Stuck in the House: Charlie

Hello there and welcome to a new feature, Stuck in the House, where we share personal insights and tales from our contributors about their time during lockdown and their reflections about the past year and concerns for the future. We want to create a safe space where young people can discuss life under lockdown and engage openly with the topic of caring for our physical and mental wellbeing. We would like to make clear that all contributions to this series are from the author’s own perspective and do not constitute any qualified opinions or advice particularly as regards to mental health. Included at the bottom of these posts are links to professional resources which you can access if you are in distress or need of help.

Looking back now at the earlier months of last year, it’s difficult for me to ascertain when precisely I realised that shit had indeed hit the fan. Everything happened slowly at first, in drips and drabs, then it all came crashing down in one big panic. I would probably highlight maybe 3 key events that shook me out of the complacency that, surely, disasters like pandemics could never happen to us. Not here, not in Scotland.

The first of these reality checks was roughly around January time when I saw drone footage of Wuhan in lockdown on Twitter. It was eerie, but it was distant. That was China’s problem, I figured, but it went some way in convincing me how serious things were. Sometime later in February at a pre-drinks before a much-awaited night out the topic of Covid-19 came up. Opinion was very split about how seriously we all needed to take it, especially now that the virus’s foothold in Italy had closed the distance between us. There was some talk of big events being cancelled, and I remember scoffing at the idea – even if just for a short while. It seemed to me like everyone was overreacting, but I do think there was a small part of me that was beginning to be softened to the idea that this huge event had finally reached me.

The thing that I’d pinpoint as the biggest wake-up call of them all was a video montage of Italians stuck in lockdowns, asked to send a message to themselves ten days ago (the UK was reckoned to be about 10 days behind the trajectory of Italy at the time). All of them without hesitation said: you are underestimating this threat, and very soon your entire life is about to be turned upside down. I don’t know what it was (other than a naïve complacency) that prevented all of the numerous news reports, infection statistics and health warnings from getting through to me up to that point, but that video finally did, and sure enough it wasn’t long after that that I, too, was stuck in the house.

I remember watching Boris Johnson on the live broadcast, clutching my girlfriend Katy’s hand and just experiencing this overwhelming surrealness wash over me. This can’t be happening, a small part of me pleaded. I compartmentalised the ordeal in my head for my own sanity: at any rate this would all surely be over and done with by the Summer. I don’t think I genuinely believed that, but for my purposes it would serve nicely as my inner narrative for the foreseeable – if only to stop me going up the walls. Almost immediately after the broadcast me and my flatmates reconvened having watched it separately in our rooms and agreed to shave our heads.

Even trying to recall the first few weeks with any clarity is tricky for me now. Time has been warped and wobbled and I still can’t decide if it went by quickly or at a snail’s pace. I was at that point, to put it mildly, absolutely obsessed with the news. I’d spend probably around 4 or 5 hours starting right from when I first woke up poring over articles and videos and social media posts. I guess it gave me a sense of control over the uncontrollable – that at least I’d know what was going on even if I could do little to prevent it from happening.

In hindsight, this was just a terrible way of dealing with things. Me and my flatmate Calum thought it’d be a good idea to have a wee night-in on the first weekend, but I could hardly enjoy enjoying myself when I had drenched my mind all week in the horror of what was happening outside. I remember that night we opened his bedroom window and sat on the sill watching out over King Street on the Saturday night, and you could have heard a pin drop it was that quiet. It was haunting.

There was a real tense atmosphere at the time, and it permeated through the news cycle that I couldn’t pull myself away from because I was completely enveloped in it. I remember being in the queue to get into Morrison’s and this guy slammed the barrier whilst glaring at an Asian man who had walked past, and on another visit there was a couple getting up in the face of the poor security guard who told them that they needed to wait to get in. Some of the aisles still hadn’t been restocked after all the panic-buying, and I used to feel very irritated if someone came within two metres of me.

I can characterise that time as just a whole lot of pent-up frustrations and misanthropy. I couldn’t believe how selfish some people were. I would despair at conspiracy theorists online and scorn rule breakers. What wasn’t clear to me at that early stage was just how much of this outward projection of disapproval was really founded on my own incredibly deep sorrow about what had happened. Those months were supposed to be my final weeks as an undergrad. My graduation had been cancelled. All of the celebration and general camaraderie associated with my last semester at university had disappeared, vanishing like a mirage as I drew closer.

A very empty Union Street.

I think there’s a prevailing attitude that sadness or struggle is somehow comparative in a way that happiness isn’t. Like when you’re sad it’s all “well what about all the people dying in the wards or the doctors and nurses working their arses off in the hospitals?” Or in the case of the UK’s weird fixation with WW2 “what you’re going through is nothing in comparison to the Blitz” as if that’s at all relevant. This is frankly a load of shite – it’s hardly like someone would tell you you have no right to be happy on the basis that someone, somewhere, at some point has had greater reason to be happier. So whilst I was fully aware that the world had far bigger fish to fry than the cancelled festivities of my final year at uni I nonetheless spent the entire first lockdown in a state of prolonged, bottomless grief about what I’d lost.

I lived my life in that parallel timeline of what could’ve been for a huge chunk of those first few months. I used to go on long, pensive walks on sunny April afternoons, often around Aberdeen’s campus, the weather counterposed against the grey feelings of loss and isolation that I couldn’t find a release from. Uncertainty seemed to stretch long into the future, and it was overwhelming, that un-knowing state. Dates would come and go on my Facebook calendar for big nights out I was looking forward to, and the more I sank into the what ifs of a world where Covid-19 had never happened the harder it made it to focus on what was in front of me.

Life back then wasn’t all bad, and I developed a mental health regime for myself that, whilst not perfect, did an adequate job of preventing the worst ills from taking hold of me. I got back into running, the habit of journaling when I felt down, mindfulness exercises and above all checking up on my friends and family as much as I could manage. I found the time for forgotten hobbies like gaming and reading and dabbled in new ones like mixing music and photography as well. Setting aside something to do for my own enjoyment has really allowed me to just zone out for an afternoon and take my mind off things when I need to. Out of the intense introspection that came from living out the worst of those three months in the confines of four walls I learnt a lot about myself and my inclinations towards systematisation and routine that had never been challenged back when life was ordinary.

Those inclinations arguably became my arch enemy once the worst of the grief had subsided and I began to think about what I could do to fill my time. Much was made about lockdown being the perfect chance to write that novel you’ve been sitting on or become a master at Tai Chi, and whilst I think such encouragement to make good use of your time was well-intentioned the effect it had on me was crippling and over-burdened with guilt. Days would pass by and I would scold myself for having only watched YouTube videos all day when I really should’ve made good use of my time and become fluent in a new language. It’s only now, two lockdowns later, that I feel like I’ve learned how to relax and do nothing without the accompanying feelings of disappointment in myself. It’s okay to do sweet fuck all, and you don’t owe it to anyone least of all yourself to be productive. I realised over the last year that productivity is a by-product of a healthy mind, not a precursor to one.

I also found the ways in which lockdown intersected with my existing mental health issues rather bewildering and contradictory. Anyone that knows me pretty well knows I’m a meticulous planner; I’m future-oriented to the point where I’m not always present in the here and now, and I can get pretty lost extrapolating out all the many different outcomes of a situation and inventing responses to them in my head. I had been pretty susceptible before the pandemic to anxiety issues, and I struggled throughout my time at uni particularly with OCD.

I can’t explain why, but these existing struggles just seemed to evaporate during lockdown. My guess as to why this happened is probably because so much of what I used to get worried about is, if I’m being rational for a moment, purely hypothetical. Covid shut the book on the future so fully that not only did I lack anything to look forward to or get excited about but I had nothing to really feel that irrationally anxious about given the very real and very present threat of a Highly Contagious Respiratory Disease doing the rounds. I’ve traded most of my hypothetical worries for the more practical concerns of a global pandemic, hopeless job market and bleak future. I’m not sure which is better at this stage.

I still sometimes have to pinch myself and struggle to convince myself that all of this has actually happened – that I’m really here and this isn’t some kind of mental fever dream that I’m yet to wake up from, and I think much of that stems from how isolating this entire experience has been. It’s one of the many ironies of this ordeal that at a time when we could most use the company of friends and family our access to our social lives has been heavily restricted. In their absence I’ve come to a full appreciation of how much going out and socialising with people is so integral to my sense of well-being and place in the world, and with every ounce of my soul I sorely miss sweaty nights spent pounding it out in club basements forgetting about what’s taking place outside. Zoom doesn’t cut it; once you hang up you’re plunged right back into the loneliness of your bedroom.

In a turn of events, it’s now what’s taking place outside that has been vital to me getting through all this. I don’t know what I’d have done if we hadn’t been allowed our daily exercise. Going out on runs in Spring back when the weather was nice would energise me and give me the stamina I needed to see myself through the days where I didn’t feel so good. There was something almost spiritually comforting about breathing in the hot, thick, grassy air in Seaton park whilst insects buzzed around and seals played about in the Don. It maybe wasn’t the sort of escapism I would choose given plenty of options but as a last resort it really helped.

Now that there’s light at the end of the tunnel I’m not so sure how I feel. I bump into folk next to the salad leaves at the supermarket and it’s like all my social faculties have completely gone out the window – I can barely keep up basic small talk. I don’t know what kind of world we’re going to emerge into, or if I’ll ever get the chance to catch up with uni friends that I never got to say goodbye to. I think the best mindset to have at this stage is to keep your expectations as low as they’ll go, because otherwise you just set yourself up for disappointment. I naturally have a positive outlook but it hasn’t always served me well in a crisis that’s constantly had its end day pushed back and exceeded my worst fears at every turn.

Speaking to friends it seems a lot of people are struggling even more with this third lockdown, and I realise the accumulated stress is really starting to get to folk now. It’s probably just that future mindset for me again, but I think the hope of the vaccine and finally getting a visual of a way out of this mess has really helped me in the immediate term – but maybe I’m just compartmentalising again. I’ve also learned a lot about what works for me, namely disengaging from the news when it all feels too much, looking after my body and mind, taking things an hour at a time, checking up on people that matter to me, being easy on myself when I don’t achieve what I set out to do and allowing myself time off when I need it.

I do feel that brighter days are round the corner. They probably won’t arrive as the big, singular return to normality that we all imagine but will probably creep up in a gradual, step-by-step process. I can’t wait to rub shoulders with strangers in a club with wild abandon or to not interpret every slight ailment as the beginning of a life-threatening infection. I still feel miserable about having spent so much of my early twenties indoors, and I’ll probably never fully get over it. But I take a small comfort in knowing that I haven’t gone through this alone, and that at some point in the near future we’ll be able to share stories over a few pints and make up for all this lost time in any way we can.

Words by Charlie Forbes

Resources for Mental Health:
Samaritans – Contact a Samaritan
NHS – Charity Directory
Mind – Seeking help for a mental health problem

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