It Took A Pandemic For Me To Face My Mental Demons

My go-to method of coping has always been to keep moving. But isolation has forced me to slow down, and finally take proper care of myself.
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Before we were ordered to stay inside for the foreseeable future, and before toilet roll became as valuable as buried treasure, I thought that I was doing okay.

I’d just about stopped crying in public whenever I saw something that reminded me of my late Nan – a person who, in literal terms, was a far bigger part of my life than I felt was done justice by the name ‘Nanny’. She was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, where she met my grandfather, Poppa, who was an engineer.

I totally and utterly adored them both. I trudged back to work the day after she’d died, as if nothing had happened, only to break down in tears to my new (and very kind and supportive) boss, I realised I was physically moving, but going backward mentally.

That feeling was only heightened by isolation, and what comes from living in a pandemic weeks after. Sitting in my flat, retreating to childhood memories that now brought pain instead of glee, I would burst into tears when I saw their name in my phonebook. 2020 had already started testing me but I’d just started to get to know my new colleagues, booking endless social plans with friends as being with people helped me cope with what I was going through mentally. For the first time in my life, I found myself replying to WhatsApp messages on one device, and reaching out to Samaritans on another.

When I’m having a bad day – the sort where something as innocent as being left on double blue ticks sends my already low self-esteem spiralling into believing I’ve upset my friends and no longer deserve kindness – my go-to method of coping is just to keep moving. My coping knee jerk reaction to all the things I’ve buried deep down is to lap life up – pubs, dinners, drunken hugs, sleepovers, the galleries, going abroad, writing endless poetry. All of it.

“Mentally, I’m usually on Thursday when the calendar says it’s Monday, ebbing and flowing between doing far too much and fearing I’m not doing enough”

I always knew deep down this wasn’t the most sustainable method, but it took a pandemic for me to realise why.

Mentally, I’m usually on Thursday when the calendar says it’s Monday, ebbing and flowing between doing far too much and fearing I’m not doing enough. But lockdown has made me mentally retreat in a lot of ways. I feel like I’ve finally got permission to feel up and down – low some days, coping others. Almost as though we’ve all been told “this is going to be rubbish, and you’re allowed to feel so”.

The truth is, I felt like this before the crisis – I just never felt like I had permission to before.

Some people cope by baking banana bread or running, but my email exchange with Samaritans encouraged me to take the plunge into something I always waxed lyrical about to others: counselling. Key workers are out risking their lives to save others, so when the silence outside was drowned out by the demons in my head, I finally made the decision to stop running myself into the ground and save my own.

“Life right now cannot be about being as productive as possible. It’s about finding healthier ways to cope.”

And now I’m trying to stop racing through the hours, days, and weeks. I still frantically write lists to feel in control, still wake up in an anxious panic at 4:30 most mornings, but coronavirus has shown me we can never know what each day is going to look like. Last weekend I sat in the sun, closed my eyes, and saw the lines in my lids that resembled giraffe spots – a bit like the water marks when the sun hits a swimming pool. And for once, I was okay with being in the present. Not thinking of Thursday when it’s only Monday. Because that’s all we have to bet on right now.

We won’t live like this forever. And when it isn’t, I know I won’t spend each day being excited about my CBT programme, making sure I’m drinking enough water and getting enough sleep, or going for a run – but for now it’s enough. Life right now cannot be about being as productive as possible. It’s about finding healthier ways to cope.

We are all yearning for some aspect of our former lives, but the question is, which parts are we looking to return to over others? Former priorities have flipped, and we might just find there are things we do differently now - for the better.

I just hope that when we do go back to a place where we can live more freely, I maintain a better sense of balance, and choose wisely. And that I’ll stop for a minute, apply what I’ve learned, and let the giraffe patterns stay in my eyes just that little bit longer than I did before.

Clare Dyckhoff is a writer and poet. Follow her on Twitter at @cdyckhoff

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