Had I known the Wednesday before the “Safer at Home” order was going to be my last time drinking coffee and laughing with my friends during group supervision, I would have baked some cupcakes, hugged them tight and told them how much I’d miss them. I would have played with my clients a little harder, waved goodbye a little longer and told them how much I’d miss them, too. But none of us knew. I didn’t know that after that Friday, I wouldn’t see my clients or their caregivers for what has now been eight whole weeks. And I didn’t know that for some of my clients, that week would be the last time I’d ever get to see them in person.
There was a quiet, eerie feeling when I walked into the office on the first Monday of the “Safer at Home” order. I could feel that plans were being rolled out and decisions were being made upstairs, but we were still in the dark. It didn’t help that the sun was blocked by dark rain clouds and the parking lot was less than half full. It was not a bright, bustling morning like I was accustomed to. We all received an email three days prior informing us that all offices would be closed for two weeks and that today was the day we could go retrieve our belongings and hunker down for what felt like my generation’s version of Cold War-era bunker preparation.
“Did you hear they closed the schools?” My coworker popped his head into my office as soon as I sat in my computer chair.
“Oh no…” I immediately thought, “This is not going to be good.”
All at once, visions of my clients and their families flooded my mind as I imagined how each of them would be impacted. That mom is going to lose her job. That grandma can’t afford to stop working even though she’s at higher risk because of her age. That client isn’t going to walk at his high school graduation. That energetic client is going to have a really hard time staying inside all day… but then that client is going to get extra quality time with her mom. And that client won’t be forced to go to a school where he feels unsafe. Things weren’t going to be easy and they definitely weren’t going to be normal.
I gathered what I needed from my office, not knowing how long I’d be gone or what exactly to prepare for. I took my laptop and an ethernet chord, a few therapy workbooks with various activities I could do over the phone, and some books I had been meaning to get around to reading. I tidied up my desk, unplugged my lamps, and said goodbye to the office that has come to feel like my home away from home.
As soon as I got home, I was quick, focused and organized. I was in crisis mode. I created a Google Voice phone number and made a list of all my clients, their caregivers and their contact information. I went down the list and made note of who I got a hold of, who I left a voicemail for and who I would try to call again later. For the caregivers I was able to reach on the phone, conversations revolved around resources for food and preventing anxiety attacks. It’s hard to tell someone everything’s going to be okay when you’re not completely sure yourself. From 10:00 am until after the sun went down, I called, texted and confirmed sessions for the week. I needed my families to know that even if it felt like the world was coming to an end, I was still there for them.
Then I started thinking… how in the world was I going to be an effective therapist over the phone? Especially with my younger clients who speak to me and let me into their worlds through toys and play? How could I embody a powerless victim, challenge my client to a sword fight or reflect feelings of fear during a domestic disturbance in the dollhouse if my clients and I weren’t even in the same room? Reviewing coping skills and breathing techniques was not going to help my clients process their feelings or heal from their traumas. I joined webinars about remote play therapy and searched for help on YouTube until I finally gave up and told myself, “It is what it is. Therapy just won’t be the same for a little while.”
The first two weeks of the “Safer at Home” order started to feel a little like vacation. I stocked up on my favorite snacks (Ben & Jerry’s and Doritos), slept in because I didn’t have to spend time doing my makeup or driving to work, started going on daily walks around my neighborhood and held therapy sessions over the phone in my pajamas. Caregivers were reporting that clients were doing well (except for some occasional boredom), and that meant that I was doing well.
By week three, most clients reported that the boredom fully set in… and the bickering… and the loneliness. For some families, bickering turned into scary fights and loneliness turned into thoughts about not wanting to be here anymore. And just like that, vacation was over.
By week four, all of my clients transitioned to Zoom, where we could finally read each other’s facial expressions and try to reestablish some sense of normalcy in our sessions. Now that my clients would actually see me, I needed to designate a place that looked professional but was also close enough to my internet router that my Ethernet chord would reach. Where else but… my bed. My laptop now sits atop two fluffy, faux-fur pillows. My other essentials (blue light-blocking glasses, coffee cup, phone and computer mouse) huddle together on a pink, crushed velvet memento box. Working where you sleep is not ideal to most, but it’s cozy and it’s confidential, so it works for me.
My first Zoom session took me completely off guard. When my client’s face suddenly appeared on the screen, I saw a huge, toothy smile (minus two front teeth), and he was jumping up and down in excitement to see me. Unexpected tears welled up in my eyes as I suddenly realized that I had been suppressing how much I was missing my clients.
In the Zoom sessions that followed, some of my clients were not as excited. They were camera-shy or didn’t know what to say. Feeling awkward myself, I quickly scanned my room looking for something to break the ice. I scooped up my cat, Harlow, who was curled up in a ball sleeping next to me. I held her up to my laptop camera by her armpits as she glared, unamused, arms sticking straight out. We all laughed. Some clients felt inspired to show me their pets too or to give me tours of their homes. Now, Harlow, Henry (a stuffed orangutan), and Marie (a stuffed kitten) accompany me in the background of each Zoom session… just in case!
As soon as we transitioned to Zoom, something else amazing happened. The kiddos did what kiddos do. They used their imaginations, and they played. Thanks to Zoom and that tiny camera on my laptop, I’ve been able to cheers during a tea party, play hide-and-seek, and be trapped in the belly of a giant stuffed dinosaur… all from the comfort of my bed. I’ve played peek-a-boo, given fist-bumps, high-fives, and virtual hugs, because even when working remotely, we all still crave physical contact and human connection.
I’ve watched clients and caregivers become resourceful, creative and incredibly imaginative in gathering household items to facilitate play. As one client transformed into a medical doctor providing services to his dad, his doctor kit included a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, a wooden spoon and a box of Band-Aids. He put his ear to dad’s chest to hear his heart beat (no stethoscope required), used the wooden spoon to check dad’s reflexes (everything looked normal), then repurposed the spoon to administer some shots (obviously followed up with a Band-Aid). Other clients used stuffed animals, robots, animal figurines and superheroes to play with their caregivers the way they and I would play in the play room. Caregivers were getting more involved in treatment, and clients were establishing a sense of normalcy. My fears that therapy just wouldn’t be the same began to dissipate.
Engaging clients and families in therapy from my bed is definitely not the same. I wish my clients had access to the hundreds of toys in the play room. I wish they could sit on the couch in my office and know that they had complete privacy. And I wish we could meet in person so we could share a snack, make some slime, or give a real high-five. But for now, everyone is doing the best they can. All of my clients, ages 2 to 18, are all still showing up and trying something new. Whether it’s overcoming their anxiety about using Zoom, battling distractions in their homes, or trying a new therapy activity over the computer, all of my families are adjusting and staying open-minded through this transition.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to watch them problem-solve, work together and adapt to this new way of life in creative ways. Watching my clients laugh with their caregivers and hearing how my teens are using healthy habits to take care of themselves gives me confidence that we will all be okay as long as we continue to build our relationships, find the good where we can and keep our physical and mental health a priority. Can’t wait to see you all again soon!
Megan Bunting, ASW is a clinical therapist in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Outpatient Program where she helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. She is especially passionate about helping families heal, communicate and connect through play. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2018 as an intern, Bunting worked as a residential counselor at an emergency shelter for runaway and exploited teens. Bunting earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work at Cal State Los Angeles.