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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

Friedman, 28, who has a master's degree in counseling psychology from Columbia and is finishing a PhD, had been taught that therapy works, in part, because it is contained in a physical and emotional space separate from the rest of life. For most of her clients, that separate space was gone overnight.

During virtual counseling sessions with Friedman, their toddlers wailed. Family members fought. A partner's prying ears might be on the other side of a thin door. The internet cut out. Cell service was bad. Clients paced on the sidewalk, hid in their cars, paused to change locations many times in a 50-minute session.

They sometimes appeared more stressed at the end than at the beginning.

"There's an element of bearing witness to someone else's pain that involves sharing a deep breath in the same space, just the two of you," Friedman said. "I could see it in their faces: They couldn't get to me, couldn't access that space. No matter what I did, I couldn't give it to them."

She and her fiance, Robbie Heeger, had their own tensions. They were cramped in a shoebox San Francisco flat. He was recovering from an invasive back surgery and running a nonprofit from the living room, but was relegated out of earshot every time she held a therapy session. Privacy was scant. The pressure built.

They were also experiencing a stress reaction she knew well: oscillating between hypervigilance and denial. It wasn't clear whether they should sanitize their mail or tease people who did. Her clients, too, each in therapy for different reasons, mirrored her perplexity. The hourly news whiplash was disorienting.

 

By mid-April, Friedman, who was becoming her own client, a woman on the verge, could hardly fight the irrational urge to board a flight to New York City. Her mom was still commuting to her food manufacturing job in the area and her grandmother was in assisted living. Friedman worried that, if she didn't fly into the hot zone, she'd never see them alive again.

But Friedman couldn't legally practice therapy from out of state. It felt like choosing between her clients and her family. Common sense won: She shouldn't leave.

Instead, she made lemon almond macaroons. Four days later, it was cinnamon raisin bagels. After that, a crumbly citrus tart with grapefruit slices propped across the glaze. And challah.

"I could point to it and say, 'I put my energy here today, and this is what I created,'" she said. "Something sweet that tastes good — that was like my airplane oxygen mask, to help myself before helping others."

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