During lockdown, my life was conducted mostly on-line.
Whether by Skype, Zoom or the more clunky Teams, I managed, like many others, to participate in something like ‘normal’ life from my desk overlooking the garden, via the screen of my computer. To run training courses for some people and be a participant in others. To listen to a person reading from a book in Devon, an event I would never normally have been able to attend in Orkney. To take part in an international conference whilst wearing yoga pants and slippers- something that in the past might be a scene from a nightmare. To meet and supervise four people, who I’ve never met in person, and discuss the painful emotions experienced by people recently and sometimes traumatically bereaved, whilst being distracted by a young hare sunning himself beyond my window frame.
I know it’s easier if you’ve met before in person to relate on-line or by phone although some people seem to manage very well, especially when there is no alternative- or you are somewhere fairly inaccessible- like the Australian outback. There are many now who regularly meet their therapist through a screen. Others talk by phone, email or even MSN messenger. Perhaps you use an emoji in your text message to show you are crying, or maybe that’s an advantage for some- that no-one can see that you are. As someone said once to a therapist I interviewed, ‘I could pass you in the street and we wouldn’t know each other.’ When my lockdown anxiety was at its height I might have imagined anyone I met on my few trips outside could be the grim reaper posing as an acquaintance of mine- probably worse. (Now there is a psychiatric term for believing that people you know have been replaced by doubles…what is it? Capgras syndrome. I’ve definitely spent too long alone on social media the last few weeks).
But how real does it feel when you meet with a person through the screen? For a virtual G and T you don’t have to find both parking place and a seat in the bar where you can see your friend coming through the door. However, sometimes you get a weird glimpse of their face from an angle you wouldn’t normally see them, unless you were resting with your chin on the table between the two of you. You catch up on gossip, but you cannot hug one another like you usually do, and partners, children and animals suddenly appear to wave to you, or, in the case of cats, show no interest at all. Somehow the screen flattens out a person’s facial expressions- Zoom doesn’t zoom in for close ups like the TV does, and a voice may be irritatingly out of synch with an image. You are distracted by the state of your fringe and whether you should have eaten before or after meeting, when you would usually be laughing and joking over a meal and discussing whether to have a pudding. Somehow the amplitude of your expansive gestures is dampened down. Your emotions, everything that adds up to who you are is hemmed in by the edges of the world inside the screen and feels boxed in, diminished. It is much more of a fleeting experience than a personal meeting. Easy, yes, but perhaps less of an occasion for being so, even though those few minutes of connection can cheer you up immensely.
When I carried out research into something called ‘telepsychiatry’ 20 years ago we had a contraption that looked something like a Breville sandwich toaster that you had to open up and connect to a specially fitted line, which could take BT several months to supply. I remember how the psychiatrists were perfectly happy to ‘have a go’ with seeing patients who lived some distance away, on the videophone, but they felt constrained by it too, as though they were talking to a person across a barrier like the traditional desk, rather than ‘being with’ them. Other members of the team refused to try it out exactly because they said ‘being with’ someone was a key part of how they developed their relationship with a patient. It wasn’t possible, they told us, to really get to ‘know’ someone through the video screen. Yet now, many of our lives are conducted in this way.
So much of my relationship with my husband usually consists of us simply ‘being with’ each other, that our conversations on skype twice a day during lockdown were exhausting. We chatted, exchanged news, made each other laugh, depressed each other with the uncertainty of when it would all be over, but we never felt together in any meaningful way until he walked through the door just over a week ago. There are many kinds of transaction that can take place via skype or zoom that help those of us in far flung places to connect more easily with the world. They ensure those for whom there is no other choice can stay in contact. For me, however, relationships that are more than simple transactions will only really flourish if released, occasionally at least, from the frame of my computer screen into the real world. Otherwise they will forever languish somewhere in the darkness just beyond my reach.