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They were battling the psychological toll of the pandemic. Their therapist was, too

Emily Baumgaertner, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

It was almost Shabbat, but Ariel Friedman was too busy to bake challah.

Anxiety among the Bay Area therapist's clients was spiking. It was mid-March 2020: More than 1,500 Americans had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Forty-one had died. Friedman's clients — some with post-traumatic stress, others with obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression — wanted reassurance. But there was none to be given.

Her office staff was on edge, too, as plans were made, then remade. They'd definitely stay open; they might stay open; no, they'd definitely close. Sentiments changed four times that day, sending Friedman chasing clients through the waiting area on their way out with updates. This new scary thing, this mercurial disease with the strange shape and the regal name, was upending everything.

In the days and weeks that followed, many states, including California, imposed stay-at-home orders, which sent an "avalanche of existential trauma" onto the laptop screens of therapists like Friedman, who had suddenly become front-line workers in an intensifying mental health crisis, helping clients battle malaise, isolation and fear during virtual sessions.

For the first time in her career, Friedman, a slight woman who wears round, thin-rimmed gold glasses, wasn't simply helping clients through grief and anxiety; she was experiencing the same emotions alongside them. What gnawed at them also gnawed at her. She had to do something to cope, a simple act that would turn into a ritual to keep her sane. She needed to make time to bake.

And she did. When it seemed like too many clients were in simultaneous crises, when she couldn't put work out of her mind, when the pandemic seemed to be coming too close, Friedman began pulling out her rolling pin. There were weeks, she recalls now, when her oven seemed perpetually warm.

 

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It all seems so long ago now, those first days when a nation was learning the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic and how a ventilator works and what happens when body bags are in short supply. Vaccines are rolling out and lives are returning to rhythms that once were. The dead still multiply but not like before.

"We see this after war: When the imminent threat dissipates, the survival response lingers," Friedman said. "If you magnify that by a city, a country, the world — you see that there is indeed a way forward from here — but it's not around, it's through."

Peril entered homes and stayed. It touched everything.

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