How has the Coronavirus Pandemic affected my mental health?
I guess I should have known this time could happen. After all we have been told we were due a worldwide pandemic for years and it has been over 100 years since the Spanish Flu Pandemic, in which my Great Aunt died.
However, nothing could have prepared me for the reality of it.
Prior to the pandemic I can’t say I enjoyed good mental health. I first suffered with Anorexia Nervosa as a teenager. I spent the following 20 years mostly in recovery, with the odd year or two of slipping back into it’s grasp, during which time I was blessed with my two children. A 22 year old daughter and a 14 year old son.
My anorexia returned in 2011, following an incredibly traumatic year in which I was divorced and realised I would have to sell my family home before the bank claimed it.
During the years since I have been engulfed by the illness and seen my weight drop to the point I was skeletal. During this time I developed depression again along with anxiety and suicidal thoughts. I also developed PTSD as a result of an extremely traumatic event.
As the pandemic started, I was in a position where I had gained a good amount of weight (on my own as I had to leave ED treatment for non-compliance), had medication keeping the depression in check and had monthly clinical supper from my wonderful GP as well as emotional and practical support from my Church family.
On lockdown day 1, I was sent home from my voluntary job at church and told all the services and groups would end for the unforeseeable future. My initial thoughts were that it would only be short term. I don’t think it really sunk in about the gravity of the situation. My daughter, a ballerina in Paris, had already entered lockdown and was able to update me daily on their situation.
I decided I could do this! 7 day weekends and not having to set the alarm seemed like a dream come true (especially given the wonderful early Summer weather).
It did not take long, however, for the anxiety to set in. I soon realised that we would be in this for the long haul and there was nothing I could do about it.
I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like, in my flat (albeit beautiful) with my 14 year old son and my cat. It dawned on me that my routine and role in church were the reasons I had been able to control my conditions, to a degree. It was soon to become apparent that the anorexia controlled me and not the other way round!
The first couple of days were surreal as I tried to take in our new “normal”. Normal was to become my 14 year old son isolating in his bedroom, as teenage boys are want to do, and my cat becoming more attached to me in eternal gratitude for having me to wait on his every need 24/7.
The came the first Friday evening in lockdown. For many years I have “lived” for Friday evenings when I head to the home of my, also divorced, best friend. We drink wine and laugh and cry together. We are like close sisters and all of a sudden our Fridays were to become very different. This is when my anxiety first took hold. I started to experience feelings of panic. How could I get through this without my best friend? Her hugs, her laughs and also our weekly “craft therapy” sessions on a Wednesday? Having someone to really share life with?
My panic only increased as it came round to Sunday. Sunday. Church service day. Time to worship and to enjoy the fellowship over a coffee after. Gone. Building firmly locked and congregation scattered to their abodes. Unthinkable.
Very early on Church set up the family service online at the usual time. I could not bring myself to join in. Friends tried to pursuade me but depression had filled the gap and I told them I simply couldn’t handle it.
I found myself becoming withdrawn. I couldn’t handle this at all. As my son was home with me a new “change” happened. Lunch. Lunch happened. I don’t eat lunch. Breakfast either for that matter. Now I found I was making lunch for my son and I had to join him. If I didn’t he would inform my daughter in Paris. I don’t think he knows about my anorexia? My daughter assured me he does.. how could I give him another reason to worry about on top of missing his routine and friends? So I introduced lunch into my new normal. This fuelled my anorexia. I could almost hear the laughter over the fact I was so weak willed. Stuck in the house AND eating lunch. “You are going to balloon” the voice laughed. “You can’t get anything right can you? You are so worthless”. Did I challenge the voice? Of course I didn’t. Cue my brain going into overdrive trying to think of ways to compensate for the extra calories. The answer came in the form of an exercise bike. Perfect! Wouldn’t even need to leave the house! The weather couldn’t prevent me from this exercise! So I started with half an hour a day... then 45 minutes.. an hour... an hour and a half.... it keeps creeping up... (I use the present tense as this is where I am now). As the exercise increases so the lunch calorie intake reduces. Then the dinner calorie content reduces..... my muscles start to hurt, my Achilles’ tendons feel stretched and painful but I must keep going.
Despite the mental torment, glimmers of hope have started to infiltrate my days. I decided I would join in the online worship after all. I spent the first three or four services in tears. To be able to see loved friends but not to be able to hug them was very difficult . I became more depressed at the thought that everyone had a partner or other family with them and I was effectively on my own with my cat (son appearing only for food). So it was a double edged sword. The joy of the familiarity of our family communion service (even reserved some red wine and a crumb of bread for that part!), but the anxiety of not really being present.
By this point I was also starting to really look forward to my Friday evenings once more. Yes! My friend and I had cottoned on to the joy of “virtual wine evenings”! We would count the hours down until it reached 7pm when a video call would set us up for hours of chat over a worryingly large amount of wine. The only problem was that, without taxis to worry about, it would suddenly be 3am before we knew it! Naturally this meant many hours of wine. Anorexia didn’t like that. More restricting ensued in the days following each Friday night.
During these long weeks of lockdown I age tried to be brave. My relatives back in the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic didn’t have social media. They didn’t even have a tv. They must have been terrified, not knowing what was going on as relatives and friends dropped like flies. They didn’t have advice or words of comfort during their time of trial. It must have felt apocalyptic.... as indeed it has done with this Pandemic. “If they could do it then so must I!” I kept telling myself. If only.
To social media. This has been a saviour and a burden at the same time. Good for my mental health yet bad for my mental health. I feel so conflicted. I find myself pouring over Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and even snapchat. Before I know it, three hours can have passed in the blink of an eye. I have started excitedly, anxious to absorb every photograph, video, bit of news and every joke. This has kept me going all morning! Marvellous! Half the day gone in a flash! Result! Then comes the afternoon session. I am now taking in all the family activities that have happened, the daily family walks in beautiful settings. Friends looking fresh faced. THIN. HAPPY. Why do I lack the motivation to go for a daily walk? Is it because I know my walk will be alone? Yes. That’s it. I have tried to go for walks and every time I do my depression increases as I pass couples holding hands, family groups smiling, children who still want to be seen in public with their parents. The friends who are thin AND happy? How do they manage it? They eat. They are still thin. Their every thoughts are not consumed by fear of the calorie content of every morsel. They enjoy their food. I love food but I am not worthy of such pleasures. My body wobbles. It’s disgusting. I can’t see what my friends see. Not at all. They are happy? How can people actually be happy right now? Oh yes! They have husbands, wives, children (who want to be seen with them... unlike my own) and probably a family dog. Faithful and adoring.
So I turn off the social media and turn to the television. More Pandemic updates. More deaths. More protests. More repeats of tired shows as we gradually run out of freshly filmed material. How much more can I take?
I have now discovered a huge change in myself. Something of such epic proportions I never thought it could happen. I don’t want to go out. What? Yes. Really. I have lost all motivation. It’s easier to stay on the sofa, or the essential exercise bike, all day. I have become institutionalised in my own four walls. It’s a beautiful world out there. Thanks but I can’t be bothered to be a part of it right now. Motivation zero. I find myself playing scenes from my past over and over in my mind. Through rose tinted glasses of course. You don’t develop anorexia, depression, anxiety and ptsd over a perfect life after all. Images of the past, how I saw it, leave me weeping. Literally. Large tears working their way down my sunken cheeks.
Right now there are small but meaningful changes. Tomorrow is Friday. I will not be video calling my best friend. I will be booking that taxi, buying that wine and throwing my arms round her in my new “support bubble” safe haven. A glimmer in the dark times!
I do not know when life will return to normal or even if it ever will?
We are all living this pandemic through our own eyes, in our own way. No two stories are the same. There are plenty of sad times but equally there are plenty of heartwarming stories emerging.
This is the biggest trial any of us have had to face. It is hard to be strong in these times.
For those of us who have mental health conditions and for those who go on to develop mental health issues during this time, this journey will be immensely difficult.
What will I take from this time? I am not entirely sure. I do know that anorexia is the victor, however. Exposure to so many stories and newsfeeds brimming with comments about “lockdown weight gain” and so many jokes on the subject, has left me in terror over every extra “wobbly bit”. I feel sick as I regard myself in the mirror. I feel disgusted that I have allowed myself to eat those lunches and to drink too much wine. From now on I will listen to my friend anorexia. In these changing times they are a constant and therefore a bringer of comfort in this unfolding time of history...