Time in 2020 has felt like elastic to me: the long uncertain months that stretched out ahead of us in March have suddenly snapped and catapulted us forward to autumn. So much has happened for us and despite the long weeks of lockdown and significant lack of social activities, I just haven’t had the time (or probably more importantly, mental capacity) to reflect on it.
I’ll rewind a bit. Back in November last year, we were so excited to take on our own premises, which we converted into a beautiful, safe and welcoming therapy space. This building marked a growth in our venture as a small family business, but it really was so much more than that. It was something that Andy and I nurtured together, something that we brought to life and birthed into the world with pride and excitement. The therapy rooms gave me a place I could call my work home, somewhere that finally provided a place of containment and consistency after years of not even having my own desk in the NHS. But they also represented the start of a hub for other therapists and clients to use as well as a place to develop social projects.
The building was the start of something really meaningful. It was a huge personal, financial and emotional investment for us, but we were confident that we could make it work, and we did. Demand was high and within just a few weeks, every single room had multiple bookings each day. The hum of people coming to and leaving their appointments and commenting on the beauty of the space made us so proud.
I grew up in a family where self-employment was all I really knew. My dad is a gas engineer and has worked for himself most of his life and when I was a teenager, my parents had a shop. They worked long hours, six days a week and took very few breaks. School holidays often involved sitting in a van or perching behind a counter or in a storeroom. I knew at the time that it was hard work for them, but it’s only now that I have a real insight into what it is like run a family business. The stress, the pressure, the long hours, and all with a lot of financial unpredictability and risk.
As the murmurings of COVID became louder in early spring, I remember the low-level panic starting to rise within me. I would check the news and try to convince myself that all would be okay, all the while knowing that there was a risk that it wouldn’t be. There are a few key moments of 2020 that I’ll never forget and one of them is receiving our first cancellation. We were in the park with our daughter. She was playing on the slide. I felt the pit of my stomach fall. It was happening.
Day after day following this, more and more people cancelled. Night after night, we spent hours discussing the possible options of how we might be able to keep the business going. The reality of what lay ahead of us became clearer as the weeks went on. I played over and over in my mind having to tell clients and colleagues that the rooms were no longer in existence and I sobbed.
Discussions with our landlord were fraught. I have no doubt that we approached this situation with dignity, integrity and professionalism and for that reason I won’t go into the details of what happened there. However, anyone who has ever taken on a commercial lease will l am sure, be able to empathise with the challenges we faced. We spent hours and hours drafting emails trying to find a way forward, but to no avail. The spirit of collaboration touted as essential by the government was nowhere to be seen.
Throughout this time, we were so lucky that our therapy service was able to continue. Sessions moved online almost seamlessly, and we were able to provide as consistent a service as before. However, you cannot underestimate how exhausting online therapy can be when you are relying so much on someone’s face alone for connection. Add to that no childcare, the immense stress of having your other main livelihood falling apart as well as other big life events in the background – there were times I genuinely felt as though my emotional capacity was teetering precariously on the edge.
I’m all too aware that in the past I have been the type of person who is ‘do as I say not as I do’, but I am certainly much better these days at practicing what I preach. I deleted Instagram for a few weeks, minimised all pressure to do anything other than survive, ensuring my resources were being poured into the right cups. I needed my boundaries and self-care more than ever.
As the weeks rolled on, it soon became clear that the decision to close wasn’t actually a decision: it was an inevitable outcome of COVID for our small business. We didn’t qualify for much help and what we did wouldn’t even have touched the sides (commercial properties literally haemorrhage cash). We were already set to lose such a huge sum of our own money, that we just couldn’t afford to lose anymore. It was also becoming abundantly clear that things were not going to change in the near future and that social distancing was here for the foreseeable.
And so, with very heavy hearts, we agreed to start the long and drawn out process of closing down.
It’s difficult to put into words the experience of a business (for want of a better word) failing. In many ways, having something like COVID to blame takes some of the shame from it – there was absolutely nothing more we could have done to save it. But for me this feeling does linger. Maybe it’s the beast of comparison rearing its unwelcome head; social media can be awash with stories of success and growth, and when your business has been decimated it can be hard to remain grounded. At times, it has seemed as though swathes of people have emerged from lockdown with new business ideas, thriving enterprises and new projects being launched into the world – and I’m not going to lie, it has stung.
This is why I think it is so important to tell the other side of the coin. People don’t tend to share their stories of failing so much, so it can be a very isolating place when things are imploding around you. I have since consumed many hours of Elizabeth Day’s podcast How to Fail, which has been a much-needed audio hug. As we have learnt in many ways in recent years, when the plan doesn’t go to plan, it is just plain shit.
However, I have also felt a lot of guilt alongside this when I know that we also have so much to feel grateful for. I am acutely aware that at the time we were navigating this, many people were losing loved ones to COVID. In addition, the world was starting to really open its eyes to the raw reality of racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matters protests. And whilst we have been significantly impacted financially, we have still been able to work in our therapy practice, which is a huge privilege that I know so many do not have. It therefore felt wholly inappropriate to share our own personal challenges at that time because there was so much bigger and more important going on. Even now, I’m unsure of sharing, but it would feel a little strange not to mention such a big life event when I had shared the start of this business online.
As would be expected, a lot of this has stirred up old feelings, many of which are reminiscent of Orla’s death. And whilst, I cannot even begin to compare the death of Orla with the closure of our business, there are so many parallel emotions.
In particular, I have felt incredibly lonely throughout this process. Andy and I have had each other, but as with baby loss, there is something about knowing that there are other real people out there that might be going through something similar that can help you feel less of a failure. Everyone we have told have been kind and compassionate, but I think the scale and depth of stress, anxiety and grief that comes with closing your business is only truly understood if you have been there too. That isn’t anyone’s fault, it just is what it is. If you know, then you really do know.
In recent years, I have also become more accustomed to having difficult feelings towards others (baby loss does this to you). They never feel comfortable, but I know they are normal, and very often a trauma response. Anger, jealously, rage, frustration have been unwelcome visitors that have sometimes outstayed their welcome in 2020. I know they vacate eventually, but it is never an enjoyable experience.
I was also reminded that, much like pregnancy after loss, living in a constant state of fear and threat is physically as well as emotionally exhausting. Fearing what news each morning would bring or what email would drop that day was completely draining. You spend your time trying to predict the unpredictable or plan for something that has no timeframe or known course, deep down knowing that this is a fruitless task. The body keeps score and back pains and tension headaches became the norm. My body is just really starting to unfurl now.
And yet, here we are, still standing. New chapters will follow, but we won’t be rushing into anything. As the shock has worn off, I have found the space to connect more with the sadness of what we have lost. I miss my therapy room. I miss walking to Borough Market for a lunchtime treat. I miss showing new therapists around and seeing their response to the space we created. I miss being able to pass my clients a tissue or giving them a blanket to help them feel more at ease. But I also feel relief. The worst thing did happen, and we are still standing.
I didn’t go to say goodbye to the building. In all honesty, the prospect of potentially seeing the landlord was all too traumatic. But as I start to settle into our new home (which is a whole other stressful two-year saga we were navigating alongside all of the above), I can remember those few months with fondness. We created something really special and it is that which I choose to hold onto.
And as always, these challenging times teach me more about myself as a human and as a psychologist. We can all survive difficult times but we need to know that we aren’t alone.