Ninety One Days

Three days before the UK instituted lockdown, I saw my mum. My own mental health had been progressively worsening as the true scale of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic became apparent and I’d just started on some new medication. We’d made plans for her to visit again in a few days and I had been looking forward to it. Many of the social events I’d come to rely on in Nottingham had already started to be curtailed and I was starting to feel the bite of social isolation.

On the 23rd of March, the UK officially went into lockdown. I remember quite clearly having a phone call with my mum and wondering aloud if it was okay to flout the rules just once. In the end we decided not to, partly on the basis that at this point they were only talking about it lasting three weeks. We’d get to see each other soon enough anyway.

Whilst I’d imagined all sorts of horrors that would emerge from the lockdown, two things stood out head and shoulders above the rest. The first was the increased difficulty of getting food. I can’t drive, and lockdown has curtailed my ability to learn, and to add to the hassle there are no easily accessible supermarkets near my house any more. So I was reliant on a tiny local co-op and what deliveries I could manage. Trust me, having dietary requirements sucks right about now.

The second though was the feeling of isolation. I live on my own, and whilst I recognise that this is an incredible privilege it has also meant that for the ninety one days following lockdown, I hadn’t touched another human being. On top of this, I’d been advised by my doctor and the government to limit my contact with the outside world “as much as possible” owing to other underlying health conditions. Although this didn’t qualify me for any support do I’m dubious as to what good it was making such a suggestion when that’s kind of what everyone was being told anyway.

Prior to mid-May, I hadn’t gotten closer than about two metres to another person and hadn’t spoken more than about five words to anyone that wasn’t mediated by a phone or a screen. I work from home anyway, so that didn’t even really change except now all my coworkers did too instead of just some of them. Everyone was talking about having all this new time to explore new hobbies or spend with their family, and suddenly everything for me was taking longer or more expensive and I was feeling cut off from everything and everyone.

As a brief aside, I’d set myself a kind of informal goal to reduce the amount I bought from Amazon this year in an attempt to support a broader range of retailers. The last three months has shifted almost all of my spending to Amazon. Best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

In mid-May I met up with my dad and step-mum for a nice socially distanced chat for the first time in months which was a pleasant change, but it stung not being able to get close or to hug them. We were also lucky in that we had been going through a patch of pleasant weather at the time which meant that it was easy enough to have that kind of interaction outdoors.

This was about the same point that, with the isolation starting to get to me again, my mental health started to take a further turn for the worse. I reached out to my GP and got a referral to the local mental health trust. Following a pretty quick assessment in which the assessor remarked “that sounds pretty tough” and that I needed “fairly urgent help”, I was told I could expect a six to nine month wait. The same day, someone from my local NHS trust went on the radio to say that “mental health support was available [in my area] should you need it”. My arse is it.

The proliferation of video chats helped somewhat. It’s nice to see people’s faces. But it’s no substitute for real, face to face interaction. And on top of that, most of my hobbies are centred around doing stuff with other people. Even ignoring the big, future plans stuff that evaporated for everyone, the things I’d usually throw myself into in times of personal hardship were suddenly unavailable to me and there’s not really good distanced alternatives. During the assessment I was asked “what are your usual coping strategies in periods of poor mental health?” and I’d answered that I responded by making plans for the future and making sure I engaged in social activities outside my own house. There was a brief pause before the assessor let out the smallest, saddest “Oh.” and for the briefest moment I felt perfectly understood.

In the last couple of weeks, the UK announced the concept of a “social bubble” for individuals that live on their own (or single parents with children under 18). This meant that you could choose one other household and for the purposes of the new regulations and guidelines, you were one household. You could visit without following social distancing, you could stay overnight, you could travel back and forth.

This left me with an unenviable choice though.

I suddenly had to choose who I wanted to be able to see for the forseeable future, my mother or my father (who have been separated for close to 20 years). I desperately wanted to be able to see both, but the new guidelines were clear. Once you pick a household, there’s no mechanism to switch. For a complex set of personal reasons, I chose my dad, but it killed me to have to make that choice.

It has, however, been a literal lifeline to be able to see him and my step-mum. To be able to give him a hug. To be able to share space with another person without having to worry. I struggle to put into words just how much it feels like it’s changed my life to be able to do this again, almost as much as it feels that it hurts not to be able to see my mother or her wife*. Last Thursday marked ninety one days between which I had not touched another person, and with the reunion it took me a moment to realise that it was actually happening.

On the one hand, this too shall pass. Eventually, we’ll find a new normal. I’ll get to see everyone I am missing again. It’ll all become a bitter memory, and something for the history books. But in the moment, it’s been (and continues to be) an extraordinarily difficult and dark time.