Writing your COVID worries away - (with Andrew Gan and Dr Jet)

COVID and all its attendant inconveniences (I guess some would say “tortures”) has forced many of us to revise our personal wellbeing plans and dig out some old strategies that we haven’t used for a while. It’s also made some of us realise that many of the things that we thought were just parts of our normal life were, in fact, wellness strategies.

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With lockdown we all threw ourselves into new activities like Zoom cocktails, online concerts, learning to bake sourdough and Zoom dinner parties. Now the novelty has gone and those of us who can are now returning to old-fashioned pastimes or strategies from our earlier lives that have a proven personal therapeutic benefit.

My favourite thing is to write - I used to do it a lot when I had time.

In the past I’ve done courses in short story writing (that led me to the conclusion that I should stick with my day job), plotted out several novels that I haven’t got around to writing and joined groups of people that meet regularly to discuss their poetry and short stories. A life as a writer has been a happy fantasy, but writing has always helped me process the stressors in my life and given me the freedom to use the creative part of my brain – the part that lies dormant for most of my working day.

I want to introduce you to two people with vastly different writing styles who have also discovered writing as a way to survive and thrive.

Andrew Gan has the misfortune to be a GP in COVID stricken Melbourne. He grew up in Singapore then came to Australia to study medicine. At high school he was in love with creative writing and had the good fortune to be mentored by one of Singapore’s leading contemporary poets, the late Miss Ho Poh Fun. As Andrew says in this piece, he took up running to help him through COVID. It’s led to this beautiful riff about his running experience that combines his two favourite wellbeing strategies into one.

During Stage 4 Restrictions in Melbourne, I took up running….

To be perfectly honest, it was my excuse to be outdoors while not wearing a mask. I spend up to 8 hours a day clad in a face mask; goggles; gowns, face shields. It feels like a relief not to be clad in a plastic bubble 

 I run to feel the crisp breeze on my face. 

Sometimes I close my eyes and wonder if this is what it might feel like to have an oxygen tank deliver 8 litres/min into my alveoli.  

I pass by an elderly neighbour out on a leisurely stroll. Was that a smile, or a scowl, under his face covering?  

I run to feel the pounding rhythm of the asphalt beneath my legs.

It reminds me that I am not paralysed in an intensive care bed, reliant on nurses to turn me so as to avoid bedsores.

I look up at the overcast sky, and wish I could feel the warmth of the sun on my cheeks. I am told by popular media that Vitamin D may boost my immune system; that ultraviolet rays kill coronaviruses. I recall the historic existence of medical sanitoriums and their inhabitants – were they likewise skeptical of their illnesses and treatments?  

I run to spy on my neighbour's plum tree. Its numerous buds have finally broken, displaying a cacophony of twinkling salmon blossoms. Standing underneath it, I marvel at its abundance; and silently wonder if I will still be here when it fruits in summer.  

I wave to the regular runner on the other side of the road, and she silently waves back. We respectfully keep our social distance day after day, and give each other the thumbs' up. She appears in head-to-toe athleisure wear, and I wonder if she stays in it all day - not much else to dress up for, is there?  

A sprig from an errant bush brushes against my ankle - has it escaped the wrathful glare of the whipper-snipper? If I had not noticed it and snapped it off, would it keep on creeping and growing across the pavement?  

I know that duties wait for me at the end; patients to be seen, phone calls to be made, results to be checked, emails to be answered. But for now I am content where I am headed; each throbbing pulse in my chest; each tenacious exhalation, followed by another. Every laboured breath drives me further; further from where I began and closer to where I want to be. 

If you’ve heard of James Pennebaker you probably know that there is a body of evidence out there to support the notion that writing is good for your mental health. Pennebaker showed that it wasn’t what you write or the style that you wrote it in that was important, but just the act of writing. His research subjects wrote unpunctuated, unstructured, stream of consciousness stuff that didn’t need to mean anything to anyone – even themselves and even that was shown to be beneficial.

Here's another sample of great writing in a different style from someone whose day job, as an ED doctor in rural Victoria, demands that she do everything she can to keep herself on an even keel. You can find out more about her by reading her work.

DR JET WRITES FOR SURVIVAL

I may never have the words to accurately characterise the depth of my dread at the prospect of socially isolating, when the reality of me + work (ED) = COVID vector sank in. Something, I suspect, like doom/sheerpanic/jesustheapocolyseiscoming/newswearword/isitoktostillgetpizzadeliveredifidonttouchthem

That’s ok, thought I, the optimist, I will get stuff done around the farm. This will be a great opportunity!

Then it rained. And rained. And rained. And rained.

Not one to be put off by a bit of water falling from the sky, or wind spearing sleet into exposed areas of H.Sapien flesh, I rugged up, brought the coolest and comfiest gum boots I could find[i], procured 25 meters of dirt from Facebook for free and began shovelling.

On the morning of the 7th day I looked at what I created and said:

                                    “S..t. Can I get out of the driveway?”

Whilst patting myself on the back for solving the evolutionary issue of humans living in swamps (and for FREE no less!) I failed to recognise that all this sky water appeared to be making my marvellously free soil quite sticky. I suppose, in retrospect, it was getting heavier on the shovel, and yes, I did find myself a few days in alternating between shovel, pick-axe and scraping with my hands à la Canis lupus familiaris, but I was unfit! Of course, this would be hard work!

So could I get my car, and horse float (pride and joy, the first) out of this newly established higher swamp?

Indeed, I could. It just needed 2 hours of exploring my new cars 4WD capabilities in chassis deep mud + jack-knifing my horse float + taking out 1.75 electric fence posts + body length scratch to both vehicles + male neighbour driving by in tractor and lifting out now totally stuck horse float and 4WD with forks of tractor + taking the women on farms movement back 40 years.

Yep.  Piece of cake. And free dirt.

 

Are you inspired by these pieces?

Just remember, it doesn’t have to be this good to be good for you.

Happy writing to you all!

References

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Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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