As I get up for my early run, I hear my feet tapping, my lungs breathing, my heart beating. The streets and its inhabitants; they are mostly sleeping. There’s a few people out; off to work for early shifts, the postman and early o’clock dog walkers. There’s also wildlife, lots and lots of wildlife. As I plod along, I think, I always think as I listen to the tunes in my ears and the birds in the sky, about now, then and tomorrow. I’ve become utterly terrified about running anytime other than before the world wakes up. Social distancing; a new word we hear bandied around, and like many I have the fear of “catching it” or passing on “it” Whatever “it” may be. I worry about running anywhere near people because of comments I’ve read aimed at runners online. So early runs, you are here to stay.
We are living in very strange times, so everyone keeps telling you. Strange and uncertain times. The days merge into one, work days flow in and out, weekends come and go, there seems to be no beginning, middle or end. We feel lost. Trapped in a cycle. Is it a nightmare? Is this actually real? we ask. About a year ago I was told, alongside the collection of all the other diagnoses and anxiety disorders to my name that I have health anxiety. So debilitating I undertook a course of NHS talking therapy to tackle specifically those feelings. In other words, obsessing about my health until it becomes unbearable. I haven’t told friends. I avoid talking and explaining my health fears as much as I can. Writing this piece is making me feel on edge. It’s normal just as anxiety is a normal emotion, to worry about our health a bit, but it isn’t helpful when every waking moment is dominated by ruminating; “do I have an incurable disease that no one knows about?” or “Has anxiety been misdiagnosed and am I actually seriously ill?” So you can imagine my panic when our friend Covid-19 made an appearance. Suddenly the media is dominated by health. Just as I was beginning to forget about health, we are all talking about it. We are constantly reminded why we are in Lockdown. And everyone is feeling anxious. Those who previously haven’t had anxiety disorders before are waking up worrying they have the virus. Colleagues are talking about anxiety in work video calls. Others have taken to stockpiling food because they are scared. The world is in a panic. We don’t know what to do with this much unknown and uncertainty. And those of us with pre existing anxiety disorders? We’re wondering how valid our feelings are, now Covid-19 anxiety is the new norm.
Historically vulnerability has been seen as a weakness. That somehow you’re less than. That you need to be handled with care, as not to upset you. That your voices don’t matter. But now, in the middle of a global pandemic, the whole world is vulnerable. And the extremely vulnerable need to be protected and as has been coined “shielded”. We all feel vulnerable to this thing the NHS and scientists are fighting. Whether we are categorised as vulnerable by the government or not, the world shows its anxiety. Its weaknesses are laid bare. And as a nation we are united by the strong feeling of “What the fuck is going to happen tomorrow?” We often all wake up in the dead of night convinced we have the disease we fear most. Those of us with anxiety disorders have experience of this, sometimes years of it, we’ve developed this thought process long before Covid-19 was even in the air. We are experts in this field. My concoction of dyspraxia, anxiety and possibly other neurodiversities has made me super hyper-alert. And aware of uncertainty. The fear that cannot be planned for. Worried about explaining myself. Terrified that my feelings are “just me” and if they are expressed anywhere other than in my head, people will think I’m weird or avoid me or not include me. Years of low self esteem has developed these conclusions. The “what ifs?” are heightened. We wonder if we need to justify how we feel, but equally we want to fade into the background.
As these two weeks have gone on, I’ve watched daily chores and errands become a literal matter of life or death. Do we risk popping to the shop for milk? The idea of essentials has caused confusion, and for many frustration. What is essential to you, may not be for others. How can the state determine essential? And what are the risks of carrying out such essentials? Leaving the the house, if we have to, has turned into a game of sudoko with no distinct answers. We don’t know anymore. It’s a step into the unknown and with this uncertainty, drives anxiety. We have never, in any of our life times experienced anything like this; the masses working from home, our careers judged on a ladder of importance, queues at shop doors and shelves stripped bare. You could say the nation is justified to be in this state of heightened alert. Feelings that were once irrational are now seen as completely rational because of the world we find ourselves in.
Our new norm makes me, and I’m sure many of you, wonder how much of my feelings I can talk about, but then knowing that everyone now gets it to a degree, that the thoughts in my head are now more justified than they were before. But of course it’s not just Covid-19 I feel anxious about. Are those feelings not as valid? It comes in waves, and sometimes we forget, forget about the lockdown, forget about the news, feel content with work, and then it hits us. This is exactly how anxiety works. It keeps us on guard. It keeps us alert. The last fortnight I’ve reasoned that for those of us with pre-existing anxiety disorders, our feelings are more than valid during this pandemic. The country may feel an anxious unity. We are going through a collective trauma. And in the long run, when we find ourselves out of the other side, it may help to generate more of a shift in societies attitudes towards mental illness in the future, tackle some of the stigma and make us feel heard. Saying this in the middle of a pandemic still doesn’t sound real. So, how are we meant to feel? I really don’t know. But I do know any story, any feeling, any experience is a dialogue worth sharing, and that eventually, it really will be okay. We’ll be okay. And you will be okay.