2020 began with a major life transition for me. My beloved mother had just passed away. At nearly 98 years old she was a vital, curious person who engaged friends and activities from an apartment in New York City not far from my office. Despite her age, her death in late December was sudden and unexpected. Little did we realize then how fortunate we were that our time with her during her last days in the hospital and our opportunity to gather with friends and family for a funeral service would soon become impossible for other families as COVID began to spread throughout the country and the world.
Returning to my office to see patients without my mother in the city felt different. There was the bittersweet experience of being in a space where we had had tea knowing she would never be there again. And yet I loved my office. I had had an office for nearly 50 years — 35 of them in New York City. First, a beautiful office with a wall of windows and an opening to an outdoor courtyard. The light and access to the outside played a major role in my work. I was convinced that the healing that happened in that space could be as much attributed to its appealing natural environment as it was to my skills.
When I had to move to a new space 20 years ago, I found an office that also had windows and a small courtyard outside. I felt a gentle serenity and believed I could create a safe haven within those walls. I imagined I would stay there forever.
In March of 2020 it became unsafe to see patients in person. My last day in my office was March 11th. I did not know when I would be back so I just closed the door, leaving everything. A year and a half later, along with so many others, I am still seeing clients virtually. Much has been written about the challenges and benefits of online therapy. For me, as for most of my colleagues, it has been a mixed experience. I learned more about technology as I also tolerated slow or unreliable internet connections, the inability to share physical space and read body language, energy, and breathe the same air as my clients.
At the beginning of COVID I felt a need to be “on call” and much of what I offered was crisis counseling. That is what the situation required and it worked for me and my clients. Some people chose to take a hiatus from therapy and resume whenever I returned in person. I had expected that “at the right time” I would, of course, return to seeing people in my office.
None of us expected in March of 2020 that 18 months later we would still be trying to navigate the immense changes that COVID brought to our lives and to the spaces in which we lived and worked. A few clients asked if I would be available if they needed to talk instead of keeping a regular appointment since there were so many changes happening in their lives and they needed to be fluid and flexible. And so, there are people who have “checked in” multiple times over this last year and a half.
My role is to assist my clients to healthfully adapt to uncertainty, develop resilience, consider options, and make decisions appropriate for this moment in their lives. Creating meaningful, purposeful lives is just as important in times of stress as in times of ease. During COVID, this often involved coming to terms with significant life issues related to loss, specifically, life and death. In an ever-changing landscape, with so much uncertainty, reminding people of the temporary nature of our lives, the preciousness of each moment, and the need for compassion for ourselves and others, became more prominent in our therapy. Rather than constantly comparing virtual therapy to in-person therapy, we seemed to recognize the limitations and advantages, dealt with them, adapted to them, and moved on.
After 18 months of working this way, I realized that I, too, needed to pay attention to my own voice when people asked me when I would return to my office. I consistently replied, tentatively, “Not yet.” At first, I was not ready because of COVID (which still is part of my decision). But there were other reasons: death and illness in my own family, moving from one home to another, and adapting to work changes in people who are close to me. When I quieted myself and examined the situation, I concluded that, in order to incorporate the changes I needed and wanted to make in my life, a significant shift in my “work” life had to occur. It needed to start with giving up my office in New York City.
I emptied the furniture, books, notes, files, art and everything else that accumulated after so many years. I gave myself time to recall my connections to this space and the people who trusted me with their innermost feelings, fears, disappointments, secrets, joys, aspirations, triumphs, reconciliations, irreconcilable differences. I thought of the individuals, couples, and families with whom I sat over the years. I remembered details of their and my challenges. I felt deep gratitude for what they gave me and how I learned from each of them. As I said “goodbye” and closed the door, I realized that my mother’s death had more to do with my decision. Had she lived, it is unlikely that I would have given up my office. Now, I felt a freedom to leave.
My experience is about giving up my office without giving up my work. How that work continues is a testament in great part to the flexibility and honest engagement of being part of a team. We are finding our way. It isn’t always easy. I see people, virtually, from my home office (indoors or in the garden). Recently, a friend asked me how I feel about not being in the same room with clients. “Do I feel the quality of our work together is compromised?” I don’t believe it is compromised but it is different. My question is, “Can I still be present, focused, and responsive when engaged virtually?” The answer is, “Yes. It is good enough.” Despite some disappointment on both sides, my decision to give up my office has been received rather well.
There continues to be unexpected, sometimes frustrating interruptions that require patience and adaptations. The dog jumps off the couch when he wants attention, a service person arrives late and needs to be let in. A client’s child has an emergency. But we deal with it. I feel privileged to be a part of my client’s life journeys. My hope is that I can continue to focus on the whole person even though we are mostly looking at each other’s faces through a screen, and that our shared space, albeit miles apart, can become a safe space for exploration, expression, reflection and growth.
As I hear from many of us, the changes COVID has brought have had multiplier effects. Given my own experience, I think it is useful for us to take the time to sit back and consider the web of changes that COVID has brought us individually and all the effects—both the obvious ones and also those that might not immediately come to mind. As I contemplated leaving my office, for example, I realized I might not have moved out if my mother were still alive. Seeing her regularly was part of my routine of going into the City. The fact that she is not there had an influence on my feelings about letting go of a space I deeply valued and in which I had spent years growing and learning along with my clients who had trusted me as a partner in their life’s journey.
I would encourage you to take some time to ponder all that has changed for you in the past 18 months, as I have done. Some changes are directly related to COVID and others are consequences of those changes. We are living through an unusual time in history. We may gain more subtle insight into the profound interdependence of our lives with the lives of others and with nature as we consider the interweaving of this time.
Ways to Change a Bad Mood
As a psychologist I am well aware of the way our moods affect us. During COVID many of us are more prone to be in a bad mood and not appreciative of how that mood can take over the way we feel, the way we look at the world, and the way we treat others. Rarely does a bad mood stay within a person. Moods are contagious. We observe and we feel what others are feeling and before we know it, our own energy and mood can change. Very often I hear people say I started my day in a bad mood and there is nothing I can do about it. I just feel worse and worse.
Well, the good news is that we can do something about it. First, recognize what the feelings are, label them, and try to understand why you are feeling the way you are. Be honest. Stand back and observe what your experiences and thoughts have been and pay close attention to what your inner voice has been saying to you. When you come to some realization about what is going on, what is contributing to the way you feel, you have a better awareness about what, if anything, you want to do about it.
Ask yourself if staying in the bad mood has been, is, or continues to be helpful.
If you feel as if you would like to try to change the way you feel at this moment…and that is what we are talking about…this moment, become proactive.
Tell yourself that you might feel better if you did one of the following:
When we feel low, positivity can feel impossible. However, there is evidence indicating that positive thinking can affect our mood, which makes us feel more positive. It’s like a virtuous cycle and one that we should strive to get into as much as possible.
We can begin with something small, such as waking up in the morning and declaring to ourselves that today is going to be a good day. When something good happens, pay attention. It’s far too common to remember the bad and forget the good, so we can try to pay special attention to the wonderful things in our lives, no matter how small. This could include a kind smile from a stranger, or a particularly delicious cookie. If we pay attention to these small “events,” we remind ourselves that they exist.