A long distance relationship with my therapist


It has been well over a year since the UK first went in lockdown and we retreated into our home offices and new socially distanced world. During this time, we have embraced the video calls, the family Whatsapp groups, and for Rethink Mental Illness ambassador Juliette Burton, the prospect of a new way of getting the emotional support she regularly receives from her therapist.

Relationships can be hard; long-distance relationships even harder. Keeping a relationship with my therapist during the last year has been a challenge.

I’ve been in and out of therapy for 20 years. I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act when I was 17 so when asked “why are you still in therapy?” I say “If I dislocated my shoulder playing rugby aged 17, but I want to carry on playing, I’d wear a shoulder support. Due to the stress of being alive, I was deemed insane to the point of my life being in danger, but I want to carry on living, so I get support from therapy.”

When I say “therapy” I mean lots of different types – I’ve experienced (but not always engaged with) CBT, talking therapy, psychotherapy, psychologist appointments, psychiatrist appointments, inpatient treatment, hypnotherapy, art therapy, cinema therapy, equine therapy, music therapy, group therapy, workbooks, meditation, mindfulness, massage therapy, addiction programmes and of course medication.

I’m still in therapy because life throws me curveballs every day. If I want to survive them without being knocked down so hard by life I’m unable to get back up again, then I’m happy to be coached through this.

"A week is easier to get through if I know for 50 mins out of the 10080 minutes of the week I can get some help processing every possible difficult thought, feeling or circumstance I find myself struggling to deal with. And struggling just means successfully not giving up."

Therapy helps me name my needs (which due to childhood experiences I struggle to do), my feelings and helps me understand my behaviour and learn from it all. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Just before lockdown 1, having been diagnosed with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I was embarking on EMDR therapy. After the death of a previous therapist (I’m fairly sure it wasn’t due to exhaustion of having me as a client for 10 years) I’d found a new one. She and I had a good and trusting rapport with healthy boundaries and I felt ready to face up to the traumas of my past to head on deal with them (a bit like Wanda in WandaVision Episode 8. Give it a watch if you want to see what I think EMDR therapy is a bit like). EMDR therapy can have fast responses, massive changes I was told. It has to be done in person in a safe, face-to-face space. I was nervous but I was so ready to grow beyond those memories and accept with tolerance the truth of my history, to finally be liberated from those old shadows… and then lockdown was imposed, and remote therapy was introduced.

The concept of remote therapy wasn’t new to me. I work as a comedian so when I’ve been touring in Australia or New Zealand or around the UK I’d try to keep my therapy sessions going via Skype or phone sessions. It wasn’t easy but it was better to keep the line of communication going between me and the therapist I was seeing than to give up. It’s like any relationship, you’ve got to put the work in to keep it well-oiled, to keep the lines of communication open and keep the trust there.

But in lockdown, remote therapy was harder. I felt trapped. Like we all were. Trapped in my flat which I share with two others during lockdown, so therapy on the phone with privacy proved challenging. Boundaries had to be drawn for those 50 minutes to provide a safe space for me to talk uninhibited. And the best place for those conversations ended up being a walk outside. Walking by a river talking on the phone to my therapist about the reality of life in lockdown, mental illness during lockdown, losing my income and my purpose, my friends, my social support network, audiences.

Suddenly I was trapped in my thoughts too, those thoughts and feelings I’d been trying to run away from my entire life. Suddenly I had to learn very quickly how to simply sit with my feelings. And I needed help from my therapist again.

Between lockdowns, I tried in-person sessions with my therapist but it was comically difficult.

Months after the pandemic first started, I walked in to the familiar setting, sanitising my hands, wearing my facemask, then swapping it for a plastic visor which was meant to be see-through but covered in scratches and steaming up with the exhalation of my panic-attack breathing. For those 50 minutes I sat opposite my familiar trusted supportive therapist also wearing a visor through which I could barely see her trustworthy eyes. All I could see was my breath, my annoying, frustrating, vision-blurring breath, reminding me I was alive and struggling to live. I burst into tears – not unusual for me in therapy – but I couldn’t speak. I kept reaching for tissues to try to wipe my nose but every time I tried to bring a tissue to my sodden face I kept hitting the stupid visor. Which made me laugh and cry and then sob harder.

"Therapy is all about connection, no barriers, a trusted space with no holds barred. I can say what I want, feel how I feel, without fear of judgement. And suddenly there were so many barriers in place, physical and mental"

After the year we’ve all had, I yearn so hard to let my barriers down without feeling guilty or angry or scared or sad.

Since that one attempt at in person was too difficult, we went back to remote therapy on the phone.

But the easing of restrictions means the door to my therapist’s office is open again. She’s offered me the choice – do I want to restart in-person sessions? I want to very much. But sometimes a remote session on the phone provides fewer barriers, fewer obstacles to physically trip across. With fewer barriers I can access something more honest, without the distractions.

And now, just like with my comedy, I’m doubling down on my therapy efforts, finding new tools to use, new approaches to take, and a new appetite to learn. I’ve been actually reading the books recommended by my therapist to consider more deeply the traumas I’ve been through and the illnesses I’ve been ruled by. I’ve been listening nightly to meditations they’ve recommended, I’ve covered my bathroom mirror with post-it notes full of affirmations and mantras collected over a year of remote therapy sessions, and for both my physical and mental health I’ve kept up my running schedule like my life depended on it – and right now that may just be the case.

We might be heading towards the finish line of this momentous, life-changing, world-changing time. But it’s also a new starting line full of fears and worries and concerns. And now, more than ever before, therapy is helping me to learn how to simply sit with my feelings, accept them and do my utmost not to push them away.

Juliette Burton is an award-winning comedian, speaker, writer, voiceover artist and mental health campaigner. For more information about her latest shows, please visit her website at www.julietteburton.co.uk