Saturday, 9 May 2020

Coronavirus And Mental Health

There are things you expect to happen in any given year.  For example, people will inexplicably become obsessed with Love Island, we Brits will moan about the rain until the sun comes and then we'll freak out about being too hot, and the DFS sale will continue to be a never-ending feature of our daily lives.  But what we didn't expect was a global pandemic that would kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people across the world and cause schools, pubs and restaurants to close, whilst we stay at home and obsessively wash our hands until the skin cracks.

And once it became obvious that that was indeed what 2020 was going to bring, what I didn't expect was to receive a text (followed by a letter) from the government, telling me that I was on their "extremely vulnerable" list and that I was under instructions to "shield" for twelve weeks - i.e. not go anywhere or have anyone come to see me.  

I didn't expect to receive a further government message, warning me to pack a hospital bag, "just in case."

I didn't expect supermarkets to offer me next-day delivery, after I'd registered my "vulnerable status" online (although I was hugely grateful, given that I live with my parents and they've both been largely shielding with me).

What I did expect, once all of this had begun to happen, was that it would have one hell of a knock-on effect on my mental health.

Ironically, I'm a fairly introverted person.  I like my own company; I'm happy to watch something on TV curled up on my bed by myself, or spend a quiet evening with my nose in a book.  I've never been a hugely loud person who feels the need to be centre of attention, nor have I ever had a huge social circle and a diary filled with parties to attend.  I am the clich├ęd "you'll always find me in the kitchen at parties" type, anyway.  Give me food and a drink and don't make me talk to anyone I don't know, please.

But I am still a people person.  I'm just picky about who those people are.  If you're someone who barely knows me and with whom I have to make awkward small-talk, then you might find it hard to imagine me as someone who loves being around people and who is happy to lead a conversation.  But if you're someone close, you'll know that I thrive on being with the ones I care about.  I love cuddles.  I love planning fun days out.  I love spending precious time together doing almost nothing and loving every second.  And for the last seven weeks, that has all gone.  It will remain gone for at least another five.  

And I'm not handling that very well.

A lot of things happen to you when you're someone who thrives on being with the ones you care about and you suddenly have that taken away.  Firstly, you just feel sad.  When I got that text from the government seven weeks ago, I cried.  I cried at the thought of not seeing my best friend for three months.  Not being able to hug her or sit beside her.  Not being able to hang out together at her house or mine.  Not going out for dinners or pub quizzes or any of the other little things that I value as being a precious part of my life.  In the grand scheme of things, three months may seem like a tiny, trivial slither of time.  But for me, it was a case of being told I couldn't see someone I usually saw at least twice a week, often more.  That was a big adjustment to have to make.

Then I started thinking about other people, too.  The friends I was forever saying "we should do this more often" to, when we met for cake or lunch.  The ones I saw less frequently, but who I was sure I'd have been spending at least three or four afternoons out with over the course of a normal three month period.

I thought about my friends at chorus, who I'd normally be singing with every week.  I thought of the catch-ups over a cuppa at the end of rehearsal and the giggles we all have when we get together.

Don't get me wrong; I know I'm very lucky not to live alone.  I have my parents here as well as the dog, so I have company.  Skype, Zoom and Facebook video messenger have all come in handy as ways of staying in touch with people, too.  But, as a friend said yesterday, a video call can't replace a hug when you're really missing someone.

And whilst physical affection has always been something I knew I needed to give and receive, I've started to realise just how important other forms of non-verbal communication are to me, too.  I've always said my best friend and I can communicate entire sentences without words.  Just a particular look from her and I know exactly what she's saying.  We can't do that so easily online.  You can barely hold eye contact when talking via a video call, because you'd both have to be looking at the camera.  And I never realised how much I cherish eye contact until now.

With all of these thoughts and feelings to deal with, my number one urge is to go out for a walk to clear my head.  And...  Well, that's not really allowed.

Again, this is where I know I'm lucky.  I don't live in a flat or a house without any outdoor space and I feel terrible for those that do, who are having to shield.  I know that I'm fortunate to have a garden that's big enough to walk laps of a few times before sheer boredom sets in.  I also live in a pretty quiet road and have braved walking a few feet up and down it (always within sight of my house) twice a day when there's nobody around.  The few times I've seen someone walking, I've legged it across the road or even gone straight back into the garden, so I'm not taking any chances.  But stimulating it isn't.  Walking endlessly up and down the road (not even the whole road, obviously) is not the most interesting path to tread.  I've found myself desperately wanting to just say "to hell with this" and walk into town, but I know I can't.  I reach a certain point, where I can still easily see my house (and reach it within 30 seconds - I really don't go far), then I know I have to fight the urge to carry on and instead turn around and walk back again.  It's frustrating and repetitive, especially for someone who really does use a walk down by the river, or a stroll into town, as a well-practised method of dealing with any mental health issues I might be having.  Feeling sad?  Take the dog for a walk.  Too many thoughts in my head?  Walk into town have a mooch around the shops.  To be stuck in a situation that is making me feel really sad and to not be able to go for a proper walk anywhere has left me struggling to find new ways to try to handle any mental health issues that crop up, not all of which are exactly healthy.  I am, for example, currently obsessed with having a constant "project" to be working on, so that I'm not just thinking about how much I miss someone, or how bored I am of not being able to go anywhere.  But productivity and depression aren't exactly happy bedfellows, so half the time, I'm forcing myself to script and film a video, or obsessively polish my bedroom furniture, when what I actually want to be doing is lying under the duvet, sobbing and eating chocolate until I feel sick.  It's not like me to feel as though I'm almost forcing my feelings to one side all the time.  I wear my heart on my sleeve, usually.  But lately, I feel like every time I try to speak - or even think - about how I feel, the words just don't seem to come.

But sadness isn't the only emotion I've been struggling with.  Feeling isolated is making me horribly needy and paranoid.

Like I said, I wear my heart on my sleeve.  If you're special to me, you'll know about it, either because I will literally say "I love you," or because I show it in my actions.  I've always been really good at reading body language and picking up on non-verbal cues from other people, who maybe don't wear their emotions as visibly as I do mine (I'm well aware I'm weird) and that's all I've really needed in return.  Actions speak louder than words and all that.  But with lack of contact, I don't have those cues to pick up on and I end up being tortured by my own brain.  "They don't miss you, you know.  They're probably glad they don't have to see you.  Why would anyone be sad not to see you?!"  I torment myself over and over, because I'm too bloody proud to say "hey, I know this is needy as hell, but you miss me, right?"  Instead, I dwell and I convince myself nobody does and it sinks me further and further into a sadness I was already struggling to crawl out of.

I also find myself getting paranoid that absence is going to make the heart grow forgetful, rather than fonder.  That when this is all over, I'll be chomping at the bit to see people and they'll have grown used to not having me and my various irritating habits to deal with, so will be rather reluctant to go back to the way things were.

Believe me, if you're reading this and thinking "ugh, what a needy cow," you aren't alone.  I hate it about myself.  

So, sadness, frustration and paranoia are order of the day, right now.  But you know what else is?  Anger.

I don't just mean that "I'm mad that this is happening to me" type of anger.  I mean anger at other people.  Not at anyone I care about, but at the people casually breaking social distancing rules, because they fancy a drive to the seaside and it's only an hour or so away.  At the folks inviting their families round for drinks in the garden, because the sun's out and surely their own family members must be safe to all pop over for the afternoon?!  At the people writing "I had it and it was no worse than the flu, so end lockdown NOW, because it's only vulnerable people who are at risk" on their social media pages.

It's not "only vulnerable people who are at risk," for a start.  Several people have died, despite having no underlying health conditions at all.  But even if it was, who do these people think constitute as "vulnerable" and why the hell do they think those vulnerable people's lives aren't important?!  I'm only 37 years old.  I have family and friends who care about me (see, logically I know this to be true, despite the horrific paranoia).  I have a nephew due in a few months.  My best friend and I are starting a business that I'm excited to get off the ground.  I have places I want to visit when this is all over.  Why am I okay, in the eyes of some people, to be seen as "collateral damage," simply because they're fed up of lockdown?  How can people be so ignorant - so selfish  - as to assume that they should have free reign to go wherever they like, with whomever they choose, purely because they don't think they would be adversely affected by this virus?  How can they be so sure?!  And what about the people who would be hugely affected?  Are we on the vulnerable list supposed to remain indoors for several more months, cut off from those we love, letting our mental health fall further and further into decline, just so a few outwardly healthy people can go out early to try to prove some kind of point?!

I've spoken to people who also found themselves on the government's "vulnerable list" and they are of all ages and come from all walks of life.  Some are children.  So if I seem furiously angry when I see people writing this virus off as "something that only effects the vulnerable," as though the vulnerable don't bloody matter, it's because I AM.  

If I can stand another month or more of going no further than a few feet up my road, only seeing the person I love most through a computer screen and dealing with constant paranoia and depression over the whole situation, then people can adhere to social distancing rules properly, rather than behaving as though they're somehow invincible and don't have to worry about spreading this thing to all and sundry.  And they can sure as hell stop referring to people like me as though our lives don't matter, anyway.

I want to go out, just as much as you do.  I want to hold people I love close and have dinners in restaurants, visit shops again and stop feeling as though my life is on pause.  

And I will.   And so can you.  When it's safe.  Not before.

That's not to say that I think things will all just casually go back to normal.  I know that there are ways in which life will change, following this.  Possibly forever.

I've always been a hugger, but physical affection is going to be reserved for those I'm super close to, now.  I can't wait to put my arms around my best friend, but the rest of the world...  Not so much.  

I've realised my job isn't necessarily the healthiest for me to be in, given my medical conditions.  That's something I'm going to have to think a lot about.  I'll be throwing all my energy into getting our business off the ground, at the very least.

And there are so many little things I won't take for granted, anymore.  Making plans for a trip out, somewhere.  Holding eye contact across a table.  Chorus rehearsals.  A walk around the park.  Little, everyday things that were just a part of my life I assumed would always be there, will now be cherished as they deserve to be.

In the meantime, I will keep going as best I can.  

Stay safe.