How I Survived Lockdown

c5912582950c0186a1fc30b74387836cI found out yesterday that I will be returning to work on Monday (15th June), after 13 weeks of isolationa/shielding. I started shielding a week before I was medically told that I needed to and I was incredibly lucky that my employers were understanding – I think being honest about my health from the start helped. But they didn’t complain or make me feel bad, in fact they went out of their way to reassure me that things would be okay and that it wasn’t causing huge issues. Despite that, I felt incredibly guilty for leaving them in the lurch. I was also bloody angry that yet again, my health was dictating what I could and could not do.

Rewind to this time two years ago, I wasn’t working, due to my worsening health. I was very isolated and rarely left the house, unless it was for medical appointments. I can’t deny that part of my anger stemmed from the fact that I had spend over two years effectively in isolation due to being so poorly that I couldn’t properly partake in society, and now I was facing months of yet again being stuck at home, unable to work, unable to see friends and family and losing my independence that I had worked so hard to regain. 

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That said, I have coped remarkably well with isolation. I think that living with chronic and mental illnesses kind of prepare you for not being part of society for long periods of time. When you have a chronic illnesses, the chances are that you spend weeks/months/years at home, often unable to leave your bed. The world carries on, outside your windows, but you aren’t part of it. Whilst I had moments of feeling a bit penned in, lockdown didn’t really bother me that much because it was a lifestyle that I was used to. Having mental illnesses also prepared me, in part, for the madness that is covid-19. I have anxiety and can easily catastrophise about the world ending and going through endless what ifs. On so many occasions, I have convinced myself that the absolute worst was going to happen, so when the world imploded and shut down, it wasn’t actually as bad as I had built it up to be in my mind. Every day I panic about the people I love dying, and suddenly that became a very real threat. But that threat felt normal for me, so whilst other people were panicking about loved ones getting ill and dying, I basically sat back and thought “this is my normal, this is okay.” Having an excuse to be anxious and not being viewed like I was being dramatic or overreacting was quite a nice break. I felt like saying “welcome to my daily life. Exhausting right?” I wasn’t having to constantly explain my irrational thoughts, because suddenly they weren’t irrational. 

That said, I did make a conscious effort to try and look after myself during lockdown. Mentally, things were a bit wobbly towards the beginning (nothing to do with covid) and I quickly realised that it was unlikely that I would get any additional support because, put simply, it wasn’t there any more, as everything had shut down. It was a bit of a sink or swim moment, and I had spent so much time sinking, that I figured that trying to swim was worth a try. 

So how did I survive lockdown without relapsing and becoming very unwell?

Sticking to a routining has been really important. I’m not going to pretend that I was up and dressed by 8am every single morning, like I would if I was at work. That would be a lie. But I have tried to wake up by 10ish (unless I felt ill) and then get up. I could happily live in pyjamas but I made sure that I could dressed every day because I will admit, I mentally feel better if I have made the effort to look presentable. I tend to put aside some time every day to exercise in some form, do some of the endless medical and adult admin that seems to have accumulated over the past few months and I have done a lot of reading. I kept meaning to write down all the books that I have read during lockdown because it’s a pretty impressive selection. Even though I haven’t been able to go out-out, I have spent time in the garden and actually developed a bit of a tan. I know, mad. 

On the days when the weather hasn’t been so good, or when my body has been rebelling, Netflix has been fantastic, as has Amazon Prime. I have had the time to discover so many new series over the past few months, including Dead to Me, The Good Fight, Alex Rider, Chernobyl and Little Fires Everywhere. 

Weirdly, during lockdown, I have felt more connected than I have done in ages. I am so grateful to my friends who have been at the end of a video call a couple of times every week. Even though no one has been doing anything particularly exciting, just spending time in their company has been really nice and it’s left me feeling a lot closer to them. I also have send more letters and happy post to friends, because receiving something other than a bill or medical letter makes a change from the norm.

Being kind to myself has been really important. We are living in unprecedented times so doing little things to try and keep myself happy, sane and healthy has been a priority. This ranges from using a hair mask once a week to try and save my hair when I can’t see my hairdresser, to making a conscious effort to try and eat well. I’ve tried to exercise most days and have also been doing sudoko and other brain training games. I don’t for one moment that it will improve my brain skills or intelligence, but I want to keep mentally active, as well as physically active.

As life slowly begins to return back to normal, spare a thought for those people whose life won’t be drastically changing and will instead be remaining at home and isolated from their friends, family and society. Millions and millions or people are silently missing, please don’t forget them.

Dear 18 Year Old Self

Dear Laura,

You are eighteen and it should be the most exciting time of your life. Unfortunately, right now, you are finding life hard. You are in chronic pain and you don’t know why and you’re spending a lot of time in and out of hospital. But you’re going to get through it and it will make you even stronger (we love a cliche). You think that your A Levels are going to destroy you. Spoiler: they don’t. You won’t enjoy them, you might even cry during them but you’re going to get through them and you’re going to go to university and start the best three years of your life.

Don’t take life for granted and don’t waste time on the wrong people. You will meet the wrong people and part of life is learning lessons from the bad times. Don’t hold on to anger, resentment or jealousy because it will take over. Try not to put your self last, even though doing the opposite seems completely unnatural to you. The things that bother you now will not bother you in the future, trust me on that one!

Hold your good friends tight. The friends you value now won’t necessarily be in your life in the future, but know your self worth and know that it is okay to move on. Laugh and cry with your friends, stay up late and drink bottles of wine. Don’t pressure yourself into going clubbing because it really isn’t as great as people make out.

Believe in yourself! Know your own worth and what you can offer. Don’t be silenced by people who are louder and more confident than you. Try not to compared yourself to other people, everyone is walking their own path and there’s no point comparing your step one to their step five. You’ll get there, in your own way.

Learn how to be independent. Don’t rely on other people for your survival, be happy on your own and be happy with other people.

Dating the wrong people is not a mistake, but staying with them, because you feel that you have to, is. Be your own person and don’t change because a man wants you to. You will make mistakes, in relationships, in life, with decisions but you will learn from those mistakes. Mistakes are okay. Self talk, problem solve and don’t regret what went wrong. It went wrong for a reason.

Asking for help is okay. There will always be people there who are willing to help you. This is your time to learn, but that doesn’t have to be done alone. There isn’t an age limit on success, now is the time to explore, live your life, make decisions (good and bad) and don’t beat yourself up if it goes wrong.

Make memories. Take photos.

Stand up for yourself.

Risk it.

Find and enjoy whatever it is that makes you happy.

Respect yourself and respect others.

Save money and don’t spend all your student loan in one go when you get to university. You’ll be thankful for this when you’re not poor and hungry.

Your mum is [nearly always] right. She will tell you things that you don’t want to hear and she will nag you until the point that you want to explode but she does it because she loves you and cares for you. Never forget that and try and listen to what she says, she is the person that loves you the most and will not turn her back on you.

Also, always drink some water before bed after a night out. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

You’ve got this,

Laura x

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Emily McDowell

 

 

Living with OCD during COVID-19

Guest-post-for-Ranking-improvementThis month’s guest post is coming to you by Emma. Emma lives by the sea in the south of England, with her hamster, Manuka, and has a (verging on unhealthy) obsession with plants. She also has a diagnosis of OCD and has kindly offered to talk about how she has been coping with OCD during a global pandemic. You can find Emma on instagram or over on Youtube, where she talks about her love of plants, veganism, and wellbeing.  

A note on OCD: OCD is often broken down into different subcategories, and occasionally abbreviated for ease. For example, Relationship OCD (ROCD), Harm OCD (HOCD) are two very common themes. 

Hey there, my name is Emma! I have long been best friends with Laura, almost since primary school(!), I am 26 and have a long history of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety and depression. To give you a little background, my OCD comes and goes with periods of stress, hormonal changes and alcohol consumption. I am lucky in that I can have prolonged periods of complete relief from OCD, which is not the case for everyone. I also suffer almost exclusively from what is known as Pure-O OCD, where the person will have little to no visible compulsions (the name originates as it was once thought this was a purely obsessive disorder based around intrusive thoughts, when in reality the compulsions take place within the mind of the sufferer).

COVID-19 lockdown has presented many challenges to everyone, regardless of pre-existing mental health issues, but I think there is a particular challenge faced by OCD sufferers. To summarise in brief: the most clinically effective treatment for OCD is Exposure Response-Prevention (ERP) Therapy. With OCD, the more the person engages with their rituals, compulsions and obsessions, the more the brain begins to believe the fear and threat is rational and real. During ERP Therapy, the OCD sufferer is gradually exposed to their fear and must resist the compulsions they face, and sit with the anxiety of resisting those compulsions. While this ‘undoing’ process is traumatic, it’s an incredibly effective method of re-training the brain to understand there is no threat involved and there is no way to avoid the threat through compulsive behaviour. With this in mind, recovery for someone who suffers from a Contamination OCD theme would involve exposing themselves to the perceived contamination and not carrying out compulsions like washing hands, avoiding physical contact, cleaning beyond rational requirement, etc. However, exposing themselves to the object of the contamination fear (COVID-19/other contractable disease) and resisting these compulsions during the COVID-19 pandemic would actually go against the World Health Organisation, government and health authority advice. The fear of the OCD sufferer suddenly becomes a very real, very tangible threat, so it’s easy to see why OCD sufferers are being subjected to a particularly hard time at the moment.

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As for my personal experience – I seem to be going through peaks and troughs of anxiety. When coronavirus first started hitting the news, it coincided with a small change in my antidepressants and I had several days of paranoia about my being contaminated with coronavirus and that I was going to be responsible for the death of all my loved ones. My compulsion was to confess to them all that I may have been exposed, and wash my hands (which, had I indulged it, would have lead to washing my arms, washing my body, washing my clothes and everything in my home). Thankfully after a few days, things settled down and I used many of my old coping strategies from therapy to get myself back on track.

Then, I met up with my mum, who is technically high risk, and had about two weeks of paranoia that she was going to die imminently and it would all be my fault, coupled with anxiety. My compulsions this time were ‘neutralising’ the thoughts with other thoughts, and confession.

Fast forward to lockdown being announced – I actually had much more apprehension about being alone for prolonged periods than anything else, as this is a known trigger for me. On the other hand though, I did feel more prepared for the fears presented by COVID-19 than most. My brain knows how to survive a barrage of negativity and fear narratives – it’s not a new scenario to me. Thankfully, I actually went for the first 7 weeks of lockdown without any major symptoms of OCD, despite some anxiety and low mood, mood swings etc. It took until the announcement of some lockdown measures being relaxed for me to start to feel OCD creeping back in. However, I was able to totally restrict my time spent around other people, my exposure, my safety etc. as I live alone. In OCD world that’s ideal! All our OCD brains really want is to control every perceived risk to the nth degree, with the belief that this will somehow keep ourselves and/or our loved ones safe. As the lockdown measures were relaxed, we had news that we could start to see one person at a social distance of 2 metres. I am blessed and so grateful to have people in my life who love me and want to see me, but following this announcement I had an influx of people wanting to meet up, which amounted to a very big change in a very tiny space of time. This sent my generalised anxiety a bit haywire for a few days. After a week, I met up with one of my closest friends for a socially distanced chat. The chat itself was really lovely, heartwarming and felt good to see one of my beloved humans again. However the next day, I had a panic attack following a run, and my brain became overwhelmed with every little thing that might have contaminated me by meeting with this friend, and how my contamination was going to end up killing my loved ones. It seems sort of funny in a way when reading my intrusive thoughts back, because they look so silly when not experienced as part of your threat-response. My contamination OCD thoughts have subsided somewhat since then, but it’s had the unfortunate effect of triggering an episode of ROCD, which I am currently trying to get a grip on.

So what is it like living with OCD during lockdown? For me, it’s not been an un-liveable hell, as I had slightly worried it might be. However it has certainly triggered a significant decline in my mental health, for which I am slightly reluctant to be going back to my therapist for help with. Reluctant only because we said our final goodbyes just 3  months ago (sod’s law!!). I am pretty lucky, as my fellow OCD sufferers go – I know a lot of people have suffered a very traumatic couple of months. There is reduced availability of therapists (although many are now thankfully doing remote sessions), and avoiding compulsions has become almost impossible where doing so would be against formal government advice.

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From my perspective, the more people understand OCD the better the chance of OCD sufferers having a chance at recovery. The sad reality is most people still mistake OCD for a preference of tidiness and order, when the reality is very different. The one thing I would change? I would love it if people stopped using OCD as a criticism, or a self reflection of a tidiness or pernickety behaviour. There is a huge stigma around OCD and anything we can do to reduce that should be done. OCD should be referenced only when talking about the mental health issue, which is severe and debilitating for most.

I’m Doing Okay

I feel really uneasy publicly saying that I’m okay and that things are going well. Not because I need validation around being ill, but because I am a little bit scared that somehow talking about things being okay will jinx the situation and things will start going very wrong. But I can’t live my life in fear and actually, for the first time in a very long time, I am happy, content and enjoying life. Obviously the whole corona-coaster thing is problematic and it throws up issues, but as I said in my post about dealing with lockdown and mental health, I am coping amazingly well.

So what has changed?

A few weeks ago, things were not this good. The exact opposite in fact. As it happened, the referral into the mental health team, that was suggested, was refused and the additional meds that I was put on didn’t work for me, and I think that this is the best thing that could have happened. I decided to take control of my own life and to stop coasting through, depending on other people. It came down to mind over matter, although I want to make things very clear at this point, that I do not think that this is a clearcut “cure”, not for me or for anyone else. My problems haven’t magically disappeared, but I made the choice to start addressing things, instead of self destructing and living in a mindset where I had given up.

I know and accept that I still need help, but I want to be in control of that help and to get support in a way that I find is beneficial for me. My experiences with the community mental health team were poor, I would leave appointments feeling worse than when I entered, I was made to feel like I wasn’t sick enough to receive help, despite being very unwell and I felt that I wasn’t in control of my own life or choices. I’m still engaging with therapy but for the first time ever, I am viewing it very differently. I have been having therapy in varying forms for years and years and had always just accepted that I would have therapy for life and that was that. But now, without setting myself a time limit, there are certain things that I know that I need to work on, and more importantly, I feel ready to work on. It’s not going to be an overnight thing, it is still probably going to take years of work but I’m not going to just tread water and not move forward.

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Olive and Frank

I’ve also learnt what works for me and what doesn’t. My choice has been to engage with services such as Mind and other local charities, and dip in and out when I need support. I’m not pinned in and it isn’t time limited. Plus, the wellbeing workers who I have met before, are all good eggs and genuinely care and want what is best.

Most importantly, I am making plans for the future. I’m using my time off work sensibly and working on continuing professional development, as well as undertaking various online courses to improve my CV in the long run. I’m really excited to say that I have applied for a masters degree in social work and I’m currently going through the agonising wait in hearing back from the university. I am making plans around moving out and setting myself goals in achieving that.

It’s crucial to say, I am not naive. I don’t think that I am magically better. There are still things that I am struggling with, a lot, but I am accepting those things and being honest about them. My physical health is still problematic and causes its own limitations and that is always going to be something that I have to work around. I’m also not kidding myself into thinking that my mood and ability to cope will not, ever, fluctuate again. But I kind of feel more prepared for that. Small steps. That’s all anyone will ever ask for.

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