The COVID-19 pandemic started just after I had completed 6 months of relief work following Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama in September 2019.
I was living in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, and had started making arrangements to open a donation center during the storm, which flooded homes and tore many buildings down to their foundation.
I was beyond dedicated to the work of helping people who were displaced by the storm get through months of uncertainty.
A small team kept the donation center open every day, collecting nonperishable food, linens, menstrual hygiene products, toiletries, tarps, tools, and clothing. Eventually, word got out that we were collecting items, and the donation center quickly became a distribution center.
As the only person there full time, I was committed to making sure that people could get whatever they needed whenever they showed up. It was more important than anything, including rest.
The days of hurricane relief work had been long, and the work was a bit different from what I was accustomed to as a women’s rights advocate.
I didn’t have as much time to write, but I managed to complete my weekly column in the national newspaper The Tribune, often sensitizing people to the needs of survivors of the superstorm, especially those of the most marginalized.
The distribution center I was running closed in February, and within days, a volunteer team and I shifted our focus, working to make the annual International Women’s Day march and expo a fun, safe space for women and girls.
Less than 2 weeks later, the first COVID-19 case in the Bahamas was announced.
Since then, there has been no shortage of work to do, and it has often felt like hurricane relief work — but from a greater distance since there was no way to provide direct assistance.
I spent many days wishing I had the resources to start a COVID-19 relief operation.
There were many people in need, far too much uncertainty, and insufficient mechanisms in place to provide support for the people who needed it most. I was frustrated with the government, as well as other actors who had the resources to do more and do it better.
Early on, I worked with other steering committee members of the Feminist Alliance for Rights (FAR) to make feminist policy recommendations for decision makers as they implemented response measures to the pandemic.
While the government of the Bahamas seemed to pay no attention to the document we produced, local organizations were able to apply these tools domestically, building upon them to advocate for their communities.
In the weeks before the pandemic, I had been thinking about transition. In particular, I was trying to position myself in the world of human rights work.
My work has focused on rapid response when no one else would — tackling public education in the Bahamas at a critical time, opening a donation station to collect necessities for hurricane survivors, and turning that into a distribution center where people most affected by the storm could get help.
For years, I have performed some kind of pivot at the drop of a hat. Being able to do what’s needed in the moment has been vital to me. Waiting for someone else to do it has not been an option.
Then March 2020 came.
I had decided to take some time to think about what was effective and fulfilling, plus what could pay the bills. But I didn’t have much time to sit with the pertinent questions because another crisis came up, and again, I made the pivot.
There was no time for mulling over my personal and professional options. People on the ground needed help, and the people making the decisions that affected all of us needed guidance.
I was not equipped to offer direct assistance during the pandemic, so my focus has been on feminist policymaking — advocating for decision makers to consider and center the needs of the most vulnerable people.
I had been providing public critique on decisions while continuing with women’s rights work and making clear the connection between the two. What I was not doing, however, was taking time to rest.
I have not yet had the experience, which has affected so many, of reaching one’s limit and no longer being able to function — often referred to as the “pandemic wall.”
Instead, my schedule started to shift in July. I noticed that my sleep was off. I was up late at night and waking up mid-morning. As an early riser, I was unsettled.
It wasn’t until I spoke to my therapist that I found some peace. She asked if it really made a difference that I was getting up so late.
The truth was, I was still doing everything I had set out for myself. I wasn’t absent or late for any of my commitments. Nothing was different except my view of myself.
I had powered through 6 months of hurricane relief work and 4 months of feminist policymaking, monitoring, and reporting. I was facilitating conversations about racial injustice, catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and worldwide.
Of course, it had been more than just those 10 months. This was my life. Rapid response. Pivot. Action.
At first, the pandemic’s disruption to my sleep seemed grave.
My routine remained the same until I got frustrated by my wake-up time and talked with my therapist. I had never attached my self-worth to my productivity, but it became clear that I was too focused on the work I’m passionate about to truly take care of myself.
I managed to let go of my old sleep schedule. It may come back, but for now, it’s up and down. Beforehand, I thought that I slept better when I completed something — and while may be true, I have also come to realize that my habits and personal resolve affect my sleep, too.
Staying up later, along with many people who took to social media to talk about their irregular sleep patterns, somehow gave me the time and space I needed to reevaluate a few things.
One of them, of course, was my rest practice. This went beyond sleep. It was about finding the parts of my routine that added or took away from my sleep quality. I returned to practices I had abandoned in the busyness of life and tried new ways to relax.
I started doing a few minutes of yoga before bed. A full hour or even half an hour was too much to manage, but 10–15 minutes has been perfect.
Since I was staying up later, I decided to change my mealtimes and have my evening tea a bit later. I created rituals that not only signal to my brain that it’s time to wind down but also help relax my body.
Furthermore, I realized that every ritual or routine doesn’t have to be a multistep process. A relaxing shower can be enough.
I don’t need to light a candle, practice yoga, write in a journal, put on a face mask, and listen to a sleep playlist to fulfill my goal of relaxing, getting into bed, and having good quality sleep.
I cannot say that I work any less.
I continue to do what I can to draw attention to systemic issues and point to specific actions that would improve the lives of vulnerable people. Sometimes I am up late working, and sometimes I am working in multiple time zones.
However, the difference today is that I always have time for rest because I make it.
I look forward to my mid-morning break to water my plants and get fresh air. I enjoy having my tea with no screens on. I appreciate the wind-down function on my phone that grays the screen at 8 p.m.
I am embracing the rituals that take me away from the work that is my passion. It is OK to enjoy what I do as long as some of what I do is for my enjoyment only.
I don’t know when I will hit the pandemic wall or how it will affect me. I am hoping that the changes I’ve made and the commitment to pacing myself, as well as taking time to truly rest, have helped delay or circumvent it.
With the help of my therapist, I know that the crisis and confusion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is something I have never experienced before — and if my reactions are out of character, it’s not only normal but also expected.
The world we live in right now isn’t normal, but a lot of our responses are normal for this context.
One of the most important things for me to remember is that the ability to pivot and create new routines is far more useful than the resolve to stick to the old ones.
As the world changes, so must we.
Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, women’s human rights defender, and writer. She’s passionate about social justice and community building. She enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, traveling, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.