Covid and Me — the last two years as a clinic director, therapist & single mother

On the day of the first Covid lockdown, I didn’t have time for my own experience.

The clinic phones were ringing hot with distressed patients.

My inbox was flooded with concerned emails.

My social media inbox was full of people asking for tips to soothe anxiety.

My admin team was wide-eyed and afraid.

My therapists wanted to know if they were allowed to work, worried about their revenue.

My kids were crying and scared.

There was no room for me.

Those first weeks of lockdown were all about ensuring that everyone concerned felt safe, informed, and not alone.

Back then our health clinic was an essential service. So after only a short official lockdown, we were back in operation from phase 1.

My year was not full of work from home, reduced working hours, or homeschooling. My kid’s teachers scoffed, but sorry, homeschooling was far down on my priority list. Instead, they got more iPad, more toys, and an hour a day kicking a ball and stretching on our balcony with mama, who was being pulled in every direction.

Trying to run a health clinic amidst the crisis was like a tug of war… torn between the changing policies we needed to put into place to stay safe and adhere to protocol, and the desperate pleas of our patients and clients to help them. We had to put crosses on chairs with masking tape, remove our teapot, type out new client communications, get registered as a check-in point, acquire a forehead scan thermometer (which were quite hard to find for a while), stock up on disposable masks, gloves, ditch our hand towels and order a ton of hand sanitizer. And answer the hundreds of questions about it all as we went.

But I was so busy, that I didn’t register my overwhelm.

The beginning of Covid was also when I started to get requests to support corporate teams. Half the requests were from well-intentioned leaders wanting to support their teams. The other half were half-assed attempts to look good to partners and clients ‘look we are bringing in a clinic director who talks about trauma but we aren’t going to attend ourselves or do any follow-up with our systems and policies around mental health’.

I loved facilitating sessions in those early days of Covid. About one year in, we started to see the trend of every leadership coach under the sun talking about mental health, competing for the waning corporate l&d spend, and blurring into the sea of zoom events. The market saturated very quickly. With a lot of empty, surface-level content (in my opinion). The requests stopped coming for talks as frequently, but the ones that did were from leaders that were ready to make deeper changes, rather than just provide one-off Band-Aids. And so my work in this area continued to grow. I never chased the corporate dollar. I didn’t have time to think about it. I was too busy tending to the requests that kept flooding in from one direction or another.

About three months into Covid, I saw a very clear trend. Our new enquiries were at an all-time high. People who had been managing with existing anxiety or depression quietly were suddenly spiking into states of crisis. Even with their medication. Even with their breath and meditation practice. It was a trauma explosion. The aloneness. The suffocation of the masks. The feeling of being trapped and powerlessness. Covid was triggering old trauma around abandonment, neglect, and abuse. Over a few months, our intake of new trauma clients tripled. People needed to tell their stories. They couldn’t stuff them down inside their bodies anymore. Clients were reporting an increase in unexplained physical pain, nightmares, twitches and ticks, high anxiety, flashbacks, dissociation & brain fog. Trauma was everywhere. Because I and my team were the go-to place for trauma in Singapore, enquiries continued to increase. I even had a few clients fly in from the US and quarantine just so they could see me.

Towards the end of year 1, I started to enter burnout.

I am all too familiar with the early warning signs. So, I immediately canceled my plans and took 2 weeks off work to recover. During that time, I cried and cried and cried. I let the stress of the year go. I curled up. I started working with a personal trainer and joined a dance class. I started to come back to the center. Heading back into work, I realized I need to reduce my workload. My capacity had changed, so therefore my load needed to… if I wanted to stay well. I dropped a day of clients. I picked up a consulting gig that excited me. I rebalanced.

And at the same time, a man entered my life. At the time he was just what I needed, to counter the intensity of the time. Joy, play, love, lust… wonderful distractions. Someone to care for me… the one who does all the caring. For six months, I let myself be soothed in his arms. And Covid wasn’t so bad anymore. More than ever, I realized just how important our relationships are. I felt myself thriving. I’m a different creature when I’m well-loved — aren’t we all?

Work was not getting any easier. But my career was burgeoning. I was, speaking, teaching, consulting, and launching my new start-up off the back of it all. And coming home to kisses and cuddles and gifts of strawberries and fancy honey (I’m a sucker for the small things).

And then he left. Suddenly. In the middle of Covid. Back to Europe.

And I was alone with Covid all over again. Heartbreak.

I felt like I had woken up in a bad dream, standing naked in a foreign jungle.

But I didn’t have time for my experience.

I had a start-up to launch, a team to manage, clients to see, bills to pay, and children to care for.

So, I let myself cry in the spaces between for two weeks, then put it behind me and soldiered on. (There was one day shortly after he left that I had a photoshoot, and it was so difficult to pose and smile, I just wanted to lie on my bedroom floor and weep).

The thing about being in a leadership role is that you can’t buckle. The team depends on you to keep going.

The thing about being a start-up founder is you can’t let go for a few months, or the start-up will fail.

The thing about being a therapist is you can’t go AWOL or your clients will suffer.

The thing about being a mother is that you can’t crumble to pieces too often because it will make the kids feel anxious (and end up in therapy one day talking to someone like me).

Even though I am all for self-care, authenticity, and vulnerability… I’m also all for responsibility and being realistic about consequences.

Through it all, I had to find a way to be responsible for my own health and wellbeing and responsible for the many people who depended on me in certain ways.

It was a bloody juggle!

For 6 months, I worked hard to train my team up, put systems in place, secure revenue… and when it was safe to do so…. I let go.

After two years of working through Covid (and not catching it), I hopped on a plane to Italy and fell apart. (Well, I did also complete the manuscript for my book and eat a bunch of awesome pasta… typical female multitasker! I am looking forward to its release later this year).

When we are in survival, we find a way to keep going. It’s a physiological imperative. And it’s only when there is enough space and safety, that we can begin to come out of survival, honor our feelings, listen to the calls of the body and give ourselves what we really need… which is often a whole lot of rest and recovery time. And as many hugs as possible.

I spent the best part of my time in Italy resting, writing, and eating. And crying. Letting my heart heal. I did also frolic with a friend who brought me joy and gave great cuddles. And got treated to dinner by some dashing Italian men… but that’s another story!

And when I came home, I felt better. Peaceful. Balanced. Ready to start the year, build my biz and continue to create resources that will help others through and beyond this time.

After working on the mental health frontline and traveling to and from Europe… I thought I had beat this damn beast of a virus. ‘Ha-ha Covid… you can’t get me.’

I was wrong.

Two weeks back, I tested positive. My son had brought it home from the playground a few days prior. He and his sister were asymptomatic. And for 5 days I tested negative. Then baaaaaaaam. It hit me hard and fast. The first three days were very intense for me. And with my medical PTSD history, I entered very high states of overwhelm, terrified of dying or being mistreated by a doctor (I really have been so traumatized by the medical system). The worst thing of it all was that I was alone with it.

My kids were staying at their dad’s house. So there I was. Sick. Finding it hard to breathe. In the middle of flashbacks of being strapped down in a hospital bed. Wishing my recent ex was there to stroke my hair and tell me it would be alright. Alone. (And damn, my therapist has been on leave this month!!!)

But there was a little piece of me that could carry me through my experience. The part of me that knows trauma. The part of me that knows healing. And trusts the infinite wisdom of my incredible body.

I’ve also been lucky to have my close circle of friends calling me every day, making sure I have everything I need. Their love has been the most soothing balm of all.

16 Jan — I tested negative. My lungs are clear. My body is tired… but healthy.

As I sit here, writing on my balcony in the afternoon wind, I realize, once again, how grateful I am for my breath. My health. My life. There is nothing more important or precious.

If there is one thing we can all take away from the last two years, I hope it’s that.

It’s time for reverence in the way we look after ourselves and each other. Nothing less will suffice.

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An authority in trauma-informed culture, trauma therapist, an educator and speaker, who is on a mission to create more trauma informed spaces around the world.

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Natalia Rachel

Natalia Rachel

An authority in trauma-informed culture, trauma therapist, an educator and speaker, who is on a mission to create more trauma informed spaces around the world.

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