Journey by Dawn

Stranded in Australia: Psychiatrist from NYC shares her experience of isolation

A Finnish Psychiatrist based in New York, stranded in Western Australia due to the COVID 19 pandemic, shares with us some survival tips and personal experience in this challenging time.

Dr. Sari Gold, born and raised in Finland, for the last 16 years has been working in New York as a Psychiatrist in Clinical practice. I met with Sari on a hike with the Western Walking Club last weekend and she was so kind to meet with me and answer some of my questions on matters of identity formation through travel and coping strategies in these unstable times.

 

What was your motivation to come to Australia and what was your reaction to the unexpected closures and cancelations to your travel plans at the start of the pandemic?

I wanted to take a sabbatical year, travel to 12 countries in 12 months. From New York I went to New Zealand – everything went well up to that point. My next country was Australia, then Nepal… but due to the pandemic, my plans for Nepal got canceled and I stayed here in Perth.

My first reaction was a relief, that I didn’t get stuck somewhere else. Then I felt quite concerned about the future because much is still unknown.

What are you going to do if you can’t leave Australia for a while longer?

I am finding myself to be more adaptable than I thought I was. I find myself genuinely happy in this present situation. When my friends lend me a bike, I go biking and walk on the beach and this is good for my feet and for my mind. Adaptability for me is finding pleasure and enjoyment in the things that I do. I am enjoying Australia so much, that I don’t mind if I need to stay a while longer.

You have left Finland to work in New York. How much would you say of your identity is made up of each country that you have lived in?

I would say 30% American and 70% Finnish.

From your experience of Australian Culture so far, would you say the Finish or the American culture is more compatible with the Australian culture? 

I find Finish culture more compatible with Australia than American. Some similarities between Finland and Australia I would say:

Directness. The motto I acquired from my family: to mean what you say and say what you mean. I find Australians are direct about what they say. This is the same as in Finland.

Sense of humor. Australians are very approachable and practical, pragmatic. I appreciate that the communication I have with Australians is direct and sincere. In the United States, it is not like that, you never know what people really mean – humor doesn’t come easy.

What has been the best part of your trip to Australia so far?

I didn’t expect I would be so captivated by Australian nature. Everything I have found in Australian nature has been a pleasant surprise. The most beautiful thing so far was visiting Margaret River. It was all improvised and spontaneous trip and it worked out great.

Why do you travel alone?

I wanted to challenge myself – to be exposed to complications and see how I cope in situations of surprise. One of the things that interest me is resilience. I wanted to see how much resilience I really have – even though one may think you are resilient, but you don’t know until you are in that particular situation.

I like to put myself in situations that make me uncomfortable, for example, I went skydiving in New Zealand. Being raised as a city girl, having people around me, makes me feel safe. Being alone in remote locations makes me uncomfortable. So I wanted to check on my resilience on that.

My professional work focus has been on recovery from trauma. When I expose myself to challenges and uncomfortable situations, I take notes. It gives me a better understanding of how the body and mind respond to thoughts. This way I can help my clients better.

Can you share with us about things you have learned about yourself during this lockdown and the unexpected changes to your plans?

I learned that I like to spend time by myself, not only that I need it. Living in a fast pace life in New York, I had numbed and desensitized myself. I have experienced some trauma in the past and during this time of social isolation, I had an opportunity to ease some tensions. This was the COVID time for me, it was a gift. The universe gave me what I needed, not what I wanted.

In our times there is a growing tendency for people to work while traveling. What do you think about the concept of ‘digital nomad’ and would you say that is that a healthy lifestyle?

About it being healthy or not, it really depends on each individual person. I think with something like digital nomads, you learn very early on, if this lifestyle suits you or not. Usually, people either love it or hate it. This helps them to decide what to do next.

I pictured my year 2020 to be a year of travel and amazing experiences. Then, I got stuck in Perth and to my own surprise very quickly it became my home. Not only that, but I also love living here.

Could you give some advice for people who are experiencing difficulty because they struggle to cope with the challenges they face in our current times?

My regular routine used to be walking and I found it wasn’t actually helping. I was lucky to get some really good teachers as I began my interest in Yoga and Meditation. Yoga is a physical practice with breathing and spirituality (philosophy) which connects the body and the mind. I continued this interest as far as becoming a Yoga teacher and further integrating new techniques. This is my way of coping with tensions at work and keeping my mind and body balanced.

Looking in the eye to the challenges we face, we can always turn them into a lesson. We can say this is happening ‘for me’ and not ‘to me’. If you see it as something happening to you, you can fall into thinking that you are a victim and may feel trapped in that state of mind. But if you see it as something happening for you, you can utilize this event to learn something about yourself.

In my yoga, I also practice gratitude – finding at least one thing to be grateful for each day.

What can people do who are in isolation and are struggling with ruminating, repetitive thoughts?

Here are some tips:

  • Simply get up and go do something
  • Give yourself permission to ruminate for some time – and stop
  • Put one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest and focus on breathing, relax and feel how your mind and body are working together
  • Listen to your favorite upbeat songs – music affects our moods
  • Dance with the music; dance integrates breathing and distraction techniques

I know you have a particular interest in resilience. Would you have some tips on how to have better resilience in situations of heartbreak or disappointments from a broken love relationship?

Yes sure. In case of a love relationship, it is important not to lose hope that there might be someone else for you. When you meet people that hurt you, sometimes it is not about you but about them. You might say ‘I’m a fool that I didn’t see it three weeks ago’ but it is about him, being who he, is not me not noticing something early on.

It is better to be a trusting loving person consistently, to hold on to our values and what defines what we are. If a man hurts you, it is not a reflection of you but a reflection of his morals and values.

There are gifts in places where people see pain. When things don’t go as planned, we tend to get disappointed and upset. But beyond that, there is a reason that may not be obvious at first.

Thank you, Sari, for sharing these tips and your time. It was so interesting also to hear your personal experience. This time has been difficult for everyone, though in different ways. But as you say, we all have something to be grateful for. Wishing you the best during your time in Australia and the rest of your Sabbatical year!

Some of my own thoughts on living in this new COVID era

It was really interesting speaking with Sari. I wish we had more time; I could discuss these topics endlessly. I have always regarded travel as a great way to learn about our identities, who we are, and who we want to be. But this new and long-term COVID challenge took it to a whole new level. Travel plans changed for many, and short term trips became long term. Instead of admiring our blue world horizons, many of us took introspective journeys, finding insights we didn’t have before.

Dealing with thoughts, during long periods spent in solitude is not something an ordinary person gets training in. I found my isolation to be a challenging time, not knowing how to cope well, I began with blogging and documenting my life and thoughts. As restrictions eased (here in Western Australia) I began making films and opened my YouTube channel. Nowadays, I put a new movie every Saturday, though I hope this will become more frequent in the coming months.

It is interesting to know how different people cope with the natural stress that comes from this global situation. Everyone has a certain amount of resilience and as we learn about ourselves, about better coping methods in times of stress, this builds stronger and more resilient. Surely after this Pandemic, a lot of strong and beautiful personalities will flourish and thrive!

 

Everyone’s life has been affected by the pandemic, one way or another. If the stress you experience does reach the point where it affects your ability to live your normal life, remember there is local professional help. Here in Australia, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or 1800 RESPECT or any other helpline (there are many!).

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