It’s November 2020. Nearly the end of the weirdest year in my over-half-a-century of life.
Lockdown2 has been extended past the original four weeks in Northern Ireland. It’s not as strict as England but it’s bad enough. And I have no faith that it will end in the promised two more weeks.
I thought I’d really struggle with the second lockdown, and I have, but I’m resigned now. The biggest impact on me is gym classes being banned, although thank goodness gyms are still open. Exercise is my mental health lifeline, and going back to the gym after lockdown1 was the only thing that got me out of a pretty bad depression. It didn’t prevent further episodes, but I was able to stick to my routine, and seeing people at the smaller classes was good craic. With just 12 people there we talked more, and I got to know my instructors really well. One of them has kept up zoom classes a few times a week with a 15 minute chat time before hand, and that’s kept me going too. I get to the real gym a few times a week and try to work out hard to get the endorphins going. Some days are better than others, but I always leave feeling more positive than when I went in.
I’m not a huge fan of Christmas. I spend it with my husband’s family who I really love, but it always makes me miss my own family in Australia and England. And to me Christmas is sunshine, and after lunch settles jumping in the pool with the family. So I listen to Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun and get maudlin, however good a time I’m having with my family here. So if Christmas is cancelled for me it’s not a big deal, but I know it will be hard on my husband and his family. We’d talked of going to Australia this Christmas to spend it with family and break up the winter, which I’m not a big fan of.
I’ve been wanting to go to Australia all year. But the chances of getting there in the next year don’t look good, especially with new cases in Adelaide (where my family are) emerging this week. Their first cases since April. It seems incomprehensible that they managed it so well. Being an island helped, but so did the travel ban between states. Ireland is an island, and I can’t help but think we could have contained the pandemic here. It makes me angry how badly it’s been managed, and it’s yet another trigger for my depression. I watch our politicians bicker while people die. I made the most of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and wonder if that makes me a hypocrite now that I am so angry about it. I know my rage is futile. It doesn’t help me and it changes nothing. But god I’m angry at how this whole pandemic has been handled by Boris and his cronies, and by the Northern Ireland Executive. I watched Dominic Cummings stage his departure from Downing Street and wondered if he’d quit after his Barnard Castle eye test how different policy might have been.
But back to Australia. I can’t go. And while I’ve been isolated here, I’ve lost a much-loved uncle to cancer and watched his funeral online feeling a million miles from the few mourners. Watching a cousin break down and being unable to hug him was pure hell. The time difference meant the funeral was 1 am, and I sobbed alone on the sofa, facetiming family when it was over and sobbing uncontrollably as they gathered together and held each other. My father was in hospital when I heard the news in the middle of his night. I texted my mum who called him, but I was loathe to call in case he was sleeping. But he was awake, trying to call me but fumbling the phone and unable to. My heart broke.
My dad has been in hospital a few times during lockdown, and normally I’d have gone back to Australia to support my mum and take some of the load off my siblings. If I’m honest I don’t know if I’ll see him again. I don’t know if I will be able to be at his funeral, to say goodbye if he does go. I don’t know if it will be another online goodbye, sobbing on the sofa.
The day they announced lockdown I was told my job was at risk, and was being merged with a role in England. It took months to find out I could move into a different role. It’s a great opportunity, but the uncertainty was awful. I’m passionate about the charity I work for, and being furloughed with the chance of redundancy left me feeling unwanted and frankly useless. I was being told I was great at my job, and at the same time feeling like I was on the scrap heap. As soon as the furlough scheme was announced, the chief exec put out a call for volunteers to help at other charities. I jumped at the chance and took over the social media of a London-based charity who had had to furlough most of their staff. A morning team Zoom call each day got me out of bed and gave me virtual company. The task gave me stimulation. Then the same CEO put me in touch with Centre for Mental Health and I began work on A Year in Our Lives. It saved me. I worked in mental health for years and had freelanced with Centre for Mental Health previously. It felt like coming home.
Writing a leaflet on supporting others to look after their mental health made me think about what I could do. It lifted me out of the first wave of depression and made me feel useful. And it got me writing again, which I love. The other charity I was helping out offered me a part time job and I took it happily, the routine helping as much as the amazing team I was working with. Now I’m back in my usual job I miss them terribly.
A few weeks into lockdown I was diagnosed with ‘probable covid’ at the covid clinic. It was a bizarre and frightening experience. Walking between taped off lines while people in PPE made me wait and then waved me on, opening doors so I touched no surfaces. I felt vulnerable and alone and scared of the diagnosis. The doctor and nurse were kind, and I looked at their eyes which were all I could see of them. Tests weren’t available then, but my husband is a key worker and eventually I was tested. It was negative, but still I struggled to breathe. I couldn’t walk up the steps without pausing, lay in bed exhausted. Unable to read, I listed to Marian Keyes read her new audio book Grown Ups, feeling like she was reading just to me. It was a comfort.
At first I watched the news obsessively. From the 5pm Downing Street briefing to Newsnight, via the BBC national and local news, Channel 4, usually some covid special. I wanted to know everything, as if knowledge were power. But over time I realised the news was depressing me. I stopped watching the briefings before they stopped and I don’t watch them now. There are only so many slides of illness and death you can watch. I still watch the BBC and Channel 4 because I always have (I used to be a journalist), but if I’m down I pause the covid reports and forward through them. Sometimes I watch Newsnight for analysis, but it’s no longer compulsory viewing. I don’t trawl the internet for news like I did, except if it’s the US election.
For a while I felt the world was crashing to a halt. I almost wondered if my mother’s apocalyptic beliefs were right. Was Trump the anti-Christ? 2020 had fire and famine and plague and I swear I’d heard about locusts decimating crops somewhere. My anxiety got out of hand and I stopped sleeping. I have bipolar disorder and a lack of sleep can trigger an episode, so that added to my anxiety. My GP prescribed diazepam because that works for me, and it took the edge off and helped me to calm down and sleep. But even then I felt guilty resorting to benzos, even though I know they work for me and I’m careful to take them sparingly. My key worker has been amazing at keeping up the calls throughout, but it’s not the same as seeing her. My psychiatrist has been redeployed and I’ve had one phone call appointment with someone I don’t know. She was lovely, but it was brief and there was nothing she could really do to help me.
This sounds like a tale of woe, but there have been upsides too. Bubbling with my sister in law and her kids who I am very close to has got me through some of the toughest times. My 9 year old nephew and I spend a lot of time together, and even through this second lockdown I’ve been able to take him swimming. Last Sunday he asked if we could have time together every week and it made me feel loved and wanted and needed. Cuddling him makes me feel so good.
And my husband and I have grown closer working at home together. It could have gone either way, but we are so lucky to have the space to work separately, making each other coffee throughout the day to say hello. I’ll be working at home permanently, and I think he will be too (at least for the foreseeable future), so it’s just as well we get on!
We’re also lucky we have a garden, which is looking a lot better going into winter than it did last year. Our tree has gone almost full cycle, from the first green shoots appearing like hope at the start of lockdown to the last few golden leaves tenaciously hanging on. We’ve fed the birds throughout and from my desk I can watch them pecking at the seed and nuts. Tits, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, doves, a pair of pigeons and the occasional magpie. I’ve planted for winter colour, and put in snowdrops and bluebells to signal spring.
My work colleagues formed a WhatsApp group and we set each other challenges – who was wearing the smartest shoes, the geekiest childhood photo, show us what you had for lunch. We are closer apart than in the office.
For a while I did the banana bread thing and even managed one loaf of rather solid sourdough, but I haven’t learned a language, or cleaned the house from top to bottom or finished crocheting my lockdown blanket. I haven’t read every book on my list, or started a blog, or learned to podcast. But I did get through Tiger King, and a lot of Scandi Noir and the (fantastic) Queen’s Gambit.
I’ve joined a neighbourhood virtual book club with strangers who are becoming friends, I started calling a woman who was lonely at the start of lockdown after connecting on a neighbourhood app and found a fascinating person with many stories to tell me. I’ve done the family zoom quizzes. And my own family who have been separated so long by distance have started to come together via zoom, nieces and nephews wandering in and out or briefly connecting to say hello.
And for all the episodes of depression and anxiety, I’ve found a resilience I didn’t know I had. Who knows what the rest of 2020 has in store for us. Or whether 2021 will be any better. But I guess I’ll hang around to find out.