As the second wave of COVID-19 began to take grip over Victoria, myself and my colleagues in the Medical Imaging Department at St Vincent’s Hospital were working tirelessly on the frontlines. For months, we had been working outside our usual scope; working in different iterations of teams and groups, working even more shift work than usual, and had perfected the art of donning and doffing PPE, whilst cleaning our workspaces almost obsessively to minimise our risk of exposure. Shortly after Stage Three restrictions were reinstated, I received a phone call from Contact Tracing at St Vincent’s. A colleague who I had recently worked closely with had contracted COVID-19 and we needed to determine whether I was to be deemed a close contact of hers.
I had just completed a night shift and had had only three hours of sleep when the call came through. I was so overwhelmed and anxious about how my answers to the questions would determine my fate for the next two weeks. I could hardly remember anything about the shift I worked with her - it was a complete blur. I scoured every inch of my brain as the unwaveringly patient Contact Tracer remained calm and allowed me to take all the time I needed. Based on the answers I gave her that evening, I was deemed to be safe; I wasn’t a close contact. When I woke up the next morning after a proper night’s sleep, more accurate memories had come flooding back to me. I had misremembered a number of things during that shift. The two most pertinent were that I had actually worked with this colleague for a number of hours, rather than the 15 minute handover I had originally thought, and I had also eaten lunch with her in one of our small workspaces as it was so busy, we didn’t have time to take a formal break in a designated meal area. I phoned the Contact Tracing team back and told them this new information, and they reclassified me as a close contact. I was to commence a period of self-isolation immediately.
Because I live in a sharehouse and I’m a healthcare worker, as are two of my housemates, there was no way possible for me to safely isolate at home. This meant that I would be referred to the Hotels for Heroes program. Hotels for Heroes organises hotel rooms for healthcare workers who cannot isolate at home. This is a government funded initiative, and all accommodation and meals are paid for by the program. Heroes are sent to either a positive or negative hotel, depending on their COVID-19 status. I spent the best part of that day hurrying around, packing everything I could think of that I might need - from clothes, to books, to wine, to a yoga mat and medication in the event I had contracted COVID-19. I also had to get a swab as I had a skerrick of a sore throat, which I had attributed to nightshift, but now couldn’t be certain. My partner, Laura, was an absolute God-send that day. Ferrying me from my swab, back home to pack, then she went off to buy me some groceries and cold brew coffee in bulk, then finally taking me to my hotel - my home for the next 11 days.
The hotel itself was wonderful. I had everything I could have asked for and more. I had a two bedroom apartment complete with kitchen and laundry facilities, I had windows that opened and a balcony that had incredible views over North Melbourne and beyond. The food that was provided was of a much better standard than I had anticipated (one meal I had was duck breast with a quinoa and edamame salad), and the portions and variety were very impressive. I had everything I could have possibly needed and now all I had to do was figure out how to fill in all the spare time I had…
Knowing that this period in isolation would be incredibly difficult for someone as social as I am, I tried to set myself a few simple goals to try to protect my mental health as best as I could. I decided that every day I had to: change out of pyjamas and into real clothes, do some form of physical activity and spend some time in the fresh air on my balcony. I also decided I wanted to try and limit my screen time. I set about creating some semblance of a routine as I had been told that was a vital component to practicing good mental health habits. I allowed myself to wake up naturally rather than setting an alarm and had my breakfast, and quickly introduced the ritual of replating all my meals to make them more appetising. I did an hour of yoga each morning and then had a shower. After that, it was generally the time of day where I had my second knock at the door, indicating lunch had been left at my doorstep. I replated lunch, and often ate that outside or next to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the fringe of the CBD. I spent my afternoons almost wishing the time away. Sometimes I FaceTimed friends or family, other times I did another yoga session or meditated with my colleagues who were also isolating. Some days I watched something trashy on Netflix, read my book or scrolled through my unending social media feeds. I would finally hear the final knock on my door in the evening at around 6pm, indicating dinnertime, or, more accurately, that another day was almost over and often rewarded myself with a glass or bottle of wine. I repeated this series of Groundhog Day 11 times.
I was so well supported by my friends and family who were constantly reaching out, calling me, messaging me, some even sent me gifts. I was also called multiple times a day from the various programs whose care I was under; Hotels for Heroes, Contact Tracing at St Vincent’s, Contact Tracing at DHHS, St Vincent’s Wellbeing Team and probably more that I have forgotten. Those calls became tedious and repetitive very quickly, and I lost track of who I was speaking to and for what purpose. I had begun to lose focus and direction, I was feeling lonely and disconnected and somewhat burdensome to those on the outside.
I didn’t really articulate those feelings to anyone. Instead I began to withdraw from speaking to most people, and really only staying in touch with Laura, my family and my housemates. Some nights I just drank more wine than I should have and used Tipple to order even more wine and some cigarettes too. I was surrounded by a community who were itching to support me, but I felt overwhelmed and more alone than ever. I was self-medicating and spiralling badly. Some days I would wake up and wonder whether there was a point in getting out of bed at all. Yet I persevered; I had promised myself that I would succeed and was determined to stick to my routine and achieve the goals I had set going into quarantine.
Reflecting on my time in quarantine, I realise that some of those feelings I experienced were normal. Feeling alone even when you are supported is normal. Feeling overwhelmed and a little bit anxious is normal. However, feeling like I didn’t want to get out of bed, drinking to get drunk or to eliminate boredom and higher levels of anxiety are signs of needing more help. I was lucky that these more concerning feelings started to happen towards the end of my isolation period, and I was able to halt the spiral by reminding myself I would be going home soon. I survived my time in isolation, a bit weary, but mostly unscathed. Ironically, although I was desperate to get out, once I was out and back at work, I was hypervigilant and afraid of being around other people.
Now that things are opening back up, I’m revisiting some of the emotions I had when I came out of the hotel. Being out in public with so many people around is incredibly daunting. Catching up with people who I haven’t seen in months and missed dearly almost feels laborious and is certainly overwhelming. Mostly, I feel fatigued at the thought of social obligations and a return to what was previously normal - I don’t want my life to look the same as it did pre-Covid. I have become even more conscious of my mental health and how important it is. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for a long time now and being overcommitted and overwhelmed are huge precipitates for a downward spiral. Going forward, I have promised myself to start saying ‘no’ more often. No one can look after me as good as I can, and no one else should be expected to. So I need to make the right choices in order to be the best version of myself that I can be. I need to find the right balance of returning to socialising and normal activities whilst maintaining some alone time and time at home that works for me. This is something I am actively working on.
Everyone is fighting their own battles and coping in their own ways. Some will return to normal life much quicker than others. Some will thrive, and others will hesitate. So many people are becoming withdrawn and attempting self-preservation by checking out. I encourage you all to start trying to reconnect at a pace that is comfortable for you. What works for you might not for someone else. If you are struggling to achieve a new normal - that’s okay! You aren’t alone. This is unchartered territory for everyone and we are all doing our best to persevere. I ask each of you to be forgiving of friends and family who might be overwhelmed and allow people to cancel, reschedule or simply say no to catching up immediately. Check in on each other, check in on yourself and try to be patient as we all navigate the new normal together, and individually.
It's okay to be experiencing feelings of loneliness.
For more information and support:
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Lifeline 13 11 14
HAFC Mental Health Ambassadors
Sarah Ward 0449 191 001
Pat Clancey 0438 545 520
Matt Tanis 0407 279 834
or reach out to anyone at the club