I tried online therapy and it worked — kind of

Now that everyone has to receive mental health care via phone or video, I felt a little more comfortable trying it out.
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By Caroline Moss

The craziest thing about teletherapy is that two months ago, I was super against it. I wanted to keep up some semblance of normalcy in my mental health care since I had just moved across the country in January.

I have been in therapy on and off since I was 12, and the last few years have been crucial in my development as an adult. I've learned a lot and worked hard at what therapy has required of me. Moving meant giving that relationship up (my New York City-based therapist is not licensed in California, where I now live) and having to start over with someone new.

I was reluctant to try the litany of apps that offered flat-fee text therapy. They seemed to pop up en masse in the last five years as an answer to hard-to-access and expensive mental health care; promising that for an average of $99 a week, you can get access to mental health professionals at your fingertips — literally. You text them on your own time, and they text back. No limits and no off-hours. The companies who offer this (TalkSpace and BetterHelp, to name a few), charge less per week than the cost of one 45-minute in-person session with most therapists.

But would it be the same?

Back in January, I would have told you no. Actually, to be honest, I would still tell you no. There’s something about being face-to-face with my therapist that adds to the progress of my therapy. Having a standing weekly appointment that I pay for out of my own pocket holds me accountable for this relationship. If I do not show up or if I cancel a month’s worth of sessions, it hurts me in the long run and not my therapist.

Text therapy felt like wanting to hop in a hot tub, but getting a warm bath instead. It would kind of resemble what I was looking for, but I’d quickly realize it was not going to yield the same kind of feelings.

Then the coronavirus crisis happened and all therapy had to done out of the office.

Now I couldn’t make any excuses. It was time to try text therapy because, in the midst of a global health and financial crisis, the one thing you shouldn’t try to do is “wing” therapy on your own. Now that everyone has to receive mental health care via phone, I felt a little more comfortable trying it out.

So to texting a therapist I went.

For absolutely no reason other than it was the first option that showed up when I Googled “text therapy," I took Talkspace up on its offer of $65 my first week (weeks range between $65 and $99 and can be cheaper if you don’t want to do video therapy). You answer a few questions on its website and they let you search around their list of therapists licensed in your state.

As a true “older millennial” (as in I’m over 30 and had the internet in college but not a smartphone), I am used to conducting lots of conversations via text. But holy cow, the emotional toll of 24/7 digital contact during quarantine is overwhelming. I wasn’t sure if it would make sense to introduce another digital relationship into my life, since in the last two months all of my relationships have gone digital.

But therapy was different. Right away, I slid back into that mode I was all too familiar with during IRL sessions with my therapist in New York.

I quickly learned talk-to-text was my best friend. I would speak into the microphone in my notes app and look it over for any spelling errors or missing punctuation, then I would copy and paste it into my texts with my therapist.

I thought my therapist (let’s call her Annie) would respond right away, and we would just talk nonstop all day long. I soon realized that wasn’t going to be the case (Annie has other patients and a life of her own). In reality, Annie responds once or twice a day for a few different streams of conversation. Unlike the guys I dated in college, she tells me when she has to go and when I can expect to hear from her again. It’s a way more formal texting experience than anything I am used to with my friends, but that’s also what kept reminding me that it wasn’t like a normal conversation with friends; that I was talking to a therapist who was using the wonders of modern technology to talk to me.

I carefully gather my feelings in a succinct way to send them to Annie, and most of the time I do it from the couch ... with the television on ... sans pants.

There's been one aspect to my experience that makes this different than text therapy would be in general. You know this global pandemic we’re in? Annie’s in it too. So texting things like, "I’m quarantined and losing my mind — there are only so many cookies I can bake and television shows I can watch. I miss my family and friends, and I wish I could focus more on my work instead of feeling overwhelmed by it every time I check my inbox." Well, Annie isn’t asking questions like, "Well, why are you quarantined?" Or, "Why don’t you see if a friend is available to come over for dinner?"

She doesn’t necessarily need a ton of context to understand the problems I want to talk about because they stem from a universal issue she’s also grappling with in her own life. I might find myself more exhausted with the idea of having to introduce my issues with a therapist who truly needs me to start from the beginning.

The downside? Texting with a therapist on my couch without pants on is definitely a new approach to my mental health, but I am not sure it’s the best one. The thing that I benefited most from was that consistent face-to-face communication and interaction and I still miss that.

But over the last six weeks, I’ve found myself scrolling through my conversations with Annie to remind myself of some of the things we’ve discussed in regards to how I am handling the current climate. That is invaluable. I don’t record my IRL sessions, but text therapy is all tracked on my phone, available if and when I need it. And the everyday check-ins with Annie are imperative during a time when my emotions seem to change hourly.

I know one day this pandemic will end and we’ll emerge from the rubble extremely different than when we went in. I don’t know what therapy will look like then. I hope it’s more accessible and that the digitalization of it will become something that rightfully belongs to anyone who wants it, not just those who can afford it. I understand my privilege in being able to not just afford the service, but to afford the Wi-Fi and cellphone and data it requires of me to use.

Will these quarantined days come to and end? Almost certainly. Will my relationship with informal therapy? Now that’s something I’m not so certain about.