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So Funny: Broke, dumped, and sharehouses from hell

I was Googling, "Why are human beings so shi**."

According to experts, even one of the following stressful life events can do a number on your well-being: job loss, divorce, moving, and isolation. By this definition, in 2020, my mental health was about as stable as the life of an average Kuwaiti citizen during the Gulf War. The go-getter that I am, I was raking it in all four departments, baby!


Now, the divorce had happened a couple of years prior, but I’m like a snail when it comes to matters of the heart; I take forever to heal from even a snide remark, let alone the demise of a ten-year marriage. 


I was, however, determined to create a new life for myself. It was clinging to this sense of hope that I’d quit the highest paying, highest ranking job of my market research career in a town that felt like home (Alice Springs, Northern Territory) to move to Melbourne to pursue ze artistic life. By artistic, I mean stand-up comedy, which even the Australian government doesn’t fully recognise as art (yet), but hey, to me, it was enough to start calling myself an artist on Instagram. I’d spent 2019 travelling around Australia doing stand-up comedy whilst studying and acquiring my certification as an Urdu-English interpreter. I’d been told by people this was a great industry to go into as a freelancer, that there was oodles of work.




I was also looking forward to building a community in Melbourne. I already knew some people there and envisioned hosting monthly dinners in my perfect home in an amazing Melbourne suburb. And I was going to find love again. 2020 was going to be my year. Mine!


Then God kicked me in the nuts.


At the beginning of 2020, I had a whirlwind romance that sent my head reeling, a roller coaster ride of hyperintense emotions, finally culminating in my heart getting smashed like never before just when the first level of pandemic restrictions set in.


Nothing like Dan Andrews asking people to define their relationships to bring out commitment phobia.


Amid mixed messages from health authorities, rising cases and tightening rules, I was moving from share house to share house, scrambling to find a place that offered peace of mind and some sort of stability.


By the time ‘Level 4’ restrictions came into effect, I’d moved four times and was now in a share house with total strangers. I thought this is what an arranged marriage must be like, minus the awkward sex. The three housemates were best buds, and I was the fourth wheel.


The place had a hostel-like feel to it: dirty dishes would pile up for a week, there was a queue for the toilet, and the floors were sticky. I could’ve forgotten it all, except the day I was moving out, I was accused of stealing … a dream catcher. A few things to unpack here: number one, why would I steal someone else’s crappy dreams? Number two, nothing in that hostel, sorry, house was worth more than $5. And finally, dream catchers only belong to Native Americans! What a culturally inappropriate accusation.


Prior to that, I’d lived with a hoarder and her enemy in a 50+ share house, which I can only describe as Golden Girls with a borderline personality disorder. I’d also lived briefly in a place with carpeting so riddled with germs that I got severely sick and lost my voice for a week. Then there was a lovely, zen household that turned out to be anti-vaccination.


Speaking of which, COVID-19 opened my eyes to the attitudes and beliefs of many people in my life. Up until then, I’d happily been part of ‘conscious’ circles (think ecstatic dancing, energy healing and other new-age activities). Now the same community had a big rift, and many were vehemently against vaccination. I support healthy scepticism, but this was on a different level. I just couldn’t get behind this. I come from a country that still has Polio because of the anti-vaccination mentality.


Traitors - na - "Friends" were also fleeing Melbourne to settle in other parts of the country with fewer restrictions. It was truly joyous (sarcasm in case you missed it) seeing their Instagram pics of waterfalls and beaches with profound quotes on ‘creating your own reality’ and even more joyous getting messages from other friends: I could use a lockdown myself, must be so peaceful.


I deeply missed my family back in Pakistan and was worried sick for their health and wellbeing.


I was also broke. Face-to-face interpretation work had been slashed by 80%. No one was leaving their house to see a lawyer, doctor, or school staff unless necessary. My new career had gone down the toilet and reduced to phone interpreting – scoring maybe two to three calls on a good day.


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I interpreted refugee detention centre calls, domestic violence support calls and police investigation calls. Most of these calls left me Googling, “Why are human beings so sh**” and crying myself to sleep. Plus, this phone work barely paid my phone bill.


I was getting depleted along with my bank account, so I did something my hardworking Pakistani ancestors would roll in their graves for: I applied to Centrelink. Those payments helped me pay my phone bill and buy my own dream catcher while I desperately looked for work with a reliable paycheque. I contacted a former employer who was hiring a social media moderator for a well-known mental health organisation. They offered me a job, but there was a caveat: I could only do overnight shifts.


“This is temporary. As soon as there’s a change in the roster because of someone leaving, we’ll put you on evening shifts”, HR assured me.


I thought I could suck it up and do three overnights every week. How hard could it be?


It was shit.


My physical and mental health took a serious beating. The cherry on top: overnight shifts did not pay any more than evening shifts because of my specific contract. I felt trapped but kept at it, thinking sooner or later, I’d be moved to evening shifts.


Mental health for Victorians was at an all-time low. People on community forums were writing heart-wrenching details of how their life was impacted and how they were struggling with suicidal and self-harm impulses. My job was to provide them empathy and support while my own mental health was on its last legs. It took every bit of a disciplined routine which included regular exercise, nutrition and a ton of meditation, to maintain my own sanity.


Eventually, I moved into a cheap studio apartment because, let’s face it, hell really is other people when you’re in a lockdown. I also quit the overnight shift work because, as it turned out, they never intended to move me to evening shifts. Oh, the irony of this being in the mental health sector.


I do want to say it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were some wonderful things that came into my life during and because of the lockdowns. Notably, I found a sense of community through Zoom comedy, and there was no energy healing involved! Having these weekly online mics propelled me to keep writing jokes and performing. I even put on a show in collaboration with a fellow comic for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. I was mentored through an artist development program for South Asian artists, and I met some more amazing people through that. Going through lockdowns also gave me the courage to take a leap of faith and do my first solo comedy show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, resulting in a sold-out run and nice reviews.


I went on long walks with friends who also stayed put in Melbourne, and during all my share house moves, I did, at one point, live with one of the loveliest humans I’ve ever met.

I came to realise the importance of healthy human connection in my life and what creativity means to me.


I’m proud, though, that I never once made kombucha or started a podcast.


Where’s my Centrelink payment for that?

Editor-at-large: Dilpreet Kaur Taggar

Co-Editor: Yohaan Prem Sharma

Graphic Designer: Jess Harwood

Coping with COVID' is a multimedia series funded by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. Through this project, we aim to highlight the mental, physical, social and financial recovery of South Asians in Australia post-lockdowns. Follow the hashtag #CopingWithCovid below for more.

About the author

Amna Bakhtiar is a writer and comedian currently based in Melbourne. She is a tribal Pashtun woman from Peshawar, Pakistan and has performed stand-ups at Darwin Fringe, Adelaide Fringe, Bellingen Winter Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. You can find her on Instagram | @amna.bee.comedy



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