Lockdown is difficult for everyone. There is a lot of discussion online about who has it worse, but there is little to be gained by such comparisons –– yes, there are probably lots of people suffering more than you, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering. Your feelings are valid.
I have been struggling a lot and trying to ignore it, because I feel guilty. I’m not working long hours caring for Covid-19 victims in hospital. Nobody in my family or small circle of friends has died. My household’s financial situation hasn’t gotten worse. I live with my parents and three adorable (mostly!) pets in a house with a small garden. In theory, I should be able to function as normal, since I work and study from home. I’m incredibly lucky. But I also have mental health problems which can convince me, even at the best of times, that my life isn’t worth living and I’m a terrible burden on the people who care about me.
I’m aware that this may sound melodramatic to some people –– especially those fortunate enough not to have experienced mental illness –– but it’s my reality. Knowing I’m in no immediate danger doesn’t stop me having panic attacks. Appreciating the good things in my life won’t always stop me from sinking into dark periods of depression. After spending a couple of weeks trying to bottle up my symptoms, they have started to leak out.
Mental health issues are difficult to manage in the best of circumstances and under lockdown, it can sometimes feel as if everything has been deigned to aggravate my symptoms. Social media has always been full of people living their lives better than me, but now it’s full of people who are doing lockdown better than me. I’m used to spending most of my life at home, thanks to my mental health problems, but I’m struggling to keep doing the things I usually do. Writing, studying and reading have become more challenging. I have failed to maintain a lot of my mental health strategies, including running on the treadmill and meditation. Instead of making healthy lunches, I find myself munching crisps.
Lockdown reminds me of my worst periods of depression and anxiety, when I often went for weeks without leaving the house. While I’m still walking the dogs every day, I no longer help my mum with the weekly shop or go to gym classes. My social contact has gone from low to almost zero. There are glimpses of hope which remind me I haven’t returned to those darkest days, which helps a lot. For example, we had our first Exeter Writers meeting via Zoom on Saturday and it was wonderful –– I feel as though a small but significant piece of my life has been salvaged. I also feel a little less stressed about my studies, because I found out my cancelled exam won’t be replaced by a different assessment, so my overall module mark will be based on my assignments and it won’t affect my degree’s BPS accreditation. I suppose, like everyone else, I’m slowly adjusting to the New Normal.
However, I have a lot of anxiety about whether I will be able to cope when I can return to my usual activities. I have social anxiety, in addition to generalised anxiety disorder, so I find it difficult to return to kettlebells classes after missing a few sessions; I can only imagine (and dread) how I might feel after the gym has been closed for weeks or months on end. I don’t know whether I will be able to cope with being amongst lots of strangers in the supermarket, which is challenging enough on my good days. I know it’s pointless to worry when I don’t know how long it will be before I’m allowed to do these things again, but I feel as if I’m being pushed deeper into the murky waters of my mental illness.
I’m trying to cling to the things which I can do, especially those which help me feel better, but it’s difficult. Often, the things which cheer me up seem stupid and trivial, especially when I think about the tasks I should be focusing on –– painting my nails bright pink seems ridiculous when I need to catch up with my studies and actually finish some of the stories I have started. Although, to be fair, painting my nails doesn’t require much time, energy or concentration.
A lot of people are turning to distractions under lockdown. Baking bread, completing DIY projects and cleaning/decluttering have become clichés because they are comforting: they require enough attention to provide distraction, are undeniably practical and loaded with symbolic meaning (putting your house in order, providing your household’s daily bread, etc). I have done my share of using up yeast and bread flour bought ages ago, with variable results… today’s loaf is a strange shape but tastes great, whereas last week’s attempt looked like a flattened brick and didn’t taste much better! These practical pursuits create a sense of achievement and satisfaction (when they turn out right!), which is an excellent return on the investment of time and effort compared to the less tangible rewards of my priorities.
Taking the time to bake bread has reminded me of the importance of taking time out –– just as the dough needs to rest and prove after kneading, I need to relax after intense periods of activity. My definition of ‘intense period of activity’ needs to encapsulate anything which requires a lot of effort, including tasks which may be easy at other times. My mental health problems can fluctuate a lot, so beating myself up for not being as productive as I am on my best days is unhelpful. Some days I can only do the bare minimum needed to get through the day –– and that’s okay.
It’s easy to feel intimidated by how other people say they are handling lockdown, but even if their claims of rigorous exercise regimes, learning new languages, volunteering in the community, growing vegetables, writing novels and knitting several jumpers (all within the first fortnight!) are accurate, it doesn’t mean everybody can do the same. For each person who says they are excelling, I suspect there are several people who feel as though they are barely surviving, let alone thriving. We are all doing what we can, as best we can.
I’m trying to find some balance, rather than pressuring myself to be super productive. After an intense week of struggling to meet an assignment deadline, I have tried to give myself a break over the past couple of days and take small steps towards my goals. One of my coping strategies is to put self-care tasks and fun activities on my to-do list, so that completing them feels like a small achievement. Hence I have pink nails and fresh bread for lunch.