Panic

Have you lost track of how long you’ve been on lockdown yet? I have. I’m guessing it’s about a month. Long enough that I have new routines, new habits, new expectations of what I get out of each day. I’m lucky that I’m still working, both because I’m keeping my salary and because it means there is some differentiation between times of day and weekdays/weekends. Much as I think I’d love to have no routine at all I’m sure it makes things harder over time.

I’ve gone through many cycles of mood during the last month. Frustration and stress, a blank calm, numbness, terror, sheer overwhelming boredom. I’ve been aware that my anxiety has been generally a bit worse, but that’s probably true of most people.

I was feeling okay this morning – first day back at work after four days of bank holiday; four days of reading for an hour or two before breakfast, not really doing much exercise, ticking off a few jobs round the house, enjoying the warm weather (mostly from indoors), talking to friends and family. Work wasn’t stressful, with everyone off for four days not much had happened, but the day slowly kicked into a different gear.

I got into a conversation with a friend about how long the lockdowns will go on – she’s worried about the effects of an extended lockdown, with people not going to A+E when they need to, or people becoming very depressed. She’s concerned those effects will be worse than the coronavirus itself. At the same time, I was texting a friend who works for the NHS, who’s back at work today after a week at home with appendicitis. Her first day in was not going well. She told me some statistics on the mortality rate in hospitals. I checked the news to see if there was an update on the lockdown timeline in the UK, and saw endless rolling headlines with devastating infection and mortality figures. I saw that the US president had behaved like a complete child and that US states were considering removing the lockdown. I read it all and processed it all and felt angry and sad and frustrated and frightened.

Someone on Twitter invited bisexuals who’d liked a tweet saying ‘I’m insecurely bisexual, pretty much constantly’ to join an online group and chat to each other. I joined it and wrote an intro message which got swallowed up by seven or eight more intro messages. I felt a little sad and ignored. I couldn’t get the notification noises to turn off and I started getting anxious.

By now it was nearly noon and I was about to join a video call with my boss, where I’d planned to ask him some questions about my role and responsibilities. Fifteen minutes before the call I was standing in my kitchen, and the world suddenly swirled with a feeling of unreality. I felt I’d become unhinged from something. I’ve had the feeling of an impending panic attack before, but not for years. And normally there’s an obvious cause, and I didn’t know where this one had come from. My partner walked in and I said I felt odd, and then I started crying and I couldn’t breathe in properly. He asked if he could help, he asked what was wrong – eventually I said I was panicking and then he relaxed a little bit. Bewildered, but helpless, he continued to get some banana bread. By this time I needed to start my video call.

Really, I should have sent my boss a message and said I needed a few minutes. But I didn’t, I wiped my face and started the call. I don’t really know what was said and my notes are a strange mess – I started new lines in the middle of a sentence, and made strange indents where none were needed. I didn’t ask anything about my role or responsibilities as I’d planned, just got through the ten minutes, and ended the call.

It took me another hour or so to stop crying and feeling nauseous – watching Friends is my go-to for these situations and it didn’t let me down. At the time I didn’t know what was causing the panic, but looking back at my morning it doesn’t take a genius. I hate the lockdown and I know I’m lucky that my situation doesn’t involve financial worries, or abuse, or lost jobs, or potential homelessness. But I’m so frightened of the consequences if they lift the restrictions too soon. The death rate in hospitals is 5x higher than normal. Hospitals and care homes are running out of protective equipment, where they had any to begin with. I read stories about the people who have lost loved ones, who can’t say goodbye. I can’t believe how painful that must be. I am terrified of it. This is a fucking frightening illness.

It’s not really a surprise that my brain couldn’t handle any more of it today. Panic attacks are strange things – it didn’t last for a long time, but I haven’t been able to use my brain properly for the rest of the day. Words have gone missing and things that should have been easy to connect are a million miles apart. The one good thing is I know what it is, and that I need to take it easy. I’m not feeling bad about not taking on many tasks this afternoon – I’d only have to redo them tomorrow if I did.

I don’t know if my boss noticed that something was off. I can’t remember what I said, and I don’t know how obvious it is over a video call when somebody has been crying. If he didn’t notice anything, then how extraordinary and resilient is the human brain, to project an appearance of normalcy when so many connections are misfiring? When I came back to my desk later, I found a tissue I’d been holding during the call, squashed into such a tight, tiny ball. Holding on to myself, squeezing tight, concentrating on listening and responding with appropriate words or sounds at the right moments.

There have been hundreds and hundreds of articles about taking care of your mental health during this unprecedented situation. After the first few I’ve found they all say the same thing, and I don’t think any of them would have helped me today. Sometimes the only thing you can do is get through the present moment, watch trash on Netflix, and wait for your feet to find the ground again.

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