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!

2020 vision: a reflection of what’s been and a speculation as to what will come

A bathroom selfie from my first week at work, feeling indestructible!

Against all odds, I started a new job in November. It was significant and ultra scary after a year of unemployment, plus it had only been a few months since the final end of my master’s course. I was without direction and honestly lacking a sense of my own identity, with everything having changed so majorly. So it was pretty overwhelming, thinking about the fact I’d miraculously landed my first full-time job after the successful completion of uni. I got my own desk. I got my own laptop. I got my own telephone number on the company directory. It was surreal.

The commutes were great initially (let’s not talk about the train timetable changes in December…). The colleagues in the office were lovely and very patient with me. My family were supportive and encouraging, proud that I was settling in. It was really good.

However, the irony is that around the time I started the job, I stopped practicing all of the amazing self-care routines that I’d spent the summer creating. Yoga, healthy eating, daily workouts, hypnotherapy tapes at night, regular meditation etc. It was like, at the first sight of normality, I regressed into all of the bad habits that I knew had led me to ultimately feeling so low earlier in 2019. I threw myself into work whole-heartedly and did my usual self-destructive thing: juggling as much as humanly possible (finishing a distance-learning course alongside a full time job), working longer hours than I was contracted to (unpaid, might I add) and being silly enough to work straight through lunch breaks (taking no time to stop and do something recreational for myself). I bailed on plans with friends several times and beat myself up about it, constantly. I was drinking a lot of alcohol again and deeming it acceptable because I deserved it, after a hard day at work.

As a result of numerous stressors, predominantly ones designed by yours truly, I felt quite low during my last week at work and had a bit of a spontaneous cry at the office. I was exhausted. I also began to realise that even with numerous drastic changes in my life, for the positive, I was still feeling not so great. I think I’d felt guilty for a few weeks, constantly telling that internal voice to shut-up and stop being sad. I was starting to get my life together, so why was I feeling so bad? Why was it that, even with gratitude leaking out of every pore, it was still possible to feel so horrible and possess such a cripplingly low self-esteem? It turns out that depression and anxiety don’t just disappear overnight. They’re not purely situational diagnoses’ and they sure as heck defy sense. You can have all the components of a perfect existence under your belt and that won’t make a difference, if you have depression and/or anxiety. This is the sad truth yet when acknowledged, it can also be a liberating one. Sometimes resistance is futile and its more empowering to accept that you’re not where you want to be just yet, but you will be some day. That’s enough. Whilst I’d made undeniable progress in my journey to recovery, there was still so much more left to overcome. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay! There’s no bloody deadline date! It’s a lifelong commitment to preserve myself and be less of an asshole, where possible. I have to learn and I have to grow, yet to do both I also have to suffer sometimes because life can’t just be rainbows and butterflies. Humans aren’t infallible- they break and they bend and need to go through stressful environments and situations in order to take a stronger form.

Over Christmas, a busy period of time spent catching up with a never-ending conveyor belt of family faces, I realised that I had to commit to change. It was so nice to be able to savour the time with loved ones and it gave me a much needed reality-check in time for the new year. There’s no point putting so much time and effort into self-care if it’s only being done in an opportunistic window. You have to fight to change your lifestyle and to ingrain the practices that keep you grounded into your daily routine, at any cost. You have to appreciate your efforts, whether they bloom into what you wanted or fail, because at least you tried.

So my goal for 2020 is to really push for balance. A career is great but not without down-time and personal commitments. I want to manifest a vision of strong physical and mental health, confidence in my abilities as a writer and singer, an abundance of financial gain (earned through persistence and hard work) as well as an improvement in self-worth. I want to see my friends and truly treasure them, so that they go to bed every night with no doubt that they are loved and cherished. I want to finally accept that I am deserving of respect and that I am entitled to space from people and situations that are toxic.

2020 will also be the year I finally make philanthropy a priority. I want to give time and whatever resources I possess to various causes, local and beyond. It is no secret that our world is riddled with social and environmental concerns that need to be addressed with activism, fundraising and awareness. I want to be part of that fight and I want to be part of some positive change, even if its for only one person.

Those are my intentions. Those are my primary focuses in 2020. Though things are looking and feeling pretty scary, I am determined that things are going to get better.

On a final note, despite all my woes in 2019, I also have to acknowledge that it was a year of many victories, even if I didn’t have the capacity to truly appreciate them at the time. I:

  • Handed in my master’s thesis with minor corrections (literally grammar and punctuation changes were suggested).
  • Started a very candid and open conversation about mental health, which has been extremely challenging in previous years. I received lots and lots of supports from loved ones and strangers, far and wide.
  • Got to spend a lot of quality time with my family for the first time in many, many years.
  • Went to therapy and also overcame my aversion to medication, trying antidepressants at the recommendation of my amazing GP.
  • Started blogging again, making an active effort to post on a weekly basis.
  • Read, and enjoyed, way more books than in previous years.
  • Completed a distance-learning course in Mental Health Awareness.
  • Bagged a guest spot on a website about female worth.
  • Graduated again.
  • Started an enjoyable job that actually has some relation to the degree I did.

I mean, that’s pretty damn impressive for somebody who had effectively given up on life and spent around 6 months physically unable to leave the house. If that’s what I managed whilst fully incapacitated, I can only wonder how much potentials this year holds!

I hope that I will look back at this post in the future and feel some gratification, in knowing that I acted on all of this. I also hope that you, dear reader, will be doing all that you can to manifest a brighter 2020 for yourself and your world💜🌍