It arrived slowly. We saw it. But perhaps, we didn’t want to see it. Mid-March we started making plans at work. Who would need to be prioritised. Where we would need to focus our concerns about co-morbid conditions. I remember a planning meeting just before Johnson’s first statement, we had the ideas, the plans, the priorities set. I went home. Over the next week, it became real. We saw what Covid-19 looked like up close. More staff were sick, more shifted, if they were able, to homeworking. Although we’d seen it coming, it felt very fast when it arrived, just before the national lockdown.
Everything changed in some ways. It was fairly early, still in March, that the first people I knew, although not close to me, had experiences of this new illness, and then, I heard about people I knew, dying. I was scared. I knew I had to keep working. But I was frightened for myself and my family as I worked. It felt hard to concentrate on the tasks that needed to be completed. But I was aware I was one of the NHS workers constantly lauded in the press, on the doorsteps, on the news.
I was a part of this but I was removed. I was not on a ward, like the doctors or nurses, but had been deemed ‘non-essential’ and at risk of ‘increasing foot fall’ so was consigned to an office in the hospital, watching the nurses and doctors I worked alongside, struggling, battling with this virus and the increased restrictions and stress that came from it. I saw the very best. But I was not part of it. I was both supporting but also removed as I tried to work through it.
It was during one of our regular reflective practice sessions, that had moved online, that I felt worst. Listening to the ward staff talk about how they had felt abandoned by the rest of the multi-disciplinary team, of which I am a part, but how they could not but come on to the ward, face their fears, put their own health and the health of their families on the line, while I dialled in from home. That we were able to have this conversation in the open, despite its pain, was a testament to the strength of the team.
My neighbour, spotting me as I passed her house as she put out the bins, asked me why she hadn’t seen me clapping on my doorstep.
‘I work for the NHS’, I replied, wearily. She gave me a round of applause.
It was the easiest thing to say but inside I felt like an utter fraud. I could not and still cannot find words to encapsulate my gratitude for my colleagues who worked through this, but ‘claps for the NHS’ made me feel like I was benefitting from the positives without experiencing the negatives.
But it was hard.
In other times of such turmoil in my life, bereavements, sickness, I have turned to my friends and colleagues for support and have been offered this back. Now, it felt like we were all going through a collective bereavement.
People were seeing friends and family get sicker. Even those whose families and networks were not directly affected, felt the grief of a loss of expectations and hopes.
Birthdays were cancelled, religious festivals like Easter, Passover, Eid and Diwali – and eventually, Christmas, were cancelled. The hopes we had and the expectations that we had were lost. Normality has changed. We are of a generation which will never know what it’s like not to fear a pandemic as a reality in the future.
But amid the despair, the endless spring mornings which seemed to be clothed in a shroud of morning dew which brought with it a lack of hope. A sameness that left a dull numb feel when the same streets were pounded every day for that spark of light, we did, perhaps find new ways to survive.
I reconnected with two of my oldest friends. Initially a telephone chat, became a zoom chat and then became a scheduled weekly zoom chat. Through the highs and lows, through the loss, rediscovery of why the friendship was there in the first place, through honest discussions about values, racism, our own families and practices, we reconnected in a way that would never have been possible from a point of meeting a couple of times a year, to speaking for an hour and more, every week.
We found consolation in the smallness of my physical world. The parks near my house, the communities which I inhabited. I even explored finding new communities in which to involve myself in. We found that ‘community’ can have many different meanings, physically and virtually, when we surround ourselves with people who can support us.
It has also helped me because more aware of where the gaps in community are, and how we can bridge them. It isn’t always possible but an awareness of where and who is missing in the communities we form has always been as important that those within them.
‘Leave no one behind’, we can say it but we need to know who the ‘no ones’ are before we can ensure they are not left behind. There are the local facebook groups, the NextDoor groups, the faith groups, the hobby groups. Social media, for all it’s known ills, can be a source of great comfort as well, and the benefits cannot be overlooked again for those who cannot engage ‘offline’.
I wasn’t able to focus on knowledge acquisition, reading became difficult as my concentration faded and I managed to fill my evenings with ‘television that wasn’t the news’ in an attempt to switch off. I’m not the ‘Shakespeare writing King Lear’ type. I’m the ‘getting through Schitt’s Creek and starting from the beginning as soon as I’ve finished’ type’ but finding the ‘happy places’ is a precious thing and knowing what makes them happy places, even more so.
Maybe we each had more chances to find ourselves. I have missed so much. People, friends, family, places. Hopes, expectations, time. 2020 will, to me, be a year filled with fear, pain, distress and confusion. But it will also be a year I rediscovered what it is to be a part of something much bigger. What is it to live through history and see the world unfolding. To see sadness, despair and fear and to live through it.
When asked about my greatest accomplishment in 2020, I think I’d say ‘getting through it’. I’m a mental health professional, maybe I should be stronger or more hopeful. I have shown my fear and vulnerability this year in ways that I had not expected to.
I know that each day I get through, is a day nearer to this year being a memory, a day closer to knowing I have got through it. Yes, with loss, with pain but it means that the ‘next’ will be better. We cannot understand the joys of having if we have not experienced the depths of not-having.
I have learnt what good leadership, on a local level and on a larger, national and supra-national level can look like but more sharply, what bad leadership looks like. I have learnt to be cautious of ‘facts’ presented without evidence. I hope I was always that way inclined, but this year has made me much more suspicious about what ‘truth’ is.
My plans, my expectations, my hopes have changed. Here, in December, we don’t know what will be waiting for us in the new year, and on balance, I think I would rather not know. I don’t think I could have got through this far, if I had known, in March, I would be where I am now. That we would be where we are now. But we know, each day, is a day closer to the end of this, and that’s as much as we can do to get through it.
This 2020 has been a year clouded in fear, anxiety and sadness. I think there is a communal trauma which we experience but as well, many many different individual traumas that we are all experiencing.
I try to think about what will come next, both for myself and for my work, as someone working in mental health. I see the changes around me, but I know it is not something I can depersonalise either. This is our trauma. This is an event which will define our nation. We will never not know fear. We will never not know how quickly our expectations and our lives can be changed. This may not be a bad thing, but it will always be ‘a thing’.
Regarding moving on, the only way I can get through it is by taking each day, without expectations, without putting pressure on myself, at the very least, and seeing each day that I finish, that I complete as an accomplishment which takes me nearer being able to see this as ‘the past’.