A Pandemic Year for Women: For a therapist, creating safe spaces for others meant finding one of her own

This essay is from our International Women’s Day 2021 series, about women who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, professionals, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time — over this pandemic year.

Safvana Khalid March 12, 2021 13:30:25 IST
A Pandemic Year for Women: For a therapist, creating safe spaces for others meant finding one of her own

Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost

EDITOR’S NOTE: A UN report from September 2020 on the economic toll of COVID-19 on women, notes that “the impacts of crises are never gender-neutral”. The report delves into the many ways women have been disproportionately affected, financially, by the ongoing pandemic: For instance, industries that predominantly employ women have been worst-affected; women’s paid labour and women-run businesses are hardest hit, and the gender poverty gap is projected to widen.

The impacts of the crisis, however, go far beyond the economic. News stories and surveys have looked at how women are bearing the brunt of childcare and household chores while they work full-time remotely. Isolation and confinement have meant that cases of violence against women are on the rise.

While the coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdowns have been especially hard on women, there are also many stories of resilience, courage and hope that have emerged in these times.

On International Women's Day 2021, we launched a series called A Pandemic Year for Women. These essays have been written by women with varying experiences of the past year, who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, healthcare workers, community outreach professionals and entrepreneurs, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time.

These first-hand accounts do not look away from the costs of the crisis, but they look beyond too: to the future, to what is possible, to what still remains to be (and must be) done.

Read the essays here on Firstpost, in ‘A Pandemic Year for Women’.

***

I listen for a living. I am a mental health therapist; my job is to help people explore, manage and overcome emotional and mental experiences in their life by being empathetic, understanding and giving. The intention is to improve their well-being. I ask my clients questions, encourage them to discover their truths and experiences, find answers to the problems in their life, and listen to everything they say or don’t say.

Before March 2020, my routine revolved around conducting therapy, pursuing higher education, performing household chores and protecting some solo time for myself in the open and free world. Every day I would start my remote job sitting on a coffee-brown plastic chair, facing an eight-year-old computer, with green polyester curtains serving as a background. The pandemic arrived big and fast, creating a breach in my professional and personal life. Abruptly, all my existing clients came to therapy sessions with interrelated fears and anxieties. I had clients who raged helplessly, clients who were preoccupied with reading every detail about the deadly virus, clients who were relieved they didn’t need to go to their unsafe workplace for some time, clients who had to move in with their families, clients who were on the verge of losing their jobs, clients who were distraught they would contract the virus, clients who were confronting loneliness, couples who now had to live with each other at every turn. I witnessed these first-hand narratives of emotional injuries and their impact while living through some of these emotional experiences myself.

There was no joy around, no break from living, no personal space to release these emotions. The windows in my house too didn’t allow much change. I was enclosed by tall buildings. If I was lucky, pigeons and crows would come “sing”, the sky would be fluffy and blue. At night, I allowed myself to step into the balcony in an attempt to leave the day behind. It was enough; at least I was safe.

While my job is to provide a safe space for people to be, I must control my own emotional needs and responsiveness in dealing with my clients. I cannot cry when I hear heart-breaking narratives, I am not supposed to show anger or anxiety. My clients are supposed to see a neutral and well-regulated face, ready to listen to and absorb their emotional experiences. Beneath the outermost layer of my skin lay other invisible layers; they were dense with emotion, sometimes numb, mostly bearing the melancholy of life during the pandemic. But the desire to care and support was stronger than the weight of my own emotions. Yet, I have had moist eyes on more than one occasion: I too have expressed my health and safety worries when asked, sometimes I allowed my vulnerability to show. It is a tough job, but I did it steadily because the world was in desperate need and I could give. I survived by giving and caring.

I have failed during the pandemic too, on vulnerable days, where I did not give 100 percent to my work, but I showed up because my clients showed up for themselves, their strength reminding me to keep repairing my heart. They stayed in therapy because they chose to put their trust in our therapeutic relationship, they forgave when I didn’t push them to find solutions, they tolerated it when I didn’t have all the answers. It was disappointing to have failed in being the catalyst sometimes who would take a client from point A to point B; I am guilty of not having read enough on handling the COVID-19 crisis. Despite the shortfall in my care work, I stood up and together we strove for answers.

Hope clenched to me in the form of people who were forced to face their wounds and the consequence of others’ wounds. The painful absence of intimacy and safety built one emotion upon the other, forcing them to germinate compassion and forgiveness within themselves to survive.

Writing this essay was an excruciating process. It stirred so many emotions related to the pandemic that I had carelessly left in the dusty attic of my mind. Care work has required me to put myself aside to make space for another human being. I know you too have been there. A listener and caregiver to a friend, spouse, parent, stranger, or your colleague. You too have lived a life similar to mine during the pandemic, and to you I want to say: I see you labour; I hear your pounding chest; and I honour the patience you put in supporting another human’s emotional journey. My experience with the pandemic as a mental health professional made me be more myself. It resurrected my heart with unconditional acceptance, compassion and patience, amid an uncertain land of disease and death.

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