Tag Archives: isolation

There is no normal to go back to

The idea of ‘back to normal’ has appeared regularly in ideas about a post-virus UK. As though our previous ‘normal’ was a good thing. It’s increasingly obvious that many people do not want to go back to how things were, and that there’s less appetite for long commutes, heavy traffic and air pollution. For people who have had an opportunity to learn from the virus, new, exciting ways of doing things may emerge.

For many people, there is no normal to go back to. For some, very little changed – many people are isolated at home by illness. They’ve had more stress and pressure in recent months but many of the practical realities haven’t changed much, except that it was far harder to order shopping online. As the rest of us ‘go back to normal’ hopefully we can remember that not everyone has that option. We might all better understand now what being forced into isolation does to people. We might be more alert to the ill, disabled and elderly people around us who live in isolation because no one much bothers with them.

For people whose lives were precarious, there may be no real normal to go back to. Early on, the government demonstrated that they could get every homeless person off the street and into a room, if they felt like it. A few weeks later they went on to demonstrate that they really couldn’t be bothered to keep doing that. We can, and must do better.

For some people, back to normal means going back to being excluded. We’ve established that many things can be handled at a distance using the internet. We could make work, entertainment and socialising a lot more accessible for people whose ‘normal’ is exclusion.

Recent months have made me aware of what it means to have a ‘normal’ you can measure things by, and what happens if your sense of the normal is dysfunctional. The idea of ‘back to normal’ only works if what you had before worked for you. If it didn’t, if you were on the wrong end of systems, and economics, if normal was miserable and hopeless – there is nothing you’d want to re-instate. The idea that there is a normal everyone wants to get back to is, I realise, a massive expression of privilege and insulation from suffering. For the worker on a zero hours contract, for the person forced ever deeper into debt, for those facing benefits sanctions and going hungry, ‘normal’ is a terrible place.

We live in a culture that takes ‘normal’ as a meaningful measure, and never properly questions what that means or who it works for.


Struggling with mental health

I wrote this in the middle of the night recently, crying, unable to sleep, overwhelmed with panic and despair. The first version went up on Facebook. I’m mostly trying to out a brave face onto my online presence – easy to hide behind a screen. But, I doubt I’m the only one feeling this way and I think it needs talking about.

TW – Suicide issues.

Like a lot of people, I was suffering from anxiety and depression before the virus. There has never been much help available for us, and now there will be less.

Many of us have lost key things that were keeping us going. We may express hurt over that online – the loss of the gym, the dance class, the pub time, the live music – we may not be being super selfish when we express distress. We may be talking about the things that helped us stay alive. Depression also kills people. Knocking people back for expressing distress or difficult, really doesn’t help.

It’s really hard for me, reading people saying ‘stay in’ and ‘don’t see anyone’ with a clear message that anything other than total isolation makes you a terrible person. I’m really struggling with feeling like a terrible person, I expect I’m not alone. I don’t do much going out at the moment, and I’m being careful and have been for weeks. But I’m also not sleeping, and crying a lot, and terrified of being trapped in this flat and what that would do to my already poor mental health.

Tom has some serious anxiety issues and for him, being trapped in a building is deeply problematic.

So maybe don’t share the memes about how all you have to do is sit on the couch, it isn’t that hard. For some of us, isolation could well be a death sentence.

And yes, lots of anxiety about how selfish I am in not wanting to end up suicidal. I’ve been through periods of wanting to kill myself before now, I’m fighting not to go back there. I’m seeing people online hoping the virus will take them quickly because they’ve already lost the will to live. I see the same thoughts creeping in with me. ‘Selfish’ can be something of a trigger term for me and again I suspect I’m not alone. I think people who kill themselves often do so because they think its the best thing they can do for the people around them. What else is there, if the things you do to try and stay alive are deemed selfish?

I know many of you are new to massive anxiety, and you just want everyone else to be more sensible so you and your loved ones are safe. Of course you want that. But some of us were only ever holding on by our fingertips, and now things are worse. Please, when you go online to vent your fear, consider how it might sound to someone who is having a mental breakdown. Someone – for example – for whom going outside for a run, or a walk is the one tool they have left to manage their failing mental health.

Your suicidal friend probably won’t tell you how they feel because that’s part of how this illness plays out. They won’t ask for help, especially not if what they need is time with another human being. You won’t know who is in trouble, most likely. Yes, isolation saves lives. Kindness also saves lives, and your depressed friends need to know that their lives matter too and that they are not failing as human beings for wanting or needing things that are difficult at the moment.


Obliged to live together

I’m seeing a lot of people online talking about how difficult it is having to spend all of their time at home with their partners, and in some cases also their children. Many of the people doing this will never have done this before. I’ve been in relationships in the past where space and distance were key to keeping things viable. What do you do when you don’t have anywhere else to go and being cooped up increases frustration?

For two years, Tom and I worked and lived on a boat – 45 feet long, 6 feet wide, boy and cat also onboard. It wasn’t easy, but we learned how to do it.

The absolute key thing for surviving with other people in a small space, is not to take your feelings out on each other. It’s easy to do this without noticing – snapping at someone because you feel grumpy, getting angry over small things that aren’t really the problem. From there it’s easy to get into cycles of passive aggression, people feeling hurt and not being able to express it well – this way lies misery.

When you can step away from each other, there’s less frustration. If you are taking your feelings out on each other, normally you at least get some breathing space in which to recover. Many people no longer have those options.

The trick is to share your feelings rather than venting them. There need be no problem being sad, bored, frightened or frustrated if you deal with it by saying that’s what you’ve got, or by expressing the feeling in relation to what’s causing it, not dumping it on the person nearest to you as though this is their fault. It takes a certain amount of self awareness to do this, but, you’re probably going to have lots of time to practice…

When you share your emotions with the people closest to you, trust is built. Support and understanding become available. There’s scope for cooperation to alleviate problems. Good things can come of this, everyone gets to feel better, no one is ground down. Using a person as your emotional punch-bag is a terrible thing to do, and will make their life a misery. It also deprives the person doing it of any meaningful comfort or support.

Living and working in a small space with other people and never having much scope to be away from them isn’t easy. But it is totally possible. Care, cooperation, negotiation and patience make all things possible. Also remember that the people around you do not magically know what’s going on in your head. They aren’t psychic. If you think they are supposed to know, or supposed to understand and you get cross with them when they don’t… this may not be their shortcoming. If you can explain calmly, using small words, they have a chance of understanding, where resentment of their lack of psychic insight will only make things worse.

For some people, isolation is going to make apparent that the other person in their home likes using them as an emotional punchbag. I am worried about the way in which extra stresses and forced proximity might escalate abusive relationships, and how much harder it will be to get out if we end up in lockdown. I can only hope there will be resources in place for people who find they aren’t safe.


Isolation and mental health

There are reasons we use prisons as punishment and solitary confinement is considered especially harsh. Most humans are social creatures and isolation is bad for us. However, we’re faced with a pandemic that requires us to at least do some social distancing, and that for some people means as much isolation as possible in the hopes of survival. Isolation is bad for mental health, and depression also kills so there is a lot to consider here.

I’ve had a lot of firsthand experience of isolation impacting on my mental health. Living with a few other people does not reliably offset it, and it puts a lot of pressure on those people to provide emotional support. They might not be well enough resourced to do that. Isolation can feed anxiety and depression because there’s not enough to counteract it. There’s not enough positive reinforcement, counter-narrative to the distress, or distraction from it. If you have mental health problems already, being isolated with your own thoughts is hell.

If you start out mentally well and are isolated, you may be ok at first. However, you can still end up feeling unable to leave the house after a while. Boredom can slide you into depression. Apathy can take over, with loss of motivation, loss of joy in life, you do less, you feel worse, you cycle into depression.

Our minds and bodies are not separate systems. Poor mental health is poor health. It can often lead to choices that further undermine health. The things we do for short term comfort may only make our situations worse. The process is likely to be slow and it may not be obvious what’s happening if you haven’t dealt with it before.

Here are some suggestions. Having a voice and a face to communicate with helps – use online tools, use your phone, get the emotional intimacy of talking directly. If you don’t feel able to ask for help with being isolated, contact someone else and ask how they are doing. Rescuing each other often works best.  If there’s no one you can talk to, I find the radio helpful – it’s immediate, and feels more personal than television.

Think about who might be unable to communicate. Consider older relatives who aren’t tech savy. Make sure you know who of your friends is vulnerable. Who is old enough to be at extra risk? Who has underlying health conditions and may need to totally isolate? Who already suffers from anxiety? Don’t wait for them to ask for help. The nature of a mental health crisis usually makes it very hard indeed to ask for help. After all, people are dying out there, how can you approach your friends and family – who no doubt have their own problems – and ask them to give you some time because you are overwhelmingly sad? Mental health conditions are good at persuading sufferers that they are making a fuss and/or don’t deserve help anyway. Make the first move.


Unspeakable loneliness

How can you speak of it when it implies criticism of everyone you love? How can you say ‘I am lonely’ if you have a partner, or friends, or family, or all of those? But you can have people in your life and be lonely, and I think it needs talking about.

In any given 24 hour period, Tom and I spend something close to 24 hours together, waking and sleeping. We work at the same table. But, we work alone, usually in silence, each engaged with whatever we’re doing. Working in the same space isn’t time spent together, and it took us a while to learn that.

We both suffer from depression and anxiety. This means there are times when both of us need someone with the energy and ideas to break through our numbness and take us somewhere else. When we’re both ill, we can’t actually do that for each other. It is also a lot to ask that it falls only to your partner to wade in and rescue you when you have been kidnapped by the monsters in your head.

Depression and anxiety both, in their own ways, make it hard to ask for help. If you are feeling gloomy and worthless, how can you ask someone you like to spend time with that? How can you show up socially without a mask firmly in place to spare others? And if you socialise while masked, you will feel incredibly lonely. If anxiety is gnawing at you, then the fear of how anyone will respond to you making it visible is also going to be part of the mix.

Mental illness means you can be in a room full of people and totally unable to connect to them. It can mean you won’t let anyone see you as you are, and you experience the profound loneliness of being related to as you are not. It can mean being unable to go out at all, unable to speak, unable to reach out. So you may have hordes of lovely friends and just not know how to approach them when depression has its teeth around your throat. You probably don’t want to put them through seeing you like this. Maybe you don’t want to sabotage your own dignity by letting people see you when you are broken.

There are many potential causes of loneliness – and for many people isolation is central. But, a person can appear not to be isolated, and still be feeling really cut off. It may be very difficult to hear about loneliness from someone you think should feel close to you, but if anyone does talk to you about it, this is a sign of tremendous trust. Try not to be cross with them over how you might feel, because if they’ve come to you it’s likely because they think you are one of the few people who might not hate them for feeling as they do.


The necessary ingredients for a social life

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, following on from feeling sorry for myself earlier in the week. What does it take to have a viable social life?

  1. People, obviously. People you like and have things in common with and want to spend time with and who do not run away when they see you. (There are many people I like, most of whom do not run away. Many of them do not live in viable travelling distance. Most of the more local folk are very busy already.)
  2. The time and energy to go out and do things with people. (I struggle with this one, especially when the only social stuff is in the evenings.)
  3. The means to go where there are people, or the means to have people visit. (Flat is a bit small for inviting people over, no car, often too tired to walk as transport in the evenings, public transport useless after dark, taxis expensive and difficult to sort in the evenings unless you know in advance when you will be leaving).
  4. Disposable income – for transport, door costs, drinks, appropriate clothing etc. (Not currently a problem but certainly has been in the past).
  5. The concentration to engage socially. (Intermittent and unreliable especially at night).
  6. Being sufficiently not anxious and not depressed to be able to function socially. (Unpredictable, gets worse as I become more tired).
  7. Being able to access and function in the space (not an issue for me, but I know other folk who can’t do stairs, or have other practical considerations that make many venues impossible).

We evolved to be social creatures, but live increasingly isolated lives. I remember what it was like being the parent of a small child and being almost entirely dependent on people coming to me for any social contact at all. I had a much bigger living room then. Almost everything runs on the assumption that you have a car, for those of us who don’t, participation in all manner of things is really tricky. I wonder how many other people are isolated by being too tired, by not having the funds, or are not emotionally together enough to be able to face being where other people are. It’s difficult, showing up to anything when you feel like you have nothing to offer.

A tough recognition for me, this week. I don’t have the energy and the concentration to be very socially engaged. I can’t put enough into the world to be a good person to spend time with. Frequently I am no fun at all to be around. I miss having a tribe of people I’d regularly and reliably spend time with, as was the case back when I was running a folk club, and a moot, and meditation groups and rituals. I don’t have the energy to be that person any more, and there are consequences.

Being able to show up is absolutely key to having a place in a social group. No one can do that for me, and I cannot do it for myself. I need to work on accepting my circumstances and limitations, rather than trying to do things that don’t work, or waiting for some kind of magical solution to turn up. I cannot be sociable. Therefore until or unless something changes within me, I had better get my head round mostly being a hermit.


Folking about

I’m not really here. This is a blog post written in advance to maintain the flow, because I am offline, gallivanting about. This is quite a big deal for me, because I can’t remember when I last had a whole day off, and there’s going to be one of those, and probably two half days to keep it company.

This is a story that begins on the narrow boat. Canals are lovely in summer, but in winter, with no surface on the towpath, and no lights, those winter nights are isolating. When the weather is bad, getting out of an evening can be difficult. During the boat period, we did not get out much during the evenings in winter, and those evenings were long. What kept us sane and connected to the world, was a little wind up radio, with its aerial wired to the curtain poles.

It was a lesson in ancestral life. Electrical lighting and cars have not been with us that long, when you think about it. We take for granted being able to see of an evening, and being able to easily travel from our homes of an evening, should we so wish. Street lights, and predictable tarmac surfaces, are also great facilitators. For most of our ancestors, the roads after dark where unlit, and fairly dangerous places where thieves and wild creatures might be lurking! The further back you go, the more dangerous it would have been to go wandering round at night. The little circles of light and civilization become ever more important.

The modern western human spends the winter at home, and for the majority, light and heat are available at the flick of a switch. A sense of connection with the rest of the world comes readily when you have a TV, with up to date news, and human voices. To be out, isolated by the dark is less usual, but still available. Poverty and/or location can deliver. Sometimes there were no friendly lights near us where we moored. In the darkness, with bad weather battering the boat, we would have felt very isolated indeed, had it not been for the radio. Our contact with humanity. Our opportunity to feel like normal people. For Tom and I, working from home exacerbated this because we missed those daytime opportunities for normality that I think many boaters benefit from.

One of the features of those two winters, was BBC Radio 2’s Wednesday night folk program. A welcome dash of culture and community in our weeks. Two years running, we listened to the Folk Awards, and dared to imagine that there would come a time when, with lives, finances and travel options better organised, we could go to that. It was our shared Cinderella-goes-to-the-ball type daydream, only without the silly shoes.

So, this autumn, we were listening to the folk show from the comfort of the flat, and via the computer, and not having to wind it at all. The shout out came for tickets, for the Folk Awards, and we just looked at each other, and then we started scrambling to get on the website. It is easy to get to London from here, and so we are going. There will be adventures. We’ve come such an amazingly long way from where we were this time last year, and the prospects ahead of us are looking really good. In the meantime… there will be folk.