I will open by saying I am in no way a professional in mental health. This is simply the story of my 2019, and how I held myself together during my year of isolation.
I won’t go into illness details, as for this story it seems irrelevant, but to give a short overview, I was struck down by a sudden illness on Feb 2nd 2019, I had turned 31 the December before and I was about to spend the following 13 months in large amounts of isolation. My illness varied day to day, and sometimes I couldn’t even make it to the supermarket (a 30 second walk away.)
When it all started, I treated it like any other sickness with a lot of rest, a watchlist on Netflix, and a (too large) selection of ‘treats’ that I told myself would help. We all tell ourselves we will only eat kale and do yoga every day to get healthy again, but if we are honest, all you want is your mum, and any little treat that makes you feel good.
I was an avid gym goer, who in the last few years had lost seven stone. This had massively helped to improve my mental health. I knew that in the two weeks (or so I thought) following I would gain a little weight, but that was cool, I could easily get back in the driver’s seat and hit the gym hard when I got back. Time flew past, and a friend of mine was off with what we thought was a similar illness, we binge watched TV at the same time while furiously messaging about the twists and turns of the show that had become our life. Standard sickness behaviour. After two weeks, my friend went back to work and I was alone, but self-assured that I was mere days away from recovery and a return to my normal life.
Needless to say, it didn’t end, and before I knew it, I was in and out of the GP’s – medication changes, blood tests, some crying and so on and so forth. I was slipping into depression and my anxiety was growing daily and giving me thoughts such as:
- I am useless...
- What use am I as a friend?
- I am definitely going to lose my job
- Look at everybody having fun in their normal lives
- I can see my weight increasing
- Maybe I’ll just sleep more
- Sorry I missed your birthday, party, wedding, event
My mind had become my enemy, and it was winning. The only time I got respite from myself was while I worked. I couldn’t work one of my jobs because it was in the street food industry, but my other job was focussed on marketing and communications for an art organisation, and we had a large scale festival fast approaching so I had plenty to do, and did as much as I could from home.
Suddenly, after the seventh week, it was all fine. I returned to work just in time for the festival, and fully threw myself into what was needed to be done for 3 weeks. I was better, and I had a new appreciation for my life. Boom, it attacked again, and I was again stuck in the house. This time my mind was working harder and faster to make me feel worthless and after tasting some sweet normality, it was succeeding. There would be another 2 other attempts at returning to work in 2019, both of which were not successful, and each time broke my mental strength as I began to panic that this was my new normal.
Around July, enough was enough. My weight and anxiety had grown substantially, and I had lost who I was as a person. I had learnt to win battles with my mental health issues in a gym with a hard workout and a copious amount of sweat, and this was no longer an option. I happened upon the ‘Yes Theory’ YouTube channel, which follows a small group of friends who actively seek discomfort and push positivity out into the world through kind actions and understanding the joys of life, and people, and creativity. It was a light bulb moment for me and I knew it was time to make a plan.
During my isolation these were the things that genuinely helped me. They may seem obvious to you, and perhaps simple, but each day became a battleground for me, and one I was determined to win. I hope they help you in some way as we face one of the strangest times in a generation.
Build a Routine
I built a routine for myself. I was out of bed by 8am, regardless of the fact that I had nowhere to go. It was important to see the day through and fill my time creatively - and not just in front of Netflix (although there was still some of this).
If you are lucky enough to be able to work from home, do it. It was my biggest saving grace in terms of feeling a sense of normality in my life. It can be hard to self-motivate but harnessing your critical thinking for work can be a beautiful way to remind your brain just what it can achieve, especially in unusual situations. In what was a difficult time for me, I actually believe I managed to build my skills in this area.
I have seen people on social media discussing how we shouldn’t worry about being better during a pandemic crisis, but my humble opinion is to disagree. We don’t all have the luxury of work at the moment and critical thinking is such an important function to help you remain positive and give you a sense of achievement. Even those who do still work from home, could be looking for a creative outlet in their spare time to keep them busy. The internet is full of ideas, YouTube alone has millions of videos, and tutorials form a massive section of this. I’m not suggesting we all come out of this as professionals in aeroplane engineering, but this is your time and you can use it to learn what you want. I used Duo Lingo and Say Something in Welsh to improve my Welsh language skills, but you can do anything. Pick up the dusty guitar in the corner that you always meant to learn. Pick up a pen and paper and draw. Try following a yoga instructor, something you had possibly always been too embarrassed to try in a class setting. This list could be endless, but what is important is that you choose what you want.
Rest & Self Care
How often have you heard someone say that they work too much, and that they need a break? Well here it is, many of us have now been effectively forced to stop. Choose to see it as an opportunity to look after yourself. Don’t let the location you are in become defined as a prison sentence, it’s just as easy to treat your home as a holiday from the business of life. It is also important during a time of isolation that you remember to rest. Isolation in itself is not rest and can be hard on you mentally. So, remember to take that time to watch a bit of TV or a movie that gives you an escape from reality, scroll through the games on your phone or PlayStation.
These things that seem pointless, and can often be referred to as a waste of time are just as important when you are looking after yourself.
Reading can be so powerful and is a break from the screens that fill our life. I became heavily interested in learning about mental health, and for anyone struggling, or those who know somebody who is, I highly recommend Matt Haig’s ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’. It is one man’s story, and although everyone can suffer differently, his way with words really makes it understandable, and easily relatable to things so many of us have been through.
I also took in as much fiction as I could. Personal highlights include Hanya Yanagihara’s emotional and beautiful ‘A Little Life’ which follows the life of four male friends. Also, Dan Tyte’s ‘The Offline Project’ which sees the internet obsessed protagonist going off grid.
Pick something that sparks your interest and get lost in the pages.
Not a reader? That’s cool. There are plenty of podcasts out there to inspire, entice and get lost in. Highly recommend The Naked Professors for anybody interested in mental health, or ‘Getting curious with Jonathon Van Ness’ is great if you just want to learn about a wide array of subjects that you perhaps didn’t fully understand before. There is also audible, for listening to books, another great tool to stop you losing hours or days in front of a screen.
As I mentioned above, find a subject you love, and let that lead you to discovering something new.
I was lucky in my time of isolation to have people who constantly stayed in contact via social media and messaging, phone calls and video calls. It helped me fight that feeling that I had been forgotten.
This time we are in the same boat, and it is important we use this wonderful technology to keep in contact. We all still need to laugh and enjoy ourselves as a way to remind ourselves that things can be OK.
Houseparty is a great app for multi-person video calls which allows you to come and go, almost like you were visiting friends at the local pub. Use the opportunity to reach out to people you haven’t spoken to in a while because ‘life has got in the way’.
My illness last year allowed for little movement, but it’s so important. I would do what I could from day to day. Sometimes I would make the supermarket, a short walk for me, other times I would only make it to the end of the street before my body forced me to return home. It was important I kept doing what I could. Whatever you feel you can do in isolation, try to do it. I talked earlier about how many videos there are, and exercise tutorials are everywhere, including Joe Wicks’ daily workout live streams. Now might be the perfect time to engage with your local gym as many are taking classes online, making them easy to complete in your own living room at your own pace.
That’s it from me, and as I mentioned above – I am not expert, but I do know what it feels like to be isolated and looking after your mental health is important as we all go through this.
I’m on a steady, and happy road to recovery now, taking back control of my life one step at a time. This is what helped me, and I hope it can in some way help you too.