A few days before life under lockdown began, we made the decision to come to my mum’s. Mainly for want of a desk: I really couldn’t handle the thought of working with my laptop on my knees in bed for the duration.
It was the right call, and I reflect every day about how lucky I am. In a global pandemic, there are worse places to be than a small, quiet village in the English countryside. We have a garden. We have fresh air (growing fresher by the day). There are no long supermarket queues; just the village store, decently stocked, and everyone being very civil.
And it’s nice to run here, too. Around the block, across the green, past the fields towards the west where every sunset is a Turner painting. Down by the churchyard, through the country lanes. I’m rubbish at running; always have been. It feels sweeter now, though. Like freedom, like health. (Like a chance to get the fuck outside and away from my emails, if nothing else.) And every run gets a little bit easier, as runs are wont to do.
But being here, running, does remind me of something else. Another time, another life. (Somewhat impressively, a time that was actually considerably worse than life under lockdown.)
My mum moved here after I graduated, so I’ve never really lived in this house – except for two short stretches of time. I stayed her for a month or two when I got back from travelling and started working in London. So even then, I wasn’t really here – and it wasn’t long before I caved from the commute and rented a mould-infested basement in West Hampstead instead.
The other time was when I was suicidal.
I remember that girl like the prickle of a bad dream. Mostly, she feels very far away – another me entirely, in fact. It seems hard to think, now – when life is (current circumstances aside) so very good – that there was a time when I wanted to end it. To not be here at all.
Here in this village, I’m a million miles away from that mentally – yet I’m somehow retracing her steps. Pounding around the same streets, lapping the same country lanes. And it makes me remember. Things I haven’t thought about in a long time: how foggy her mind was. How difficult she found it to string words together into a sentence, after a lifetime of wielding them effortlessly. How little pleasure she was able to take in anything. She’s a virtual stranger; I look back at my diary entries and see words that make me wince, now:
Eventually, when my limbs start to feel like they belong to me, I force myself out into the crisp December mornings and walk-shuffle-drag myself along the roads. I am impressively unfit. My thighs are lead and I shake with exertion.
But each step lightens the weight in my chest. Even on Christmas—especially on Christmas, the worst of days for the grief-stricken—I throw on trainers and an offensively blue windcheater. For the first time in two years, things get a little better—or at least, they stop getting considerably worse.
A part of me is nervous to declare rock-bottom. Rock-bottom has, at current count, been reached on at least five occasions, only for me to stumble to impressively new lows. But maybe the last few months really have been it. Maybe lying in bed, debating a hot bath and a sharp knife, is as bad as it can get.
A hot bath and a sharp knife. Jesus: I truly can’t imagine it. Not now I feel competent, strong, well. Obviously I’m anxious about the world, about money, about my health and the health of my loved ones and even the welfare of my colleagues. How could anyone not be? I cry a fair bit, too. But this anxiety is normal and appropriate. This sadness is collective, and it has a beautiful flip side; pride, awe, community. A sense that every life, including my own, is worth living and saving and staying at home for.
It’s a huge shift, and I’ve made it in slow degrees, with plenty of pain along the way. We’re currently living in a world that I couldn’t have imagined, five weeks ago. And it’s all a bit strange and scary. But I’m also living a life I couldn’t have imagined five years ago, too.
Being here, it’s impossible not to take stock; hard to compare then-me and now-me without marvelling at the difference five years can make. I suppose in a way it gives me some hope. Things might get very bad, as this crisis plays out. I might lose my job, my flat, my (remaining) parent. Plans might be cancelled and life might be held in suspension, and everything might be bloody awful.
But in a few years, it might be okay again.
And that’s good to know.
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