Reflections on working during the Covid-19 pandemic

Kelly Stewart

‘Arthur’s Seat’ by Hamish Irvine (CC BY-NC 2.0)
‘Arthur’s Seat’ by Hamish Irvine (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As I write, it’s week ten of lockdown here in Scotland, with the first lifting of restrictions just a few days away. They can’t come soon enough. How I long to return to the innocent Dr Seuss musings accompanying me in February. “Oh, the places you’ll go… You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose… And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too”. If only.

I am a psychotherapist, interrupted. A PhD researcher, interrupted. A recently relocated adventurer, from London to Edinburgh, interrupted. Upon my arrival in January, ten weeks of freedom to build up my private practice again and start new jobs, with coronavirus simmering in some far distant land, out of my awareness. Then it arrives. Lockdown. Oh, the places you’ll go? Not for a while, Dr Seuss, not for a while.

The following extracts from my PhD-in-process capture moments in time, layers within this global moment in time. I invite you to journey with me a short while. Come, let us see…

16 April 2020

This time last year I was writing in a coffee shop with Brexit marches going on around me. Who knew the world would look as it does today? Stillness, birdsong, introversion, cabin fever, freedom from FOMO (fear of missing out), thankfulness for small things. By the time we leave this season, I’ll no doubt have spent more time in Edinburgh locked down than free. I sort of like it now that the shock and fear have passed. I’m able to think again.

17 April 2020

A bumpier day than yesterday. Writing here to ground myself. Hard to settle. Hard to be a therapist in this pandemic. Trapped in the same space for all parts of life. Rage and shame and abandonment just two hours ago, happening out of the corner of my eye, from my current position, during (online) clinical supervision. My stuff or my (online, private) clients’? Even harder to separate when my current geography is small. I inserted some kind of separation by popping out to pick up some prescriptions (still enjoying the wonder of them being F-R-E-E in Scotland!), and collecting a beautiful card from my letterbox – from my four-year-old Goddaughter. The emotions are still close, I can feel them… Come on, brain, get with the programme.

22 April 2020

I’ve just been writing in my head as I ran. My only mode of travel right now, two legs. Enjoying the sunshine. Marvelling at my new favourite mountain from afar – Arthur’s seat. Probably a hill, rather than a mountain, but it’s big and I like it. I discovered, a couple of days ago, that if you run anti-clockwise around it, you can see the sea for half the journey. I was seduced by the beauty all around and ‘accidentally’ ran 7.5km. That would never have been intentional. I was pondering the day I climbed it with friends, the day after my emergency endoscopy, early last year. I still chuckle at how I thought that was okay to do. Protected by shock. It seems like, in many ways, we’re currently trying to climb a mountain whilst we’re still in a pandemic. We’re in something here. Chill. Breathe. Be kind.

My nervous system is ‘up’. On guard for danger. Yes, the fear and shock have passed. An underlying anxiety has not. My friends point out the impact of living alone. I forget this. It’s normal, right? I miss people though. I miss physical touch. I miss being in conversation with another human being, body-to-body, in the same physical space. Looking someone in the eye, face-to-face. Being seen and known, in person, face-to-face. I miss people. Is it safe yet, my body asks? Can I let go yet? No, the danger has not passed… This is hard. Lockdown life.

24 April 2020

What a week. Exhausted. Poor sleep. Vibrations of trauma. More news from the Government, sending new shockwaves through my being. Our global being. Social distancing for the rest of the year. What? But what about people contact? My longing for people? I see others talking about this as trauma now. A collective trauma. People will respond differently, depending on their histories. Some will bounce back with relative ease. Others will have earlier traumas triggered. Part of me wants to cry and cry and cry… The sun shines outside. Lifted. Eating a chocolate egg. A tiny moment of joy. Music in the background.

20 May 2020

When I’m writing in my head, I know it’s time to write. It’s been a month, after all. Except I don’t have time to write now. So, I’ll note some fragments and come back. It’s been an extraordinarily difficult week. Crazy-making. Am I mad? High stress, low sleep, low mood. I’m seeing clients soon so I can’t go into it here, today. Whilst here I want to celebrate the twenty-eight Foo-co-dian (Foucault) discourse analysis projects I’ve just finished marking. Yay! I did the whole lot. Happy. Within the overwhelming feelings I’ll name as ‘other’ for now. I ‘five-highed’ myself for getting them done – an indication of my now confuzzled brain, not dyslexia. Okay, got to go. I’ll be back. Thanks for listening, ready to read when I’m ready to write.

21 May 2020

I felt like I was going mad. All the politically incorrect words – mental, nuts, mad. Desperate to find the source of this bass noise… A low-level bass sound. Intrusive. I couldn’t think… Noisy neighbours? Could it be a noise that is inside my own head? A bass level tinnitus that maybe I’ve not noticed because our world is usually so noisy? Or could it be a temporary (or permanent) anxious and hypervigilant response to weeks of isolation, and checking out my safety in this new home and the silence here? This is a very quiet location. I am so tired of being alone.

I talked to therapist friends yesterday. I deeply miss human contact. Others to help me regulate and say, it’s okay, Kelly. To nip the bass sound in the bud before it becomes a crazy-making thing. It hurts so much. It really hurts.

I’m now sat here with a white noise app, experimenting with different sounds. Gradually feeling soothed. It’s okay, nervous system, the threat has gone. You’re safe. I am crying a lot of the time. Seeing clients gives me a break from this. Weird and true.

27 May 2020

Time will tell how this year pans out. A time will come when imagining, ‘oh, the places we’ll go’ will return, when people contact, and hugs and face-to-face therapy will return. When things start to happen, and we start happening too.

Kelly Stewart is a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist, and PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in suicide bereavement. Her research explores the intergenerational trauma of suicide in families. Alongside private practice, she is Practice Manager for a counselling service, and she teaches at the Minster Centre and the University of Edinburgh.
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