White Coat, Black Art

Confronting pandemic isolation with '5 seconds of courage'

University student Maryam Mahdavi shares her experience with pandemic loneliness and her path to recovery.

University student Maryam Mahdavi shares her experience with pandemic loneliness and her path to recovery

Maryam Mahdavi struggled with the effects of COVID isolation during her last year of high school and her first year at the university. With the help of an Ottawa ICU physician she began her first steps to recovery. (Submitted by Maryam Mahdavi)

I stood at the entrance to the lecture hall, one phrase repeating in my mind: five seconds of courage. 

Flashback to last fall: I had just moved to Montreal to start my first year at McGill University. Most of my classes were online so I spent the vast majority of my days in the apartment that I shared with my sister. It felt very lonesome at times. 

That was a familiar feeling. As someone who graduated high school during pandemic times, I'd become well acquainted with a lack of real-world human connection. I went through the second-half of my secondary experience with mostly virtual classes and a lot of online socializing, too. In Montreal, like I had throughout the lockdowns, I sought solace from my friends online. We chatted on Instagram, often late into the night. During the days, I tried to keep my mind from wandering during my Zoom classes.

I also struggled to find a healthy relationship with my body. Like so many others stuck at home during the pandemic with easy access to food, I found myself constantly snacking. This became hard to control because, when you have nothing to keep yourself busy, what else is there to do? So not only was my physical health affected by this lifestyle, but my mental health also suffered. I felt guilty and ashamed and trapped in a mental prison.

I had bottled up those emotions.

After sharing much of this with my friends, one of them suggested that I connect with CBC Radio's White Coat, Black Art for their project called The Recovery Sessions. If selected, the team would pair me with an expert to help guide me on a journey to get back on track.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng is an Ottawa ICU physician and healthy living advocate. He helped Maryam take the first steps to getting back on track. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

I was paired with Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, an intensive care unit doctor based in Ottawa. For four weeks, we would meet over Zoom.

I began the first of my online sessions with Dr. Kwadwo with no expectations. He listened to each story I had to tell about being a young person during a pandemic. As we talked, it felt nice to have someone to vent to about my week. I remember telling Dr. Kwadwo how lonely it could get when I went to my classes. Everyone in class wore a mask, and even though it does not inhibit us from using our voices, it still felt like a barrier stopping us from socializing. 

Truthfully, I didn't realize how upset this made me until I spoke to Dr. Kwadwo. I had bottled up those emotions. Looking back on that first semester, it felt so grey and dreary because of the loneliness. I stayed home mostly and the only interactions I had with people were with professors or grocery store workers. At the time I would have told you that the limited interactions worked well for me because I am typically a shy person, but I still felt left-out from the regular university experiences.

In return for my stories, Dr. Kwadwo gave me some challenges. The first was to go on regular walks. It was simple, but it worked. Going on these walks felt rejuvenating and refreshing. I enjoyed listening to my favourite songs and discovering the beautiful neighbourhoods around me in my new city.

Maryam followed Dr. Kwadwo's advice and started to take walks around her neighbourhood and McGill campus. These images are from some of her strolls. (Submitted by Maryam Mahdavi)

On the days when I had no stamina to leave my house, I also had my sister to remind me that Dr. Kwadwo would want me to go for a walk. As hard as it felt to get out the door sometimes, it was even more rewarding on those tough days to take in the beauty of my surroundings. 

One week, I told Dr. Kwadwo about an assignment I had to finish for my Jazz studies class and how exciting it was for me. The assignment entailed going to a performance and writing a report on it. Dr. Kwadwo suggested that I approach a classmate and ask if they wanted to go with me. I was wary. I had gone the whole semester without interacting with any other students. The thought of approaching someone filled me with apprehension. 

Then Dr. Kwadwo offered me some wise words that will stick with me forever; he told me that all I needed was five seconds of courage to do something big. 

When I arrived early for my next Jazz class, I noticed another student was waiting on a bench by the door and so I sat down next to her. 

"Should I ask her about the assignment?" I debated internally. Finally I decided to heed Dr. Kwadwo's words and muster up that five seconds of courage. I turned and asked her what she was doing for the assignment. She smiled and we started talking it over. Then we talked about other things, too. We even sat next to each other once class started and made small talk.

Although it was the last class of the term, and I ended up just attending an online jazz music performance, it was nevertheless a big breakthrough for me. After going the entire semester without striking up a conversation with any classmates, I'd overcome my shyness and had what I believe will be the first of many discussions with my fellow students going forward.

I stepped out of my comfort zone in more than one way through working with Dr. Kwadwo. There will be a lot that will stay with me from this experience, but the most notable will be the focus on five seconds of courage. I know I'll have a lot of new experiences in the future with those words to nudge me forward.

I don't look back on the hard times during my first year with remorse. Instead, I've come to see that all that loneliness and confusion was necessary for me to become who I am today. Now, I try to use all the courage I can to not only bring more people into my life, but to feel better about myself. In moments where I feel depleted, I will reflect on the new friend I made in a time where being courageous felt like very hard work.


Maryam Mahdavi is a second year student at McGill University studying psychology. In her free time she enjoys writing music and singing.