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The online 'crash-pad' that became a memory palace

When do you know, for sure, that there’s no going back to a home you’ve left behind? I think I've known for at least a year, but this week I feel surer than ever. After 18 months of COVID-driven uncertainty and weeks of learning and testing, Mycybertherapyspace VR is ready for clients and I’ve finally moved in. I feel like I'm looking around a new home, taking in the views and the surroundings knowing I've got the commitment of a mortgage as well as the house-keys.



Maybe it’s because I’ve spent hours choosing furniture and the decor, showing others around - I am a lot more house-proud than I am in real life. It’s been with me, in my mind and now it's in VR. It’s my little place of 'sameness' in a world of constant change, a boundary between me and the vast digital world. It’s my way of telling my clients that I have taken the time, energy and skills to prepare the apps and resources and also a place and where we can meet each week – just like I would in the real world. It represents a separate container for the tensions of being online, the need for objectivity, firm boundaries and therapeutic distance. My clients can have a feeling of making an impact on the therapy space, not just the apps, games and objects they engage with online. This is a space where memories of our experiences are held because we return to them each week. This is probably the most important aspect for me, especially when digital creations can be created and erased with relative ease. There’s something about the symbolism that’s reconstructed when I download a clients’ image into the therapy space to explore together, and then we agree what will happen to it at the end of the session, and beyond. Maybe that’s a symbolism that’s more for me, rather than my online clients, but it helps me to feel grounded and connected, and this makes the difference between simply 'working' online and truly being together.

 

The last 18 months has been a hard-fought battle to feel orderly in my mind and my online practice

 

People in meetings are drawn to ask me about my Zoom background and I get to invite them to join me in my imaginary, immersive environment. There's a feeling of order as I place objects onto the shelves; somehow it feels safe and a little bit eccentric, and that’s also who and how I am in person. The last 18 months, has been a hard-fought battle to feel orderly in my mind and in my online practice. I’m amazed at how easily I remember where objects are and attach a sense of importance on their location. In alot of ways, it's just like my real room was.



As I move my camera through each area, I can visualise my journey through the space, look at different perspectives and recall 3D images and objects as though both they and the space really exist. Until recently, I had no idea that the concept of attaching memories to places (or loci, Latin for ‘places’) is a strategy of memory enhancement. It’s a way of using mental images of familiar 3D environments in order to enhance the recall of information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique. It explains how staff at the supermarket seemingly know the whereabouts of hundreds of items, and why I feel frustrated and lost whenever the store is reorganised and I’m unable to locate my favourite items. It’s the same way that museums hold not only the artefacts of time and history, but the stories and meaning that help us to make sense of the world. For centuries, curators of art have taken the idea of a memory palace, and combined it with the power of story-telling, to deeply embed ideas, and concepts about life as we know it. It might explain why for me, Mycybertherapyspace feels more containing than holding all of my online activities on a presentation slide.

 

Mycybertherapyspace acts as an image, object and space that holds the narrative of many personal experiences on my journey to becoming an online psychotherapist. It is the place that holds my feeling of passion, determination, creativity, learning, crossing new thresholds, triumph over uncertainty, financial insecurity and global-level adversity. But let me also tell you about my first ever therapy-room eviction which also left me feeling suddenly homeless, shocked and upset. It happened on a warm afternoon, I was running a therapy session in the meeting-room of a primary school when there was a knock on the door. It took both me and my client by surprise because apart from the 'do not disturb' sign, there was a general understanding that on therapy days the meeting room was off-limits to everyone else. So you can imagine my shock and disbelief when the school secretary appeared, ignoring the sign on the door, and nervously announced that there had been a diary clash and the Head would need the meeting room immediately.


I was neither gracious in surrender or grateful for the secretary’s help; I felt betrayed by her attempt to save face and oust me very quickly into the corridor before the Headteacher arrived. Within minutes, there were games, my sandtray, art materials and toys, all strewn across the corridor, while the Headteacher silently stepped over them and us without apology and only the briefest hint of appreciation. Several others followed her, and then the door was shut, with barely enough time to peel off the ‘do not disturb’ sign that was now rendered useless. I calmly returned the client to their classroom; I could still feel shock and anger rising and subsiding with every mindful breath as I returned to take charge of the contents of the therapy.



COVID’s abrupt arrival signalled a similarly rude eviction from my playroom, and I can relate to therapists and counsellors who have been more determined than ever to return and reassert a metaphorical ‘ownership’ of their space, and with it, all of the meanings we tend to attach to the therapeutic framework and relationships with our clients. For many of my colleagues, working online has felt as shaming and unfair as having the physical and emotional contents of our room suddenly tipped into the corridor. I still remember my reluctant walk back to my car, unsure of the whereabouts of several therapy items and the feeling of resolve as I regained my space the following week. Looking back, no matter how aggrieved I felt, I would never have considered walking away from my therapy room for good. In comparison to the last 18 months, COVID has felt like an ubiquitous bailiff hovering at the therapy-room door; and as the weeks of lockdown became months – for a while it felt like my ‘do not disturb’ sign had been permanently replaced by an eviction notice.


 

It's possible to imagine retrieving parts of ourselves that were metaphorically scattered across the floor

 

On reflection, maybe memories of my sudden evictions have given me the incentive to create Mycybertherapyspace, to regain a sense of control and dignity. However, a global pandemic is far more threatening than an attack on my ego and for many therapists and counsellors, it has felt like an entire way of working, income, weeks of client-work and our therapeutic relationship have suffered. Some have feared for their personal health and safety; it’s possible to imagine retrieving parts of ourselves that were metaphorically scattered over the corridor, along with the therapy toys.


I was grateful for online therapy; it was an opportunity that knocked on the door offering viable assistance. Unlike the anxious school secretary, online therapy offered an established and credible route to freedom, not just a way to rapidly vacate a physical space that had never been truly mine. However, I can also understand that for some, it has been as unwelcome as both the school secretary and her demanding Headteacher. Despite the benefits, there is also a longing to return at the first opportunity to restore the sense of order, self-esteem and a feeling of personal and professional agency.


 

I have a personal history of moving often, and during both childhood and adulthood there have been many places which have become my home at short notice. This might explain my willingness to readily accept a new way of working, and the offer of new skills which can help me to survive the long-term uncertainty that has become the 'new normal'. My investment in my professional development also helps me to stay focussed on a bigger picture. After all, we still live in a world where there is the possibility of future global or local change, disturbances and advancements in the shape of political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal forces.


Even though I can’t say I’ll never return to face-to-face therapy in some format, I cannot imagine leaving my online therapy and all it represents. Unlike my therapy room in various schools, mycybertherapyspace will grow and develop just as I have and the 3D object it is based on can be re-built on various platforms. What started off as an emergency ‘crash pad’ has now become a meaningful ‘palace’ of memories with a portal to more space, stability, flexibility, experiences and opportunities than I could have ever imagined. Who knew I’d find all of that in an online virtual space!



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Lesley Simpson-Gray