Tensions had been mounting inside and around me. “It is time,” I decreed to no one listening. “I need to call Estelle, it’s time to get back into therapy.” As always, Estelle responded immediately. Always there for me. We traded availabilities and landed on an appointment. I felt an ever-so-faint welling sensation of relief. I couldn’t wait to get back on the couch, both literally and figuratively.
Then came the blow. “I’m seeing clients virtually,” she said.
I first met Estelle when, nearly three decades earlier, I had, with her help, finally extricated myself from a very painful and self-destructive relationship. Ever since, I have been seeing her on an as-needed basis, during fair and foul emotional weather, for issues great and small, and at times just for a well-check. I have followed her from one location to the next, until she finally landed in a charming little 1920s Florida cracker house in the old-town section of Fort Lauderdale. Aptly named “Serenity Place,” Estelle’s office was inviting and warm, a throwback to a past era. Wood floors, rattan furniture, and that wonderfully perfect, just-short-of-mildew smell of “old” that permeated houses of that period.
It was a comfortable little space where I felt room and permission to spread out in all directions. While Estelle practiced a disarming blend of client-centered, Gestalt, existential, and systemic techniques, she was in essence, an Estellist; competent, genuine, and genuinely caring. She knew my backstory. It was her warm, confrontational, engaged, and creative personae that attracted and kept me coming back to that place of serenity. It was a package deal—therapist and space, inextricably bound. And it was to that space I wanted to return when I reached out to her for an appointment.
But virtually? No Serenity Place? No rattan couch, no creaky wooden floors, no lush foliage vying for my attention just outside her windows? And what about the basket of scarves she would cajole me to choose from to express my feelings? And how would she walk behind me to offer a counterpoint to the self-defeating prattle in my head?
Ironically and in the interim, I had taken on two former brick-and-mortar clients with whom I had worked over the years. COVID and all its related discontents had worn them down. When I first met with each of them, I had, of course, asked them how the transition to the small screen was for them. One, a physician who had expanded his telehealth services, and the other, a university professor granted the privilege of teaching from home during the pandemic, concurred that they were “used to it.”
The small screen had become second-nature to them, as it had for me as therapist, teacher, and editor; for in the latter role, I had and continued to solicit articles for Psychotherapy.net on the transition to virtual therapy. And a reading of the various blogs and essays on this topic indicated that therapists “out there” have, of necessity in many cases, adapted to the many challenges of this new mode of service delivery. For others, it was already a part of their therapeutic tool box. But I don’t think any of those who have written on the transition to telemental health have shared personal experiences of being a client during this new wave. Sure, they’ve shared some of the challenges of working with particular clients online, but that is as far as it has gone.
My hope is that each of them has created the space in their therapeutic work to explore the changed dynamics of intimacy between themselves and their clients, rather than presuming that all clients have adjusted similarly or optimally. The closest any of the therapists has come to addressing this was Matthew Martin and Eric Cowan, who wondered about the I-Thou relationship in the era of telehealth.
So here I am, now at this juncture in my 30+ year relationship with my own therapist, wondering if the “I” of me can still connect as deeply and intimately with the “thou” of her, or even if I want to try. I know the therapy outcome literature, particularly the key roles that alliance, collaboration, congruence, and empathy play; and I embrace the burgeoning literature on the efficacy of teletherapy compared to face-to-face encounters.
I acknowledge the privilege of having my choice of therapists, the money to pay her handsome fee, and the state-of-the-art technology to do so. The double standard is not lost on me, but I want to wail on Estelle’s couch, and I want to stand before her, eye-to-eye, as we role-play, and I want to have the option of refusing those gut-wrenching Gestalt exercises before petulantly conceding.
I wonder what will be sacrificed in that seemingly artificial moment, or what will be lost in the existential “here-and-now,” should I decide to pay a digital visit to Estelle. And along the way, I hope that therapists out there wonder the same.