Day 43: An Adventure Beyond The Front Garden

Contributor: Chris:

So week 7 of lockdown begins and I guess it’s time to reflect on the days gone by and the impact they have had on my psyche. I try not to count down the days until shielding may or may not end as it only causes frustration for myself and those closest to me that I miss seeing face to face.

The big news from week 6, I actually got to leave the house twice across two days… Hoorah!!!

Sadly not, the two day trips that I talk about were in fact visits to A&E at Leicester Royal, not the outings I would have chosen for a bid for freedom from Shielding but in hindsight a change of scenery anyway. Please don’t panic, I wasn’t there for anything Covid related thank goodness so no need to cast me off to the caves with the other lepers.

I wanted to talk today about my experience of my visit to A&E and how it left me feeling around both my own personal battle with health issues and also of the constant struggle that Key workers face day to day. The first difference from what was before was the initial contact at A&E, gone is the stroll up to the reception desk in the smart new £48 million unit. Instead I was guided by a multitude of signs and barriers to a portacabin in the area in front of A&E. I have to wait outside (luckily alone) as another person is already in the cabin being assessed, but after only a couple of minutes I am greeted by a HCA who takes some personal details. I am then led into the portacabin to be interrogated by a Nurse Practitioner around whether I have any symptoms of Covid-19 at all. The Nurse assessing me has a sense of relief that my issues are not Covid related and immediately the atmosphere changes from one of caution to friendly conversation in the blink of an eye. On questioning the nurse, she explains that the new A&E department is only for Covid admissions and is off limits to everyone not currently placed there. I am then directed to follow a series of yellow arrows spray painted on the floor and various signage which all takes me on a long walk over to the old A&E department in the Balmoral building.

On arrival at the reception in the old A&E, it is quite a shock to see all of the staff wearing so much PPE. All the nurses are wearing aprons, masks, goggles and gloves. The doctors go for the masks, goggles and gloves but instead go for white plain T-Shirts that can be changed and disposed of throughout their shifts. Prior to visiting I hoped that all staff would be properly protected but seeing this image in the flesh is very daunting and fills me with so much fear that I shouldn’t be in this environment. I ask the receptionist if I am allowed to take some photos of staff and the department for our Street Diary but my request is declined due to Data Protection Issues. The photos on here don’t involve the faces of any staff or patients.

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Due to being high risk I am provided with a mask and gloves which gives me a minimal sense of comfort in this environment. The staff are constantly monitoring the Waiting Area to ensure that all patients are following social distancing, alas there are still many that don’t follow the guidelines and have to be directed like a young child on a school trip. It is frustrating to see the health professionals being pulled away from their duties to have to manage people in this manner and I witness numerous instances of ill feeling to the staff across my two visits around maintaining safe distancing (Humans can be such ignorant shits sometimes).

Upon my first visit on Monday, it was decided by a consultant that I require an ultrasound, but this can’t be completed due to it being late in the evening so I am booked to return on the following day. I had an awful sleep on Monday night and this was only down to the fear of having to return to the same setting again and putting myself in harms way. I also feel that I am burdening the staff in some way, they don’t have a choice whether they attend work or not and they are put in the firing line both physically and emotionally every day they step across the hospital threshold.

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My return visit on Tuesday alas does not go to plan and due to some inter-department political issues, what should be a few hours there turns into a nightmare 7 hours. The staff are very positive throughout and keep me up to date as much as they can. One of the consultants made my case her own personal mission and she devoted so much of her time to ensure that my procedures were completed and I got the treatment needed. She was also very caring in regards to my Crohn’s and the need to eat and drink, there are no shops or cafes currently open at LRI so there is no option at all for patients to purchase food. Due to me being high risk, the consultant took the time to source water, crisps and biscuits all from newly opened packaging  – I don’t believe I have ever taken so much satisfaction from a bottle of mineral water and a packet of Skips.

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On the Tuesday afternoon at 6pm there is loud applause coming from the end of the corridor and I can see many staff surrounding another staff member. I asked one of the staff what the applause was for thinking perhaps a birthday or leaving a role, but the staff member explains that the person being applauded is finally taking a day off after working 12 hour days for 12 days in a row – what more can I say around this other than dedication at its highest level.

Finally at 7pm on the Tuesday, after 7 long hours, I have been tested, diagnosed and treated and am finally allowed to escape. Leaving the hospital feels such a relief and I go home to reflect on the impact the two days have had on me. I understand now more than ever how important the NHS is not only to the nation but to me personally and how different my life would be without it.

Across my two days at the unit I have had the pleasure to come across such amazing doctors, nurses, cleaners and receptionists. They are working under such pressure due to the Covid beast but do they show any strain in front of the public? No, they are smiling, polite, energetic and dedicated more than ever to ensure that each and every one of us gets the best possible care from start to finish.

Today’s entry has not be political at all, only a huge shout out to the Backbone of our country now and hopefully many years into the future!!!

Day 37: I’m having a crisis at the moment.

Contributor: Tony:

I’m having a crisis at the moment.

Not one that’s going to stop my world turning, but one that is a strong factor in my thinking presently.

I have been accepted to do a MA in Creative Writing at DMU this coming September, but I am now not sure that I want to do it.

It’s not a crisis of conscience, but simply a practical matter.

When I was accepted we were in normality, and I expected that in the autumn I’d be strolling down to the university to attend my lectures in the company of other students; many of whom will be young enough to be my kids – or perhaps not good for the ego, maybe in some cases my grandkids.

After doing my BA in Literature (but with a distinction in Creative Writing) by distance learning at the Open University, I was looking forward to being a proper on-site student.

But, of course, C-19 has now thrown everything up in the air and word has it that DMU may not have students back in September and, you’ve got it, undertake the course by distance learning on-line.

I might bite the bullet I suppose were it not for the fact that all the uncertainty has made me start to think what do I want a MA in creative writing for anyway?

I am a working writer with some poems and short stories published (in minor and charity gratis publications, nothing too outstanding) and I have had six of my plays performed, which is in itself a form of publishing to my mind.

So why do I want an academic endorsement for what to me is a very practical craft?

It has made me look at other courses and I have been attracted to one at the University of Birmingham through its Shakespeare Institute based in Stratford-upon-Avon on Shakespeare and Theatre.

Now you can do this course through distance learning, but even after talking to Institute academics I still can’t get my head around how you can teach theatre on-line, especially when the academics also enthusiastically tell you that the theatre element is very practical and hands-on utilising the nearby resource of the Royal Shakespeare Company and their theatres, currently in furlough.

What?

Are there any mathematicians out there who can more simply explain how you square a circle because I think I’m losing the plot?

But, in any event, it may all be academic (I know it’s a pun) if, like DMU, Birmingham decides its courses go on-line from September, and then we really see how you teach practical, hands-on theatre in cyberspace.

So, if I’m honest, I’m starting to think that wanting to re-start studying this September is a very bad idea and I was interested to see a comment from a Facebook friend of mine this morning, who is already a DMU MA student, advising me that he wouldn’t start a course in these C-19 circumstances.

Oh well, there’s always 2021.

It’s what we all seem, with increasing regularity, to be saying for all the different things we want to do, but that we have on hold for now.

Day 36: time to stand and stare

Contributor: Jo:

In these days of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, I have repeatedly walked the same routes, and watched the daily unfolding of spring around us, both in my garden and on my walks to the local parks. I consider if I have ever previously had time to take note of each stage of the blossom trees moving through flower to leaf, of new plants and flowers springing into life, watching the small changes in detail within the same scenes.

It may not be much compensation for the restrictions now imposed on our lifestyles, but it is an opportunity I would never otherwise have had.

It made me think of this poem…

“What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.”

W.H. Davies – ‘Leisure’

Day 29: ‘A degree in pottering’

Contributor: Jo:

During virtual coffee with a good friend last weekend she asked me “what have you achieved today?” As she went on to express her frustration and boredom at life under lockdown, and how she was rapidly running out of things to do, it occurred to me that firstly we were not experiencing lockdown in the same way emotionally, and that in a strange sort of way, my recent life had been preparing me for emotionally coping with ‘lockdown’ conditions long before they were imposed.

So how did I come to this mental place? After working full-time since 1995, about 7 years ago I reduced my hours and began to work part-time. This decision was in part triggered after finding myself in ‘Sainsbury’s’ doing a big food shop at 9.45pm, flying around the store before it shut, on my way home from an evening playing badminton, which I had gone to less than an hour after I arrived home from work. As I stood under the fluorescent lights, stressed and frazzled, wondering at the madness of that situation I decided to take a step back and live some of my life in the ‘slow lane’, to give myself time to actually enjoy it and do some of the things I wanted to do with my life. Now here unexpectedly in lock-down we are all to an extent being forced to do the same.

Sharing a day-time coffee with another friend soon after this, we discussed her new retirement lifestyle and how to achieve ‘the slow life’ on my non-working days, and she made me promise to ‘get a degree in pottering’. In attempting to achieve just that; – continuing to do the housework and DIY, see friends and family regularly, get more exercise, yet build in space to spend an hour or three reading a good book without feeling guilty, taking time to develop new hobbies – finding the balance between feeling like I haven’t wasted the day, but also living my life and taking ‘me’ time – I have found the skills and attitudes that now serve me well in our current situation.

What I initially found hard to deal with was the need to feel ‘productive’. When I first went part-time, people kept asking me what new things I had achieved with my 2 days off, as my friends ask me now ‘what have you achieved in lockdown?  Part of developing ‘a degree in pottering’ is considering ‘what is being productive?’ Who sets the measurement parameters for productivity? How have we all become innately measured by the marketplace, by the terms of business and busy-ness?

The pressure to fill every minute with ‘useful’ tasks as judged by ourselves and society now haunts us in lockdown.  As we are all now suddenly and unexpectedly confined to our homes for an extended period I hear rumours of landfill over-flowing, refuse collectors over-whelmed by the national frenzy of decluttering in order to be productive with our time; there is a national shortage of flour and yeast as the nation collectively bakes enough cakes to feed the five thousand. Certainly, ‘enforced leisure’ is a great time to catch up on those outstanding jobs. Since lockdown began I have achieved some ‘tick ‘em off’ items on both my working and non-working day lists. However, these are largely lifestyle changes for the better, and also things I should have done ages ago – such as sorting out ordering organic meat from a local farm, buying more things direct from local businesses, and holding more phone calls with friends; ‘pottering’ can also disguise a good deal of procrastination… as the pile of junk in the dining room not taken to the tip before they shut also testifies…

So over time I have re-framed what I consider ‘productive’. Is it achieving lots of ‘goals’ or having a good day? I consider the notion of the things ‘to do’. I look it up in the dictionary and see several different interpretations including ‘to take action’, to complete a task’, and ‘to be occupied with something’. I think we get too hung up on the notion of ‘complete a task.’ On an alternative Covid-19 lockdown to-do list,  we could include, I didn’t get ill today, I supported a friend having a hard time, I cooked a delicious (if I say so myself) and nutritious meal without ‘popping to the shop’ for any missing ingredients, or I relaxed and read some of a book (not even a whole one).

I am thus in no danger of running out of things ‘to do’. As we enter lockdown for another 3 weeks, I realised that from the start I have been mentally prepared and ready for 3 MONTHS of lockdown, ever since the first rumours that the elderly and those with health conditions might have to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Way back in early March I made a huge ‘lockdown list of things to do’, including many activities I have been meaning to find time for for a while which keep me busy alongside the usual weekly and daily sourcing and preparing of food, and house-cleaning (which now takes a lot longer than it used to!), and the seasonal gardening tasks. And I am working from home 3 days a week, and that comes with its own comprehensive list of things to do. My virtual coffee friend teased me that I probably still wouldn’t have finished all the jobs on my ‘lockdown list’ by the time the pandemic is over, and to be honest with you she’s probably right!

This is underpinned by my habit of writing more on the list than could possibly be achieved in the given time-frame, even by superwoman! Plus, I don’t feel the pressure to have them all the items done on the allocated day; they will keep for another day, and time is one thing we have a lot of currently. This is the beauty of the ‘pottering’ paradigm. I also have a simple solution to the pressure of completing the ‘things to do list’ – before all this started, another friend and I laughed as we both admitted that we secretly add things on to our lists that we have already done that day, and then immediately cross them off just to satisfy the psychological need to feel like we’ve been useful.

So gaining my ‘degree in pottering’ has involved recalibrating what ‘productive’ means for me It has involved stepping away from the pressure to ‘achieve’ in terms of constantly complete tasks, and gained acceptance of the process of ‘doing’ as equally valuable. I am not bored, I have plenty to do, and time to do it in. I am not ‘filling my time’ for the next 3 weeks, but adapting my life to the on-going situation. This isn’t to say I don’t have bad days too, when the enormity of the global situation, the inability to physically visit friends and family, and the long-term possibly permanent nature of these changes hits me, but on a day to day basis for now, I am pottering along reasonably well.

Day 28: A podcast in which we discuss Pink Floyd, the number of cars on the Hinckley Road, and work

Contributor: Richard:

Following on from Day 20’s podcast, in which Mark and I discussed my current obsession with the 1980s and 1990s and whether Mark has been dreaming, we turned our attention to 70’s music (especially The Bee Gees), our views of labour (alienating or purposeful), the number of cars on the Hinckley Road in Leicester as a measure of desire for herd immunity, and the potential for democratic planning rather than competition. Fun, huh?!

You can listen over at Richard’s blog.

Day 26: Incremental moments of letting go

Contributor: Jo:

-The slow, poignant, incremental moments of letting go of my pre-COVID-19, ‘normal’, expected, intended life – 

Walking boots: still with the mud on from my last country walk (around the Langtons and over the Caudle) – I never was very good at cleaning them regularly! About to be cleaned and put away – when will they next be up to the laces in a muddy field or tramping across a moor?

Weirdly we only ever did walk about once a month, often less, but knowing I can’t go again for another month seems a bigger deprivation than it is…

Swimming bag: my swimming bag usually hangs on the end of the ironing board, ready for my weekly swim. I have found a new place for it, high up and away at the back of the wardrobe, as I will definitely be using the ironing board long before I get chance to use my swimming kit again…

Calendar: crossing off the meetings with friends and family, and social events we had planned as we began social distancing for safety.  A friend told me her little boy did the same, saying with the wisdom and resignation of someone far older ‘Billy’s birthday party isn’t going to happen now is it?’ Somehow even sadder still in the mouth of a young person…

Train tickets: having cancelled our Easter holiday abroad as soon as it became obvious that we would absolutely not be able to go, I have been loath to actually do anything with the now useless, printed out tickets. They are finally re-purposed into ‘things to do’ and shopping lists…

Shower tiles: under no other circumstances would I have either the time (or the inclination) to scrub clean the grouting in between the shower tiles!

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Day 25: Revelation

Contributor: Richard:

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The end of the road is worn. The end of the road is wearing through. Our inscriptions and markings are fading away.

What-was is being revealed. A different life. Different lives. Emerging from under our friable, careworn present existences.

I think of our forebears walking the cobbles. I think of the labour that went into digging, shaping, baking, laying the clay. All those years ago.

Revelation.

Day 24: Supporting Mosaic Foodbank

Contributor: Jamilah:

A street-sourced contribution for Mosaic Foodbank. This was at 11am today. When they came at 1pm we had double this amount.

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NB Leicester City Council provide services and support for residents. This includes:

  • If you need support to get food or other essential supplies;
  • If you need help to pay for fuel, rent, council tax or other bills; and
  • If you are concerned about a resident who is vulnerable or isolated who needs help.

Day 24: Thinking about mental health

Contributor: Richard:

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Sticker on street furniture near the Pompidou Centre, Paris.

NB It feels important to note that there are some alternative routes you can take around managing your own mental health, and that support is available from a range of organisations including Mind (I had a good experience of therapy in 2000 with Mind in Darlington), Relate and Samaritans. Of course, there will be a range of possibilities for people with a range of life experiences. My point here is not to advise.


This is a shortened version of notes on mental health in the age of Covid-19 over at my own website.

I left therapy after a decade in May 2019. It was the right thing to do and happened on my own terms, although it was negotiated over a long period with my therapist. This integrative and humanist therapeutic relationship helped me to save my life. It enabled me to hold and contain myself as I relived past trauma, and as I experienced a second breakdown after my Mom’s passing.

I have been thinking about what I have taken from therapy into the world as we now experience it. I have also been thinking about how I would have coped/not coped had I still been in the eye of the storm (I would have found the switch to virtual therapy incredibly difficult, in part because the human is so important in the therapy room and I feel that is missing online).

This morning I saw a retweet about how difficult it is for many to access therapy, either because NHS-funded therapy is time-limited, focused upon cognitive behavioural methodologies (a herd immunity for the soul), and has long waiting lists, or because private therapy is too expensive (although some therapists will undertake pro bono work). The original tweet focused upon crowdsourcing advice for people who are struggling, and a call to ‘share the wealth’, as if the assets that define good mental health are resources to be accessed like those on the Commons.

I have always struggled with this kind of call, although I completely respect the intention that lies behind it. In the same way, I struggle with calls for people to focus upon a positive mental attitude, or to be mindful or resilient (or to engage in mindfulness so they can be more resilient), inside a world that is alienating, and where a corporeal and physical, viral, destabilising force has infected that world. Too often, I see these calls as short-termist, or as an attempt to suture an alienated Self so that it can cope in a world that is increasingly unliveable and toxic.

When I was in therapy, I had a sense that the work was operating on multiple levels. First, my embodied trauma and what had been, because we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. Second, the everyday, alienating reality of an unjust world, in which we have to sell ourselves over and over again, and watch as others are brutalised, exploited or expropriated. Third, the closing down of the horizon of possibility for life, given the politics of austerity, climate heating, ecosystem collapse, economic populism, and so on. Fourth, how to struggle for the alternative, at the level of myself, my communities and the world.

Now each of these levels have been infected and recalibrated by the virus. Whilst I give thanks that I have worked through my embodied trauma, and I am able to find the courage and faith to struggle against an unjust world, and to accept the enclosure of our futures whilst attempting to do the right thing, I grieve that this is not universally or equally experienced. This brings me back to the idea that we can share the wealth in terms of mental health, in-part because the process and journey through therapy is so individual (although hopefully experienced in a wider, communal ecosystem of friends, carers, families, communities), and in-part because the idea of equality or equal access under capitalist social relations is nonsensical.

For instance, we know that many precarious members of our communities, or those who are black or minority ethnic, are anxious about the role of the State during any lockdown as they are at other times. We know that, in spite of the work of mutual aid groups, local councils, voluntary action groups, and so on, people are separated and isolated, and lack the day-to-day support they need. We know that the State and corporate response is on business continuity, business resilience, maintaining some form of capital circulation through monetary intervention, so that productive capacity can be shored-up in the medium term. We know that care has been marginalised because we see how the State fails care-workers and health-workers. We know that those who are regarded as economically unproductive, with apparently lesser human capital (in terms of productive skills, knowledge and capabilities) or social capital (in terms of access to networks), and who are marginalised by dint of race, gender, disability, sexuality, will be further disciplined or ignored.


In the full blogpost I detail 17 things I have taken from therapy into this situation. Three that feel relevant in this moment are noted below.

7. Feeling is everything. Acknowledging feeling is everything. Reducing the cognitive content, and respecting how I feel is everything. It took a long time for me to go with the feeling, and to sit with the feeling, and to trace its contours and its lineages. Sometimes staying with the feeling is fucking impossible, because it hurts too much. My Mom’s death taught me this in spades. For too long in my life, the fear, anxiety, grief, anger were displaced. In spite of this, I make sure that I acknowledge and respect and listen to how I feel. Those around me have to get used to my occasionally drawing their attention to their feelings.

13. Therapy is a process and it is not linear. Life is not linear. I did not know this in my heart until I was in very deeply. Now I see my life as a process, unfolding in countless, indeterminate and determinate ways, through myself, my loved ones, my communities and this world. What matters is the concrete: the lived reality of place and people. The Corona-crisis is part of that unfolding, and we must struggle for what makes sense to us, rather than the abstract ways in which people and institutions (including families) exercise power. This means a rejection of certainty, a weighing up of options, and an ability to live with the consequences of my own decisions (be they going to a pharmacist for a friend or not seeing my Nan or approaching my work in a different manner). Moreover, as my life unfolds in a non-linear way and is a process, I work to trust that good enough is good enough.

15. Therapy taught me that sometimes all I can do is hold on for tomorrow, even when sometimes existing from minute-to-minute feels fucking impossible. Persevere.

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The Reconciliation Statue at Coventry Cathedral. This is all there is.


I am not sure how sharing the wealth helps with this for those who are isolated, made marginal, suffering structural oppression or exploitation, or in abusive relationships. Perhaps it is all we have in these days of social isolation, when we cannot hold each other physically close and we have limited mental stimulation. We know that the uncertainty is incredibly stressful, and that the psychology of isolation is damaging to our physiology as well as our psychology. Finding any port in a storm demands new connections, possibilities and hopes, and some form of mental and physical activity. Finding any mechanisms for controlling our existence, like establishing a routine, however limited in nature, is crucial. And here I am privileged again because I have a yard in which to sit, a partner, a mutual aid group, a roller for my bike, some t’ai chi I can do, I have books and writing, and 10 years of therapy in the bank. I have resources, activities and some control.

Maybe mindfulness or CBT techniques are better than nothing; that said, over time our collective and individual PTSD will require much more. When we have moved to our new position, we also need to recognise how our way of building the world and our social metabolism with the world has left us so mentally and physically vulnerable. This capitalist society has left shockingly paid people to keep the wheels turning, and to cope with deaths in hospitals and care homes. It has left people with limited resources to have to make decisions that put themselves and others at risk. It has left us divorced and separated from each other and the world, in a dystopian solitary confinement. It has left us so depleted that we are sharing CBT tricks on Twitter and building from the bottom as a just-in-time form of social solidarity. The virus has amplified the horrendous, alienating reality of capitalist social relations, and we deserve to live rather than to scrabble for survival.

It is the power of long-term, collective commitments that offers a new hope and a new shared wealth based on unequal individual and collective lives. In this way, I see my therapeutic experience as part of a wider ecosystem that I hold and to which I contribute, and that is shifting and moving. In this way, my thinking about mental health, ill being and moving beyond, replicates some kind of facilitated, mutual aid, in which survivors, self-help groups, voluntary organisations, friendships and professionals develop some alternative practices for-life that can be open to all. From each according to their ability. To each according to their needs.