If COVID-19 happened a year ago, it would have broken me

A year ago, OMD's Elizabeth Blaker was struggling with obsessive behaviour around food, exercise, and routine. Here, she explains why even those who are there to help - she's the agency's people and development manager - also need help sometimes, and aren't immune to the impacts of mental illness.

Content warning: This opinion piece discusses exercise and food behaviours, and mental health

COVID-19. A time in our lives during which it is understandable and acceptable to feel anxious, uncertain and overwhelmed. However, somehow, I have felt resilient, open and calm.

12 months ago, had you thrown COVID-19 my way, I would have crumbled. Past me was anxious, routine-driven, a perfectionist, desperate to finding control and, if I am truly honest with myself, depressive. The constant need to be perfect and high achieving was a never-ending battle.

I always had a goal to run a half marathon, and 2019 was the year to do it. While I am so proud of this achievement now, it almost broke me. The challenge was fun at the beginning; I had runner’s high.

Photo by sporlab on Unsplash

However, the goal turned into an obsession, a need to be great, a need to have control. And no achievement was enough. I ticked off the half marathon, and in the moment afterwards, I felt numb. This huge achievement in my life felt insignificant.

That was not the end.

The obsession continued.

Pilates four times a week, personal training two times a week, waking up at 5am to get off at an earlier train station to walk four to five kilometres to work multiple times a week, treadmill sprints at 8pm. The machine never ended.

My control over exercise transitioned into control over food and calories. Counting and counting and counting, to be better, to feel better, to have control over something when I felt like the rest of my life was out of my control.

My relationship with exercise, food, and routine – which was initially used to cope with other stressors – quickly turned negative and mentally unhealthy.

I began experiencing outbreaks of tears at the smallest of things: The work fridge clean out that sent me into a spiral, the anxiousness of going to social events, the tears at leaving my family.

I was riding a rollercoaster of emotions and it was hard not to let that impact me, including at work.

I made the first, hard step of booking an appointment to chat with someone (thank you to OMD for making it financially possible through its employee assistance program).

After seven months of seeing a psychologist, I learnt that I was not really being honest with them about my situation, and it was even harder to be honest with myself. I went through the rigmarole of trying to find the ‘right’ psychologist for me, but eventually it clicked that, no matter who I saw, I was unable to move forward without opening up to myself (this was not my first journey with trying to manage my mental health either).

Fast forward three months, and we’re deep into COVID-19.

I am surviving, I am grateful, I am content.

Past me would have been panicked about not mastering a thousand hobbies during isolation, not having control over every little thing.

However, I thankfully took the advice to be honest with myself. Sometimes we need a little help, whether that be seeing a psychologist, medication or speaking with your family or work buddies.

Recently, I said to my manager: “I am feeling anxious about something happening at work.”

Past me would have not said anything at all and bottled it up. No matter your level of seniority, role, or industry, mental health does not discriminate.

Every day is not going to be perfect, but I now wake up thankful, and appreciative of where I am, how I feel and the people I have around me.

It is okay to have a moment – I certainly still have them – but we should accept it, own it, feel it. I am okay with riding the wave, letting go, and knowing there will be highs, lows, and then that moment where it all settles back to a steady flow.

So, from me to you, in this moment, it is okay not to feel like your best self. You do not have to be the fastest runner, embroidery whiz or now trilingual. Stop and accept exactly where you are.

As I write this, I am sitting in my car reflecting, while also eating a whole bag of lollies because it’s what I need. However, when you feel like things are getting too much or you are overwhelmed, be ready to take that next step and get help when you need it. If you are worried about someone you know, speak up and reach out to services that can help you navigate the conversation with them.

Over the last few months, I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve learnt to:

Be kind to yourself. I cannot count the number of times my sister has written this on my birthday card, and finally I agree with her.

Share your feelings with others. I always thought I was a burdening people with my problems. In reality, my friends and family accept me for exactly who I am, and in my case, it has only made us closer.

Speak to a psychologist or see your GP. This is one of the most important steps I took. The only person that was judging me was me.

Flip something that was a negative into a positive. Walking and pilates soothe my soul and help me to find some calm; you can learn to re-love an activity or thing which was once ‘unhealthy’ or a stressor.

Things will get better. It might take time and the steps can feel small, but one day you will look back and see how far you have really come. In that moment of realisation, you can feel proud of yourself.

If you or someone you know needs help, the following resources are available:

Lifeline 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
Black Dog Institute


Elizabeth Blaker is people and development manager at OMD


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