It was like a dam wall breaking.
The months of trying to stay strong and “stay the course” – holding the line for just one more week, one more day, one more anxious morning waiting to see the numbers.
The fear and frustration. The persistent low hum of anxiety. The grief and the uncertainty and the bone-crunching loneliness. It all came crashing over me and I sobbed.
You don’t realise how tightly you’ve been holding on until you finally loosen your grip.
On Monday it felt like the whole of Melbourne let go for the first time in months.
Watching premier Daniel Andrews – his voice breaking with emotion – announce the long lockdown was coming to an end was a moment I will never forget.
When he spoke of the courage, compassion and commitment we’ve all shown, something inside me gave way. I felt proud. Exhausted. Emotional. Wrung out. But so proud of this community.
From 725 cases a day to zero. We had done the impossible. At great cost and sacrifice, but we’d done it.
Friend after friend messaged me to say they were sitting in front of their TV in tears. None of them had expected to be so emotional.
As welcome as it was, we weren’t prepared for the news. After so many false dawns, we had learned to temper our expectations. Bracing ourselves to expect the worst had become a necessary act of self-preservation.
It’s hard to explain to people looking on from the outside what the past few months have felt like in this state of suspended animation.
For 16 weeks we’ve been in lockdown. It has been necessary and effective, but my god it has been hard.
While the rest of the country returned to some semblance of normality, Melbourne has been trapped in a fever dream that felt like it would never end.
We weren’t designed to live like this. Humans are tribal beasts – we thrive on social connection. Prolonged separation from the ones we love, and the rituals and routines that anchor us, has been profoundly unsettling.
Our brains are hardwired to crave certainty and stability. Not being able to make even the most basic plans for the future has left us in a dizzying state of limbo.
At the same time, we’ve had to live in a near constant state of fight or flight – adrenaline coursing through tired bodies, bracing each day for news that seemed to only get worse.
Each person has endured their own personal struggles – the greatest burden shouldered by the 817 families who have lost loved ones.
This state has lived through a collective trauma.
I’ve watched people around me – many of whom are usually upbeat and resilient – slowly shrink with the day-to-day grind of it all.
It’s amazing how doing absolutely nothing every day can become such an effort.
And on top of the exhaustion is the guilt.
“Just look at Europe,” say the onlookers who have met our sorrow and fatigue with demands that we “keep things in perspective”. As if there is a sliding scale for pain and we haven’t met the threshold.
This whatboutism has compounded the stress and, at times, felt like the cruellest form of gas-lighting.
Of course there will always be people worse off. Many of us enjoy privilege that others don’t. But this is not the Pain Olympics.
For many people, the emotion that came with yesterday’s news was perhaps the first time they allowed themselves to feel the depth of their own experience.
Hearing what we were about to gain was a potent reminder of all we had lost. These new freedoms were like a shot of serotonin straight to the heart.
We needed this. We can be hopeful for the future but we will remain cautious. We will still hold our breath each day for those daily numbers. And while the city is opening up, we know things will not be back to normal any time soon.
Many, myself included – are still separated from family who live overseas or interstate – and we don’t know when those reunions will happen. For some, what has been lost, can never be replaced.
But we will slowly bring this city back to life.
We will see our friends. We will go to dinner. We will enjoy the simple luxury of leaving the house for no particular reason.
The choices before us are honestly a bit overwhelming. It’s hard to remember what life before lockdown even looked like.
A friend summed it up perfectly when she said she’s worried she’ll be like a bird that’s finally released from a cage and just sits on top of it.
But that’s OK. We don’t have to go far just yet. We don’t have to rush. We can sit for as long as we like and just drink in the view.
• Jill Stark is a Melbourne writer and author of When You’re Not OK, Happy Never After and High Sobriety