During the coronavirus crisis I have witnessed mental health being a topic discussed more than ever, not just limited to specific days of the year. I am pleased this discussion has arisen, yet as we ease lockdown, I see its influence already becoming diminished.
The discussion has not influenced parts of our society that are causing the most stigma and discrimination: culture, social norms, expectations, and workplaces. What I have been struggling to come to terms with is the concept of “returning to normal”, particularly as an individual with multiple mental health conditions.
Returning to work and society is a new and challenging experience for everyone. Before coronavirus, what appeared “normal” to everyone else was a huge challenge. Living with mental illness meant I had to put in a tremendous amount of effort to be on par with everyone else.
Being unsupported while studying, being able to complete forms for employment without having a panic attack, scheduling a day to have to ring the doctors due to knowing afterwards I will be drenched in sweat and exhausted. Returning to normal does not seem that easy. It seems ten times harder, as there is an expectation to get back on track where we were before.
I am not where I was before lockdown. My mental health was probably at its best – I had felt successful after another round of therapy, I had finally got a job and felt I could do it, and was working multiple volunteering positions that would set me on track for my future career. For once, I felt I had got a hang of navigating society while living with mental illness. My battles are now eating meals, not being paralysed by emotions, and trying not to self-destruct.
But we are expected to return to normal and feel fine about it, which seems a high expectation.
We have all experienced this lockdown differently and most people I speak to are not feeling at all comfortable about the changes, yet there is a view that we should be fine.
“Shoulds” are something that I struggle with – and a lot are linked to internalised self-stigma that I have learnt from living in a society that has not been accommodating to mental ill-health. I should be able to adjust. I should be coping better. I should just get on with it. If the point of these comments is meant to make us feel differently, it does not work.
Stigma simply feeds the thoughts of illness and makes it harder to manage.
As a young person I feel there is a huge expectation to be constantly resilient to challenges that are out of my control. Although everyone’s lives have been uprooted, young people were struggling with employment and their mental health before the crisis. Once again, I feel a huge pressure that I need to be constantly moving forward in my life, no matter what. I feel terrible that I am not in the position to be envisioning my future or working towards what I once had.
I am fortunate in that most people have been quite understanding, but it doesn’t make things easier. As things are returning to normal, some of my old commitments are starting to have future dates for them and it has made me extremely worried. I have always been anxious about being able to cope and not knowing how things work, which I have learnt how to deal with.
Now everything has to be re-learnt as everything is different, and what scares me the most is that this is new for everyone.
There seems to be no one to turn to for security in the “new normal”. I am worried about how quickly I will burn out in as my threshold for stressors is at its lowest. I don’t know what I can or can’t cope with anymore, which leaves me in a tricky position when figuring out how to return to work.
One thing I am remembering during all of this is that I don’t have to move at the same pace as everyone else. I am figuring out what I have to do, but what isn’t a necessity right now. The ways I am trying to cope with the “new normal” are similar to how I would have to learn to cope before, communicating authentically. Without expressing how I feel and my concerns, I can’t help myself, as changes may be able to be made to support me. Additionally, I get to find out that so many people feel the same, which always lessens the impact of expectations and stigmatising thoughts. All I can do is continue to meet myself where I’m at, rather than where everyone else expects me to be.