Greta Lukavic worked in a grocery store throughout Melbourne’s Coronavirus lockdown
As Melburnians dive into summer and bandy about phrases like ‘the new normal’, it’s worth sparing a thought for those of us who are suffering a bout of post-COVID-19 fatigue.
I’m talking about the variety of fatigue that manifests as a kind of emotional burnout in people who worked steadily through the pandemic, Christmas break and New Year, without taking time to come to terms with the ways in which the pandemic transformed their day-to-day lives during the past 10 months. These post-COVID-19 fatigue sufferers can be tricky to spot: most became accustomed to concealing their fraught feelings as the demands of their frontline jobs mounted.
I know this from personal experience.
You Are Far From Alone
As a full-time student and part-time grocery worker, I was fortunate not to have to categorise 2020 as a write-off, like so many of my contemporaries who had to sideline travel, career and study plans.
My precious work permit granted me access to the eerily silent trams which would ferry me through Brunswick to the independent grocery store where I spent every waking minute that I was not in a Zoom class or studying. Some days, I would be on my feet from 7am to 10pm, maintaining my helpful retail persona while keeping one eye on Melbourne’s steadily rising case numbers.
During especially dire times at the store, when supplies were under pressure, we kept emergency stashes of toilet paper out the back for our elderly customers, and the staff had to constantly apologise for our inability to keep the tinned food aisle stocked. Over the past two months, activity at the grocery store has quietened down to a manageable buzz. But I have yet to join the ranks of those happy bakers, novice knitters or plant parents who chose from a myriad ‒ or at least fifty ‒ creative pursuits as a way to therapise the events of 2020.
I recall feeling a flash of (irrational) white-hot rage when, during my hurried lunch break, a close friend sent me a WhatsApp video of herself taking her latest loaf of sourdough bread from the oven. The video came complete with audible microcracking indicating that she had achieved the perfect thin yet crispy crust texture all bakers aspire to.
Unfortunately, I was in no fit state to share my friend’s elation. I had taken to falling asleep on trams, trains and once, almost, behind the wheel of my car. And I wasn’t just suffering from tired feet and an aching back. I was mentally drained from the overriding helplessness of knowing I was helpless to bring about an end to our global circumstances.
I was not alone. By this stage of the pandemic, I knew many of the grocery store regulars by name, many of whom would stop by store a few times a week, ostensibly to buy an onion or a chocolate bar but, really, to connect with another human. One of these regulars was Trish, who had just separated from her husband and was feeling completely at sea. Her whole support system ‒ family and friends ‒ were a world away in Sydney.
Then there was Ruth, a fabulous cook who, before the pandemic, would bring me in a slice of sticky date pudding or jar of lemon curd. But during the lockdown, she moved into her partner’s parents’ flat where she was politely banned from using the kitchen, which was the domain of her boyfriend’s mum.
Last, but certainly not least, there was Casey who, like me, was studying full-time while working long hours – in her case at a high-risk mental health hospital. In the space of a fortnight, Casey had been physically attacked twice by increasingly (and understandably) irate patients who, like the rest of us, were struggling to come to terms with the COVID-19 rule book.
These regular customers continue to frequent the store now as we embrace our new normal. When I ask ‘how are you?’ ‒ a question they never regard as merely perfunctory after the events of 2020 ‒ they often respond with something along the lines of ‘OK, just… flat.’
Why? It’s hard for them to pin down: ‘I don’t know. It all feels the same to me.’
I have friends who feel the same way. One of them, Olivia, had her fingers in many pies before the virus took hold in Victoria. She split her time between working in hospitality, freelancing as a digital artist and volunteering at genetic research industry events in the hope of increasing her chances of being accepted into a highly competitive genetics course.
When these industry events were cancelled and her hospitality employer was forced to close down, Olivia spent most days pitching her creative talents to potential clients in an attempt to scrape together enough money to cover her meagre rent. When the time came to pitch herself to her course admissions officers, Olivia was so burnt out that she made a half-hearted application which was rejected. Since then she’s returned to live with her family in Western Australia and to reassess her career options.
Unfortunately, she’s facing down an enormous wave of apathy: ‘Maybe I’ll just become a teacher… or… something.’
It’s Never Too Late to Work Through Your Hang-ups
As life in Melbourne gradually returns to something like the old normal, it’s important to identify that some of us are still having to do our utmost to keep our heads above water as work gets busier and busier.
Grocery workers, healthcare workers, delivery drivers and staff of public transport, farm and factory hands, retail staff, teachers and lecturers, pharmacists… it’s time to give yourself a good once over.
Are you lethargic? Sleeping poorly? Suffering from decreased levels of motivation? Feeling resentful? It’s time for you to press pause and deal with the stresses of the last few months.
See a therapist, belatedly reconnect with those around you, or identify some other meaningful stress-management technique that suits your personality. Most of all, give yourself permission to work through worries of 2020 which are still weighing you down.
Never mind that ‘other people have had it worse than you’, ‘at least you had a job’ or ‘the worst is behind us now’. Your feelings of fatigue are valid. There is no snapping back to simpler times but you owe it to yourself to start 2021 with a clean slate.
Greta Lukavic is a student in the Master of Publishing and Communications at University of Melbourne, and the author of Sustainable and Fashionable: Melbourne (Hardie Grant Books, 2020).
The names of all the customers and acquaintances mentioned in this post have been changed to protect their privacy. Image courtesy of @abbiebernet, Unsplash