As I write this today, it’s 1 June, and here in London, this is our 71st day of lockdown. It’s been 10 long weeks of isolation for most of us, and back in March when restrictions were first announced, we had no idea it could possibly last this long or what they might really mean for us. The most meaningful easing of restrictions – being able to spend time with our families, in each other’s homes, suddenly feels a bleakly long way off.
I should also say now – we have been incredibly lucky. I lost my job and my income at the start of March, but we are well and we have enough. I should also say we have a lot of privilege in that we don’t work on the front line and we have decent space in our home, enough food and a small garden in which we can live well enough. I am keenly aware that to a lot of people, we are living in the height of luxury. London has always been a city of massive difference in privilege and so it proves again with covid-19 and lockdown.
Weirdly enough, this isn’t my first lockdown. About 5 years ago now, I was unwell with an immune condition that meant I needed to be in hospital for 2 weeks in near isolation, and then later that same year I had to take some immunosuppressive drugs that kept me at home with no contact allowed. This period of illness really shook up my lifestyle and my beliefs about what it was that I really needed. It turned a lot of my assumptions about myself on their head. Not unlike this experience of covid lockdown we are sharing now.
When my world was upended by illness, it fundamentally changed who I thought I was, because it had changed what I was capable of. Willpower and desire to carry on weren’t enough – there were many more physical limitations on my and I never thought I would learn to bear them. My everyday thoughts became consumed with just one thing: if life would ever be normal again and if I would be able to rebuild in a way that mattered to me. I remember needing to find a way to give my looping thoughts a break, a way to stop them building into anxiety again and wondering when I would get my personality back. I also remember being amazed when the day finally came that I got back on a tube train and realised I wanted to listen to music again. It was such a milestone and such a departure from the previous months.
Even though this lockdown has felt tough and even though I can’t access many of the ways I would normally make myself feel better – meeting with friends, staying with family, travel to greener or more open space, interviewing for new jobs – little by little, this uncertainty and it’s strangeness has started to feel more comfortable. This smaller world, by the miracle of how human brains are wired to help us adjust to that which we cannot change, has become normal. I’m sure there is a psychological term to describe this acceptance, this normalisation of circumstances, this adaption. It takes frustrating time to process the grief, the sadness, the frustration, the anger – but you get there. I got there. I remember the therapist I visited for many years once telling me being open to change is the best way to cope. Her most repeated definition of madness was ‘doing or thinking the same thing again and again but expecting a different outcome’.
I can’t pretend to know how this lockdown has been for most people and I don’t want to make assumptions. The way news and ideas are shared now are very skewed and it’s difficult to hear opinions from circles outside your own – you have to actively move round the algorithm. What I hope to do here though, is to share some thoughts that got me through and helped me reshape my life. Given that it sounds like we might be living with covid for some time yet, perhaps these ideas can help make the prospect a little less daunting.
Allow yourself emotions but know when to stop
I’m a great one for allowing perpetual worries to take over the everyday moments. I learnt over time to actively manage my emotions and set boundaries for myself and others. I had too. My lack of emotional awareness had begun to spill over and affect my mental health and my relationships with others. Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat Pray Love fame, has a phrase for this concept: ‘practising emotional sobriety’. This is the idea that you should take care with your emotions, in that it’s ok to have emotions, but then treat yourself with compassion and don’t add emotions about emotions to everything you have on your plate.
Find some distractions to keep you busy (but not too busy)
Mindless or mindful distractions worked (and still work) for me. Whilst it’s tempting to overwork, overbake, overclean, over exercise etc, filling every second of your day with a distraction is mentally and physically exhausting – and that type of exhaustion can pretty quickly spill over into emotional exhaustion. I learnt this the hard way. Now, to stop me scrolling through news or Twitter on my phone when I have an hour of time in the evening (and also to stop me using it to eat and berate myself), I’ve picked up my knitting. I’m not great and I don’t know if I will ever wear what I’ve knitted out in public but for now, I find the simple movement soothing and it keeps me out of late night trouble.
Find a new routine and stick to it (even if it’s mundane)
When I was in hospital, it was the smallest things that got me through. Toast for breakfast, the day we have macaroni cheese for lunch, the day we had clean bed sheets, the nightly cup of tea I had when reading. And so it was when I got home. Taking 15 minutes each morning to stretch and breathe, a weekly trip to buy some biscuits, a weekly swim. These small moments marked time for me and allowed me to have something simple and modest to look forward to. Even when the days were miserable, they could be made better by a little pleasure.
Cut yourself some slack
I have to say, I’m fully rejecting using lockdown time to become better at anything. All power to you if you’ve been able to use your downtime to upskill or upgrade anything. But like so many other parents, I’m settling for all of us surviving with our emotional health intact and leaving lockdown still on speaking terms. It’s so easy to compare your life to those of others anyway, and now we have so little other stimulation or social contact, the broadcast of people sharing their drive to improve and impress has become even more obvious. I’ve spent much of the last 10 weeks using my spare time to hold everything together and keep the house clean, and I imagine, I’m not alone. You’re doing great no matter how little you are learning.
Build your resilience by looking after your own wellness
The first few weeks of my illness and this lockdown were tough for this. Adjusting to a new reality means a new routine. You need to find new times to shower, clean, eat, exercise, rest. And those times aren’t always obviously there and ready to be used. Eventually I realised that I needed all these things to help keep me well and sane and that sacrificing them to look after my family made me angry and bitter. Not the type of parent I wanted to be.
I can’t manage all of my ideal wellness routines every day – I often can do just one or two. I might not wash my hair as much as I’d like, I probably choose yoga pants too often, my floors are dusty and I don’t make it out of the house every day. But I never compromise on food. Never ever. I’m sticking rigidly to my 10 portions of fruit and veg a day, and reducing sugar, caffeine and wine as much as possible.
Sometimes, you should just go to bed
And finally, a word of wisdom from my dad, Dave. Sometimes days are just rubbish and you will have had enough. It’s ok just to stop, not do the washing up and go to bed, literally calling it a day. Things usually do look better in the morning.