Content warning: this post contains reference to sexual assault.
Over the past few months I have indulged in my anxiety. I have always found it difficult to leave the house on a ‘normal’ day, feeling cemented to the front doorstep for reasons I can’t explain. The introduction of lockdown brought with it the perfect excuse: I am not allowed to go outside. I usually feel uneasy on crowded train carriages, but now I don’t have to commute further than my living room. It’s become socially acceptable to cross the street if someone is approaching, keeping a distance from strangers is actively encouraged, and my bubble of personal space is now so protected it has merged with the walls surrounding me, encasing the small square of land where I know I will see nobody but my family; for the first month I did not leave the house, not even when we were allowed out once a day. I knew I was making life more difficult by refusing to confront my fears, but trying to understand how my brain decides what it’s scared of is exhausting and frustrating, so it was easier to stay indoors and not think about it.
Last weekend I saw a group of friends for the first time since lockdown began. We sat on garden chairs with cans of drink and baked goods, battling the inclemency of a wet Summer afternoon. I was apprehensive beforehand, wondering if I would remember how to socialise, what it would be like to venture further than a mile from my house, where I would go to the toilet. The feelings dissipated as soon as I arrived, melting in the warm company of friends I’ve known since I was 10 years old. But when I woke up the next day, an uneasiness had built in the pit of my stomach. Did I overshare? Was I weird? Did I drink too much? Was I too loud? Anxious thoughts offset a chain reaction of over-thinking, similar to The Fear experienced after a night out, when your brain tries to fill in the empty gaps of foggy memories, struck with the horror of imagining embarrassing past behaviour. As lockdown restrictions continue to ease over the coming weeks and months and we are allowed to see friends more often, I imagine these feelings will get more intense the more socially active I become.
The first month of lockdown was tough to navigate. I work freelance in the creative sector, taking on a mix of roles where I work from home and occasionally in London. My job, since before the WFH culture of the pandemic, means I don’t have a regular routine that takes me out of my parents’ house, or the income to move out of it yet. Usually, seeing friends and engaging in regular social activities integrates me within the outside world, preventing me from isolating myself which in turn keeps my anxiety at a manageable level. Not being able to do these things anymore was scarily comforting, and retreating into my own space during those weeks became a security blanket that has since proved difficult to shift.
I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety in 2017, after I experienced sexual assault in the halls of residence I lived in at uni. I had begun to feel isolated from my flatmates and was incredibly lonely, situated on the edge of a group I no longer felt a part of, surrounded by voices with words barely exchanged. I didn’t know how to talk about the way I was feeling. Within Indian households like the one I grew up in, the subject of mental health is not openly discussed or even acknowledged. Mental illness is highly stigmatised, culturally laced with shame and shrouded in the idea that it meant weakness. At school, someone who suffered from panic attacks was branded an attention seeker. If a classmate had depression it raised questions that perpetuated the uninformed belief that you shouldn’t be unhappy if you had no reason to be.
Looking back on my teenage years, I wish I knew that it’s okay and actually a good thing to talk about the way we feel, to birth early on a culture where we are comfortable to open our emotions up to others without being whispered about as self obsessed. I started using the university counselling service as an outlet for the loneliness I was feeling. The PTSD meant I found it harder to do everyday things alone, like leaving my flat, doing the food shop or taking the bus without my friends. Through counselling I learned how to articulate the way I felt, and that speaking about what was happening inside my head and seeking help to understand it wasn’t shameful or embarrassing, but empowering and important to my wellbeing.
Today, the illusion of comfort lockdown created is tainted with frustration, knowing how much being indoors has regressed on all the progress I made before. Restless surges of energy are brought on by fleeting negative thoughts that stick to the insides of my head like glue, inflating into bigger ones before I can pull them down. I want to exercise more, but I am overwhelmed by the idea of the outside world; the fear is a quicksand that sucks me into a pit from which I struggle to climb out of. Frustration at the overwhelmingness fills my head to the point of bursting and I am unable to concentrate on anything else. The seeds of self-hate are planted, growing weeds in my brain that cast shade over positivity.
But it is possible to get through these feelings, however impossible it feels. I know that I function best when I have someone to do things with, so I’ve started to go for walks with my mum rather than trying to do it alone, which still feels daunting. Progress, however small, is still progress.
I signed up to Headspace Plus to try a new way of confronting my feelings. (Headspace is also offering a free year of plus membership to people who are unemployed or on furlough due to the pandemic in the UK and USA, details of which can be found at the bottom of this page.) Move Mode is like being with someone while out walking, who motivates you to keep going. A voice speaks in your ear as you move, grounding you to the moment, helping anxious thoughts not to spiral. It gives me something to focus on instead of worrying about being alone, or feeling the invisible eyes of strangers. Meditations for frustration and restlessness act in a similar way. In the times when I feel unable to help myself, there’s someone in my ear telling me what to do. I am finding a much needed balance to emotions in my brain, by learning how to regulate breathing when it becomes accelerated, and discovering how to allow negative thoughts to coexist with positive ones, rather than trying to drown them out (or being drowned by them.)
When I think about how much our lifestyles have upturned since lockdown began and the changes that have yet to come in our return to normality, I am fearful but hopeful. I remember the times when people in my life have helped me when I hadn’t wanted to help myself: my pharmacist father sharing medical notes on depression, my university mentor researching resources for me when I couldn’t do it for myself, a girl I met at work who shared a meditation to help with insomnia. These notes are folded away inside an old diary I keep in the drawer of my bedside table. I look at them on the occasions when I need the strength to remember how far I’ve come since those moments in 2017, that the kindness of people who have been in and out of my life has helped, and that however stuck I’m feeling in a particular moment, things can and will change.
Headspace is offering a free year of its plus subscription for people in the UK and USA who are unemployed or on furlough because of the pandemic. You can sign up here.
If you are in need of support for sexual assault you can access resources here.
Some podcasts I listen to are All in the Mind by BBC Radio 4, The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos, Bryony Gordon’s Mad World and Happy Place with Fearne Cotton.