Presence of mind

…and learning to cope

I saw any number of retrospectives in January, summing up the shared tragedy and meagre glints of joy amid the long months of 2020, yet I have found myself…reluctant to join in. Certainly I’ve been changed by my experiences, deeply, and in ways I’ve yet to fully plumb. I can feel it. Yet I spent so much of that year absent, it might almost have happened to somebody else.

As a key worker in the early part of the pandemic, I was away from my family each day. My own health anxieties, compounded by the fear of infecting my wife and parents, left me screaming inside most days and exhausted most nights. Was my presence at work of any value? Not at all. My ‘customer service’ went in the bin, swiftly replaced by the urge to ‘get them out as soon as possible.’ I became snappy and angry by default. I couldn’t cope. It felt like I was being shoved out on the tracks and told to smile until a train hit me.

I am somebody who is prone, shall we say, to the downward spiral of mental health. I put a lot of effort into staying still in 2020; sometimes that’s all you can do. But I was one of the lucky ones. I was given special dispensation to work from home, for which I will always remain grateful. How any key worker has coped, month after month, just awes me. Every single one of them deserves hazard pay, extra holiday, the lot.

Nevertheless, I remained absent. I mean, I was here, obviously. Stuck on this chair, looking at the wall, but I wasn’t living my life. I wasn’t present. Nerve-scraping tension was replaced mind-numbing tedium as telephone work filled my days—an intrusion only slightly less welcome than door-to-door salesmen. My absence (and concurrent guilt) shifted direction between family and colleagues, but it still defined my life because my focus remained elsewhere. All the time.

I wanted to be editing while I was stuck on the phones, craved time with my family when I was editing in the evenings (though when I finally got some, all I wanted to do was sleep) and, through it all, my mind was constantly chewing over the vast problems of Covid-19, the innumerable travesties of Trump’s America, and the fast-approaching Brexit cliff our Government was heedlessly (and needlessly) driving us to in the midst of it all.

Control was the issue throughout—or rather my lack of it. My helplessness. The only way I could do anything to protect my family from the virus was for us to be as isolated as possible. I couldn’t do a damned thing about anybody else—I couldn’t do a damned thing about Trumplestiltskin or Brexit either, but I could at least keep myself informed with articles, interviews, broadcasts and podcasts. Anyway… [deep breath]

Eventually control – self-control, to be more precise – came about through the use of daily exercise. I’ve never been the most active fella, but if we home-workers were being advised to exercise for our mental health, I would grab that glint of sunshine and run with it. (Well, walk anyway.) A lungful of fresh air certainly couldn’t hurt. Might even help. It started as a short lunchtime stroll, taking photographs, finding fresh appreciation for the woodlands near my home, exploring and thinking. Over time this actually did become a run and (praise be!) I started to lose the beer gut.

And it felt good. Really good.

One lesson that I learned – eventually – was that I had to keep my head down as I ran. If I looked too far ahead, the gentle slopes seemed to stretch endlessly and I’d quickly run out of steam. But if I looked down, focused on the next few feet, I could get much, much farther before I ran out of puff. Who’d have thought it? Psychology as much as anything, I guess. So this is how I learned to cope through 2020, transposing that lesson to the rest of my life: taking things one step at a time, keeping my focus on the here and now. On the things that I can control, or at least have some influence over.

In many respects the weight is off since I took redundancy in November. Instead of working two jobs, I only have the one to focus on. My precious editing. And I can focus now; I don’t need to burn the candle at both ends. I can be here, present, participating in my own life. There’s a certain pressure on me to bring home the bacon, of course – that’s no longer guaranteed – but it comes with freedom, too. A destiny to carve out with as much finesse as my wits and my hands can manage.

It’s going to take drive and discipline, organisation and efficiency, confidence and endurance. But I’ll get there.
Lying on a mossy bed, bright sunshine upon my head...







What are your journeys towards equilibrium? What worked for you, physically or mentally? Where have you struggled and how have you sought support? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to Comment below or connect to me via social media. Your work, elevated.

I’ll be blogging weekly from now on. Sometimes about work, sometimes around my personal life, and we’ll have some reviews sprinkled in as well.

As ever, all shares are appreciated.

Cheers. D.

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