It’s official, I’m done. Wrung out. Deflated.
I have as many eye bags as there are descriptors for exhaustion, and ten times as many new grey hairs as motivations to leave my bed. I feel like the lone sock that always ends up stuck to the side of the tumble dryer – crumpled, clinging on only through sheer static crackle.
Over these last few weeks, the rollout of the vaccination programme – shocking in its seeming effectiveness, moving like clockwork in a world where we’ve come to expect only broken springs – is supposed to have inspired something like hope. I watch it uneasily, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
When it was confirmed that schools would begin a gradual return from today in Scotland, I certainly expected to feel relief. Instead, what followed was just more guilt and anxiety. Is relief allowed? Were I a better mum, would I have been saddened by the end of this time sequestered at home with my small human? I suspect so. I’m not sure.
I know that hope and despair are the obvious emotional options right now, that they are the A and B between which we are all pinballing relentlessly. But if I’m honest, I feel neither so much as uncertainty, the gnawing doubt that even my feelings, by now, are all wrong.
And as I return each morning to staring uselessly at my ever-increasing to do list, trying to ignore the noise of locked down humans all around and wondering how to start, only one thing seems clear. The tank was empty weeks ago, and I’ve now, finally, run out of fumes.
Increasingly, I’m coming to understand that I’m not alone in my incapacity, my utter failure to function.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite such a ferocious urge to retweet as I did in response to doctoral student Elizabeth Teng’s now viral lockdown summary: “am I working at my regular capacity? no. but am I prioritizing and taking care of the most important tasks? no. but am I at least taking care of myself and my mental health? also no.”
Our own resident psychotherapist, Catherine Asta, says she too is witnessing burnout at levels she’s never known before, writing on Instagram: “Everybody is running flat out of fight.”
What I’m finding odd, I tell her, is that I feel terrified – properly, genuinely fearful – that I’m about to mess literally everything up. Yet at the same time, I feel powerless to do anything about it. I want to be productive, but I am tired by day, wired by night, a Latham loop of tension-powered worries running continuously behind my eyes in the wee small hours. I’m exhausted every day, before the day has even started.
This, Asta says, is painful, but not unusual. Her patients, all women, are at breaking point, and she’s lost count of how many have, like me, expressed a total inability to complete even the most menial or basic of tasks. “Your inability and outright avoidance to respond and reply to your messages right now is likely because you are feeling at capacity,” she explains.
“The snapping at the smallest thing, the not wanting to leave the house to go on yet another windswept, wet and cold walk, the same route on repeat, the inability to churn out the output you did pre-pandemic or to stay focused on a task long enough to finish – it’s all likely because you are feeling at capacity. As is wanting to be productive, but struggling to do anything but just function.”
OK, so I’m normal, but where does that leave me? Knowing I’m not alone doesn’t in itself act as an adrenaline shot – quite the opposite. Hearing that I’m in good company seems a pretty good reason to climb back into bed and stay there until it’s all over.
Even my usual outlet, writing, is increasingly out of bounds, the act of creating anything except a mess, or another snack, lying further out of reach each morning. Instead, the words – so many words – remain in my head, endlessly questioning. What if, by the time the real world resumes being, I’m unable to return to something resembling normality? Is this me now? I’m heightened, constantly vigilant, but utterly paralysed at the same time.
I’m reminded of Glennon Doyle’s description of her anxiety in her bestselling memoir, Untamed, and of her wife’s concern that she’d been ‘gone for a while’ – a scene that echoes several times a day in my own house as my partner asks ‘where are you?’ and I stare, blankly, at my screen.
“Of course, we’ve been by each other’s side virtually nonstop,” she writes. “It’s just that living with anxiety – living alarmed – makes it impossible to enter the moment, to land inside my body and be there. I cannot be in the moment because I am too afraid of what the next moment will bring. I have to be ready.”
This constant state of readiness, of alertness, is horribly familiar. It is also, Asta says, the very source of my exhaustion, and of the gnawing guilt that I’m just not being productive enough, not parenting enough, not succeeding enough.
Our ability to control our lives has been removed, to some degree or another, she reminds me, for the best part of a year now. And that battle to just keep living amid the uncertainty? Yeah, that’s tiring. It is critical, Asta says, to try and separate the overwhelming list of to-dos into musts, shoulds, coulds, and optional things that can be shelved for the time being, and write them down to remove them from the mental Rolodex.
“Reducing your output and zooming in on you, and your needs in this moment,” she says, is the aim – a mission so many of us are genuinely failing at right now. “You need to nourish yourself with the things you need in this moment, and not feel guilty because you aren’t using every teeny window for self-focus to do something you perceive to be traditionally productive.
“We talk about being kind to others, and we do that effortlessly,” she adds. “But being kind to yourself is not a nice to do. It’s a must.”
A must. Of course. And yet, as I set about my post-it pad, even the categorisation of essentials feels impossible. In this world of disruption, so much does, doesn’t it?
There’s only one thing for it. I’m going to put my pyjamas on, go and make another snack and call it self-kindness. Right now, it feels like the only thing I can do. It feels, in fact, like a must.