A few years ago I had a mental breakdown.
From an outsider’s perspective, it happened very suddenly — one moment I was fine and the next I wasn’t.
In the blink of an eye, I was rendered completely incapable of fulfilling even the most basic of tasks.
What followed was a protracted period of enforced ‘slowing down’. It was as if someone had pulled the emergency stop cord on the treadmill of my life, along with its constant pressure and stress. Instead of worrying about deadlines and meetings, I suddenly became acutely aware of how much strength a human being expends getting up every day and engaging with the world.
I’m sure it’s something many of us have noticed in the week since we’ve been on ‘lockdown’. Whoever you are, it’s safe to say that life has changed dramatically over the past month, few weeks and even days.
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All of a sudden everything feels unrecognisable, as we’re forced to stay at home and follow government instructions to decrease the spread of the virus — and save lives. Life as we once knew it is changed, and the concept of living in the moment has suddenly become intuitive rather than aspirational.
So transformed are our routines that many of us are finding ourselves grieving the loss of even the most simple and innocuous elements of our previous lives: coffee from the local deli, a hug from a friend or a swim at the local leisure centre.
But this lockdown has also awarded us time and the opportunity to look around us. To express gratitude to the selfless people working in public services that dedicate their lives to preserving ours. To notice the physical absence of cherished people in our lives. To think about how much we enjoy our work — or don’t.
To try new hobbies, or return to old ones. To read books. To prioritise speaking to friends. To notice and be grateful for our physical health. To get outside and exercise. To turn down the volume on the noise of our usual bustling lives, and to notice the things that we most appreciate.
The day that I started my own version of lockdown was a Tuesday like any other. I was sitting at my desk in the middle of a crowded office engaged in what had become an almost constant battle with my brain.
That is to say, desperately trying to maintain productivity while simultaneously plugging the many leaks that had appeared in my consciousness — through which crippling anxiety had begun to seep.
On that particular morning, weakened from months of trying to maintain a veneer of ‘normal’, I finally let go. I no longer had the energy to stop myself from sinking. I collapsed, my parents were called and I finally surrendered — I could no longer do this alone.
A combination of talking therapy, medical support, regular exercise, self-reflection and a conscious effort to change my behaviours eventually allowed me to reach a much healthier, happier and more stable place.
I no longer take the concept of freedom — whether that’s physical or mental — for granted
I don’t want to undermine how difficult this all was by downplaying the time and commitment it took from me — and those close to me — to get better, so I’ll just say this: it took years. And it’s by no means a done deal; maintaining a sense of relative peace is a huge commitment, and it is something I invest in daily.
But this period of slowing down taught me a lot.
Immediately, even the idea of watching a film and being able to follow the plot became something to strive towards — a goal. Parts of my life that I’d previously taken for granted — getting on a crowded bus, gently closing my eyes and finding sleep at night and conversations with more than one person at a time — became strikingly absent. Life, at least as I knew it, had changed beyond recognition.
It didn’t last forever — and nor was it an exclusively negative experience. But it gave me pause to reflect. To really consider the people, the routines and the habits that contributed positively to my life — and those that didn’t.
I realised that in the relentless sprint towards efficiency, in which technology has made us all competitors, I’d lost sight of the value of slowing down. Of just how important it is to pause, take a deep breath and admire the view.
Since my mental breakdown, I notice almost daily the absence of terror in my life. I am grateful to be able to leave my house and join in. I love my friends and family more openly and deeply, and I dedicate time every single day to check in with myself and see how I’m doing.
I no longer take the concept of freedom — whether that’s physical or mental — for granted to the same degree I used to.
The coronavirus pandemic has robbed the world of many valuable lives, and us as individuals of relatives, colleagues and friends. For some it has taken their job, threatened their livelihood and stripped their life of its sense of purpose. And it has done all of this against our will. It’s easy to feel powerless.
Like everyone else, my anxiety was high as we were put into lockdown and I had to take a big step back to stop myself from spiralling. Yet, after a while, I’ve found peace in slowing down because I know it’s only temporary… and it’s definitely making me much more grateful for what I have, rather than focussing on what I don’t.
There are opportunities too — little glimmers of optimism — if you look for them.
Look at all the new NHS volunteers and at communities coming closer together. There’s a greater appreciation by society of people who work in public services. Everyone seems to be exercising more outside. Lowered emissions. There’s quiet in London…
We are living through unprecedented challenges and so much feels out of our control. It is an abject tragedy that we will never forget.
But it’s important to remember that we do still have power over how we react to the chaos, over whether or not we’re kind to one another, and over whether or not we try to take this time as an opportunity to reflect.
Because life will soon return to a ‘new normal’, and while we’re all waiting for that day to come, now seems as good a time as any to consider what we want it to look like.
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