Time was once when my office was a quiet private sanctuary where the patient and I could delve, without intrusion, into solving the difficulties in the patient’s life. Lately, the therapy room is abuzz with the chimes and digitized melodies of cell phones. Text message alerts and phone calls from patients’ circle of family, friends, and colleagues arrive with regularity during therapy sessions.
And when they do, there is a moment of decision-making for the patient as he or she feels the familiar tug to look and respond to the insistent vibration of the phone. Do I allow this interruption during my time of self-reflection? For just this one hour, can I hold the external world at bay while I explore my internal experience? Are the demands of the texter/caller more urgent than what I am doing right now?
There may be legitimate reasons to take the call immediately, whether the patient is a parent worried that the school is calling about a sick child, a business person waiting for a piece of information from a boss who expects 24/7 availability, or a teenager concerned about not being left out of the social network. However, there is a pause as they consider what to do when the outside world calls.
Psychoanalysts strive to maintain the boundaries of the therapy frame. We attempt to help patients put difficult feelings into words not action. Most analysts would ask their patients not to eat or do jumping jacks, say, during a session but attend instead to feelings and thoughts.
Somehow, perhaps because technology has become such a part of my own life, I have let the distracting chirps and ring-tones enter my office unanalyzed. My phone is always off during the therapy hour so I can focus exclusively on my patients’ struggles. It’s time I ask them to focus with me. I’ve decided to take a page from theaters everywhere: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Please turn off your cell phones!”