Ten days ago, I woke to the news I had visited a COVID-19 exposure site. My brain went into overdrive. “What if I’d contracted COVID-19? What if I’d infected my son? What if he’s spread it to everyone at childcare?”
I was still in shock as I spoke with contact tracers and got swabbed. I informed my former partner that he was a secondary close contact. He needed to withdraw our son from childcare and isolate until they both returned negative results (they did the next day). I had to self-isolate at home for 14 days from exposure and return three negative swabs before I could resume normal lockdown activities.
I’m a registered mental health nurse at This Way Up, a digital mental health service developed at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney. Since the pandemic began, the service has observed a 504 per cent increase in monthly registrations for online courses it runs in cognitive behavioural therapy.
Given my profession, I hoped I could handle the challenges of self-isolation with grace. However, I soon learned why solitary confinement and separation from a child are such effective forms of psychological torture.
My primal fears were triggered when I realised I’d lost my freedom and would need to draw on every inner resource I could muster to maintain my wellbeing. My hopes of sashaying through iso with push-ups and epic productivity soon faded. I was left with a doom-scroll induced rage and a cognitive stasis beyond my years.
I decided to structure my days with an achievable goal-directed activity and a creative outlet to offload my messy emotions. Inspired by Frida Kahlo, I started a series of collage works, one for each confinement day. Collage is a passion and a hobby in which I become immersed and can find a sense of “flow”, a positive mental state of being completely absorbed in the present moment.
Messages from friends and family helped a lot. I was especially touched by people who phoned or made surprise visits so I could wave from my balcony. I haven’t always known the best things to say when comforting someone in distress. I’m guilty of comparing my experiences and trying to find the quick fixes. I would do almost anything to avoid sitting with someone else’s distress. It’s hard. But I now know how powerful such support can be when it’s done well. The messages I found most helpful acknowledged how tough the situation was and validated my feelings.
My swabs all came back negative, and I was freed by text message from NSW Health. Self-isolation was excruciating. But it was worth it to prevent spreading this deadly virus. And I’ve resolved to be more empathetic when it is my turn to provide support. Every word and gesture counts as we learn to live with the cumulative, long-term stress of COVID-19.
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