OVER BY CHRISTMAS
The first intimation of trouble comes when my manager phones me on my mobile, at home, at around 9.30 pm. “You’re on the at-risk list,” she says, “so you need to be working from home from now on.” What puts me on that list is my Type 2 diabetes; the other conditions I have, which are not so visible (but which will be as challenging to cope with) are my fibromyalgia, depression and social anxiety. A week later, the Prime Minister addresses us all, telling us that we are in full lockdown and that we must stay indoors unless shopping for food or medicines, any medical need, or one set of exercise a day.
Every moment for the next few months after that is full of anxiety. I get very little sleep that night, going over what this is likely to mean. It’s not just me I have to think about, as I live with (and am a carer for) my elderly mother. The following day, I check our stores of food and medicines and calculate roughly how long we could last with our existing supplies. I always keep some stocks, in case either of us is too ill to go out. The situation is not desperate, but our meagre cache will not last very long.
My extended family, who I would normally turn to in times of crisis, have problems of their own. Two of them are on the shielding list and the third is trying to provide care for the other two, so I don’t want to add to his workload. One neighbour delivers a note with her phone number on to offer us help, but the rest ignore us.
The first challenge is trying to work from home at the same time as dealing with the practicalities of lockdown. When are food shops likely to be quietest, and what happens if that is right in the middle of my working day? My employer is flexible, luckily, but the pressure is still huge to juggle the conflicting demands on my time. My appetite disappears. In the first week, I lose two pounds in weight.
Mum and I have both had a Will and Power of Attorney set up for some time, so we have already had the conversations about our healthcare wishes should we be in a position not to make them known. The expectation was that, in the normal scheme of things, she would die first and would leave everything to me. Now there is a real chance of that order being reversed, or of us both dying at a similar time. I write a set of instructions for our executor, apologising that things may be messy if I have not had time to clear things up, and e-mail that to her in case she has any questions. I look at my possessions in a different light now – I resolve that I need to let go of stuff that I am keeping, that I no longer have any use for. I make a start on clearing things and sorting things into bags, but realise that as all the charity shops are closed, there is nowhere to dispose of them, so I give it up.
My fibromyalgia and social anxiety mean that I have little in the way of social life, so I do not immediately notice the Government-enforced removal of it. My only feeling about the removal of social contact is that maybe other people might now understand what life is like for me – to not be able to go out (even though you may want to) and to be afraid of other people in a social environment. What has changed is that the safety net that made my disability easier to cope with has now disappeared – it is impossible to get a supermarket delivery, and taxis are at a premium. Getting food now means a long wait, queueing in a wind-swept car park, and there are no guarantees that what you want will be available when you get into the store – panic buyers have stripped the shelves, and there is no priority for the old and vulnerable. I am prescribed paracetamol as a treatment for fibromyalgia, and pre-lockdown the NHS had suggested I start and buy my own to save it money. Now, you cannot buy paracetamol over the counter anywhere, so it is a godsend that my prescriptions for it are still allowed. I used to have a sense of security, that I could manage the necessary things. Now that feeling of control has completely gone, and I am unsettled and unnerved.
I watch the news and search the internet for instruction. I realise there is little chance of setting up the recommended “quarantine area” within the house if one of us were to fall prey to the virus; we just have not got the spare space. I dread the thought of bringing it into the house and infecting my Mum. The number of cases and the death toll rise daily. I start noting in my appointment diary where I have been, in case contact tracing is necessary. I think it unlikely that any of them will count, as my contacts are all fleeting and conducted at a distance.
My sleep suffers – I either cannot get to sleep or wake early, my mind whirling with the fear that today will be the day I develop COVID-19. Worry piles on worry and there seems to be no comfort.
Not being able to go out means that my Mum and I now have no personal space between us. We do our best to be mindful of each other, to not indulge in those small irritating habits that could explode into a major disagreement. I watch every word I say, and everything I do, as there will be no escape if we argue. Each additional ask is like the drip of water on stone, wearing me down atom by atom.
Continuing to work means that I have some routine to my day, and it forces me to get up in the morning at my usual time. The first few weeks prove challenging as I am a technological dinosaur. My employer has provided everyone with standard IT kit to use at home, but as I do not have Wi-Fi it is useless. I have a personal laptop, but I am on pay-as-you-go internet access. I apply to change to contract, but there is a delay in starting it, so my bills suddenly soar; whatever I saved on commuting costs goes on internet charges. I struggle with trying to configure my laptop to access my employer’s systems (multiple new software downloads, trying to work out how to get my video camera to work) and because it is a personal laptop, our IT department will not help me. The new way of working via Teams and Zoom meetings sets my heart racing and my palms sweating. I tussle with the etiquette of camera and microphone settings, worry whether the background view is inappropriate, and wince at the amount of data these meetings consume to what seems to be no great purpose. When one of these virtual gatherings has ended, I feel overwhelmed and psychologically drained.
A month passes. I lose more weight.
For the sake of my mental health, I have stopped watching the news quite so often. I try to distract myself, to crowd out the negative thinking: re-read familiar books; watch old films; indulge in creative writing; sign up for short online courses that sound interesting, such as How to Create a Poem and Psychological First Aid in Pandemics. All of us at work are struggling to adjust to the new remote working, but there is a sense that we are facing the challenge together. The way we work is having to change, and we have to try alternative ways of communicating every day. I do not adjust to change well; I take longer these days to do things differently. It seems I just get used to one thing when someone suggests that it is not working, and something else takes its place. My fear of failing starts to kick in.
Friendships outside of work have altered too. I know that circles of friends have had to shrink as priorities shift, but I am shocked at how many of the people I considered friends now ignore my emails and texts. It is sobering to realise that I do not make the cut. My self-esteem was never very high to start with, and this makes it plummet further. There is a sense of being completely on my own and that community spirit has disappeared. I wonder if everyone feels like this, or whether it is a reflection on my worth to the wider community. The thought crosses my mind that few people would notice or care if I became one of the COVID-19 death statistics.
Two months in. Lockdown is easing. Cases are falling. My weight loss has stopped. The Government publishes a roadmap for our way out of the pandemic, but I look at it with deep suspicion and a sinking feeling. It seems far too simplistic to suggest that we will be able to go back to normal life within the next few months. The virus is only lurking, and will mercilessly take advantage of any carelessness. “Over by Christmas” – where have I heard that before?
Three months on. My constant worry now at work is that I am falling further behind my colleagues in adjusting to home working, and I am letting the team down. I realise that a lot of the interactions I used to get my information from – overhearing other people, water cooler conversations – have disappeared, and online meetings do not provide the same informal environment. I don’t feel that I get the information I need to have any hope of succeeding at the tasks I’m being given. Processes change and I am not kept informed, so I keep doing the wrong thing, and if I ask to be kept updated, I am told I am being troublesome. I feel marginalised, and I get angry. That breaks down further the fragile relationships that I have with my colleagues. I am told I have no empathy, but empathy is a two-way process, and my fears do not appear to be being heard.
Four months on. Because of a security update by my employer, my access to work files via my laptop stops working properly and I no longer have access to Teams. Eventually, they agree to provide me with a laptop which has built-in mobile internet access; but once delivered, there is another round of trying to get used to a new operating system and more new software to allow me to make telephone calls through my laptop. My colleagues have all been using this software since the start of working from home, but I am late adopting it. The stress piles on. I feel like a hamster on a treadmill, and long to be able to get off.
Six months on. Cases rise again, to a level seen in the first wave of the pandemic. I feel that I have gone back to the beginning and that the last six months have been wasted. The worries that eased with the easing of lockdown are returning with a vengeance.
When I look back, I am rather disappointed in myself. I have not discovered some inner fund of resilience that I did not know I had; I have not expanded or grown, learned how to play the violin or wrote a novel. I have been more fortunate than some, I know. The only thing I can claim is that I have muddled through and survived so far. And that is the best I can keep doing right now.