In this post I want to talk about anxiety.
Before I start I should make it clear that I’m not a psychologist and I’m not trying to offer answers – I’m just saying a few things out loud in the hope that they might start to make sense in my own crazy Mother Hubbard mind.
It’s really interesting that in my last post I talked in detail about the anxiety I was feeling and at that point it seemed virgin territory. Now, three weeks later, we have begun the controversially precarious process of easing the lockdown, and it’s obvious that the psychological effects are very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds. I don’t think I’m wide of the mark when I say it’s almost as if, for a great number of us, despite its obvious restrictions, lockdown offered a degree of comfort. It appears that, as has been documented in the media and by mental health organisations, the angst and apprehension we’re all feeling is almost as dangerous as Covid-19 itself and that the thought of having to leave our little bubbles and ‘face it head on’ is quite terrifying for the large majority of us, regardless of our individual circumstances and challenges.
In a perverse sense I am actually glad that the subject of anxiety has come to the fore, that so many people have admitted that they are feeling frightened. Spending a lot of time alone I had come to the conclusion that I was over-reacting, panicking for nothing and being a worry-wart-weirdo. I thought I was one on my own in that, although it wasn’t helping my mental health, I was okay with staying indoors. Contemplating the alternatives, namely contracting the virus or, worse still, passing it on to other people, was a huge source of distress to me. It actually felt somewhat of a relief not to have to wash my hands red-raw-sore every five minutes or to try not to touch my face. I didn’t like staying inside but, despite being worried that I was ‘odd’ in this regard, at least I felt safe and it removed some of the anxiety about the things which were out of my control. I was also feeling incredibly grateful that I wasn’t a key-worker facing gruelling days without the proper protective equipment and protocols in place to protect me. Deal with that, or sit on the sofa drinking tea? Hell, I know which I’d pick!
But with the easing of the lockdown and the opening up of dialogue, it’s actually become apparent that I am something approaching ‘normal’. I know! Who would have thought it?
And not only have lots of other people been comfortable about staying inside to keep safe themselves and their loved ones, it turns out that they are similarly feeling something close to terror at having to re-enter ‘the real world’.
We all have different worries – elderly parents, school-age children, loss of earnings, inability to access the services we need, travelling to work, staying safe when we get there, isolation, illnesses both mental and physical. As a middle-aged woman living alone in a town-centre my anxieties were purely practical and, as such, despite living alone, these can be got around. My belief is that easing the lockdown is ill-advised at this stage and it is something I am disinclined to do willingly. In fact at the moment I am pretending that live in Scotland: for me, nothing has changed. I suppose from that point of view I am fortunate; I consider being able to choose such a path as a luxury. To be fair, it’s much like the rest of my experience of the pandemic thus far.
I’ve been to a shop once – during the first week lockdown – and I managed to have a full-blown shaky, teary panic-attack in the middle of the place when I prayed for the ground to open up and swallow me whole.
Since then, with the help of Ocado and my lovely sister-in-law, I haven’t been anywhere near a shopping basket.
Exercise is awkward and difficult and stress-inducing but I mostly manage to go for a short-ish walk at least once every two or three days which I do by ‘runnning the gauntlet’ to the nearby cemetery and playing fields. I avoid anywhere with too-narrow footpaths where there isn’t space to pass another person safely and I never leave the flat after 07:00am as it’s simply far too busy.
(It’s worth noting that observing my hometown from my window, which overlooks the high street, during the lockdown has confirmed that it mostly has looked just like a ‘normal’ day. As such, I was pleased to learn this morning that the city council is examining ways to support social distancing here by putting barriers in the road which will increase the width of the pavements, allowing people to pass one another safely. It also says that the immediate area outside my flat is difficult to do much about but will be “monitored”. I have, of course, messaged them with my own twopenneth about how they could make it easier for me to leave my home if they wanted to).
Back to managing. After countless weeks of furlough from work, Ocado deliveries and occasional walks, I’ve finally plucked up the courage to return to my local market for fruit and vegetables. Visiting the greengrocer across the road once a week was, prior to lockdown, my favourite thing about my new hometown by far. It wasn’t that popular a retail outlet back at the beginning of the year but it’s now doing a roaring trade. I have mixed feelings about this so-called success and I am sure that the lovely lady who runs the stall does so too. She has devised a well-organised, stress-free system which means I can get the fresh things I love at a price which doesn’t break the bank (I’m so grateful that Ocado has been able to deliver – but crikey, it’s not cheap). I hopped across to the market this morning with last remaining tenner for a few bits and bobs; I had to queue for a while but I was standing in a safe space in a patch of sunshine and my first prize for waiting was these luscious cherries.
The only other, and most ‘dangerous’, thing I have done in weeks now is go to the Post Office. I shook like a leaf the entire time while I was there – and fought back tears at one point. I had to use the photocopier, buy an envelope, fill in a form, ask for stamps and pay for it all. Despite the fact that the man behind the counter was really kind and helpful, it was an ordeal, to say the least.
When I got back to the flat I laughed at the irony. That exact day two years ago I had landed in Seoul for a solo multi-destination trip in South Korea. Despite the first hour being a challenge and I had wondered what I’d done by going somewhere so alien all by myself, it wasn’t anywhere nearly as terrifying as venturing to the Post Office which I can actually see from my flat window.
This leads me seamlessly on to travelling solo. Something, which, admittedly, now seems like I did in a past life.
I’ve lost count of the number of times people told me how brave I am for travelling on my own. I wrote something about that once. I should dig it out and share it with you.
Anyway, I’ve always been adamant that bravery has nothing to do with it.
I been travelling by my little old self because I didn’t have anyone to go with.
I didn’t have any choice.
I didn’t go because I didn’t feel afraid.
I always felt afraid.
But I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve realised that perhaps the reason why I travelled solo, despite feeling terrified, was because it normalised my anxiety.
Going to a supermarket has always made me feel extremely uncomfortable. So has going to the likes of South Korea. But the fact is that it’s seemingly rational to be scared about going to South Korea. Less so Sainsbury’s. Of course I’m jittery when I’m wandering around a foreign country on my own. I’m terrified; that’s okay because any normal person would be. But nobody bats an eyelid at having to negotiate an aisle full of tinned tomatoes and pasta. At least they didn’t use to.
I’ll let you in to a little secret. It’s a bit embarrassing. When I’m travelling and I’m really scared because I don’t know what I’m doing I bite the inside of my cheek. Really fucking hard. And then I hum to myself. Yes, that’s right. I hum for fuck’s sake. And somehow that gets me through. I tell myself it’s all fine – I am a stranger in a strange land – no one is going to remember me – and if they do I am never going to see them again so even if they judge me – which they won’t – it doesn’t matter.
That works well in Tokyo or Toronto – but, obviously, not quite so well in Tesco.
This week a dear friend sent me a very interesting article about coping and resilience which, as if a global pandemic isn’t thought-provoking enough, made me re-consider who I am and how I am with the world. I’ve always assumed myself to be strong and resilient. But now I’m starting to wonder whether, in reality, I am just bullshitting my way through.
I suppose it’s fair to say that whether I’m solo in Seoul, or popping out to Pudsey Park, I’ve developed my own ‘coping strategy’, however small it might be.
Nobody wants to have to ‘cope’. Sometimes that’s all we have to get by.
And it’s all we can do right now.
I realised pretty early on in lockdown that the key to surviving the emotional side of the pandemic was going to be accepting two things.
One: That pretty much all of the external factors were out of my control.
Two: That planning ahead for anything at all was going to be impossible.
As the world’s biggest control freak and planaholic these were hard things to face.
Once I’d recognised them, and accepted them, the thought of lockdown seemed altogether a much less daunting prospect.
I’m not saying I don’t have dark days because I absolutely bloody do. A lot of the time I feel invisible, uncared for, forgotten about. It’s hard to admit it but some days I don’t actually want to live any more. I genuinely don’t see the point. No partner, no children, never going to have grandchildren. No real home, no prospects, no travel to look forward to and walking in the park has become super-stressful. Hell I’ve eaten so many chocolate biscuits these past few weeks that my jeans don’t fit anymore and my boobs are sitting on my stomach which sits on my legs. I’m a miserable blob shuffling round a miserable couple of freezing cold rooms with no work and a cat who cries day and night to be let out to catch mice.
But then I take a deep breath and I think again. At the present time close to 34,000 people in our country, none of them a number but each one an individual in their own right with something beautiful to share, have died horrible, lonely deaths. If each of those people had only three others who loved them, that’s more than 100,000 people among us whose lives have been irreversibly turned upside down and who, each day, are sad beyond belief that the person they loved is no longer alongside them.
I hate to say it but my way of coping with such a realisation is to try not to think about it too much. And even then it still makes me angry and afraid and upset and terrified and upset and angry all over again. My moods can swing from thankful to despondent and back again twice over in an hour.
It also makes me realise that whatever I am feeling there are a multitude of people out there who feel an awful lot worse. I actually have no real reason to worry at this exact point in time. Tomorrow things might be shit. But for now I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, food in the cupboard, the sun is steaming in through the window and the cat is basking in a patch of it on her fluffy blanket, quiet for now.
I hope at least some of this makes some sense, or strikes a small chord with you.
In my next post I’m going to tell you about some of my more positive experiences of lockdown.
Watch this space!
But for now stay safe, sane and sensational.