Notes From the Bunker

23rd March 2020

The first thing I said to my CBT therapist on our skype call last weekend was: I’ve picked one hell of a time to deal with my health anxiety. Henry was pretty ho-hum about this.  I expect he was thinking the same sort of thing my old therapist, the psychodynamic one from almost a decade ago, used to say about issues I shied away from because they seemed too hard: you’re dealing with it all the time anyway, so you might as well really deal with it.

And we are dealing with it all the time. In our village the shops have been empty and every day is a Sunday. Things that people would have said were impossible to change have changed almost overnight. We are seeing already the best and the worst in people. One finds out quite fast the best and the worst in oneself. Mr Litlove and I are, I think, fortunate, in that we both work from home and our village is very supportive. And yet I find myself in a state of constant partial stupidity because my brain is so busy assessing every moment for threat. A few days ago I decided to spoil us with watercress soup and put both my precious bags of watercress in with a tin of coconut milk that I then discovered had expired in 2015. I caught myself just in time as I wrapped my Mothers’ Day gift in paper that said Happy Birthday.  And I keep thinking to myself that I could manage all this better if only the world would shut up about it for a bit.  There is constant chatter and no real news and for people like me who are anxious and readily self-isolating, far too much frightening stuff designed to rein in the cavalier and the rebellious.

One of the things that upsets me foolishly this time around is being 51. The last pandemic, good old swine flu, was back in 2009 when I was only 40 and happily out of any real risk category. And swine flu turned out to be very mild for the most part and more hype than bother. I remember being in the porters’ lodge at college when the nurse came in with the most enormous box of thermometers. When we asked her what they were for, she said she’d sent an email around all the students telling them that they absolutely had to bring a thermometer to college when term began again and these were for all the students who thought that message didn’t apply to them.  Well, plus ca change, but even while it was happening, we could joke about it.

When my good friend from the university dropped by last week to bring me some paracetamol, bless her, the situation there was quite different. Her husband is one of the key figures in the college organisation and he was having a huge headache reducing down to a skeleton staff while trying to get students home who couldn’t find flights out of the country. We stood about three meters apart while my friend lobbed the box of tablets to me. Her first attempt hit the wall of the house. The second made it through the door, I stretched out my hands, and watched it sail over them and into the cupboard under the stairs. Moral of the story? Don’t make academics play catch. But there was some good news, in that while the virus was going through the remaining student population fast, they were suffering only mild symptoms and were soon back on their feet. I think about that, how the virus affects people on a very wide spectrum, as part of my rule that any catastrophising must be balanced by a positive thought.  Good things come out of bad things, because only bad things force us to make real change. So whilst it feels mad and disastrous at the moment, we must keep one eye on what positive change we want to come out of all of this. If I am forced to improve my anxious thinking habits, then that would have a significant and lasting impact. It’s worthwhile trying.

So where have I been these past months, you may wonder? Well back in October I was sent for a routine medical test, and over the fortnight between learning I had to have it, and the date of the test, I discovered that my medical test phobia had been growing in the dark and was now a bit of a monster. Long story short, I didn’t have to have the test in the end. But then there were a couple more (minor) incidents that provoked my health anxiety and each one brought with it greater and deeper angst than the last. By the time Christmas rolled around, I didn’t need the excuse of a minor incident any more. I was having white nights of overwhelming anxiety, sitting downstairs too agitated to be in bed and just waiting for the dawn. It takes a long time to come in midwinter.  I wanted to get past it on my own, but in the end I rang my GP who allowed me to increase the anti-anxiety I take for four weeks. And he said it was time for some therapy, so here I am a few months later with online Henry, who likes to tell me I have to challenge my thoughts with evidence – as if reason had any real purchase on the irrational. I’ve had one bad virus that made me debilitatingly ill for well over a decade. It’s quite hard to be sensible once something like that has happened to you.

But, and here we come to the useful part of this post, I am beginning to see properly for once that when you are up against it, you must stop faffing about and actually attempt the difficult things that scare you. I am very guilty of thinking I can both change and stay the same. As someone who loves their routines and the old familiar and accepts powerful default settings, I have the biggest tendency to sit around waiting for everything just to come right. And this is not what happens. I watch what is going on in the UK and I can’t help but wonder how long it will take us to cotton on to the fact that we must change. That for the next three or six or more months, we cannot simply transfer the lives we were living into these strange new boundaries. How much time will we waste in frustration and resentment before we realise that we must take hold of our situations and alter them radically? And that this might be an opportunity for good things to come out of bad things?

25th March 2020

I was intending to get back to this post and finish it with some sort of normal conclusion. But last night my mother was taken into hospital. Not with the virus but with confusion following a migraine. She didn’t know her name and couldn’t understand simple questions that were put to her. She is currently still there and being tested very thoroughly with, thankfully, nothing showing up yet. So we know her general health is good, but the confusion remains an enigma. A special shout out to the doctors and nurses at Colchester hospital, who are taking such good care of her despite being in the middle of the corona virus situation. These people are amazing.

Eventually, tackling health anxiety in the midst of all of this will seem funny. Haven’t got there yet but I travel in hope.

28 thoughts on “Notes From the Bunker

  1. Sending you warmth , Litlovely One, in time of Covid-19. Sending you warmth anyway. Spouse and I were only speaking of you and Mr Litlove yesterday, on one of our 600 mile-phonathons…
    For a 2-day retreat that was cancelled – last weekend and it feels like months ago already – I wrote a poem called ‘a benediction’ which I have now shared on Facebook. Since you (quite rightly, I guess) stay off Facebook, I will post it here, and you can choose to moderate it out.
    I have also two new posts at
    https://writingpresence.com
    for a free, weekly “writing-for-wellbeing” distraction that I’m offering,
    Like you I am challenged by “too much, too loudly” and don’t want to add to the noise. But I am determined to face my hesitancy and put myself out there, as gently as I can… while also sowing broad beas and making soup, and gazing at old expiry dates too (though syrup in glass jars is OK, and pickled beetroot too…c’mon Kathryn, I say.) Viva le watercress!
    So, my friend, for you and for all the beings, the risk takers and the roccoco as well as the reclusive:-

    a benediction

    may you rest easy and open
    may your breathing be easy and open
    may your view be easy and open
    may your hands be easy and open
    may your gift be easy and open
    may your movement be easy and open
    may your heart be easy and open

    may we all rest easy and open;
    may our view, our hands,
    our hearts, our breathing,
    our movement and our gift –
    may these, may these
    be easy and open …

    © Kathy McVittie 21 March 2020

    http://www.writingpresence.com

    • Bless your dear, kind heart, Kathy, and thank you for the lovely and most necessary meditation. To be easy and open are exactly the things to focus on at a time when the instinct is to close down, screw up in a ball, see only difficulties. Hurray for pickled beetroot too! You’ll not be surprised to learn that Mr Litlove stoically ate the soup and survived.. whilst I cravenly heated up leftovers from our supper the previous evening. Good for you for being out there and doing what you can. It’s the only way to get through this feeling good about oneself, I think. Here’s to solidarity and integrity and friendship. xx

  2. It *does* seem rather like living hidden away in a bunker doesn’t it? I must admit working from home is a bit odd as I’m used to going out every day but we must adapt.

    But I do feel for you. My offspring all suffer with varying degress of anxiety and are struggling with this, though coping better than I might have expected. We are just soldiering on and marvelling at the sudden popularity of handwashing and toilet roll…

    Sending love and supporting thought-waves to your mum xx

    • I always feel like I’m in good company when I remember that your offspring have their wobbly days too! I send hugs all round. I’m used to being at home now, but I do remember how odd it was when I first stopped going into college! I suppose one of the good things is that we will be reminded that we do adapt and quicker than we imagine, too. At least for most things. And thank you for the kind thoughts for my mum. Hopefully she’ll be out of the hospital tomorrow. Bless you dear Karen. xx

  3. I found this, about feeling wobbly and what we can do about it:

    this morning and although I know, LitLove, that you know all these things (and so do I) I found it truly reassuring. It applies to anxiety about anything, not just the surreal situation we find ourselves in now.

    The writer, Imogen Wall, is a mental health first aider as well as an aid worker and a therapist. She knows how lockdown and quarantine feel. Her post provides solace and wisdom about how we can help ourselves. It takes a while to read (it’s three pages) but I feel a whole lot better for reading them. With love, Angela

    • That is indeed an excellent post for our current crisis, Angela, thank you so much for sharing it here. I’ll probably read it several times! I’m now thinking I haven’t got enough treats in the cupboard. 🙂 And big hugs to you, my friend, do keep in touch.

  4. The one thing I have certainly discovered is that this is no time to have Aspergers. 🙃 Just as I think I have established a new routine something else happens and I have to start all over again. Know that The Bears and I are thinking of you and sending warm hugs. I do hope your Mum is better soon – so worrying..

    • Oh I send you and The Bears the biggest hugs back. These are indeed such difficult trying times and I’m thinking of you, too. Take the very best care of yourself.

  5. What strange times we’re living through, made somehow even more surreal by the glorious sunshine of the last few days enjoyed mostly through the window. I do hope your mother will recover fully soon.

    • It seems to me to happen so often – glorious weather accompanies crises. Is that a compensation or just nature’s rebuttal of the pathetic fallacy?? Glad you’re staying safe and thank you for your kind wishes. I suppose at least it’s got me blogging again and back in touch with my lovely blog friends. xx

  6. Oh Victoria. Nothing really sensible or helpful to say here, except that I feel you, and hope your mother is well, and am sending lots of bookish, chronically-ill-and-usually-quite-cavalier-about-it-but-now-slightly-worried warmth.

    • Elle you are such a dear heart, thank you. My mother is now on a penicillin drip so fingers crossed the doctors have the answer. We chronically ill folk must definitely stick together in these times… umm just virtually! Bless you. xx

    • I so owe you an email! I promise to give you a full update of all that’s been going on this year in the next few days. You’ve been very much in my mind. Hope all is well with you and we’ll catch up very soon.

    • Dear Lily! How lovely to have you visit. This was a very subdued blog outing – hopefully the next post will be more light-hearted. Despite the chaos and madness! My mother is out of hospital and on the mend, thank you for the lovely wishes. xxx

  7. Oh my gosh, hon, this is so much to be dealing with. I’m glad you’ve got a new therapist and hope he’s helping in the long term, though in the short term I always find it frustrating to be given such simple answers as CBT provides — but I do tend to find it works ultimately. (Then I am cross at being such a simple person.)

    I hope your mum’s doing better, and I hope that the family are all keeping well. It’s a very very stressful time. ❤

    • Bless your kind heart! My mum is indeed doing much better – home now and recovering after an infection and a low sodium issue. So, both things can be dealt with, happily. I think what you say about CBT is absolutely right – I’m after complicated answers to what feels like a complex problem. But in truth the answers ARE straightforward, and do require you to accept simple facts. I’ll keep thinking about that! Hope you and your family are doing well amidst the madness. Stay safe and healthy. xx

  8. A friend sent me this and I thought of you because of your love of Mary Oliver. You may or may not want to post it on Tales From … but I’m sending it to you this way because I’ve lost your email address after a computer collapse. It’s not Mary Oliver, it’s inspired by Wild Geese:
    Mary Oliver for Corona Times,
    thoughts after the poem Wild Geese,
    by Adrie Kusserow

    You do not have to become totally zen,
    You do not have to use this isolation to make your marriage better,
    your body slimmer, your children more creative.
    You do not have to “maximize its benefits”
    By using this time to work even more, write the bestselling Corona Diaries,
    Or preach the gospel of ZOOM.

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body unlearn
    everything capitalism has taught you,
    (That you are nothing if not productive,
    That consumption equals happiness,
    That the most important unit is the single self.
    That you are at your best when you resemble an efficient machine).
    Tell me about your fictions, the ones you’ve been sold,
    the ones you sheepishly sell others, and I will tell you mine.

    Meanwhile the world as we know it is crumbling.
    Meanwhile the virus is moving over the hills,
    suburbs, cities, farms and trailer parks.
    Meanwhile the News barks at you, harsh and addicting,
    Until the push of the remote leaves a dead quiet behind,
    a loneliness that hums as the heart anchors.
    Meanwhile a new paradigm is composing itself in our minds,
    Could birth at any moment if we clear some space
    From the same tired hegemonies.

    Remember, you are allowed to be still as the white birch,
    Stunned by what you see,
    Uselessly shedding your coils of paper skins
    Because it gives you something to do.

    Meanwhile, on top of everything else you are facing,
    Do not let capitalism coopt this moment,
    laying its whistles and train tracks across your weary heart.
    Even if your life looks nothing like the Sabbath,
    Your stress boa-constricting your chest.
    Know that your ancy kids, your terror, your shifting moods,
    Your need for a drink have every right to be here,
    And are no less sacred than a yoga class.

    Whoever you are, no matter how broken,
    the world still has a place for you, calls to you over and over
    announcing your place as legit, as forgiven,
    even if you fail and fail and fail again.
    remind yourself over and over,
    all the swells and storms that run through your long tired body
    all have their place here, now in this world.
    It is your birthright to be held
    deeply, warmly in the family of things,
    not one cell left in the cold. 💚

    with love, Angela

  9. It is wonderful to be able to read you again. (Hi! I’m Emily, we haven’t formally met.)

    I hope your mother has a speedy recovery.

    The bright side of dealing of mental illness right now is that (some) leaders and (some) employers are implementing structures that acknowledge it.

    What radical changes do you think society must go through after all this? Fodder for a next post, I suppose 🙂

    • Emily, hi! It’s lovely to meet you virtually and I’m sorry to be slow responding. It’s odd how lockdown does not mean I get things done! But my mother, thank you, is fully recovered. That’s a big and fascinating question about what’s next for us after COVID. I know what I hope, but I’m not at all certain it’s what we’ll get. I’d like to think that having taken such a hit already, we’ll use the opportunity to move away from industries using fossil fuels. I’d like to think that nurses and teachers are going to be recognised more fully (and paid accordingly). I’d love to think that we might all choose to slow down a bit, feel less obliged to rush around achieving, take more time, commute less, be with our families more. What I expect will happen is a desperate rush to return to ‘normal’ even if a lot of people aren’t sure they want it. This is my brief and unsubtle reply but you’re right that it’s worthy of a great deal more thought and even another post! If there’s changes in your mind you’d like to see happening, do tell me about them.

      • I am of the same mind! For example, here, Sunday has been reinstated as a day of rest: grocery stores and pharmacies and other such stores are closed. I think keeping that would be a small step toward slowing-down, but I can already imagine the backlash.

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