If I had a pound for every time I had written the word ‘unprecedented’ or the phrase ‘extraordinary times’ over the last few weeks I would have enough cash to fund my own toilet roll mountain. As individuals and organisations have navigated the COVID crisis, we have asked ourselves and each other to dig deep, to go the extra mile, to pull out all the stops to help deal with the changing world around us. In my work at Liverpool John Moores University, we have made big decision after big decision – all of which needed to communicated to many different, unsettled, and rightly anxious groups.
This period has meant around the clock working, weekends morphing into week days and the usual routine of daily working hours going out of the window for so many of us. Let’s get this in perspective, most of us haven’t been donning life-saving (or at times not life saving) PPE and placing ourselves in harm’s way to help others. But, it has been tough. It has been stressful. It has been draining. I deliberately wrote that in the past tense, not because the crisis is over but because we are now in a different phase of it, with new routines established, technologies deployed to support us and a new normal emerging. The hourly urgent calls to make big decisions has passed and are now in a slightly more settled state. Again, perspective time. That is not the case for those working in the NHS or for other key workers, but it is the case for most of us, including me.
Without trying to channel Churchill or sound too pompous, most of us were only too happy – no, proud – to play a very small part in this huge national effort over the last few weeks as this country and this world has responded to the corona crisis. We didn’t mind burning the candle at both ends for a few days – there were many giving much more than us – and there were important things to do; people to help; jobs to protect; families to support. But all of this has a cost. A personal cost. A cost for those of us with underlying conditions.
Not the sort of underlying conditions that make you more vulnerable to this vicious virus but to the impact of long hours; unsettled working patterns; stressed colleagues; relentless social media noise; emails from 6am to 10pm and sometimes beyond; to poor sleep; to vivid dreams; to waking early and before saying good morning to the person you love, picking up the iPhone to check the latest emails and social feeds. This sort of pressure – this sort of activity – is not ideal for those of us with depression and/or anxiety. If you asked someone who has underlying mental health issues what would create the perfect storm of worries, fears, insecurities and stresses, a global pandemic that puts your life and the lives of those you hold most dear would be near the top of the list.
This has been – and continues to be – a terrible time for those of us who have to work hard in normal times to stay on an even keel. It is like a second full-time job for me to stay well enough to function and be the dad and husband I want to be. I have to be honest, the days of trying to also be a great son, brother, friend and colleague went out of the window some time ago too – not because I don’t care enough but because I simply don’t have the capacity to embrace even that slightly wider world. That failure – and whatever I tell myself, it is a failure – to be the person I felt once, hurts. But I now accept that there is only so much I can do and that if I try to do much more the impact on me will be huge. I’ve been down the road before and it left me with a breakdown, via pneumonia and hospital and many, many tears. Acceptance of my limits now are such a big part of me staying well and not putting myself under too much pressure.
I now keep a diary which helps me to track my mental health and wellbeing. I score each day out of ten, capturing my mood for the day. Ten is perfect (I’ve never scored a ten – or a nine); one or two would be worrying (I’ve never scored a one or two, although I have come close). Six is where I spend most of my time and yet I haven’t felt like a six for quite a few days now.
It isn’t rocket science. In normal times, I can generally cope well with life – I can thrive and be filled with confidence and self assurance. When times get trickier, it is harder. Some things have to give. I say no to more stuff, I retreat a little, I protect myself. This works for me and once I have replenished myself, recharged my mental health batteries, I can go again. But when times are really hard – as they have been over the last few, long, worrying weeks – I have to be super vigilant and take more drastic action. I need more rest; less computer time; more music; more fresh air; more proper family time; more reading of non-work stuff; more peace and quiet; more me time; more time to do stuff, less busyiness, less activity; I need a bit less of life.
If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I hit a wall a couple of days ago and found myself in a dark, depressive episode. I am still in there although it feels a little lighter, the heavy weight pushing down on me a little easier to bear. That is the result of a full day of replenishing and being being kind to myself. A day off work which, added to today and the Easter break, will get me nearly a week off work and away from the ever-present emails and well-meant but constant demands. I found time yesterday to sit in the garden and even wear a sun hat and glasses. As daft as I looked, it felt great. I read big chunks of my latest John Le Carre whilst listening to a full ball-by-ball repeat of the 2019 Headingly Ashes Test on Test Match Special. What a combination! Pure escapism.
Robert Frost, when asked what he thought the secret to life was said: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
I have learnt that for me to be a success in my life (the definition of success I redefined after my breakdown: http://www.amjcomms.com/2016/04/18/success-at-home-success-at-work-you-must-define-it/), I need to look after myself; I need to try to spot things getting tough before they start to impact and then to take action. This week, I spotted it a little too late, but I did spot it. I have taken action. I am replenishing and recharging and I will be back for more. I am being kind to myself and as a result am being the best version of myself and my best version of dad and husband. My life will go on, unprecedented times or not.