Alan and Cathy
Last Sunday marked 50 days of lockdown in Spain. Back on day five of our State of Alarm I wrote that I thought it would last for weeks, if not months and that we were in this for the long haul.
I am happy that I accepted it so early on because I cannot imagine anything worse than waiting every day to hear when the current situation will end; that must be soul-destroying. With a book to finish writing and a few to finish reading, living in a secure farmhouse in a beautiful region, isolating with a positive and resourceful partner, the last person I worried about physically or mentally, was myself.
Unfortunately, after just two weeks I began to feel unwell, and I suffer bouts of chronic fatigue since. In strict lockdown the one thing a person has in abundance is time. And I’m used to full health and energy (apart from the periodic effects of chronic insomnia, but that’s a whole other story), to now be prevented from spending these wonderfully long days doing what I want, whether that be physical or creative work, is torture.
However, I always get comfort from knowing how lucky I am, relative to the world’s population. I have been able to adjust my activities, and crucially, my expectations to match the amount of energy I awake with each day.
I haven’t been waiting for lockdown to end, preferring patience and a pleasant surprise to come, over the dashing of hopes. I only wished for a diagnosis, and with that, a possible end date to my health issue and a return to ‘normal’ lockdown, which was full of learning new skills, growing food, being creative, reading and connecting virtually with family and friends abroad. The pandemic is out of my control, what happens within and around me, is largely in my control, and that is empowering.
A STRANGE NEW WORLD
Because our village doctor’s office is closed for the duration of lockdown, last week Alan had to drive me to a medical centre to get a doctor’s prescription. Armed with a document stating the reason for this otherwise banned trip, we left the farm together for the first time in six weeks. It felt rebellious, liberating, and timely; no doubt I am suppressing some feelings of entrapment.
Although I stay up-to-date with regional and world events, I have been living in something of a bubble, distanced from the practicalities of living through the pandemic. On the way to town, I stared out at the near-empty roads for the first time, feeling like I was looking at press images online.
When I entered the medical centre I was given hand sanitiser and a face mask - my first time to wear one since living in Japan in the nineties. While I waited to be seen I watched a nurse kit out a doctor. The process of putting PPE on top of his existing layer of PPE took so long that I thought it was a learning exercise for one or both. After twenty minutes the doctor shuffled into a consultation room and greeted his patient. I was shocked at this tiny glimpse into the realities of working with virus risks.
Once my prescription was sorted I asked the doctor if it was possible for somebody to get a coronavirus test. He laughed so hard it was disconcerting, and then he said that even he has no chance of getting tested. Another piece of harsh reality for me to digest. I had no real expectation of a test for myself, I just thought it prudent to check. But I do find it difficult to understand how some countries, like Ireland, have drive-through centres by appointment, yet many Spanish doctors at the epicentre of Covid-19 cannot find out if they are carrying the virus.
May 2 was the first day that we were allowed to leave home together. We are now allowed to go for a walk of up to one kilometre for an hour. It’s a laughably small amount for people used to 90-minute cycles or workouts but, because we’re still not allowed even to cycle this kilometre together, we jumped at the opportunity. Not because we cannot walk around the farm, but because it was a change of scenery, and more importantly, the only move in seven weeks towards the lifting of lockdown.
We appreciated every step we took away from house, wallowed in the views of distant villages and hills, and salivated at the fruit trees weighed down with ripening cherries and Saturn peaches, wondering if the farmers would trade some for free-range eggs. The only people we met was a group of men pruning these trees in the afternoon heat. Last week we were still lighting the fire at night, now temperatures are in the early thirties.
MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
The fact that we bypassed spring and went straight from winter to summer didn’t help our lockdown situation for the first six weeks, but the sun is most welcome now and it arrived not one day too early. As a friend said, ‘Say goodbye to SAD (season affective disorder) and hello to vitamin D.’
I have been concentrating on my survival physically and economically, and on the world’s ability to do likewise, now and in the coming years. But mental health issues are looming for all. In the US, prior to this pandemic, approximately a third of households owned a gun and there has been a spike in sales recently.
According to a recent Guardian newspaper headline ‘Experts warn increased access to firearms could leave deadly legacy, with suicides already two-thirds of gun-related deaths’. Eric Fleegler, a physician and researcher at Boston children’s hospital told the paper: ‘There’s little doubt that we’re gonna see increased rates of domestic violence. There’s little doubt that we’re gonna see increased rates of child abuse occurring. There’s little doubt that we’re going to see people get into socio-economically dire situations. The presence of guns takes any toxic environment like that and puts a higher risk on things.’ Grim reading, indeed.
My boyfriend, Alan, is now wondering how much of his lethargy is due to a virus that he may also have, and how much life under lockdown might be affecting his state of mind.
In his own words: ‘I’ve lived in a remote farmhouse for years and I quite enjoy being away from cities and people, dipping into society when I need to. So, the idea that I may be locked away for months didn’t worry me; it would just be a continuation of my life, but with some shopping restrictions, right? If only.
‘When the State of Alarm was declared it didn’t occur to me what effect this might have on my mental health. We live six kilometres from the nearest town and we don’t see another human for days at a time. It’s bliss - until you are forced to live with it, and this difference is small but significant.
Choosing to live a particular way, knowing you can have a break from it when you want to is very different from life under lockdown. That inability to do what I want is what affected me, and it wasn’t until the restrictions were eased recently that I realised this.
‘Over the weeks I have become less energised, less enthusiastic about doing things that I had enjoyed; now they were suddenly being avoided. Wanting to sit and pass the time scrolling through websites at a speed that made everything blurry was how I wanted to get through each day. I was edgy, my muscles were tense and I wasn’t sleeping well, probably because I wasn’t doing anything.
‘When we were finally allowed to go for a walk together, it took a lot for me to put on my walking shoes and go outside. At first it felt like a visit to the dentist - something that I had to do. But then my mood began to lift and I noticed how relaxed I was becoming.
‘Strict lockdown affects us mentally. Its harsh, but necessary. It has prevented an immeasurable amount of deaths. But being told you can’t do what you want feels like you are being punished for something you haven’t done. An injustice, a wrongful conviction.
‘When we returned home I realised how lockdown was affecting my mental health. We spend our entire lives with choices in front of us, and we are too intelligent to suddenly be treated like battery hens for months at a time.’
For many, life pre and post-lockdown was more uncertain than our current restricted and controlled situation. We don’t know what post-lockdown mid-pandemic issues face us in the coming months. But some people have flourished in adversity, with many upskilling or simply gaining confidence through the realisation that they have an abundance of coping skills after all.