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.

Turkeys voting for Christmas

As a British expat, who has resided in Belgium for a little over a year now, the thought that’s taken up residence in the back of my mind for quite a while now is, ‘what will Brexit do?’

‘What will it do to my rights to remain in Europe?’
‘What will it do to my job prospects?’
‘What will it do to my way of life?’

In my heart I’m European, but on my passport I’m British.

Growing up in London, I was exposed to the melting pot of cultures, that makes it such a beautiful, wonderful city. A diverse city of differing but shared ideas of multicultural acceptance, but following the Brexit referendum in 2016, I saw that melting pot image harden. As seeds of hate planted through a campaign trail, born from fabrication and false promises, took root, watered by the demonisation of immigrants and the less fortunate to cover up the consequences of austerity, that had mined our public services, leaving them as husks of their former selves.

In March 2019, I braced myself for the worst, two years of back and forth bickering leading us off a cliff’s edge without a paddle, or so it seemed. However, with each deadline extension, I started to gain new hope. I thought for a moment that perhaps we would stay as part of this union, which is far from perfect, but holds true in its missions and values in the shared interest of peace, defenders of them many not the few.

Although, now, almost nine months later, from that initial leave date, I began my morning abruptly woken by a 4am news alert from my BBC News app. A declaration that hope was lost. A Conservative Party victory, that has now sealed our fate. Led by the demagogue figure of Boris Johnson, who will inevitably lead my home down the path of maximum destruction under the guise of freedom, and taking back control.

You may argue that in the name of democracy, that it is the will of the people and must be respected, and perhaps my thoughts and feelings exist in an echo chamber of like mindedness. If my social media feed is anything to go by, this is definitely true.

Looking out over the grey and rain filled streets of Brussels, I know that I live in and work in a bubble. However, my beginnings on a council owned housing estate in Hackney, have remained with me, as I climbed the ladder of society, now comfortably existing amongst the middle classes, and I fear what is coming.

We’ve all read or seen the news stories of the victims of austerity, thousands of societies most vulnerable being forced into dire situations, as their basic human rights and needs are not met, many cases costing them their lives. The elderly will suffer. The disabled will suffer. The poor will suffer. The NHS will most likely be privatised. All in the name of control and the will of the people, have we forgotten our humanity?

In times like this, where I’m forced into questioning the reasoning of reality, I’m reminded of Book Six, of Plato’s The Republic, where he recalls Socrates conversation with Adeimantus, highlighting the flaws of democracy – drawing comparison between society and a ship and asking if you were heading out out on a journey by sea, would you want anyone or someone educated in how to properly run the vessel – naturally Adeimatus responded in favour of the latter.

As although, kind in concept, the rise in reality star culture has made a mockery of the very word that is democracy, with improper or minimal education available to the voting masses, rational has been lost, as single issue politics takes flight fuelled by populist notions, of us vs them, without a second thought to consequences or repercussions.

As I watched the ticker flicking across the bottom of my television screen, interrupted by phone notifications from shocked friends and family, both in the UK and in my residing country, I watched as historically strong Labour and Liberal Democrat seats swung from red and yellow to blue. Constituencies with strong union pasts, and integrated migrant communities, seemingly voting against their best interests, like turkeys voting for Christmas or slugs for salt, to be ruled under a mandate won by hate and fear. To get Brexit done, whatever the price may be.

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.