In this new series, we’re working to connect academic writers, scholars and researchers by sharing stories, reflections and comments on experiences adjusting, coping and struggling with the effects of COVID-19. Facilitated by Peter Cornish, psychologist and honorary research professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, we welcome contributions from readers including guest posts or commentary. While this initial post assumes a discussant format, we wish to embrace diverse dialogue using varied voices and methods. Let us know how you’re doing, feel free to get in touch if you’d like to share your story, and check back for the latest blogs in this series.
Written by Peter Cornish and Skye Barbic
On the first warm day of the COVID-19 lockdown I stepped out my back door, clearing a space in the post-winter clutter of decaying leaves and choke cherries that covered the paint-peeled planks of the deck. The first thing I saw beyond the fence was my new neighbour who was pounding the dust from a rug slung over his porch railing. I introduced myself. His name is Joe. We exchanged pleasantries which included the perfunctory COVID-19 exchanges about uncertain times. Then I asked him if he was working from home. He said yes and then I asked about his line of work. He said that he is a post-doc fellow working at the University of Saskatchewan a few blocks from our leafy neighbourhood. “What is it like working from home,” I asked. “It is strange,” he replied with his pleasant lilting Nigerian accent, “The wet labs are closed now, but I am allowed to go in every two weeks to check on the equipment.” “What are you able to do from home then?” I asked. He smiled and exclaimed, “Lots of Zoom meetings,” pausing for a breath, he added pensively, “You know, it is like a welcome breather. I am catching up writing reports and submitting them for publication.”
At first, I thought, this is a good example of constructive adaptation. It demonstrates resourcefulness. Rather than lamenting the disruption of data collection, the ticking clock on diminishing grant funding, he saw an advantage in writing without distraction.
At first, I thought, this is a good example of constructive adaptation. It demonstrates resourcefulness. Rather than lamenting the disruption of data collection, the ticking clock on diminishing grant funding, he saw an advantage in writing without distraction. This kind of resourceful recovery was, in part, what we were now encouraging in our work leading a Government of Canada COVID-19 e-mental health response. Wellness Together Canada is a web portal which provides a wide range of free resources, including telephone counselling, aimed at assisting the people of Canada to cope with the psychological impact of COVID-19.
As a privileged white male, however, I lacked some perspective both in my analysis of Joe’s situation and in the focus of our COVID-19 response. I should not have missed this. After all, many years ago, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation on “profeminist men’s experiences with gender issues.” But I did not see the limitations of my analysis. That is until I began to reach out to colleagues who I hoped would share their own experiences with adjusting to the “new normal.” Enter Skye Barbic.
On the first warm day of the COVID-19 lockdown, I was at home, clearing a new space for a home office and an immediate crisis response to move my program of research online. Twelve graduate students, 10,000+ enrolled patients in studies, fiscal end-of-year reporting ahead of me, and two spring courses now moved online. One week later, the largest funding calls in history are released, with the expectation of a 2 week turnaround due date. The pressure to peer-review or submit these COVID-19 grants is high. The expectation to pivot is non-negotiable. In one ear leadership says, “take care of yourself during this difficult time”, in another ear - my pre-tenure ears hear “publish or perish”.
In one ear leadership says, “take care of yourself during this difficult time”, in another ear- my pre-tenure ears hear “publish or perish”.
At first, I thought my behavior was an example of constructive adaptation. My 17 years of clinician-scientist training perfectly suited me to play a leadership role during the pandemic. I know I can pivot and become the researcher that the community needs. But as time goes on, I realize that I have many new roles outside of the research space. Despite my training and ideal research environment, I now have young children at home and a husband who is a front-line worker. My new stress includes home-schooling, new routines, sibling wars, supporting neighbors, and missing friends and family. In early April, my youngest started having nightmares and sleepless nights worrying about his father- who is an emergency physician. Despite constant reassurance in the evenings, our days are filled with calls from worried friends and family asking them “how is your Dad doing?” “Mom” he would say, “why does everyone keep asking if Dad is healthy?”. The nightmares continue. The sleepless nights continue. My best friend and partner of 20 years is quarantined from our family in exchange for helping others. I am at peace with this most of the time. But when I see members of my community moving unsafely and not considering the sacrifices others are taking, it makes me want to work harder to find solutions. My family deserves this. My community deserves this.
As an educated woman, I have quickly mobilized my priorities and readjusted my schedule to meet the needs of research and my family. I co-created a schedule that ensures my students and team have a common goal and are working together. We hold meetings outside of homeschooling time. I wake up at 5am and write for 2 hours until the children wake up. After they go to bed, I write more. I am motivated by the PPE scars on my husband’s face, and the need for my family to get back to “normal” as soon as possible. I also have an article beside my computer that reports, “men are submitting 50% more papers than women during COVID-19”. That article motivates me too. My new normal involves focus, clear communication, and saying “thank you” a lot. I have submitted 5 grants this month, 12 new ethics applications/ amendments, and somehow put four papers out of the door. I do not expect others to understand my new normal. I just ask that we all respect each other’s experiences and work collaboratively to achieve the common goal: health and wellness for all.
I was invited to contribute a post to this blog because I am a therapist who is helping to develop tools aimed at supporting people who are struggling as a result of COVID-19. Perhaps I could offer tips, coping strategies, or some sort of wisdom? As if it were that simple. There is endless advice out there. I’m not looking for advice. I doubt Skye is either. I am reminded of something I learned about resilience reading Michael Unger’s book, Change Your World. Unger, like Malcom Gladwell suggests that success is mainly about luck and opportunity. The two overlap. I was lucky to be born a white male. I am lucky to have an opportunity to work now and still get paid. I am lucky that my children are grown and managing on their own through this crisis. Of course, many are not so lucky. Skye does not expect others will know her experience. And it is hard to know the experience of others when we are physically isolated. I miss talking to strangers. As an introvert, this surprised me. Maybe it is because these encounters were often so unencumbered. There was no purpose or task to perform. Some people have nothing to do these days while others have too much. What is missing is connecting to the little things that grease the wheels of life. Maybe this blog can be a space for anecdotes, passions, rants, or gentle musings. Such are the stuff of stories. And stories are rich with connection. Please comment. Please add your story, big or small, to this blog.
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Dr. Peter Cornish is a psychologist, Honorary Research Professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the incoming Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of California - Berkeley. He is the father of three grown, successfully launched (fingers crossed) children. His partner is also a psychologist. He is the founder of Stepped Care 2.0 and is currently leading Canada’s national COVID-19 e-mental health program response, Wellness Together Canada. He is the author of the forthcoming Springer title, Stepped Care 2.0: A Paradigm Shift in Mental Health.
Dr. Skye Barbic is an Occupational Therapist, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, mother of two children, and wife of a front-line worker. She is the Head Scientist at Foundry and studies the impact of integrated youth health services on the mental health outcomes and experiences of young people and families.