Don’t Panic: Facing up to lockdown
Much has been made online of the nonsensical nature of the UK government’s ‘stay alert’ slogan. There’s still little clarity on what it means for those going out and about, but what hasn’t got nearly enough attention is that it is directly harmful advice for many people staying at home. As the psychological pressure of lockdown starts to do widespread damage, we need to get better at putting the stresses of the pandemic out of our minds. We need to make sure that those whose mental health is at severe risk can get the help they need, and we need to talk more about coping techniques for people whose circumstances are less desperate but who still find themselves struggling day to day.
I know a few things about coping techniques. I’ve been housebound by my chronic illness for eight years, getting outside only to access medical care and, once, in 2015, for a single social event. The last time I felt the sun on my face was October. “It’s different for you,” said my mother, talking about her own lockdown woes – but the thing is, even if it’s different now, there was a time when it wasn’t, and I didn’t get from there to here by magic. As with most long term housebound people, I didn’t have anybody to teach me how to deal with it, and I had to fight tooth and nail for all sorts of basic things, from the opportunity to work, to access to justice when my home was broken into. A lot of people in this situation don’t make it. I was lucky to have the mental resources, but the reason I’m still here and functional and playing an active role in the world is also because I took responsibility for my own well being.
Amongst those of us with this experience, it’s generally agreed that the first three to six months are the worst. Why? Because during that time, we have all felt as many of you will do now: that we don’t belong in this situation, that it’s unfair, that we’re somehow being punished. I railed against it to begin with. I was alert, all the time, to the social activities and career opportunities that I was missing, and the stress, the constant feelings of frustration and anger, made my health even worse. What changed, over time, was that I came to acknowledge that none of us are ever really in control of our lives the way we like to imagine that we are. Sometimes things happen that are beyond our power to change. There’s nothing commendable about screwing ourselves up by continuing to trigger a useless fight or flight response. Accepting our circumstances doesn’t have to mean pretending that we wouldn’t be happier the way we used to live, but it does provide a basis from which we can start to build up a new, positive way of living – and whatever you may believe, it is possible for most of us to have rich and fulfilling lives in confinement, even if we really can’t see an end to it.
There are people who can’t do this. It’s much harder for those living with pre-existing mental illnesses, and some learning disorders and neurological variations also make it very difficult. In Scotland the message to people in this situation is clear but not very loud: if you are in a position of acute need, it’s okay for somebody to go to your home to provide you with care, just as they could for someone with a physical illness. In recent years there’s been increasing public conversation about the need to help people who are facing mental health crises, and this is a case in point, so it has been a shame to see people complaining about this approach on the grounds that it is ‘unnecessarily’ putting people in danger. If it’s okay to help somebody who is at risk because they cannot otherwise get food, shouldn’t it be equally valid to help somebody who is at risk of serious self-harm or suicide?
The real reason why this hasn’t been talked about more loudly is due to the fear that people who are not in serious need will exploit it just because they’re frustrated by lockdown. This is why it’s important to stop making a drama out of a crisis. Current circumstances mean that some people need help to stay safe, and that is in a completely different ballpark from the ‘need’ that many of us feel to see our loved ones or get back to feeling productive or just do the normal things that make us happy. Yes it’s hard, yes it’s unfair, yes it causes frustration and anger to be in this situation, but we don’t need to let that overwhelm us. Those feelings, however well justified, are not useful, and staying alert to them will only cause more unhappiness.
Whether we need carers to help us with it or whether we’re lucky enough to be able to do it by ourselves, the trick is to let go. This doesn’t need to be time spent waiting for life to resume. Life is happening right now, all the time, and if we spend all our time thinking about what we’re missing then we will miss that.
With the Covid-19 death rate as high a it is and many people in mourning, it’s not necessary to point out that there are worse things than being isolated for a bit – and, indeed, that approach is rarely helpful, because suffering is to some degree proportionate to experience. What is worth keeping in mind, however, is that people survive more stressful situations all the time and still live happy lives, and that the chances are that you can, too.