Being Clinically Vulnerable During A Pandemic Has Been The Loneliest Experience Of My Life
Pre-Covid times feel a distant memory; attending social events and taking normality for granted without an idea as to what lay around the corner.
Wild that that was just over a year ago. The announcement of the first lockdown in March last year shaped our futures for the next year and beyond, especially for the elderly and vulnerable, which, in the latter case, is where my story begins.
I’m 36, active, healthy and single. Receiving an NHS letter to shield for three solid months came as a surprise. Having relocated barely a month earlier, leaving behind the bustle of London for the friendlier, more mellow city life of Manchester, my routine of gym visits – coupled with a thirst to explore a new city filled with culinary delights – came to an abrupt halt. My head swirled with uncertainty because, like most, I didn’t have a clue about the prolonged impact of the coronavirus.
Thanks to an ulcerative colitis diagnosis at the age of 21, I’d been placed on the extremely vulnerable list due to a weakened immune system, and was asked to stay indoors. Despite being lumped into the category, I was in otherwise pretty good shape. Invisible illnesses can often trick you into believing you’re ok, because over time you forget it’s there because it’s not physical.
My outlook felt bleak upon reading their rules. Don’t go out even for exercise, avoid people you live with, don’t go shopping, rely on someone else to take the bins out. A sense of feeling trapped was one thing, but being powerless to prevent it was another. My independence had been stripped and I was now confined to my shared, rented accommodation, slap-bang in the centre of a city with nowhere to go.
Early on, the days flew by. Every day was Thursday and I’d wonder where the weeks and months went. Sleep patterns went out the window and lethargy consumed my daytime. Yet however low I felt, I kept reminding myself that everyone else was living their own internalised Hell – we are all stuck in this moment.
Following guidelines left me wiping down food deliveries and washing my hands after every daring venture to the postbox. Over time I had to train myself to be less compulsive because I knew living in fear 24/7 was not beneficial to my mental health. Gradually, I allowed myself to step away from paranoia while still being sensible. I’d mask up, socially distance, keep contact to a minimum, hand-gel myself when needed. I’d ask myself, could I die from Covid? Would I get seriously ill? It was unwise to torture myself with hypotheticals; I knew I couldn’t let it overwhelm and dominate my existence. You have to get the balance of considering yourself and others right, I feel, or your self-esteem and confidence will take a beating.
Inevitably, it became easy to lose track of everything. Over the summer, time itself was of no consequence, and having seen most of my work opportunities dry up, it became easy to drift through the weeks in a daze. I attempted to retrain my brain to look at my future differently and remove any desire to fret over career success and life progress, like many of us have been programmed to do by our parents.
I sought inspiration from others. People like Matt Haig, Beth McColl and Steven Bartlett would pop up with helpful and refreshing advice and assurances that made me breathe a sigh of relief, knowing I wasn’t alone in the struggle. I watched a documentary about minimalism that again reprogrammed my thought processes about the necessity for physical things and what I held dear. I had a clear-out, made some money and felt freer by the end of it. But that was just one step.
I rethought how to use my money. What was now important to me and what had I been wasting cash on all these years? New clothes were now non-essential. Good food, however, was. New stuff that was useful or items of value to my life were prioritised. I became more selective, read more, refused to deny the treats I craved, and played more video games – a viable and vital form of social interactions during these times. I made sure I stayed better connected to family and friends.
The above contributed in various ways that meant I woke up happier. But it wasn’t completely fulfilling as that essential element of human interaction was still missing: whether that be the handshake of a friend, the hug from a parent, or intimacy with a partner – all these things were gone. That was a huge strain on my mental health: physical contact and proxy with, well, anyone is something everyone needs. And I won’t pretend I’ve been a monk for the past year. No matter how sensible you are, a person cannot remain on their own for such a lengthy period without it causing irreparable damage.
Daily, mundane chores in turn became milestones to tick off: whether that was as simple as brushing my teeth, cleaning the flat or sorting my finances. Lists, I discovered, were important. Lists offered structure; a goal without the immediate anxiety to achieve a task too overwhelming. Lists can last for days, weeks or even months. They can grow and shrink and evolve. They offer clear direction if you’re feeling lost and they are as adaptable as you choose to make them. Lists have served me well. Some days it’s been making the bed or finishing a commission. The point is setting small, achievable goals when in a downward spiral can do wonders for the mind.
I made the decision to start a course and train in something I’d wanted to do for a while. To me, it didn’t matter about completing it quickly, it was more about me being enrolled and it being there in my mind as a goal to reach when I was ready, meaning webinars and study accentuated my sense of purpose, so when I felt low I could remind myself I had something to reach for.
Moving home was perhaps the biggest and best decision I made during all this. Not so much an urgency to abscond from a flatmate, but to regain control of my own life. You can argue living with people has mental health benefits during lockdown, but it can also be extremely restrictive and claustrophobic, especially when the other person works full-time in the shared living space. I forced myself to be proactive, in favour of my own well-being, and honestly haven’t looked back.
Oddly, I’ve felt far happier and less alone living by myself than I ever did in the presence of a shared home. During the early months of lockdown, I’d peer out my narrow bedroom window, mouth agape at the stillness of the world outside, and knew it wasn’t a positive living arrangement for me.
I don’t pretend to have not struggled during 2020. Acknowledging this is hard, so to recognise the actual levels of despair I, and many others, have no doubt felt at times remains difficult. Lots of time floated by. Most of it was a blur. I couldn’t really tell you what I got up to, other than exist. You sometimes just have to exist to get through the toughest of times. And if you’ve done this, then I applaud you.
Nowadays, I look through the blinds of my much larger, brighter French window at the busier world outside, not as a prisoner but as a someone who has, in part, regained his independence and autonomy, as we approach the end of what is hopefully our final lockdown.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free, on their anonymous 24-hour phone line, on 116 123.
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