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.

Surviving Is Better Than Not Surviving

Trigger warning for self harm. Please don’t read this if it’s something that will upset you or trigger you. I only want this to be helpful, never harmful. I also want to add that, while I’m not promoting or endorsing it, I’m never going to say, “Just don’t do it.” It’s just not that simple. My hope is that more openness on this subject will make it easier for people to access support and therefore not feel the need to do it.

It’s been on my to do list to write more about self harm ever since I posted the first piece. It’s one of those things that I will never get tired of talking about, never get tired of raising awareness for. There are so many misconceptions around it. I mean, I get it: there’s something inherently un-understandable about wanting to hurt yourself, unless you’ve gone through it. And even then, it’s massively complicated. Feelings are weird and pain is weird; it’s not surprising that people struggle to make sense of it. But I’d like to think that things will get better, hopefully sooner rather than later.

I was inspired to write this post after watching a YouTube video, ‘Living With Self Harm Scars’ by Claudia Boleyn. I’ve been watching her videos for more than a year now and I particularly love her videos about mental health. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and self harm still aren’t commonly talked about so to find someone describing their experience, both positive and negative, and giving advice is invaluable. And to find someone so thoughtful and eloquent is even better. I really relate to a lot of what she says.

She’d posted a video in which she wore a short sleeve shirt that exposed some scars from self harming and had received several messages about how validating it was to see someone with visible self harm scars, without shame or drama. So, as a response, she’d decided to make a video discussing the importance of living with these types of scars, which I found both interesting and useful, even as someone with ten years of experience with self harm. She put into words so many emotions that I’ve felt but for a long time couldn’t vocalize. Had I had something like this when I was younger, life would’ve been very different.

The video isn’t necessary for the rest of the post to make sense but I really recommend watching it:

(EDIT: The video has now been made private but as I said, it’s not necessary for the rest of the post. I’ll update if this changes.)

Some of the things she says are so true it’s painful.

One of the biggest things about self harm is the release you get from doing it. My emotions get so strong sometimes that I feel like there isn’t space for anything else in my body, in my brain. There isn’t the space for my lungs to expand; I can’t breathe. It almost feels like the emotion is crushing me and the only way to survive is to open up my skin so that it can escape. It’s like a pressure valve. Once I’ve done it, I feel like everything stabilises and I can think more clearly. If there’s a problem, I can deal with it and if there isn’t and it’s just an overload of emotion, I can take care of myself a little better than I could if I hadn’t. As heavy as it sounds, Claudia describes it as ‘a way of not killing herself,’ which is a feeling I can empathise with. I’m sure many others can too. I’m not saying it’s a good thing and I’m not encouraging it. It is NOT a healthy coping mechanism. But that logic isn’t very persuasive when you’re dealing with such overwhelming emotions. Claudia also talks about this: “It’s not good for you in any sense… but it’s something. It felt like doing that at least proved that there was something there… And it just felt like this huge build up of feelings and I had to do something to get rid of it and doing that… was something.” I can completely relate to that and I think that’s a feeling that is often exacerbated by how difficult it is to get a diagnosis because having something is better than having nothing.

In my experience at least, trying to cut myself off cold from the only thing that helps me get through doesn’t help; it just makes the need worse and then there’s potential for me to do more damage. So I do my best to be safe while working on my issues in therapy so that one day, I can stop because I’m okay and not because I’m suppressing the urge. Because if that’s the case, I’ll always come back to it. To quote Claudia: “If you’re a self harmer then I think it’s always in the back of your mind as, like, a coping mechanism… The problem is: it’s always there so you always have to avoid it and avoid triggering it.” To give up self harming is a really big ask, and an even bigger one if you’re trying to do it without support. And if it’s too much for you, or for you to do all at once, that’s okay. I don’t feel ready to stop but one step at a time. The fact that my therapist supports this is a huge deal to me and it’s one of the things that told me that she was the right person. This has greatly lessened the pressure on me and has helped both me and my family to work through it a bit. I used to feel so guilty that I was hurting or upsetting them so I hid it and that was doing it’s own kind of damage. But now that we have a plan, now that we’re moving in a forwards-like direction even if it isn’t always easy, everyone seems to be coping with it better. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to see me in that place but you can’t put that on top of the emotion that makes you want to do it; it will eat you alive. I think the only way forward is to try and talk about it with someone and do what you can to avoid it if possible.

I don’t have quite the same experience as Claudia does. That’s fine. Every response to self harm is a valid response. However you feel about it is okay; it’s your struggle. She talks about feeling annoyed and upset about having self harmed and wishes she hadn’t done it whereas I’m not (yet?) in that place. She talks about how it releases all that feeling but then you wake up the next day and feel like you’ve let yourself down. But, while that is quite a negative response, the way she talks to herself is very positive: “I’m just taking it as a stepping stone and saying, ‘Okay, you took a step backwards but you can take five hundred more steps forward. It’s fine.’” She talks about having a certain pride about them because they’re proof that she got through a really tough time. She can look at them and feel compassion and forgiveness for the version of herself in those moments: “It’s a part of me and it’s a part of my past and that’s okay. And I wouldn’t erase it and in a way, I wouldn’t want to because I’ve learned so much going forward.”

For me, self harm is usually a survival strategy. It’s getting through a moment that I feel like I can’t possibly get through. Maybe it’s the worst possible way to get through it but it’s better than not. So when I look at the mark the next day, or the next month, or the next year, I remember that moment: I remember getting through. I remember feeling like I can’t survive another second and then I remember the calm afterwards. I remember that I did what I had to do to survive. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of that – or proud of the scars – but I’m certainly not ashamed of it. Maybe one day I’ll find something that gives me that feeling without doing any damage to myself. How wild and glorious would that be?! But that’s the end goal, not the next step.

My other use for self harm is to mark a traumatic event. I think one of the hardest things about struggling with your mental health is the fact that people often can’t see what you’re going through and I needed it to be seen. I felt so traumatised by the strength of the emotions and by the meltdowns and I just couldn’t process that without a physical, identifiable injury to associate it with. Again, I’m not saying that this is a good method of coping but it was all I had at the time. Now, I have other things to try. I haven’t yet found anything that works but what’s important is that I’m trying, even if I don’t want to sometimes. This is a whole other issue that I do want to talk about at some point: to someone who hasn’t ever self harmed, the idea of not wanting to stop doing something that is so bad for you is weird, but is a feeling that is often associated with self harm. That feeling can be very isolating because many people don’t understand it, and many more react badly to begin with. And feeling misunderstood can really exacerbate the feelings that lead a person to self harming. I think that discussing self harm and learning about it can only help with that. There will be people who say that bringing awareness to it will encourage people to self harm and while that may be true to a certain extent, the amount of people it could help would massively outnumber that.

People do ask about the scars. I’ve personally never had an unkind response to them; it’s usually just awkward. Even if someone doesn’t actually bring them up, I see them notice and it can get really uncomfortable because no one knows how to handle it. Claudia mentions being embarrassed about people seeing them and talks about how she has tried in the past to cover them up. Sometimes that’s just easier. It’s so complicated and it’s hard when people don’t get it or jump to conclusions. There’s the typical, “You’re asking for attention,” which has always frustrated me no end. I’m not sure when asking for attention became such a negative thing. Of course, there will always be people who abuse the compassion of others, but I would hope that our first reaction would still always be to try and help. If someone is asking for attention in some way, they probably need it, even if the reason why isn’t immediately apparent. I never tried particularly hard to hide what I was doing because I think that, subconsciously, I wanted someone to draw attention to it and see what I was going through. But at the same time I didn’t feel able to talk about it.

Sometimes people see the scars and assume that you’re ‘showing them off’ when you don’t cover them up, which is weird to me. I’m not sure why you’d want to ‘show off’ or ‘flaunt’ the evidence of a moment where you’d gotten so low that you had to physically take it out on your body. When you think about the lengths people go to to hide their scars – wearing long sleeves in a heat wave, making endless excuses as to why you can’t go swimming, hiding them with make up or bracelets or tattoos, spending every second thinking about your scars and how you’re going to make sure that no one sees them – it’s clearly not a straightforward issue. And as Claudia says, it’s not showing off; it’s a form of body positivity, of learning to be comfortable in your skin, regardless of what that skin looks like. That is a hard thing; it’s something that should be supported, not torn down.

There’s obviously a lot more to talk about when it comes to self harm but this is already a lot longer than I’d originally intended it to be! This is something that makes me really emotional and fired up so I could probably write a book on it. It’s so important to talk about and talk about openly and honestly. I wish I’d found someone writing about it or recording YouTube videos about it when I’d started struggling with all the things I talk about on this blog. Had I, and the people around me, had more knowledge and awareness about all of this stuff, my ‘mental health journey’ would’ve been very different.