Long read: Looking after your mental health in lockdown
Published: 22 May 2020
Mental health ambassador Tod James reveals how he is looking after the mental health of his community - and of himself - during the Covid-19 pandemic
“I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen I like to make them happen.” - Sir Winston Churchill
I believe that mental health is not a series of isolated, heightened responses that occur from time to time. I firmly believe, and the gift of my work is that I also get to see and hear, that emotional healing and maintaining good mental health are lifelong endeavours which have ups and downs just like the ache in your back. This I hope, if you read it closely, is the story of how life prepared me, and how it can prepare you, for the emotional strain of lockdown.
I have struggled with anxiety for a number of years. For me it took many years to recognise that things which I assumed were reflections of my flawed personality in fact related most to my anxiety. So my perceived lack of close friends was less a reflection of a toxic personality or awkward humour, as I had thought, and more the result of my own projections of how I believed others saw me. I did, in fact, have close friends. I simply didn’t appreciate how much they cared - until I did the ‘odd thing’ of asking them for help.
I expect many people can relate to this feeling, but as someone who had little frame of reference for an emotionally healthy adult male as a template, it isn’t the problems which you face that are so hard – it is the fact that you can only face them by admitting them and then by admitting that you may need help. The crushing anxiety of asking people for help caused me - and the people around me - harm for many years. Not acknowledging a problem becomes hiding an issue, which becomes a terrifying secret.
"I found myself asking the question - Is the world better off with me or without me?" - Tod James, Fellow
For me this reached a peak when I had to face my perceived shame at losing a business. Of course what occurred was that people showed me little but kindness, and with support I rebuilt my life. But that day the idea of admitting to myself what was happening, of facing other people with the shame of failure, was simply too much for me to deal with emotionally. I found myself analysing the situation, asking myself the question - ‘Is the world better off with me or without me?’ To me it seemed blindingly obvious that the world would be better without me and so - whilst I didn’t wish to create grief (I didn’t imagine it would cause much) - I knew, or thought I knew, that for me not to exist was the best solution to the problem, and so I attempted to take my own life.
My story isn’t perhaps that compelling, which is why I tend to share other people’s stories to illustrate a point. But I do value my story for one reason. It is frighteningly common that men (and women) believe that they have no value in the world, and so in this respect I am utterly average, dull even - but I have to tell you that every story of survival, of healing, every story of lived experience, can be learned from. If you can find interest in a white(ish), straight(ish), middle-aged(ish), male(ish) guy’s story, then trust me you can compel others with your own.
I don’t want to make this all about me, so I would like to move on to talk about how my Churchill Fellowship has taught me so much, and invite you to join me in sharing and gathering lived experience of mental health. The gift of a Fellowship overseas isn’t just the people you meet, it is also the value of learning how to listen, to share, and to enjoy being in the presence of new people – there is nothing on earth more invigorating than sharing an instant connection with a person you’ve never met before.
I travelled across America meeting people who I assumed were completely different to me, people who are smart, have a story - funny, inspiring, confident, successful - and here was me winging it, worried that WCMT would realise that they had made a terrible mistake (this is how my head works). What they gave me back was incredible: they shared their lives, they opened their doors, and they welcomed me as a peer into their work. It has taken me nearly two years since my return to fully feel that I can live up to being the peer of those I met.
For anyone reading who wishes to heal from emotional trauma, I hope you will understand that the Churchill quote at the beginning of this blog is brilliant only if you remove urgency from the intention. For Churchill never thought that the war was a brief endeavour, he knew what he wanted to happen and that he wanted to make it happen… but crucially he gathered what he needed to achieve what he wanted.
"For once, due to lockdown, we have all of the time in the world to contemplate the things in our lives which we wish were better." - Tod James, Fellow
This is a remarkable motto for our times. For once, due to lockdown, we have all of the time in the world to contemplate the things in our lives which we wish were better, which we wish we could change, but little means to make it happen. So for now, whilst you have time, if you wish to heal, then use Mental Health Awareness Week to become aware of your mental health. Share your story with yourself first, be honest, then find some way to safely share it outside of your own head (though not necessarily with others). The key to emotional healing is feeling ‘safe, connected and heard’ and to surround yourself with people and things which create those feelings.
To understand how to heal, there is no better way than lived experience (with the right help) to show you how. As part of my Fellowship, I continue to share lived experience stories and you can see them each week on Facebook here. I have also begun the Asteri Learning Partnership, a network of people, practitioners and others who have lived experience so that we can support people to support others. Please check out what we aim to do at www.asteri.org.uk.
The other way to create healing is to have some routine, some aims, some companionship and some solace. This can come in many ways but for me comes from facilitating the Burgh Castle Almanac, a group which uses the old Roman fort in East Anglia as a venue to share learning and healing. We meet every other Tuesday and we produce our own crafts, as well as exhibitions, music and, more importantly, we create an online and offline network of… (whisper this) FRIENDS… because friendship is free and sustainable.
The only thing in common, at the start, was that we all liked walking (but not too far). Four years on, I believe we are a model of resilience during Covid-19. This is not because of me (I simply drive the minibus), it is because the members have made one another feel safe. We’ve met more often, added more members and done more activities since lockdown than before - because when you understand anxiety, you are remarkably skilled in planning for the worst.
It seems a good observation to end on, that your anxiety is more often a gift than a curse through your lifetime (unless you develop an anxiety disorder). The fact you are alive is proof of that. Hunger stops us starving, anxiety stops us dying. I encourage everyone to use the time you have right now to understand and justify anxiety.
When you have done so, or if you need help, please visit the Facebook page and links below, contact me, or help me to connect you to someone who may understand. Being aware of your own mental health above all others - and yes, that means you - is the key to helping those around you who are in pain.
Stay safe, connected and heard.
Tod speaks to 7/7 bombing survivor Dan Biddle about isolation and CV19 here
Tod speaks to lived experience voice John Durrant here
Tod on BBC Radio Suffolk on the impact of lockdown here