How coronavirus unpicked the stitching in the story of mental health I’d created for myself.
I see myself as a steady platform for others to climb aboard when they’re having a tough time. Call me. Come and stay. Let me do that. Pile it on, I can cope!
I’m the person who steps in when other people are struggling. I’m the fixer when people have problems. I’m a shoulder. A volunteer. A do-er. A coper.
I’ve been stupidly smug about how well I cope with life. I work hard, I manage all sorts – working two to three jobs, running my own business, volunteering, caring for my children, caring for elderly parents, competing in international fencing competitions, hanging out with pals, maybe not being the best friend but being a friend to a lot of people.
I cope. I cope.
I AM A COPER
I have strong, stable, mental health. Others have issues but not me. I am fine.
I told myself. Over and over. Until I believed it. The way I quite literally couldn’t eat for years after my mother died? Like the doctor said when he saw my skinny six year old self – just one of the lucky ones who never puts on weight. I’m fine. The sexual assault I experienced as a fourteen year old that stopped me sleeping for weeks? Just too many scary books before bed. I’m fine. The physical and mental mess I was in after I had my first child? Everyone has a difficult birth story, we both survived didn’t we? I’m fine.
I put time between me and the worst parts of my life and buried them under a thick blanket of being busy. All the ‘busy’ left no time for me to be on my own with my sadness and fear. Being busy made me useful, it made me feel needed. It made me feel I was earning my place in the world. Like I deserved to occupy space.
And then overnight, Corona Virus stripped away of all the things I did to hold onto my self constructed blanket of ‘fineness.’ I was left, cold and exposed and almost immediately, not fine at all.
Covid Lockdown took away the best parts of my job – visiting schools and meeting young people. It took away my beloved sport and the training I’d worked so hard on to over come the broken bits of my body. It took away my creativity – I couldn’t write.
I was terrified my parents would starve or get covid and die alone. I couldn’t visit my dying father-in-law who I’d been the primary carer to for years. And when he died, I couldn’t give him the funeral he wanted. I couldn’t see my grown up children; they are my world and I lived in fear of them getting sick without me to care for them. I felt guilty about feeling sad because I have a lovely house, a lovely garden and a lovely dog, and a husband I actually like who was still able to work and earn money..
I knew I was lucky. I knew people had it worse than me. But I still cried silent sheets of tears as I walked my wonderful dog in the beautiful countryside right outside my back door.
I did everything I could to stave of depression. I spoke to my family everyday. I built things and painted things. I joined Tiktok. I zoomed with friends and ran online workshops and started Our Corona Diary. I tried to train. I ran and danced. And I sank. And sank. And sank.
George Floyd was murdered.
Sarah Everard was murdered.
Two people I didn’t know but whose deaths illustrated the cruel disparity of privilege in our world so acutely, it hurt. It really, really hurt.
I was crushed.
I was broken.
I was not coping and I definitely was not fine.
And as we opened up again, I thought I would magically recover myself. Lol. My first night back at fencing club, I left early and sat in the car and cried. I haven’t been back. I can’t quite explain why. It was partly that I couldn’t face the physical pain of dragging my body back to that level of fitness. Partly that I couldn’t face the increased anxiety that comes with competition. Partly, I don’t even know what.
I wasn’t the same. Something had changed. I was forced to re-assess my life and acknowledge that I needed space to sort out my own mental health. I asked my agent to hold my hand as I started writing again. She did and I have, and it’s going quite well. I walk my dog. I spend time with my family and friends. I’m working on some small, achievable volunteer projects that I’m passionate about – I can’t change the world but I can help a tiny bit of it get a leg up.
I’m getting there.
Recovery is fragile Things I have little control over can tip me into anxious depression – the cruelty we see in the world sometimes, the thoughtlessness. I panic and respond with my heart not my head. I cry a lot. But I don’t feel helpless anymore.
Yes. I’m getting there.
I’ve started to speak to people about how bad it was and the funny thing is, few people noticed apart from the ones who I was speaking to everyday. My children. My husband. My fencing coach. A handful of friends. To the outside world, I still looked like I was coping. Even when I said I wasn’t. And that’s why I’m writing this now.
If someone tells you they’re really busy, so they can’t do x, y or z, listen carefully: they might be telling you they aren’t coping and that one more thing is just too much. They might just need to catch their breath from all the trying. They might just need a little space to remember who they are.
I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me :
You should learn to say no.
But it always seems to come with a side order of:
As long as you don’t say no to me.
Be the person they can say no to without fear of causing upset.
And if you are not coping – the world won’t fall apart if you say no. Seriously, it won’t. You don’t have to do it all to deserve a space in the world.
You are enough.
And it’s okay to not be okay.
Kathryn Evans is a UKYA author. She writes contemporary fiction with a Black Mirror style sci-fi twist.
More of Me was nominated for the 2016 Carnegie medal and won of the EIBF First Book Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite.
Beauty Sleep won the 2020 Crimefest Award and was shortlisted for the Steam Book Prize.