I’m writing this at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020. Talking about mental health is always important – too important for just a week’s worth of awareness – but today, in a world where we are under huge new pressures and facing immense change, it’s pretty much imperative.
Finally, we’re being openly encouraged to talk about how we’re really feeling; to open up when we’re feeling lonely, to reach out to professionals, and to seek help when we need it. It’s a shame that it’s taken a global pandemic, and huge social disruption, to get to this stage, but we can only hope that this glimmer of a silver lining has broken the taboo and, when we reach our ‘new normal’, emotional vulnerability will be even more commonplace.
As an extroverted introvert, I think I’ve found the transition into social distancing slightly easier than a number of my friends. Years of singledom and experiences of feeling unbearably lonely has perhaps prepared me well for the concept of barely seeing anyone for months.
It may seem strange to people who know me, or to people who follow me on social media, that I’ve so easily adjusted from a packed social life to nothing so comfortably, but it’s taken me years to get to the stage when a crammed diary doesn’t fill me with panic every day.
In fact, social distancing has almost pushed me back into my natural state – and now I’m worried that the hard work I’ve put into improving my mental health over the last few years is being undone by this pandemic.
I’ve always been quite an anxious and emotional person, but for years it didn’t cross my mind that my experiences might not be the norm for everyone.
It was only when I had a panic attack over choosing a sandwich in a cafe one Saturday afternoon in 2014, that it dawned on me that my anxiety could really be an issue.
My meltdown over a Reuben Melt in the doorway of a busy coffee shop was the final straw. After an honest and tearful chat in a car park, I decided to go to the doctors. From there, I went on to have monthly telephone consultations for my diagnosed social anxiety and depression; after that came six months of group CBT sessions.
Six years later, and I can see how far I’ve come. Though sometimes a full diary can still set me off, I know now that I just need to take a break and cancel a few plans to feel stronger again. Certain events will make me incredibly nervous, I’m still regularly overpowered by a case of The Guilts, and I’ll always be a sucker for a quiet night in. However, now I can order my lunch without feeling utterly overwhelmed, and I recognise the dark clouds of depression looming overhead, allowing me to prepare for the downpour.
I know when I can launch myself full throttle into a week of plans, and when I need to take a back seat. My issues are not fully resolved, but I’m miles from where I once was.
At least I thought I was, until a little thing called a Global Health Crisis came along, and made socialising a thousand times more stressful.
I’m already feeling uneasy – and sometimes scared – of the prospect of being busy again: of being around people, being in enclosed and chaotic spaces, and feeling exposed. In the name of health, I’ve retreated into my comfortable bubble, and it’s going to take some time for me to get back out there once we’re allowed.
I’ve been correctly training my brain to see this physical distancing as safe: that I should be inside, and I should shrink away from approaching people. I’m going to need to work hard to retrain it again when the time comes – we all are.
I can feel it even now before the lockdown has eased. A simple Zoom call in the diary can get my palpitations going and my brain overworking, and the prospect of a group chat feels overwhelming before it’s even started.
This pandemic has resurrected obstacles I thought I’d tackled; but I’ve done it once, and I can do it again.
Have patience with us: the nervous, the hesitant, and the scared. Some of us were socially distant before it was even a phrase. We can’t wait to see you when this is all over, either – but it might take some of us a little longer than others.
This is one big delicate situation, and we all need to handle it, and each other, with care – figuratively, of course, until we can finally touch each other again.
More of my writing about mental health: