I began writing this article on the eve of the announcement of the countries third nationwide lockdown. I knew what was coming, and I dreaded it with every single fibre of my being. My partner was due to go back to work, and my daughter was ready to start back at college and work after both had been told that they had to isolate after being in contact with someone who had tested positive for the Coronavirus, and I could almost feel the tension ready to leave my body. Almost… the tension was ready to leave, I was more than ready for it to leave, but Boris said no such bloody luck, mate.
When the pandemic initially began back in March 2020, I had just returned to a counselling role offering telephone counselling on a helpline, working from home. This was great in the sense that I could still work and did not have the worry of financial implications, however as an introvert who needs a lot of alone time, having to transition to having a stroppy teenager home full time, who does not respect boundaries or “please do not disturb” signs, was only the first of many obstacles that I was going to have to learn how to overcome.
Over the course of the first few months of the pandemic, the phone lines were eerily quiet, people were dealing with the immediate practicalities of the first lockdown. At the same time as I transitioned back to my role on the helpline, we began having issues with a neighbour, who started banging all of her cupboard doors every half an hour, and leaving her dog barking home alone for hours on end. It was with an incredibly heavy heart that we decided to put our home of fourteen years up for sale. This was a devastating and unexpected decision, but one we felt we had no choice but to make by the middle of the year. Myself and my daughter, who had been studying for her A-levels, had endured more than we could bear any longer. By this time, the helpline was becoming increasingly busy and the calls were increasing in intensity – what started at the beginning of the pandemic as largely COVID related anxiety, quickly became more complex and calls involving loss, suicide, alcohol and substance misuse, and domestic violence were rapidly on the rise.
I recall days when I would be in tears between calls, trying to balance the stress of being short staffed and overwhelmed with the amount of calls we were taking or making in a day, along with the constant banging that could be heard through my noise cancelling headphones, and the feeling of being trapped in a place that no longer felt safe or my home. I felt desperate to get out, and my usual way of coping – time alone, in quiet where I could reset, was not an option.
We moved in to a temporary place in October whilst our new home is being built, and my office is now in my living room – far from ideal. Over the Christmas period, both my daughter and my partner were off work, and I was not. I tried (and failed) to set my boundaries, stressing that I need privacy and I put my sign up on my door – both would just wander in as and when they felt like it, I felt I was talking to a brick wall. Even my two lovely pups were getting annoyed and becoming restlessness and on edge with their coming and going. My frustration was compounded by being one of only two people working on the helpline, and I could have envisaged how busy we would be and how complex the calls coming in would become.
I became utterly overwhelmed with the workload, I could feel I was at burnout and I began suffering severe headaches and dreaded logging on for fear of how full the inbox would already be before the day had even begun. Every day I felt I was going to be held hostage by my office chair, chained to my desk until I was set free at 5pm. I was seriously questioning my life choices. I felt myself bordering on depression and becoming increasingly resentful.
I took this to supervision and engaged in my own personal therapy but I still felt a heavy weight that I just couldn’t seem to shake off. What was I doing wrong? Is it me? Am I depressed? How can I work with clients everyday when I feel so low and run down? My head was so full of things I “should” be doing instead of stopping and listening to myself and what I actually needed, that I completely lost myself and my spark and the genuine love for what I do.
I encourage all of my clients to actively engage in self-care, and re-iterate the importance of taking time to care for themselves, and yet for me during the pandemic, I completely lost sight of the importance of maintaining my own well-being. My usual self-care strategies, alone time or window shopping – have not been possible. It is only in my utterly exhausted state that I am reminded that my well-being is just as important as the well-being of my clients. My coping strategies have needed adjusting slightly, but this year has taught me that I need to look after myself too. As therapists, we give our time and energy and empathy to our clients without question, but do we offer ourselves that same kindness and compassion? We often carry heavy loads and are left sitting with our clients “stuff” long after they have left the session, and we are often also carrying our own, so I ask you; what do you need right now? Are you getting it and if not, how can you and where can you get it from?
What I take away from this last year…
We work with some heavy stuff, it is okay to be impacted by that, but don’t sit with it alone for too long. As therapists we are often seen to be or are expected to be super-human and unaffected by what we see and hear on a daily basis, and this is not always possible. A friend of mine once said that but we (counsellors) are like hoovers, in that we take on everyone else’s “stuff”, but asked what do you do with it at the end of the day?
Our well-being is as important as our clients.
This last year has had a significant impact on every single person in some way, shape or form.
It is okay to ask for what you need.
I love my family but I certainly love them more from a distance…
Charli is a passionate advocate of self-care and increasing the awareness of the importance of self-care, not just with her clients, but with colleagues and students alike.
Charli achieved her MA in Counselling from York St John University in 2019 where she also obtained her Postgraduate Diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2016) and her BA (Hons) Counselling Studies degree (2013). Charli is now set to embark upon her Doctor of Professional Studies Counselling and Psychotherapy in October 2021 at the University of Chester.