Solo, But Not So Low…

HIGHBURY 03I’ll be honest. Although for the majority of the lockdown I’ve coped OK, these last few days have been a real struggle. Until then there had been a strange kind of comfort in knowing that everyone in the country has been in exactly the same situation. Well, not everyone. I can’t imagine The Queen has been nipping out to the Co-Op in Windsor every Thursday morning for a sliced wholemeal loaf and a six-pack of Wotsits. But you know what I mean.

My circumstances aren’t really any different to those of anyone else who is currently living on their own. It’s tough enough being confined to barracks even with others around you, and having had two daughters myself I have a huge well of sympathy for those of you having to look after young children in these difficult circumstances. Home schooling when my two were younger would have been challenging.  My school days are so long ago they were in black and white. I doubt I’d be too hot on cosines and tangents, the formation of oxbow lakes or the impact of the Franco Prussian War of 1870…

Not having a garden is a bit of a pain but I can’t blame that on anyone else and I can at least escape for an hour every day and go for a walk. I particularly miss seeing my one-year-old granddaughter Willow, especially as she is currently taking her first Bambi-on-ice-like first steps. I imagine frustrations like these are replicated across the UK.

It’s fun catching up with various groups of family and friends online but remote communication isn’t quite the same, is it? And on the odd occasion, even though I’ve had nothing better to do, it’s felt like something of an effort joining in. It’s not as though I have anywhere else I can go or anyone else to be with, so why the reluctance to drag myself to the computer?

I know I am better off than many others. There will be some serious struggles going on in households up and down the country. I have work, albeit less than before, and no immediate financial challenges. But mental health doesn’t pay too much heed to the counting of blessings. It doesn’t matter who you are, how fulfilled you feel professionally or how much money you have; it’s personal to you and it doesn’t discriminate.

I’m used to working from home and having lived independently for a while now I ought to be very used to my own routine and company. But doing so for 50-odd days, with minimal contact with the outside world, has been tough, especially this last week. It’s not so much the idea of going outside to do what we want; it’s the fact that we know we can’t. That somehow makes a difference psychologically.

One of my clients is the Professional Players’ Federation, a body which looks after the collective interests of a number of the different player and athlete associations across the British Isles. They do some brilliant work in helping their members in all manner of ways, including providing access to a range of learning and development options, meaning that under a lockdown they have plenty of opportunity to spend time developing interests and careers away from sport. The Open University pages on the PPF’s website have seen a real surge in visits in the last few weeks.

Where sport has done a terrific job in recent years is in highlighting the importance of looking after your mental health. Each association approaches the subject slightly differently but there are many wonderful examples of good practice.

To my knowledge I’ve never suffered from depression. Despite life’s enduring capacity to be able to rear up and smack us squarely on the jaw every now and then I’ve always put that down to general rough and tumble rather than anything deeper. But I have friends who suffer and I think I have a good inkling of what it must feel like. And even without there being a clinical diagnosis we can all feel low at any time, often for no logical reason.

So how to deal with your lows in isolation? We’ll all do so in our own way but here the seven principles I try to adhere to:

(1) Establish a routine. I know many of you will have to factor children into that routine, which I don’t have to. But try to get up at a set time, make sure you get dressed, and set yourself a pattern for the day. Mine happens to be very similar: up by 8, out of the house for a walk around 9, then work until lunchtime. A bit of me-time in the afternoon then some personal development for a few hours, dinner, a bit of TV or some music and a book, then bed. If there are meetings or catch-ups, they’re worked in around that. It sounds boring. But it works for me.

(2) Maintain contact with others. Even if you’re reluctant, force yourself. We have a weekly family quiz which unites half a dozen households, including my brother’s in New Jersey. I also catch up weekly with a group of mates from those distant black and white school days in Victorian West Yorkshire (aka Bradford in the 1970s and ‘80s) where we talk nonsense, laugh a lot and keep one another going. I do the same with my closest friends here in Cardiff too. Same nonsense. Same support mechanism. If you’re working from home, checking in regularly with work colleagues or clients is good. I have two regular work catch-ups and it feels good to find out what everyone is up to and to understand how you are playing your part in keeping everything – and everyone else – going.

(3) Stay healthy. I was half expecting lockdown to result in me eating too much but that hasn’t happened. I’m hardly drinking alcohol either. But do your own thing and don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s important to treat yourself every now and then but try to eat properly and stay hydrated. I’m not a gym monkey, never have been, but I walk for an hour every day and have kept that up throughout lockdown. If you cycle, run, walk, whatever, keep doing it. Get outside. Don’t stay cooped up all day.

(4) Try something different. For me that’s meant pottering on the guitar, learning the mouth organ and revisiting my promise to re-learn some Italian. I have also managed to finish writing the book I started a few years ago – whether it ever sees the light of day is anyone’s guess. I know many people have turned to DIY. I loathe DIY and anything I repair or put up tends to collapse pretty soon afterwards anyway, so I don’t bother. But if it’s therapeutic, go for it.

(5) Keep the brain ticking. If you’re lucky you’ll have work to do. But if not, don’t neglect those little grey cells. I have cryptic crosswords aplenty and dozens of books to read. I’ve also started these weekly blogs, updated my website and continue to learn new stuff with some CPD. Whatever it is, keep the mind ticking over.

(6) Limit your screen time. I am on social media less now than I used to be because I don’t want to be bombarded by news. I follow Martin Lewis and Matt Allwright for business and other advice. I check in with the CIPD for professional updates. And I listen daily to 5 Live’s Drive programme while I’m making my tea: the presenters have the ability to balance the need to provide information (much of it pretty unpalatable) with remaining positive, which is refreshing. Given how it upsets and annoys me I should avoid tuning in to the daily Downing Street briefing, but hey… The important thing is not to stay glued to the news if it makes you anxious. Get off your phone or your laptop. Mix it up. There is a life away from technology.

(7) Finally, give back if you’re in a position to. I have nothing but praise for those in the NHS, the care sector and other key workers. They are heroes. But we can all do our little bit. I’ve helped by picking up prescriptions and supplies for a few people. It’s important to feel useful, especially if your own work has been restricted or curtailed and there are plenty of ways of becoming involved. This disease is not going away any time soon and whenever the relaxation of lockdown comes and whatever form it takes, we’re not going to see society returning to how it was for a long time yet, if at all, so there will still be plenty you can do to help.

Be kind. And remember that any low will pass. Talk to someone. Don’t bottle it up. Me? Time to put the kettle on and maybe get the guitar out. Onwards…