The following is a long post that I wrote for my Facebook page as a sort of taster for the kind of writing that I share in this community, and hope to stuff into the pages of All Better Now. It largely focuses on the difficulty of fining a solid creative response or mindset during the current global situation. I hope you enjoy it.
I wanted to write something about coronavirus. It’s everywhere and affecting everyone, a line drawn across our collective history (although a fatter and wobblier line in some places), and not addressing it would feel like ignoring it.
Also given my platform, brand, or whatever you want to call it, it would be a wasted opportunity not to have some kind of involvement. Even the most staunch keep-calm-and-carry-on stiff upper lips of the crying-never-helped-anybody generation have accepted how intrinsically linked the coronavirus pandemic is with mental health, even if it is just under the take-a-walk-in-the-woods and we-all-get-stressed-sometimes approach that frequently ignores mental illness.
Enough hyphens, for now. It’s hard to know exactly what I want to write, or find exactly what I 𝘤𝘢𝘯 write. If you slide over to my Reddit or Twitter you’ll find memes and missives that were pretty pithy in the moment and maybe helped me work through a mood or thought bubble at the time, even if they didn’t receive that many upvotes or retweets.
But when it comes to writing something a little longer, it’s hard to know what the angle is. Do I want to write something relevant right now, or something that’ll stand the test of time a little more?
I struck solid gold with When Lockdown Is Over, my poem about deploying disingenuous hope with the best intentions, because no matter how long this thing continues, that desire to be a better person in a better world when it’s over will still be there, as will the honesty to admit that it might not be as easy as expected.
I’d already been working from home for a week when the UK locked down around me, and I didn’t feel that same sense of “This will be fine!” spirit that everyone else appeared to have. I didn’t want to bake loaves of banana bread. I didn’t want to get up early to bounce around my living room with Joe Wicks, not least of all because to my archival brain, Joe Wicks is a character from EastEnders, played by Paul Nicholls from 25 March 1996 to 14 November 1997.
I couldn’t think about home improvements, home workouts or home third-thing, because all I was focused on was getting to the end of the day and the end of the week without falling to pieces. It took me a while to realise two things.
Firstly, no-one is as happy as they say they are. This is fundamental, ground floor, entry level stuff which I should have known and probably already did. The people laughing through exercise routines and celebrating their baking skills online aren’t doing so because they’re fine, they’re doing so because they want to 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘷𝘦 that they’re fine, to others but more likely to themselves. This sort of competitive happiness is the cornerstone of the crapiness of social media, and something of which we’re all quietly and/or dramatically aware. Like I said, entry level stuff.
(Quick sidebar, this doesn’t make them Bad People™, just people who are trying to carve out their own sense of happy. If sharing their best moments and getting engagement off the back of that makes them happy, who is anyone else to judge? Give them that smiley face or the blue thumbs up they deserve.)
Secondly, I wasn’t coping to begin with. I’m not talking about day one of lockdown, or the early days when coronavirus was first creeping into the news. I’m talking about weeks before, when no bats had been nibbled, no secret virus labs had been breached, or no 5G masts had been switched on.
The realisation that my inability to cope with the early weeks of lockdown had nothing to do with lockdown itself has been the most liberating moment of the whole damn epidemic. What I thought was a slow crash into breakdown was in fact… a normal day.
Sure, I’m washing my hands more, no doubt more than the official medical advice, but that’s what I’ve always done. The levels have been raised across the board, that’s all. When the not-so-crazy wash their hands 40% more, so do I. The difference between us is maintained.
And yes, I’m indulging my less healthy coping mechanisms a little more. I’m drinking (lots) more water, more caffeine, more booze. I’m exercising control by making more lists and timetables, sleeping less regularly, lifting too many weights and completing meaningless video game achievements. And I’m starting more sentences with conjunctions. But who isn’t?
Truly hilarious grammar jokes aside, I don’t think there are any arrows in my coping quiver that are unique to me, it’s just the volume that they’ve been turned up to that’s worth keeping an eye on. Also, my mixed metaphors are a mess. Noisy arrows.
Anyway, to bring this all back around, it’s hard to write something specific and timeless about coronavirus, because the situation isn’t inherently timeless. It wasn’t long before banana breads and yoga workouts were replaced with “It’s Okay to not be Okay” memes and stories of personal coping failures.
I thought this was my niche, as it so often is. I thought I could write one of those big ol’ lists of things it’s okay to not feel or not do, and that it would properly express how I felt whilst (let’s be honest here) driving new readers towards my material. Because outside of bread-bakers and yoga practitioners, one thing I am seeing a lot of is full time writers and performers doubling down on ways to make their own work effective in this period.
I’m a full-time writer, I just don’t get to use 35 hours of that time fully enough. When I last had a therapist, one thing we talked a lot about was this feeling I had that the whole world needed to go on pause while I caught up. Well, the whole world is on pause now, but I can’t shake this feeling that they’re still running on ahead of me.
So finding a little niche in the “It’s Okay to not be Okay” movement felt like a bolt from the blue, something I could rally around and produce a substantial body of work regarding. Then I blinked, and the scene shifted. There’s now so much material telling you how okay it is to not be okay that not being okay has become some sort of aspirational norm.
“We baked banana bread today!” is now “I don’t mind telling you, me and the kids are having a tough time.” And that’s great – well, not exactly great – but it’s good that people are finding themselves with a sense of personal honesty about everything they’re going through, and that they’re not ashamed to speak up. If anything though, it’s too much now, a smothering blanket of inactivity covering the downturn of people leaving yoga and baking behind in droves.
In that same spirit of feeling a little ahead of everyone with my lousy coping skills, I feel like I can see the next step already growing. The lovechild of making the best of our time and feeling okay doing nothing with our time is being born, and one of the many names it is going to go under is Try Something Today.
Yeah, it’s okay to do nothing. Sometimes it’s even useful, healthy and therapeutic to do nothing. But why not try and do just one thing? Don’t feel obligated to bounce around your living room every morning to the smell of banana bread, but why not tidy a cupboard, do some stretches, read the first 15 pages of a book, or just sit down with your phone and go over every happy photo you’ve taken in the past six months?
This sense that we have to present a perfect, unified sense of ourselves is, to me, one of the most bull facets of the developed world, and something I want to actively work against. Our online presence works like a business card for all we do and all we are and all we’ve ever been, and often feeds back into our sense of self so we look at the contradictions within us like they’re failings or indiscretions. We call out previous versions of ourselves as being in error, and we’re ashamed to admit when we’re not sure, undecided, or just haven’t found what it is we care about yet.
There’s one last thing I want to talk about, because I feel like if I leave it behind it will decrease in relevance just as fast as everything else I’ve been putting pins in.
We are all going to be different when this is over, and that’s not going to necessarily be a good thing. With hope, we’ll value our healthcare services more, and place more emphasis on the relationships that matter to us. With cynicism, we’ll abandon those relationships that aren’t as important to us, and gorge ourselves on the resources and freedom returned to us like we’ve won some sort of revolution.
There are positive goals that most of us share for the time when this has passed, but there’s also a stack of unhealthy coping skills we’ll need to leave behind, and misplaced senses of importance and focus that we’ll need to realign.
I know I will need help and time getting out back into physical, social spaces. I know there will be people who tell me “Coronavirus is over now” with the same tone that they used to say “you’re supposed to be better now” and “what have you got to be depressed about at your age?”
What I need, and what others are going to need – because I know I’m not special in this regard – is a breath of time to sit on the fence, to ease back into whatever passes for normal life, and slowly break the reliance on whatever it was that got us through this difficult time.
It’s okay to not be okay when everything is okay, as long as we’re given the space to try.
Now more than ever, I hope you are well,
P.S. Remember that as a member of this community, only you will get the opportunity to pick up 500ish Days In The Quiet Room at a scarily low introductory price, and after launch only you will get a digital copy of the companion collection All Better Now for absolutely free!