My Mental Health In 2020: Part 1, The Freefall

As 2019 came to a close and we celebrated the start of 2020, no one could’ve predicted how quickly our lives were about to change. At the time, wearing a face mask was limited to a few tourists, and COVID-19 impacting the country never crossed our mind, let alone the whole country shutting down.

By the end of May, I had had enough and hit my limit. George Floyd’s death was enough to push me over the cliff-edge, and my mental health went completely downhill.

All of these experiences on their own wouldn’t usually impact me, but I thought it was important to share my story with you as this all crept up on me in the same way my cats creep up on birds just out of reach for a tasty lunch! I thought I was fully aware of my mind and I was surprised when I found myself in such a way.

This story takes place in two parts and is quite long. In this post I’ll describe how I fell to the bottom, and in the next I’ll describe how I slowly climbed back to the top!

A Global Pandemic Develops

At the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 didn’t cross my mind whatsoever. In fact, I didn’t know that coronavirus existed as a term, let alone that it was a group of viruses that include the common cold and the flu.

Throughout lockdown we felt overwhelming anxiety like most people, wondering if we’d catch it, wondering if our family would catch it, or whether one of us would become critical and end up in hospital.

Fortunately, at the time of writing this anyway, we and all of our family members have been lucky enough to stay free from COVID-19, although I do wonder what my strange flu-like illness at the end of January was where I spent 17 hours in bed – I barely spend 17 hours sleeping across 3 nights usually! We all had this thing at some stage, and our extended family said it was unlike anything they’d ever experienced too.

Anyway, I won’t go into too much detail for obvious reasons, but as a consulting manager I share a team of almost 20 with another. Stacey & I were fortunate enough that I was able to be home based 5 days a week instead of the usual 2 or 3, and Stacey was able to convert to home working instead of being office based relatively easily. Before official lockdown was announced, and as I knew our risk was proportional to our essential trips to the supermarket, it was important for me to make sure that my team’s families were coping physically and mentally, especially if they didn’t share the same luxury.

Whilst I’d do the same over and over again for the team, I didn’t take a single moment to reflect and ask myself if I was OK, I simply focussed on the fact that we didn’t have COVID-19.

This was my first mistake.

Spinning Plates

When Isla’s nursery shut down two weeks after I started working from home indefinitely, and one week after Stacey did, that’s when our horrific routine started.

  • Isla woke up at any time between 5am & 6am, starting to need less sleep throughout the day, reducing her sleep by almost 2 hours.
  • I then started work some time within the next hour or two, and continued until late morning or lunch time whilst Stacey gave Isla breakfast and carried out activities with her.
  • We switched places. I gave Isla lunch and we did fun activities together for the next 4 or 5 hours whilst Stacey worked.
  • When Stacey finished, she gave Isla dinner and did the bath/bedtime routine. I gave Isla a kiss and a cuddle goodnight from my desk (or came upstairs if I wasn’t too busy) and then continued until around 8pm or 9pm, depending on how early I started.
  • If Stacey had only done 4 hours, she then hopped back onto her laptop once Isla was asleep.
  • We then somehow squeezed in dinner and showers for ourselves with around 30 minutes of TV to wind down for the day before it all started again.

It’s only now that we aren’t doing this that we realise how tiring it was. Anywhere from 5am until 9pm you couldn’t switch off. We absolutely love spending so much time with Isla and we are extremely passionate about our jobs too, so at the time this didn’t feel like a problem.

We also had friends and family both here and overseas that found themselves losing their jobs or being furloughed, and we constantly felt guilty for being able to continue with relative normality by being able to work at home instead of in the office – Some might even say that this was better!

This was my second and third mistake.

I now realise it’s possible to do too much of the things you enjoy at one time, and it simply distracts you rather than prevents you from feeling certain ways. Perhaps the reason I never reflected to begin with.

In addition to this, nothing about this is normal. Today I still describe the exhausting routine as ‘relative normality’. Whilst it might be a form of entertainment, there’s nothing normal about everyone smiling and laughing together on a group conference call whilst your three year old sings Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or with a ‘bring your most exotic pet’ competition for the daily catch up!

It was only a matter of time before the plates came crashing down.

Toddlers on Lockdown

Any parent will know that not being able to give your child an answer is the most difficult thing to do. Isla was almost three, and she knew something was not-quite right but didn’t know what or why.

We explained to her that ‘the bugs are here’, and adapted this in whichever way we needed to so we could explain why we couldn’t see family or couldn’t go out. We also avoided green spaces with playgrounds because she wouldn’t understand why they were shut, whilst she would point at anyone in a mask and tell us that there’s ‘another doctor’.

The worst part of this was a period of two weeks, where Isla would wake up every morning and ask if the bugs were gone. We had no answer other than ‘not yet’, and with that response she’d start to cry and say she misses her friends from nursery and her family. Hearing this every day for so long took its toll, especially with the upcoming 16 hour routine!

Death in the Family

Sadly, on the 4th anniversary of my granddad’s death, my nan passed away. This wasn’t related to COVID-19 and (to some degree) was expected at some time soon due to life expectancy with Alzhiemer’s.

Attending a funeral is difficult at the best of times, but a lockdown funeral is the worst and was my first experience of the country truly changing.

  • I used cruise control on the motorway for the whole 53 miles, barely needing to move into lane 2 or 3.
  • Once we arrived, our heads had to rule our hearts and we stayed a cautious distance away from relatives we hadn’t seen for a few months.
  • My nan’s coffin was put onto a knee-height table, and wheeled into the chapel.
  • Once inside, each chair had a 4sqm perimeter taped off, and I was separated from Stacey & Isla, the only people that were allowed to physically support me here.
  • The coffin was blessed from a distance, which removed all personal touch.

This messed me up more than my nan passing away if I’m honest. I had stayed away and hadn’t seen her for a few years in the later stage of her illness because seeing me would trigger anger and she’d hit me. We put this down to her seeing me visit their house with nurses and doctors, and it wasn’t safe for either of us. This simply wasn’t her, she was the most kind and loving woman you’d ever meet.

Not being able to say goodbye in the way I wanted to was the hardest part, for me that was the moment that would always close the chapter after fighting the urge to go and visit her every few months.

Current Tensions with Race

Admittedly, world events surrounding race have never triggered anything in me. I now think this is because I predominantly expressed (what are considered to be) white traits, and would compare my personality to my white friends rather than my black friends. I always had personal experiences where race was a big issue, but I couldn’t really relate to events outside of these experiences.

Since I’ve been with Stacey we’ve both done all we can to make sure that we can express ourselves in exactly the way we feel, and part of this includes our passion for Caribbean music. As we both share the same interests, this had led to both of us diving deeper into black culture, and therefore the impact of surrounding events have a wider impact than they used to.

When I woke up to the controversy surrounding George Floyd’s death, this triggered anger, frustration, and upset that I’d never felt before.

With politicians avoiding questions, media getting his name wrong, and individuals making excuses for why he was there in the first place, I felt different again.

When you’re a person of colour, there’s a look that you receive every now and again from others that, in an unspoken way, simply says ‘You. Are. Different.’. I’ve seen it all my life, and it’s validated by the infrequent person that does actually exchange words. If you ask any person of colour about this, they’ll be able to explain it to you easily.

Generally speaking, I get this look or a subtle action once every 3 months or so, mostly if I’m on a holiday park in the UK where I can be on holiday for the whole week and not see any other person of colour until I’m back home. As I’ve said in previous posts, often I can turn a blind eye to these looks, whilst Stacey is often more angry than I am because it’s not normal to her!

In the UK holiday example, you may have met some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, but you just cannot help but constantly feel different. You’re aware that your skin is brown and no one else’s is.

As events unfolded with George Floyd’s death, I started to feel this same feeling as soon as I opened my front door, and that was extremely uncomfortable.

The Impacts

At the end of each day during our daily lockdown routine, I would find myself more tired than usual, fed up and de-motivated, and I was physically present in the room with Stacey & Isla but not mentally present. I was effectively carrying out my life’s daily critical path just to power through and ignore it before sleeping again.

Stacey went through this same cycle previously dealing with life being disrupted for a few months after an accident and subsequent operation in 2019. It resulted in a knee-dislocation and a wrist-break, and overnight she had to stop being a mother. Sometimes I’m more excitable than Isla when playing games, so to suddenly find myself clock-watching, tired, bored, and waiting for the next day to come, I knew that this had gone too far and I’d just been pushed off the cliff-edge.

Onwards & Upwards

At my place of work I am fortunate enough to have access to therapy sessions as close to on-demand as it can possibly be. I had said to Stacey a few nights before that if I felt like this again, I’d promise to book in a session, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

The reason I share such a personal account with you is simply because not enough men feel like they can do this. Also, this may be able to help you identify anything in your circumstances that might be a sign of moving towards your cliff-edge. There are plenty of people that feel like this for all sorts of reasons, and you shouldn’t feel that your issues are any less important than anyone else’s even if you feel like everything is going well.

In part 2, I’ll explain how I’m back to being my normal self again after climbing a slow and steady incline over the course of the last month. The work isn’t done yet, and without continuously doing the things I’m doing now I could easily fall off the edge again, but I should now be able to recognise the signs more easily and prevent this.

Stay tuned for more on this very soon.

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