In one week my immediate family and I are leaving for a holiday on Heron Island. That was a difficult sentence to commit to. Not the sentence, just one word.
The certainty inherent in those three letters. Articulating it feels like I am going to jinx it, like I will alter the course of history, even though I know that’s impossible.
This is our third attempt at this holiday. The first was over Easter 2021. I almost needn’t follow that up with any explanation. To use a recently much reworked cliché -everyone was in the same boat…or in our case not in the boat bound for our holiday destination.
It was a time of global holiday cancellations. We were all still invigorated by the adrenaline of the early days of a pandemic many believed could be conquered and left behind.
We rebooked our holiday for Easter this year. But in a twist of acutely painful timing our city was locked down. Ironically only for 3 days. But they were the exact 3 days we were meant to travel to Heron Island.
By the time that little lockdown ended, everyone else was off to enjoy their Easter camping trips. We were left feeling slapped, as though we had been singled out by the universe to miss out on our holiday.
But we rebooked again. For next week. Knowing it might not eventuate this time either.
And about three weeks ago doom crept into the family. We began to censor ourselves and each other. Snapping ‘If it happens!’ if anyone dared mention anything to do with the holiday. We shot each other down with sarcasm and repressed feelings as though expressing any plans, hope or joy associated with this holiday would save us the disappointment if it had to be cancelled again.
So, just under three weeks ago our family decided – that instead of clenching everything, and white knuckling it through this will-we-wont-we time, we would allow ourselves to feel the joyful anticipation of this holiday.
We began to talk about what snacks we’d take on the car trip. What we were looking forward to most. We wondered if we would see clown fish. We started making packing lists.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is not about mindlessly Pollyanna-ing the reality we live in. All four of us are abundantly aware that things can look like they are going ahead one day only to have them snatched away in a minute.
While it is true that right now we have no control over whether our holidays or special events will be cancelled at the last minute – it is also true that we never did, we just weren’t as acutely aware of it.
But we can choose how we feel in the lead up to planned events. We can choose to anticipate disappointment or anticipate joy. Whether it ends up being disappointment or joy is almost irrelevant because it isn’t about the eventual outcome. It is about how we feel right now.
We can choose to scrunch ourselves into a ball of anxious negativity. But for what? Being able to say ‘See I told you it would be cancelled’ if it is cancelled? Like a sort of sick Schadenfreude directed at ourselves.
Or we can choose a more relaxed, positive attitude that coexists with the knowledge that it may be cancelled, but that the anticipation is pleasant. If the holiday goes ahead we will have had a much nicer lead up to it, than having to spend the first few days unclenching from the negativity.
If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t have wrecked the preceding few weeks with dread.
Choosing to have low expectations in an attempt to avoid disappointment is not only flawed, but in these times of immense uncertainty it doesn’t serve us well. It robs us of joy. The brave thing to do is hope in the face of uncertainty regardless of whether that hope ever grows into reality.
That said, I have two disclaimers for the hope approach.
The first is that the ability to conjure hope relies on reasonable mental health. Someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness, especially those featuring depression or anxiety will no more be able to think themselves into hope than a diabetic can think their blood glucose levels into the correct range. They will need the right treatment for them before hope can become a choice again.
The second is that if you are attempting this with children, they need to be old enough/emotionally mature enough to understand that the hope does not guarantee the holiday.
For today, everyone in my family is well enough to hope that by mid next week we will get to see those clown fish and soak in the endless blues of the sky and the ocean surrounding our tiny Island destination.
I am curious about where you are coming from. And it’s good to have a curious mind, isn’t it? So, I wanted to ask you some questions.
You know how you won’t take advice about Covid prevention from the doctors who believe in Covid (ie the majority of doctors)?
Are you aware that these are the same doctors you get your general medical advice from?
Here’s a specific scenario:
Let’s say one of your children came off their bike and… actually that raises another question – do your children wear bike helmets? I don’t want to make assumptions here, because in the same way you ‘have an immune system’ to protect you against Covid, I’m sure you are aware your children ‘have a cranium (skull bone)’ to protect them from head injury?
Do you view a bike helmet as an artificial and unnecessary device when the body has a perfectly good natural bony protection against brain injuries? Or am I drawing unreasonable conclusions about your beliefs here?
My apologies – I digress. It’s that curious mind of mine.
Let’s just say your child comes off their bike, knocks their head (helmeted or not), passes out, wakes up, and vomits. What do you do?
In that situation I would take my kid to the emergency department of the nearest hospital, but maybe you wouldn’t? From what I know about you so far, you and I make very different medical decisions.
But for the purpose of this piece of writing I will assume you do go to your nearest hospital’s emergency department. And if this is the case, my question to you is this:
Do you realise that most (if not all) of the doctors you encounter in the hospital believe we are in the middle of a global Covid pandemic and will advise that a combination of masks, widespread testing, selective quarantine, and vaccines are helpful measures to manage it?
And if you are aware of this, and you don’t trust their expertise when it comes to advice about Covid, how do you trust those same doctors to treat your child’s head injury?
How do you cherry pick which parts of your doctor’s expertise to trust?
If you take your child to hospital, do you jump onto Google before you leave and consult the same sources you do for your Covid information about the best way to treat a potential concussion in a child?
Or would you delay the care of your child’s head injury until you found a doctor who also believed masks are unnecessary and that Covid vaccines are part of a giant human experiment?
I mean, any doctor will treat your child. They have sworn an oath to treat everyone – neo-Nazis, child molesters, murderers – sorry, not equating you or your child with any of these demographics – just making the point that the doctor you see will treat your head injured child (even if they fundamentally disagree with your stance on ‘your freedoms’).
If you are reading this in Australia, you live in a first world country. If you have access to social media – and especially if you occupy an influencer space – there is a good chance you have enough to eat, a roof over your head, and access to first world medical care – including a hospital emergency department if your kid sustains a head injury.
You have an abundance of freedom.
If where you get your information from tells you not to be vaccinated – it may be inaccurate – but you do have the freedom to take that advice.
But when it comes to your refusal to follow other public health directives (masks, testing, etc), this is not about your freedom. This is about your unwillingness to accept any inconvenience. This is about you putting yourself first 100% of the time. It is you putting your convenience and comfort above the health and lives of everyone else, especially the many vulnerable people you share this country with.
So to my last question:
If you accuse the medical and scientific communities’ advice of curtailing your freedom when it inconveniences you, but then choose to rely on the mainstream health system when you have a medical emergency – Is that not the definition of hypocrisy?
The frantic newness of the pandemic has worn off, although the announcement of a lockdown still triggers an anxiety that (for some people) expresses itself in toilet paper hunger.
As we move into the second year of life with Covid I feel as though I am part of sick game of involuntary musical statues. During intervals of relative local stability we all dance to the music of few restrictions. But there is a sinister undertone – our movement can be stilled instantly when the Covid puppet master stops that music and we are all turned to stone for a while.
When Covid cancelled our family trip to Heron Island this time last year it was disappointing, but I countered it with perspective, a stiff upper lip. After all what was a lost holiday in the big scheme of things? So many people were worse off.
So, we rebooked the Heron Island trip for this year. We’d been due to leave on March 30. The anticipation of it had built joyously for the whole family. I was particularly looking forward to it. Our last family holiday in December was marred by the onset of a bipolar episode the day after we arrived that saw me unable to enjoy it and heralded more hospital time. 2020 Ends In Hospital
I am stable now.
Over the weekend two of us dutifully took Covid tests for minor sniffles, both of which returned negative with plenty of time to spare before our scheduled departure.
When I woke up on Monday morning, the day before we were due to leave, I actually thought we would make it. And then news of the 3 day Brisbane lockdown broke, and my joy turned to misery. Our household was plunged into mourning. There were tears, cries of shock, and lead filled stomachs as we processed this loss for a second year in a row.
Is my wording a bit dramatic?
Are you itching to respond with the catch cry of this first world country, the mantra of our year?
‘It’s ok because others have it worse than you.’
Does that make it ok?
Should this fact completely invalidate our experience or feelings? Does our disappointment, grief and anger have anything to do with someone else’s (potentially worse) experience?
No. It is totally unrelated.
And often swallowing our feelings through gritted teeth can be unhealthier than just vomiting them out and moving on.
I first encountered the results of suppressing my emotions because ‘others had it worse’ the night before my daughter’s first birthday, thirteen years ago.
The condensed version of the time surrounding her birth (if you haven’t already read about it in some of my other posts) is this: A 32 hour labour on 2 hours sleep, developing postnatal psychosis 7 days later, a month later catatonic depression, months in a psychiatric hospital, electroconvulsive therapy and much medication, and finally home by the time my baby was 4 months old.
As I recovered, I practiced a lot of gratitude for my healthy baby, which in itself is not a problem, but I had not allowed myself to process my feelings about that time before I plunged into gratitude.
The night before her first birthday I was out to dinner with friends. I could not stop thinking about what had been about to happen to me the year before. On the way home I pulled into the maternity hospital car park and lost it.
I wailed, tears and snot streaming down my face. It was ugly. But I finally owned my grief, and silenced the pernicious little voice in my head that had been telling me that I had no right to my feelings because I had a healthy baby and ‘others had it so much worse’.
It was only once I’d allowed myself to feel my feelings that I could move on baggage free and feel genuine empathy for those who, in the big scheme of things, had experienced worse.
I am not naturally inclined to drama. I am all for perspective. At times I have been quick to paper over my children’s strong emotions with perspective, not because it is helpful to them in the moment, but because it lessens my discomfort at their distress.
Perspective serves an important purpose. If it is timed right. Once the initial urgent feelings have been dealt with and released, perspective can help us move on with our compassion for others intact. But forcing it too soon can trap us in resentment and on the exhausting hamster wheel of pretending we’re ok, when we’re not.
Perspective (however well intentioned) would have been an unwelcome guest in our house just after the news of the holiday cancellation broke. However, 2 days later it had just started to soothe me with the knowledge that it could indeed have been much worse.
Proof that this could have been much worse came just now. The Brisbane lockdown ends at noon today. Covid has pressed play again. Brisbane people get to dance into their Easter holidays.
For me? Right now? Perspective has again momentarily retreated.
Excuse me while I go away and vomit up my feelings about the military precision with which our holiday was assassinated. We were turned to stone over the exact two days when we needed to be dancing.
I will welcome perspective back once I have emptied myself of this minor resentment and am keeping everything crossed, that maybe the music won’t be stopped on our third rebooking in September.
I recently encountered Covid restrictions and a lockdown as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. And while the specifics are relevant, my experience was more complex than donning a mask and staying inside. But let’s start with the specifics.
There is the loss of the hospital dining room and its well-stocked salad bar. This normally bright spacious room filled with chatter and choice has closed, gone into mourning. The ability to choose your own food and sit where you liked – a small token of independence – replaced by a tray delivered to your room at 7am, 12 pm, and 5pm with a sharp rap at the door. You get little choice and a small window to eat before the kitchen staff are back to collect your tray.
There is not being able to leave the hospital grounds until discharge. No opportunity to test where you are at with a short visit home. Another small freedom lost, and you become totally reliant on visitors to bring you anything you might need from the outside world. Until restrictions turn to lockdown and the visitors are banned from visiting.
All staff start wearing masks, and the buzz of their anxiety fills the hallways like a swarm of bees. Within a few days patients are told to wear masks anytime they are outside their rooms.
For anyone who has lived on this planet for the last year, none of these restrictions or lockdown conditions will sound unusual. Everyone has lived some version of them.
But my experience of them as a psychiatric hospital inpatient was different to my experience of them when I’ve been well and at home.
Even with access to an excellent private psychiatric hospital, being an inpatient strips me of autonomy and leaves me feeling as vulnerable as a slug on a busy highway.
The admission process alone – which includes providing a urine sample for drug testing and the thorough inspection of your bags (for any means of self-harm or suicide) by two gloved nurses – is a humiliating experience.
It screams: ‘You cannot be trusted’ and whispers sharply: ‘We are in charge of you now.’
It’s made worse if the nurses attempt light conversation about the contents of my bag.
‘‘That looks like a good book…’
I don’t have the energy for it, and it makes me feel like a toddler they are trying to distract from something unpleasant.
As a patient in a psychiatric hospital I frequently lose the right to my feelings. For example:
One of my admitting symptoms (usually prodromal to mania) can be intense pathological irritability. It is completely different to feeling irritable in a normal context. And it is not the same as the irritability I feel when I am forced to interact with one of the nurses whose attitude grates on me even when I’m well.
I try to be polite, but when my tone slides into curt, she cocks her head and says:
‘Your irritability levels are quite high today.’ before self-importantly noting this down as a symptom for the day. And I am powerless, because if I protest that would just be further proof of my mental illness to her.
And then there are the cringeworthy names I am called, mostly by nurses and kitchen staff:
‘Dear, Darling, Love.’
I am ‘Darling’ to only my mother. ‘Love’ never fails to sound derogatory to me. As for ‘Dear’ – one of my worst and earliest hospital experiences involved being called ‘Dear’:
Fourteen and a half years ago when I was less than a week into my first episode of mental illness, I experienced a severe psychotic episode. I was led into the Special Care Unit (the highest security locked ward) of the psychiatric hospital by two nurses, one gripping each elbow. On the way there, one of these nurses said:
‘Don’t worry Dear. You won’t remember any of this in the morning.’
The next morning I was so sedated by the (necessary) medication I‘d been given, I may not have looked as though I had any memory of the horrors of psychosis. But I remembered all of it. The proof is in the account of that night in my memoir being published this year.
If I knew where to find the nurse who called me ‘Dear’ (on that occasion), I would give her a copy to show her just how much a patient experiencing florid psychosis can remember.
There are many other factors that contribute to my sense of infantilisation in hospital. But elaborating on them would take me well over my word limit. So I’ll leave it here, for now.
Thankfully this recent admission was short (two and a half weeks) but the combination of the inherent lack of autonomy in being a psychiatric inpatient and the above mentioned Covid factors hugely amplified my vulnerability.
The second one was released recently and dives deeply into my work life before and after the onset of Bipolar 1 Disorder, and the adjustments I had to make for it to be sustainable. It hopefully goes some way towards dissolving the myth that it is impossible to function highly when living with a severe mental illness.
I was interviewed by Dr Kimberley Khodakah and you can find that episode here:
I ask because uncertainty is having a moment right now. It galloped in with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the further we get into it the more it seems to be digging itself into our awareness.
I used to be deeply uncomfortable with the pebble of uncertainty in the shoe of my life. I liked to know what was ahead. It gave me a (false) sense of control and the misguided belief that just because I couldn’t see uncertainty in my life, it didn’t exist. I deluded myself for decades that when there were no clouds on the horizon, the course of my life was somehow more certain than if I could see trouble ahead.
Then all the certainty in my life was put through a paper shredder within five days of my first baby’s birth.
I got my new baby experience with a side of florid postnatal psychosis severe enough to warrant admission to the locked Special Care Unit of a psychiatric hospital. My sense of certainty and control over my life went down the toilet.
After I’d recovered from this psychotic episode I felt entitled to some certainty. I wanted to know this nightmare was over. And I wanted a guarantee it would never happen again.
So when my psychiatrist mentioned ‘a possible underlying Bipolar Disorder’ and that it would ‘take three to five years to know for sure’, the inside of my head threw a combination of a tantrum and a pity party.
When I got sick again after three years, after seven years, and after nine years and my diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder was confirmed, I still felt entitled. Entitled because: ‘hadn’t I suffered enough yet?’ Entitled to not have to tiptoe through my life with everything clenched, waiting for the next time this thing pounced.
I have only recently acquired some degree of acceptance of the uncertainty this illness introduced into my life. I didn’t enjoy the last two episodes in 2018 and early 2020, but I also didn’t waste energy resisting them. In the same way I no longer spend any of my resources anxiously wondering when it will happen next and how bad it will be, because without wanting to sound nauseatingly Zen, the truth is: It will be what it will be when it will be.
Uncertainty exists in everyone’s life every day. But instead of it floating along in the background, right now it is constantly being rammed down our throats. It’s like having a nasty little gremlin on your shoulder whispering over and over again:
‘You do realise bad things could happen to you at any minute’, when the true risk of something bad happening to you is probably not that different to pre-Covid times.
For our mental health to survive this pandemic we have to learn to live with uncertainty, because the end of it is nowhere in sight. And just like my psychiatrist couldn’t give me any certainty when I first got sick, the smartest scientists in the world aren’t able to accurately answer this question about Covid-19: Will it ever be over, and if so when?
Uncertainty is an uninvited, kicking, snoring bedfellow. So how do we get comfortable with it?
First we tease out what about this situation we can control and what we can’t. For example, we can’t control the flow of information that feeds our uncertainties rushing over us every day, but we can control how much of it we absorb.
And once we’ve done what is in our control to help ourselves, we have to try and unclench from the need to know what is going to happen next. We need to stop trying to know and plan for a future that is like a spiderweb in a storm. Here’s what I mean:
During one of my admissions to hospital I sat staring out of the window of my room feeling as though there was no point in doing the work to rebuild myself because my future was too uncertain, my illness could tear me apart again anytime.
Over a couple of days of intermittent staring I noticed a spider in its web just outside my window. Every night it stormed. Rain, wind, a couple of times hail tore chunks out of the web, at times almost destroying it.
That spider showed me the way out of my tangled thoughts, by not only rebuilding every time after its pristine web was wrecked, but doing so in the face of the risk of the same thing happening again, whether the next day or in a year.
The sword of an uncertain future has hung over every single one of us since the day we were born. Nothing has changed there. It is just up to us whether we choose to battle with uncertainty and lose, or whether we accept that being alive will always mean living with uncertainty, pandemic or no pandemic.
Aside from a call to the poisons information centre, three visits to the dentist, one to a paediatric physiotherapist, one to my psychologist, recalcitrance and poor behaviour from me and my children, it also included a near fatal accident.
I nearly killed a young man at the beginning of this week.
And I did not want to write about it. The shame and incomprehension of this close call burn me in waves. But this incident bore a loud message, which I did want to write about.
On the first day back of school after months of lock down, I hadn’t planned to drive my children to their schools. We are walking distance from both. But time does strange things on school mornings. It slithers away at warped speed and suddenly, the window to comfortably walk to school on time slams shut. So, I drove them, on the proviso that this was going to be an exception.
Driving conditions during isolation have been muted. The amount of traffic diminished to that of a tiny country town in the middle of the night. School traffic ceased. Work commuter numbers slashed.
On that first day back at school, cars converged on the local streets and clustered around the schools like flies on a carcass. Drivers were filled with more emotion than a regular school drop off warrants. Joy. Fear. Dread.
My feelings? Happiness over the end to at home learning mixed with mild irritation at not having managed to get both kids out the door on foot on time. And once I’d dropped them, an urgent need to get back home and away from the chaotic traffic.
Impatience bloomed. I decided to make a right turn from a side street onto the main road across two lanes of traffic, to get me home more quickly than a series of left turns would have. The car in front of me went during a break in traffic in the first lane and was let in by a driver in the second lane.
I could see the same driver in the second lane holding a space for me to cross. So, I went.
I don’t remember if I glanced to my right to check the first lane was still clear. But the moment I slammed on my brakes and a young man on a red motorcycle had to swerve to avoid me, is burnt into the pit of my stomach.
I am a careful driver. In over 25 years on the road I have never had a serious accident. I have never driven drunk or while under the influence of prescription medication or non prescription drugs. I don’t text and drive. I was not sleep deprived or sick that morning.
So why this serious error in judgement?
But there was more to it. While we have been in isolation, our worlds shrunk to our homes and occasional short car trips on empty roads, it has almost been like a lengthy period of hospitalisation.
I know from all the times I have discharged from hospital after weeks inside that just because I am out of hospital, my life doesn’t just snap back into place. I have to put the pieces of it carefully back together.
Re-entry into the world after isolation is the same. Our reflexes are slower. We are more vulnerable to chaos.
I am not nostalgic for isolation time. I don’t want to regress into the woolliness of those early iso days, drifting down deserted streets, staring perplexed at empty toilet paper shelves surrounded by people with harried expressions behaving as though the world was ending.
I will be very happy to never again step into the uncomfortable ill-fitting role of someone attempting to assist with my children’s at home learning.
But the jolt of re-entry has been a wake up call. A wake up call that I need to take the time to consciously reintegrate after this most bizarre episode of ‘home hospitalisation’. My brain and body need some adjustment time. My children’s brains and bodies need some adjustment time.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of my near miss accident happened immediately afterwards. The young man on the motorbike pulled over and came up to my car. I wound down the window ready for, and feeling deserving of, his abuse and anger.
He didn’t abuse me or even swear.
He asked: ‘Did you not see me, because that was really close?’
All I could say was: ‘No, and I am so, so sorry. I am so sorry.’
I will never forget the young man’s face, his emotional intelligence and compassion in an adrenalin soaked moment. And I will never forget his parting words:
‘Be careful out there.’
We need to collectively ‘be careful out there’ as we re-integrate after isolation or we will misjudge situations and possibly make fatal errors.
The other lesson learnt the hard way by another member of the family this week (and one I doubt has anything to do with reintegration) was not to open a tube of superglue with your teeth.
I am not home schooling my children at the moment.
That implies a level of competence that far exceeds my attempts to provide a bit of supervision while they do what could pass for some form of schoolwork.
In fact, what I am doing could no more be called ‘home schooling’ than calling what my children’s teacher does when they are at school, ‘veterinary surgery’.
The new educational arrangements have made me ask myself this over the last week:
Are there any professions (apart from teachers) who are being asked to convey how to do their whole job to the general public in a very short time, using only online resources? I can’t think of any.
Yet suddenly teachers are expected to translate their university degree and years of practical experience into a format that parents with no training or experience in education can apply to their unwitting children at home.
And there will be some parents who will anticipate the same results as when their kids are being taught at school by the teacher.
I accepted a long time ago that I have no interest in the intricacies of how my children’s education is delivered. And I am not expecting to suddenly become enthusiastic about it, just because external circumstances have changed.
I do care about my children’s education. But my role and the teacher’s role in providing that education are clearly defined and there is little overlap.
I view these as my roles:
To love my children unconditionally and make sure they know it. To set clear boundaries for them. I am privileged to be able to afford to feed them, clothe them, and buy their educational resources. To do my best to allow them a good night’s sleep in a room free of devices, during the school term. To offer them a decent breakfast and a packed lunch, or at least the ingredients to make them. To offer them support in completing homework or schoolwork set by their teacher.
And to make myself available for communication with their teachers at any time.
I regard teachers with awe for the job they do. I know from friends who are teachers the high levels of empathy, patience, resilience, and emotional intelligence, among many other skills, they draw on to do their work well.
I also respect my children’s teachers enough not to encroach on the territory of their expertise.
When I attend parent teacher interviews, I only tend to ask four questions:
‘Does my child seem mostly happy and engaged? Is their behaviour appropriate? Are there any areas they are falling behind in? And, Is there anything else you would like me to know?’
Do you know what I never ask about?
The curriculum. Because I trust the teacher to know it inside out.
I feel for the parents who ask in depth questions related to the curriculum during parent/teacher information sessions, because right now they may struggle with the concept that they can’t single handedly provide their child’s school education at home, no matter how much they research the curriculum.
From an epidemiology point of view, at the time of writing, I believe the best place for my children is at home. But at the same time, my care factor for the quality of my children’s academic education ranks way below how much I care for not only my mental health, but the collective mental health of my family.
I acknowledge that while the two cares might not be mutually exclusive for many households, in mine – they don’t always sit well together. I may be biased by my own life experience, but that experience tells me this:
If my children fall behind in the curriculum, I am confident they will eventually catch back up to where they each normally sit. And they won’t be alone in that experience.
Yet if I tried to deliver the full curriculum to my children at home, I would transfuse the stress of my unsuccessful attempts into them. Over time, their mental health would suffer. Mine might suffer to the point of me having to be hospitalised again.
It would make as much sense as my children’s teachers attempting to perform surgery on their dog with only my online instructions to guide them through.
So, the alternative of my children having to work harder to catch up when this is over feels fairly benign. And this doesn’t mean they are doing nothing now. It just means I don’t hold myself to the unattainable standard of replicating my children’s in school educational experience at home.
And I could be way off here, but I imagine whenever I eventually return my children to their formal school based education – their teachers may prefer those children with their mental health relatively intact and their academic knowledge lagging, rather than the other way around.
(Additional note: The veterinary surgery analogies were drawn from my experience of working as a small animal vet.)
Long before Covid-19 arrived, vets and vet nurses were quiet, hard workers who didn’t complain about less than ideal working conditions. And, possibly unbeknownst to most of the pet owning public, for many veterinary staff, challenging working conditions were the norm.
Since this crisis hit, these essential workers are not getting much opportunity or airtime to communicate the difficulties they currently face at work.
The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has put the challenges of veterinary work on steroids.
I know a bit about what it takes to work in this industry.
I fell in love with veterinary work at fifteen, when I started volunteering at a local vet clinic. I wiped down tables, cleaned cages, and held animals. Then I started work as a casual junior vet nurse on Saturday mornings.
I committed the second half of my teenage years to the tunnel visioned hard work it took to get into veterinary science at university.
I worked as a small animal vet for twenty years, in many different practices in Australia and the UK. Working conditions ranged from excellent to atrocious.
Thanks to my experiences, I know this:
Vets don’t talk about their work stresses outside their own tightly knit vet circles. Some of us don’t even confide our struggles to our colleagues. We talk about our cases in detail for hours, but many of us still cringe at opening up about the state of our mental health.
Our clients get our kindness, our compassion our sympathy our skills our knowledge, our communication skills. But they never see our vulnerability. They don’t understand how high our risk of burn out (borne of caring too much and being overworked and undervalued) is.
They don’t see that when we walk through the door of the clinic our rostered working hours become irrelevant because we give ourselves over completely to everyone else who walks through that door after us.
Our clients don’t feel our pain when we lose yet another amazing member of our profession to its sky-high suicide rates.
I am currently taking a break from veterinary work while I concentrate on writing and mental health advocacy work. But I have many vet friends who are out there working and hurting.
I have spent the last couple of weeks collecting descriptions of work life from some of my (currently working) veterinary friends and contacts, because I believe that for the veterinary profession to survive this pandemic with its collective mental health relatively intact, the pet owning public needs to know about the difficulties its workers face at this time.
Here are some of the (summarised, paraphrased, and quoted) insights these vets generously shared with me:
On Covid-19 Regulations:
Some aspects of veterinary work make social distancing between staff impossible. For example, it is not feasible for a nurse giving a wriggly, excited puppy a cuddle and a vet looking in its ears with an otoscope, to be 1.5 metres apart.
Some of the protocols necessary to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission, such as contactless consultations (where the owner waits outside the clinic in their car, the pet is transported inside by a nurse in PPE, the vet examines the pet and then phones the owner to discuss further diagnostics or treatment), severely hamper efficiency and slow everything down.
Vets are used to working as efficiently as possible:
‘Normally I would type the history while the owner is in the consult and do an exam in between taking notes. Now I can only do one of these things at a time.’
Contactless consultations also limit a vet’s ability to read their client’s body language during the consultation, which can interfere with effective communication between vet and client.
Pets can be more anxious when separated from their owners. This may mean it takes longer to perform a physical exam, or it may be impossible to do as thoroughly as the vet would like.
Covid-19 level cleaning recommended between consults is more labour intensive and takes longer than usual.
Downsizing or closure of a practice due to further restrictions or a Covid-19 infection will have negative effects on the practice’s financial stability very quickly.
‘The nature of small to medium sized veterinary practices even in normal times is to run with incredible efficiency, but still on very low margins. They cannot sustain even mild to moderate downturns. They will not survive and jobs will be lost long before the drop of 30% revenue occurs required to be eligible for the Job Keeper Payment.’
Locum vets are particularly vulnerable to job loss now. As practices work to minimise the risk of a Covid-19 infection in their permanent staff, many locum vets are having their shifts cancelled, and are facing the financial difficulties and mental health challenges that come with job loss.
Vets are also more aware than ever of the financial constraints facing many of their clients.
‘It is super sad when you see a client who wants to do everything for their pet, but they have lost their job and can’t afford it. It breaks my heart. I am doing a surgery at a 25% discount tomorrow. The client didn’t ask for it, but I feel so sad for them.’
‘I feel even more conscious of the usual dilemma we have in vet practice of having to mix financial discussions with emotive ones as most people are understandably a lot more stretched financially right now. But veterinary practices are also under a lot more financial stress and if our invoices are not paid, there won’t be a vet for clients to take their animal to.’
And now more than ever vets are at risk of being on the receiving end of their clients’ financial frustrations.
‘I’ve already been abused in the car park once this week and I am preparing myself for a lot more of that to come as the stress is almost palpable in the air.’
On Mental Health
Vets often hold themselves to a very high standard. Under sub optimal working conditions that pressure will increase stress levels further.
‘Veterinary practice is already an emotionally draining vocation with highs and lows every day. Our staff feel responsible for their patients and care for our clients. And it goes against the grain to just drop our standards of care because of what’s going on. So, we are not going to start cutting corners.’
Many clinics have split their staff into two or more teams to reduce the chance of the whole clinic having to close if one staff member contracts Covid-19. This means vets and nurses may be working under short staffed conditions and even longer hours than usual:
‘The phones are ringing constantly. We hang up and pick up the next one. I am answering dozens of phone calls daily as a vet, as well as being my own anaesthetist, recovery nurse, and doing the usual vet things. And right now none of us have regular access to our stress relieving hobbies.’
Splitting staff into teams at work usually also means no contact between teams outside of work.
‘There were genuinely tears after the last ‘normal’ shift as people realised they may not see some of their friends for weeks, months even.’
Before Covid-19 brought added work stressors with it, vets were already at a high risk for mental ill health. This knowledge weighs heavily on many of us:
‘I’m concerned that abuse of controlled substances will increase and don’t even want to think about the suicide issue the veterinary industry already faces.’
Vets appreciate the many clients who are doing the things that make their work less stressful, such as practicing social distancing, being patient when things take longer than normal, and assessing what might constitute an essential phone call.
For example, now is not the time to phone your vet clinic for a lengthy discussion about which breed of cat you should get.
‘If the public can show extra understanding towards vets and vet nurses that will only be a good thing. We are not the only profession under strain but the pressures we are under are very real. Everything is taking longer so people need to be patient.’
‘We place a lot of blind faith in the honesty of strangers at the moment…I feel angry when I hear of my colleagues having got to the end of a consult only to have a client mention that they just came back from a cruise a week ago.’
‘Thankfully 99% of our clients are understanding and adhering to protocols without complaint, but I don’t think they quite understand how hard everything is for us right now.’
‘The shortage of equipment is tricky – no hand sanitiser, limited paper towels and gloves. It makes it hard to follow the guidelines to use hand sanitiser between every patient. Some human medications we use are in short supply, which will be hard to explain to clients when their pet’s medication needs to be stopped suddenly.’
‘We have also been asked to supply a list of things we can donate if needed – such as ventilators, propofol, midazolam, and surgical gowns and gloves.’
What is getting us through?
Now more than ever, humour, teamwork and appreciative clients balance out the challenges of veterinary work.
‘On the positive side of things, I work with a group of amazing humans and the way we all have each other’s backs has definitely shone even more so in recent times.’
‘On the upside we have always been good at the ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Also, we were born for this – we just need to pretend every person is a parvo puppy!’
(Parvovirus is a highly infectious, potentially fatal viral infection, most common in puppies, and requires full isolation nursing.)
‘Our team are amazing and have chosen to pull together with a plan to fight and minimise risks to client and staff safety, mitigate risk to the business and work toward sustainability.’
‘We have had wonderful support from our clients and community who have commended us for our initiatives during this pandemic to ensure both human and animal welfare,’
To conclude I will reach for words one of my close vet friends passed on to me. Even though upper management of veterinary practices, can be notoriously out of touch with the needs of its veterinary workers, this directive from the upper management of my friend’s practice encapsulates perfectly what I would want all vets working through this pandemic to hold close to each day, and what I would want all veterinary clients to be aware of and respect:
‘Throughout our career, veterinarians have always put our patients first, then our clients, then ourselves. In this pandemic, we must put our safety and the safety of our nurses and support staff first.’
The Covid pandemic feels as though it has equalised our collective mental health. Or if not equalised, then it has certainly ‘flattened’ the mental health curve.
Most people who live with a mental illness have at some point experienced unpleasant times with no fixed end point, over which they have little control. And now the rest of the world is being forced to experience this too.
I imagine everyone’s mental experience of this pandemic differs based on their mental health history (among other factors). But it’s fair to say that right now most, if not all, of us are experiencing some form of mental discomfort.
On the surface, those who live with mental illness appear to be most vulnerable to this. But, this demographic may not be as at risk as we think.
As someone who lives with a severe mental illness but is currently relatively asymptomatic, I feel surprisingly resilient…for now.
Having previously lived through the rock-solid horror of psychosis, the inevitable Covid anxiety that flits through my brain now feels relatively easy to manage. I have an arsenal of finely honed tools to combat it. All that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and individual sessions with my psychologist are coming in handy.
I am also familiar with having my freedom restricted at times. When I am on fifteen-minute observations in hospital, I can’t go outside. At my sickest I have been too unwell for visitors. It doesn’t mean I like it, but I have at least previously encountered similar conditions to the ones I am living with now.
But what about everyone else?
Many people had been living with mild to moderate undiagnosed or poorly managed anxiety and/or depression for several months or years before Covid hit. I am particularly concerned for this group.
They don’t have solid medical and social support systems in place yet. The all-encompassing Covid generated stress is the perfect trigger for worsening symptoms. And accessing good mental health care quickly and efficiently may become even harder than it usually is.
Depression and anxiety symptoms can make the sufferer feel isolated even if they are closely surrounded by loved ones. Social distancing – so essential to manage virus transmission – will exacerbate symptoms of mental ill health in this group.
Then there are the people who have never lived with mental ill health.
They may never have experienced racing thoughts, heart palpitations, chest pain, irritability, distractibility, gastrointestinal signs such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea due to anxiety, a low mood, insomnia, incessant worry, or any other mental and physical symptoms that can arise due to stress and/or mental ill health.
These people may not know why they are experiencing symptoms or have the psychological skills to put them in perspective. So, they will suffer more than they need to.
But there is good news in the quagmire of black headlines we are sucked into daily.
We can use our own mental health histories to help ourselves and others in this crisis.
If you live with mental illness and are currently symptomatic, your sole focus must be to do what you can to get well. I know from my experience I am of no help to anyone if I am symptomatic. It’s a cliché but one that applies here:
‘Put your own oxygen mask on before you help anyone else with theirs’.
Firstly, contact the medical professionals you would usually consult when you are symptomatic – whether that’s your psychiatrist, psychologist, GP, community health workers, or psychiatric hospital.
Limit your exposure to the news to once a day – if that. If you have family or friends who can reliably update you on the essential news only, do that. Immersing yourself in the details, is of no practical value, and it can make you feel worse.
Use the same tools you would usually use to distract yourself when you are living through an episode of illness. Eat regularly and well. Don’t consume alcohol or recreational drugs. And move your body in some way, even if it’s small, every single day.
If you live with mental illness and are currently asymptomatic be vigilant but not obsessed. Just because this time is stressful, doesn’t mean developing an episode of illness is inevitable.
Your oxygen mask will consist of continuing to take medication (if you take it), keeping your regular appointments with your psychologist, psychiatrist or GP where possible, eating regularly and well, exercising most days, avoiding or minimising alcohol consumption, and practising whatever psychological skills (for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that you have learnt over the course of your illness.
Be aware of any news developments that have practical ramifications for you, but don’t marinate in the news. Once you have done all this and whatever else you need to stay well – consider this:
You can offer support to those who are struggling mentally, those who have never experienced symptoms of mental ill health. Reassurance that their symptoms are survivable with the right care, could mean a lot to someone who is new to these issues.
That said – only do this if you have the mental energy to spare – otherwise just look after yourself.
To those who sense they may have been living with anxiety or depression for a while and it is worsening: All the suggestions with regards to eating well and exercise apply. Don’t self-medicate with alcohol or other recreational drugs. It will make things worse. Getting the right help is also crucial.
I am acutely aware that accessing good mental health care is a challenge in this country even when we are not mid crisis, but some excellent online resources to start with are: Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and SANE (Links at the bottom of this post)
To all the people who have never lived with mental illness: Distraction, exercise, eating well, and maintaining social connections via technology are a good start. Don’t self medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. If you are still experiencing symptoms related to anxiety or depression (as listed above) then the online resources at the bottom of this post may be useful, or make an appointment with your GP as a starting point.
And one more thing…
Once you have done what you need to help yourself – take stock of how this situation is making you feel. And then imagine feeling like this for much longer periods of time than this pandemic will last.
Imagine feeling like this but the pandemic didn’t exist and people around you made you feel as though your symptoms weren’t real.
Then translate your feelings into compassion. And when you feel like yourself again (and you will), extend some sympathy and support to those whose mental illness lasts a lifetime.
And to everyone: We can use our individual experiences of mental health and ill health to support each other through this strange new world and into a kinder future.
So look at who you are sharing your living space with at the moment and consider starting a conversation about where on the spectrum of mental health and illness you and your housemates or family sit. Then think about how you could help each other psychologically.
My own household is one of extremes (regarding the adults). I live with severe mental illness, currently asymptomatic. My husband has never experienced mental illness.
So, when he expressed frustration a couple of days ago about his attention span feeling like that of a gold fish, I said:
‘Yes, I know it sucks feeling like that. But it will be ok.’
And I gave him a hug – something which I believe (at the time of writing) is still acceptable and safe to do in a household in which no one is symptomatic or has returned a positive Covid test.
This post is based only on my own experience and anecdotal evidence.
For professional mental health advice please contact your psychiatrist, GP, or for more mental health and ill health information check out the following links, all three of which are currently set up to deal with questions about Covid related mental health issues: