“I’m okay. I’m hanging in there. You know how it is,” writes Dr. Anastacia Tomson as she navigates being a woman, a queer person, a doctor and activist during the pandemic.
The pandemic has raged in South Africa for a good eighteen months. I’m frequently asked, by friends, family, patients, colleagues and, on occasion, even strangers, how I am. The response has become almost reflexive by now: “I’m okay. I’m hanging in there. You know how it is.”
This is the coal face. It’s is the front line. This is the battlefield, and I am a soldier.
I’m not unaccustomed to fighting. I’ve worked in the field of human rights for the better part of a decade, and I’ve been a doctor for north of one. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that I’ve seen both the best and the worst of human nature and human experience play out before my eyes. I’ve seen humankind, and I’ve seen human-unkind.
Nor am I unaccustomed to feeling tired. I’ve done the 36 hour shifts, the serial all-nighters, the long hours in casualty or theatre with little-or-even-no-support.
Tired this time feels different, though. It’s a different brand of exhaustion, one that isn’t adequately remedied through sleep or time off. It is a much deeper fatigue. It’s a fatigue that isn’t just physical, but also emotional, mental, and psychological. It is a spiritual kind of tiredness that stretches its tendrils deep into my soul.
While the rest of the world hunkered down in their homes, we left the safety of our abodes, day in and day out, to meet the scourge head-on. I remember when you used to cheer for us every night at 8pm. I remember how bizarre that felt in the beginning, before we’d even diagnosed our first case. It felt undeserved, or unearned, back in those days when we were all so afraid and yet nothing seemed to be happening.
Now, many of us are no longer afraid, as we walk around maskless and unvaccinated. The cheering has long since ceased. Day in and day out, I need to find the strength and the will to face this scourge, and to give of myself to those who need it.
As a doctor, the world asks of me knowledge, skill, and compassion. As an activist, it expects my loyalty, my integrity, and my determination. As a queer person, it requires my patience, my understanding, and my forgiveness. As a woman, it demands my compassion, my submission, and my obedience.
I’m required to be a caregiver, a shoulder-on-which-to-cry, a healer, a counsellor, death’s attendant and birth’s witness, within office hours and without. To be a beacon of hope and a representative of the downtrodden. A voice for the voiceless; an ardent defender of reason and objective fact.
I’ve had to watch this year as month after month and week after week and day after day more of my queer siblings have their lives extinguished, by violence and senseless, heartless hate. The loss is personal, and the personal is political, and the political is polarised and prejudiced and pitiable. Because we still call into question the identities, the experiences, the validity, and the value of queer lives.
During August or Women’s Month as it’s commemorated in South Africa, for me, and countless of my sisters, our womanhood is still called into question, still interrogated, still doubted. Proof is demanded of it.
Well, here then is your proof: I earn 70 cents on the rand. I face the catcalls and harassment and objectification when I walk down the street. I keep my voice down lest I be accused of being a bitch when I’m just asserting myself. I smile more to keep you happy and comfortable. I do the emotional labour, and talk you off your ledges. I validate all your experiences, and gift you every ounce of compassion that I can muster within my jaded, tired heart, day in and day out. And I tell you to look after yourself because you deserve it, and because if you don’t, no one else will.
As a woman, I’m allowed to care, and to be kind, and to feel compassion and empathy. In fact, I’m even expected to. That kindness and compassion are the qualities about myself which I hold dearest in my heart. I treasure them, and I value them beyond measure. I remember with disdain a time when I was forced to repress those qualities, and to bury them away under a facade. I’m beyond grateful that now I can embrace them.
So, it should be unsurprising to learn that it pains and distresses me tremendously to wake up in the morning, spiritually exhausted, and without the energy to even continue to care. To be so profoundly depleted that even those core characteristics, the ones of which I’m proudest, become muted.
We live in a day and age in which we espouse and profess the doctrine of self-care. We preach it to our loved ones – urging them to take the time they need for themselves, to seek the rest, recovery, and recreation needed to sustain themselves. But when we, the empaths and the carers and the givers, the ones who always prioritise kindness towards others above kindness to the self, have left so many pieces of ourselves out on the battlefield that we have no tenderness left for others, how are we to tend to ourselves?
Who heals the healer?
I feel alone, isolated, and singled out, carrying the ever-increasing weight of the world on my shoulders. But I know, with certainty, that I am not. Because these sentiments and feelings are shared – they must be shared. Every healthcare worker, every activist, every queer person, every woman must feel something akin to what I’m currently experiencing.
We don’t need to be celebrated, or lauded for our bravery, our sacrifice, our generosity-of-spirit. We don’t need hollow cheers, or rainbow flags on corporate logos, or discounts on cosmetics for Women’s Month.
What we need is for you to take some of the load from our broken backs. To respect our humanity, our time, our effort, and our boundaries. To recognise that our empathy can all too easily override our attempts at self-preservation, and to make sure your actions are accompanied by due cognisance and care because of this.
If you ask something of us, we will always do our utmost to give it. Please, I implore you, before you ask, spare a thought for the empaths, and the carers, and the givers.
Anastacia Tomson is a medical doctor, author, and activist in the field of LGBTQIA rights. A queer-identified woman herself, Anastacia uses her lived experience and professional training to inform her work in educating and spreading awareness around SOGIE minorities. She advocates for improving access competent care for queer-identified people in South Africa.
Note: The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.