Extreme acts of courtesy

When it comes to privacy during virtual therapy, we should all be bending over backward for our friends.

Sep 1, 2021 UPDATED
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It had been years since I’d had roommates. At 30-something, I was pretty sure that I’d grown out of that phase. But when I moved to Boston for grad school, it became clear that while I had moved on from sharing an apartment, my budget had not.

With trepidation, I signed a contract for a room in a three-bedroom apartment that much resembled the kind of places I had lived in right out of college. It was small. It was shoddy. It had people living in it. But it was in my price range. Besides, I figured, we’re all adults, we all have lives. It’s not like we’d be hanging around at home all day.

Then the pandemic hit.

Gone were the days of afternoons spent alone in the library. Gone were the days of treating my apartment like a crash pad. My roommates and I, who once passed like ships in the night, were suddenly in each other’s face day in and day out.

Along with the typical pains of never really being alone, my roommates and I ran into a practical challenge at the beginning of the lockdown: how to handle therapy, which all three of us were now conducting over Zoom. Our apartment is small and the walls are thin. Over the year or so that we’ve lived together, we’ve accustomed ourselves to the uneasy reality that we are always being heard.

At first, we handled this by doing therapy from our cars. This was an inelegant solution, but it worked for us while the weather was nice.

Then came winter.

We convened an apartment meeting to unpack the issue. The first solution we discussed, which was to politely wear headphones or earplugs when the others were having a session, seemed like a good enough fix at first glance. But after one of her first sessions, my roommate realized that this wouldn’t be enough.

Gone were the days of treating my apartment like a crash pad.

Even though she knew we weren’t listening, she sensed our presence. No matter how silent we were, she just felt us there, which made being open with her therapist impossible.

I understood what she meant. The secondary effects of always being heard are profound. Slowly but surely, they come to bear on our habits, on the way we speak to friends and family over the phone, on the music we listen to, and the TV we watch.

Headphones and earplugs, then, became the designated Plan B. Plan A was to evacuate the apartment completely. We would each get an hour a week, guaranteed, to be left completely alone in the apartment. During this time, the other two roommates usually take a stroll (another important mental health activity) or pop out to the store. Anything, so long as it wasn’t at home.

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a girl sitting at her desk on her computer with a lamp, books, and plants.

And it works. If I didn’t know that my roommates were safely outside of the building, I never would have been able to vent to my therapist about how they sometimes drive me crazy.

That said, privacy concerns aren’t the only drawback of the shift from in-person to Zoom therapy. With its beige walls, green Ficus plants, and non-offensive impressionist art, the therapist’s office is a neutral and non-threatening place to unpack one’s emotional baggage, something I’m a bit reluctant to do in the sanctuary of my own bedroom.  

Even though she knew we weren’t listening, she sensed our presence.

Until life gets back to normal, however, our apartments will have to continue moonlighting as doctor’s offices, classrooms, workspaces, gyms, and more. Even once “normal life” resumes, it’s highly likely that many therapists (and their patients) will continue sessions over video conference—in fact, some who’ve given up office leases may insist upon it.

Those considering a move soon, take note. If at all possible, find a place that will give you some semblance of privacy. That’s not to say, however, that living alone is the best option. In times like these, roommates are lifelines as often as they are nuisances. Still, you should choose both your apartment and your roommates with extra caution. Thick walls and open lines of communication are absolutely key.

But for those who have a few months left on their lease, a word of advice: When you’re signing on to Zoom with your therapist, tell your roommates to just get out. (Politely.)

We all deserve space to speak freely. During the pandemic, such space hasn’t come easily to people in shared homes. It had seemed extreme at first to take turns banishing one another from the apartment, especially in the snowier months. But we have come to recognize that the extreme conditions of the pandemic often require extreme acts of courtesy.

Article originally published Jun 3, 2021. Updated Sep 1, 2021.

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