CN: Coronavirus, lockdown, anxiety. I know not everyone wants to read stuff that talks about this, so please don’t feel like you have to. I wrote it a week ago and didn’t publish it then, despite the fact that Stuart drew this gorgeous image for it and I felt genuinely ready to put it live. It basically amounts to tediously mad dispatches from the inside of my lockdown bubble, and it’s not great, but maybe publishing it will make it easier to write the next thing, and then hopefully the next one after that.
When people Skype or Zoom or WhatsApp or email you to ask how you’re doing, what do you say? Do you say ‘Oh, I’m fine…’ ellipsis to show the deep breath you took as you processed what your brain was actually telling you before continuing ‘…you know, given the circumstances’? Do you say ‘well the kids are driving me up the wall but at least I’ve got gin and Netflix lol’? Or do you tell the full and unvarnished truth?
I don’t think you have to tell the truth, by the way. Nor do I think that everyone’s necessarily fucked right now. I’ve spoken to people who have started – in the last couple of weeks, at least – to whisper ‘I’m actually enjoying the lockdown – I feel like I’m getting to rest.’ And although I can’t feel the same, I get it – you aren’t a terrible person if that’s the way you feel. We’re all just doing what we can to get through this as close to in tact as possible.
As we’re busy doing that, many are understandably struggling to articulate exactly what’s going well and what’s going badly, because our definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have changed so much in the last few months. So when people ask ‘how are you?’ it’s hard to put your finger on the answer.
My answer? I’m up and down.
When people ask how I am, I say: ‘oh you know… up and down.’ It’s the blandest way to sugarcoat what I actually mean, which is that the linear wave that tracks the peaks and troughs of my life is far peakier and troughier than it ever has been before.
The ups are more up. The slice of pleasure I used to get at the end of a good day, when I’d been productive and churned out decent work so I treated myself to a cider and a bowl of peanuts? That pleasure is magnified and multiplied a thousandfold. I get physical tingling sensations when I do simple things like go for a walk, or when I sit down, open a book, and breathe. In breathing, I become aware of how my lungs open up. I can feel the rush of air down my throat and realise I am so alive and so lucky. If I think about it too much I worry I might choke on it.
The downs are further down.
Up: I make golden syrup cake, which we eat standing up at the kitchen counter. No knives, no plates, we just tear at it with our fists. Laughing at ourselves as we cram handful after handful into our mouths, regretting nothing but the lack of double cream.
Down: He stands in the doorway to my office with tears running down his face and asks if I’m free for a cuddle. We cuddle and we cry and then we fuck and then we cry some more.
Up: A new cat starts visiting our back garden. Our hearts leap and we stand breathless and still, feigning aloofness in a vain attempt to court this exciting new friend. The cat wanders off, nonplussed. It’s thrilling.
Down: I bought face masks, and the colourful patterns I chose so carefully do nothing to disguise how utterly terrifying I look.
Up: We remember that Mika exists. We spend an entire afternoon listening to his first album and dancing like happy twats.
Down: We get emails about family members in care homes, hospitals.
Up: Friends tell us happy news from afar – engagements, babies, good luck stories… I glug these down as eagerly as if they were vodka shots.
Down: Every single day is the fucking same, and one of us accidentally mentioned it.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this now, other than that I’ve sat at my desk for two hours so far this morning doing the square root of fuck-all, and picking at this draft post which I open and add to whenever I’m feeling messy. I didn’t want to publish it a month ago when I started, because it sounded too much like self-pity. I didn’t publish it last week, or the week before, for the same reason. I try to avoid writing too much about These Weird Times because it feels wrong to even think of complaining. There are fucking terrible, frightening things happening and I sit here in a bubble of luck and privilege and comfort saying ‘I feel quite anxious’ like it actually fucking matters.
If I’ve decided to publish it today – or next week, or the week after – it’s because I finally came round to the fact that it’s better to admit that you’re stumbling than to say nothing at all. Better to show the mess that you are than to pretend everything is OK – lying to those who are crumbling around you, as if you and you alone are managing to stand up straight.
It’s OK to admit that this sucks
These days, I spend a lot of time counting my blessings. I count them like a ritual: I have a garden. I have friends. I live with a man I love dearly. I have food. I have work. I have books upon books upon books. I have Lego. I have a bunch of reclaimed wood that I’m turning into furniture, and sanding wood smooth is like a nice hot bath for my brain.
When I get too anxious my partner tells me we’ll be OK. He buys Facebook Portals for my friends because I’m lonely, and although you can’t hug through a Portal, it’s feels significantly more real than a Zoom call. I miss the people who live in my phone, and I want them back in my life.
I am weak and crumbling, but so grateful to the people who still email me to say they liked this bit of porn I wrote, or offer jokes to drown out the background hum of danger. At the same time, I behave badly. I am monstrously ungrateful: dodging calls and bleating excuses and staring into space instead of picking up the phone because the idea of making words happen feels like climbing Everest.
I don’t tweet much any more. I look rude. People’s messages and jokes and links often go unacknowledged. Questions go unanswered, not because I don’t know the answer but because I can’t bring my fingers to type the words. I dodge all these interactions and focus on doing the bare minimum: getting blog posts written and tweets scheduled and cheery messages posted publicly to show people who might want to work with me that everything’s still fine. I’m fine.
I am not fine
When I first started this blog, people used to praise me for my honesty. They don’t do that any more, for good reason. There are things I’m not honest about, because I can’t be – events and ideas that are so wrapped in other people’s stories that it feels unfair of me to share them here like they’re mine. Other things I hide because this blog is now my business – sadness makes great content, but madness is far riskier. Can I really talk about mental health when the people who pay my bills might be reading?
Anxiety is annoying not just because it stops me from doing things – paralysing me with panic until I realise four hours have gone by and I’ve written not a single fucking word – but also because it’s inherently narcissistic. Anxiety whispers that everything is bad and wrong and you’re the center of the universe so it’s definitely your fucking fault. As if the world and everything in it continues to exist only because you either did or did not do something. The significance of the things we used to do – in the Before Times – could be put into perspective by the other people around us, the ones we brushed past on the tube or met up with in the pub. When lots of things are happening around you it’s easier to let go of the pernicious, anxiety-induced mirage that you’re at the center of the universe, and so your action or inaction might destroy it. But during the first two months of lockdown the world shrunk and shrunk until everything outside the front door felt terrifying and alien. Now there’s nothing left but what’s inside these four walls, and so what’s inside your brain feels even more monstrously significant. So every tweet or post or email or phone call even to a really close friend means a hammering heart and dry mouth and tingling dread at the tips of your fingers because those tiny interactions feel like they actually matter. Inaction matters too, so much, because inaction means shrinking your world even smaller, and making the problem worse.
So I ponder these things, scroll through Twitter and pick away at this draft blog post, and one thing jumps out: there are people out there who seem to be coping quite well. They post, they tweet, they crack jokes. They take photos of silly things they’ve been doing with their lockdown time. I find myself tingling with bitterness and self-pity – I’m pathetic and broken and failing.
Then I scroll through my own timeline and realise I’m doing the same.
Putting on a brave, smiling, horny face as I joke about the ups, without really mentioning the downs. Talking about the sad stuff means telling you stories that aren’t mine, or risk looking like I’m fishing for your sympathy. Discussing the downs too much might hurt my business. Turn you off. Add more fuel to the panicking fire that is Twitter, and there are very good reasons to try not to do that.
But if I hold back too much I risk looking like I’m ‘fine’ and thus feeding the lie that you should be too.
Hiding the worst excesses of sadness or panic or horror can be a valuable way to avoid spreading misery – like a kind lie you tell to avoid causing pain. You put on a mask with a painted smile because broadly you know you’re OK, and no one needs more horror when they’ve already got enough of it to contend with. Then you keep doing it and doing it until it feels like the only possible way to keep going. And then it becomes a face you put on, which makes other people feel bad if they can’t do the same.
Regardless of how lucky I am (and I really really am), I’m struggling. And I’d rather come across as ungrateful for my luck than pretend I have access to some magic well of resilience that you, mere mortal, do not. I don’t want or need your sympathy – not when there are terrible things happening to far better people every day. My ups are incredible, my downs are manageable, and I’ll come through this mostly in tact. In the meantime I’d rather show you a bit of the mess that I am, instead of maintaining a baseline of acting like all’s well. Lying to those of you who are crumbling, as if I alone am managing to stand up straight.
I’m not standing straight. I won’t keep banging on about it, for the reasons mentioned above, but I thought it important to say: I’m up and down.