Obviously, I never wanted my first blog post of the year to be about a pandemic. But here we are, in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, and here we could be for quite some time. I keep returning to the question, When will things return to normal?
Since the start of winter last year, with its fierce weather – the terrible storms, the flooding – as well as university strikes which made my husband’s life, and hence our family life somewhat up-and-down, I looked to spring, hoping that a smoother time would be ahead. But smoother hasn’t turned up.
As the news came in, day by day, moment by moment, I found myself stopping in the middle of a task, anxious, panicky feelings gripping my throat. What was the point of my publishing work? What was the point of me hoovering this carpet? What was the point of me writing? What was the point of me cooking dinner? Worries about getting ill, loved ones and friends being ill, whole nations getting ill, the globe becoming one giant lockdown with not a loaf of bread or toilet roll to be had, not to mention the economic knock-on effects, threatened to engulf me. Perhaps it would be better to take myself off up to bed and quietly implode.
Ah, hello OCD, my old friend. You’ve come to talk with me again.
Now, me and OCD go way back. Like, to my mid-twenties. To be quite frank, it’s a shitty companion. Thankfully, since I became a mother it has taken a backseat in my life (I put that down to the birthing and breastfeeding hormones – which lower stress – as well as the weight of responsibility motherhood brings. For me, putting someone else’s needs before my own helped free up my brain to focus on the reality before me, not the unrealities in my head). But in times of stress, or (weirdly) even in times when everything seems to be good, it flutters around the edges of my mind, tempting me with its sickly sweet poison. In these moments I feel as though I am only ever one thought away from the abyss. And that is truly frightening.
Yet in the past year and a bit, I’ve seen it from another perspective. I’ve been a mum to a child who has inherited my tendency to fear change and crave control over the anxiety change brings by adopting habits, tics, routines. And if those compulsions are broken all of us as a family have to endure an emotional storm.
Of course I blame myself – stupid, stupid genes! – but apportioning blame doesn’t move me forward. (A parallel with coronavirus here: my kids have been asking over and over again, Where did it start? Who started it? How did this happen? We may have answers, but how does that help us to deal with the here and now?)
So, putting aside my son’s yoke of inheritance, over and over again I’ve found myself in the situation of having to figure out ways to help him out of the mental black hole. And it’s been hard, ever so hard. Particularly so when I’ve felt myself slipping into that black hole too. But, in a way, we’ve helped each other. When he’s having a bad time of it I am there for him. Offering empathy, words of encouragement, some ideas for how he can “unstick” himself. Boundaries. And when anxiety threatens to overwhelm me, and I feel myself grasping for the lifeboat of mental routines, I think of my son; of the things I say to him when he’s in the thick of OCD. And with each OCD battle he fights through – and wins – he inspires me. If he can do it. I can do it too.
I remind myself that control is an illusion. That beyond our own actions we have no control over our lives, or what may happen “out there” in the world. And that the lifeboat of routines is a mirage. For change is ever-present, and we must bend and flex our thoughts quickly to each new situation we find ourselves in. Rigidity in thought – of the short-term comforting routines or tics or mental compulsions – does not serve any person well in the long-term. We need to let go of the “bully in our brain” (as my son calls it) – the bully that is both to be kept at a distance and accepted as simply a facet of our expansive imagination – and release ourselves from its grip. Though it is easier said than done. (Practise helps.)
Part of my anxiety around coronavirus, and its implications on everyone’s lives, stems from how quickly things are changing. Again and again, I am instructing my mind to bend and flex and adapt, and to sometimes stay very still, powerfully still – the way a gymnast must sometimes tense all their muscles to hold a pose – so that I can once again move forward, thoughts-wise, with positive purpose.
Like many other people, I’m trying to keep my anxiety levels to a minimum by doing less of certain things (e.g. social media scrolling “to see what the latest is”) and doing more of the things I love: talking and playing with my family, my publishing work, writing, reading, creating art. Even hoovering can be a pleasant occupation when I am in a positive frame of mind! And acting in positive, helpful ways, as well as interacting with those in my community and showing them my appreciation, always makes me feel better.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Of course I cannot eliminate worry from my life. But I will do my best to bring it down to sensible levels, and I will do my very best to bend and flex, adapt, tense… let go.