It’s been a strange year, hasn’t it? I’ve been lucky. I haven’t personally been struck by Covid or experienced any of the difficulties or sacrifices that other people have. I was furloughed, and actually, that was nothing but a positive experience for me. So why have I (someone with mental health challenges) emerged stronger, when so many others have experienced the first mental health anguish of their lives?
I think it starts with your normal. I am the living definition of that meme up there. I am solitary. I am not naturally sociable. Since I was a child, my favourite activities have been reading and writing, and Netflix is far more important to me than any man lol. So, lockdown didn’t actually make much difference to me, other than having to queue to get into Aldi.
Furlough was different. I was off work for 7 weeks, and initially, it was like being paid to go on holiday. I think most of us went a little feral at first – staying up later, waking up later, bingeing on Netflix – and generally having a break from life. Truth is, after about 2 weeks of this, my mind started craving structure, and that’s when furlough became the gift that kept on giving.
Emma Thompson, the actress, defined depression a few years ago in a way that has stuck with me, as it’s the most perfect way I’ve ever heard it described. She said that she had suffered from "the sort of depression that doesn't necessarily make you want to kill yourself - you just don't want to be, you want to switch it off and stop.”
That, in a nutshell, is what depression is (well, one facet of it) – feeling like you’re forever one step behind the game, lagging behind in life, desperately striving to catch up. You’re always just that little bit untogether, that little bit lacking in every way, and all you want is for the world to stop long enough so that you can get your shit together and join back in. You literally want to put the world on pause for however long it takes for you to get back in the game. Very simply, furlough gave me that chance to catch up with myself.
A depressed mind is, for me, a scattered mind. It’s the needle skipping the grooves on a record, and it’s biggest cruelty has been depriving me of my ability to read. Oh I can read poems, and short snappy articles, but descend, duvet-bound into the bliss of a book? No. That’s something I’ve been unable to do – with very very few exceptions – for about 10 years.
So how to occupy a mind that can’t sit and dwell. How to challenge yourself when you can't immerse yourself in something for hours on end? Well, I did a variety of online courses, and I started writing again, and between them they started to bring me back to myself, a self I had lost a long time ago.
I’ve always been a learner. At school I was the girly swot, the straight A student, the one who loved lessons effortlessly. I always did more than I needed to, supplemented my studies, read VORACIOUSLY …. Yet when I started to lose myself, I had to focus on keeping me together. That meant that all my mental energy was on holding me IN rather than GROWING. Furlough gave me my first chance in 15 years to feed my mind, and with it my soul.
I started with a subject that was of personal interest – a course on depression, anxiety and CBT. I did it partly to learn about myself, but also to try on whether this could be a new career (although I feel way too old to attempt that.) The course, through the University of Reading, was everything I wanted it to be – and so much more. Like a corset, it pulled me back together. It sucked all my mental baggage in and moulded it back into a better shape – a stronger, more aware shape.
My biggest learning was there is no such thing as reality. Only our perceptions of reality. That’s why I might think the dress is blue, but you think it’s turquoise – we all process information differently. What I hadn’t realised was how that processing could fuel and darken your mental anguish, and that I had been slowly gorging myself over the years with false perceptions, misheard tones and imagined insults.
From there, I cantered through a variety of courses - I think I did about 9 in total. A few more on mental health, and a few more that were work related (gotta “sharpen the saw”) and all of them reminded me of my joy of learning, the thrill of self-discovery and the bliss of having those moments of reflection that shape us, change us and drive us forward.
From there it was an easy move to start writing again. My mind energised and whirring, the thoughts came pouring out of me, mainly in poems, a format I hadn’t used for nearly 20 years. Then I started writing “pieces”, lists, snatches – just getting it out there, on the page, for my own benefit. And do you know what? A weight I never knew I carried lifted off me, and my soul started to feel lighter.
Like all progress, it hasn’t been linear. Although I feel so much stronger than I did a year ago, there are still days when I am a blubbering mess, or days when I wake up with a feeling of doom I can’t shake – but there are less of those days than there have been in a looooooong time, and the gap between them is getting longer. (Current personal record: 6 weeks between crying sessions. Check me out haha).
So if you’re struggling to get through lockdown, this is what it taught me –
If you need to relax, chill, switch off, DO IT, and don’t feel guilty about it. Do whatever self care you need to do. Don’t feel you need to occupy your days with anything other than the things you want to do.
Do the things you don’t normally get chance to do. Life moves way too quickly, and for most of us, a weekend isn’t enough time to tilt the scales back to balance. For me, I cooked meals I hadn’t cooked in a long time. For others, they became demon bakers or outrageously good home decorators. It’s a gift – spend it wisely.
Don’t get sucked in to feeling you have to “succeed” at lockdown or furlough. We are all different. You don’t have to write a novel or record an album or even take loads of courses, but if you’re missing mental stimulation, I would recommend a project – but make it one of your choosing, and one that will delight you. I know people who have learnt the guitar, crocheted for England, made 100s of masks – for life to be purposeful, we need to have a focus, but don’t for a second think that it has to be huge and global.
And if you slob about and do nothing but “complete” your Netflix watchlist? That’s fine, as long as you’ve had a damn good time doing it. But if you feel, halfway through your latest binge, that you’re wasting your time, it’s your brain calling you to something more.
Lockdown – it’s your time. Treat yourself, and you’ll thank yourself later.