How to Cope with Lockdown When Your Mental Health is Already F#cked

I have been unemployed, hospitalised with chronic illness and housebound with depression. Here’s what I learnt about staying sane when life exists within four walls

I’m no stranger to isolation. I’ve been social distancing before the government told me to. Years of battling depression, eating disorders, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal urges have kept me strapped to my bed or hiding indoors, for days, weeks, months on end. Then I was made redundant only months into my first Proper Job, flinging me into the abyss of unemployment. Zero-hour contracts, part-time hours and the digital nature of media meant I was at home — a lot. Like, 70% of the time.

In my final year of university, I suffered from recurring Paratonsilar Abscesses (save yourself and do not Google that) that put me in hospital for days at a time. Finally, I had an operation to remove my tonsils. All of this medical care amounted to lots of days lost to a hospital bed, with nothing but my mobile phone and books to keep me company. When the morphine wore off, I took to pacing the hospital corridors to feel alive. In these times, I learnt to find joy in small things. In messages from friends, the blossom drifting off the trees past twisting church spires poking through gaps in a grimy window, a nurse with a warm smile handing me a bowl of gloop.

And so, when Boris announced he was putting tighter measures in place in the UK to try and halt the spread of Coronavirus, I realised that I had spent the best part of a year living in my own lockdown. Not the best feeling, sure, but it means I’m feeling pretty prepared for the mundanity of the future. Being stuck indoors, working from my bedroom and only leaving to pick up groceries or my medication is a standard Tuesday for me.

Losing your job sucks. Under Capitalism, we are taught that what we do for work defines who we are. Having that taken away sheds your self-worth into dirty tatters. This, coupled with drawn-out days staring at a laptop screen, cut off from normal London life, plunged me into a deep depression. I lost time to unyielding sadness, to Netflix binges, to naps taken simply to stop thinking. The more I stayed inside and let my self-care slip, the more the outside world became scary and alien. The more I avoided rejoining a world that I didn’t feel part of, the further I fell into the depression hole… and so the shit cycle continued. It’s hard enough for anyone to stay sane when living life out of a bedroom, but if you’re already mentally ill, it can feel utterly impossible to keep on existing.

While it’s often shitty and occasionally Really F##kin Hard, you can adapt to life inside. It’s easy to stay connected and engaged with the outside world even as your world seems to contract into suffocating smallness. I hope surviving my months of boredom, isolation and depression can provide some hope in these bleak times.

Getting up

I cannot stress how important it is to open your window. Seriously. Allowing fresh air to blow through your bedroom can revitalise it, and you.

Next, get up. When you’re depressed, this isn’t an easy feat. I understand. In my darkest days of unemployment, my least favourite part of the day was waking up. I felt physically glued to the bed, weighed down by my sadness. So if your body feels heavy, the day feels grey and the thought of all of those hours unfolding before you fill you with dread, put on some music that makes you feel good. Keep it chill. Maybe some Aldous Harding, Charlotte Day Wilson, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Rose, Billie Martin, Julia Jacklin, Hayley Williams, Hayley Heynderickx, Raveena, Nilufer Yanya…. women with soothing tones and emotional chords. If that’s making you cry, try some swing, jazz, reggae… happy but not aggressively so. It won’t sit right with your soul. Music not working? No worries. Stick on a conversational podcast and tune in. I adore GABA, How to Fail, Laid Bare, The Struggle Bus, Gurls Talk, Happy Place and The Dollop…

Tell yourself you are listening to one album or one podcast then you are having a shower. Essentials oils and smelly soaps can help here, but if you’re stuck with a bog-standard white bar, focus on the sensations — the bubbles, the water, the steam.

Drink water. Your mind needs to be hydrated to function properly. Go and fill up a glass when everything else feels too much.

Move. I am not about to tell you that exercise can cure your depression — because I’m not an idiot — but getting your heart pumping and blood flowing clears your head and keeps you motivated. Do yoga, go for a run, a walk, a cycle, do weight training or circuit training, dance around your room or do five press-ups. Don’t set unrealistic targets, just do something every day that makes you sweat. Get outside, even though it feels scary and you can’t be bothered. You need fresh air. You need to move your legs.

Set a goal for the day. A small one. an achievable one. Like, today I will wash my clothes. Today I will read the first in my huge stack of unread magazines. Today I will bake a cake, learn to sew, send an email, write a story, call my friends, eat a vegetable, learn the Cha Cha slide… Repeat the affirmation: Today is another chance to not feel so shitty.

Write down things you are grateful for. That could be as simple as cosy blankets, cat paws and Quorn chicken nuggets or as vague as family and friends.

Filling the hours

So many hours. Time stretching out before us. We could do anything with it. Anything we want! And that is absolutely terrifying. Especially if can’t work from home, or you’ve been fired during a literal pandemic. Remember this is an opportunity to do things you always say you would do ‘if you just had the time’, but not an obligation to. You can still live a full life in quarantine whilst rejecting hustle culture. You don’t need to use this time to monetise your side-hustle. Instead:

  • Learn a new skill. Try something that you’ve always wanted to or practice something you’ve been meaning to get back to. Adobe is giving everyone free access to their Creative Cloud for two months. Here are some more free online creative courses.
  • Clean and organise. We laughed at our mothers for nagging us to clean our rooms, because ‘a tidy room is a tidy mind’, but oh God it is true. Decluttering your physical space clears your mental space, too.
  • Create a calming space. White colour palettes, candles, art, photographs, messages of positivity.
  • Get some plant babies. If your landlord doesn’t allow pets. Talk and sing to your little leafy children.
  • Find some home workouts — that don’t make you cringe and/or cry. There is more yoga than YogawithAdriene! You don’t have to listen to a bouncy woman telling you it’s not about how you look it’s how you feel! I recommend this incredibly silly aerobics class with the dancer from Call on Me.
  • Facetime or call your mates or your family. If this isn’t possible for you, still talk out loud once a day. To your cat or to yourself, it doesn’t matter. Remind yourself you are a real human with a voice. Put the radio on if the silence is deafening.
  • Research your rights. Whether you’re a renter, self-employed, disabled or vulnerable, there are endless information pages online. Educate yourself. You currently cannot be evicted in the UK if you can’t pay rent. You are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay if your employer isn’t paying you. And although the picture is much grimmer in the USA, Charities are lobbying for our rights every day. You’re not alone. Sign up for benefits if you need to, or ask for help online.
  • Help your community. Thousands of mutual aids group have popped up across the UK and USA. Search for your local one. Make care packages for people in isolation, support independent businesses and artists, deliver food, give food to a Foodbank, donate to charities or give money to an event space you love. (If you’re broke, you can still be helpful. Check-in with people, share positive stuff, offer to walk dogs etc etc).
  • Start a creative hobby — with no intention to be any good. Just do it for the fun of it. Journal or draw how you’re feeling.
  • Remember your worth is not defined by what you produce. You can still be a good person and contribute to the world without making stuff.
  • Cook good food. yes, I know you just want to eat potato smileys and guzzle wine, but you also need to fuel your brain with nutrients or your mental health will slip. I know, yawn. You can still treat yourself and eat whatever the heck you want, but get at least one nutritious meal in a day.
  • Self-care. Whatever that means to you. I’m very lazy about this, but I like to keep moisturised and take nudes that make me feel good.
  • Learn how to be more sustainable. Like making your own deodorant (coconut oil, arrowroot powder, oils, baking soda) oat milk (oats, water, salt) and disinfectant spray (old fruit peel). Make pesto from wilting leaves, turn cauliflower leaves into ‘chips’, repurpose old stuff to make new stuff.

Get Online

People enjoy blaming social media for Gen Z’s mental health issues. I call bullshit. Social media can be a cesspit of trolls and curated perfection, but it can also be an ever-expanding community of like-minded individuals. It can be a vessel for the endless scroll that sucks any happiness out of you, but it can also be a source of support and hope in dark times.

This is our chance to reimagine how we could use social media for good. Here’s how:

  • Start engaging with digital mental health charities. A lot of us will be having therapy cancelled, treatments plans postponed, and struggle with the idea of telehealth. Don’t be afraid to text crisis lines like Shout or Crisis, join online communities like Elefriends or post in anonymous forums.
  • Build your own online communities. Being physical apart doesn’t mean you have to alone. Social media is full of friendly mental health folks. I saw how everyone was collectively struggling so I created a mental health support group on Whatsapp. I’ve made new friends, and we support each other through hard times. Search mental health support tags online and engage with the pages that post wholesome mental health content. Unfollow people and pages that make you feel shitty.
  • Use virtual software. Skype your Nan, join Houseparty with your mates, tune into a DJ live-stream, watch free workshops or talks, or simply gaze at the wonder of Noel Fielding’s #artclub.
  • Limit your news consumption and mindless scrolling. You are allowed to switch off. Don’t feel guilty for not engaging with the relentless news updates that flood our brains as this pandemic develops. Check the news once a day and avoid Coronavirus Doomsday talk/death-related content. Exit an app once you notice the dread setting in. Yes, you. Try reading stuff completely unrelated to The Thing. Return to informing yourself when you’re in a better space mentally.
  • Follow funny comic illustrators on Instagram like Rubyetc, edithcartoonist, Gemma Correll, bethdrawsthings, thesquarecomics… they will bring much-needed humour and non-toxic positivity. In general, give your social media a deep-clean and unfollow anything that brings you sadness. I promise you that Instagram isn’t all impossibly toned tummies and Khloe Kardashian doing a #ad for Febreeze.

Doing it all again

The UK is going to be on lockdown for *at least* three weeks. Your routine is likely to have been shaken up beyond recognition. But you don’t need a commute or a nagging boss to keep you in check. Find what works for you and reject whatever doesn’t. Like working from bed? Do it. Want to wear nothing but leggings? Do it. Want to put on all of your makeup to eat breakfast? Do. It. The most important thing is to stop reading hot takes on #ProductivityHacks and just do what enables you to be productive.

Once you have figured out what works for you, stick to it. If you’re working from home, separate out your work hours and chill hours. Take a lunch break. Get to sleep at a reasonable time. If you’re not working, this is harder — but not impossible. Just develop a loose routine.

This routine should involve actively searching for positivity. Aim to find five examples of kindness or positive change coming out of this crisis, like this guy who works for Sainsbury's and is super happy about it, these cuties, stories of kindness, or the fact that the large majority of people are being cured and this pandemic has exposed structural failings in our society that could lead to lasting, Socialist change. Sure, this will bring out the worst in people. But it will also bring out the best. And remember people are more likely to Tweet pictures of empty shelves and crowds than empty spaces and full shelves.

Staying alive

There may be days when nothing seems to work. You’ll do all the self-care, the reaching out, the moving and grooving — and you’ll still feel like a soggy old sponge. It’s completely natural to feel overwhelmed right now. We are in the midst of a pandemic of unprecedented scale. Allow yourself to wallow and recognise that worrying is hard to control. But then take full advantage of days where you feel OK and build a list of Things you like, that still exist in isolation.

A non-exhaustive list:

  • Books. If you don’t have money to finally work through your Amazon wishlist, Verso is selling books with a big discount, Audible has made a chunk of their audiobooks free, Hydra Publications have lowered the price of their books, and the Bookseller is compiling a list of independent sellers that are doing free deliveries.
  • Films, TV Shows, Documentaries. Escapism has never been so easy. If losing work means you can’t fork out for Netflix or the new Disney+, Mubi is offering three months subscription for £1. I’ve been loving Inside Number Nine, Tiger King, Bojack Horseman, Noughts + Crosses and generally anything immersive that isn’t Contagion.
  • Sunlight. Feel it on your skin (through an open window if you must). Bask in it. like a sleepy cat. focus on nothing but that.
  • Cooking. Try something new, try baking, cook with herbs and spices and love. This is hard when your low, but eating nothing but beige food makes you feel beige too. N.B: There are times to limit your comfort food and that time is not now.
  • Memes. They didn’t exist during the Blitz or the Plague. People had to try and make each other laugh IRL. The Horror!
  • Animals. The internet is filled with live cams of animals of all varieties. Like these senior dogs, baby goats and jellyfish.
  • A warm drink when it’s cold outside. And vice versa.
  • Words. You can keep making them. Get some paper and scribble them out.

Make your list and keep reading back on it when you think you have nothing. Note what you are grateful for right now, then make a list of things to look forward to. Whether that’s hugging your friend, going to a gallery or that first delightful pint at a pub, it’s important to remember that this will pass. It’s a scary time but it’s also a temporary one, and in a few years you will probably look back fondly on all the weird shit you got up to when cabin fever set in.

Focus on what you can control. This means: you can control how you self-isolate. you can control how much you read the news. You can control what candles you light. But you can’t control who gets infected. You can’t protect all the vulnerable people in society. You can’t stop this. You can’t pause your mental health issues. You can look for jobs and work but you can’t guarantee you’ll get it. Don’t drive yourself crazy thinking you can do things you have no power over.

Above all else, be kind to yourself. You don’t have to write the next Fleabag, paint the next Monet or become a Master Yogi. You don’t have to do a damn thing. Remind yourself that processing the turmoil this is throwing our lives into is a huge mental strain. It’s OK if all you did today was breathe.

I’m Tweeting @_SianAbigail. My DM’s are open if you’re struggling or just want a chat.

Freelance journalist and mental health advocate

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