Kate Melanson: I was Regaining Control of My Life. Then COVID-19 Came.
Updated: May 5
Before all of this started, I already felt like I wasn’t in total control of my life.
I wasn’t sure about what my next job would be, what I would do to make my current job more interesting, when I could move, where I would be moving, and the list went on. It still goes on, technically, but the main problem is that as an overachieving, perfectionist from a young age, uncertainty and I do not get along.
For years, there were things in my life I could control. I could control the hours I worked on my dissertation. I could control how I graded my students. I could control my social life. Then, I finished my Ph.D. and began a fellowship year in science and policy where I was placed at a state agency. Suddenly, I was told what hours I had to work, where my work priorities should lie, and I had to work hard to create a social framework outside of work. I still had some freedom, but not necessarily control. A year seemed small potatoes after five-years in grad school, and it’s always good to try new things. By the time I was half-way through the fellowship, I had a routine and was regaining some control, but realized the clock is ticking for me to get on the job hunt again.
It was difficult enough adjusting to uncertainty after five years of grad school, but to have to go back to the starting point again less than a year later was just draining.
It was difficult enough adjusting to uncertainty after five years of grad school, but to have to go back to the starting point again less than a year later was just draining. I already suffer from severe anxiety daily, but now in addition to my uncertainty at work, I had a future full of uncertainty and almost zero control. The lack of control is what really amps up my anxiety. Of course, I can control what jobs I apply to, of which I have applied to close to 30, but I can’t control who looks at my application, what they think of me, and if I get the job. I regularly go to therapy, but sometimes things build up. It became clear that my lack of control was affecting me more than usual when I had several fainting spells in public after witnessing things that I had no control over.
I sometimes faint. My heart rate and blood pressure would drop suddenly (I have a strong vaso-vagal response, also known as vasovagal syncope) but it’s usually related to fight-or-flight situations where I feel I am in danger. In both instances, I was in no danger of being hurt nor was anyone I know in danger, but it didn’t matter because I had no control. Thankfully I can usually tell when a spell is coming, so when I passed out on the sidewalk in the middle of town, I had time to lay down and not crack my head open. The second time was on an airplane. The feeling of loss of control before I fainted caused the fainting, but the ability to not control your body fainting is an entirely different level. Thankfully there are professionals who deal with this sort of thing, so I went to my primary care physician, my psychologist, and my psychiatrist to figure this out as I flipped the calendar to 2020.
Coming to grips with the loss of control is difficult for me, but I was making progress. Then, COVID-19 hit.
Now, in addition to having a manuscript recently rejected, getting close to jobs but then again getting rejected, and still applying for more, I don’t know what is going to happen to my health and the health of my family and friends. I am one of those people who if I am nervous about a medical procedure, I watch a training video on how it’s done so I know exactly what’s going on. In my undergrad as well as my grad work, I did some disease ecology, so I at least knew about how viruses spread and evolve. I could read articles in journals, I could keep up to date, and had all the research been complete, I would have been armed with the information I needed to feel in control of my own health. But the research wasn’t complete, and still isn’t. Scientists that actually study virology, pathology, and immunology constantly deal with uncertainty, so how can I?
As scientists, we are taught the principles of uncertainty early on as a basis for our work and how we proceed. We look at statistics to see if things are significant enough for us to see correlations and determine whether one thing leads to another. If the stats aren’t there, we keep going, adjusting our sampling and experiments until we figure it out. Try, fail, try, fail. You may not have control of your experiment failing, but you do have control over adjustments and trials. But the scientific inquiry on this novel coronavirus, of which there is so much uncertainty, is completely out of my hands. I can’t go into a lab and look at structures and binding proteins or study dormancy or viral cycling. I can only read about the confidence other researchers have in the experiments they can control, which has always been true for so many papers, but now it’s something that may impact me so it’s as if I feel invested in these experiments that are not mine. And I am invested in these experiments because I am impacted by the outcomes, of which the results have control over my life and the lives of everyone on this planet.
I trust in science. I trust in scientists. But just like the reviewers of my papers and job applications, I have no control over the conclusions they will come to.
I trust in science. I trust in scientists. But just like the reviewers of my papers and job applications, I have no control over the conclusions they will come to. And for someone who likes to have everything planned out sometimes years in advance, that is terrifying. At a time where I am already so uncertain about my life, there is added uncertainty, and therefore added loss of control. It makes me nervous that I may faint again, which then adds to the likelihood that I will because my anxiety is increased and it only takes so much to push me over to that flight-or-fight point where my body shuts down.
Just as I normally struggle with anxiety, I am now struggling with my loss of control more than ever, as are many people. I do what I can. I talk to my doctors. I follow public health guidelines. But I still sweat through my clothes at night from stress dreams. As much as I can talk myself down during the day, my brain can ramp me right back up at night, for which I also have no control. Adjusting to the new normal of working from home and social distancing is one thing, but I am not adjusting to a new constant feeling of non-control.
Moving forward, I will work on it as I do with everything else in my life related and not related to anxiety. I will try to use my rational science brain to understand the uncertainties that lie ahead. I will do what I can to control what I can, make peace with the fact that none of us has full control of our lives at any given point, and try to take comfort that scientists or not, we are all in this together.
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