It was like a wasp attacking a good peach. I’d thought of little but the roadmap to freedom for ages. I’d started to plan. I ought to have known better. My road was to be paved with yellow bricks.
I would brush my hair. I would pick my way across London’s streets surrounded by friends. I would dance for days. I would never flake on a plan. I would teach my dog to sit at my feet in a pub with dignity. I would see the world with a drink in hand. My trousers would not be elasticated. Yet as I listened to the TV, the unmistakably cold hand of anxiety gripped at my innards. I drank a bottle of wine and flopped into bed like a drunk seal.
I was surprised that the seal had returned. The seal stage of lockdown had been the second phase for me, wedged between the white-hot terror stage and the bit where I just sat brooding. I had expected the announcement to be an atomic blast that eradicated 12 months of misery. Instead new worries supplanted old. What will the new world look like? And what’s my place in it? One thing I know is it will be different. How could it not be? Life before was a bit like in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies when the main man, Adam, sighs to his girlfriend: ‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties,’ and then moans about all the dos they’ve been to. For better and sometimes for worse, that’s how I remember pre-Covid London. Pubs full, parks full, restaurants bulging out on to the street
If you looked hard enough you could always find a party somewhere, for someone. Whether rich or poor. Parties in canal boats and mansion flats; council blocks and hotel rooms; bottle parties and fancy dress parties; dinner parties and those requiring only Carling cans. Parties that went on for days and those for which hours were demarcated on stiff cards sent in the post. I know of one house party where a guest met the host and didn’t leave for a year, piano and all. I say I know of it: I was that host.
Everyone with their own scene: people you knew, people you moaned about, places you went to or turned your nose at. Things just bubbled up. All that was drowned in the pandemic. And along with it, a chunk of me. I worry I have become dry, desiccated, a bottleneck figure with a fat arse. Can I still amuse? Do I still have it? Does anyone still want it? What even is it? They say it will be the Roaring Twenties but after 12 months squeaking, I’m not sure I know how to roar.
I wonder if I am alone in this feeling, if I am being self-indulgent. I mention this to a friend on the third park loop of the day. She snaps her jaw at me and says with great belligerence, ‘Yes, you ARE being self-indulgent.’ I am chastened and drink my coffee in silence. I know what she means: it should be a time of gin in the street and general rejoicing.
I can’t entirely let go of the worry. I talk to a psychiatrist. Dr Jon Van Niekerk, medical director for Cygnet Health Care, has a more sympathetic ear. He says the trouble is an anticipatory anxiety. ‘We have to deal with the adjustment of going from lockdown back to a form of freedom, what makes this different is we’re not going back to exactly how things were before lockdown. So the fear is about how things are going to look.’ I imagine this must be what it is like to emerge from prison — the world just there, bright and big and unfamiliar. Van Niekerk thinks the change is similar to 9/â11, a scar on history that altered travel, war, politics and security for large swathes of humanity. But the pandemic is of greater magnitude: ‘It’s this big change that we’re all going through at the same time. It is a unique moment.’
The fact that we are all in it together is some comfort but also a problem. We are all likely to be a little at sea at the same time, grabbing at any life rafts. ‘If the jokes aren’t landing, or if there’s a bit of frustration or irritation, or some people have developed some coping strategies you don’t like, create some space for tolerating them,’ Van Niekerk says.
“John Donne famously said that no man is an island. Well, Donne didn’t live through Covid, did he? We’ve all been islands for a year”
Even if you are feeling a bit ropey, don’t pass on seeing friends. ‘As human beings it’s really important that we connect. One of the things that drives a lot of mental health problems is the feeling of loneliness and being disconnected.’ Though maybe don’t agree to go straight to a concert at the O2 on the first week, he says.
There is a danger of catastrophising things. Van Niekerk recommends breathing exercises. The aim is that you concentrate on the moment as it is, not on some catastrophic version of how an interaction might end up. He gives the example of a car. ‘If you overthink all the different steps you have to do when you are driving a car, you’re anxious about it and you actually become an unsafe driver because you’re constantly checking the mirrors and distracting yourself, thinking whether you are doing this or that right. So when you meet someone, try and get out of your thoughts,’ he says. Oh, and lay off the coffee. It will only make you more anxious. And if it really gets far too overwhelming you can always speak to your GP, says Van Niekerk: mental health services are still available, despite the pandemic.
Pick your battles come June, says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist based in London. ‘Look very carefully at the situations that are inevitable for you and put your energy there. And don’t force yourself to do other things. When we start talking about the things we “should do” we’re trying to live up to some kind of idea we think we’re supposed to be like.’
I know that I won’t have to face one of the biggest challenges: the return to the office. My office is my spare bedroom. For those who will be going back, Blair has some advice: ‘Before your boss calls you and says, “We want everybody back in the office,” email and say “I’m looking forward to returning so much, I plan to start with two days. And after a month, I’ll go up from there.” That way you aren’t on the defensive. If you let people tell you what to do, you feel helpless and we have had enough of that.’ On that, we can probably all agree.
John Donne famously said that no man is an island. Well, Donne didn’t live through Covid, did he? We’ve all very much been islands for a year and it might be quite difficult sharing the beach again for a while. Still, there’s hope in another quip, this time by Sean O’Casey, the playwright: ‘All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed’. I think he’s right. And as long as I can dodge the seal, I won’t complain.