Working in a remote setting has been a battle between recharging our energies and settling into new boundaries. As a team, we are exploring what it has meant to shift work that we never could have imagined as anything but in-person, to a virtual setting. We have found both new challenges and possibilities in the process. In reflecting on the past year of virtual adjustments, we sat down with our colleagues to dive into their year, and discuss what made 2021 a memorable year for them.
[author] Rachana (she/her) joined the Sakhi team as a Counselor in February 2021. She graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a Masters in Forensic Mental Health Counseling in 2018. Prior to working at Sakhi, Rachana worked with children and their families at a child advocacy center, conducting forensic interviews to aid in child abuse investigations and providing trauma-focused therapy. She is passionate about advocating for mental health awareness and providing access to culturally aware services to the South Asian population. When she’s not working, Rachana can be found dancing in the various classes offered in NYC (in styles such as Bollywood, heels, street-jazz, etc.) and spending time with her loved ones. She can be reached at . [/author]
- What has 2021 meant for you (at Sakhi)?
For me, it has been an honor to be a part of a space where there is so much open dialogue––one that is constantly trying to improve. I started at Sakhi in February, and there was a lot coming into Sakhi of which I was not aware. Those things have become so much more a part of how I myself navigate life. Seeing how Sakhi does work as an organization and within the gender justice space and how we have been trying to do so much work in becoming more gender expansive has been life changing for me. And seeing how that plays out with survivors of various ages has also been eye opening.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see an acceptance of gender expansiveness, particularly within the older clients with whom I work. I see it in my younger clients as well, but I didn’t expect to hear such openness from my older clients.
I am currently working with two survivors in their late fifties, one who is male-identifying and one who is female-identifying. The former shared with me that it has been so difficult for him to come out as someone who has been a victim of domestic violence, but when he found Sakhi, he felt so supported. There are so many people who think that survivors can only be women, and that’s not true.
And with the other survivor, who is in her late fifties, it’s been humbling to witness her navigate new challenges with the support of Sakhi’s advocacy during the pandemic, yes, but also to help her prioritize her mental health and validate why that prioritization is important to her. For me, it’s important that people know that folks experience violence not just from their partners, but also from their family––even their children. This survivor did not affirm that truth for herself prior to our work together.
In terms of supporting all survivors, it’s been amazing to see Sakhi step up. Violence does not only affect one gender or even one race, and it’s not something that only occurs within intimate partnerships.
- Can you share a bit about your experiences working one-on-one with survivors this year?
The male-identifying client and I started working together in October of 2021. He is the first male-identifying client who has come to Sakhi’s counseling program, ever. I had never worked with an adult male, both individually and in this capacity. I knew it was going to be a challenge.
He travels a lot; he was in a different state in the US when he met his ex-wife, and ended up getting married to her. In the first few months of their marriage, she became verbally, emotionally, physically, and even financially abusive. It was really difficult for him, he had no other support, as the rest of his family was in India. His partner would kick him to get him out of bed, call him a dog, and neglect him. He had a friend in New Jersey who said he would help him. That friend ended up extorting and exploiting him and was very abusive. Whilst he was there, he was able to connect with an agency in Jersey, and that agency connected him with Sakhi. In our first session he was telling me his story, and it was so moving, because despite the harm he’d suffered, he said “I’m still blessed.” He was optimistic, as he had a job lined up in New York and was able to connect with a Gurdwara there for food and resources. We both started to cry at the end of our session. He was still so positive and filled with so much hope. It felt like a testament to his relationship with Sakhi. I can see that just having this nonjudgmental, dedicated space is making him feel calmer. He feels so much more comfortable with service providers at Sakhi, to the point that, when he got into a car accident a little while ago, he let us know right away that he was alright and sent his medical info to Sakhi from the hospital.
My approach is: “I’m going to meet you where you are at.” Together with this survivor, we have cultivated an open and safe space to talk. Sometimes that is a conversation about him being new to New York and exploring. In general, it is identifying things that make him happy and helping him find and observe joy.
Another survivor with whom I have been working since April had come to Sakhi by way of another agency that didn’t have room for her. They had told her that she needed help with weekly sessions. She had gotten out of a very abusive relationship with her ex-husband just months ago and was in the middle of a divorce case. At the time, she was very triggered by any man––to the point where, if a man was even just passing the street next to her, she would become very afraid and hypervigilant and immediately cross the street. She was not trusting of others and she really was fully convinced that she was never going to be able to get past this.
Over time, we talked through how triggers happen and feel in the body. Generally, your body will tell you that you are experiencing a trigger before your mind does, so once you feel that, we can work to identify it and then try to cope through various mechanisms.
And once we had identified and worked on triggers, we started talking through trust. We discussed that not every man would be like her ex-husband. There is a chance that this person could be like him, but there’s also a great chance that they could become a great friend.
Her trauma symptoms are almost non-existent now. She has a job where she works alongside men and women, and she will joke and not even have to think twice about who is over her shoulder. We’re normalizing that not everyone has to be trusted, but that not everyone has to make us feel like we are in danger. And she has started to see that herself – she would come in in tears, super upset, and now, she comes in and is laughing, talking about cooking, and smiling. I think the change throughout her journey speaks to how she’s felt supported at Sakhi – now she’s a different person, she’s so much more independent and so beautiful to see.
So many of the folks that I have been working with persevered. Still work that we are doing together, of course there is more to be done, always, but the progress, motivation, and sheer desire to be better, is what kept them going. We have a check-in protocol to track progress and symptoms, and seeing symptoms drop, was amazing. This was their work. I was just here to witness and listen.
It is fulfilling to be on the other side and see where a person started and is now going. I think particularly for me, coming into this field of mental health, which is not taken seriously in my culture and South Asian culture as a whole––it is particularly fulfilling. And so seeing people come here and really dedicate themselves not just to their physical health but also their mental health, and see that they are really trying and that it is really paying off. It gives hope. As the outside person looking in, I’m seeing change happen in real time––on interpersonal and community levels; mental health is becoming so much more important in the culture, regardless of one’s age. All of my clients have this common denominator of “I want to help myself, be better, and understand myself better.”
- Are there any moments with survivors or team members that stand out to you as being particularly special?
Mine is a funny moment with a survivor with whom I’d been working since March. A lot of our work together has involved understanding that it is okay for her to be alone. One of our goals was for her to be able to go out and eat alone. For her to not feel judged or scrutinized while doing so. Next to her gym, there was an Olive Garden where she really wanted to eat, but it held many memories of her and her ex-partner. So she would go to the gym, see the Olive Garden, think about going, and then leave at the last minute and go home. So we would talk through her thought process; how do we take you step by step, literally to where you want to go. Can we get you to the door and then have you come back to your car?
Then out of the blue in July, I got an email from her. Subject: “I did Olive Garden!!” She said “Hi Rachana, I just want to tell you that I was going to the gym, I saw Olive Garden was just a four minute walk away, so I went and ate dinner.”
That moment sticks out to me so much. You might think, “so what, they got food?” But the amount of dedication and motivation that it took to do that, is incredible. I know people, like myself, who still feel nervous eating alone. But she said forget that, i want food, this is what i want, and even saw it, in the end, with levity, and was able to make a joke in her note to me.
- How have you seen COVID-19 affect yourself and the survivors with whom you work?
Everything shutting down and being at home has been an adjustment. But on top of that, the collective global trauma that everyone has been experiencing, on top of the trauma I was experiencing with my clients, was extremely difficult.
A lot of clients lost their jobs or couldn’t go to work. A lot of clients had children and were wondering how to set aside time for themselves and make their own appointments while giving their children care and helping them with schoolwork.
So there was a lot of flexibility, around making sessions––we couldn’t be as strict with our protocols such as missing three sessions in a row resulting in termination.
There were also many survivors who were nervous and scared about being away from their home countries, where their families were. They were limited because of green card or visa issues as well––they were also worried that if they left they might not be able to come back.
A lot of the conversations were – how do I heal when I am in a space where this person keeps hurting me. So as a service provider, even if it’s just for forty five minutes or an hour, I want to create a space where they can feel safe and can just breathe.
The reality is that, when you are in a space that is harmful, it is incredibly difficult to heal. That said, it is possible to find moments of joy, healing, and breathing. Even when you go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, and take a shower. These can be spaces to breathe, mindful moments – spaces for you. That was a lot of what I had to talk through with clients – validating that it is extremely difficult to imagine a life when you are healed, when you are stuck in this space and stuck in a pandemic with no certainty around when things will get better.
When you are going to the store, before you sleep, when you are eating and the other person isn’t there–how can we make these moments into ones that are for you. The common misconception around self-care is that it needs to be a big routine that’s elaborate. But it actually is just letting anything that gives you joy and a moment of peace. You can feel happy for a few minutes, and you can also feel sad for a few minutes. It’s not going to last forever. Everything is temporary; how can we ensure that you can keep your breath and your patience in hard moments so that you can maintain hope. If you give yourself the grace to physically feel goodness, there will be less days that are really really bad.
Things have gotten a bit better, as clients have gotten vaccinated and their children have gone back to school. They are getting their routines, and slowly, their lives back. They are not just confined to their rooms. They may not make appointments all the time but they are getting back to what makes them feel comfortable.
I was going through all of that with my clients, while also holding the fears and concerns that I had myself. Holding it for myself while holding their grief––because the difference is, as a therapist, I’m the one holding it––was a lot. I did receive a lot of support from my direct colleagues. The pandemic brought on a whole new layer of complex trauma, of which I do not think any of us were aware. Grief looked new too. It was not about just losing a person, it was also about losing a certain type of living.
Working in the pandemic where I am not only supporting the survivors with whom I am working, but also grappling with the collective trauma of the pandemic, and also grief – of losing a loved one or losing a job or a home. Working with all of that with the survivors, as well as myself, that was a huge challenge.
- How have you taken care of yourself in the midst of this enduring crisis?
Having the support of Pooja and Rezowana, and the entire Sakhi team, has been tremendous. The flexibility and understanding of our team has been invaluable. It looks different for everyone – the PTO, the four-day weeks, it’s all been so helpful. Dance is also a big part of my life. It was difficult because all the classes shut down. So a lot of my care revolved around doing dance at home: propping up my laptop and doing a class on my own, in my own space. Movement is healing for me, and being able to do that in a time when I was confined to my home and, as things opened up, keeping that routine, has also been really important to me. Every week I try to take one or two dance classes. Maintaining that as part of my routine has been super helpful. I love Bollywood dance and fusion dance classes. And I say fusion because sometimes they will be jazz funk or hip hop that’s mixed with a bollywood song. The pandemic actually allowed me to do more styles because it was all virtual and I didn’t have to commute. It was a drop of normalcy in a time that’s just constant chaos. And really having space and quality time with my family, friends, loved ones. I think one of the good things that came out of this was that being locked down at home, I was able to have conversations around mental health and introduce my family to the world of mental health––at least how it affects and is important to me.
- Where and how have you experienced growth in this past year, either of yourself, or the world around you?
Largely speaking, I think I have seen a growth in the mental health field, where the priority around mental health has grown widely. That has been really nice for me, as someone in the field, to see. And the shift from being in therapy only because there is something wrong with me to being in therapy just because you need a little extra support, has been immensely meaningful.
I have always worked with trauma; in my previous role, prior to coming to Sakhi, I was also working with trauma. Specifically, I worked with children who had been in abusive households. But I had never worked specifically within the South Asian community. I always wanted to work within this community, honestly it’s why I came into this field. To be here with purpose and resources to flourish has been extremely meaningful. Being able to work with folks in a one-on-one setting, as opposed to whole families, was also a shift. Being in a space where I can hone in on an individual, expand and learn more on how to use various techniques in sessions with different people, was a learning curve. Adults are so much more complicated, not in a negative way: they just have so many more experiences to work through. I’ve been learning so much, as much as my client is learning, I am also learning from them. And I have been able to see my own knowledge expand because of this process. I seek out training that is relevant to specific clients: this client has this need, how do I learn and meet that need?
And I also just began my own therapy journey, and it has been so amazing to learn about myself, navigating how to live at home in the height of the pandemic, and being there for my parents, friends, my clients, and myself. That was so life-changing. It has allowed me to be better with my boundaries, with prioritizing what I need as a person.
I don’t think that, prior to this year, I had healthy boundaries and coping mechanisms and this year has allowed me to prioritize what I need.