Living in Lockdown

When I’m not spiralling into an anxiety-induced meltdown over the pandemic, the resulting quarantine, and (particularly) the thought of a loved one getting sick, I can look at living in lockdown in a somewhat detached, practical sense (something that has taken over a month to be able to do). Intellectually speaking, we’re living in unprecedented times, experiencing something that our parents are experiencing with us for the first time – something that very rarely occurs. There are very few people alive who have witnessed the last pandemic of this scale: the Spanish Influenza in 1918. So this is a big deal, one that will be written about in history books and studied in the future – from political, sociological, and psychological points of view to name just a few. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently and I can’t help thinking how often history is told from the point of view of the powerful and how terribly, appallingly wrong that is, especially given the number of mistakes being made by the people in power during this period (I’m speaking from the UK but I think we’re all aware of the mistakes being made by other governments, especially that of the US). So, if we want that to change, we have to write it ourselves, write our own experiences of living in lockdown, both for the history books but also for our own sake, so that we don’t forget what this experience has been like and how our lives have been changed by it. And as true as it is that we’re all in the same position – all in lockdown with limited access to our families and friends, the world outside, and our ‘normal lives’ – each of us will be experiencing this differently so I think the more experiences written about the better. So here I am, writing about mine, both for the reasons I’ve already listed but also to keep from drowning in it all, in the anxiety and the fear and the attempt to keep going as if this isn’t a traumatic experience.

I was aware of the Coronavirus before it even moved out of China but it felt like such a horror movie scenario and caused me such anxiety that I worked really hard not to think about it too much. It seemed unlikely that it would get all the way to the UK so I focussed on the anxieties in front of me and got on with my life. Besides, surely the government would be prepared should it reach us, given how much warning they had. I didn’t vote for this government nor do I trust them but I assumed that their egocentric motivations would have them preparing the country as best they could, for themselves if not for their people.

But then the virus started to move from country to country and more and more people in the UK began to take the idea that it might reach us seriously. I battled with my anxiety around it, trying to act responsibly without thinking so hard about it that it sent me into anxiety induced meltdowns. To an extent, I felt fairly unafraid of getting the virus as a young, physically healthy person but having said that, I was very aware that I was in regular contact with immunocompromised people and I was terrified of getting it and passing it on to them. So I was careful to wash my hands, use hand sanitiser, and avoid busy areas and travel times where possible. My anxiety had already been high before the virus made the news so it was a daily battle, as it often is.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. One day I was making plans with a friend for later in the week and the next she was on a plane back to her home country because of the travel ban. I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye (that’s my little bit of self-pity done because I know, without a doubt, that she made the right choice and I absolutely support her decision). Before that week of classes began, our course came together (electronically) and decided that we didn’t feel it was safe for us or others if we were travelling to and from uni, etc, so suddenly my weekly routine was gone, my education disrupted, and my friends were all going home, again without any of us actually getting to say goodbye to each other. I know we can all talk via social media and video calls and that this isn’t forever but depending how long this goes on, we may never come together as a course again and that is an idea I find really difficult to get my head around emotionally.

I think it was the next week that we went into official lockdown. My university pulled out all the stops to support us and within days, our classes had been moved online but prerecorded lectures and a forum aren’t the easiest ways to have discussions and a sudden lack of access to the library and facilities wasn’t an easy adjustment. I found the online classes difficult. Don’t get me wrong – I really appreciate how hard they worked to keep our education up to date and as normal as possible – but it’s not the way I learn best. It’s just a personal thing. It also made working on the assessment essay much more challenging. Fortunately, I had a tutor who was incredibly supportive and with his help (and my Mum’s), I managed to get it in with good time, despite the added stress and the impact that had.

The essay, despite the anxiety it caused me, was actually a good distraction. As soon as it was done and submitted, I really started to feel the effects of being in lockdown. After all, up until then, I was pretty much doing what I would’ve been doing anyway: spending all my time on my assignment. But with that done, it all started to sink in.

The most obvious struggle is that I miss and worry about my family. I have four parents, only one of which I’m living with, and the others are all on their own; my brother is living by himself in London; my Mum’s Mum is also living by herself, a significant distance from any of us, even if we were allowed to visit each other (I’m thinking more in the case of an emergency where we would obviously keep our distance from each other and be very careful); and I have multiple family members categorised as vulnerable. So I have a lot of people to worry about and worry about them I do. The constant anxiety is exhausting. And as grateful as I am for video calls, it’s just not the same. I miss BEING with them. I desperately miss HUGGING them. I try not to dwell on it – or stress about how much longer we’ll be separated – because that is only more damaging to my mental health but it’s hard. It’s really hard.

On a similar note, I also really miss my friends. We have video calls, regular calls, texting, social media, movie dates on platforms like Netflix Party, and so on but again, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as hanging out with them, or hugging them, or going on coffee dates, or having writing sessions. As I’ve already said, I’m trying not to think about how long it could be before I see them again. We’ll manage, thanks to the technology we have,  but it will be really wonderful to see them again.

The other thing that I’m really struggling with right now is my mental health.  For those of you who know me or have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that, amongst other things, I struggle daily with anxiety and depression. These are the particular problems that have only gotten worse since the appearance of Covid-19 and the lockdown.

  • Anxiety is my constant companion, although fortunately I have my ’emergency’ medication (to be taken as needed) for when it gets really bad, like I-can’t-breathe bad. My anxiety rises to that level at some point most days and the medication has kept it about as manageable as I think I’m going to get in the current circumstances. But my anxiety isn’t constantly that overwhelming (at least not anymore) and I’m wary of going through the medication too fast so most of the time, I’m just left with this relentless pulsing under my skin that leaves me restless and unable to think as clearly as usual.
  • My depression has been really bad too. Some days are a complete write off from the beginning, where all I can do is stare at the TV. Most of the time though, my mood is better but more precarious. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope: one little knock and I’m going to plunge straight into the darkness. It feels like I have to constantly watch my step, be hyper aware of any possible threat to my mental health, otherwise I’ll fall and who knows how long it would take to build myself back up again, given the uncertain, scary times we’re living in. Maintaining my mental health in this period is like trying to build a house of cards of shifting sands. It’s practically impossible.
  • Since the lockdown started, I’ve had serious difficulty concentrating. On anything. Getting my university assignment done took more force of will than I knew I had and while I knew that I’d need some recovery time after that and after finishing an intense semester, weeks later my ability to focus hasn’t returned. I’ve had phases where I’ve struggled to focus (likely caused by my fluctuating mental health and trying different medications) but it’s never been this bad. I can’t read a book, I can’t watch anything, I can’t do anything without my concentration drifting. Everything takes ten times longer to finish and ten times as much energy, if not more.
  • Most distressingly for me is that my creative brain is completely dead. Out of power. It just feels empty and I have no ideas. I’ve suffered extended periods of writer’s block before and usually experience it to a degree along with the exhaustion of finishing a difficult semester and stressful assessment period but it’s scary to feel that it’s still not working, even after several weeks have passed. I’ve tried all my strategies for writing and all my strategies for writer’s block but nothing is working. It feels like my brain is broken and that’s really, really upsetting.

I’ve still been having therapy, but via Zoom instead of in person. In theory, it shouldn’t be that different but somehow it is. I’d never really considered how important it is to have a space to work through all the hard stuff and then be able to walk away from it, which you just can’t do when you’re having therapy in your living room. Plus, Zoom calls are exhausting – here’s a good article about that – which only adds to how exhausting therapy can be. Then, when it comes to the content of a session, it all feels a bit frozen: it’s hard to tackle difficult emotions when we’re in the middle of different difficult emotions. And when I’m just about coping, feeling so fragile, I don’t want to trigger something and make life even more emotionally difficult for myself than it is already. So the whole thing is really tricky and confusing. Having sessions is definitely better than not having them but it’s not straightforward. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be when we made the plan just before lockdown.

And just to add to that, I’ve been struggling with sleepiness as a side effect of my medication for months but that’s gotten a lot worse since self isolating (perhaps from the increased anxiety – I don’t know). I’m exhausted by the smallest things and I seem to need so much more sleep. And that hasn’t been helped by a sudden, intense bout of hay fever, which has bestowed upon me the additional symptoms of an itchy, blocked nose and sore, itchy eyes. It’s been so bad that even having the windows open makes it dramatically worse so going outside definitely hasn’t been an option (I can’t take antihistamines because of my other medication). So I can’t even go in the garden, making me feel all the more trapped. Inhaling steam helps but only for short periods of time. The recent rain has been a blessing, giving me several days of relief. I’m cautiously hopeful that it’s started to settle – I’ve managed a couple of trips into the garden without incident – but I don’t want to speak too soon.

And lastly, for now at least, I’m really struggling with how uncertain everything is, uncertainty having always been something that causes me anxiety. We don’t know when the lockdown will end, we don’t know when we’ll be safe again, we don’t know when we’re going to see our friends and family again. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of my university course. And so on and so on and so on. So on top of the ongoing fear, there’s nothing solid to hold onto. Many of my summer plans have become impossible or at least difficult, while some have been cancelled outright, which has obviously been very upsetting and left me without anything to look forward to or anchor me. I feel very lost. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people at the moment. I try to focus on each day as it comes but it’s hard. We’re all so used to looking and planning ahead.

One more thing… I found this on Twitter the other day and wanted to share it:

I found it really helpful to have various explanations as to why I’m struggling, to know that my brain isn’t actually broken. Of course, knowing this stuff doesn’t actually fix the problems but being able to take a breath and reassure myself that there is a reason and that it won’t last forever has been helpful.

I hope you’re all safe and coping the best you can. And if you’re in the UK and they do loosen the lockdown this coming week, please continue to be careful. I hate being in lockdown but I’m absolutely terrified of what will happen if the government relax the rules, of how many more people will get sick and die. I’m scared out of my mind that someone I love will catch it. I can only speak for myself but I’m sure I’m not the only one with such fears. So please, please be careful. For all of us.

February Album Writing Month 2020

FAWM or February Album Writing Month is an annual songwriting challenge where participants must try to write 14 songs in the 28 days of February. Unless all you do is write songs, it can be a real struggle. If you have a job or are in any kind of education or have time consuming responsibilities, you’ll have limited time to write so it’s definitely not easy. Having said that, it’s a great way to motivate yourself when you’re in a rut or when you just want to challenge yourself.

I’ve been attempting this challenge on and off for several years now and I’ve only achieved it once, which was helped by my BA in Songwriting requiring me to write three songs a week (roughly). That definitely made things easier. So once I’d written those, there was only a handful left to write.

This year, I decided to try it again, since I’m back in education, doing a Masters in Songwriting. However, this semester is based around an essay with only the suggestion of writing a song a week. So it’s significantly harder than the last time I tried this in songwriting education. I’ve also been struggling to write for the last several years. The last time I managed this challenge was probably the last time my songwriting brain was really working. Since then, pulling all the elements of a song together has felt all but impossible and the outcomes have been very unsatisfactory, to me at least. Other people haven’t always felt the same. I believe that it was my failing medication (Phenelzine, for my depression) that negatively impacted my songwriting. That continued when I took different medications and only lifted when I started taking Phenelzine again at the end of last year. My brain and my songwriting brain just lit up again and I’ve been writing and writing and writing ever since then. So I decided to try the challenge again. I was a little more flexible this year, what with all of my Masters work so, as well as writing full songs, I also included edited songs as long as the edits were serious edits: not just the odd line but refocusing the song or rewriting major sections.

These are the songs I wrote:

  1. Halley’s Comet – I’ve always been fascinated by Halley’s Comet and how it repeatedly passes Earth, particularly how it passed on Mark Twain’s birthday and the day he died. So I tried to write about that, about that relationship. I’ve tried before and this one is better but I’m still not sure I’ve quite got it right. I’ll keep playing it and see what occurs to me.
  2. Bad Dream – This is a song I wrote with two friends, late in 2019. I loved it but on reflection, after some time had passed, I realised that it didn’t quite fit my original concept and wasn’t quite going in the direction I wanted it to go. So I edited the verses and chorus so that it fitted with what I wanted to say. And now it describes a situation feeling like a dream rather than a situation basically being a bad dream, if that makes sense.
  3. Helping a friend with her song – Me and a good friend of mine sat in a cafe and spent an hour helping each other with concepts and lyrics for songs we were both writing and I had so much fun helping her with her song. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t know whether she’s planning to release it or do something with it but it’s a great song and I can’t wait to hear the final version.
  4. Starlings – This song was a uni assignment where we had to write a song including lots of details of the place we considered home and so I wrote about Brighton and growing up with my brother. But once I’d finished it, I realised that it had ended up too focussed on my relationship with him, rather than my relationship with my home so I had to do a serious rewrite.
  5. Starlings (Version 2) – This version was better, much more focussed on home and Brighton with details of growing up with my brother and my friends and the settings that all those moments took place in. There’s strong imagery and each section says something different and important and I’m really proud of it.
  6. Prison – I wrote this song with one of my favourite cowriters about how sometimes the things that imprison us are of our own doing; we create our own prisons without even realising. We worked on a track as well and it sounds really cool. It definitely needs redrafting – there are lyrics that aren’t as true to the emotion as they should be or as effortless as they should be – so I’m looking forward to doing that.
  7. Pieces – I wrote the chorus of this song in the shower (there’s actual science behind having ideas in the shower that I want to write a blog post about) and had to stop the shower to record it. And once I was done with my shower, I sat down at the piano and wrote the rest of the song in one go. The melodies are quite different to my usual ones, which is exciting, but I’m not happy with the bridge yet so it needs some editing.
  8. Hoping For More – This song was kind of traumatising. I tried to write about something that I don’t think I was ready to write about and then spent the rest of the day anxious and depressed. There are certain things I don’t talk about, not even in therapy – difficult things in my life or from my past – and I thought I’d try and figure some of it out through songwriting but I don’t think I was ready and it ended up really upsetting me. I can’t even say more than that.
  9. Gone – I had bits of melody going around in my head for this one and a first verse that sounded like an emotion I’d been feeling and so I finally sat down with it and wrote the chorus, the other verse, and the bridge. I think it all fits together but I’m going to sit with it for a bit and see how I feel about it.
  10. Curve in the Road – I wrote the chorus for this song years and years ago but could never write the rest of the song; there just wasn’t anything that fitted with it well enough. It always felt like two different ideas. But I think I’ve managed it this time but I’m gonna give it some time and see if I still feel the same way.
  11. Fragile Home – This has been an idea I’ve been thinking about for ages but I’ve been unable to put the concept into words. I took it to a friend and we worked out the message and wrote a chorus. We ran out of time to write more but I went home and wrote the rest of the song.
  12. Easier – This is another song I wrote last year and absolutely adore but there were parts that could’ve been better so I’ve been thinking about the song and the lyrics and the people behind it. So in the last week, I sat down with my guitar and wrote a whole new verse and generally smoothed out the song. I’m really proud of it.
  13. Cry – I had a very intense conversation with some very close friends that I found very upsetting (although I had been upset all day so it was a combination of things) and so the idea for this song came from that experience, how the stories of other people can create big emotions even though they’re not your stories. It’s not perfect yet; I’m still messing around with the lyrics. But it’s a solid start and I really like it.
  14. Lucifer – I did a load of research on the real story of Lucifer but so many stories contradicted each other that I based my song on Lucifer from the TV show Lucifer. I actually really like the song and can’t wait to work on it more. Plus it’s an AABA song (it doesn’t really have a chorus), which I don’t often do.
  15. Grow – I haven’t finished this one yet (a really fun, empowering, pop-y song) but that makes fourteen and a half songs and so I have achieved the leap year edition of FAWM!

I wouldn’t put all of these songs on an album together because they’re so different and disconnected but I’ve been so excited and motivated around songwriting, which I think I has a lot to do with this challenge. So that’s really cool and really pleasing so I’m really happy with the result. Now, unfortunately I have to get back to my uni work.

Unfortunately I can’t include links of these songs for you to listen to, although I know that recording and production is part of the challenge. I just haven’t had time. Maybe during the next month I can do some demos. I also wouldn’t want to put the songs out into the world because I don’t know which songs I’ll be officially releasing. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.