. In some ways, it was fine. We talked, feelings were understood and accepted, blocks were cleared. To a surprising extent, I continued to get that visceral sense of what was going on for my client down the phone line or over the internet. Some good work was done.
But I don’t want to pretend that it was not terrible, being prevented – actually being forbidden, by law – to work face to face. Even worse because it was just one more instance of what was going on all over the country, all over the world. Husbands in care homes not allowed to see their wives. Children in hospital not allowed to be with their parents. Folk whose experience of human warmth relied on their local café or pub or library, being suddenly alone all day. With what – with phone calls and online meetings, if they were lucky. Yes, aren’t we lucky to have the internet and cheap phone calls. No, it isn’t the same thing.
It isn’t the same thing, and accepting the idea that remote contact is an adequate long-term substitute for being in the same room, physically close, seems to me a dangerous path to take. Of course we need to protect ourselves and each other from lethal illness, but human beings have other needs that should not always be trumped by a need to avoid viruses.
It sends me right back to A Level English and EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, published 1909, where each individual lives in their own underground cell, communicating by phone and a device remarkably like an early iPad.
‘I want to see you,’ says the son.
‘But you can see me,’ says the mother. ‘What more can you want?’
And the son says:
‘I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through the telephone, but I do not hear you’.
One person said sadly in our very first Zoom session, ‘You are sort of there, but you also aren’t there at all.’ How must this be for somebody who already has issues of abandonment?
But she couldn’t come and see the real me, because it was too dangerous. I’m another human being, and therefore dangerous. This is terrible too: how the virus and our response to it are changing the nature of human contact. My partner and I had house guests as soon as it was allowed, family who we hadn’t seen for months except on computer screens, and were longing to spend time with. Gosh, it was a nuisance having them here. ‘Don’t touch this. Have you washed that? Back off, you’re too close. Sorry to make you lug your bedding down two flights of stairs when you’ve just injured your foot, but it needs to go straight in the washing machine, and I can’t touch it.’ At times, they seemed less like loved ones than walking, breathing sources of infection.
Once the 3D clients return, which mine are just starting to, opportunities for awkwardness are somewhat curtailed by the more limited nature of the therapy relationship, but still present. Remember to step back when you open the door. Notice where they place their hands so you can disinfect later. Only use touch if you must. Could they cover their throbbing ankle with their own warm palm, rather than you following your impulse to do it for them? If you do follow the impulse, remember to put on your mask first, oh, and to sanitise your hands before you pick up the mask. What was that impulse, again? Rules, rules, rules.
So would it be easier, just as good, better even, to go back to remote working? Some therapists say yes. I say no. Despite the awkwardness, my client and I are in the same room, where we should be, experiencing the same discomfort, and picking up how the other feels it.
EM Forster again: ‘He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people, an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, she thought.’
In body psychotherapy and in life, please let not this ‘general idea of people’ become the new normal.