It Started With a Timid Message

Charlotte Comley considers the mental health implications of lockdown.

The supermarket shelves were empty and people were selling toilet rolls on Amazon. And then, on the 23 March 2020, Boris Johnson told the country that people ‘must’ stay at home and businesses ‘must’ close. Lockdown had begun.

For many it resulted with a massive change, but not for those with a strict mental health regime. We ‘recoverees’ still did the same things we always did to keep the black dog and the panic attacks at bay. I woke early and went outside, did my mindfulness exercises. I journaled.

On a Monday morning just after 7 am I stood in the early morning light with just the slightest nip in the air and marvelled at the silence of the A27. The news and the gloom were not so silent. The Covid broadcasts lasted for hours and Boris was late for his daily meetings.

And then the timid messages from the recovery group popped up like stray dandelions on a proud gardeners lawn.

‘Are you okay?’


‘So am I?’

With the country grinding to a halt, the death count rising, the pain of not being able to see relatives and the threat of another economic crash, it felt wrong for the ‘over feelers’ to be improving.

I checked my diary, on the 29th of March 2019 I had nineteen things on my to do list, at the end of the day I’d completed sixteen of them. The three things I didn’t get around to were the only things I wanted to do for myself. A downwards turn of mood followed over the next few weeks.

Now a year later, I had nothing, nothing on my list.

And it was as if the planet shared my joy, and decided to take a breath as well. The sky was a shade of blue usually reserved for children’s picture books. The white blossoms of the cow parsley and hedge garlic gave the hour allowed daily walk a wedding feel and the messages of good mental health increased.

‘Are you sleeping more – I’m sleeping more?’

It was true, without the nightly ritual of trying to be prepared for the amount of jobs tomorrow will bring, I was drifting off. For the first time in years I was getting four to six hours sleep.

‘I haven’t had a panic attack in three days.’

More updates in the private group.

‘I’ve decided to change jobs, I’m done.’

‘You know my daughter has left the primary school, so why am I still storing the PTA stuff in my garage? Written an email about it today.’

‘Lifts, lifts, lifts, I’m not being the designated driver anymore. I’ve decided.’’

‘I’ve been thinking about it, it’s not in my job description to organise the office birthdays and leaving cards just because I’m the woman. I feel like I’m always chasing people for money. I’ve emailed my manager and there’s going to be a rota.’

Big decisions were being made. Little decisions being made. But, without the usual second guessing and trying to please other people, there were no longer any ‘am I being unreasonable’ intros to the posts. And I was having the same sort of revelations.

The heat crept up. The grass baked and I toyed with the ethics of a sprinkler and the usual guilt of having an environmentally unfriendly lawn. But my kids played volley ball and badminton, they started their old gymnastic routines and laughed at their wonky cartwheels. My husband, always too busy with a 40-60-hour week job, decided to grow a couple of courgettes and fretted over watering and feeds.

With the garden centres closed I was able to go through the shed and garage and take stock. I found bits of left-over masonry paint and old tiles. Under the garden parasol, I hid from sun strong enough to burn skin at 11 am and painted my garden pots. With each stroke I felt calmer, more at peace. Brimstone and orange tip butterflies made for the Hawthorne trees. Somehow, during my nervous bouncing through life, my never-ending desire to be nice, I’d learn to live with anxiety. And to manage the unhelpful mental habits I’ve picked up along the way with unhealthy behaviours.

While sticking bits of tile on my terracotta pots for no other reason than it was a small craft project that would make me feel happy, I reflected on the walking on custard metaphor, well known to those who suffer from anxiety.

Custard is a marvellous substance that is one of the non-Newtonian liquids. In the ‘custard’ the energy of the impact causes the starch to act more like a solid than a liquid. This means in theory you can walk on a swimming pool of custard. However, you can’t, not for one moment ever stand still or you will sink. Therefore, when the anxious are given the great advice about slowing down, being mindful, doing activities you enjoy, and the power of saying no, it is often impossible to implement. Sadly, you kind of need to stand still and gather your thoughts when you want to control your breathing or practice the ‘I’ll think about it and get back to you response.’ The reality is that if you are constantly running around, trying to please other people, permanently over committed and …well…it’s like walking on custard – you can’t stop.

But now, a deadly virus had stopped the world for us. We finally had time to STOP.

Mr B was finally doing his journaling exercises.

Ms C had started her sleep hygiene.

Mrs H handed in her notice to a few committees and decided that she would visit her mother twice a week after lockdown and not every day. One day to help with chores, one day to just chat mother to daughter instead of woman to employee.

And I was the same.

We picked buckets full of elderflower and the house smelled like summer. We made cordials from the raspberries; and jam from the blackberries. My tomatoes and lettuces gifted us with the most amazing salad. And we sat and ate bruschetta with fresh basil still warm from the sun.

I was sad that people who had never suffered from mental health difficulties before were suffering, I heard the tales of not sleeping and loneliness, the rise in phobias and general fear. And although I did what I could to help the people I love and care about, I realised that it was and always has been unhealthy to put other peoples needs above my own.

I tended my herbs. Enjoyed the scent of the mint and lavender. Took credit for the health of the thyme and rosemary even though they learnt to look after themselves eons ago. And, decided to prepare for when lockdown would be lifted and old triggers would appear.

I photocopied the page from my 2019 diary, the one with the nineteen things on and only three for me. Four things were for my immediate family and earned their place on the list – these things needed to get done. Seven favours were for people who would have been horrified to know that I was struggling and rightly cross that I’d agreed to take on more than was healthy. Three things were things I needed to do for me. But there were two items, and people, I should just have said no to.

I’m not a victim. I’m not lamenting the fact that I am used. I have taught people that I say yes, that I email back, fulfil the request or when overwhelmed, completely melt down or flake out.

This spring and summer has been a time for me to root, to nourish myself, to grow. I leave lockdown knowing that I can be well, I can be calm, that I have some bloody good friends and family. I’ve made myself a priority in my own life. I engage in activities that bring me joy. I do more things for my heart and soul.

I’ve learnt a lot from having an opportunity to stop, a break from giving and doing too much. And when Europe ground to a halt, I couldn’t help wondering if the planet had time to do the same. I wonder what lessons she learnt, when the cars and planes stopped taking up more oxygen than she could give without it costing her? I wonder what new boundaries she will put in place?

Inspiration: My inspiration for the piece is anxiety! If anyone reading this story is struggling with feelings of anxiety, I strongly recommend they watch the Ted Talk, Walking on Custard and to remember that sometimes fighting anxiety can feel like a losing battle, but you are not alone – there are people out there who understand.


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