Artillery Row

How the lockdown restored my mental health

The message from a nagging government is unexpectedly liberating

It’s said that lockdown is having a bad effect on mental health but it seems to be doing mine a power of good. I’m not alone in this; most of us relish the empty roads and clear skies. Back in March I wept in a supermarket when I couldn’t buy loo rolls but things have settled down and the virus has provided what Oscar Wilde called a ‘Bunbury,’ a good excuse that can get you off all kinds of hooks; couples no longer have to interact with their partner’s relatives, they can even social distance from each other. There’s no obligation to go to the class/group/gym/pool/church, and for the first time in my life I have stopped worrying about making friends or keeping the ones I’ve got.

From an early age I felt I didn’t fit in with other children. My mother perhaps picked up my anxiety, or I contracted hers. I was adopted and have since read that adoptive parents are often anxious for their children to be seen as the same as others. She wanted me to be popular and read me an Enid Blyton story about the art of making friends.

‘To have a friend you have to be one,’ it said. That idea interested me but whenever I tried it, it never seemed to work. I also attempted being like my mother who was immensely popular but that failed too. I was baffled and upset.  In the evenings she’d sometimes force me out to play street games with other children. I would crouch in our porch, her accusing voice behind, the feared others in front.

In the Blitz people would have forgiven me for what they didn’t like and I would have tolerated them

Enid was the nearest we got to psychotherapy in those days. Aged thirteen I saw a child psychiatrist on my own insistence because I’d started reading about Freud. I didn’t know his ideas had nothing to do with medicalised therapy. I made my own way to the dingy hospital, out of town, taking two buses. The doctor, who never asked to see my family, prescribed Librium and Valium which gave me spasms of the jaw, and gave me breathing exercises in an attempt to counteract the, ‘fight or flight’ response caused by anxiety. None of that worked and made home life more difficult as my parents hated my going there; embarrassed and scared as if I was informing on them to a higher authority. 

I fled from home as soon as possible, on reaching London plunging into a life of all-consuming work, socialising and sex, those vast detours from finding out who you are and what you really want. Trying to make friends remained tricky; there were impenetrable dinner-party circles, and with low self-esteem I seemed to attach to people who wanted me to fail. The wittiest people whose company I craved often seemed to be sociopaths. I have made a few friends along the way, but I am never sure such relationships will last and always push myself into trying to make more.  

I always knew I’d be good in a war. All kinds of Narcissism gets shelved in a crisis. In the Blitz people would have forgiven me for what they didn’t like and I would have tolerated them. We are now in something as near to a fight as I’ve ever known and after years of being told that being alone without a social hub represents unacceptable failure, it has suddenly become a government edict. My mother’s nagging voice has been replaced by a nagging government, but their message is diametrically different and unexpectedly liberating. 

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