Every phase of this pandemic has brought with it huge mental health and wellbeing challenges, with different worries and pressures. It has been an emotional rollercoaster. Lots of downs – so many deep downs – and many, many false highs, false dawns and over promises. Thankfully, there is now light at the end of the dark tunnel, but despite all the positives of recent weeks, I am still finding life hard.
Like many people – probably most across these islands – I am delighted that restrictions have been mostly lifted and that life is returning to something like normal – or at the very least to a new, more normal. I am thrilled, and more than a little grateful, at the incredible vaccine development and roll-out effort, and was more than a little emotional to receive my two jabs. I am happy to be able to write this blog from one of my favourite places – the lovely MerseyMade in Liverpool – which at one point was closed and then only open with outside tables. And I am delighted that life is increasingly looking like it did before the news broke from Wuhan and all our lives were turned brutally upside down: kept away from family, friends and the activities and places that matter most to us.
But I am still finding my feet in this latest phase. I am still worried. I am still being cautious. I am still not totally happy. I am still working very hard every day on my mental health – working harder than during the old normal. My updated daily routines and habits that are keeping me mentally well most of the time require extra effort and thought. It’s tough.
I appreciated the part of the pandemic – albeit now it feels it was short-lived – when the world seemed to embrace the message to “be kind” and there was a strong sense of community, with people looking out for each other. I liked the consideration that people were showing each other and the space – literal and emotional – that we were offering and were offered. Moving over as we passed on the pavement; standing back from each other in shops; not leaning over each other to grab stuff from shelves in supermarkets and respecting each person’s personal space. Those were the days.
Understandably, with the lifting of restrictions, that has changed with people feeling freer and safer to ignore those practices – despite the continued medical evidence that they remain important, even for double-vaccinated people.
I am still wearing a mask in crowed places, including in shops, on trains, when I am around people I don’t know and when moving around cafes and restaurants. I am still carrying hand-gel around with me and using it regularly. I am not going to pubs – not that I did that much any more (as I approach 3 years sober in September) and I am still trying to keep my two metre distance when in public places. I am not ready yet to return to the match – despite being desperate to return to Anfield for my 38th season – even though I was kindly offered tickets for the first home league game of the season next weekend. I am not ready despite missing it so much. So, so much. That is painful to me, but it is how I feel.
I am not ready to be pushed up against strangers – unmasked strangers – who may or may not have had the virus, the vaccine or may knowingly or unknowingly be passing COVID to those around them at that very moment. No, I am not ready.
Even in non-pandemic times, I spend every day working on my mental health and trying to stay calm, present and anxiety-free. It was a huge challenge in those old normal times, especially after my breakdown. It was and remains a 24/7, 365 effort. For me – and millions of others – the pandemic just made our daily mental health struggles even tougher than usual and it took me some time to find our ways of managing the usual levels of depression and anxiety alongside this new – life-threatening – set of worries and existential fears.
I recently was in London with my wonderful wife and darling daughter and whilst there I went briefly – and cautiously – to a small mental health conference. I chaired a discussion on the ‘new normal’ and how relationships were working in these times, reflecting with those gathered about the impact on our mental health and wellbeing. The over-riding message for me was that there is no universal pandemic experience and no universal view of what we all need to do to feel safe. We must respect each other’s choices, as long as those choices do not impact on others. I am passionately of the view that I will do me and you should do you – as long as you doing you doesn’t expose me to passive smoking as I was a child to my 40 a day woodbine and roll-up habits of my grandparents.
I am a big boy and don’t need or seek the approval of others for my actions. I am happy with my choices – I need them to stay well and functioning but I know they are not always welcomed or respected. At times I feel the disapproving looks; the silent (and sometimes not so silent) sighing and eye-rolling, as I arrive in my mask (and not just because it has an LFC logo on it!).
Being kind doesn’t always seem to extend to those who are making different choices. My choices – which help keep my mentally safe – are not hurting anyone else, even if they are sometimes hurting me. My choices may seem over the top to others but they are my choices – they are right for me and they are not stopping others from making theirs.
As I try to navigate this next phase of the pandemic, I simply ask that you to be kind. If you can’t be kind, then just leave me to be me. Please.