Life After Lockdown

Agoraphobia and anxiety disorders in general are widespread, according to this neuroscience report by two German psychiatrists in 2015:

“Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent psychiatric disorders. According to epidemiological surveys, one third of the population is affected by an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. They are more common in women. During midlife, their prevalence is highest. […] High comorbidity is found among the anxiety disorders and between the anxiety disorders and other mental disorders, respectively.”

These sentences are missed out of the middle:

“There is no evidence that the prevalence rates have changed in the past years. Differences in prevalence rates found in different countries and cultures may be due to differences in methodology rather than to culture-specific factors.”

Really? Can anyone over 50 remember so many clinically anxious people, say 30 years ago? Even 20 years ago or just a decade? Anecdotal evidence I know but, honestly, ask (if you’re younger) – “How many people can you remember who suffered from their nerves?” Cos that was the phrase then. I recall 2 people growing up, one only neurotic; and another in great distress at university.

Now? Countless. Every third person I know is on anxiety meds. And as for “different countries and cultures”, I live in post-industrial UK. When I lived in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Greece and Turkey, were people anxious? NO. Just no.

Coming home from those countries made me feel that I was leaving a continual street party (with a little cold beer and lots of tapas) to take part in an endless series of interviews (with loads of milky tea and biscuits) shut up in 4 walls back in Blighty. I missed the rain and the sense of humour. What can I say?

I guess we all feel like that now, at least those of us in lockdown. And for some people, lockdown may be making their anxiety worse. But what happens when we get out? I have some prior experience of being locked up (voluntarily) that I’d like to share.

Some decades ago I spent 11 months in a Franciscan friary in a remote part of North Wales. It wasn’t a particularly dramatic (or scandalous) experience and it’s one I still treasure. What happened when I left was unexpected.

  • I couldn’t cross the road. I remember my sister meeting me at the station and taking my hand because I was afraid of the traffic.
  • I couldn’t make decisions. Suddenly I had so many options! It was overwhelming.
  • I didn’t know who I was. Determined to stop being “Brother Alan”, I remember a friend phoning me up and asking if I wanted to go to the pub, and I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do.
  • Suddenly there were so many people! I was used to seeing the same faces each day. Now people would come up to me on the street (every traditional Catholic has something to opine about a “failed vocation”) and phone me up. I felt vulnerable and unprepared.

On the other hand, I was young and had supportive friends and family. I started some voluntary work, made plans for the future and went to work on a kibbutz (I know, I know but that was then) then in a few months was at university with all the structure – and hi jinks – of first year.

Over the years, there have been few people who have understood my experience of being institutionalised. A guy who’d been in the army, guys I used to visit in prison, and anyone who’d had the same experience in a religious order.

Living through a couple of months of lockdown is a different experience but there are things in common. Here’s what you might expect as you come out of it:

  • People have had different experiences and not everyone will want to talk about it.
  • Some people desperately need to spill their guts and others just want to get on with their lives.
  • People will make different decisions about masks and social distancing – and they probably won’t welcome your opinion on that.
  • Some people will be more emotional, even volatile; some emotionally shut down.
  • No-one wants you going on and on and on about THE VIRUS!
  • If you’ve been self-isolating, you may have a very different take on what’s been going on from those of us who haven’t. Life online and on TV is very, very different from life outside.

Here’s my advice:

  • Take things easy. Don’t feel the pressure to drive from Landsend to John O’Groats and visit everyone in your address book in between, before jetting off around the world, just because you now can. It’s okay to stay at home, even for an entire day. Even doing just the things you did during lockdown. Just knowing you can go out now, anytime, will be a relief.
  • Be patient with others. Make kindness your default. We have no idea how rough it’s been for others.
  • You don’t have to jump back into your normal life from one day to the next. Try to transition gradually between the structure (if any) you’ve become accustomed to during lockdown and the one you want to (re)build afterwards.
  • Try not to be too judgmental about who checked you were okay and who didn’t over this time. People cope in different ways and some people’s caring behaviour is neurotic and serves to distance their own pain. Some people, admittedly, are just selfish.
  • Remember that Ramadan lasts till about 23rd May. So Muslims will have been going through that, as well as lockdown.
  • DON’T blame Chinese people. DON’T boycott their businesses. They were among the first to suffer from economic repercussions of public paranoia – and all this nonsense about THAT LAB is just putting money into the pockets of Big Pharma. Ignore it.
  • Don’t stereotype people. Motivations can be complex. The guy with a gun outside the Governor’s office may or may not be a terrorist (whatever his colour). Maybe he really is selfish. Maybe he thinks he’s standing up for his civil rights. In a really scary way! If people from the inner city are talking about economic impact they’re expressing a really different discourse in a neighbourhood of multiple deprivation than the same themes spoken in a corporate boardroom. Be discerning.
  • Now you can go out, think about all those who can’t. What has this experience taught you about long-stay institutions? In my own town, the local Carmelite monastery has been a beacon of hope as so many people have tuned in to see the sisters cheerfully and serenely at prayer. They haven’t been out for years and they have no intention of doing so. But their stability has meaning. What about those who just endure? Do we need to change our attitudes about them?
  • Reflect on who or what got you through. Thank those people. People show their true character in crisis. Now you know who and what you can rely on.
  • Finally, value what you’ve experienced during lockdown. Even if it was pure hell. You may have experienced a shift in values. It happens. Suddenly ultra-cool independent urbanites living in their exclusive metropolitan pocket handkerchief apartments were envying retired couples pottering about their gardens in wee villages miles and miles and miles outside the M25. Do you see things in a different light now? Is it time to make other choices?

Whatever your experience of lockdown, you lived it. This (perhaps) has been a unique and historic moment. Personally, I believe 2020 is Year Zero of Dystopia. I hope to God I’m wrong but, whether or not, this is something to share with generations yet unborn.

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Thanks to Petr Kratochvil for releasing his photo Statue of Liberty into the Public Domain.