Stacey Brown, NCC, shares an account of her experiences transitioning her private practice in Fort Myers, Florida, and her personal life since the outbreak of COVID-19.
I stopped hugging people sometime around March 1.
I’ve always believed in the power of appropriate touch in the counseling process. A caring hug during a time of grieving, a high five during times of celebration, a hand on the back as a gesture of comfort, a solid handshake with resolve—all reasonable ways to share energy and human comfort. I know it’s controversial as a practice, but for me in my private counseling practice, appropriate touch has been well received.
By March 6, I had mastered the art of the air hug and was on a mission to bring back the curtsey in everyday conversation to maintain an energetic, lighthearted connectivity.
Additionally, I’ve always been an advocate for face-to-face counseling. Even for people who travel for their work or are seasonal Floridians, I have always insisted on at least one face-to-face meeting before being willing to introduce another form of communicating, such as by phone, to accommodate lifestyles and special circumstances. That face-to-face, energetic connection is really important. But all of that has changed now.
The office closed on March 13.
As the daily news about the coronavirus threat became more and more intense, I made the decision to close the office. The news of the closing was met with sadness and creative thinking by my officemates. “How about if we sit in the garden?” “How about we do walking talk-therapy? There's lots of great research on the benefits of walking during counseling sessions.” Nope. We have to do our part to shut the coronavirus down, and that means no close contact.
March 13 was a Friday. I had planned to take the first few days of the following week off to spend time with my three daughters for their spring break. My oldest daughter was to arrive home from FSU that evening. My two high school daughters had spent a leisurely day sleeping in and hanging out with friends. None of us knew that everything was changing at a rapid pace. Instead of traveling or hanging out at the beach, I spent the next four days reading as much as I could about tele-counseling as a solid, reliable practice. The news from the government was changing by the hour, it seemed. And the news from the professional organizations and insurance agencies was adjusting every other hour.
Fortunately, with the buffer of four days of planning, we made a seamless transition to offering tele-counseling services only for my group counseling and wellness practice. It was really our only choice. We had to make it work.
It started with a sign that I placed on the door on March 13. “As of March 16, 2020, our offices are closed due to COVID-19. For the safety of our clients, all sessions will be held by phone through March,” I stated with naive confidence. I published a photo of me with the sign on social media and in an email newsletter to let our clients know as soon as possible. Adjustments were made to our website, informing clients of our shift to tele-counseling services. We already had an online calendar in place, so directing clients to the calendar to book appointments and to email us with questions was easy.
Shortly afterwards, I started posting reminders about “acceptance” and “letting go of things we can't control and doing what we can” on social media. As the news became more and more clear that we would all be spending more time at home, my social media outreach became more personal, with me posting photos of flowers I have in my home, my therapy dog relaxing on his home turf, and myself sipping tea sans makeup. My fellow counselors joined in, offering themselves in comfortable yoga clothes, messy hair, and happy smiles in their homes. Words of comfort and compassion and togetherness seemed to be helpful. We are all in the same situation.
My network of friends and colleagues who are professional counselors took this all in stride. After a day or so of a really good reality check, we did what we do. We pulled up our britches and got busy, because what was most important was serving our clients. Our local counseling support group shared tips and breaking news stories. We helped each other understand the new expanded insurance offerings, such as Aetna’s Medicare coverage for older Americans. The learning curve is steep for some of us, for others less so. But we were all determined to continue to be present for our clients and we were determined to continue to do what we do—providing hope and love and light for others while trying to take care of ourselves in the meantime.
Valarie, one of my officemates, offered some yoga and pranayama (breathing) practices on live streaming. I shared some of my painting techniques. Slowly, the counselors broke out of our typical roles to expand services to include other educational and supportive practices. It felt important to offer ways to calm and connect with ourselves in a bigger way than closed session. We got braver.
No one was talking about mental health and counseling in our area, although it was a topic in the national news. I contacted our local news affiliates and convinced several of them to offer something to our community. I was interviewed by the local newspaper on the topic of general mental health during the pandemic. Another newspaper interviewed me about social isolation, grief, and the elderly. Another local parenting magazine asked me about how to support high school students who were grieving about the loss of their social connections, school attendance, and celebrations such as prom and graduation. Valarie and I were guests on a local radio talk show where we tried to offer a convincing case for utilizing supportive tele-counseling services. And, shortly after that, the American Counseling Association and the National Board for Certified Counselors wanted to hear about my experiences transitioning from traditional counseling sessions in the office to tele-counseling. It’s all in the name of joining together, sharing experiences, and supporting each other in this collective experience.
Our regular clients adapted easily to tele-counseling, either by phone, FaceTime, or Skype. The rules about privacy had been loosened by this time to allow video conferencing on less secure and previously forbidden formats, as the reality of how serious the situation had become, and as the obvious need for easy access and continued support became more evident. Initially, those giggling, awkward greetings by phone in our new at-home offices were replaced with our usual ease as if we were all in the same room. We reminded each other to grab a cup of tea and get comfortable.
Issues that were present prior to the pandemic were still present and being addressed. But we now had the added complexity of a low-grade, simmering traumatic response of fear, grief, and uncertainty. People were generally accepting in the first few weeks of staying at home. But, increasingly, what we saw was that “shadow work” became major topics of discussion as everyone stayed at home, dealing with themselves and their families.
This is a time of expanded learning for us. We can expand our skills, becoming more competent and confident and learning to think outside of the traditional box. Learning to communicate with energetic connectivity through technology requires that we practice our own calming and grounding practices so we can be fully present, for example. Communicating with other professionals and educators will enhance our connection with our profession and skill sets regarding technology and marketing.
As we ALL continue to learn more about ourselves, get comfortable sitting still and settling in to the clarity that comes with getting quiet, there has been a noticeable shift. Wisdom. Creativity. Resilience. Acceptance of our natural tendencies. A new willingness to try self-care techniques and meditation is emerging. An awakening, perhaps? Weariness. Fatigue. Restlessness. Coming to terms with our own minds?
Time will tell how this all sorts out. There is no doubt that the effects of this period of isolation, being still, grief and fear, will have an effect on us all. There is likely to be a huge surge in trauma and anxiety. For those of us offering tele-counseling services, it’s clear that the message of resilience, hope, endurance, and letting go are prominent themes of support. Our roles as light-holders needs to expand beyond the individual sessions and out into the community. We have much to offer and much to share.
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