Summer is normally a time for carefree living, family time and holidays. A time for pressing ‘pause’ before the onslaught of that final third of the year, before we are thrown back into life, and all the excesses that come with it, at hurtling speed
But it’s not quite the summer we are used to, is it?
There is nothing normal or typical or usual about the summer of 2020, about a time that will go down in history as the year the world was plunged into uncertainty by a deadly virus we could not see.
We’re re-emerging from what can only be described as a collective trauma, having to figure out a way of co-existing with it in real time. It’s a trauma that is being experienced right across the world, yet we’re all experiencing it on a truly individual level. Everyone copes with fear and uncertainty in different ways, from denial, avoidance and withdrawal to humour and self-medicating. These are our minds’ ways of safeguarding us against things that are too difficult for our consciousness to cope with.
Food was a comfort for lots of us during lockdown, metaphorically feeding our emotional state and giving us something to focus on each day – there’s a reason #bananabread was trending on Twitter. Now, it is the horrifically named COVID-stone that is worrying many of us.
And I know, from being inside the minds of women, that many of us are re-emerging feeling utterly depleted. It’s no surprise really – the emotional and mental load is overwhelming. Our daily lives now require risk-scanning and planning and judgement far off the scale of anything we’ve ever had to do before. It’s been Groundhog Day for what feels like much more than four months, and we’ve been having to operate in survival mode.
We’ve experienced loss, stress, financial cliff edges, extreme loneliness, Zoom fatigue, disconnection, daily fear, the impossible juggle of home-schooling and work, little or no childcare and the absence of any personal space. Back in March, I remember Boris Johnson telling the nation that “It’s a very considerable psychological and behavioural change that we are asking of the nation.” And while, at that point, the fear of the unknown was putting many people into an anxiety overdrive, we had to find a workaround. That workaround, over the last four months, has become our normal.
Now, many women are re-emerging from a lockdown where they didn’t feel safe at home because of an abusive partner. Instead, they felt vulnerable, scared and trapped. According to the BBC, “more than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse helpline during the first three months of lockdown, most by women seeking help.” The charity Refuge, meanwhile, reported 80 per cent higher than usual call volumes.
When you are living with an abusive partner, getting help can feel impossible, which is why support and therapy that can be accessed online have been a lifeline for many women. Throughout lockdown, I’ve done Zoom sessions with women right across the world as they sat in their cars at the supermarket or headed out for their daily walk, multi-tasking because they had no protected time or space at home to talk.
And as we re-emerge, we not only need mental health and support services to be available for all, but also for them to be better gender-informed, designed around the needs of women and delivered in a way that they are able to access.
The need for conversation
Even before we were plunged into this pandemic, women were two to three times more likely to experience common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The Government set up a Women’s Mental Health Task Force to address this, yet my fear as a female-focussed psychotherapist is that female mental health will have taken an even bigger step backwards as a result of the last few months.
The evidence is there. As the many surveys undertaken throughout lockdown show, it’s women who are more likely to have lost their jobs, experienced loneliness, suffered abuse, had restrictions placed on their ability to exercise and connect, and who have picked up the full breadth of the domestic load.
The last few months have massively impacted access to our normal support mechanisms too. There’s been no ‘just getting away from it all’, no popping in to see your friends and family, and many lives and dreams have been put on hold as a result.
We may have lived through this together, but we have most definitely experienced it on a wholly individual level, which means there is no comparison. Yet we all know how social media can lure us into a false sense of reality. We have to realise that it’s ok if our lives doesn’t look like the posts we’ve been scrolling through. That it’s ok if you haven’t seen these last few months as a ‘gift’, or as a chance to ‘press pause’. It’s ok, too, if you’ve found home-schooling categorically the most frustrating part of lockdown, if you feel angry because you’ve been forced into a 1950s-esque housewife role, or you feel a complete lack of purpose and loss of identity. It’s ok if you’ve gained weight during lockdown.
What is not ok is the shame you are feeling, the unjustified self-loathing. And to all women, I would urge, don’t let that shame stop you from being social again as we re-emerge, because being social was the one thing you craved when we were under strict lockdown. Over the summer, don’t shy away from capturing memories because you don’t like what you see, and please don’t beat yourself up because last year’s summer clothes no longer fit.
Putting self-care first
The most valiant acts of self-care are very often the opposite of what we see on social media. Please don’t feel that you’re a disappointment as we re-emerge because you’ve not ‘pivoted’, or emerged as a ‘new you’, or done something productive like start a business or write a book.
This has not been a holiday, or a career break, or the great big opportunity you’ve been waiting for to find your purpose. You’ve been doing your bit to keep the nation, yourself and your family safe. You’ve been navigating loss and living through a collective trauma.
So please, lower your expectations. Do what works for you, rather than what’s expected of you, or what you would expect from yourself under ‘normal’ circumstances.
And most importantly of all, be kind, to yourself and to others. Because these really aren’t ‘normal’ times.