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.

Rule of thirds

For the last three days of April I did not leave my bed, my depression flung me into a low unlike anything I have previously experienced, even prediagnosis (the last time I actively tried to end my own life).

During these three days I could not eat without feeling an overwhelming pang of nausea and pain – even dry toast unsettled my stomach – to a point I convinced myself I was dying. I would wake with shooting pains down my right leg, that rendered me unable to move, so I laid in bed with the curtains drawn weeping into what felt like my end.

At some point on the third day, with encouragement from a concerned colleague I managed to get to a doctor. The two minute walk to the clinic down the road took ten, as I limped and stopped every so often to clutch my stomach as the agony of life washed over me. After being poked and prodded for a while I was given a prescription of anti-nausea medication and valium (diazepam) in order to restore some of my life signs, and allow my basic physiology to function.

Previous to these three days I had spontaneously booked a trip to Ireland, about a week prior, because I wanted to “go somewhere green,” mainly due an increase of stress in my work and personal life, the two of which have become more intertwined during the last couple of months, and as a result had manifested in physical deterioration and my all time low.

During my time in Ireland, I made the decision to unplug from all social media. This included WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Also disabling all email notifications from my three accounts and leaving my usual travel devices at home in order to “take my mind off my mind for a while.” [McCormack, Mike. Notes from a Coma, p. 104]

In place of my regular social media consumption, influenced heavily by my personal fear of missing out, I took two books, a sketch pad, and a list of suggested activities for both Dublin and Galway. I allowed myself some allowances such as the use of my phone camera to take photographs, SMS, and music for the plane and coach rides. I can honestly say that this is one of the best decisions I have made for my mental health.

As I unplugged from the 21st century world of social media, intended to make humanity more connected but often leaving us isolated, I connected with myself again.

I found myself consuming my first book – Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – within three days, reading it on the banks of the River Liffey until the single rain shower of my trip fell and I retreated to a nearby pub, sipping on pints of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Alkoholfrei (annotating page 111 of my copy with “Ominous sign that when I started reading it started to rain heavily? – No! You’re in Ireland.”) as the bartender offered me a hurley to disperse of the gentleman trying to engage me in conversation.

Couple walking along the bank of the River Liffey
River Liffey, Dublin – 3 May 2019

In between spells of reading, I socialised with the other patrons in my hostel even attending my first pub crawl, sober, and visited some of the many sights and attractions Dublin had to offer – my favourites being the Long Room at Trinity College where I wanted to bottle the scent of library that transported me into memories of my youth – particularly when I tried to live in the local library because “I wanted to read all the books overnight.” And my day trip to Glendalough, where I could have spent hours walking in the sunshine and sitting beside the babbling brook watching the wild deer and goats frolicking in the near distance.

After three days in Dublin I headed west to Galway, making a beeline for The Cornstore on my arrival, as after beginning my copy of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, I found it did not feed my literary need after having read Reasons to Stay Alive.* I picked up a copy of Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack, a work of fiction about the life of a Romanian orphan adopted by the rural community of County Mayo, who suffers a sudden mental breakdown that leads him to volunteer for a government supported coma.

I again began to consume this; this time along the banks of the bay, on the side of Killary Harbour during a pit stop on a day trip to Connemara, and standing in the beer garden of O’Connell’s – sparking the curiosity of many, leading to icebreakers and new friendships, and even a piggy back.

Fjord on the West Coast of Ireland
Killary Harbour – 6 May 2019

Reading, singing, dancing, crafting new friendships and drawing badly in an unplugged world made me feel more connected to it. I lived in the moment and left my worries behind – “We [often] find ourselves through the process of escaping.” [Haig, Matt. Reasons to Stay Alive, p. 130]

Although, it is true that there were moments that I missed social media, no WhatsApp for instance made is difficult to message my new found friends (all on international numbers), which meant resorting to early 2000 meeting tactics when we wanted to hangout, but for the most part it allowed me the privilege of listening to myself without the distraction of life and its expectancy.

Yes, it is also true that I have the same battles ahead of me as I did before I went away; at the end of the month my employment contract ceases and I face being jobless for the first time since 2014, without employment I will most likely need to move back to the UK and leave my life in Belgium behind me, it is likely too that I will face homelessness for the third time if I am unable to secure my future.

This is a terrifying prospect, but if the sun can shine for a whole week in Ireland in May, then there’s also the chance it’ll work out in the end, and if it doesn’t as 13th century poet Rumi once said:

“Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.”


* I recommend Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive to anyone who has suffered from / is suffering from / or knows anyone who has or is suffering with depression. I owe my copy along with my immense gratitude to my perfect stranger who gifted it to me in December after stumbling across this blog – thank you, as the Joanna Lumley quote on the cover says it is “a small masterpiece that might even save lives.”


If you’re experiencing similar 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: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/