As you read this, it will have been roughly 12 months since Toronto first began to experience the social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, when children were sent home for an extended Spring break, my hockey season ended abruptly, and local hospitals began to brace for the worst.
Of course, Toronto is not alone in this outside of China—unlike with SARS-CoV-1—and my home city has fared so much better than many parts of Europe and places like New York City during the first wave. And I personally have fared much better than many of my fellow Canadians, whether in terms of physical health or employment.
But I am tired.
Throughout those 12 months—like many of you, I suspect—I have monitored the spread of the virus and now its variants and the evaluation and creation of experimental treatments and vaccines. And with my biochemistry degree and decades of science writing experience, I have served as checkpoint for friends and family uncertain about whom to believe in the cacophony of news and gossip that has and continues to spread around the world.
To the best of my abilities, I have served as a calming voice in the face of emotional turmoil for my loved ones, sharing cautious optimism about what each new finding could mean to our struggle against the virus. Tempering friends’ enthusiasm when another study arises showing efficacy of some therapy in mice. Calming shattered nerves when health officials announce a new range of COVID-19 pathologies or new variant strains with unknown infectious capacity.
And again, because of my work here at DDN, I have become the face of biomedical research and the pharmaceutical industry in my social circles, the one to whom friends and family have turned with accusatory tone, wondering why the communications and guidance seem to constantly shift.
“Why does everyone waffle?” they ask. “Why can we not get a straight answer?” they plead.
And despite my best efforts to provide some form of an answer to their questions, I am ultimately reduced to a shrugging acknowledgement that science and medicine simply aren’t that black and white. That we cannot rely on the experiences of one country, one state, one town, or even one household to translate to the very next one.
I’m so tired.
Like everyone, I have adjusted my lifestyle to suit the current pandemic and social state. I live alone and so rely heavily on social contacts via Zoom or Skype to maintain a sense of normalcy. Outside of DDN, I teach continuing education for a local college and film community, which has ironically served to extend my reach geographically—I now teach students in Europe and Australia—but has limited my ability to connect with students at any personal level.
I serve and help to conserve my community and local businesses as best I can, often without leaving my home or sharing a masked smile. We are here for each other and we will be here when this phase has ended, I cheer. And yet, businesses close and neighbors secret themselves behind curtains and doors.
So very tired.
Twelve months into this process, with vaccines approved but poorly distributed across Ontario and shipments delayed, I am only now beginning to fully realize how exhausting it has been to be perpetually cautiously optimistic. To find and share light in a period of uncertainty and literal darkness (winter in Canada; what are you going to do?).
Again, despite doing so much better than so many people in my community and around the world, I cannot deny that this past year has taken a toll on my mental health. The isolation, the precautions, and the energy I expend to support others has come at a cost.
I am confident I am not alone in this, that many of you also struggle. That many of you are also quite tired.
Perhaps it is less irony than fate that I will be looking at questions of mental health in my April Special Report on Neuroscience. Perhaps in doing research and in conducting interviews, I will find some answers for dealing with my state of exhaustion.
As each of us stands as a source of cautious optimism and support for our respective social circles, it is vitally important that we remember to care for ourselves, as well.
Be willing to ask for and accept help from others. Be gentle with yourself, responding to your limitations ideally before hitting them. I will endeavor to do the same for me.
Step one is to recognize that I am tired.
Randall C Willis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org