Same sea, different boats

Like many people, I am in self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped society the world over. As a Belgian resident, the first ‘lockdown’ measures were implemented on Friday 13th March, and resulted in the immediate suspension of group sports and leisure activities, working from home, and minimised social contact. For me this meant my twice weekly rugby practice was cancelled indefinitely, which saw a premature end to the season, as well as no gym or walking commute to work – about 40 minutes each way.

Despite starting a near immediate ‘new’ workout routine consisting of regular runs in the nearby park where I try my best to exercise the instructed social distance of 1.5m from others but inevitably have numerous people walk or run directly into my path, despite the wide berth, along with HIIT workouts almost daily, this disruption to my regular in routine has been difficult for me. Particularly as regular exercise and maintaining a routine are both coping mechanism from my mental health and without it I’ve been struggling.

I’ve been told numerous times over the past four weeks and rising, since all of this came to head, that ‘we are all in the same boat,’ and we just need to, well, ‘keep calm and carry on,’ but we’re not in the same boat. Sure we’re in similar boats but some of our boats are fashioning patchwork fixes, some have the hull waterlogged with only a rusty bucket to rectify the situation, and for others still, well their boats are in the driveway and have never seen the water.

For me, my boat has anxiety and depression, for the first week of self-isolation this made my boat a pretty solid vessel. As someone who is anxious about everyday life, the out of the ordinary was something I felt I could weather as the echoing memory of numerous CBT sessions guided me through uncharted waters. However, as the week went on and the situation around me spiralled further out of control, I realised my boat wasn’t so solid after all.

Beginning with a trip to the supermarket for my weekly food shop, despite a sparsely occupied Carrefour, I could feel my anxiety rising as I made my way through the aisles, the increasing weight of my shopping basket mirroring the intensity of my fight or flight receptors. As I was reminded of why my early 20s were so frequented by panic attacks whenever I entered a public space that I deemed too noisy, busy, or crowded, as I witnessed a man let out an audible sneeze over the bell peppers, which sent my heart rate into a frenzy and ticked my receptors firmly into flight, and rendering me unable to leave the house, even for exercise, for the three days that followed.

Adding to this, the lack of social contact with my friends, or anyone really, even though replaced with; more regular WhatsApps, Instagram DMs, Houseparty video chats and games, and group home workout challenges has taken its toll. Even with the three or four instances where I physically saw a friend, the inability to embrace them or stand in close proximity, was and is painful.

“We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Virginia Satir.

Even as someone with introverted tendencies, I am dependable on other people, especially my friends, and family, who have been my shoulder to lean on over the years when I haven’t been strong enough to stand on my own, but in self-isolation even with the use of social media to stay connected, and housemates – who I’ve briefly interacted with over the three and a bit months living in my current house, the impact has been noticeable on my mental well-being.

With the feeling of loneliness translating in my increasingly anxious mind, exasperated by depression, as alone, I’ve noticed myself reverting to early diagnosis habits and coping mechanisms:

  • Monitoring my food intake, due to it being one of the few things I am able to control
  • Eating only ‘safe foods,’ similar to what a small child would eat i.e. fish fingers with baked beans or otherwise plain pasta with cheddar cheese
  • Panic attacks; my ingrained and involuntary coping mechanism in response to heightened anxiety
  • The placement of sentimental weight on seemingly everyday objects i.e. my tea mug
  • Crying, or wanting to cry
  • Sleeping too much or not enough

These habits, acting as warning signs for me that I’m not okay, a personal alarm bell or red flag that I need to get out of the situation I’m in, but the problem here is that I can’t leave the situation. I’m trapped in it without any say in when and how it will end.

Of course, I understand the importance of the social distancing measures to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread, which if not perform will cause catastrophic consequences on our public health services, but I don’t understand the need to be okay with it. I’m in no way suggesting mass panic, but I am asking for a bit more human kindness.

As the working world sees a shift from the traditional office environments to working from home, our mental and internet bandwidths are being put under immense stress, whereby the mentality of supposed business as usual, despite the suspension of regular life, echoes the same notion – ‘we’re all in the same boat.’ The concerns and worries of the individual being brushed under the carpet.

As someone who lives with chronic mental health issues that make ‘regular’ life unbearable at times, coping with the uncertainty and irregularity of the present situation is an even more monumental task. As support services are cut, both professionally and personally, the repeated notion of ‘we’re all in the same boat’ and that we have to toughen up is unhelpful and untrue.

Though I am trying to focus on the small windows of light when they appear, it is hard not to pay mind to the looming uncertainty that we are faced with. We’re not all in the same boat, we’re in similar boats on the same rough sea. Even though we are facing the same crisis, the impact on the individual will differ.

Simply put in this uncertain time, it’s okay not to be okay, so let’s stop penalising those among us that are struggling, by marring our experience of the unprecedented with the same brush.

One year on

Yesterday, marked the one year anniversary of my move to Belgium, to take on a five month internship with the European Parliament as part of a career break, that I never returned from.

Although, it was never my intention to stay, as my life unfurled over the past 12 months, in turns of the utmost unexpected, Belgium became more of a home to me than England.

My internship officially ended on the 31st of May 2019, leaving me to face unemployment for the first time in four years. Growing up in the UK, I was often advised to avoid gaps in my CV as this reflected poorly, a notion that meant that I had been in continuous employment from January 2015 until May 2019, switching between five different roles for three different public sector institutions, despite the sometimes gut-wrenching periods of my life, that almost drained me absolutely.

Unemployment scared me, more so than the physical and mental burnout that I tried to rectify through short breaks to somewhere – minimal rest for maximum exhaustion in some cases. Employment for me was a mandatory dependency, lacking a parental unit to catch me when my world went to shit, self-sufficiency was my safety blanket in life and I was unsure how to survive without it.

In the end I was unemployed for 16 weeks, or a little over 3 months, and in this time I learned more about myself than I ever could have imagined, and my mindset and outlook on life drastically changed.

I spent the first month in my flat alone, waiting for a job interview for a position that fell at the last hurdle after I had depleted my savings, and also made me realise that I needed to work somewhere that was aligned to my values and beliefs or I would continue to live my life in deep blue hues.

During this time, before the last hurdle fell, I reached out to my mother for support to catch me as her child, but unfortunately this was once more met with the rejection, that I had become accustomed to expect from her, as I was told she was ‘unable to support me emotionally or financially, but she was always there for me.’

This was painful, but not unexpected, and was followed by a series of events that meant I finally stood up to her for the first time in my life. My courage was met with blatant faced denial, but although the voice of my truth was not fully heard by her it lifted the greatest weight off my soul.

It was a painful severing.

Part of me sees the possibility for reconciliation if my truth is heard and listened to, but part of me sees it like an infected limb – excruciating to live with and to remove, but better to live without even with the phantom feelings from time to time.

In this moment, that would have previously been awash with inky blue hues deeper than any ocean, another revelation was bought into my view; a new familial support network, unknown to me before I came to Belgium in 2018, in my aunt. A kindness unlike any that I have experienced prior, she has cared for me and shown me what unconditional love is; and for this I am eternally grateful. This act of kindness has allowed me the courage to stand up for myself and has given me hope in the future, my future.

Often when you read about battling the black dog of depression or the pressure of anxiety, finding someone that scares your internal demons and makes them run scared is recommended. It is often implied that this is a romantic partner, but it doesn’t have to be. I have been fortunate to find this in my family – my aunt(s), my cousins and older brothers; in my friends – in the UK, Belgium and elsewhere; and finally in myself.

So, as I sit and type, watching the sun-soaked trees go by in a green blur from the train window fading slowly in the vibrant but calm orange hues of sunset, which occupies most of my new work commute, I smile a little to myself in knowing that I am loved, I am supported, I am courageous, and for the first time in a long time I am happy– all I needed to do was follow the butterflies and take a leap of faith into the unknown, it wasn’t so scary after all.

10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … Sh*t

In 10 days my home country is set to depart from the European Union. As a British expat living and working in Belgium, this is a period of grave uncertainty for me.

Like most expats, both British and mainland European, living and working within the EU28, I’m still unsure about what the 29th of March will mean for me or them.

Will I be able to stay in my newly found second city? Or will I have to pack my bags on March 29th and bid farewell to the place I’ve called home for the last 6 months? Will the deadline for departure be extended until June, so I can live on borrowed time and in denial for a little longer? Or will we actually leave at all?

In short the will we won’t me of the situation is driving me a bit barmy, I hate the uncertainty. Not just this uncertainty, but all uncertainty. A somewhat ironic notion, as I love spontaneity.

A realisation I made a month ago, during an impromptu visit from a former colleague and friend, where a bottle of red wine on a Friday night resulted in a weekend trip to Amsterdam, the following day, because “Flixbus tickets are only €10!”

Following the 3 hours coach journey, we arrived in the Netherlands and I was washed over with a sense of calm. I often feel this way when I visit different cities and countries, despite the fact I often don’t speak/know the language, I’m usually alone, and my entire life in that moment is dependent on my mobile phone and EU data roaming.

As an anxiety sufferer who has struggled with my identity and finding clarity of thought throughout my life, arriving in an unknown place without understanding should probably feel me with dread, but it doesn’t. I didn’t realise this, until I saw that expected dread in another person.

I began to question why someone with my past life and current experiences, that could make up enough content for at least three series of a tabloid talk shows, was so calm with uprooting myself and placing myself in an unknown place without understanding.

After a day of thought the answer was simple: I inject cultivated chaos into my life which allows control over uncertainty, because I have chosen to place it there, and it is not something that is being done to me without my consent. If my world is going to be uncertain, I want to be the one to make it so. I want to find method in the madness and order in the chaos.

Unfortunately for me, and many people like me this isn’t always possible. Currently my external and internal being is uncertain, and I hate it.

I have a tri-factor of mental illnesses, which I attempt to subdue with a small yellow pill each night, but this doesn’t equate to the certainty that I’m not going to wake up screaming soaked in sweat because I had a flashback, because the chemicals of my subconscious decided to put on a private show of my nightmares and my memories … again.

These flashbacks of course stemming from the memories of uncertain things, which went against my individual autonomy and resulted in such a impactful mental blow it manifested as PTSD.

As someone whose internal being is so often against them, I often look to my external surroundings to find grounding in my life, but in this suspended moment that looks to be impossible.

My country is a shambles heading over a cliff’s edge into uncharted waters without a paddle or even a boat for that matter, and I find myself feeling hopeless and scrambling for something to hold onto in order to protect myself as my world descends further into madness. I don’t know what March 29th will bring, but I hope I can survive it.

If you’re experiencing similar mental health related thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: