What is wrong with me?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times. It’s a question that most people who experience mental health difficulties ask themselves. Especially in the early days. When maybe they don’t realise what’s going on.

It’s not just a mental illness thing. There are so many people living with experiences, symptoms, they don’t understand. That we wish we could have explained and hopefully fixed. That is what we are lead to believe happens. You get sick. You get symptoms. You take your symptoms to a wise doctor. They believe you, investigate, identify and issue a nice little prescription to make it all better.

But of course we know life is seldom like that.

I’ve spent 30 years trying to understand “what is wrong with me” or “why am I the way I am?”. I’ve never got far with doctors, but then so much of what I feel is wrong is hard to explain, express. And seeing as I have been mostly functional, most of the time – it’s no one’s priority. Unless it gets in the way of work, no one seems to care. No matter that you live your life in pain, discomfort or emotional torment. No matter that you have no energy and cannot for the life of you manage to keep things in order for more than two days together, and you battle with self destructive urges every day of the week.

I’m having a bad day. Part of a bad week, bad month – unsurprising having gone through such a momentously rubbish year.

I feel much like I used to feel. Last night was spent alternating between on the one hand lying awake, in pain, feeling tense and sad and trying not to spiral. I can’t use twitter as a benign distraction any more because the world makes me sadder. Or more accurately more frightened. On the other hand when I did sleep I got fitful, terrifying dreams. I can’t remember them now, but I woke with sorrow in my chest. That kind of waking where you open your eyes and feel more tired than you have ever felt. You can’t even move your face. You stare at whatever happens to be in front of you, heavy lidded. You will yourself to move but your body doesn’t listen. Your body feels like it is still asleep. Only a notch up from sleep paralysis. You feel the guilt and self loathing begin to rise.

Not this again. Why can’t I just be normal?

Photo by Cris Saur on Unsplash

When people say that people with depression can’t get out of bed, I really don’t think some people get it. I mean yes – there are days when I am “only” so down that I don’t want to get out of bed. That it feels pointless, or frightening. That I know I’m going to be no use to myself or anyone so I might as well stay where it is safe and dark and warm. But those are not the worst days for me. The worst is when I want to move, and try to move, wanting to shake it off – but just can’t. It takes hours. Like turning the key in the ignition over and over and over until finally the engine starts. And every action from there on in takes herculean effort.

About three days in every month I am organised. I am a whirlizer of tidying and cleaning, and admin and sorting thing out and getting things done. And then slowly it all falls apart. Washing mounts up, dishes gather either dirty or on the draining board, somehow never making it to the next stage. I just about manage to keep doing what I absolutely have to do. Working. Emails. Feed cats and us. But I see around me everything I am not doing and I feel shame and sadness that I can’t be who I want to be, can’t have the life I want to have.

What is wrong with me? Knowing what I know now, I do at least give myself some slack. Executive dysfunction can be a big part of Depression. We don’t just do things. Same as a rocket doesn’t just launch. We have to put a hundred things in place in the right order to complete any task, either literally – like having a cup of tea:
recognise you are thirsty
decide what you want to drink
remember that to make tea you need
to put water in kettle
to switch kettle on
where the teabags are
to get a teabag from the box
to put the teabag in the cup
to notice when the kettle boils
to pour the boiling water on the teabag in the cup
to wait a while
to remember that you take milk
to remember that the milk is in the fridge
to get the milk from the fridge
to add the milk to the tea
to squeeze and remove the teabag
to stir the tea
to take the tea with you to where you are sitting
to remember to actually drink the tea
to remember to blow on it if it is hot

Or we are doing a bunch of things subconsciously in our bodies and minds to make things happen – like getting up.

People with dementia can have issues with executive functioning because they forget aspects of this. My gran used to have lots of falls and they said it was because while her head knew it wanted to get up and go somewhere, the message wasn’t getting through to her legs sometimes as quickly as it needed to. She could move her legs, she just didn’t, and so top half lurched forward before the bottom half was there to carry it.

People with depression can have issues with this – but there are also other issues which may be going on in the background that we might not know about – issues of neurodiversity for instance, Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia etc. Far more of us may fall into these categories than some people think. And many people may be struggling with anxiety, depression, OCD, and other issues as a result of living with these issues undiagnosed – causing life and certain situations to be more challenging, not understanding why we don’t find it as easy as other people seem to.

But getting any of this checked out as an adult is not easy. And it’s something I have chosen not to pursue at present. But on days like this, when I used to beat myself up for being a failure, I try to remember that there is more going on that other people can see. For whatever reason, be it hormones, atmospheric pressure, stress or the phases of the mood (who knows) – some days are harder than others. And the first thing that helps is giving myself a break.

6 months in – mental health and the pandemic

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I keep hearing people talk about the mental health impact of the pandemic. But as with seemingly everything else in life, people are polarised about it. There are the people who think the impact of lockdown is too great, the separation and financial concern too unbearable – and there are those whose anxiety is skyrocketing at the lessening of that lockdown, returning to work, to school, to college. Even more so now the numbers are rising again – but then increased restrictions, a threat of a more severe lockdown again, has the first group rattled. Swings and roundabouts. You cannot please everyone whatever you do.

I get frustrated and annoyed when I see definites, certainties – This will make x worse, This will cause y. I think it’s irresponsible. There are issues which will undoubtedly be getting worse for some. And other which are affected in more complicated ways. Suicide may be increasing – but figures come through slowly, and figures have been increasing already for the past few years. Is the current crisis making it worse? It might seem reasonable to expect so – but mental health is not always reasonable. Sometimes being in a shared crisis can make our own personal nightmares fade into the background for a while. A bit like I would always sober up if a friend was in trouble on a night out, no matter how much I had had to drink.

But the practical concerns of the pandemic will certainly be causing some people to experience mental health struggles who never have before, and who have never developed any coping strategies to deal with mounting anxieties, panic, dark depressions – because they’ve never needed them. Some pushed over the edge by money worries, furlough, redundancy, loss of work – some desperately lonely, missing social connection.

Others though will be more concerned about their health and that of their loved ones. One way or another. If you are concerned about the impact of catching this illness, then no matter how difficult the financial situation gets you will never be totally comfortable about exposing yourself and your family to risk. Even if you have loved ones needing treatment for other illnesses – when called in to hospitals when this treatment resumes – there is the fear, is it safe? Hospital Acquired infection is a terror at the best of times and this is not the best of times.

Health Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Obsessive Compulsive Behaviours, Phobias, Eating Disorders, Self Harm – all on the increase.

And then there is the curious question of those who come down on the side of thinking this is all a hoax and a grand conspiracy. Maybe you are one of them. I am not. Apologies. I err on the side of caution, and draw on my experience to inform my decision about what to believe. I also have my thoughts on how easily such storms are whipped up in this era of mass disinformation and how it relates to aspects of mental health. But that’s for another day.

I’ve worked in health information for decades, I’ve seen the warning signs of a pandemic looming, I’ve seen the lack of preparation. Much like people have held the NHS too lightly because they have forgotten what life was like before it, people have also forgotten that before vaccination became possible epidemics were rife. Anyone who has done family history research that takes them into the overcrowded inner cities of victorian times know that families were decimated, wiped out – Smallpox, Typus, Cholera, Diptheria, TB, Polio.

We stopped being scared of illness. We’re scared of things you can’t catch, like cancer – but not infections. We have become complacent. The attitude we have to sickness in the workplace shows we see health as the default. The difficulties (and indeed abuse and punishment) faced by disabled people simply trying to get support to be able to live their lives and do their best with a minimum of pain and discomfort. We could easily have demanded more hygiene protocols at any point to minimise the risk to the vulnerable from colds, flus and other bugs – but it is seen as weakness to get sick, a personal failing for which you can lose your job.

Perhaps covid will change that. When a cough really can carry you off, perhaps we should be doing more to identify and understand the seasonal ailments which have plagued us for years. I also hope that businesses transform themselves to be more resilient – and in doing so bring about a new era of flexibility and compassion. I genuinely think the world could be better for it – and that their profits would also see the benefit.

The mental health impact of the pandemic is so varied that there can be no universal approach. Everyone must look at their own situation, what are their specific issues, problems, how can they be addressed. Personally I don’t think denial serves anyone for long. Acceptance of where we are, and then seeing what is reasonably practicable to do about it. Accepting that it will take time for things to change, and we may not get back to where we were before. We need to share strategies on how to cope, and help each other get through this, not just rail against the fact that is happening. How many people give up hope because people have told them there is none? There is always hope, always light however feint.

My mental health has gone up and down and up and down again. Relief at being able to protect myself, stress and anxiety at not having any money, Enjoyment of time at home with my husband and cats, loneliness and missing my parents and friends, Taking time to do new things or get on with projects, letting my fitness slide and becoming anxious about leaving the house. Learning new skills and finding new ways to work and meet people online, realising I haven’t brushed my teeth or hair in days, only getting properly dressed if I have to go on zoom. Panic attacks at the state of the world and the division in society. Post apocalyptic nightmares. Obsessive searching for information and constant scrolling, scrolling, scrolling for connection. Occasional urges to return to old habits of self harm, or purging. Suicidal thoughts.

Each time I feel it slide I try to do something to counteract it. Exercise more, eat better, look after myself, push myself to talk to the few friends I have. I keep an eye on it. As does my husband. Increasing lockdown measures put off the thing i’m really fearing – going back to travel and being in rooms with people. Something I know others are itching to do again. I know it will be a challenge for me when it comes. Winter may be a financial challenge – not that it has been a party so far. When my depression rises one of the sticks it beats me with now is “why isn’t this having more impact on your life, why don’t you have friends and family you socialise with and therefore miss, why aren’t you out doing things all the time,” – but I counter with the fact that my life may be quiet and small compared to some -but I am happier and mentally healthier than I was when it was large and noisesome. Perhaps I have deliberately made it manageable.

I remind myself what helps me. Meditation. Breathing exercises. Sleep. Immersing myself in something. Learning. Helping others. Acting on trying to alleviate my worries. Watching the clouds, the birds, the wind in the long grass. Focusing on whatever small circle of calm I can make in this moment. Putting the chaos off until I have more energy to deal with it.

As well as the necessary financial support for individuals and businesses – we know there needs to be massive investment in mental health to help us get through this. Both by the government, and by businesses. It has been needed for decades, and this is just the flood that comes after you neglect a leaking pipe for too long. We need to stop seeing mental wellbeing as a luxury. If you want a country, a business, an individual that is thriving – you have to give them the right environment and meet their needs. We’re not that different from plants after all.

The good news however, is that we all have the power to support those around us. Reach out if you need help, reach out if you are worried about someone, reach out if you aren’t worried but just haven’t spoken for a while. We may be distanced but we don’t need to be alone.

If you are struggling now – click here for some resources

If you’d like to learn more about mental health and supporting people, join me on one of my upcoming courses

If you’d like to arrange training for your workplace or organisation – contact me on sarahlongmhfauk@gmail.com

For more on looking after our mental health through this period:
https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/mental-health-tips

https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/coronavirus-covid-19-anxiety-tips/

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus/

https://www.rethink.org/advice-and-information/covid-19-support/

Life as Trauma

Black and white picture of two books - The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and The Inflamed Mind by Edward Bullmore

What is trauma to you? What do you understand by the term?

The dictionary gives us two definitions –

(a) severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience
(b) severe injury, usually caused by a violent attack or an accident.

Bodily trauma – could be a gunshot or stab wound, broken bones, bruising and lacerations. The impact of something hitting us with force and speed, or us colliding with something.

In emotional trauma – it is life which hits us. Events. Circumstances. Sometimes these events may also cause bodily trauma of course, but not always. They may be sudden, dramatic, life threatening, life changing events. Or more subtle, enduring difficulties.

I am learning. I have a basic understanding I think of how it works. I was taken by something Dr Stephen Porges said in a session I was listening to the other day – something along the lines of “Trauma is not an event, it is a response” It is not the explosion, the car accident, or the rape, which is the trauma, it is the way we are affected by it. Trauma is not the bullet – it is the damage it causes on its path through our body. The body breaks and bleeds, it cannot stay whole.

These major event-type traumas are understandable, recognisable to many. Though there are some, whose only encounters with trauma have been through the Post Traumatic Stress experienced by the military in war zones – who may not immediately accept that these experiences are comparable to other kinds of trauma. And in a sense they are right. Because no two traumas will be alike, because no two people are alike. How we respond to life and events, whether happy or sad, nurturing or traumatic, will depend on a million variables in our genetics, our biology, our upbringing, education and experiences. But a mother can experience PTSD after a difficult birth just as a soldier can after a wartime incident which sees them severely injured and losing squad mates.

The experiences are not the same. But part of the way the body responds to them, and why – can be understood on the same spectrum.

Most experiences which trigger a trauma response are those where we feel profoundly unsafe. In danger. Often our life is at risk, or we think it might be.

Similarly other kinds of trauma make us feel unsafe in more subtle ways. Rejected, unwanted, unworthy. Bullying, neglect, abuse – difficult and unhealthy relationships. At root we are primitive beings – and somewhere in us we have a sense that to survive we need to have the support and acceptance of our family and community, and if we are made to think that is in question, something in us feels genuinely that our survival is at risk, even if on the surface others might think the experience is relatively trivial or mild. Subtle emotional abuse or bullying might seem annoying, if admittedly unkind, to those looking from the outside – not realising the insidious nature, of ongoing, unrelenting cruelty which picks at your self esteem and questions your value as a human. These kind of complex and enduring difficulties can also lead us to a trauma response – and can be more embedded in our way of being, and complicated to treat. Sadly we know they can lead people to take their own lives out of desperation.

The traumas with a big T – are unmissable. We know they are happening. The question is how will they impact us. It is perfectly normal and reasonable to be shaken up and impacted by such events, for it to affect our sleep, our mood, to preoccupy our thoughts. After all – we nearly died, or some major harm may have come to us (or we witnessed something horrific, which made us empathically respond and imagine ourselves in the crisis). Our brain, with its one job, to keep us alive – has to take stock, and reflect – make sure there is nothing it could have done differently to avoid it happening again. But usually, if all is well, we would work through that and eventually put it in its place – file under, horrific accident, or unforseen event – not, “something that might happen every day”. Around a month I think is the benchmark for when these thoughts and feelings should subside.

Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes we might need some help to process what we have experienced.

With Post Traumatic Stress the effects are different, may take time to come on, and may include flashbacks or re-living the traumatic situation in some way – our body taking us back to the physical and emotional sensations of the time. We may definitely need some specialist help to break these cycles and be able to move forward out of the trauma. EMDR Therapy is known to be particularly effective in helping people through these experiences.

There is no judgement or shame in finding yourself experiencing PTSD, or heightened anxieties as a result of events – even if someone who went through it with you has not been affected at all. There are, as I said, lots of variables. Aspects of ourselves and our genetic experience we know nothing about – other traumas we have gone through earlier in our lives, even if we have no conscious memory of them.

Everything we go though has an impact. Significant emotional difficulties, complex or unsupportive relationships, over time can lead to us feeling unsafe all the time. To feeling unworthy, like we have to do something to earn love and respect. To feeling stupid for ever thinking anyone might care for us. This trauma can shape how we act and interact with others, shape our way of being, our temperament, how we treat ourselves, whether we can regulate our emotions, trust, or get close to others. It can be at the root of many of our problems and difficulties.

In truth I doubt any of us gets through life without experiencing events which could lead to trauma. Some of us will be lucky in that our particular combination of background and experiences keeps us immune from too much negative effect. But most of us will carry some of it through life.

The question is – when does it become too heavy? And how do we set it down?

I am still learning. I am constantly unpicking the experiences I have had that I know now have contributed to my mental health difficulties, my problems with confidence and self esteem. My self sabotaging nature in relationships. But I’m also coming to realise how much they are probably at the root of my ongoing issues with obesity, problem drinking, and general lack of rigourous self care.

Next on my reading list is Bessel Van der Kolk‘s The Body Keeps the Score. I’ve been hearing about it for ages. I think it is going to help.

Thank You NHS/Social Care Staff

I am in awe of those of you who have been going out and putting your lives at risk working in our health and social care service during this COVID-19 crisis. You work hard enough anyway, you are generally not paid nearly enough, and the strain of this time must be enormous. You have my love and gratitude. I’m volunteering for the SHOUT frontline text support service to hopefully offer some emotional support – but as another gesture of thanks I am making a number of places available on each of my next few Online Mental Health First Aid courses for only the cost of the materials – £25. This is a massive saving on the £300 full price, and also on my usual discount rates, so I hope it will enable some of you to access the course who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. You might be able to do the course through work – but as places will be limited it’s nice to have this option too. This offer is for self-funding individuals and will run at least until Autumn.

Please drop me a line with your proof of eligibility at sarahlongmhfauk@gmail.com and I will provide you with a discount code.

Other discounts are available for charities, and people in receipt of benefits – again, please get in touch with your circumstances and I will let you know the rates.

Booking is generally via eventbrite – but I can accept payment via other means where necessary.

If you are able to afford higher rate tickets – please opt for these, to enable me to continue to offer discounts to those who need them and also pay my way!

Online Mental Health First Aid – Saturday Class

A lot of people have asked me about weekend courses in the past as they haven’t been able to make it to sessions in the working week. So I am delighted to offer this Saturday Morning class.

Over the course of four weeks you will learn about Mental Health, about different Mental Health related issues and how to support someone experiencing distress, and look after your own wellbeing.

The course is a combination of independent learning prior to each of four live sessions. I have scheduled from 10am-1pm but that’s to allow for tech issues and questions, main content is between 1hr 45mins and 2hrs 20mins, so we’ll hopefully be finished a little earlier each time – but I’ll be there if you need me.

Dates: Sat 11th July 2020, Sat 18th July 2020, Sat 25th July 2020, Sat 1st August 2020.

Book via Eventbrite below – more information, including about more discounts can be found on the event page – or drop me a line.

**Ask me about Special COVID-19 THANK YOU rate for NHS/Social Care Staff **

Online Mental Health First Aid

What a whirlwind couple of months! If it has taught me anything it is that plans mean nothing, that order can come from chaos, and that we as human beings are capable of great things when we work together.

So many tumultuous changes and challenges going on in the world right now. Something to come back to another day – but here I wanted to tell you about some of the changes that this momentous period has brought about in my world of work.

Mental Health First Aid training is usually delivered face to face, in small meeting rooms, with a good amount of close discussion and interaction. Which is great – but a perfect place for viruses to jump from host to host, and not easily adaptable to comply with social distancing.

So the good people at MHFA England have been working their wonderful socks off to develop a version which can be delivered and studied online, which is now just about ready to go. All across the country, MHFA England Instructor members like myself are busy completing the upskill required to be able to deliver this course and getting to grips with the new platform and logistics requirements.

The course isn’t exactly the same as the face to face two day version – but it has the same learning outcomes for the delegate. And lets face it two days of zoom covering heavy content is unlikely to help the mental health of any of us.

So – instead, this course is made of a combination of independent learning (videos, activities, reading) – and live session teaching with your Accredited MHFA Instructor to cement, supplement and build upon that learning. There are four sessions, to be delivered over the course of a longer period of time, say a fortnight or a month, with the independent learning to be completed prior to each session. You get the support of your instructor throughout, and the same eCertificate, and excellent learning materials as with the face to face course.

The course is delivered via a new Online Learning Hub – hosted on the Enabley Platform (which works best on Google Chrome).

The course is valued by MHFA England at the same price as the two day version, £300 (+VAT where applicable) – However, I, and many other instructors offer at discounted or subsidised rates where possible. (See below)

I have set up three open courses so far to run in July, and will set further dates soon – so if you have any requests / preferences for days or times please let me know and I’ll see what I can do. Happily – this new option allows for great flexibility in terms of when I can teach – so we have evenings and weekends open to us now as well as through the working week, which might be helpful for those of you wishing to learn independent of your work.

See current courses here on Eventbrite

(If you are an organisation looking to set up a course / courses for your staff or members, please contact me for a quote which is usually more economical than the per person rates below.)

I have a range of prices to suit your circumstances. If you are able to pay the full price, you are most welcome to do so, it has after all been a difficult year so far and I could certainly do with the support. However I also offer two usual standard rate discounts – £150 for individuals, £200 for employers. These rates are at your discretion – I simply ask if you are an employer booking for work, or for your staff and you are able to afford it, that you choose the £200 rate rather than the £150. The more people are able to pay the higher rates, the more I can offer lower rates to those who need it.

If you are a charity, or on benefits etc – please contact me with your circumstances and I can offer a further discount.

I am also offering a number of extra special COVID-19 thank you rate places, for people working in the NHS or Social Care – of £25 only. This covers the cost of materials. My teaching is my gift to you for caring for our vulnerable loved ones and putting yourselves at risk while I have been able to stay relatively safe at home.

I’ll do another more concise post to advertise the actual courses, but I wanted to put a bit more detail out there. I can also offer the half day Mental Health Aware, and MHFA Refresher courses via Zoom.

It’s been a busy old month or two, scary and exciting to be learning and using new skills. I’m looking forward to this new venture. There are pros and cons to online versus face to face, but the pros definitely include flexibility, – I can imagine it will be easier for some to find a few hours a week to free up staff, where two days was impossible. There are also savings in terms of travel costs and time (for both myself and clients – especially where attendees might come from across the country to one location).

Another Week Begins

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

When did this lockdown begin for you? Some people have been staying home for longer than others – the official order to stay home coming 7 days ago, after a week of gradually tightening measures. People with underlying health conditions or over 70 are self isolating, others social distancing, allowed out only for exercise, to get to work if they can’t work from home, or for essential trips for groceries or medicine.

Some are struggling with this. Some bristling against the removal of liberties. Some having to face their own demons without the ability to drown them in drink. Some falling down conspiracy theory rabbit holes – determined not to take this at face value. Others are struggling when they see these others resisting the lockdown. Even when people are doing things technically allowed – going for a walk, going to the shops. People are jumping to conclusions and quick to condemn. It’s quite unnerving.

I haven’t been out much for a few weeks. A couple of walks. Two shopping trips. I wish we could drive / had a car. It would make it possible to stay in longer. I have worried about the last time we were out and vaguely social – making some attempt to be further apart from people than usual, but it hadn’t really sunk in. That was 10 days ago now. Hopefully we were lucky.

Or not lucky – maybe the odds were in our favour anyway. There aren’t that many confirmed cases around here – so whatever unconfirmed, unsymptomatic carriers there are will be less than in other areas. But without testing how can we know?

It would be helpful to manage our anxiety. To know the true relative risk. But then would it make us more complacent. I worry about the idea of immunity – are people truly immune once they have had the illness and survived? Is it too early to tell?

My mental state has been all over the place. Some days high anxiety – more obsessive handwashing and cleaning despite not having been anywhere. Some days blind panic, bleak fear for the future. Catastrophising. Coming up with a million negative outcomes, my brain can be much more creative than just a horrible death. I am finding it hard to concentrate on much some days – whether trying to do work, or read for leisure, or give myself permission to do something else – paint, make something, sew.

My husband is working from home. That throws me at the best of times. I find it hard to just “do my thing” when others are around, so I drift. Wash the pots. Put the washing in. Clean. Cook. Make the bed. Stare at twitter.

Some days are better. Today is better. I was awake at 2am. Two hours earlier than I needed to be for my slot on Radio 5 Live’s Wake up to money. Anxiety dreams. Worrying about my cat, who true to form picks the most awkward times to potentially need a vet. The programme went fine, my hands stopped shaking. I didn’t waffle too much. I didn’t get to say everything I might have liked to but it was interesting nonetheless. That was a good start, and I got some nice feedback.

The invite to speak came at a notable time. I have been trying to egg myself on to do more audio / visual stuff. To get used to online delivery – which is going to have to be part of the future. But I have huge internal resistance to this for some reason, and I had a big whinge-fest to my husband talking about how difficult I found it. I struggle with initiating conversation – even face to face – so the idea of assuming anyone would be interested enough to tune in to look at me speaking on a video or listen to a podcast, just seems presumptuous and rude and ridiculous. But only if it’s me – I love when others do it. So to wake up the next day to someone actually asking me to share some of my thoughts was a nice “Shut up and stop being ridiculous and get over yourself”. As I heard Shamash Alidina say the other day – Where we hurt, we care. The things that cause me distress are a sign there is work to be done there. I have discomfort because I know I want to do it right. Because I know I need to believe in myself enough to know I have useful things to say.

What do we want to get out of this time? To survive, and get back to where we were? A minimum – we don’t want to be worse off. But can we leave our houses better in some way? Learn something which will make the life we build in future more fulfilling and satisfying for us? Maybe even just use the opportunity to rest.

Those of us who can rest, of course. I am also mindful of the many people who are not at home – who are fighting for people’s lives in the NHS, who are exposing themselves to higher levels of risk to carry out the jobs that need to go on – care work, emergency services, lorry drivers, bus and train and tube staff, postal workers, delivery drivers, manufacturing and supply chain, food retail, farming – anyone in the supply chain. The anxiety of placing yourself in the line of fire – out of duty, or just the need to stay in work. And of course the added frustration of those whose employers are not being supportive, whose work is not essential but who are not being permitted to stay at home as advised. Some workers are used to having to put themselves in danger of course – firefighters, police, military – but even they suffer the consequences. It is not a natural thing to do.

All I can say is thank you, and beg your employers to provide you with the protective equipment, the sanitiser and washing facilites you need, and promise to do anything I can to ensure you are properly protected and rewarded and recognised.

Nothing is Normal. Everything is Normal.

Every conversation I am having is starting with something on the lines of “isn’t everything very strange”. Many of us, across the world, find our world has been turned upside down. Lockdown. Social Distancing. Isolation. Those of us who are having to continue working, continue going out there (sometimes to the most hazardous situations – to care directly for people with this virus, sometimes into situations that put us in closer contact with more other people than we might like, such as working in supermarkets, on public transport – wherever) – are having to cope with higher levels of risk than they might be comfortable with. Sudden loss of income. Wondering if we will get support, if so, what, will it be enough. Maybe our employers are not as supportive as we’d like, maybe they are being fantastic.

Most of us are experiencing something unusual. And we may be responding to that sudden change in a variety of ways, most of them based on fear.

Fear is normal. It’s sensible. Fear is acknowledging danger. You cannot be brave if you don’t feel fear. Bravery is feeling fear and dealing with it appropriately. Another word for fear is anxiety. Anxiety is a vitally important emotion, it means we are alert to threats. It also provides us with some tools to deal with those threats. Unfortunately it is not very sophisticated. It screams like a hypersensitive smoke alarm sometimes, and when we need tools it throws random things, rather than always something appropriate to the danger.

Fight
Flight
Freeze
Flop
Fawn
Friend
F***

A lot of effing responses. Direct and indirect ways of tackling or diffusing danger. Some perhaps the right response in different scenarios.

Fighting doesn’t always look like punching something in the face. Fighting can look like frantically checking social media, posting critical things about others who aren’t behaving as you think they should. Obsessively cleaning more than is necessary. Launching a free online daily yoga class and optimising your online presence. The need to doooo something.

Flight could be denial. It could be panicking and grabbing everything in the supermarket and pushing over the elderly lady because we are closing down our sense of protection. We fear scarcity, we subsconsciously decide who is our responsibility and leave others to fend for themselves. Yes, it’s selfish, but it’s not necessarily an active choice to feel like that. It’s something innate which will have kept our ancestors alive in some situations.

I have been frozen. Seeing all the activity online. Being overwhelmed in an avalanche of information and kindness. Wanting to do something, offer support, act. But struggling to concentrate, to focus, to think. To do even my usual coping techniques. Meditate. Clean. Walk.

I have also flopped. Some days I am so tired. I can’t find the energy to get dressed. Off the sofa. Do anything other than scroll endlessly

The other responses are more complex, and harder to parse to this situation but they will be there, or they will come.

There is no right response. There are those which are more or less helpful. For ourselves and for others. There are those which have more or less to do with the actual threat. Giving ourselves permission to freeze and flop a little might be exactly what’s needed. Not fighting against the restrictions which are meant to keep us safe, but which feel very uncomfortable.

Now though – we must come to terms with this new temporary reality. Take time to look at how we are responding and ask if it is really helpful, necessary, counterproductive? The impulse to hoard all the hand sanitizer and loo roll might feel sensible in that first jump to conclusions our anxiety is so good at – but it is no good being the cleanest person in the world if everyone else is covered quite literally in poo. We all need to be able to stay clean and clean our environments to keep each other safe. Can you do anything to rectify anything you have done which is unfair? Offer excess on local groups for those who need it. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Forgive others for being human.

Be mindful. Look for the gifts in this time. Things will change, we have a chance to think – what will I be happy to go back to? What don’t I miss, what of this time would I like to keep?

Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Keep your distance

Exercise. Eat well. Avoid (too much) alcohol. Get sun on your face as much as you can in your circumstances. Don’t try replicate your usual day. Look for small things to be thankful for. Find ways to see the faces and hear the voices of your colleagues, friends, family. Talk to your neighbours. Connect. Do things you enjoy. Try new things. Learn something new.

Thank you so much if you are out there helping people, our beautiful NHS and Care workers, retail workers, cleaners, delivery workers, lorry drivers – anyone doing what has to be done. We must make sure the world we return to remembers and rewards and protects.

Can we cope with Corona?

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

I am listening to the Chancellor’s response to the Corona Virus, Corvid 19. I won’t pass judgement as yet as it will take me a while to process and understand what is on offer. This outbreak is bringing the faults in our economy and society into sharp relief. It is also a useful exemplar to help us understand how anxiety works – how some of us live our lives in a state of fear.

I am self employed. I choose to be self employed, despite the lack of benefits I used to enjoy when working for someone else, such as sick pay, training, annual leave etc. It presents me with challenges. My work is irregular. I can have some months with a booking every week, and then I can go for months with nothing. January February was one such period. I have eaten through my savings, which had already been depleted by a similar hungry gap in summer. Then my washing machine died (of course, they always seem to know the worst time to go). So I need the next couple of months, I have plenty of bookings, and if it all goes ahead, I am ok. I can pay the rent and replenish my savings a little. But then comes this virus. The possibility of having to self isolate if I or my partner get ill. Or of a shut down making it impossible for me to travel to my bookings across the country. I am scared.

I am not alone in this fear. So many people are in dire straits after a lean winter. After floods, and poor weather, and low visitor numbers. We need a good Spring and Summer to make it through. But there are plenty of people whose incomes are not so erratic who also fear sickness like this. Who fear it every day – not just Corona Virus – any sickness. Because their employers do not pay decent sick pay (Statutory may be better than nothing but if it is not equal to a decent percentage of your usual wage it will not pay your bills and ease your concerns). Because they will lose bonuses based on 100% attendance. Because they risk discipline or losing their jobs if they have more than a few days sick a year. Because they are not paid enough in the first place to be able to save decent cushion to help them through crisis points like this.

Even robots break down. We are not robots. We get sick. Some of us more than others. Stress (such as the above concerns, not to mention workload, interpersonal issues, other financial concerns, family problem) affects our immune response and makes it more likely that we will get ill, that it will be harder to recover. Simply telling people not to get ill doesn’t stop it happening, it just makes it harder for people to do what they need to do to get well.

Presenteeism (that’s people going into work when they are not well enough) has twice as big an impact on the economy as absenteeism (taking time off sick). Corvid 19 is showing us one reason why – making us think about the spread of disease. This is a particularly nasty illness, but it spreads just like the flu, like colds, like stomach bugs. If we go into work when we are contagious, and are not wearing Haz-Mat suits, we infect those around us. We do not perform at our best. We make mistakes. Sometimes if our mood and demeanour is affected by our illness, this can also spread, discontent, poor morale, deteriorating relationships. It’s no good for anyone.

We need a different approach. We need to encourage wellness, but not punish sickness. No one wants to get sick. Good health and wellbeing programmes to help people have the best chance of staying well, but also good protections and compassion for those who become unwell. Occupational Health, Employee Assistance Programmes, even Private Medical Care to take the load off the NHS. Give flexible and home working options where possible – sometimes you might be well enough to work but still infectious, or well enough to do a few hours if you can nap between. Don’t make it something people need to beg for. Make it an easy choice. People assume working from home means skiving. But the evidence suggests the opposite, that you get increased discretionary effort, that people are less distracted, more focused, and are able to get straight on to things instead of having an hour or more commuting before they even think about work. Granted, they might be in pyjamas sometimes, but what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.

Not everyone can work from home, I get it. But think creatively. How can you diversify your workforce’s jobs – give them variety – so there are options. Invest in technologies where you can which will make life easier. One of the biggest problems we have – across the board, is that everything has been pared down to the barest essentials. We need redundancy in our systems. We need more people, so we can cover each other if we get ill. We need spare beds in the health system. We need a few more pounds in the pay packet so we can put something aside to cope with rainy days.

We have got used to convenience. To paying peanuts. To complaining about the cost of food and services. The knock on effects are clear to see in this crisis. The break down of the supply chain, the fear that an already overstretched NHS will not be able to cope with the potential impact, and that people will die. The impact that isolation will have on businesses across the land who rely on people being able to go out and spend money.

It’s not an easy thing to fix. We need bold choices. We need people to have more money in their pockets, to be able to afford, and prepared to pay more for the things they need, so people can charge the prices they need to charge to reflect the cost of a product or service, factoring in decent pay rates, sickness pay, and extra capacity in the system to ensure we can escape an economy based on fear and scarcity and precarity. An economy which is making us ill, and which cannot cope.