Monday, May 18, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: when the foundations are shaken...some thoughts for Mental Health Awareness Week

Health warning: These are very limited and partial observations drawn from my own experience. Please, please, please if you are struggling do not be afraid to ask for help. 
You can reach Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT on 85258

An optimist by nature, with a plethora of blessings to count every day, I've always taken good mental health for granted. After all, I reasoned, if I could survive the loss of two parents in six months while taking A levels, and later deal with the grief of several miscarriages, it stood to reason that my psyche must be pretty robust.
Even when I realised, as I grew older, that "coping" was not always the wisest strategy, that there were times when the sensible thing to do was simply to shout for help, I rejoiced that occasional grey days when tears were not far away were always remedied by a good night's sleep. 
"God's mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning." seemed to ring true for me pretty much all of the time - even if I rarely managed to attend to quite how fortunate I was that this was my lived experience. I don't mean that I was always blissfully happy - but I was, and am, content. My job and my calling bring me joy, and I have an amazing family whom I love beyond measure, and a wonderful collection of friends with whom to laugh, cry and wonder. Honestly, I ought to be content, and at peace with my world!

Only - we are now seven weeks (or is it eight? maybe nine? time seems to have lost its meaning) into lock-down, and I, an extrovert, albeit a shy one, have not touched another human being since mid March. The hugs that I gave my family on our last outings together have had to last me rather longer than I'm accustomed to. Plans for spending Easter together, for launching my sabbatical with fish and chips and prosecco have, like that much anticipated sabbatical, long since gone the way of all flesh, and what had looked in January like a year to celebrate has been changed into a season to endure.

And the worst thing is - it's open-ended.

We have no idea when it will end so I can't comfort myself with "only four more weeks and we can be together", or even the hollow confidence of "It'll all be over by Christmas".
We just don't know.
Even if, in some madcap universe, the lock-down were lifted completely tomorrow, we all know enough of the ways of the virus to recognise that this would not mean that the world was safe again so we would be torn between longing to see those we love and fear that in doing so we might be risking their health and our own. Day by day, we feel that we are under threat, confronting the reality of our own mortality in ways that we have not had to in my lifetime, and that is deeply unsettling.

And all of this has made me realise how very conditional mental health is, how contingent on the prevailing environment. 
When my external points of reference are in the right place, it's easy to manage day by day, to ride the waves of even the more challenging situations at work, specially if there is something to look forward to.
Right now, though, there really isn't.
We dare not make plans - because that simply opens the way for more disappointment and frustration.
Even the prospect of returning to the Cathedral for worship is horribly clouded by the realisation that we probably won't be able to sing...
My children are 80 miles away in different directions so I can't hope to form a "bubble" with one of their households.
All I can do is sit it out - and sometimes that's fine, and I feel calm and able to look for signs of God's presence, signs of hope in the moment.
But not always.
Not by any means!

It all came to a head for me ten days ago, as we negotiated the complex jollity of the VE Day commemoration, and I began to realise that celebration felt like a preposterous concept. The days were running into one another, each day vanishing at an alarming speed but each week a stretch of formless grey that seemed set to last forever. I was not uniformly miserable, indeed I was finding tremendous joy in small things - in time in the garden, and birdsong in the city, in the sheer delight my dogs take in my presence at home every day, in music and poetry, in the sight of little hearts and thumbs floating gently up the screen as I lead live-streamed worship - each one a sign that despite lock-down I remain connected with a web of wonderful people joining me in praise and prayer...Yes, the moments were fine - it was the overall landscape that seemed so bleak.
When I caught myself quoting Hamlet
 "How weary, flat, stale and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world" it was like a bucket of cold water poured over my head.
"I think that's what depression feels like" I thought.
"Might that be where I'm heading? Sliding downhill into the slough of despond? Gripped by accedie?" (a state of spiritual listlessness whose dangers have been recognised for centuries)

I named to myself what was going on, and for extra accountability, (and because I'm an extrovert, so why waste a good crisis?!) I named it on twitter. 
And somehow, even the act of naming, of saying "I'm not sure I'm coping very well" made all the difference.
In taking that tiniest smidgeon of control, I suddenly realised that I still had agency...that though I couldn't do everything I longed to, there were nonetheless decisions that were mine to make that would actually make many things easier, that while this was not the way I had expected to spend my time this year, nonetheless the fact that I am here to spend it at all remains a gift which I am free to enjoy.

So, I'm trying to work round that sense of contingency on external elements...but also to cut myself some slack when those elements aren't in place. 
Heavens to Betsy, this is a global pandemic! Something that hasn't hit humanity for over a century...It's a collective trauma in which nobody is going to feel utterly comfortable and secure. Emotional resources will be spread a bit thin, and perhaps the best we can hope for in human terms is that we can operate like those weather houses where one figure emerges on sunny days and another on dull ones, so that within our networks there's always someone in a better place to offer smiles and suggest recipes for banana bread when we're having a grey day.

Mental health is as much part of our overall makeup as the state of our bodies, and our experiences of frailty here are as valid and blame free as a broken leg, a tendency to migraine or any other physical challenge we might need to negotiate on our way through life. While past generation were dangerously inclined to see any trace of vulnerability in our psyches as a sign of moral weakness, we know better now.
The relationship between body mind and spirit is unutterably complex but the resounding message of this season for me is that we need to learn to be kinder - to others, of course, but also to ourselves.

That feels like a reasonable goal for this Mental Health Awareness Week. 
What do you think?
I know it would make God smile too.

No comments: