Clinical Psychologist
Stanford University, Counseling and Psychological Services
Stanford, CA

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This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.

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The pandemic therapist uniform: flattering jewel-toned silk blouse over fleece sweatpants or running shorts. A serene blonde wood and papery white shoji screen hides domestic context behind me. I sip loose leaf oolong tea and settle into the therapy Zoom.

My clients are all Stanford students. We were all sent packing off campus on short notice. There’s the 18-year-old elbowing multiple siblings, remote learning in small quarters as the family balances essential jobs. And the law student calling from a posh vacation property, masochistically ruminating to smother buzzing anxiety and visceral unease with “productivity”. Many, unable to leave or without another home, hunkered on campus in tiny studios and dorm rooms. I will pixels of empathy, sprinkled with advocacy and coping tips, to filter toward clients in various modes of isolation.

I see my student, whose face spontaneously crumples the moment Zoom connects video. The work now encompasses almost guttural longing to pass a tissue box through the screen as he sobs into his fist. My work is accepting the precious sweet grace of memory when he shares a fuzzy photo print to the laptop cam. It is acknowledging bitter impotent accusation, truth, that this beaming favorite Auntie, this queen of ninth ward gumbo, died a preventable death. I consider how “social determinants of health” is such a sterile phrase. It too often means that much-loved Black people like Auntie are denied proper healthcare.

I encourage my next client to go outside and shake off the post-binge eating depression that’s kept her in bed the last 20 hours. She groaningly obliges. Therapy continues alongside a Blair Witch effect, blue skies keening and wheeling on my screen as she huffs up the Dish Trail. Willing my eyes to fix and avoid motion sickness, I involuntarily wince at a cruel comment her Dad lobbed. She catches the micro-expression and barks with exasperated laughter at the validation. “That WAS messed up, right!?” I offer grounding techniques, define gaslighting and manipulation amidst swinging glimpses of sedate oak trees and her cobalt-clad arm brushing windblown hair and “rage-cry” tears from her face.

I shift into Mandarin to greet my international student from Nanjing, China. He pulls out his hairs, one by one. Literally worrying his body. His golf visor hides picked-over bald spots, growing wider proportional to the time he’s spent sheltering in place. He shares sodden-lung panicked nightmares, emotions heightened by rising xenophobia and whispers, “no one will take care of me, what if I died alone here” even as he continues to attend remote research lab meetings with a serene face. I mute my own emotions as he muses whether Chinese would be “rounded up and locked away like they did to Japanese people?” I am unable, with confidence, to assure him such a thing could never happen. His mom is 6,204 miles away. I reassure him in our mother tongue that the Graduate Life Deans, the University would care for him if he caught COVID-19.

Each evening, I practice self-preservation. After hitting the red Leave Meeting button onscreen, it’s 25 paces to the garage. I heft a cold metal kettlebell away from the washing machines, spread a floor mat, and re-enter Zoom for the Workout of the Day. Other nights, I tend tomato plants and fancy innocent goldfish. Sometimes, I work on political activism that’s a lifeline against my own growing fatigue and despondency. I’ll keep brushing my hair and putting my upper outfits together, keep showing up for our students as long as we are needed in the therapy Zoom.

(Every client in this essay is a case composite with identifying details altered for confidentiality purposes.)