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Bad dreams and real-life nightmares: mental health during Coronavirus

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

As a freelancer, my ability to feed my family depends on my ability to work. And as a writer, my ability to work is dependent on my ability to focus and be creative. So Coronavirus has been something of a challenge.

I don’t mean from the point of view of children bursting into Zoom meetings wearing my bras, or the constant grab my toddler makes for my mouse every time she’s unleashed (although that is a daily challenge, as the recipients of numerous baby selfies and gobbledegook texts will attest).

No, as a mental health survivor and sole provider for my family at the moment, I face another challenge. The challenge not to crumble under the pressure of not crumbling.

Not the kind of long haul we’d expected…

About a week before corona unleashed chaos on the world of work, my lovely hubby was made redundant.

He received three months’ pay and – in what now seems like an irresistible temptation to fate – I speculated that he’d ‘find something new in no time’ and that we could ‘use that money for a holiday’.

How fate must have laughed. ‘Disposable income and international travel. You just wait…’

Fast forward a few weeks and we begin to realise the severity of the situation. My hubby’s promising position – money in the bank and interviews in the offing – quickly took a nosedive as recruiters cancelled and we realised this period of unemployment wasn’t going to be as fleeting as we’d hoped.

We settled in for the long haul…and not in the mile-high-cocktails-and-sunnier-climes-ahead way we’d anticipated.

So far, so shitty. But my mental health held up…

I’ve got a long history of depression, anxiety, OCD and PND.

The OCD and PND I can happily wave to in the rear view mirror and know they’re never catching up with me again.

But the anxiety and depression are closer to home. They still live with me. The room is locked but sometimes the doorknob rattles.

In fact, I used to dream about that shaking door.

Horrifying sweat-inducing nightmares about having to hold the door closed to stop a hostile ghost escaping. Sometimes it sucked me into the room and devoured me. Other times I was too weak to hold the door and it roared past me and consumed everyone I loved. 

These night terrors haunted me for years until I deciphered them. Once I understood what these figurative phantasmagorical beings represented – my fear of losing my mind – the dreams stopped.

Until Coronavirus.

Will someone tell my mind it’s all ok?

Like many people, I’ve suffered disrupted sleep, vivid dreams and unpleasant nightmares since the pandemic was declared. I think we’re all stoically keeping calm and carrying on during the day. But at night, our unconscious mind loses its shit.

Dreams are the body’s way of processing our experiences. So it makes sense that, when our experiences are fucking unbelievable, so our dreams shall follow. So apart from a few extra eye bags, I’ve not worried about them.

But last night, the beastie was back. The usual story. A previously unseen room in our home. Dark and foreboding. Stone walls. The brass door knob. I step inside…

Hold on tight…

I’ve battled this mental metaphor enough times to know what it means. And it isn’t a complete surprise to me. Coronavirus is a complete headfuck for most people, let alone those with pre-existing mental health concerns.

The mental health fallout from the lockdown is likely to be profound, with short- and longer-term casualties of this collective trauma. Wellbeing practitioners predict an increase in suicide, depression and anxiety as a result of the isolation, fear and bewilderment caused by Coronavirus.

For me, the worries are slightly different. As the sole breadwinner, I need to stay mentally well in order to look after my family during this seriously fucked up time.

Ineligible for government support due to the newness of my freelance endeavours, I've got to keep the work rolling in. But if ever there was a time for mental health to be hard to maintain, it's now.

Alongside the universal worries we’re all experiencing – fear of illness and death, balancing the loss of our liberty against losing our lives – I’m scared of my mind.

I’m scared my provenly problematic mush of grey matter and melancholy will give under the pressure. And the very fear of that happening is making it all the more likely. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy that I’m trying very hard to prevent.

Five ways to stay mentally well

1. Social distancing on social media

One way I’m doing this is to limit my access to social media and disconnecting from toxic people. I know that exposure to different views is important in life but, at the moment, I’m limiting my interactions to people who lift me up, not drag me down.

That’s not the people sharing the posts about looking on the bright side and learning to tap dance. And it’s not the people sharing viral stories filled with racism and hate. It is the stoic middle ground who acknowledge it is all shit but trying to help through everyday kindness.

2. See the news media for what it is

Another way is to read the news. I know that sounds counterintuitive but actually engaging with the situation is more helpful for me than letting my imagination run riot. I had been seeing headlines and not reading anymore, letting my mind fill in the gaps.

But that was counterproductive. In these times of clickbait, I’ve realised that the headlines often distort and manipulate the truth. Actually reading the news made me realise things aren’t as bad as they're sometimes portrayed.

That news story I lost sleep over - Police find 16 dead at care home - turned out to be nothing as dramatic as it sounds. Police in America were called to a care home because they didn't have enough capacity in their morgue any more. Yes, very sad, but nowhere near as bad as the horror movie hellscape the subeditor primed us to picture.

3. Exercise

I’d love to say I’m exercising but exercise is something I do when I feel well. Like a thermal lifting up a paraglider, when I exercise it sweeps me up in a positive whoosh of wellbeing. I eat well, I exercise more.

Right now, in my blue phase: I’m living on Penguins and lucky to reach 500 steps a day. This is something I need to work on. I suggest you do too, since research shows exercise lifts your spirits and keeps the blues at bay.

4. Practise gratitude

I’m keeping a gratitude journal. At the end of the day I list three things that I’m happy about.

These can be little things, like the way the sunlight hits a favourite vase, or pretty fundamental stuff like not having to risk my health on minimum wage like our outstanding key workers like nurses, supermarket staff and teachers (who will never ever be able to fathom the depth of gratitude we all feel for their bravery).

5. Accept the situation

And my final tactic is acceptance. The old motto ‘change what you cannot accept and accept what you cannot change’ has never been more true. We’re not going anywhere soon. No-one knows what the future holds. So living in the present and finding small joys in our current situation is the only sane way forward.

I love lazy lie-ins breastfeeding the baby without worrying about the morning commute. I love spending more time with my husband, even though we’ve long run out of interesting things to say. I’m enjoying the creativity of using up the contents of the fridge without poisoning anyone. And I’m talking way more to my mum than I ever did before.

This may be tempting fate again - fuck you, fate, by the way - but I think we’re going to be ok.


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