I sit in a stall in the staff toilets, silently sobbing as I try to find anyone available to message me. There’s no-one around so I turn to Twitter, venting my frustration at how I don’t feel like my feelings matter because of COVID-19. I’m not on the frontline – I’m just a member of lab staff who doesn’t see the death and heartbreak this virus has brought to so many. But I also feel like my own personal problems have had to take a backseat while I power through an ongoing global pandemic. I come to the conclusion – I can’t be upset, because of COVID-19.
“What do you mean, Melanie! Of course you’re allowed to be upset!”
You’re probably muttering to yourself and I’ve heard similar things from my GP, my manager, my parents and my friends. But as anyone with mental illness will understand, that’s not how my brain works.
There’s a fine line between recognising tragedy and how other people’s struggles are different to yours and then completely negating your own problems to believe others have it much worse and your problems are therefore invalid. This line is often crossed with mental illness and that’s how I ended up sat in the loos bawling my eyes out for 10 minutes. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to be upset because COVID-19 doesn’t affect me in the same way as it’s affecting frontline NHS staff.
“I can’t be upset, because of COVID-19” – No, you can.
I know, I know it’s hard to take me seriously because I can’t follow my own advice but hey, I’ve grown to accept I am my own worst enemy and a big hypocrite.
I went through an extremely difficult mental health crisis in late 2019/early 2020 and to the point I made attempts on my life. I was barely emerging from that – readjusting to life after a suicide attempt – when suddenly I found myself faced with the prospect of returning to a healthcare based job in the middle of a pandemic. Perhaps my own problems had blurred Coronavirus into insignificance (because let’s be blunt, the whole aim was to never have to deal with it) but as my head cleared, I quickly realised that the incredibly traumatic 4 months I’d just faced had to be tossed on the back burner temporarily.
I always say that I was never ready to return to work in April – not fully anyway. My heart has always been set on helping people and I had no idea how bad Coronavirus was going to hit so I took the leap and returned to work at what seemed like the safest point. I felt it somewhat of my duty to be back at work helping to keep the cogs of the NHS turning through a difficult time.
It’s because of this feeling of being duty bound (by my own creation) to my job that I can only describe myself as coping right now. My head is just above the surface but there’s still a potential for me to be dragged under again. That’s the fear. But my head has told me that, in the words of Kourtney Kardashian, “people are dying, Kim!” and that there are more pressing things to worry about right now.
Other health conditions don’t stop for COVID-19. Mental illness is no exception.
As the NHS has repeated time and time again, other health conditions don’t stop for COVID-19. People don’t stop having cardiac arrests. People don’t stop breaking limbs and the same applies for mental illness. People with mental illness don’t suddenly get better because there’s a public health crisis. For some of us, it gets worse.
I’ve mentioned on my Twitter and to people I know that I feel I’m going to have a delayed reaction to how I’ve experienced COVID-19 as a healthcare worker and as a member of the public because I’ve had to try to stop the impact of my mental health crisis from consuming me. I’ve had to try and balance my struggles which ordinarily, I wouldn’t have to do.
I have experienced attempts on my life before and I’ve found that after serious ones, I have almost a grieving period where I come to terms with what happened and find ways to move forward. I didn’t get that opportunity this time around and this time, I’m dealing with 2 attempts. I feel as though I have a small child tugging at my leg for attention but have to keep saying “not now, dear. Mummy’s busy!”.
I shouldn’t have to do this but my brain is constantly telling me that there is a more serious situation at hand and that I didn’t die. People are dying and losing loved ones daily so why am I crying over spilt milk when they are actually suffering loss? To that, I’ve had to realise (albeit not take heed) that other people’s pain does not define how my own pain affects me.
“We’re all in this together, just get on with it”
I do agree that we are all in the same boat. Rich or poor, we are all having to make sacrifices to keep ourselves and others safe. This is a global issue and I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t been affected by Coronavirus in one way or another but this notion that we all have to make sacrifices shouldn’t incorporate sacrificing our health.
It can sometimes feel as though we are supposed to keep calm and carry on – just battle through this and get it over with but in reality, nobody knows how long this will last and I know I personally cannot indefinitely postpone dealing with my problems.
The sacrifice of my mental health is going to lead to bigger problems in the future – I know my own pattern of behaviour but right now, my brain is stuck in a constant state of feeling I can’t be upset, because of COVID-19.
Where do we go from here?
Personally, I know that soon I am going to have to start finding a way to stop just coping with my mental health and actually addressing the pain I have just gone through. I risk the issues I am going to face because of COVID-19 entangling with separate mental health issues and becoming a giant tangle of fairy lights and lets be honest, nobody wants to untangle that.
On a work front, I am going to have to accept that not just frontline staff are going to be affected and that it is valid for me to be impacted. I am the first to rant on Twitter about how the NHS is more than just doctors and nurses but yet cannot seem to understand that in my own struggles and reassure myself that what I’m feeling is normal. Alright, maybe nothing about this situation is normal but you catch my drift.
If you’re reading this, I know this has been a lot of my own problems but I’m hoping you’ve found some validation in your own feelings because you’re not alone. Without sugar coating your problems, you’re not the only one feeling like you can’t be upset because of COVID-19. I’m not the only one feeling like I can’t be upset because of COVID-19.
We’re all in this together and by that, I mean we should be supporting each other the best we can and giving ourself space to be upset.