Welcome to March’s mental health column by writer and author Beth McColl, where she reflects, a year on from the first UK lockdown, WTAF has happened in the last 12 months. Beth is the author of ‘How to Come Alive Again’ which is a relatable and honest practical guide for anyone who has a mental illness. She’s also a v funny gal on Twitter.
I had to Google when the first UK lockdown began. It feels like I should have known, should have stored the date wherever I keep the rest of the strange and traumatic information. But when I tried to think back I found only a handful of patchy memories. I remember a lot of BREAKING NEWS. A lot of rumours forwarded between group chats. A lot of late nights refreshing Twitter. And then somewhere in the fog of March, the first shutdown was announced. As a nation, we were doing some decisive measures. We’d all stay in for a bit so the scientists could send the virus back to Hell, then we’d be back at the pub, snogging and sharing a big bag of crisps before we could say ‘R Rate at an acceptable level.’
It didn’t happen like that. It didn’t happen like that at all.
Almost a year on and I still don’t know exactly how I feel about was has happened. I can’t find the language for what it’s been like. I get jolts of clarity: this really happened. I think. This is happening still. It’s disorienting to constantly have to stabilise yourself. On a personal level, I’ve felt tested in every way. At some moments I’ve felt like I was rising to the occasion, doing a solid job of surviving and coping, and staying well. At others, I’ve felt more loss and unhappiness than I thought it possible for my body to contain. If that sounds dramatic it’s because it is quite dramatic. A pandemic will do that to a person. But it’s also true. This last year has been a shitter. It’s broken me open. I lost work and struggled to find more. I couldn’t sleep or get out of bed and for a time my anxiety became unmanageable, unbearable, the biggest and loudest thing in every single room. Even now I’m a bit more used to it I’m struggling. I’m so bored of the walls of my house. I miss my nan. I want to kiss a stranger. I long to go to TK Maxx and spend a fortune on experimental face ointments. Holding all of this at once- the big and the small and the serious and the silly- is hard work.
At times it doesn’t feel like I have any real ownership over my discomfort or sadness, because we’re all in this ‘together’, all somewhere on the same arc of unhappiness and loss. This thing happened to us all, but it did not happen to us all in the same way. Some are at the sharpest point of the arc, grieving acutely and deeply, and some are further along it, having lost something, but not the thing. Some of us can go back home, and some of us cannot. For those whose loved ones lived, whose livelihoods were mostly safe, whose housing or health or income wasn’t compromised, it’s easy to look ahead to the reopening as a kind of firm end point. And that’s okay! It’s not nothing to have spent a year or more inside, separated from loved ones, worrying all the time, and it’s wonderful to have a glimmer of normalcy and celebration. But it’s also important we don’t pretend that those of us who were spared were simply spared by luck or good behaviour. Privilege has been a shield, and even as we come to terms with our own suffering, we must also look directly at the inequality and injustice at play.
A lot won’t end when the pandemic ends, and though reuniting with our loved ones and being able to do things will be wonderful, a return to normal life isn’t as simple as rolling out a vaccine and getting an infection rate under control. This year has taken a toll, and it’s important we don’t scold ourselves for having complex feelings about what happened and what is still happening. A year or so ago we didn’t know what it was like to live through a pandemic. Now we do. There’s not an undo button on that knowledge. There are costs incurred, and it’s okay if it’s hard for you to find peace or excitement about the relaxing of rule.
I don’t think that we have to feel one way about any of this. It’s complex and we’re all learning on the job. Better times may be closer than ever, but there’s still a distance to travel. Regret is normal. Bewilderment and detachment and anger are normal. Disbelief is normal. Make space for it all, and don’t invite more misery by telling yourself off for being human. What is ahead is ahead whether or not you can picture it clearly just yet. Hope and happiness and relief. A hand held in another hand. Your masks back in the drawer, not needed for now. A proper hello, a proper goodbye. A wedding. A date. A busy bar. A hug. A kiss on the cheek. A beer garden. All of your people, right where you can see them, right where they should be. Different, maybe forever, but together at last.