When I was told at the beginning of lockdown that my NHS therapy was going to be on Zoom rather than in person, and in a group rather than one-to-one, I almost politely declined. That is incredibly ungrateful of me, I know, but I find therapy awkward enough as it is. It doesn’t matter that I’ve had countless rounds of the thing, I still arrive at every session feeling as though I have nothing to say, and that I don’t want to sit through an hour of everything being about me and my inexplicable emotions.
So, the thought of having to go through this uncomfortable experience via Zoom – meaning that there’s no chance of reading my therapist’s body language, looking around the room to avoid eye-contact, or crossing my arms to show that I’m not feeling talkative – was pretty anxiety-inducing. I’d never even met this therapist in real life, so we didn’t have a pre-existing relationship. Logging into my first session (which was thankfully one-to-one), I felt like I was entering some kind of horrendous job interview in which I’d be asked to reveal my deepest darkest thoughts to a disembodied head floating in a small, fuzzy square.
I was also told that after a few of these individual sessions, I would be joining a group of others in a similar situation and participating in group therapy. I’ve never really experienced group therapy before, and the thought of it has always made me feel stressed. It’s bad enough talking about what’s going on in my head to one other person, let alone a whole group of strangers. Plus, there’s the added complication of worrying that someone will say something unhelpful, that you’ll upset someone, or that people will judge you.
I was so nervous before the first session that I felt sick. I was very close to not clicking the Zoom link, pretending that I’d forgotten or that my internet was down. But I tried not to overthink and just joined the call, muting myself immediately and anxiously peering at the other participants in their little boxes on my laptop screen. I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, positioned with the bookcase behind me, so at least I would look vaguely normal/interesting. As we all popped up and connected to audio, the three facilitating therapists tried to say hello to everyone, often speaking over each other and dipping in and out of the sound. We were all muted and stayed that way, shrinking further back into the safety of whatever room we’d chosen in the hope that it was very sound-proof.
It went on like that for the majority of the first session – I think I said a sentence or two during the whole hour, but to be honest, I didn’t really mind. The conversation was stunted, jerky and awkward, without the usual social cues that let you know that someone wants to speak, or that someone would rather not answer that question. The best we could do was raise our hands (which no one did), or unmute ourselves in the hope that everyone else would notice and realise we wanted to say something. Thankfully, the therapists were very good, despite not having done much Zoom therapy before, so would be sure to go round everyone by name so we all had a chance to speak. By the end, I was just relieved that I’d made it through the hour without doing or saying anything ridiculous and with only minor sweat patches under my arms.
I’ve now attended the group every week since the end of July. Although I have nothing to compare it to, I imagine it has taken a lot longer than usual for people to open up. Usually in group therapy, we would have ‘waiting room’ chat before and maybe exchange a few casual comments afterwards. On Zoom, we can’t really interact with each other in the same way, even though we are all going through similar things and would probably have a lot to say to each other.
But after a month or so, everyone did start to speak more openly, and once one person has taken the plunge, it’s so much easier for others to follow. Speaking in the group is scary, knowing that everyone else is on mute and listening to you while also staring directly at your face. It’s hard to know who to look at while you’re talking – do you look at yourself? At the therapist? Around the ‘room’ as though you’re doing public speaking at school? Or, (which was my usual tactic), do you look everywhere but at the screen? I probably looked stupid, but at least I could almost kid myself that I was chatting away to myself in the comfort of my own bedroom.
But, after all that, to answer the question in the title of this post: Yes, it is as awkward as it sounds, but it’s also worth the awkwardness if you’re willing to engage. Sometimes a bit of awkwardness is okay, especially when you know you’re probably never going to see these people in real life. Who cares if you accidentally speak over someone, then have to say ‘Oh sorry, you go’ five times before they hear you? Who cares if someone else’s camera isn’t working so all you can see is a black box? Who cares if someone is outside and 85% of their sound is the wind/traffic? Who cares if you forget to unmute yourself and start saying something deep and meaningful, only to be told by three different people, ‘YOU’RE ON MUTE’? I thought I’d care, but actually, I don’t really. I’m just grateful to have ‘met’ a group of people who are supportive, respectful, like-minded and all committed to getting better, whatever that may look like for them.
So, if you’re ever offered therapy over Zoom, group or otherwise, I would encourage you to resist every urge within you that is saying ‘nope’. Yes, it’s awkward, but maybe your mental health is worth a bit of cringe.