Tuesday, 5 May 2020

On pandemic lockdown while away from home (Sandi James)


In some upcoming RED Alert posts we are going to be hearing from La Trobe graduate researchers who are (for lots of different reasons) outside of Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. To begin this series, I invited Sandi James to tell us about her experience of sheltering in the UK after arriving for a conference. 

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This is the weirdest situation I have been in. Ever. And I have been in some weird situations before.

Originally, I came to the UK to present at a conference and a short 10 day visit to Ireland. I arrived in Ireland on the 8th March. It’s now the beginning of May and I am still here in the UK. I’ve lived and worked in South East Asia for the past 7 years, other than a recent 6 month stint back in Australia, so Malaysia is my home. My plan was to return to Malaysia where, on 30th March, I was meant to resume my posting as a Senior Lecturer in the Medical Faculty of a University there. That plan is temporarily on hold for now as I can’t get into Malaysia until the country’s borders are reopened.

So here I am.

Originally, I relocated from Dublin to a rural farming town near Belfast to stay with a friend of a friend. My partner was able to get home to Thailand before the lockdown and is still there taking care of my dogs. Partners being stuck in another country or location is another layer of complexity to the situation that many people are facing right now.

Being unemployed now (temporarily hopefully) and unable to access financial assistance (other than the financial grant through La Trobe, which I am incredibly grateful for) means that money has been a concern. So couch surfing is the new norm. I couldn’t stay in Belfast anymore and after 6 weeks I chose to relocate to London to stay with someone I know a little and who wanted to help. So here I am, now in London, waiting to go home.

Belfast was fun for a while. It was full of farmland… cows and horses to chat to, a sheep with a bucket on its head (really!). And George the Beagle who was very helpful. When the cows (Gertrude, Udder Madness, rumproast, sirloin, and bacon) and the horses started to run away when I approached them I figured I really needed to get out. I think they had had enough of my conversation! Turns out that the quiet rural countryside isn’t for me.

Flying to London was surreal. I haven’t found words to adequately describe that experience yet. But on arrival to my new home I quickly became aware how much I missed sounds. The sound of a child screaming, people talking in their yards, cars going by. Another human talking to me is so awesome! Between the time where I got off the plane and finding my friend at Paddington train station I was approached by Police three different times. Initially somewhat scary, they all turned out to be amazing. They were highly understanding and helpful when I explained why I was wandering around an empty tube station with a big suitcase looking incredibly lost. Even managed a joke with them about their British Police hats…

Being in the city is so different. I sit in the back yard area a lot, and have managed to make friends with Alex, a guy from the third floor window of a building one house over. We chat most mornings about what adventures we are planning for the day.

COVID-19 and shifting routines

Since all this has happened, my routine has changed a lot. I have been working on COVID related papers looking the impact of the pandemic on the behaviour and mental health of people in Malaysia, an easy to use mental health survival guide for Malaysian front line workers, as well as the literature review and methods chapters for my research and a bunch of other things. Operating across 4 time zones has proven challenging, and my sleep is erratic. But I need to stay connected to people so am doing things at weird times. I’ve also joined up with some colleagues and we have started an online therapy site, where I am going to be running groups for people who need support at this time. Oh, and one other thing… Some other colleagues and I have set up a 3 session series on decolonisation in the psychological/ therapeutic space. So I have been keeping busy.

It is difficult being so far from everyone I know. I am connecting online with everyone and every platform I can find. Creating zoom meetings to help me and others, attending as many RED sessions (e.g. SUAW and ‘Research Now’) as I can with the huge time difference, providing free online counselling for people across the world, and attending Zoom dance parties with my friends from Thailand. So, all in all, despite the significant hurdles (and the odd battle with staying sane), I am doing pretty well.

I understand that it looks like I am achieving a lot, and that may be true. It's not easy though and I have been struggling with motivation and attention. I have always needed to keep really busy, usually having multiple projects on the go at once. I know people are struggling with feeling unproductive as well. The way I am managing it is doing 10 or 20 minutes at a time, frequently and regularly through the day. This is how I operate under normal conditions as well. The university website has so many tools to help us all get through this time, so I suggest people check it out.

One of my coping strategies is humour, and I am collecting so many hilarious stories… might write about some of them another time.

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Sandi James is a registered psychologist from Australia. She worked at Universiti Malaysia (UMS) until 2017 when she returned to full-time research and clinical practice in addition treatment in Thailand. Sandi is a graduate researcher in Social Work & Social Policy at La Trobe University.

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