Mobility and Mental Health: Finding a Balance Between Life and Productivity during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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This post by Victoria Cosby is the ninth in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.


The COVID-19 restrictions around travel and gathering in groups actually made the pandemic somewhat beneficial for me professionally. After my injury in January of 2020, I was devastated for many reasons. It took a real toll on my mental health not to be able to run my own errands or go for the long quiet walks which were always my way to detach from my work. I was unable to walk more than a few steps even while using a mobility aid, which made independent travel or my mental health walks impossible. That meant I wouldn’t be able to attend academic conferences. I had to move back home to my parents’ house as I was unable to look after myself. My mom generously drove me to a conference in February, but I obviously did not want her to continue to take time off work to cart me around the province. So, it was a relief to be able to attend conferences virtually. This made so many of my academic obligations easier. The course I am teaching in the Fall term, which I was previously extremely concerned about, is now being offered remotely, which allows me to teach from the safety of my childhood bedroom.

I want to be clear, I am not a voice for people with disabilities. I am someone who is experiencing a temporary physical disability which severely limits my mobility during the pandemic.

My own experience of COVID-19 was a mixture of relief and anxiety. When I was injured, I went through the grief of knowing I would likely be confined for months and would have to go through surgery. Once I accepted this (it took weeks), I finally gained a new foothold in my work. I was lucky to have already gathered a large portion of my primary source materials, which made it easier for me to work on my thesis. I set the manageable goal of writing 500 words a day, which turned out to be a great motivation. My work became the only thing in my life that motivated me. I stayed inside at my desk not only because I was injured but because I wanted to prove to myself that I could still be a ‘productive’ student. By mid-March, when the pandemic restrictions began in Ontario, I had already experienced my own form of lockdown, so it was much easier for me to accept the change. I was also less stressed about missing out on important meetings or information, as everything became virtually accessible. My supervisors were extremely kind and supportive, and they were happy to communicate with me via Skype.

But my surgery was delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic. This was a major source of anxiety, as I wanted to get ‘better.’ I became very upset about my physical limitations, and instead of continuing to work on my physiotherapy at home (my clinic was closed), I plateaued for a while, too upset to push myself. What was the point when I couldn’t actually heal? I did not step outside for weeks at a time, and my mental health continued to deteriorate as I felt more and more trapped by my condition.

The author’s workspace

I was productive during this time, I was writing and reading and making progress on my thesis, but I was using that as an excuse to not look after myself physically or mentally. I was focused on being an exemplary student to prove that my injury wasn’t holding me back and began to constantly berate myself for all of my perceived academic failures, such as not receiving a SSHRC funding or not getting a publication submitted/accepted. I used my productivity to convince myself that I was fine.

My family, concerned, forced me to go outside after a prolonged period of time. I was mostly inside from mid-March until mid-May. Being outside the house had a massive impact on my outlook. I did not realize how much I needed to feel the sun on my skin and breathe fresh air. I had always enjoyed walking outside for leisure before my injury. I did not realize how much I had missed it. On May 20th, for the first time since January, I walked around the block by myself (with the aid of a crutch). The feeling of freedom was exhilarating. I had not done anything on my own in so long. I was very independent before my injury, and that loss clearly had impacted my mental health. I have since transitioned to a cane and try to get out every day for a short walk to practice using all my muscles for my physical health, but also to get the mental boost of being outside. I go to the park and practice walking up and down a short hill and this outdoor time makes me feel like myself again. I still struggle with finding a balance between my work and ‘life’. I frequently feel guilty for taking the time to go for walks or for the time wasted on days that I am not productive because my pain is overwhelming or my mental health needs attention.

The pandemic has actually made many academic obligations more accessible for people with a variety of disabilities ranging from mobility issues to chronic illness.

This also highlights the issues with ableism at many universities – we need to do better to actually make academia more open to all people and to utilize the technology we have access to now.

The author outdoors

Between my injury and the pandemic, I have been forced to confront my idea of productivity, which can’t just be marked by making physical progress on my thesis and forsaking everything else. Scholars need to take the time to look after themselves, to do the things we enjoy, and count that as part of a successful day.

(Since I originally sat down to write this, I have received a call from my surgeon and actually have a date booked for my procedure).

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Victoria Cosby

Victoria Seta Cosby is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Queen's University History Department. Her research interests include Canadian women, the British World, and gender and sexuality studies. She is currently working on a biography of Harriet Dobbs Cartwright.

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