MHAW2020: My lived experience in times of pandemic – Samiha Abdeldjebar, Peer Support Coordinator at Together

My lived experience has definitely had an impact on my approach to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and I also suffer from lifelong anxiety. In this respect, the onset of the pandemic was like one of my worst nightmares come true – a looming, invisible threat over which I have no control is the ultimate trigger for me. I’m also accustomed to catching up on the news more often than is good for me, and am highly attuned to suffering in the world. Even in “normal” times, I have a frequent, nagging fear that something terrible will happen to my loved ones.

Initially, particularly in mid-March (these unsettling days just before lockdown), I would check the Covid-19 updates every hour; read up on symptoms; and look at the numbers of cases and deaths at the end of each day, in the UK and in countries where I have close family (France and Japan). I slept badly and had several very bad anxiety attacks. My greatest terror was that the stress would trigger a mental health crisis, and that I would end up on an inpatient ward, where I would be at far greater risk of catching the virus. I was also angry and upset that health and care workers weren’t being provided with the appropriate PPE – I’m still furious about this today.

I quickly realised that I would have to make a plan for self-care. The first and most important thing was to limit my news intake – which I did, to twice a day. I then had to find a routine which would keep me focused on other things. I helped set up a neighbourhood mutual aid group; for most of March, I organised leaflet drops, and shopped for local people who were self-isolating – these acts of solidarity were empowering and gave me a much-needed sense of agency and control. Another very healing thing has been nature, and time outdoors.

I don’t have a garden, but I live in a rural area. Right on my doorstep, there are beautiful flowery fields, rolling hills, rippling lakes and quiet shady woods. Living in the countryside hasn’t always been easy; I have sometimes felt very isolated and at times that has taken its toll on my mental health – but during this crisis, truly, it has been a blessing and a gift. My regular walks have been a precious window in my day, to witness the glorious blossoming of spring, to feel the sun on my skin, flood my brain with endorphins and my senses with beauty.

The self-awareness and self-management tools that I learned from my experience of mental distress have also helped greatly. One of the things that I have found in quarantine, was that the flood of tempting online offers – to learn a new language, start yoga, bake, watch an succession of plays and operas, take part in a stream of Zoom conferences, workshops and courses – were actually quite pressuring. Though I realise that these are fantastic for people who are feeling isolated, crave social contact or intellectual stimulation, I quickly realised it wasn’t for me, at least not at this time. My survival instinct told me that I needed to step back, not cram my time with to-do lists, when I already I had enough on my plate with work, day-to-day living and keeping myself sane. I feel there has been a lot of pressure to be “productive” during this lockdown; and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to keep my distance, creating my own self-protective space. I’m glad that I found the strength and the self-confidence to be kind to myself when I wasn’t being as active or creative as I would’ve liked – when I was sleeping too much, or not enough, or bingeing on chocolate. When I felt I “let myself down”, I just accepted it and moved on.

I would never have reached this point – the relative calmness I now find myself in – without the kindness and support of others in my life: my family, with whom I’ve spent more and better-quality time now that I’m not constantly commuting or running off to meetings or events; my friends and colleagues who were there for me when I was in peak anxiety mode; my GP who reassuringly guided me through a worrying, persistent ear infection; and my inspiring peers from Together with whom it’s been a real encouragement and comfort to touch base with online.

Nowadays I feel more settled much of the time, but weirdly numb. And I have a very intense dream life. I think we are not always aware how this strange new life is affecting us, nor how it will impact us in the long term. It may take us years to heal from the very real trauma, we will have so much to process and to learn from…but hopefully, also some good memories. I’m curious to see what the world will look like on the other side; I look forward to reunions and hugging friends, and to try and build a better world together.

Samiha Abdeldjebar, Peer Support Coordinator at Together’s Willow Tree House Accommodation Service