On 20 March 2020 I woke up around two in the morning. My reality for a few months. If I couldn’t get back to sleep I’d write. Thinking the process would clear my mind. Some of these musings became posts you read on this blog.
I started the post you’ll read shortly with the intention of posting it later in the day. At midday my world changed forever. Nearly eight months later, I have woken up again at two in the morning unable to sleep. I thought I’d attempt to complete and post this in the middle of lockdown 2.0.
I had no intention of commenting on the pandemic publicly. I am not a scientific expert. Many have weighed in. My discussions around this have been with family, friends and colleagues. I’m writing this to discuss the impact #Covid19 is having on me.
Accepting that it has caused me anxiety and how I am addressing it with the hope that it resonates with you.
I was deflated we hadn’t booked our spring holiday in January. We’d decided to go to Crete and couldn’t wait. My partner urged caution and to follow the news of the epidemic as it spread like wildfire across Asia.
I genuinely thought I was ‘coping’ and was ‘stoic’. I came to accept that my ‘comfort eating’ and distorted sleep pattern suggested otherwise.
My approach had been ‘let’s not panic’. Check PHE for factual information, largely avoid the sensationalist press, rarely had the TV on and listened to radio 4. (I would later switch channels for several months).
I didn’t enter panic buying mode. My partner had seen what was to come and had avidly followed the news, the lockdowns over the Lunar New Year and watched events in Wuhan (and the Chinese) in equal amounts of admiration and horror at the speed they built up the temporary hospital and how they would later send their medical teams to support European countries. He is also a staunch government critic so had been stocking up and urged me to pick what we would need in lockdown. I didn’t heed the advice seriously.
I stocked up on wine and Enitan’s hair products (priorities) – I thankfully had a treatment before lockdown. I didn’t cancel my trip to Paris in March (booked nearly five months before) and I wasn’t prepared for the financial loss as Paris was not on the Foreign Office list meaning my insurance wouldn’t pay out.
I also ‘needed’ a holiday, I had not been sleeping well for months and felt unsettled in my spirit. I was still looking at potential deals for spring break whilst simultaneously planning a trip to New York to visit my brother over summer.
After Paris, I isolated for a week as I could feel a cold coming on upon our return. I immediately took a cold remedy I usually travel with, upped my vitamins and rested. I also gave myself permission to eat, and to eat well (read: white stodgy, sugary carbs) as I was ‘ill’.
On Monday 16 March I went into work and had apple crumble with custard after my ‘healthy packed lunch’.
On Tuesday it was chocolate sponge cake and custard. I cannot recall having pudding during the day at work for a long time.
On Wednesday I had Crunchy Nut cereal for breakfast (#faceslap I can’t recall the last time I had this). Please note: I’ve lost over 14kgs in about 6 months and I avoid sugary cereals but phew …. I had to acknowledge my anxiety was through the roof as much as I felt ‘okay’ I realised comfort eating would affect my ‘diet’ if I didn’t control my emotions. I’ll return to this.
That Wednesday I talked to my Parisian friend and discussed how this was a time to ‘look after you and yours’, stay safe and both acknowledged how our food choices were ‘odd’ when we ‘thought’ we were ‘okay’.
Focused on maintaining my mental health I devised an action plan. To do lists for work – working remotely from that Wednesday as I’d gone in the past couple of days in preparation. Wednesday was my regular WFH day, but this was different as it had no end date. I also created to do lists for the home, scheduled tea breaks with colleagues as well as unscheduled ‘check-in emails’ to colleagues and friends around the world with the aim to offer inspiration where possible.
I had previously published a post on ‘oversharing’. It reminded me why I did that and how a simple thing like that can have the greatest impact at a time like this.
That same week I was talking to another friend and they mentioned how they had been unable to buy toilet paper. I said my partner would take some for her the following morning, and asked if she needed anything else? She was shocked we’d share our supplies at this time and wouldn’t accept money for it. We added bleach and hand gel to the pack. It is important we remain human, kind and share our provision, when we can.
Another unintended consequence of this novel virus affecting my mental health is how we have to acknowledge how some things that are ‘important’ to us (the individual) in the grand scheme, may in fact be trivial in some respects when lives are lost.
I manage volunteers as my day job. I love my work and my volunteers and the impact they make. I made the decision for them to stand down before the national lockdown was called.
I also cancelled the scheduled volunteer induction. It takes several weeks to process volunteers. Our duty of care was more important at that time.
Shocking as for the past two years I’ve invested everything into building the service up and recruiting volunteers to support staff and service users ‘behind the scenes as it were’. I was due to launch a visible and much needed service by April that would make such a difference. I was so looking forward to that. In an instant, cancelled and all that hard work gone.
Can’t moan about it, can’t dwell there, we have our health and loved ones.
I’ve never had problems with sleep. However those few months it had been disrupted which affected my mental health and perhaps some choices I made. The break to Paris was well timed and just what I needed. I slept so well there and did so upon my return.
I purchased BachSleep Rescue Remedy: during my beauty supplies haul in Place Monge. Although a British brand, I’d meant to get some and kept forgetting. I was delighted when I saw it, had never used it but was keen to try a natural remedy.
I definitely think this helped me break the pattern of waking up between one and three in the morning. I am however writing this at 4:56 (been up a couple of hours) I may blame this on someone’s breathing keeping me up. I’d also be working out at this time if I had slept well.
I told a friend about it as we sometimes message each during the night when we can’t sleep. She ordered it instantly, tried it the following day and like me conked out instantly and slept through the night.
This is as far as I had written before I went about my day on Friday 20 March 2020. The plan was to edit later that evening and publish. Nearly 8 months later and you are finally reading this.
I came out the other side!
I went to make some tea and returned to see I had two missed calls. I saw my aunt and uncles numbers in Zimbabwe. I also read a message saying my sister ‘was no more’ and to call home urgently. I was detached reading that. Thinking they had made a mistake and told them as much when I spoke to them. My Aunt was in the hospital room with her when I was saying they had made a mistake and had the wrong person, her voice took a softer yet firmer tone reiterating, ‘she is no more’. Such a Zimbabwean phrase to drill the message in. She had departed.
I’d just spoken to my sister a few days prior. She had also sent a last audio voice note in our family group, we’d later share with the family the day she was buried. Her last words. Her phone had stopped working and she was using an old back up Nokia (so she told us). She was on her way to, or from buying a new smart phone so we could communicate easily. (This was not found on her. It was later switched on and a last message to her son received about two weeks later on Whatsapp).
I’d later find out out she’d collapsed outside her house and a passerby, who saw her fall had taken her to a clinic less than three minutes away. There, unable to resuscitate her, they called my aunt I mentioned above. She’d have turned 45 this September, a week after my birthday.
A week before my birthday this year my paternal grandmother passed away. She was 102, my sisters death really affected her. She never fully recovered sitting vigil over her granddaughters coffin.
I previously wrote about loss in the diaspora. I wrote that thinking about grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, older people who had lived a full life. Not once had I considered my sister. She’s a few years older than me. Suddenly, I was the one breaking the news to family here and at home about her death.
Each phone call traumatic. I had to keep it together until the message had been conveyed. Several times.
Tragic circumstances don’t fully describe those first forty eight hours. We were deluded to think we could still get home, I had them halt any decisions until our arrival (mum, brother, sister, her two boys and myself). Slowly as the reality of Covid dawned on us, there were no planes. My mother had also had a knee replacement surgery two weeks prior and had to be signed off to travel. My brother and I decided who would go and who would stay with mum until she could see the doctor and fly on Monday, or so we thought. Over night we had to face the fact that we physically couldn’t get home.
We still tried, knowing we probably wouldn’t be able to return if successful and deliberating on taking our young children or leaving them with no guarantee of when we would see them again. Traveling without insurance in the midst of a pandemic to Zimbabwe – weighing these choices was draining. It was beyond painful.
My sister had died, I simply needed to go home. I couldn’t do that. That Saturday morning around eight, my mother told them to go ahead without us. It was painful. There were still things we had to decide remotely, where the wake would be held, what she’d wear, where she’d be buried, flowers on her coffin. The speed at which the decisions had to be made left me gasping for breath. My brain still refused to accept what they were saying. My tears are overflowing, even typing this months later. Remembering. There were cultural implications I won’t go into here but it was extremely stressful.
Culturally we all come together when someone dies. We were only able to do this on Friday through Mothering Sunday when she was buried and then we all went into isolation. Grieving separately for a life cut short is beyond painful. Grieving in ‘virtual reality’ has been unbearable.
Having a routine through this has been the only way I could cope. It was a full month before I left the house. Some days I could barely get out of bed. Some days I think I’m doing better and others, sob like a baby. The structure, working out via Les Mills On demand daily, keeping busy, talking to friends and family has been very good.
When I felt ready I contacted a private therapy practice – thinking that process would be faster than waiting for a referral from my GP. In truth, I was really concerned about how I was traumatising my child by being so unhappy and uncontrollably emotional. I tried hiding the tears back but there were moments where I would just weep in the middle of everyday tasks. Thankfully the private practice reminded me to go to my GP first. I remembered I could self refer for Talking Therapies and was having a consultation a few days later. My therapist was good, helping me unpack my overwhelming distress in the midst of a pandemic and reassured me that my sadness would not affect my child. I also spoke to a child psychologist as well, but that’s a story for another day.
I had the option of video calls or just telephone calls and chose the later. The last thing I needed was the anxiety of scrutinising every facial gesture on a video call. It’s beyond exhausting. I’ve discussed therapy before and still highly recommend it especially when dealing with themes around grief, isolation and identity.
I have yet to go home to see my sisters final resting place. Maybe then will there be closure. I have watched the video of her body being collected from the funeral home, the wake and burial and wept like it had just happened, this was only a month ago. My mother won’t watch it. My brain still tells me it’s not really her and at any moment I’ll snap out of this horrid nightmare.
I felt something was happening on a spiritual realm (if you believe) but didn’t know what was coming. During this period I have come to accept that I cannot control events that happen to me or my emotions. I must simply sit in whatever stage I find myself in…. and trust I will emerge the other side stronger.
I will gradually unpack elements of this post. I had to fight past the fear of posting this very personal insight into my life and how I experienced this very significant loss and how I’ve not been ‘okay’ for the past few months. I am working on it and hope some lessons I’ve learnt on this journey inspire or comfort you in some way.
Love and light