‘I’m Alright, I’m OK’ – Mental Health in the year of Covid 19

When someone asks you if you are all right, what is your normal response? Okay, thanks? Good, thanks? Not too bad, how about you? Something like that, I suspect. I usually say ‘I think so’. I started doing this a while back because things were shifting for me and I didn’t know how to answer the simple question. Of course, when people ask if you are okay, they expect a simple answer and they usually expect a yes. It’s not really a question of how you are – it’s a form of greeting. Hi, you all right? Hi, how are you?

We don’t really expect people to be honest. We don’t really want people to tell us the truth. We want a quick, yeah I’m fine, what about you? We don’t want them to tell us that they were just sat in the car crying, or that they haven’t slept properly in ages, or that the scars from the past have not healed and they are really just pretending the whole time.

For some reason, I always say ‘I think so’ and sometimes this makes people laugh, as if they think I am being funny. I’m not – I just don’t know the answer to the question and although I don’t want to burden them with the many ways in which I am really not okay, I also don’t want to grin and bear it and say the predictable, yeah, I’m great thanks, you?

Because the truth is, I don’t know if I am okay. Does anyone? So, I give the honest answer in that moment. I think so.

The other answer would be; ‘I’m trying to be.’ I might use that one next time someone asks me.

In the year of Covid 19, we’ve been asking each other how we are even more than usual and this time, we mean it. We don’t just say it as a greeting. We mean, are you all right? Are you doing okay? And this translates to; have you been furloughed? Have you been made redundant? Have you had the virus? Are you scared for your loved ones? Do you understand the latest government advice? How are you coping?

I expect that more of us are now answering ‘are you okay’ with, ‘I think so’ or ‘just about, yes.’ The thing about ‘okay’ is, it’s not great. It’s not awesome. It’s not bloody wonderful. It’s just…okay. Hanging in there. Surviving. That’s all of us about now, right?

‘Okay’ is also not bloody terrible, awful or about to fall apart. It’s just…okay.

Most days I am okay, I am all right. Some days I am very far from okay or all right. But something struck me today and made me want to write this post.

A few days ago I was very far from okay and it had nothing to do with the virus. It was because my perimenopausal hormones are completely insane. Short story – the next day I was better. The day after that better still. Today – okay. All right.

I went for a walk today with my beloved dogs and instead of walking them down the lane, I walked the other way along the road which flanks my back garden. Through the hedging and trees you can just about glimpse my garden and my life. You can see the washing hanging on the line. You can see the house and it’s windows and roof. You can see the lush, green grass which has grown too long. You can see the trees – the buddleia, the Oak, the sycamore and the apple trees. You can even see the fat round apples hanging on them. And this made me smile. I thought, if I didn’t live there and was just walking past, I would want to live there. And this is not an unusual thought; I think this all the time. I rent my house but I love it. It’s the best place I have ever lived in. I have always been grateful for it and I always smile when I place my hand on the wooden gate when returning home. I love returning home.

My house and garden reminded me again dring lockdown how fortunate we are. We have space to run, to hide and play, to climb trees, make dens, grow food, and keep chickens and ducks. We played The Floor is Lava for PE during home schooling, we had assault courses and obstacle courses. We built an army style survival den at the bottom of the garden and had mini fires there. We went on bug hunts, made mini habitats, built stone cairns, moulded clay faces onto the trees, chalked on the walls and the drive and made many, happy memories. I smiled when I saw my garden and my life from afar and I remembered those days in early lockdown, when everything closed and everyone stayed at home, when everyone was scared but brave, when another way of life was forced upon us.

And we did okay. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t always easy. But I was okay. I was all right. And now I seek to remind myself of this every time the dark days consume me. I survived that. I can do it again. ‘All right’ and ‘okay’ are not perfect either but they will do. Feeling okay is good enough sometimes. Maybe these are not the days in which to expect anything more.

Maybe these are the days in which we just survive, one way or another. Day by day, one day at a time. In England, we are undoubtedly approaching a second wave, just as we have been encouraged back to work, school, shops and the pub…Cases are rising again rapidly. We are also about to be forced off a cliff with an increasingly likely no-deal Brexit. We are all facing catastrophic climate change devastation if we don’t change our ways. It’s no wonder most of us are struggling to be more than just ‘okay’.

I’m a fan of the band Mother Mother, and one of my favourite songs is ‘It’s Alright.’ For me, it’s a song about mental health and not feeling too great. The verses are made up of anguished claims that suggest nothing is okay for this person…then the chorus chimes in with the refrain; ‘it’s alright, it’s okay, it’s alright, it’s okay…’ I’ve always found it comforting and I listen to it whenever I need to calm down. At the end of the song, the singer announces; ‘I’m alright, I’m okay, I’m alright, I’m okay…’ almost as if he has listened to the chorus and believed it. It’s just a nice calming song and I am going to constantly remind myself that being ‘okay’ in the year of Covid 19, Brexit and climate chaos is about all I can hope for and in its own way is a bloody miracle.

If you are just about okay, just about all right, you are not alone and all things considered, you are doing well. I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves or expect anything more.

It’s Alright by Mother Mother – (https://youtu.be/G5-KJgVsoUM)

(Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay)

You Don’t Have To Win At This…Clumsy Survival Will Be Just Fine

In the days leading up to the lockdown, my Facebook feed became full of well-meaning posts about how to survive. The ones I paid closest attention to initially were the home schooling ones. These were, at the time, quite reassuring so I saved them to special folder marked Home Education. But of course, schools have been just brilliant at providing everything we need to keep our children happy and learning. Mix that up with some physical exercise, some art, music and general mucking around and having fun, and I don’t think you can go far wrong.

With home schooling under control, the next thing I turned to was the influx of posts, emails and links urging people to get their businesses online and keep earning. As a self-employed person who suddenly found themselves out of work on 18th March, I started saving these too. I run a writing based business called Chasing Driftwood Writing Group. It started in 2017 but 2020 was shaping up to be my best year yet, with three new writing clubs to add to the three I already had established. Everything was going well.

Instantly I started seeing other self-employed people launching online content. I had no idea how, but surely my classes could continue online in some format? If I wanted to keep earning and keep my business going, I had to do this too, right? I started looking into Zoom and Skype and Microsoft Teams but that was as far as I got…

For so many of us, actually scratch that, for all of us humans on this planet right now, life has changed drastically. If there is one thing we can say it’s that at least we all know how other people feel because we are all experiencing this together. We’re not all in the same boat, obviously. Some of us live in mansions, some of us live in tower blocks. Some of us were already poor and struggling. Some of us never will. Some of us are safe at home while some of us are on the frontline in a variety of keyworker roles. But we are all affected by Covid19, lockdown and social distancing and by the ever present fear of one of our loved ones catching it.

I assumed I would be able to home school and keep working. I assumed I could do what everyone else was doing. I felt the pressure instantly. All these wonderful self-employed people popping up all over the internet, moving their classes online, producing quality content they could charge for, still earning! I was impressed and inspired and thought I could do it. I felt I should. I mean, the schools are closed until further notice. I have no idea when I can get back to running my writing classes!

Last week I had to admit defeat and let people who were waiting know that I won’t be doing anything online any time soon. I felt horrible doing this, like a total failure, but once I’d done it the pressure was off and the relief was immense.

We are all dealing with this differently. I’m an introverted homebody who isn’t really missing the outside world, or shopping, or traffic very much at all. I am generally loving home schooling my 5-year-old and I am spending so much time in the garden, its really having an impact. But this is still getting to me. The anxiety doesn’t really set in until my little one is in bed and then it’s just bizarre. I think everything I try to avoid thinking and feeling in the day hits me all at once.

I am exhausted by the time I get on the laptop. Of course, with the four kids here 24/7 there is no time in the day for my own writing, let alone working on anything business related.

I had every intention of keeping my business going. I wanted to create online content and videos but I just can’t, and I am learning to be okay with that. First I had to admit that as much as I knew I ought to, I just didn’t want to. And there were many reasons for that…exhaustion being one of them, lethargy, anxiety, take your pick. I feel bad about it but then I realised you can only do what you can do. You can only deal with one thing at a time and this is a weird old time. It’s bound to mess with our heads and our hearts.

The thing is in our society we have been led to believe that we can and should ‘do it all’. This is not just felt by women, but perhaps the childcare element often still falls disproportionately on their shoulders… Before lockdown, we were all running around like headless chickens. No time to stop and chat, forever apologising for not seeing friends or relatives enough, driving from here to there and back again, grabbing coffees for fuel, pumping our little metal prisons full of poisonous, expensive gas, pulling our weight, doing our bit, working hard, paying taxes and bills and rents, doing what we were told, being good citizens, breaking our backs and drinking too much wine. Sound familiar?

On top of that we were trying to reduce our carbon footprint, drive less, eat less meat and dairy, get enough exercise and look after our mental health as well as raise happy, confident and adaptable children, all while working at the same time, don’t forget!

Was it too much? I think maybe it was. And now? We are being asked to stay at home and stay safe, yet there on the internet gleams the ever present expectation that we should also be winning at this. Learning new skills, new languages, reading the classics, doing yoga, keeping fit, entertaining and educating the children, making meals from scratch on a reduced budget, training the dog, planting a garden AND getting our business online so we can keep earning!

Just today I scrolled my Facebook feed and felt a wave of guilt at the sight of so many motivational videos and tutorials urging people like me to create online content and sell it. I have read some of these. I have watched some of these videos. And then I have turned it off and gone to find out why my 5 year old is peeing off the side of the trampoline.

I just can’t do it. At least, not yet.

I don’t want to win at this. I just want to survive. Maybe I’m just not that driven by money, maybe I’m just not that ambitious. Maybe I am just really tired.

I want my kids to survive and I want their mental health to survive. I want my garden to survive and my sanity. However clumsy it may be, survival is fine. Winning is not required here.

Maybe you are feeling the pressure in other areas. Home schooling is another can of worms if you let it be. There is so much advice. So many posts and links and articles. So many well-meaning people suggesting this and that. If it stresses you out or makes you feel like a failure, ignore it. You are doing fine. Again, you don’t have to win at this. You won’t get a certificate. You just need to get through this and come out alive. It’s not a competition. Some of us are barely holding it together but we will come out smiling, I swear.

So if you would rather dig your garden than watch a tutorial or webinar on how to build your online business I salute you.

If you would rather lie in the bath and drink wine than join a Zoom coversation, just go right ahead. Guilt free.

If you would rather do Just Dance with a 5 year old than PE Joe, don’t you worry about it. If you want to let your small child play with the hose by themselves until the garden is mud, I’m not going to judge you. And if that same child is offered the x-box as a bribe so that you can sit on the doorstep and enjoy a cup of tea in peace, you’re just human and surviving the best you can.

We won’t all come out of this as winners, and we shouldn’t aim to if that stresses us out in an already stressful situation. Survival is all that is required.

Writing, Running, Habit and Obsession

I was once a fat kid obsessed with writing. Back then, real life was just about tolerable if I had my imaginary one to escape to. For I had discovered a magical and powerful thing. Writing could do anything. Writing could take me anywhere. And I was in control. I could have whatever fun I wanted; invent new friends adventures, create whole worlds if I wanted to. If I look back now I can see that need for control was a big factor. A shy fat kid in the middle of a dysfunctional family does not have much control, if any. A shy fat kid at school has even less. But in writing? The shy fat kid can do whatever the hell she wants, because she owns this! It’s liberating, I can tell you. And for many, many years after that, writing was my addiction and my obsession.

I’d endure school and then run home after, up to my room to write. I’d carry notebooks everywhere so that given the chance I could vanish into another world and write. I’d write past my bedtime and first thing in the morning.

Writing was all I ever wanted to do and anything else was just an annoyance and a distraction. Including exercise. I hated PE as a kid. I was chubby and awkward and shy and despised having people watch me fail at something. At least with other subjects at school you can thrive or fail in private, but PE is kind of cruel because your failures are obvious for all to see.

Chubby kids who like reading and writing and being alone shun exercise for obvious reasons and in return what happens? Yep, they get chubbier. Which makes them even less likely to exercise in front of anyone and even more likely to hide in their room with a notebook and pen for as long as they can get away with. What you have is a vicious circle that as a child, you have no idea how to break out from.

And self-loathing builds and builds. I’m not sure what finally made me embrace exercise. With no money, I was limited for choice, so running seemed the best option. I’d always hated running! Though to be honest, it was more the thought of anyone seeing me that was the problem. The estate I grew up on had a horseshoe sized ‘green’ enveloping one side of it. I could access this from the back gate and run around the backs of the houses in a loop. I think I set myself a goal of three times a week but when I started to notice the results, I soon upped that to daily. And I developed a habit, much like my writing one, that benefited my mental health as well as my physical.

They say that to form a habit you must do something every day for 30 days. What started as a habit with running soon became an obsession that I started to view the same way I viewed writing. I had to do it. If I didn’t do it, I didn’t feel good. It would ruin my day. I felt like bad things would happen. I’d lost a lot of weight, between that and some very silly eating habits at the time that haunted me into adulthood, and I really, really, really did not want to risk ever putting that weight back on. I’d been fat and life had been hell. I never ever wanted to be that girl again.

I sometimes wonder where I would have ended up had I not become a mother at the age of 24. I think my obsession with running and my growing fear of food would have got worse. I think I would have carried on writing and possibly would have got published a lot sooner than I did. I don’t think I would ever have let either of my obsessions go.

But motherhood changed everything and rightly so. I was now amazed at my body and in awe of what it had done. When one little girl became two, I had my hands full at a young age, and I also knew that I shouldered a huge responsibility here. I did not want my problems with food and weight and body image rubbing off on them. Writing fell by the wayside. Hard to believe that now, but it really did. I was far too exhausted, overwhelmed and obsessed with my new life as a mother. I was in love and there just wasn’t the time or the energy.

Over the next decade, I had a third child and I sporadically forced myself to run and write. I tried and failed and tried and failed to develop those habits again. I told myself I did not have the time or the energy for either. I told myself I was wary of getting obsessed with them both again, because that wouldn’t be good for my children. And this all went well for a while. I was too busy to consider anything else.

Writing came back to me, or I came back to writing, I’m never sure which way around it was, in the summer of 2011. My then youngest child was due to start school that September and at the time there was no plan to have any more. I suddenly felt horribly afraid and set adrift. I didn’t want him to go to school as not only was I losing my last baby, I was losing the identity I had spent the last decade carving out. Chantelle, the mother.

I hadn’t forgotten about the old me…I just didn’t think she was relevant anymore. I still remember the moment my writing whooshed back into my head, and it was kind of blunt, terrible and painful. I was reading a book and the young character in it reminded me of a character I had created and believed in when I was just 12. I’d written and rewritten his story many times over the years…could I do it again? Could I write again? Was I a writer? As a child and teen that was all I had identified as, but it had been gone so long, did I have any right to try to reclaim it?

I started writing again after finishing the book that had reminded me of my long lost character. I was so embarrassed at first, I wrote in a notepad and hid it if anyone walked in the room. I didn’t dare tell anyone what I was up to because I was suffering badly from imposter syndrome! And I wrote every day, without fail and that built the habit back up and the habit soon became an obsession again. It devoured me. I started writing every evening without fail and any other spare moment I had. I started this crazy, up and down writing and publishing journey and the arrival of a fourth child did nothing to slow me down and I have not looked back. I could never, ever stop writing now. I still can’t believe I let it go for so long…

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

— Franz Kafka

But what about running? Could I claim that obsession back too and was it healthy or sensible to even try? Over the last year or so I’ve noticed major fluctuations in my mood which I am now blaming on the perimenopause. If you’ve not heard of the perimenopause, don’t worry, neither had I, and I will be blogging about this another day. In short simple terms, its the period of time before the actual menopause and women start suffering from a variety of symptoms that for a while, they probably won’t attribute to anything other than life stress.

I don’t want to go into it too much in this post but the way I had been feeling for no real reason, was very, very similar to how I felt as a teenager. That intensity of mood and emotion that can shift at the slightest thing. Intrusive thoughts about how rubbish I am, cruel thoughts about how pointless my life is. Lovely stuff like that. Incredible anger. Deep sadness. And most of all? Just wanting to be alone. The worrying thing was the effect on my mental health, particularly before I did some research and found out about the perimenopause. I was feeling horrible, to put it mildly. I was crying a lot for no reason. I was focusing on body image more than I had done in a very long time, and given my past issues, this was not a good thing.

One night I was sat writing and crying when I suddenly felt the most powerful urge to move. To get up and run. It was like my mind telling me to get the hell out of there and move. It seemed stupid and my other mind tried to talk me out of it. I was too tired, it was nearly dark and so on. But I ignored that one and I did it.

Now, what normally happens with me and running since I became a mother almost 17 years ago, is I can keep it up for a bit and aim for 3 times a week, not be too hard on myself etc, but that’s not enough to build a habit. Inevitably I miss a few, and that turns into missing a few weeks and the weeks turn into months, just like what used to happen with writing.

This time? I have decided to run every single day without excuses. I do have the time. It’s 20 minutes usually. I have managed to stick at this for over a week now and the difference in my mood is astounding. I have not felt down, sad or angry once this week. I have felt more energetic, more motivated, more rational than I have in a long time. I feel proud of myself too. And we’re not very good at that are we? But I am proud of myself. It feels good. It feels right.

We all know that exercise is good for our mental health, and most of us know that writing is also good for it. Very good, I’d argue. If I can manage to hold onto both of these habits (yet try to stop them becoming obsessions) then I will be very happy indeed and heading in the right direction. I just might be able to get through this perimenopause thing unscathed and have the energy and mind power to deal with the actual menopause!