Essential

By Patricia Lastovicka

It’s a chant on repeat, a discourse not yet fully put to bed.

 

Echoes of Level 4 are still freshly ricocheting around our minds as freedoms of normality are slowly being relinquished. The hardships that Level 4 brought still sit closely with all of us - I am certainly no exception to this. To take the words of Jacinda Ardern out of her mouth, everyone in our team of five million has been affected by the unprecedented events that have taken place in the last two months.

 

As advertised by the Prime Minister as we moved into Level 4, our collective job has been to save lives. It was so as the levels increased, and to this day, it still very much is. However, some of us were either blessed or cursed with the reality that this was not our only job during the lockdown.

 

I have enjoyed both the pleasure and surreal discomfort of working an essential job while continuing to study for my Bachelor’s degree during this time.

 

Occupation/s: Saving Lives, University Student, Kitchen Supervisor at a Hall of Residence.

 

There are simple pleasures in knowing that you have one job or purpose. I am slowly learning to take for granted the days in which my sole purpose is to stay at home and save lives. 

 

There is great importance in doing “nothing”.

 

Oftentimes, this is a plague that we can not bear to be left with, but now as the stakes of doing “something” are so high, we can rejoice in the knowledge that our guilty pleasure of taking a rest is beneficial for more than just ourselves. As a collective, it is often difficult to comprehend the idea of inaction being the biggest action we can take, but now is a time that we have been able to succumb to the intoxication of a brief pause in our hectic lives.The time that I am spending at home once all of my university work is caught up on, has been the most refreshing reminder of this.

 

Burnout and fatigue are now commonplace. The kind of memory recall that is burnt into the fibres of my brain and drowns me in its very definition. The juggling act of three jobs has an underrepresented toll on mental health.

 

Being an essential worker is more than just the romantiic notion of holding up the country as everyone else “cowers” in their homes.

I have two objections to this claim:

 

1. There is no “cowering” occurring - Jacinda is fully correct in her suggestion that those who stay home are playing a vital role, and should be congratulated for their efforts.

2.We essential workers often don’t feel like we’re holding up shit, particularly not ourselves.

 

I often struggle under pressure, and with the mental deterioration that comes with this self-inflicted burden, but Level 4 has brought upon a whole new collection of self deprecating thoughts, set to reverberate around my mind. 

 

About two years ago I decided to take up the gauntlet of completing a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a double major in Classics, and English and Linguistics. I mostly love my course, but I think that the number of words I have typed within my time studying must be in the millions. It is an intensive course (as any Bachelor’s degree is) filled with a myriad of essays and assignments. The structure of university curriculum was certainly not made with ease of completion in mind.

 

I am also employed in the kitchen/dining sector of a New Zealand University Hall of Residence. What this means, is that I primarily help to serve food to my peers who are living in ‘halls’ while also maintaining that the dining hall, servery, and kitchen are kept up to hygiene standards.

 

My job is doing the things that you typically don’t think about when living in a hall. I don’t think that in my experiences with visiting halls, I’ve ever thought about who fills and cleans the juice dispensers and the coffee machines. Or who cleans the dishwashers. Or who writes the labels for my food. Or turns on the lights and radio in the morning. These are all things that often happen magically for most. I sometimes like to think about myself as that magic.Combining these two opportunities on a good day is already a bit of a hassle.

 

However, feeling food in my stomach, heat in my flat, and clothes on my back is an incredible benefit funded by my paycheck ; transcending any negative aspect of working while studying, but COVID-19 has prompted me to reconsider that thought.

 

According to both my employer, and my lecturers, I am now blessed with being inundated with free time. The two don’t really know that the other exists, and it is a constant battle for me to acquaint them with the fact that there is another responsibility in my life.

 

Have you ever had to introduce a friend from one friend group to an entirely different social circle? This is much the same, except that neither are friends, and both believe that they are more important than the other. I was also thrilled to find out that neither of them wanted to consider the other as an option for my life.

 

Periodically, I was delighted to find that the two crossed wires, with tutorials being run during work shifts, or tests being set for the day in which I have to work a 9 hour shift first before I could go home and sit it. I had a drawer at work filled with napkins with half-written assignments on them from my breaks, and even attempted to attend Zoom calls while eating my lunch.

 

Unfortunately, neither my employer nor my lecturer could find a way to avoid these simple misfortunes. To my employer, I am purely an employee. To my lecturers, I am purely a student. However, for myself, I must remember that I am a person, with many complicated responsibilities.

 

As my doctor said when I visited him (with complaints of being exhausted during lockdown), I am working both a part-time job (My hall job), and a full-time job (My studies). This is difficult for me to internalise as we are not often faced with the reality that our studies are our job. We are supposedly putting in 40+ hours a week for our degrees, and I have recently also been putting in upwards of 20 hours a week for my part-time job too.

 

There are 168 hours in a week, and I get to spend upwards of 60 of those hours working; all assuming that I don’t put in overtime.

 

One must also consider travel time, housework, sleeping, eating, hygiene, exercise, etcetera, into the bank of things that an individual must complete in a week. Calculating the hours spent on these things is exhausting. I’m about as far away from studying mathematics as I could possibly be, but even I know that this does not leave much time for myself.

 

This is not a healthy nor sustainable habit.

 

When approached about working the lockdown, I leaped at the chance. I’m your typical poor university student, with a taste for 2-minute noodles - money in a time of the unknown is a dream. Unfortunately, in my delirium, I failed to consider the many downsides of this opportunity. The only ‘sensibility’ I possibly possessed was to insist upon operating the early morning shifts.  I engaged in a militaristic regimen of working at the hall in the mornings and early afternoons, studying at home from the afternoon into the evening, and somehow finally squeezing a few hours sleep in between making myself half-assed dinners of beans and rice, and maybe having a 5 minute shower if I allowed myself the luxury.

 

I quickly learned that living off of 3 hours sleep was not only uncomfortable, but it was becoming dangerous. My mental health rapidly declined as I settled into my new reality. I received several alerts from my FitBit telling me that I needed to sleep much more than I was, my loved ones began to reach out more to make sure I was still surviving, as I was isolated away from all of them. I was also fraught with the idea of feeling lesser of myself - as if I wasn’t doing enough. Grades were dropping, as was my motivation. If one piece of the life I created for myself fell short, the whole thing collapsed. And it did, faster and harder than it ever had before.

 

I soon began to feel very lonely in my plight, with voices yelling into the abyss for me to “calm down”, “reevaluate”, and “prioritise”, and all I could think of was ramping up, digging in, and sucking it up.

 

‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic and I’m complaining because I’m healthy enough andfortunate enough to work and study during   times? People are dying!’ That voice in the back of my mind is a real bitch. Once I catch up on some sleep, she will have no idea what hit her.

 

I think many of my issues stemmed from the idea that I was not entitled to my concerns. As if the fact that I wasn’t “on the frontlines” made my fatigue and general struggle to be illegitimate.

 

The applause for the hard work of nurses and supermarket employees engulfed my social media, and I began to tell myself that because I was not one of them, I was not entitled to feel like a worker in a tough situation. In posts of thanks that flooded the internet, my occupation was never once mentioned. The logical part of me would recognise that I work such an incredibly niche job that it would be unreasonable to expect someone to pick up on it, but for my poor, frazzled brain, this was a direct insult. How dare my job not be mentioned in some random lady’s gratitude post on a community Facebook page?

 

Unfortunately, the mental toll is not the only struggle that presented itself within my time working during the lockdown. Rearing its ugly head, come the physical battles.

 

I would tend to class myself as a fairly timid and passive individual in most scenarios in my life, but working this lockdown brought out a whole new wild, Godzilla-esque being who would report for her work shifts.

 

I spent the first few weeks of level 4 in high contention with my employer, as I advocated for more forceful social distancing policies in between staff, and the students within the hall, as well as hinting at the use of protective gear within the workplace. I often came away from 8am discussions red in the face with fury as I was told to “just do it yourself” when I asked for assistance in controlling the students. I can only yell so loudly at a student who won’t stay 2 metres away from me before an RA or a staff member pulls me aside for disciplinary actions.

 

My immuno-compromised grandmother is a close contact of mine, and I had flatmates at home in my bubble. I could not, and still can not, afford to catch even a cold to take home to those around me.

 

Animalistic fear began to run my shifts, as I tried to find the balance between stern and friendly.

 

My mantra for panic attacks is as follows:

“...The human body can only panic for roughly 20 minutes at a time

The human body can only panic for roughly 20 minutes at a time

The human body can only panic for roughly 20 minutes at a time

The human body can only panic for roughly 20 minutes at a time...”

 

I don’t even know if this is an accurate statement, but the anxiety that I felt constantly on shift certainly tested my calming mantra.

 

The hardest part of having all of these responsibilities is that something has to give. It is very difficult to have all of these varying things going on and to do them all in healthy, sustainable amounts. Of course, if I had taken a breath, and settled down to make a plan, I’m sure I could have found some compromise.

 

However, the quick announcement of the escalation in levels from 2 through to 4 in a matter of days meant that all rational thinking went out the window. I had hours to decide which part of the country I was going to spend lockdown in - with my family in the North Island, or in my flat in the South Island.

 

This decision was hard enough, and I very much wanted to flee back home to my mum and sit out the lockdown in my childhood home, but I also knew that I’d be furious that I had passed up an opportunity to help people.The very thing that sustained me throughout the lockdown was the knowledge that me doing my job meant that many others were able to have one less stress during isolation.

 

The sixty-odd students who chose to stay in their hall for lockdown were all able to know that there was going to be food for them to eat, and a clean and safe place to eat it. For some, home wasn’t safe, and others just couldn’t get a flight out of the city, but together they were all able to find comfort in the stability of their hall, 

 

As I was also isolating away from my family, I felt a bond between me and these students, as they too were fighting a global pandemic from confines far away from home. It gave me peace to know that I was not alone, and to know that not one of these students had to feel alone either.

 

Everytime I cracked a terrible, half-asleep joke over serving breakfast, or snuck a student an extra piece of baking, it made me feel satisfied in the fact that I could do something in order to help - no matter how small the impact was.

 

Without the fulfillment of service, I don’t know how I would have coped.

 

Yes, working drained my pith for 7 weeks, but it also revitalised me. There is simple gratification in a selfless act or two.

 

In a time where I have never felt more alone, I was fortunate enough to create new connections and branch out. I now know almost sixty new names, and about twenty breakfast orders.

 

Reflecting upon recent events, I can certainly say that I am unlikely to undertake such a pursuit again if I can help it, but nevertheless, I do not regret my choices.

Patricia Lastovicka is a Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Otago, studying English, Linguistics, and Classics.