A message for everyone suffering from Lockdown Blues

This morning I heard on the news that stress, anxiety and depression in lockdown times was a real issue shared by so many people. And a few days ago, I noticed a message on my Facebook feed that asked friends for tips about how to cope with mood swings and depression. I was surprised to see that there had been 169 responses and I read each one as I was interested to find out what people recommended. In every case, the responder agreed that they felt low and depressed at the moment, and the advice was pretty much as you’d expect: be kind to yourself, try to meet up with friends if you can, get plenty of sleep and lots of exercise. One man wrote ‘I cope with depression by being cynical about everything. It works.’ Suddenly, I understood every cynic I’d met in my life a lot better.

The impact of lockdown on people’s lives has been quite devastating: things we took for granted, like meeting friends for a coffee or going to the gym, were not possible for a while. Isolation, one of the biggest problems when we are trying to be cheerful and positive, became commonplace. Many people couldn’t go to work and socialise, they couldn’t meet friends and families, they couldn’t have a social life. All the things that cheer us up, hugs, conversation, sharing, were suddenly a luxury or out of reach.

Uncertainty contributes to anxiety. When you’re not sure when you will be able to find work, embrace your relatives, meet your friends, go outside or buy toilet rolls, it is normal to feel fretful. We all know that wearing masks in public places and social distancing are important, but it feels unnatural to be around people who look like bandits and who move well out of the way when you pass them in the street. We’ve had to get used to a lot of change very quickly, with uncertainty about jobs, rules, safety, health and what will happen in the future. Already a second lockdown has been forecast: I can understand how the cynical person on Facebook survives by expecting the worst.

For me, however, it became important to notice the negative thought patterns that arrived with lockdown. Anxiety about friends, family and health were soon followed by negative thoughts about so many other things. Practical worries such as shortages of pasta or how the family will afford the next meal or if family and friends who are key workers will be safe soon metamorphose into a state where anxiety becomes the new normal way of being.

So, I’ve thought carefully about the way forward. The advice on the Facebook post holds good: eat well, be aware of basic safety measures, take regular exercise, all these are all very important. But perhaps there are other ways of keeping ourselves safe too.

In a way, we may now be grieving for the past, for times not so long ago when shopping was a chore and meeting friends was routine. Now these things are treats, opportunities, even fun. Once they were boring and normal. Now we long for the normality before everything changed and now, we embrace tasks we took for granted as being real pleasures. But that in itself can’t be bad…

First of all, I think it’s important to identify any negative thoughts, especially those that are frequent visitors that refuse to shift. That voice in our head that whispers that we are not good enough should be listened to only in order to identify that it is there and then we can try to find ways to neutralise it. When does it happen and how can we change the pattern? Thoughts that tell us that we are responsible for mistakes, that we are hopeless, we are not interesting enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, nice enough or even just enough need to be questioned and opposed. We are enough. Past mistakes and past troubles are in the past. Yes, we are human, we get things wrong; we learn from them, we are better because of them, we apologise, we move forward. We are not defined by the past; we are here now, in the present. We have a future.

So, how can we change omnipresent negative thoughts when we have been so willing to listen to them, to believe them? Why will we listen to a voice that tells us that we are failing rather than one that tells us we can succeed? It’s probably all to do with past habits, but we are in the present now and, COVID-19 or not, we can do more than survive, we can be happy and spread our happiness to others. We are enough. We are more than enough.

Firstly, doing yoga, meditating, taking exercise will get our bodies moving and make our minds calm. That’s a good place to start. Not everyone likes to go out for a run or a bike ride, but going outside, being in a quiet place, walking, dancing to loud music, simply stretching muscles: it all helps.

Telling others how you feel is useful. For some, a confidential counsellor is important, being able to tell someone you don’t know who will listen empathically is so helpful. To say to a friend or a family member ‘I’m struggling with this…’ can be a step forward. A good cry, even letting off a bit of steam, can be a catalyst for change. The important thing is to know that negative thoughts are simply our minds telling us our worst fears and kidding us that it’s reality and perpetuity. Then perhaps we can start to throw a few of the unhelpful thoughts away. We can change our minds and listen to a new voice, one that tells us we’re ok, we’re better than that; we are respected, liked, nice, able to move forward. We’ve got this.

Solidarity is important. We are all going through similar things. Some people have it very tough now, working in key roles where their safety is constantly under threat. Others have no job at all, or they are furloughed, or they have been separated from loved ones for a long time. Others are very worried for their own safety or that of someone they love. Many people have lost their livelihoods, their hope for the future has been shaken. We need to stand with those people: they are friends, family, neighbours, people in the community who have businesses, people we are yet to meet.

There are friends and family members who will put on a brave face to hide the anxiety they really feel and we can reach out to them; a chat, lunch, a smile, sharing feelings: we need to find ways to make others happy too. After all, we are the same; we share the same anxieties; we are all in it together. By being there for other people, we are often there for ourselves.

We don’t know when this current weirdness will end or how it will end. But we are here now, together, and we are doing our best. Suspicion, feelings of hopelessness, negative thoughts about ourselves and others won’t help us to move forward. It’s natural to experience negativity, ups and downs, caution and mistrust, but we can keep ourselves safe and others too. At this time when so many things are not as we’d like them, it is important to keep mind and body and soul together and to stay safe.

It won’t be like this forever. And perhaps we can all emerge from COVID-19 stronger, happier and ready to revel in the wonderful things the world can offer. Why not?

 

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The launch party for my new novel, The Old Girls’ Network is virtually perfect!

Lockdown has affected everyone’s life in so many different ways. I have been lucky: I’ve been able to work from home and go outside. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with my family while they’ve been home, and that’s what I’ve focused on. These are interesting and unusual times and, while it would be easy to focus on the negatives, it’s a great opportunity to spend quality time together.

I’ve written another novel in lockdown, but it’s not about lockdown, it’s about the opposite. It’s about being outside, being able to travel, to experience life. I love being able to write about being outdoors, exploring the world, making changes happen, growing. A good friend of mine recently described his experience of lockdown as ‘dull,’ another friend said he was ‘lonely’ and, although I believe I could write a lively lockdown story that celebrates the things I hold dear, it’s nice to step outside of current restrictions and rejoice in freedom and fun. Enter The Old Girls’ Network.

My new novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three characters: two are sisters, Barbara and Pauline. They are very different and lead different lives. Barbara is difficult to warm to at first; she seems  starchy and aloof. Life has made her that way and she uses her bluntness as a coping mechanism to keep her safe from being emotionally bruised. Pauline is the opposite: warm and good-natured, but strong. At first the sisters clash over their differences, then the enigmatic Bisto Mulligan arrives on the scene as a house guest and the three characters’ adventures in the Somerset village of Winsley Green lead to them being able to develop, to learn and to grow.

Winsley Green is the setting for the novel and in many ways the story is a perfect antidote to the negative side of lockdown. Much of the action takes place outdoors: there are antics on the village green, a cricket match, a Shakespeare play, Morris dancing, welly-wanging, a local fête – all sorts of colourful activities. I’ve also included a bright array of local characters who interact with Pauline and Barbara and who befriend Bisto, from whom much of the mischief, mayhem and mirth comes.

I’m hoping readers will find the book fun and enjoy it as a celebration of life. It’s a mixture of comedy and contemplation, and a validation of human nature as each character strives to develop their horizons, to be happy, and to be the best person they can be.

But, in a time of lockdown, I can’t have a physical launch party for my new novel. I usually enjoy some sort of get together with friends and family – I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate. It’s fascinating to try to find ways around the restrictions we’ve come to rely on for safety, and one way of launching The Old Girls’ Network will be to toast the novel’s journey individually and at a distance, either to meet on zoom or to send photos of each person celebrating the novel. Boldwood Books are kindly willing to put photos on their website, people holding copies of the book, or kindle downloads, lifting a glass of something, dressed in ‘country-style clothing,’ whatever that might mean. I’d welcome photos – please upload your contributions to Twitter and tag me in, @JudyLeighWriter

Today, Tuesday 16th June, is the release date for The Old Girls’ Network, and I hope you will all have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, which was a great deal of fun indeed. Please do raise a glass and, if you wish, send me a nice picture of yourself celebrating. Lockdown won’t last forever and I hope we will emerge healthy and happy, wiser, better educated and with a firmer grasp of our priorities as a society, and ready to party again.

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A couple of things I’ve learned from lockdown 

These are interesting but difficult times as the country, indeed much of the world, learns to deal with Covid-19, and it will be fascinating to discover at a later date how we’ll all emerge from the current state of lockdown. There are things happening now that I’d never have thought possible several weeks ago, before all of this started. For example, I didn’t imagine that a local shopkeeper would be mugged for some toilet roll. He’s fine, as it turns out – he hurled the mugger onto the street by the scruff of his neck! In fact, I felt a bit sorry for the assailant who’d reached a crisis point of panic, faced with the insecurity of having to deal with the prospect of a lack of toilet hygiene. People are anxious now about normal things they took for granted two months ago.

I didn’t imagine there being a time when I wouldn’t be able to see my friends or family whenever I wanted to but, all of a sudden, we can’t. I didn’t imagine living in a world where there was no football on telly. I had no idea how lonely some people might become in such a short time and it didn’t take long to realise that I share responsibility for others’ welfare. I now message and ring friends more regularly and that I try to find nice things to do to make others’ lives better. Some have lost jobs or are still working under intense pressure. I know some feel lonely or stressed or in need of human contact or unsure about the future as, indeed, we all do. But how suddenly grateful have we become for all those things we took for granted.

All people manage anxiety and deal with problems in different ways and it’s not fair to judge those who deal with the situation in ways we wouldn’t do ourselves. For example, I have been inundated with friends who want me to share hugs on Facebook or post a photo of something silver; others have asked people not to send such requests. It’s about trying to reach out but being safe at the same time – there are plenty of scams attached to opening chain mail, and plenty of fake news being bandied around on WhatsApp.

I live in a place where it is possible to roam about outside without meeting another person and, because it’s a rural area, those I do meet by chance can stand at a distance and even chatter before we move on. I’ve noticed how much people want to socialise now. I met a great couple in the woods while I was collecting firewood (culling herbs, listening to birdsong…) who simply wanted to pass the time of day with another human. I would have invited them round for a cup of tea but… of course, that’s for future times.

I am delighted that everyone is now saying openly that they are fully behind the NHS workers: whether it is an opportunity for weekly applause or for supermarkets to allow vulnerable people early access to shops or for publishers to give away free novels, it is good that indispensable key workers are in a spotlight and that we are all united in appreciating what they do. 

More importantly, if and when we return to normality, it would be good if their work could be rewarded by better pay and conditions. They deserve much more than a retracted promise on the side of a bus and a few well-meant words of recognition for the immense job that they do.

Lots of other people deserve credit too: teachers, police officers, care workers – how tough must it be to work in a supermarket or a shop at these times. I’ve always been in awe of postal and delivery drivers who bring communication, food or goods to our doors and, in these difficult times, it has become normal to wave thanks to someone as they rush out of the gate, having left the parcel on the porch.

I wrote to my MP six times about better pay and conditions for Amazon delivery drivers before the lockdown; sadly, she never found the time to replied to me. I live in hope that things will change for the better for all key workers who have done so much for society during these hard times. Our representatives have a responsibility to step up and make that happen.

The rest of us have probably found a daily routine which is so repetitive that  we can’t tell one day from another. I received a great poem from a friend of mine recently that simply repeated words like ‘wake eat phone eat phone TV phone sleep’ on many lines, suggesting that for herself and possibly other people in lockdown a routine was emerging which didn’t necessarily inspire challenge and opportunity.

One thing which is really important is that we use this time to try new things that will  improve our lives, taking us away from humdrum repetition and boredom. We need to make each day as meaningful as we can.

People are reading more, cooking from scratch more often, spending more time planting vegetables in the garden or making quality time to talk with their families, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many things people are doing that are inspirational.

One friend is learning to play the guitar; another is crocheting blankets for homeless people; another is learning Italian; another is painting each day. I’m writing another novel – I wonder if it will be finished by the end of lockdown. One thing is for certain – none of us know exactly when that will be or what it might look like. 

And that is my point. We wished for more time with those we love; we wished for a cleaner planet, more leisure time, to be able to work from home. Now that we have the chance to make some of those things a permanent part of our lives, how can we integrate them into a future world that we’d most like to live in? How can we turn this time of challenge into a time of opportunity?

The most important factor is that we all come through this period of time as healthily as possible, through staying indoors, through being sensible about contact with others, sharing resources, shopping carefully and wisely, talking to others at a distance and keeping those who are alone as safe and happy as possible.

But when the dust clears, we may have the opportunity to make the world better. We can care more for isolated people than we did; we can try to see the positives in new situations and try not to spread fear and negativity; many people can now work from home, spending less time travelling to work in their cars,and we can appreciate all the friends and family and freedom that we already knew we appreciated but perhaps we needed to remind ourselves.

For many people, these are times of fear about our own well being and that of those we love; fear of the unknown and a panic and anxiety about things we’d taken for granted which is, in the case of some people, so powerful that it sends them into the streets to accost the shopkeepers. 

However unprecedented this may be,we can channel what we have experienced to bring about improvement. We can use the situation to spread cheer and solidarity, to practise neighbourly behaviour, to be kinder, more appreciative of others and to find ways to retain both quality of our own lives and ways to improve the lives of others. We can find better ways to care for the planet, which appears to have become healthier after just a few weeks of lockdown.

Whether it is baking for the lady next door or giving away free books, distributing food parcels or phoning someone who lives alone, we all have the chance to move forward and make the world a better place for us to share. Dickens wrote about the best of times and the worst of times. It would be nice if, out of a bad situation, we could create the best of times for everyone making such great sacrifices now, especially those who have been so profoundly undervalued until this lockdown. We owe them so much.