I have been practicing as a therapist for almost four years and more than any other time, I realise now what image some of my clients have about me as having an untroubled processed individual who, like Joan of Arc, can fight any inner demons and smile at them, coming out unscathed. For a long time, I did behave like Joan of Arc, living in the same fantasy, happy with my work, parking inner demons aside; a proud witness to my clients’ journey of self-growth and actualisation with a few hiccups now and then.

Then corona happened, and the reality of this pandemic shook the warrior in me and I felt like I was learning how to walk on thin ice.

I wonder what hit me first? The economic insecurity as the main source of income came to a standstill with no praiseworthy backup, or was it fear of losing ageing parents, a brother who works in the healthcare system or how will I provide safety for my clients wounded inner-self when I am so scared myself? How to answer them when they ask a not-so-simple question of how I am feeling about the pandemic and I can see the inner child in them asking that question from the nurturing figure they see in me? And I know I have to be the nurturing parent to their inner child in that moment as well as to mine who is equally scared, if not more.

What affected my work more than anything else was social distancing, which pushed a beautiful and unique relationship behind screens. My therapy room is a safe haven for most of them; a space of healing and a space that gave them full permission to express and explore all kinds of thoughts and feelings without judgment. A place that gave them respite from some toxic family members or loved or un-loved ones. An hour a week where I did my best to convince them that they matter the most and they still have the choice to be their real selves and can make life different for themselves.

My main area of work is working with depression, anxiety, and relational difficulties for individuals and couples etc. For therapy to work, the most important thing is that the client feels safe and trusts me and for that, physical space plays a huge role. The therapy room is from where it all starts – it is the comfort of sharing a physical space with someone who believes and unconditionally cares about them.

Suddenly, overnight that choice has been taken away and isolation and anxiety steps in, playing havoc with the biggest core belief I had been working on with them, “You have free will and you can choose differently.” More than anything else it is free will and choice that has been snatched away.

Some clients are suffering from depression primarily rooted in toxic family relationships stemming from a narcissistic father or a spouse who gaslights, and now there is to be no break from them. Some clients do not disclose that they seek therapy to family members and so they stopped coming in, as they felt unsafe having sessions virtually for fear of being found out. Others started holding back, nervous with a knock on the door, trying hard to find a safe corner for them or struggling through internet issues, breaking the working relationship. Their inner world had always felt unsafe but now it is the external too that is causing them to regress to their habitual patterns.

Then there were some who wanted to come in twice a week and these are people I have been seeing for years, so saying no was a risk which might mean to their vulnerable selves that I am negating the bond we formed and shared for years.

I find connecting and working much more challenging now as I am unable to tune in to the vibe or feel in the room or notice a shaking leg at the mention of a particular topic or work with both the body and mind.

I am exhausted and experiencing what is called compassion fatigue as I am trying to hold space for all my clients and my own mirroring emotions of anxiety, fear, anger and helplessness.

For now, I am trying my best to have a healthy routine and sharing motivational anecdotes, very much aware of being caught unawares so many times in a day with the gnawing question, “when will this be over?” For now, I am trying my best to connect with these amazing souls who allowed me to enter their world and experience the pain they feel. I am also allowing myself to feel what I am going through, humbled by the titanic storm of identical feelings we are all experiencing. So, as a therapist, I would repeat something I say to my clients which is always met with resistance and curiosity, “Stay with the feeling” as it is through allowing the self to fully drown in this trauma we are going through, that the healing will begin.

The writer is a UK-CPCAB (Counselling and Psychotherapy Awarding Body) registered individual and couple psychotherapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at zaramaqbool@yahoo.com