Months in the dark, no cell phone and no escape route.
At 35, Rachael Robertson made a switch she hadn’t even imagined in her wildest dreams: she traded her life in Australia for a stay of more than a year in some of the most isolated places on Earth.
From November 2004 to January 2006, she led an expedition from the Davis Research Station in Antarctica. In that role, she was responsible for a team of 138 researchers: 120 in the summer and 18 in the winter.
During that period, she had only one brief contact with the outside world: when an Australian icebreaker docked in February to pick up the summer team. For the next nine months, she and her team were left to their own devices, at the mercy of snow storms, power outages and sub-zero temperatures.
Robertson remembers how her stomach turned when she saw the ship sail away back to Australia. “I remember looking around at my team and thinking I wouldn’t see another face for the next nine months,” she told Business Insider.
Robertson sees parallels between her experience in Antarctica and home quarantine during the corona pandemic
During winter, the average temperature in Antarctica is minus 35 degrees Celsius. As a result, Robertson and her team couldn’t spend too much time outside. They often sat inside each other’s lip and had little privacy.
“That is very similar to what we are experiencing now,” she says from home quarantine in Melbourne. Robertson and her team were not dealing with a global health crisis in Antarctica at the time, but there were other challenges.
First, they were really completely isolated, because it is so cold in Antarctica in winter that planes don’t dare to land for fear of freezing hydraulic parts.
Except for “really old movies” on 16mm film, you could only play DVDs you brought yourself on your laptop at the shipping center, says Robertson. She once had to punish a team member who downloaded an episode of South Park after receiving a call from headquarters.
“I had to deal with people knocking on my bedroom door for a year and had to be available 24 hours a day for emergencies, so I couldn’t drink alcohol,” she told Business Insider.
Back to normal society
The first thing Robertson did when she disembarked from the icebreaker on her return to the Australian city of Hobart was to visit a sushi restaurant.”When you’ve been locked inside for so long and you suddenly hear a lot of traffic, sirens and horns, it’s really overwhelming.”
Choice stress was another phenomenon. “I remember standing in a supermarket after returning to Australia and being impressed by all the cereals I could choose from. I had little choice for a year and now I suddenly had 40 different varieties to choose from,” says Robertson.
In addition, she had to find a job, get her furniture out of storage, buy a car and basically restart her whole life.
She says it took her about half a year to get used to civilization again.
Different strategies to get through the transition period
By telling herself over and over that “this too would pass,” Robertson began to approach her new life not from week to week or day to day, but from hour to hour. “I couldn’t even think of what I was going to do the next day and the next week was completely far away. It was about the next hour. What was I going to do for the next hour?”
“I just had to tell myself that what I was feeling in that moment wasn’t going to stay that way forever,” she told Business Insider.
While in Antarctica, Robertson learned the strategy of focusing on things you can control, rather than things you can’t control, such as snow storms. That strategy also played an important role after her return to Australia.
“If I couldn’t control or influence something, I just let it go,” she says.
To avoid going crazy over people wanting to see her again, Robertson realized she could decide who came to visit and who she would see when.
Looking ahead, Robertson acknowledges that everyone will deal with the return to a more normal life after months of self-isolation during the corona crisis.
“Some people will be very excited and excited and others will be very anxious. I think most people are somewhere in between those two extremes,” she says.
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