Screen Time

I see my client’s face. A bit pixelated, true, but more centrally framed now that the camera angle cutting her off just above the chin last week has been adjusted. I glimpse my own image and “office” in the small rectangle. Oh, no, has the covering slipped from my daughter’s old dresser? How many times will the screen freeze today?

Still, it’s better than nothing. I’m lucky to have a private space, with no children to homeschool or shush—the daughter whose room I’m in is long grown. Cursed, blessed technology exists now, at least for most people with the wherewithal to find their way into somebody’s private practice. I have been on Zoom support sessions for clinicians, and hear horror stories from those who work with people who are impoverished, undocumented, hungry, homeless, imprisoned, sick, overwhelmed by life even in the best of times. Some people they’ve been unable to reach altogether.

The fact that things are so much worse for others is frequently brought up by my clients who can and want to keep seeing me. They feel grateful and guilty. I feel the same way.

Still, we sit and talk. I talked too much at first, trying to compensate for the feeling of disconnection through excess verbiage. Eventually I remembered the value of listening, with an assist from Zoom, which goes haywire when more than one person (or rectangle) is speaking.

Nothing sounds quite right. I read somewhere that the time lag is part of what makes video calls so tiring. Exhaustion turns to panic when suddenly the client’s voice sounds stretched out and underwater, or every other word is dropped. What if they are revealing something crucial, and I miss it? I briefly wonder if bandwidth, too, engages in repression or dissociation, or if it reflects the client’s usual experience of feeling unheard and my own inattentiveness.

Sometimes, I prefer just the phone. I came into the mental health field more than 40 years ago as a crisis line volunteer, and like a duckling, I imprinted on the first thing I was exposed to. I’ve always been struck by how people can often go deeper, be more vulnerable on the phone.

Still, whether via Zoom, doxy, FaceTime, or phone, psychotherapy in the time of Covid has felt a lot like those many check-in calls I fielded on the crisis line. People say the same thing, over and over. It’s the same conversation we’re all having now, as coronavirus infects not only our cells and the economy but every nook and cranny of mental space. My colleague asked two analytically inclined clients if they wished to explore some of what they were delving into before. “Absolutely not!” they both said. I’ve wondered with clients what we might be talking about if we weren’t talking about the pandemic. “That’s a good question!” they say, before returning to coronavirus. Remote video platforms aren’t the only ones with bandwidth issues.

Time feels so strange, endless and fleeting at once. Clients wonder, How long will this last? When can we return? And even if we do, will I ever feel safe? Wondering the same, we do our best to hold people, not knowing how long we can all hold on.

Time Warp

I am almost always way behind in my reading: usual backlogs are six weeks for the New Yorker and six months for the Atlantic. My husband once remarked, “You have many good qualities, but knowing when to stop reading an article you’re not absorbing isn’t one of them.” (Neither is speed reading.)

Taking his words to heart, at least now when I sit down with The New York Review, I flip through the pages, reading only one or two articles between the cover and the Complex, Dynamic Tomboy and New York City Attorney seeking love (or at least lust) in the back-page Personals.

“Damn,” I think to myself as I toss the barely read periodical into the recycling bin. “This is really great and incisive writing. Too bad I don’t do more of it.”

I can’t toss The New Yorker, though. I’ve never been a just-the-cartoons page-flipper. The magazine used to be known for its timeless (and endless), multi-part series on things like corn, or rivers, or geology, so it didn’t really matter when I tackled my piles. But even the hallowed New Yorker succumbed to the reality of shorter attention spans and more topical coverage. So I’m now often in a time warp when I do sit down to read.

After the 2016 election, I savored this peculiarity. For weeks, I was still relishing the prospect of our first female commander-in-chief. President Obama was not ever going to have to turn over the keys and the nuclear codes to someone completely his opposite and unfit for office in every way imaginable. I could live in my alternative reality long before the Trump administration’s insistence on doing so wreaked such widespread havoc.

Now I’m in that surreal space again, my reading lagging way behind the current reality of our Covid-upended world. In my time warp, things exist beyond the total takeover not only of our health and our economy, but of seemingly all news, conversation, and every waking and non-waking moment.

My lagging world isn’t quite as enjoyable as before, when President Obama’s magnetic smile stretched from sea to shining sea. I’m catching up on the House impeachment vote, moving through Ian Frazier’s Season’s Greetings, the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the Democrats in disarray. Mitt Romney hasn’t yet become an unlikely hero/traitor (take your pick) during the Senate impeachment “trial.” The Iowa caucuses are still a quaint if undemocratic trendsetting tradition, not a debacle. There’s still more than a dozen candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Then, as I make my way through the stacks, Bernie is poised to run all the way to the end zone while his opponents tackle each other, littering the field. Super Tuesday has yet to come, along with all the rest of the brutal primaries before they get postponed. The Democrats are not yet in a state of array behind Joe Biden–Man from a By-gone Era who is, strangely, now the Man of the Moment. There’s nary a hint of the pandemic about to engulf us (although one might take this flu season Valentine as foreshadowing):

I am glad my behind-the-times reading creates corners of my psyche beyond the reach of Covid. I am even perversely grateful to be reminded of how Stephen Miller is one of the most loathsome denizens of Trump’s swamp. The corona virus is not the only devastating force in the world.

My time warp is about to converge with the present moment: I have finished the New Yorker whose cover features Trump with a surgical mask over his eyes as he rages on and on. Just two more issues until the one with the spiky virus balls festooning the cover. I will miss the past times of my so-slow reading, just as I miss our pre-Covid world that seems centuries ago.

But I look forward to a better future, when and if it ever comes.