Lockdown #3: The End of the Tunnel?

I haven’t written anything in a while. My mental health hasn’t been great.

I’ve definitely felt a significant shift in mood and anxiety levels over the last lockdown and I don’t think I’m alone on that front. The novelty of lockdown has finally worn out for the majority of people, who have paused their lives and had to make-do with the omnishambles of less-than-ideal backdrops for meetings, exercising with Joe Wicks instead of the usual PT at the gym and straddling a newfound role as the novice teacher-parent alongside employment. This last hurdle has seen us muck our way through the festive season without the usual cheer and the longer, colder days have been brutal on the collective wellbeing. It’s no surprise that the British public have welcomed Boris Johnson’s announcement of the roadmap, outlining the forecasted milestone relaxation measures in the months ahead. It has become a glimmer of hope that indicates we’re on the road back to “normality” with a provisional end-date in sight and this seems to have lifted the gloom for some. Restaurants and pubs are already booked and busy, with online reservations flying out as people try to look ahead and plan for a summer of relative freedom.

When the roadmap was announced, I didn’t feel cautious optimism (and neither have others, to my reassurance). I saw the flurry of memes about June 21st and felt a bit sick, to be honest. After a whole year of working at home, trying to cope with fluctuating mental health, and barely seeing family and friends, the idea of a real, normal life is almost dreamlike these days. I try to remember details of that 9-5 existence like commuting, crossing paths with strangers and talking to random people while the kettle boils in the staff kitchen. Then outside of work, actually using the weekend to see family and social occasions like eating out with friends, going to gigs and getting rounds in at the pub etc. There’s a sense of disbelief: did I really used to do those things, without a care in the world, a few years ago? When I reflect, It almost feels like I’m just watching a film of someone else’s life.

I understand this all probably sounds ultra dramatic, but you have to understand, dear reader, that I’ve effectively been out of action now for 2 years. The first year was due to stress-related burnout and agoraphobia, while the second year was more the global response to a raging, unforeseen pandemic. Yet somehow, they’ve blended together into 1 block, with the 3 months of “real life” that I experienced (sandwiched somewhere in the middle) effectively lost in the ether, those massive personal accomplishments of getting a job, graduating, commuting every day and travelling to Mexico just erased entirely. This is a significant wedge of time that I’ve spent curled up like a dead spider on a shelf, and it makes me feel all the more apprehensive about finding a daily rhythm again.

The very idea of all these micro-events are overwhelming now. I’ve had to stop thinking about the future, a.k.a anything beyond the 24-hour stretch ahead of me, because it fills me with dread. I find myself catastrophising the transition back to “normality”, worrying about whether I am even capable of living that life again without days riddled by panic attacks and blister packs of mood-stabilising pills. I try to smile when loved ones talk about all the exciting things we’ll finally be able to do this summer, but my guts are twisted inside and a voice in my head tells me that regardless of lockdown being relaxed, I won’t be able to do these things. I worry I will not be able to cope again and I will be left behind as everybody else seamlessly rejoins the rat race and busy, bustling routine. I worry that I’m too sensitive and broken to be able to masquerade as “normal”, to interact with others as naturally as I once was able to.

Realistically, I know this unhelpful thought process to be completely a product of my anxiety, which has only festered without the opportunity to directly face my fears head-on. Despite a recent blog post celebrating my antidepressants-free lifestyle, I’ve actually had to go back onto medication as I hit an extraordinary slump of fatigue, low mood and fraught nerves. As soon as I saw changes in my sleep, appetite and drinking habits, I knew I had reached a point of serious reflection: is pride worth staying medication-free or is it time to listen to my guts and take action, before I’m too far gone? Needless to say, it was the latter option. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week evaluating what I can do to be kinder to myself as we near the end of COVID-19’s grip on our lives: I’m back to daily hypnotherapy, soundbaths, reading books and regimenting food/shower habits. I’m back to taking things a task at a time, instead of putting pressure on myself to carve out an aspirational career path, find my way onto the property ladder and generally discover my purpose in life all at the same time (and especially whilst mentally unwell during a pandemic).

Writing about my feelings puts them into perspective. Times are hard, indeed, but they’re hard for everyone and there’s no way of knowing how things are going to work out over the months to come (my Mystic Meg powers are non-existent). I am doing my best to counteract every negative “what if” with a positive counterpart and also trying to take my mental state with a pinch of salt, as so much of what I am feeling now is entirely situational and will be inevitably changed as our general circumstances change in the UK. I am also trying to imagine how I would support somebody if they told me they were feeling the way I am right now, and realising that it is totally valid to feel that sense of apprehension. It is okay to feel nervous and scared about how things will be, just as it is okay to feel excited about the prospect of liberation. There is still time to come and thoughts/feelings are fleeting, so there is solace to be taken from that ❤

PERSONAL BLOG: Mental Health & Lockdown

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The objective over the last very messy week of lockdown: “Operation Cat-Eye”.

When the news of lockdown circulated, I wasn’t immediately panicked.

This was odd because I’ve been a terminal worrier since I came out of my mum, finding things to worry about in even the most trivial situations. I’m the kind of person who can haul their sleep-ridden body out of bed at stupid o’clock because I’ve suddenly remembered I used to have a Tamagotchi when I was eight years old, and won’t be able to go back to sleep until I’ve found it. I could dismantle the shelves filled with dusty figurines and books and “eff and Jeff” for hours on end, until the totally irrelevant Tamagotchi of no significant interest is unearthed.

So, you see, I ought to have been flailing when Boris gave his announcement, succumbing to hysterics and eventually being sedated and stretchered away by a PPE-clad doctor. Yet somehow, the impending doom of a pandemic and calls for countries to adhere to strict quarantine regulations seemed to do nothing for me. It was an anti-climactic, “oh well”.

This kind of apathy could very well be a consequence of reading far too many post-apocalyptic novels, or maybe even because I’ve lived through some of the most bizarre “you couldn’t write this shit” moments in my relatively short twenty-five years of life. Life has been reading an awful lot like the events of the Old Testaments over the last few years, so perhaps I’ve just been adjusting to the bizarre “new normal” we all seem to be dealing with on a daily basis.

But maybe this easy acceptance of living in isolation for the foreseeable future came from the fact I secretly considered myself a seasoned candidate for the isolation period, a veteran with the “Been there, done that” T-shirt to prove it.

I spent many months cooped up at home last year following a cataclysmic nervous breakdown. I packed up life as I knew it and came home to my parents, who basically reverted to their former selves, caring for me like the inept toddler I’d become. As I dedicated my days to practicing the fundamental basics of eating, sleeping, showering and lasting a day without a panic attack, I took on a number of interests, all with the intention of improving my mental health and really getting to the root of my breakdown. All of those activities involved me, myself and I.

Meanwhile, life resumed as normal for all those around me. My parents worked, one sister was gallivanting on her year abroad and another was at school during the days and locked away in her bedroom to stew in teenage hormones, when she came home. My friends were still working, studying, playing gigs, socialising and generally living their lives in full capacity.

Last year’s agoraphobia was a consequence of self-imposed (well, my body and mind went kaput despite my protestations) exile, whilst this year’s isolation is a consequence of a global pandemic. They both involve staying at home and rarely leaving the house, as well as fear, but there are crucial differences between the two: the former was a period of time in which I was a prisoner in my own head, never mind my house. Whilst the isolation we all experience now is a collective one, a sorrow at being stuck inside knowing that our neighbours across the street, and across the seas as well as many borders, are living the same way. Faces pressed to the window with the nostalgic longing for the days of free roaming, the liberation of jumping on a random train to anywhere and swigging a well-deserved pint after work with the colleagues at the end of the week.

With my past experience, I figured that I might be able to withstand the limitations on going outside a little better than my friends and family. It turns out that this isn’t the case, at least not fully. Admittedly, I am probably less phased than others by the prospect of only being able to leave the house for one mode of exercise/essentials, and it is kind of nice to have company in my isolation, in that everybody else is feeling it too.

I don’t think I took it so badly because I felt I had less to lose, than others. As the lockdown descended upon us and rumours swirled of Boris growing a pair, I lamented only for the progress that I would potentially be abandoning. I’d spent a total of around 3-4 months in the “real world”, having picked up a job and almost mastering the art of “looking okay” whilst navigating public transport. I was functioning. I had seen my friends a total of around 3 times within the year I was ill, but I was getting better at staying in touch. I was also getting better at taking care of myself. I was proud of that, as I felt it signified a momentous achievement in my recovery journey. Yet now, 4 months into the national lockdown measures, I feel like I’ve gone back in time. I’m spending most of my hours indoors, albeit from a different household (I swapped households around 3 weeks ago for the sake of my mental health), and find myself genuinely struggling to remember when I last saw my beautiful friends or loved ones outside my household.

It’s only over recent weeks that I’ve realised how much I’m still bound by the deep-seated anxiety that I might fully regress to my former hermit status long after this pandemic has died out.

Will this be the beginning of the Great Depression (part 2)? Or is this simply a challenge to face and an opportunity to grow, as well as potentially start again? It seems some doors are closing for me, presently. Yet I also keep having my (sometimes-sertraline-fuelled) dreams that feature symbolism synonymous with new beginnings and creative starts in new endeavours. So I guess what will be, will be.

I know this is the same situation that the rest of the country will inevitably be facing, and that this is perhaps a perfectly delayed yet rational response to the fuckery of the world at this moment in time, but mental illness has a way of making these experiences feel so insular. Sometimes it is easier to burrow, and I think I somehow managed to escape the avid panic that ensued when the initial blow of the pandemic hit because of this, but I can say for certain that it has caught up with me now.

Anxiety and depression are good at amplifying the effects of loneliness, under-stimulation and limited social mobility. Building up the momentum to get out of bed every morning is proving to be increasingly difficult over the last few weeks, and that hasn’t been helped by a series of other difficult life situations (potentially I’ll say more on this in another post). I am going to be “recalibrating” with the hopes of coping better with the challenges we are all experiencing presently.

Let this be a lesson to all: especially me! Make great effort to maintain good mental hygiene, or else life will catch-up with you and probably knock you back when you least expect it. Like, maybe not during the onset of a pandemic but slap-bang in the centre of it…

Like all previous low-points, I am hoping to take something from this experience. I genuinely can’t wait till all of this is over and I can look back to say that I lived through this experience and wasn’t defied by it. So, here’s to toasting to the future, dear reader. Stay safe!