Clinicians are currently in the same predicament as their clients. They are struggling with similar pandemic-related challenges, and many of the go-to interventions aren’t available right now due to social distancing. Clients feel isolated and lacking in social support and, while social media offers some respite, friends and family might not be able to offer the client what they need due to their own challenges.

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While this can feel a bit hopeless to clinicians, the answer lies not from without but from within: television, once thought of as the bane of social connection, gestures towards part of a potential solution. As long as clients have a television, internet access, video games, comics or books, they are just moments away from potentially meaningful attachments. Parasocial relationships are the one-way relationships people have with objects of their affection — both real public figures and fictional characters. We prefer to call these relationships Fandom Attachments, as the fans are experiencing the benefits of attachment to their celebrity/fictional heroes. These relationships can be incredibly healing. They offer the additional benefit of play — an outlet for the imagination.

There are few positives that the pandemic has provided, but one is the destigmatizing of Fandom Attachments. Culturally, these attachments are often looked down upon as being childish (in the best of times) or pathological (in the worst). However, during this time of isolation, the usual narratives surrounding fandom’s lack of importance, simply don’t hold. Where else can someone go? Who else can they see? The pandemic has given people permission to play in this realm.

But it isn’t sufficient simply to advise a client to go watch television. The awareness of Fandom Attachments might be new to clients and they need support from their psychotherapist on how to interact with this new form of attachment and play. First, the clinician will want to ask clients if there are any fictional characters or (non-fictional) public figures with whom they feel connected. Clinicians should prepare themselves for a broad range of answers. Beyond mortal and superheroic/supernatural figures, some attachments might include YouTube makeup artists, Twitch streamers, reality TV stars, actors, and fictional characters from any media.

Once the client has identified a Fandom Attachment, this is an opportunity for the use of Therapeutic Fanfiction skills. The clinician has the opportunity to become curious about the reasons for the attachment––just like in any relationship. What draws the client to that person/character? What is the feeling they get when they are “together?” How can/does that person/character support them during this time? And, just as the clinician always does, listen without assigning any judgement to what the client discloses. The client is sharing an important relationship and source of meaning. Depending on the answers to these questions, a treatment plan begins to form.

Let’s explore the case of Audrey (name and details changed). Audrey presented for therapy six months ago due to profound anxiety. She was making excellent progress in reducing her anxiety through interacting with friends and taking regular yoga classes. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, she couldn’t work, and her yoga classes weren’t meeting. She lives with roommates who caused her some distress, but this distress had become intense, as she felt she couldn’t get away from them due to the pandemic. But she felt trapped when she stayed in her room to get away from them.

After some inquiry, I (Justine) discovered that Audrey felt an attachment towards the television series Twin Peaks, and particularly the character of Agent Dale Cooper. Audrey found “Coop” to be comforting and full of sage wisdom, like “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen.” I wondered aloud if Audrey could give herself the present of time with Coop away from her roommates. This sparked joy for Audrey, who responded that she would love to spend time with him, and that maybe she could have Coop’s favorite meal — coffee and cherry pie — while she watched. I affirmed this and said that we would check in on her “date” with Coop at the next session.

Social distancing and the ensuing quarantine challenges us all in numerous ways. As clinicians, if we can think beyond our scope and get creative with our clients, we can help them use the power of play and Fandom Attachments to foster resilience and weather the storm. There are so many unknowns during this time, but, taking Dale Cooper’s lead again, what we can offer our clients is this: “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.” 

File under: Musings and Reflections, COVID-19 Blogs