Natalie Roos: I moved to see the world, and then the world stopped turning

What do you do when you pack your life into boxes, move to an exciting country to start all over again, and then find that the world has stopped turning? You embrace the change, one small, slow step at a time, even if it begins with something as simple as getting up and washing your hair.

By Natalie Roos*

It’s 9am and I’ve just woken up, sun streaming through my bedroom curtains. My eyes struggle to adjust to the glare. My whole body hurts. Everything aches, from my head to my feet. I rise and walk to the bathroom, feeling like I’m wading through water.

I know I need to wash my hair. It’s past the point where I can just throw it into a ponytail. But why bother washing my hair when I can’t leave the house? I know it will make me feel better – I’ve been through this enough times in the past 15 years. But this time is different.

This time I can’t just have my hair washed at the salon, or go for a walk, or meet up with a friend. Because three months ago I moved from Cape Town to Nairobi, and left everything and everyone I know behind. Oh, and the whole planet is on lockdown.

COVID-19 has taken over our world, and everyone I love is locked away in a different part of it.

I feel exhausted as I pack away last night’s clean dishes, feed the cats and straighten the bed. I know that if I lay down now I could sleep all day, possibly even all week. Instead, I pick up the little bottle next to my bed and shake a single white pill into my palm.

I swallow it down with a gulp of water. The sheer hope I place in it brings tears to my eyes. I swallow hard, trying to suppress the tears from rolling down my cheeks.

The news is on. I half-listen to the latest numbers. So many infected, so many dead, so many in isolation. For once, I truly have a reason to feel the low-level sadness and sense of dread that I’ve always assumed everyone else felt too.

For once, I can completely skip the shame-spiral where I run the lines “you have nothing to be sad about, this is pathetic behaviour, the world is carrying on without you”. I untie my hair and step into the shower and let the water wash the salt off my lips.

“Step one: Accept you’re depressed. Done. Step two: Wash your hair. Done. Step three: Make a list of five easy-to-achieve tasks to tick off today”. I run through my arsenal of coping mechanisms.

I think about the last time I felt this way – on a beach in Barcelona, two weeks into a month-long European adventure. Not a care in the world. Crying behind my sunglasses even as I snapped a selfie for Instagram.

I wrap myself in a slightly scratchy white towel, still a little damp from last night’s shower. I pull it tight around my shoulders like my mom used to do when I was little. “You can’t outrun depression,” I tell my reflection.

I knew moving countries wouldn’t be easy. But as I told so many people, so many times in the months leading up to my move, “I live for change”. I couldn’t wait to try out Nairobi’s food scene and find my new ‘coffice’.

Fuelled by excitement, I joined every expat Facebook group I could find. I researched yoga studios on my phone in one hand as I packed my life into boxes in Cape Town in the other.

I threw myself into Nairobi life with vigour. I was always jumping on the back of a motorbike taxi, meeting up with a new women’s group or exploring activities to write home about. I had prepared myself for major changes and I was embracing them. But then suddenly, the world stopped.

Life changed in ways I could never have imagined or prepared myself for. I woke up one morning to find that all my excitement had been replaced with darkness. And it’s forced me to face the reality that You. Can’t. Outrun. Depression.

So I sit down to start my list of five easy tasks to complete today and proudly tick off the first one: wash hair. I give myself permission to be sad, and I remind myself that this too shall pass.

I know that this is not the change I was seeking, but it’s a change I will embrace. I open up FaceTime to reach out to a friend and I see the same face I’ve been looking at for 31 years looking back at me, and I know she will be okay.

Because I know that you can change your location, and you can change your hairstyle and the world can change unrecognisably around you. I know you can’t outrun depression, but you can run alongside it.

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