A virus changed my life trajectory once. Back in 2010, I briefly worked as a research assistant for a conservation organisation in Borneo. I was fresh out of university, in my early twenties, and much more fearless than I am now. Working in the jungle was exciting, a dream come true and, while I took precautions for all eventualities, I didn’t much care about the dangers of the job. At the time I felt really good about the trajectory of my life; I loved the team of people I was working with, and my personal and professional life were meaningful and fulfilling.
Around the same time, I started waking up in the middle of the night sweating and gasping for breath, feeling absolutely terrified. It’s difficult to describe exactly what it felt like, but it was like encountering the darkest, most absolute emptiness, and it threatened to devour me forever. I guess you could call it “a fear of nothingness” or, as my mom nonchalantly said from the other side of the phone when I described it to her: “Typical death anxiety. I had those in my twenties too. You’ll get over it”.
Other than my mother, I did not tell anyone else about this terror that descended on me suddenly, making me insomniac and interfering with my life and work. Because I couldn’t go to sleep, I stayed up listening to the rainforest and the sound of animals visiting the camp at night. I came face to face with a sunbear cub that ransacked the kitchen for a midnight snack, spotted a moonrat feeding under the deck in front of my room, saw the scales of a Malayan Brown snake glistening in the moonlight. Kept awake by the fear of non-existence, a new world opened up to me in the darkness of the Bornean jungle, full of movement, thrill and life. Still, inside of me this confusing secret ate away at my scientific mind which wanted answers, while the superstitious atmosphere of the place left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I did not know anything about the unconscious or about dreams back then, but an animal intuition at the edge of my perception whispered that this was some sort of omen, a premonition of sorts.
A few months into my stay, it was time to survey an area twelve swampy kilometers in the interior of the forest, which was characterized by taller trees than the forest habitats we were used to surveying. I was very excited for the chance to go on an expedition to a different area of the rainforest, and for the chance to possibly see animals that I had not seen before such as tarsiers. I longed to sleep under the canopy of taller trees away from the camp and its comforts.
Twelve kilometers (about 7.5 miles) do not sound like much, but in a peat swamp forest they are quite challenging to traverse. Sharp roots stick up from the peaty ground, there are muddy holes one falls into, and the overwhelming heat and humidity of the rainforest make trudging along almost unbearable, especially when wearing long, thick protective clothes and carrying equipment. Nevertheless, for a biologist it is as exciting as it is exhausting, for the many wonders to be experienced along the way including insects, mammals and plenty of banter and snack-sharing breaks with colleagues.
On arrival at the tall pole camp, we set up our rice sacks and mosquito nets, had dinner and talked about the following day’s plans. I was tired so I went to bed early and slept through the night. The next morning, I woke up with a splitting headache, extreme fatigue and muscle pain. For the life of me I could not get out of my rice sack. It was as if one of those very tall trees had fallen on me during the night, and I was still trapped under it. But from where I was lying, I could see above the tree canopy intact in the faint, early morning light, only it was spinning wildly, the whole forest put in the washing machine and my brain going thump thump thump with every spin. Every movement I made brought on an immense nausea. I can’t remember a lot of details from that day, only that my colleagues were calm and reassuring, that I apologized profusely for not feeling well enough to join them for the day, that I thought “it’s just the flu”, and that I genuinely believed and hoped I would be well enough to conduct surveys if not that afternoon, then the following morning.
My two colleagues left me with two Indonesian staff members who stayed behind to make lunch and watch over me. As the day progressed my symptoms got worse, I felt like my brain was an egg on a frying pan and I was shivering so hard I could hear my teeth clattering. Still, it never crossed my mind that this was anything incredibly serious. I just thought I must have exhausted myself and caught a bad cold, that my fever was running high but it would break any moment now, that I felt really guilty about being a burden to my team when I was supposed to be working. I was sad to be missing this opportunity to see this part of the forest, and I missed spending time talking and joking with my colleagues. Call me incredibly naïve, but there was no space in my mind for panic or fear. The Indonesian men glanced back at me from time to time, a look of pity in their eyes. This made me feel even more upset with myself because I imagined they thought that a woman should not be out here doing this sort of thing, and that I was the proof why. “Ada obat?”, one of them said. “Harus obat”, he kept repeating, in simple words so that I could understand. “Obat, obat”, I thought, stuggling to comprehend what he meant. When the word finally clicked, I was surprised at the realisation that I hadn’t brought any paracetamol with me.
I don’t know how many days passed this way because the high fever made me slightly delirious. I remember looking at one of my colleagues, who was the leader of our expedition, and thinking he looked worried. He was on the radio a lot and I suspected he was trying to figure out what to do with me as I was not getting much better. The other colleague was very sweet and kind, holding me up when I needed to take a few steps, and bringing me noodle soup to eat.
On the second or third evening, my head was burning so badly I got up and dragged myself to the water-filling station, and poured a bucket of cold water over my head. I could almost feel it vaporizing off my sizzling forehead. In the dim light of dusk, I looked down and saw a little frog by my feet. As I turned up I saw a bat flying around above my head. My legs wobbly and my head dripping with water I stood there in the purple dusk, tears welling up in my eyes. I felt strangely enveloped in magic, as if the frog and the bat were reminding me that I too belonged in the grand family of animals and that I, too, had survival instincts. At that moment, I sensed an inner knowing that life is much deeper than I think, and much more mysterious than I have ever allowed myself to experience.
When I was well enough to get up and walk without vertigo, the leader announced that the expedition was aborted, and that we would be heading back to base camp. My belongings and equipment were divided among the group, and someone would be carrying my backpack. All I had to do was walk the twelve kilometers back. “Oh yeah, no problem. I can do that”, I said. “What a wuss”, I thought, “I’m making someone else carry my stuff”.
The return was uneventful, and to everyone’s surprise I marched on with determination. I remember not thinking much, just allowing my body to get into the rhythm of walking, avoiding mud holes, tree roots, fallen logs and overhead branches as much as possible. When I tripped and fell, I got back up again and kept going. One foot in front of another and one step at a time, we got back to base camp a few hours later. On arrival, my colleagues at camp hugged me, made me eat despite having no appetite, and told me I had contracted Dengue fever. They had known all along, because one of our colleagues who stayed behind in town fell ill with it right when we left for our expedition. He was, by now, recovering quite nicely, and I would also be going back into town the following day to recuperate.
I didn’t like being in town because it was dirty, with open sewers and air pollution from cars, bikes and the burning of trash by every household. Inside the house rented by the organisation and used as our base, it was unbearably hot despite fans, especially at night inside the mosquito net. And there were untold numbers of mosquitoes, more than in the forest, and they all seemed to love me – it’s where I got sick to begin with. To top it all off, there was a black hairy shrew that crawled up the toilet hole and defecated all over the bathroom floor where I showered with a bucket. Sure, we had a TV and bootlegged, censored Hollywood movies from the local market, a mall with overpriced club sandwiches, KFC and a cake shop, but we didn’t have singing gibbons, a night chorus of frogs, crickets and katydids, the humbling presence of curious orangutans or the cool comfort of freshly pumped water.
None of the appeals of the city mattered anyway, because I had no appetite whatsoever, I was weak and everything made me nauseous. Early on in my self-isolation, I hit a wall inside of me almost immediately. What it was I didn’t have words for back then, but it felt like my heart was completely blocked, my chest throbbing with a deep, almost primordial ache, and I felt angry. It was an indiscriminate, all encompassing, consistent flavor of anger. It consumed everything within its reach like a black hole, and spat it back out like fang venom. I locked myself in my room, occasionally eating an apple, feeling utter contempt towards myself.
I didn’t want to feel this way, it wasn’t anybody’s fault, and I felt guilty for shutting out my colleagues. I knew they were genuinely concerned but I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t even tell my family I was ill. For at least a week, I was completely unable to function psychologically and physically. Meanwhile, that void at night still terrorized me, stretching me even further.
I wish I could say my primary physical suffering brought me to a quick surrender of my secondary psychological one, but this wasn’t the case for the young, feisty and very egoic version of me. When I wasn’t getting stronger, my colleagues convinced me to phone my insurance back home, to mobilise myself and try to get medical advice, to at least let my brother know what was going on, to take better care of myself. Eventually I decided it was for the best to fly to Jakarta and check myself in the hospital so I could be put on an IV drip and allow the doctors to monitor my falling platelet count.
Looking back, it was an unnecessarily slow and grueling process, which could have been avoided if I could just face reality head on: “You are sick – do what you need to get better and go back to work”. How sneaky is this psychological mechanism that takes a situation and twists it into a massive narrative triggered by trauma, unresolved grief and childhood conditioning! What is just an unfortunate occurrence turns into a personal crisis. Perhaps this resonates with some of you who are having a hard time with this coronavirus pandemic, perhaps you or your loved ones are responding in similar ways, either shutting down and detaching, becoming completely overwhelmed and panicking or becoming distracted from feelings by staying very busy. It’s all very human, and I can’t pretend to be immune from my own patterns either, despite the lessons I learned during those weeks in Indonesia.
Of course there were many lessons. They are not original, in the sense that I have been seeing a lot of the same stuff doing the rounds on social media and news articles. So, I won’t bore you by describing them in detail; the insights have been woven and re-woven into the fabric of my life so many times since then, and they continue to work and re-work my heart like dough. Their distilled essence is found in all my writing. Briefly, I learned lessons about privilege, especially when I visited the local town hospital in Borneo and saw the broken windows and the ancient equipment. All the naivete of my twenty-three years was shattered as the over-worked doctor applied a painful tourniquet on my arm, the only Dengue test available to him in the absence of a lab which could analyze blood samples. Later in the hospital in Jakarta, I learned about the immense value of family when I longed for my parents so much, I had visions of them coming to me; on my last day there I saw clearly my dad’s car pulling up to take me home. I witnessed the depth of the kindness of strangers, and that our differences ultimately don’t matter before the fact of our shared humanity and mortality, when an Indonesian nurse combed my hair so sweetly and gently despite us barely being able to communicate with words. I also realized just how much I loved pasta, and how something as small and simple as a fantasy of a steaming plate of spaghetti Bolognaise kept me going by literally becoming my life’s purpose as soon as I regained my appetite.
There were many many more, but the one I wanted to emphasize was the deeper one most of us avoid. Between the inner wall and the night terrors, I found out that my mortality and the ability to face it are my primary work. I like to think Dengue came to me as a gift from the forest gods and spirits, to consecrate my life, to prepare me for the changes that would enter it with the death of my mother, my move to the United States, my fall like Icarus from the heights of youth, career and outer direction, even before I had really enjoyed them.
The inner wall is smaller now, though it still rears its ugly head in big ways. The void is still there but not in my dreams anymore. It has enveloped everything in my waking life; it is the truth of every blade of grass, bird and loved one I lay my eyes on.
I don’t mean to spiritualize this pandemic, or ask you to spiritually bypass its reality. Yes, the premise of my writing is the importance of inner work which connects one more fully to one’s present experience of reality, but I still consider science to be an important way of knowing things, and of understanding our world. My approach for this pandemic is therefore threefold: Stay with the facts and take appropriate action based on what you know. Embrace uncertainty by simply watching and listening. Become interested in your experience.
Regarding that last point, whether you feel angry, bored, depressed or anxious, what is the kernel of truth at the center of your experience? What is the terrible gift of sickness, unemployment, lockdown, uncertainty? What are your dreams telling you, warning you of, asking you to look at? Know that you can lean into it, inquire and stay curious. Your own bat and frog angels will descend upon you in whichever form you perceive them, to remind you of the invisible threads of support tethering you to the rest of existence. All that is required is the determination to take that one first step, and the perseverance to take the next one. The rest will follow. Pretty soon, one way or another, above or below, we will all find ourselves back to base camp, to that loving embrace and a big hot plate of yummy food.