I Finally Left My House

On Monday, for the first time in over a hundred days, I left my house.

I was already self isolating when the UK lockdown went into effect. My university classes had moved online, I have friends and family that I could put at risk if I caught the virus, and it generally seemed like the safest, most socially responsible thing to do. Then the lockdown was officially put in place and it was me and my Mum in the house together. Struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I don’t go out a whole lot because I physically can’t manage it but I had previously had university classes, seeing friends and family, and swimming at the gym (the only exercise that doesn’t cause me physical pain – probably because it’s non weight-bearing), all of which were suddenly gone. My Mum went out only to food shop and pick up medication prescriptions as necessary.

I’ve only been out once since then and that was to rescue my kitten who got stuck up a tree in a neighbour’s garden – we think she’d been up there for more than twelve hours. And when we did go to get her, all involved socially distanced and wore masks. It was stressful in the face of the virus but my kitten would not come down  by herself and we were all getting really worried about her.

Ever since then, I’ve stayed in the house. My mental health has been a monumental struggle during this time, especially my anxiety – to the point that something as simple as laughing from outside or looking through the window at the street can cause severe anxiety and autistic meltdowns. And the longer this goes on, the worse it’s getting. I’m in contact with my psychiatrist, taking my medication, and having online sessions with my therapist but I don’t feel like it’s making much difference to my anxiety.

The easing of lockdown only increased my anxiety. With the scientists and Public Health England still warning of the dangers of Covid, it seemed (and still seems) incredibly irresponsible of the government to be making such changes. When it was announced that hairdressers would be opening on the 4th July, my anxiety sky-rocketed. Ever since the pandemic began moving into Europe, my Trichotillomania has escalated dramatically. It’s been a problem for years but with the recent extreme levels of stress, I’m now pulling my hair out more than I ever have. It’s not only causing pain in my scalp and damage to my hair, it’s also causing terrible pain in the fingers, hand, arm, and shoulder on the side I pull from, as well as tingling and numbness that often doesn’t pass for most of the day. So while I did, of course, want a hair cut (as I think everyone did), I was also desperate for advice and help with this problem. Plus, I go to an independent hairdresser and wanted to support them.

But despite all of that, I just as desperately didn’t want to go. Even with the all the strict safety measures they’d informed their clients of, I still felt overwhelmingly unsafe going out, especially into town. To make it feel more possible, we spoke to them and they arranged my appointment to be as stress free as they could possibly make it: we cancelled the colour to reduce my time there (it felt unnecessary as it was something I could do at home – I’d booked it way back when when it had looked like it would be (or feel) safer, they scheduled my appointment first thing on a Monday morning so the environment would be as clean and safe as possible, and they were happy to have my Mum come with me in case my anxiety got too bad. When we made those arrangements, it felt as good as I thought it was ever going to  and we moved on, the appointment still a few weeks away.

But as it got closer, my anxiety grew and grew until I was having panic attacks over it. I didn’t want to go. I really, really didn’t want to go. It felt so unsafe to be going out, even with a mask, gloves, hand sanitiser, and safety measures in place. I didn’t want to go. The anxiety was unbearable and I had multiple awful panic attacks.

In the end, my anxiety just wiped me of all my energy and on the morning of the appointment, I just didn’t know what to do. I had nothing left. So Mum took over, got me up, and took me to the appointment. Even being outside felt terrifying: I felt so unsafe and exposed and vulnerable. We got there and the hairdressers was almost empty, as planned, and my hairdresser was as lovely as always. I’ve been camouflaging my Autism and my anxiety for so long – I’ve spent my life building a mask to help me manage in difficult situations, something that I want to write about more in the future – that most people see the ‘usual’ me but in reality, I was so anxious that I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly (and that had nothing to do with the facemask). I almost destroyed the fidget toy I’d brought with me and the whole experience was just exhausting. It felt like it only added to the trauma of the pandemic and lockdown.

(I do want to make it absolutely clear that that has nothing to do with them as people or a business. It was all about going out and feeling so unsafe outside my house.)

My hairdresser is awesome and so lovely and we had a good conversation about the condition of my hair and the textures that trigger my pulling. We talked about what might improve the condition of my hair and therefore lessen the textures that trigger me, which products might be helpful. So we’ll see how that goes. And simply cutting off the dry ends of my hair will hopefully help with the pulling too.

We were there less than an hour but I was completely exhausted. I was barely functional all day and ended up falling asleep on the sofa at about 10pm, hours earlier than I usually get to sleep at the moment. And it’s taken days to regain enough energy to concentrate and actually do things again. Even now I’m not sure whether I made the right choice or the safest choice but it’s done and I can’t go back and change it. Several people have said to me that going out would make going out again easier but if anything, it’s made it feel even scarier so, for the moment at least, I’m not going anywhere.

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The next challenge, I guess, is when gyms reopen. As swimming is the only non-painful exercise I can do, my exercise has been severely limited during lockdown and on a personal level, I’m desperate to get back to it. I love it, I miss it, and I miss how it makes me feel, physically and mentally. But I just can’t imagine how on earth it can be safe. So there’s a lot of investigating to do, a lot of thinking and weighing the pros and cons to do. I’ve never been so jealous of people having their own private pools.

My When-I-Feel-Safe-Again List

I’ve seen a lot of people posting post-lockdown bucket lists recently and they’ve been really fun to see. It’s nice to see people excited about things. And it’s a nice reminder that there will be an end to this situation, to the restrictions, to the fear. I started writing my own post-lockdown bucket list but halfway through, I stopped and really thought about it all. I’ve mentioned before that I think the British government has handled this crisis appallingly and that I don’t believe that they’re acting in the best interest of the people; with the experts warning about a second wave, it seems incredibly irresponsible and actively negligent to start lifting lockdown. Me and my family have discussed this a lot and have decided to follow the scientific advice, rather than the government’s advice. So I changed my approach to the post and renamed it my ‘when I feel safe again’ list.

So these are the things I want to do as soon as it feels safe enough to do them:

  1. Hug people – I’m a hugger and I always have been so not being able to hug my loved ones has been really hard for me. I’m grateful for the technology that allows me to see them and for the restrictions loosening enough that I can even see a couple of them in real life but I really, really miss being able to hug people.
  2. Write songs with people – While it has technically been possible to cowrite using video calls (which I have done a couple of times), I do prefer writing in person. I find it more productive, more collaborative, and just more fun. So I’m really looking forward to hanging out with other writers, bouncing ideas back and forth, and writing songs I’m proud of.
  3. Hang out with people in real life – As I’ve already said, I’m grateful for the technology that has allowed me to stay in contact with my friends and family, some even in other countries, but I miss seeing people in real life. I find video calls exhausting: I’m sick of looking at and getting distracted by myself throughout conversations, I find the lack of background and body language frustrating, and the constant reminder of how different everything is really triggers my anxiety. So I can’t wait for normal life to resume enough that I can see my friends and family like I did before the pandemic.
  4. Go swimming – Swimming has always been my favourite form of exercise, as well as something I just generally enjoy. It makes me feel really good and an early morning swim always sets me up for a good day. I’m looking forward to starting my days that way again at some point.
  5. Go to concerts – This one is probably going to be a really long time in coming because of all the difficulties they pose (lack of social distancing, usually indoors, etc) but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. Concerts make me feel alive and just fill me with complete joy and I miss that feeling. I miss seeing the artists that have had such an impact on me in real life and I miss celebrating the music I love with my friends and loved ones.
  6. Go on long drives listening to music – I’ve always loved getting in the car, settling in for the long haul, and blasting my favourite songs one after another until we (me and whoever I’m travelling with) arrive at our destination. It’s so fun to turn up the volume and sing along with all you’ve got and since there have been restrictions on the distances we can travel, I haven’t had one of those drives in a really long time. I didn’t realise how much I’ve missed them until I started making this list and now I’m just really looking forward to those drives again. I think that first one will probably be one to remember.
  7. Finish my bedroom – I’ve been using my time in lockdown to rearrange my room and make the most out of the space. I’ve managed to do a significant amount myself, with the help of online shopping and home delivery, but there are still several things I’d love to change that are best left to the professionals, something that obviously isn’t necessary and will therefore wait until it’s safe. Until then, I’m fine living in an unfinished space; I’ll just be really happy when it can all be finished.
  8. Go back to university – As stressful as my Masters can be, I love it and I really don’t want to finish it remotely, especially as it’s such a practical course. I’m aware (and terrified) of the warnings of a second wave but I really, really hope I’ll be able to complete the course at least partly in person. I really don’t want to do it all online and I really don’t want to defer. I love being part of a group: cowriting, sharing songs, and giving feedback. Plus I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to do with the pandemic hanging over my head and still significantly impacting my mental health.
  9. Get back to playing shows – This is another one that will definitely be a while but I love performing. It’s when I feel most truly myself and I get such a high, one that overpowers all the negative stuff. We don’t know what the music industry and performing opportunities for new artists are going to look like on the other side of this but I have to be optimistic that it will eventually start happening again, even if it does take some serious time.
  10. Get drunk with Richard – This is only a recent plan. I’ve never been a drinker, in large part because I’ve always been on medication that has strongly advised against consuming alcohol. I’m gonna do my research but I think it’ll probably be fine as long as I don’t go overboard. Richard and I were on FaceTime recently, complaining about missing each other, and I randomly suggested we get drunk when we can see each other again. These last months have been so… indescribably strange and hard and unpredictable so it feels kind of right to do something weird or at least out of the ordinary to mark our reunion. Richard described a Harry Potter drinking game to me; two ‘drink when…’s in and I was sold. So I’m looking forward to that.
  11. Getting my hair dyed professionally – While I’ll probably have my hair cut sooner than I wish I had to (there’s a real chance that that could help with my hair pulling, which is causing all sorts of other problems), I’m definitely waiting to have my hair coloured at the hairdressers until it feels safe and not irresponsible to do so. That’s not a reflection on my hairdressers because I truly don’t believe they’d open if they didn’t feel they could keep their staff and clients safe but with the amount of time it takes, I’d rather home dye my hair and keep the risks as minimal as possible.
  12. Do karaoke with my best friends from my course – On our last video call (after watching Isn’t It Romantic), me and my two best friends decided that we have to go and do karaoke together. I’ve always found the idea quite scary, like I’ll be judged for my song choices or for making mistakes, but with these girls, I just feel like I’ll have a complete blast (we’ve previously discussed having a learn-to-wear-high-heels-again party where we don’t actually leave the house but stumble around in our heels like baby giraffes until we remember how to do it). I don’t think this will be possible for a long time, with enclosed spaces and singing being two big risks of transmissions but we’ll get to do it eventually and until then, we can enjoy dreaming about it.

Ultimately, I’m looking forward to feeling safe again and the resulting relief for my mental health. My anxiety isn’t going to recede from its overwhelming levels until then and only then will I be able to function somewhat normally again. I hope.

I Rediscovered Swimming

One of the most common pieces of advice with anything mental health or mental illness related is to exercise. And while that’s not bad advice, it’s not necessarily good advice in the practical sense. It’s about as helpful as saying, ‘eat healthy’ or ‘get enough sleep.’ It’s something that has to be tailored to you. Specific types of exercise will help where others may make you feel worse. So you need to find the one for you.

For example, I hate running. I would love to love it but I hate it. I find it at best uncomfortable and at worst painful: it’s like my bones are rattling inside my body. I’ve heard this from others with Autism but I don’t know if it’s specific to that or whether it’s a coincidence. But anyway, running is not the thing for me. Swimming however…

I have always loved to swim. I love the feeling of moving through water and when I was a kid, I loved the silence that comes from being underwater. I would’ve given anything to be able to breathe underwater so that I could stay in that silence. That’s pretty ironic given that I would grow up to develop anxiety that is triggered by a lack of noise and distraction.

I got back into swimming a couple of months ago. At the beginning, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even swim: the lack of stimulation for my brain meant that I just spiralled and my anxiety became completely overwhelming. So me and my Mum would walk and talk, planning the day or talking through whatever thing was on my mind that morning. Eventually my anxiety mutated into a different state and I was able to swim. It’s had such an impact on my life so I really wanted to write about it.

Swimming pools have the potential to be very difficult for me, from a sensory perspective. When it’s busy, the sound bounces around and around, making it one big fog of noise, which makes me very anxious. And the fact that I’m so short sighted I can barely see without my glasses makes that anxiety even worse: I can’t see anything and the sound feels like it’s coming from everywhere and that causes me paralyzing anxiety. It’s how I imagine it would feel to be on a carousel but if the carousel was going at ten times the normal speed. It’s scary. The best times to get in a quiet swim seem to be first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve been sticking to the morning; it makes for a more productive day for me.

Knowing that this is the time that allows for the best swimming experience, I’ve been getting up early and getting to the gym for about seven forty five (sometimes I even get the pool to myself, which is glorious). And knowing that I have to get up that early, I’m going to bed at a sensible time, rather than accidentally staying up until three in the morning. So a routine sort of formed by accident and that has been so good for me. My relationship with sleep has never been so good.

Exercise has always been difficult for me given my historic struggle with energy but also because ‘weight bearing’ exercise often feels very jarring. As I’ve already said, it makes me feel like my bones are rattling inside my body and each impact makes it worse. Sometimes it’s not that bad and I can be distracted by whatever I’m doing but sometimes it can actually be painful. So swimming is perfect. It takes that whole aspect out of the equation and makes exercise actually enjoyable. It reminds me of my arthritic dog: he goes for hydrotherapy and as soon as he’s in the water, chasing tennis balls, he’s like a puppy again. He loves it and I can totally relate.

The best thing about swimming is that it’s something that makes sense and that’s something I really need at the moment. The world feels hard and unfair and this is something that I can control. The more I swim, the stronger I get. I can see the results. I’ve been swimming most days for the last three months and I see my own progress: I’m swimming further; I’m swimming faster; I can see my body changing. It makes sense. That grounds me.

The one thing I do have to be careful of is my tendency to obsess: about the number of laps, getting to the next ten, getting to a hundred… Once it’s in my head that I ‘have’ to get to a particular number, there’s not much I can do to change my own mind and it causes me serious anxiety if I don’t reach the number I’ve ‘decided on.’ So I have to be aware of that. Sometimes I can avoid it by distracting myself or by deciding on exactly how long I’m going to spend in the pool but sometimes I just have to manage it. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

But overall, rediscovering swimming has been one of the major highlights of this year. It’s helped my physical health and my mental health, as well as my day to day life. So I feel very grateful to have found it again.

And since I can’t take my phone into the pool with me, here’s a photo of my dog, enjoying his fortnightly swim.

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