“Hello, Lauren.” The woman’s voice coming out of my phone was palpably soothing, but I still cringed listening to it. My inner cynic wondered if her cadence was an affectation put on for people like me. She had been attempting to make contact all morning, and yet I had silenced my phone and swiped away the bullying notification bars. Now, I was listening to the voicemail I’d tried over and over to avoid. “I’m calling to discuss your mental health needs, and to see if we can set you up with a therapist.”
Living with mental illness can mean living with heightened awareness of your own negative behaviors, and listening to this voicemail meant confronting one of mine. I was being offered a lifeline, but I didn’t have the energy to deal with the admin part — the conversations about dates and times, the photocopied questionnaires asking me to rate my suicidal thoughts on a scale of 1 to 10, the rote medical history I would inevitably find myself rattling off like an audition monologue in some stranger’s office.
I wanted help, but trying to find it felt exhausting. It was the tail end of January, a month rendered even more miserable than usual given the pandemic. COVID guidelines made going to the grocery store difficult, let alone starting up a new therapy practice. I was also struggling to get a handle on a particularly debilitating bout of depression. It felt like I was trying to swim to the surface of a pool filled with wet cement. I was conscious of the need to get out, but my body wasn’t capable of breaking free.
Sixteen months beforehand, I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that causes extreme mood states. I’d tried therapy a few times before my diagnosis, and while I’d always quit after a few sessions, I’d long suspected that it was time to give it a proper go. Although medication keeps me on a relatively even keel, a multi-pronged attack on the illness couldn’t hurt. The idea of unburdening my busy mind on somebody suitable (so, someone other than my mom or my boyfriend) was incredibly appealing, too. I wanted to feel heard and seen; I even saw the benefit in being constructively called out on my bullshit. So, just before Christmas 2020, with the added stress of the pandemic nudging me forward, I had insisted my GP refer me to the local mental health services. The woman who’d left the voicemail was a care coordinator, my access point to various psychiatric treatments — including therapy.
It took me 24 hours to return her call, but when I did, she helped me book an assessment with a psychologist, and explained that the doctor would determine whether I needed subsequent sessions and if so, how often and what kind. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, however, the care coordinator emphasized that the assessment would be taking place via video call. At first, I didn’t think much about what Zoom therapy might look like. But as I began to consider it, I was surprised by how appealing I found it.
I had stopped seeing my college counselor after two sessions, and cancelled on my Cognitive Behavioral Training therapist after just one (because I’d spotted her wearing overalls and riding a bike around my neighborhood, and I knew I’d never again be able to see her as anything other than a peer). One thing that stuck with me from both experiences is the memory of the therapists’ offices. The unfamiliar, uncomfortable chairs; the professional accreditation certificates lining the walls; the box of tissues sitting ominously on the coffee table, daring me to break — it all seemed alienating, rather than reassuring.
As you might have guessed, it takes a lot for me to open up to people. I’m a true Scorpio in the sense that I don’t share my emotions willingly with anyone. I’m naturally introverted and tend to manage a lot of unfamiliar social situations by muting my idiosyncrasies. But, more than that, I hate to be vulnerable — and the sterility of doctors’ office settings always made getting past my innate reticence way more challenging.
As such, my time in those rooms tended to border on performative. I wanted to make it known that I was a likable person on the outside world, so I’d become preoccupied by my demeanor, trying to hint at a sense of humor. My therapist would ask a question I had anticipated, such as “Are you sleeping at night?” and I would scoff and say: “Sleep? What on earth is that?!” as though it were a beat played for comedy in a bad sitcom. I thought I could make all parties more comfortable by treating the experience sort of like a job interview — because that’s what it felt like — rather than the intimate relationship it was supposed to be. I was obsessed with the idea that I should speak with eloquence and self-awareness (“I realize my abandonment issues stem from my childhood...”) when discussing sensitive topics.
The more I considered talking with a psychologist on Zoom from the comfort of my own living room — my turf — the more I began to latch onto the idea that the virtual format could be revolutionary for me. My home, with all its lived-in loveliness, might be the only place I’m completely myself, and I hoped that this would transcend the boundaries of my laptop. I kept picturing myself really opening up, letting my guard down while Baby Yoda slippers hugged my feet off-camera. Being forced to look at the person whose face is taking up 75% of the screen, rather than to pick apart their surroundings. Sitting at my familiar, makeshift desk, maybe even with my own box of tissues nearby.
And in some ways, my initial assessment, which finally took place this month (I live in the UK, and while the National Health Service means my care is free, waiting times for specialists can be protracted and frustrating), was exactly as positive as I’d hoped. I felt open in a way that I hadn’t in my sessions with previous therapists. I let my words tumble out in a raw stream of consciousness. I cried hard (twice!), a first for me, and let the therapist’s reassurance swaddle me like a blanket. I was grateful when she observed my lack of eye-contact towards the end of our chat, sensing I was holding something back during the unearthing of a particularly painful relationship memory. I had been seen.
But now that I’m on the other side, I don’t know if my reaction was the Zoom format, the sheer joy of human contact, or the fact that I really want to be in therapy this time around — or a combination of all three things. Yes, this therapy session felt different, and yes, I’d love to stick to video going forward. But I realized after my session that the medium doesn’t matter as much as I’d thought it would. What has changed is me.
I’m now at a point in my life where I’m more willing to accept the help I can get, and I can acknowledge that it may take shape in a variety of environments and forms. I’ve also been working on letting go of the idea that therapy is something I should only do if I can do it “well” (whatever I had once thought that meant). The practice will only yield results if I don’t balk when things become uncomfortable — because it’s certain to become uncomfortable. Sometimes you just have to take a mindful breath and commit anyway.
I have a follow-up appointment on the books, and while it will take place over video, my doctor mentioned that future sessions could be in- person, over the telephone, or via video call again, depending on patient demand and continually changing COVID-19 restrictions. At the end of our session, when she asked if I would be amenable to meeting offline at some point, I looked straight into her pixelated eyes and said, as I gave my answer: “I think I’ll have to be.”