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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

By autumn, it seemed like everyone was seeking therapy. Depressed people grew more depressed. Eating disorder survivors relapsed. People long-recovered from substance abuse were sitting at home with little else to crave.

Friends who had scoffed at her line of work — deeming it self-indulgent — asked for referrals. Friedman's caseload nearly tripled, and she was now working with children as young as 6.

The kids were like sponges, absorbing their parents' and teachers' stress until the burden was too weighty for play. They weren't creative or silly. They drew pictures of lonely cats. An 8-year-old who hadn't seen his friends in six months had concluded he simply didn't have any.

During sessions, Friedman tried to create a context that mimicked recess or school bus rides: places to take safe risks and process disappointments that are vital to developing personal identity.

Still, the 18-inch window into their lives had its constraints. She couldn't tell when their breathing changed. There was no eye contact to be broken. Friedman couldn't subtly check arms and legs for signs of self-injury or abuse, or sense the distinct energy in a room when a child was keeping a secret.

She learned to ask more direct questions of young clients. But their parents often lingering a few feet away, children could be reluctant. Friedman felt powerless; as if she and her clients were trapped in separate vacuums.

She and Heeger moved into a bigger apartment with office spaces for each of them. The kitchen was brighter, with better baking ambiance. To get time alone, she walked — first a mile, then two, then eight. The New Yorker in her couldn't believe she was walking for leisure, and the therapist in her reminded that there was a difference between healthy exercise and scrambling for control.

They were all elements of grief: denial, resistance, bargaining.

"I could keep adding distance," she said, "but 10 miles a day wouldn't make the pandemic stop."

Then wildfire season arrived. The air filled with smoke as the Northern California skies burned orange. Windows were latched shut.

 

Trapped inside, Friedman's losses — all that she had missed — began to engulf her. Shopping for a wedding dress with her mother. The births of two cousins. Several friends' weddings. The chance to travel to Washington to present her research. A long-planned 60th birthday trip for her father to see the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

She wouldn't be observing the Jewish holidays in a synagogue. And for the first time ever, she wasn't traveling East for the holidays.

Friedman developed what she calls "compassion fatigue" — an empty tank, but an engine that won't stop revving. She was in a fog for therapy sessions during the day but couldn't put away her work at night. She felt as if her life had become a string of browser tabs: client notes, takeout orders, doomscroll binges.

Friedman felt disembodied, out of touch with her physical space.

With Heeger's encouragement, she shuffled to the kitchen and made chocolate-raspberry-apricot rugelach, posting a snapshot to her Instagram page with the username "@Tart_Therapy." Then, for Rosh Hashanah in September, she made a round cinnamon raisin challah for just the two of them. For Hanukkah: jelly doughnuts. In late December: batches of holiday cookies that looked like they belonged in a French patisserie. She curated bundles of the sweets and delivered them to nearby friends.

Friedman, who doesn't believe in therapists self-disclosing, never told her clients about her obsession. But when she noticed some step-by-step, sensorial equivalent in a client's life — like backyard gardening, or tabletop puzzles — she urged them to indulge.

Last month, after years of chronic back pain and 12 months of frustratingly slow healing, Heeger's steadfast rehab paid off. The last of his doctor's activity restrictions have been lifted.

Friedman these days keeps busy with egg beaters and mixing bowls. Her recipes have evolved into kaleidoscopes of rosemary, matcha and orange cranberry curd. The purpose of therapy, she says, isn't to rid of life's uncertainties, but to learn to embrace what we cannot control.

But some things we can. She chooses the oven's temperature, measures sugar with precision. She ignores her iPhone's breaking news pings. Her fingers are too sticky with dough.

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.