WE ARE IN A MENTAL HEALTH PANDEMIC
We are in a mental health pandemic. And nobody is going to ask you if you are suffering. That’s a fact. They will ask you how you are, and you will answer ‘fine’ because you’re keeping your chin up, and trying to make the best of it.
A friend of mine called it that – a mental health pandemic due to extended lockdown. It was in a conversation we were having on what’s app, because, we have not actually met in person. Well, okay, we initially met at a writing workshop, and I singled her out because I liked her, and thought her writing was excellent. I found her on Twitter, and we chatted, and became friends. Over the past year we have been setting each other writing goals, texting frequently to check in on each other, and encouraging each other. She is a nurse, and she teaches nurses, and I have not seen her since that initial meeting because of restrictions. She doesn’t even live that far from me. We all have our pandemic lockdown stories.
I drove to the heart of Ireland to a cottage on my own for a week because it was essential for my mental health. It started out as a need to clear my head so I could write, therefore it was a work trip, however I was unable to settle, and I was unable to work. I spent the first day agitated, on social media, watching the reaction to NPHET’s announcement, on the very day they lift the 5K restriction, telling us that we are to expect a 4th virus wave and we need to be very careful or we might be put under lockdown again. I overreacted to this ‘leak’, for it was a leak to the press, they had not even at that stage mentioned it to the government. Surrounded by beauty, knowing I will be here for a whole week, I still reacted with anger, physical tension and grief. Today, 36 hours later, I can see it was grief.
I can say this as I sit in the morning sun, with my morning tea, listening to birdsong, only because I realised why I was still, on day 3 of my retreat to the countryside, unable to relax. Once I could pinpoint it then my whole body shuddered. I said to my friend in our what’s app messages last night that her idea of a Mental Health pandemic was a good one. She put the idea in my head that we are all suffering from mental health issues. I told her that I have more skills than most to manage this yet I still am affected, and it must be so difficult for people who don’t have any skills, or for people who don’t recognise what is happening to them.
This is usually the case with Mental Health issues, they creep up upon you and you don’t see them coming. They insinuate themselves into your brain, into your thought patterns, and take over slowly, gradually, so that you don’t notice you have shifted the tone of your moods, the frame of your mind. Mental Health issues and thoughts are inextricably linked. And most of us believe that we are our thoughts, therefore the state of our mental health defines who we are. And this inevitably makes things worse.
Late last night, after the texting, when I was trying to settle to sleep I became agitated once more. There was something ticking in my room. It was ticking irregularly, loudly and it grated on my nerves. It had been present in the room since I got here, but last night for some reason I noticed it and it got under my skin. I tried to turn it off, but there was no switch it was built into the wall, a timer for the water heater. I set it to zero, I unset it, I tried all the things, I even tried to smash it. That’s when I realised how upset I was. I said to myself “Hey, it’s going to be okay, what can we do to make it quieter if we can’t turn it off?” I managed to wedge something into it, and it made it significantly quieter. Then I said to myself “yes there’s a ticking thing but we can’t do anything about it right now. it is quieter now, tomorrow we can ask if there’s some way of turning it off.” That really helped, my own acknowledgement of my state of mind made me feel instantly calmer. And I use we here because it was me and I, little me who was upset in the moment, and the I who was supporting the me. I went to bed, and was able to sleep through the night because I supported myself. Instant manifestation of my coping skills, straight after the text messages to my friend – coincidence or serendipity?
Many people are too deeply in the grief and the pain, the anger and frustration to be able to do that right now. This is what is needed – to see what you are doing, to acknowledge what is upsetting you in the moment it is upsetting you, and to support yourself in that moment, with the irritation still present, until you feel better and strong enough to do something about it.
So I sit here, in the morning sunshine with my tea the morning after a good sleep, and I realise that my upset last night wasn’t about the ticking thing at all.
I ask myself how I am, how I really am, not just the brain answering ‘fine’ but the body, I ask my body, feeling into the creases and crevices of my inner self, to ask my body how it is. And it still is riddled with tension. Riddled with it. So I remembered the phrase from my friend in the text message and I ask myself gently from the I – “is it possible that I am carrying trauma from being in lockdown?” Oh the grief, the relief that my body feels just being asked this is immense. “Yes yes yes” it says, “yes and you see me and I can release it now because I just wanted you to see me”. So I let go that layer, and suddenly understand the tactics being used on us are tantamount to torture, and I commend my body for doing so well and still being here. I commend the strength of my own mental health, and my ability to separate myself from my thoughts and understand what thoughts are being influenced by trauma, and I commend myself for holding myself well through this. I release my trauma, and then I become upset because I know that I am skilled at doing this, that this is what I do for others in my work, and that many others will not have realised this, and will still be carrying trauma. Trauma that will eat into their health; emotional, mental and physical. Trauma that will leak into their thoughts and create tensions, anger, frustration and anxiety. Trauma that will create argument within family that will push friendships even further apart, that will exacerbate the separation that has been physically enforced upon us, even when these restrictions have currently been relaxed.
We are not relaxed, and we need to make the time to heal.
If you want to, you can try this exercise, but make sure you are prepared for the response that you may get from your mind, your emotional body, your physical body.
Separate yourself from your mind, for a moment and ask yourself how does your body feel? Really feel? Does it long to be touched? Is it tense and tight, are muscles bunched, do you have pain in your jaw or your back? Do you need to cry? Scream? What do you need to do to create a space where your body feels safe to relax?
Honour your mental health, separate yourself from your thoughts and know that you are not your thoughts. You are the I, and the thoughts are your me. You are a we, so talk to yourself from the I, like I did, in a supporting way, and see if it makes a difference. Step out of your thoughts and look at them, ask yourself if they are truly yours, or if you’re wound up and caught up in fear, anger, frustration. The space between your thoughts and the you underneath (the I) is where the healing begins.
And know that you need to heal yourself no matter what ‘side’ you’ve been pitched onto, whether you are pro or anti lockdown, whether you have or plan to take a vaccine, or not. Ask your body how it feels, and support it to release tension and stress. Then ask your emotional body how does it feel. And do what you need to do to release pain, grief, frustration and anger. Even if it’s just writing a letter and burning it. Or sending a letter to your TD to ask them to make sure that we never have lockdown again. (and if you feel like doing this I would be delighted because I am going to do it too.)
We are in a mental health pandemic. And nobody is going to ask you if you are suffering. That’s a fact. They will ask you how you are, and you will answer ‘fine’ because you’re keeping your chin up, and trying to make the best of it. Only you can decide if you need support for your mental health, if your physical or emotional body is affected, or if you need some help. I didn’t even mention spiritual body once in this article, but it is affected too. Please, if you need help to support yourself, please, get some help. And allow yourself to receive the help. It’s possible, like me, that all you need to do is recognise that you have been traumatised by lockdowns, by the news, by social media, and give yourself a few days off to come back to yourself. Which is what I plan to do right now. It is more important that you give yourself the space you need to heal, than anything else you do today.