Lockdown in the Mouth
As we find ourselves in the midst of a second national shut-in, spare a thought for those for whom the winter months would be a challenge in ordinary circumstances, writes Jonathan Hart
by Jonathan Hart | 20 November 2020
Illustration by Keturah Bate
To paraphrase Robert Frost, while I have taken the road less travelled, the jury is out on whether that has made all the difference. I accepted from a fairly young age that my brain is wired differently to those of my peers. I am in no way trying to insinuate that this difference makes me superior to anybody else; on almost any occasion you are far more likely to hear me argue for the prosecution. I have merely come to terms with it. The result of this acceptance was that, with the onset of the mental health struggles in early teenhood to which I have remained a reluctant companion, I felt no more alienated from others than I had previously. While attitudes towards depression, anxiety and other conditions have grown increasingly tolerant even within the three decades of my life to date, and my own personality has transmuted in ways that I am variously pleased with and repelled by, I can’t say my perception of how I am viewed by others has altered.
The onset of winter, where the pastel pinks and azures of sunrise fade to shale-greys and off-whites, shadows elongate, and daylight hours recede, can often precipitate the exacerbation of existing mental health issues, or provoke the onset or resurgence of periodic afflictions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Not for me, though; that period of time just after the clocks change, where winter’s icy chill has yet to render the trees skeletal remnants of their verdant summer forms, is one of my favourite times of the year. It’s the time of year that I feel most like myself, or at least a version of myself that I can be at peace with. There are few pleasures in life which afford to me a less complicated degree of contentment than a lengthy walk on a hazy yet bright November morning, along quiet residential streets blanketed with leaves in every tonal variant of yellow, orange and red, Spotify loaded with the sepia-toned jangle of Galaxie 500 and early Felt. I can justify eating soup, and not merely because it’s a more effective contributor of warmth than the radiators in my flat. I don’t feel a creeping sense of recrimination if I spend an afternoon watching Netflix in the checked pyjamas that make me look like a set of bagpipes.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means I have all of my ducks in a row. I have yet to find a combination of treatments and therapies with which I can effectively manage my condition. I remain resolutely incapable of following admittedly-uncomplicated lifestyle adaptations aimed at flattening the peaks and troughs (reduce my alcohol intake? Go fuck yourself.) As a first-year student, it might yet transpire that my academic abilities are so catastrophically short of the expected standard that my suitability as an art history student might be brought into serious doubt, and with it the extremely delicate balancing act which dictates my day-to-day life. But despite all of this, I retain a degree of confidence that I can carry on as I always do. This condition remains an enemy, but a familiar one. I’m still adrift in a sea of emotional volatility, but I’m slightly closer to the shore than usual.
Regrettably, the same cannot be said of everybody. The incidence of suicide has peaked in the final quarter of every calendar year but three since the turn of the millennium, according to the Office for National Statistics. Far from being the harbinger of festive cheer the commercial enterprises who benefit from it propose it to be, the Christmas period can be a harsh mistress. And of course we now face the prospect of a further four weeks, at least, of relative detachment from society, prevented from mixing with other households and severely restricted . How closely anybody will follow this remains to be seen; I have my doubts, and fail to see how the government proposes to adequately police the restrictions put in place. But my real concern lies with those of introverted persuasions, or who have limited or no connections to friends or family. We already find ourselves in the midst of the greatest public health crisis of our generation, beset by premonitions of hospitals expended of capacity within a matter of weeks. What are we to do if we are faced with a crisis for which there isn’t a diagnostic test or a horrifically ineffective track-and-trace system?
Although it may have positive intentions at heart, the relentless drive for ‘self-improvement’ predicated on there being more available time to spend on one’s own, and as such the ability to take on new hobbies/skills or resume long dormant ones, can do more harm than good. I’m constantly trying to fight that critical inner voice that tells me anything less than the best isn’t good enough, and the notion that my increased degree of spare time should be spent doing something productive hardly helps to quell those concerns. The foundation of any good mental health treatment programme ought to be not only that it’s OK to just be OK, but also that it’s OK to not be OK. This is not the time and place to be thinking about what you’ve achieved in the last 12 months; the fact that you’re still here is sufficient cause for celebration.
Given the surfeit of recent column inches dedicated to criticism of universities’ handling of mental health among their student bodies, it seems almost passé to level that same accusation here; however, we are living in extraordinary times, and it is not unreasonable to assume that these institutions should be prepared to put in place extraordinary measures to safeguard those at most risk. It is certainly admirable in principle to widen the range of extenuating circumstances to incorporate previously unimaginable scenarios which have suddenly become stark reality, but scratch beneath the surface and the fine print remains predictably ambiguous. Consider also the miniscule additional mental health spend of £2 per student amongst English universities, as shared by Universities UK in a recent ITV news article; while we can argue all day about where the £350 million on the side of Boris’ bus went (or if it even existed), surely those atrocious figures alone prove now is the time for government intervention?
This second lockdown will not in any significant sense affect me. Save for the inability to sit in a friend’s living room drinking spiced rum, my life will continue unabated. Those friends will still remain my friends after our enforced absence from one another. I will still live in the same place, walk the same streets I normally do and continue to be offended by my likeness on Zoom discussions. I will maintain with disappointment that I am yet to properly experience the multifarious facets of university life; I have so far met only two people from my cohort in person, and even then only in connection with an assignment. But I am, comparatively speaking, lucky to be in this position.
I do not intend to suggest that I am an authority on how best to deal with such issues; I remain a believer that you should ensure your own house is in order before advising others on how to rectify theirs. But it would be remiss of me not to conclude what seems on first glance an extremely pessimistic opinion piece without offering some advice. While my programme of treatment remains a matter of trial-and-error, I cannot overstate the efficacy of online CBT treatment, and if anything, being able to convey difficult emotions and unpick unhealthy ways of thinking in a less sterile environment than a therapist’s office has been arguably more useful for me than my pre-Covid routine. No matter the weather, there will never be a day where I don’t leave the house for a walk of at least an hour’s duration; the release of endorphins might not be as pronounced as that which arises from cross-country running or spin classes or whatever, but you have to start somewhere. But if you’re one of those fortunate enough to be able to face these next few weeks with resilience and without apprehension, please don’t assume that not hearing from your friends in any form is an indicator that things are fine. Recognising that life is not running smoothly is not necessarily a precursor to asking for help.