by Ruth Stewart
Keep two metres apart. No gatherings of more than five people. Stay at home. As a sufferer of social anxiety, these rules were like music to my ears. Finally, my preferred way of life was government-mandated.
That was how lockdown started for me: blissfully.
I could relax when leaving the house, safe in the knowledge that there would be no jostling, no crowds. I no longer needed to feel guilty for rejecting social invites – supposedly joyous, the prospect of parties and suchlike used to bring me out in cold sweat. A combination of embarrassment and the inevitable need to justify myself – “Oh come on, it’ll be fun! Stop being so boring!” – prevented me from being honest about my reasons for perpetually staying in. The pressure to constantly conjure creative excuses – or the guilt at simply ignoring the phone when it rang – was exhausting.
My home has always been my sanctuary; and now, staying inside was not just a personal preference, but a matter of public safety. My hermit-like existence, I was told, could save lives. For the first time, I felt validated. I was no longer the anti-social weirdo; I was simply a decent citizen.
It’s safe to say I leaned into these rules with such enthusiasm I was virtually horizontal. Furloughed from my part-time waitressing job, I had all the time in the world and by law I had to spend it at home.
I successfully cultivated house plants. I voraciously consumed all the unread books on my shelves. I got 8 hours sleep per night, minimum. I embraced my creativity, finally able to spend all my time on my illustration work as I had so often dreamed. I continued my ballet lessons at home, online, freed from the agony of comparing myself to the professional dancers that attended my usual classes and the 90 minutes of unavoidable staring at myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors – another anxiety-trigger. I could dance freely, let myself go, really enjoy the movement.
Mentally, I felt healthier than I really ever had. From my point of view – selfish as it may sound – I hoped quarantine would never end.
But as the old adage goes: all good things must come to an end, and end they did. While my social anxiety remained dormant, a plethora of other anxieties sprouted in its place like the many heads of the mythological Hydra.
My decades old & indisputably unresolved eating disorder emerged from the depths of my psyche right to the fore; I spent hours scrutinizing my body, trying to compensate for my decreased activity levels by consciously eating as little as possible. Soon, the peacefulness I had initially found in my cosy home gave way to severe depression – I spent hours, days, weeping inconsolably, unable to pinpoint what exactly was wrong, and reluctant to go to the doctor, conscious of the strain upon public health services due to the pandemic. I wasn’t urgent, I wasn’t dying – medical staff had bigger proverbial fish to fry, I reasoned.
I spiralled downwards, spending hours scrolling bleak videos of police brutality & constant updates on the ever-increasing COVID death tolls on my social feeds, worrying that my elderly family members were all going to contract it and die, all whilst festering within the same four walls.
My normal coping methods were unattainable: visits to family off the cards, video chats with my best friend that simply resulted in both of us crying, equally unhappy with our respective situations. Even dancing (my fail-safe refuge from any unpleasantness within my head) had become, over time, just another source of stress and frustration as I wrestled with a shoddy internet connection and the one metre square of kitchen space available to dance in. While initially I had giggled when my feet crashed into the appliances, but as lockdown drew endlessly on, this lack of physical space to enjoy one of my most basic pleasures only amplified my feelings of entrapment.
I felt bitterly resentful of my more affluent acquaintances languishing in their spacious homes and gardens; while I, limited by my meagre means, had only two rooms to bounce around in & no outdoor space whatsoever.
As anyone with depression will know only too well, misery is like an extremely fast-growing plant. Sow the seed & very quickly it takes root, casting dark shadows over every aspect of life. With nothing on the horizon to look forward to I found it impossible to claw my way out of the abyss. Depression only breeds more depression and I became listless and unmotivated, shrouding myself in endless naps, staring blankly at my computer screen for hours on end. Not even really watching; just staring.
Over recent years, after finally accepting that I needed help with my mental health, I had made numerous positive changes to my life: giving up alcohol, quitting my stressful former job & relocating from claustrophobic London to comparably peaceful Bristol. I’d made such positive strides that I simply wasn’t prepared for such a sudden setback. Naturally, the feeling that all my good work had been undone only added an extra layer of panicky defeatedness into the equation; like coronavirus had cheated me out of years of progress.
Lockdown has been a microcosm of my life’s mental health experiences: all the mental ups and downs of the last two decades played back to me over a four month period. And as our imprisonment comes to an end, I can’t help but wonder where I go from here.
Part of me knows that as life returns to “normal”, these issues will melt away. But by that definition, “normal” for me was knowing that all of these feelings exist within me and could very well strike again should any other crisis emerge and threaten my carefully curated way of life.
So perhaps, returning to “normal” is not what I should be aiming for. Perhaps, in fact, COVID could be the proverbial kick up the backside that I need to readdress these issues; as lockdown has shown, my issues weren’t resolved, only buried. It’s time to take stock, strengthen my mental reserves. Because while the threat of COVID may be fading, there are plenty of other battles left to fight. I want to make sure that they don’t break me as well.
Art courtesy of Ruth Stewart.