Love in times of COVID — Love stories from the therapist’s chair, Melbourne, Australia 2020.

In the deep dark depths of the second lockdown in Melbourne, Australia, 2020, doctors were struggling. They had held it together through the first wave, juiced up on adrenaline and an inherent need to fix focus on others before themselves. Years of study and training in the back blocks and beyond reinforced a mindset and dedication to keep going, to avoid basic biological urges such as hunger, voiding and sleep.

But there was one urge that was insatiable. The need for connection. On a primal level, sex. If that brought about connection, all well and good,but overall, the need to connect with another human being.

In what was a most ridiculous time, doctors that worked in our emergency departments were even less connected to their patients as they scrambled for finite and precious PPE. Used to delivering horrific and life changing news with facial expressions, touch and time, they were now trying to do the same thing in a world that actively discouraged tactile communication in favour of survival from contracting COVID. The public health constraints were deservedly tipped in the favour of virus transmission but no discourse ensued about how doctors adapted soft skills they are so trained for while keeping safe.

The upshot was at the expense of safety from COVID, so many factors were far from safe.

Doctors know now that their risk of self harm, suicide and development of mental illness is way higher than the general population. These facts were determined way before the introduction of a pandemic, on top of the worst bushfire history in Australia, largely attributed to climate change.

I saw my doctors and a few were brave enough to disclose that they had already established a lockdown bubble with a person they had met online. They did not care about the risk of STIs, nor opening their homes to strangers. They needed to feel human touch. It trumped on the new COVID Basic Hierarchy of Needs. Sex and touch trumped basic shelter.

I had to keep my feelings aside, and also admit to myself I was alone too, and could understand the allure. I had no answers for my loneliness and isolation at this stage but to just keep working.

The doctors I saw in so much strife were those who spent the day in full PPE. Because of the palava of donning and doffing, they would spend up to 12 hours a day in the gear, slowly getting used to and avoiding feelings of hunger, and the need to toilet. They would speak of the behaviour of drinking 2 litres of water before donning and spending the shift actively needing to urinate, trying to fight off basic biological urges until they didn’t notice them anymore.

That was their new steady state. On top of that they managed overflowing emergency departments and crowded medical wards. They kept people alive and they kept the wheels of the system moving.

But they still yearned for love and comfort.

I spent a session with a doctor who had met a person online. I am loathe to say a partner but when it comes to a pandemic, maybe they were. With little discernment except for mutually swiping right, this person moved in, and waited for the doctor to don off, finish their shift, scrub themselves, change clothes to street attire and fall in the front door.

I wondered what I should say. Surely this did not fit into the realm of a person with leaky boundaries, or somebody who was becoming ‘elevated’ and promiscuous. I came to learn over sessions and time that this person was so bereft of human touch, both at home and at work that they simply couldn’t go on without it. And they had seemed to stumble across somebody who was prepared to wear the risks of coming into contact with a health care worker at the coal face, at times the pariah and the Typhoid Mary of disease. This on top of my patient being so cut off from family, the family that flew out in 2019 at the drop of a hat when they needed support and care while suicidal. All those supports stripped bare, and here I was trying to make sense of how to care and support and alleviate risk for them in a time when I had no benchmark but had to keep going.

There is no DSM for pandemic times.

Other patients bore the burden of others’ love, trying to be the desperate conduit between lovers at the time of calamity and tragedy. Many patients entered hospitals during the second wave and because they were undifferentiated and needed to be removed from overcrowded emergency departments, they ended up on temporary COVID wards, waiting to be confirmed or cleared, and hoping to get out before they succumbed to the virus itself within the hospital confines.

I sat with a few doctors who were in the first year of their career. Caught up in a pandemic and working on medical and surgical wards, a lot of their work was trying to communicate to families about why their loved ones had taken a turn for the worse, had succumbed to COVID while admitted for something else, and why, awfully, they could not visit. Some held the phones as loved ones bawled and the patients took their last breath, others tried to keep patients calm as they descended into a spiral of delirium and confusion knowing that the only thing that could keep them out of this hell hole would be the reassurance of a loved one.

Many of my patients went home after these incredibly gruelling shifts, only to try and catch some well needed but evasive sleep before fronting up in the morning, back through the COVID screening entries, unvaccinated, with no PPE and holding onto the glimmers of why they sacrificed so much to be a doctor in the first place.

As their psychiatrist, I feared these times would culminate in a spike in PTSD in the future. But right now, just like my patients, I buried my loneliness in work and duty and kept going.

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Helen Schultz

Finally doing what I wanted to do ‘when I grow up’. Professional author, drawing from years of working as a psychiatrist. Storyteller from the School of Life.