I Was Isolated for a Year in Antarctica—Here’s What Surprised Me Most When I Came Back
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My journey to isolation in Antarctica was somewhat accidental. I saw an advertisement in a print publication for a job as a station leader for an expedition to Davis Station, Antarctica—and I have to confess, it was the penguin in the ad that caught my attention. The ad noted that they could “teach Antarctica” but were looking for someone with resilience, empathy, and integrity to lead a diverse team of multiskilled expeditioners on a wide range of science, infrastructure, and logistics programs in one of the most remote, isolated, and beautiful places on the planet. I went to the job interview mostly interested in discovering the questions they would ask to find empathy. I was then sent to boot camp with 13 men competing for a job that I didn’t even really want but knew I would regret if I didn’t go for it.
Leading 18 strangers around the clock for a full year—through months of darkness and with no escape from the frigid cold, howling winds, or one another—I learned some powerful lessons. As the youngest and only second female expedition leader at Davis Station, I have firsthand knowledge about what it feels like to come out of months of isolation. I’ve been sharing my story for a while (my expedition was in 2005), but it has never had more relevance than it has right now. When people reenter life after months of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, they will have different responses. Some will be very excited and will look forward to getting back to the office; others will be anxious and stressed out. Most people will fall somewhere in the middle. We don’t know how people will respond, but we do know that it won’t be the same for everyone. Here were my surprising reactions to reentering life after isolation.
The noise level seemed louder
After being in isolation, the noise in the outside world seemed louder. Noise will be huge after lockdown. I think about how New York City is a cacophony of sounds and now the streets are empty. Gosh, it took me about six months to get used to how noisy life is. I limited the time I spent outside and gradually built up my tolerance for noise. It was quite startling at the beginning—especially the constant drone or hum of a city. Antarctica is completely silent—there are no birds tweeting, no trees blowing their leaves. It’s silent.
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Life felt like it was suddenly zooming by
The pace of my life in Antarctica was very slow. Just like everyone’s life in lockdown is going at a slower pace, I had gotten used to moving at a slower speed. When I first got into my car and went for a ride, I felt like I was speeding, even though I wasn’t. People have been used to working at home and going to Zoom meetings. It will feel strange to physically have to get into your car, zoom to work, and resume the busyness of life.
Choices were overwhelming
When I was on the expedition, we did not have a lot of choices. I had no choice of what to wear, when to work, or what to eat. The chef gave us two choices, so you either ate the Indian curry or the pasta. When I first came home and went to the cereal aisle and saw 30 types of muesli, I got a bit overwhelmed. I also didn’t have to worry about buying a wedding present or driving to an extracurricular activity. Life was simple in isolation.
Hugs were uncomfortable
Because I was leading the expedition, I couldn’t have any physical contact with anyone else—zero. There were no handshakes, no flirting, and no hugs. I couldn’t afford for a simple gesture of empathy, such as a hug or a placed hand on the shoulder, to be misinterpreted as a sign of romantic interest. It went against my natural desire not to comfort someone who was distraught with a big hug, but it’s what I had to do to maintain professional boundaries. After a year of this, it became my normal.
Courtesy Rachael Robertson
I was a big hugger before this trip and thought I would be craving attention when I arrived at home, but I was not. In fact, when I came out of isolation, it was a huge challenge to be constantly hugged by every family member, every friend, even old work colleagues. They were proud of me and wanted to show me by offering a big hug, but I needed to get used to it. So I pulled back on social engagements and spent the first six weeks back home with only my family and very closest friends.
After lockdown, we will see a spectrum of reactions. But we should all respect one another, acknowledge each person’s varying comfort levels, and realize we may also feel uneasy until we find a vaccine. Check out these 20 photos that will define the era of social distancing.
My immune system was off
Viruses do not live in Antarctica. When I was in the harsh and bitter cold, I was perfectly healthy. When I returned back home, I picked up every virus in Australia. I was totally unprepared for the way my immune system reacted.
Things were harder as we neared the end of our isolation
The third quarter was the most difficult time—not just for me, but for all of us on the expedition. That was when all the fighting and emotional outbursts happened. I thought the roughest part would be in the middle in the winter, but that was easy compared to the third quarter. We were over it, and many people actually started saying that. I think what made it really tough was that we could see the finish line, but weren’t quite there.
I was more focused
After I emerged from isolation in Antarctica, I wrote two best-selling books and became an international motivational speaker. Being in isolation as the leader, without anyone telling me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong, meant I had to do a lot of self-reflection. I kept a journal, and every day, I would reflect on how I had operated as a leader. That discipline of evaluating myself taught me what I got right and wrong, as I had no one tapping me on the shoulder to tell me. It’s like standing on a balcony and looking down at yourself. While I was in lockdown in Australia due to the pandemic, my reaction was similar: I created my own production company at home and continued to reach people around the world.
I often think back to when I saw the picture of the penguin that inspired me to look at the ad for the job. It’s like the movie Sliding Doors—a moment that changed my life completely.
For more on how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.
Rachael Roberston is an international speaker and author. Her latest book is Respect Trumps Harmony: Why Being Liked Is Overrated and Constructive Conflict Gets Results.