As restrictions begin to ease, Ria* reflects on her time in isolation and what she has learnt from slowing down and being alone.
I’ve been running away from myself since I was a child.
From a very young age, I developed the belief that I was fundamentally flawed, that I was unacceptable as I was. I thought perfection was the cure.
As I moved into my adolescent and early adult years, I dedicated all of my time and energy to improving myself in every possible way, hoping to prove that I deserved to exist.
I developed an eating disorder, I over-worked myself, and I consistently sacrificed my needs for those of others.
I tethered my value to my grades, my body, my productivity, my ability to serve the people around me. All of these came to threaten my mental and physical health.
Dedicating all of my energy to my work, eating, and other people also worked as a distraction from myself. I have spent the majority of my life avoiding time alone and unoccupied, for fear of confronting those feelings of worthlessness, emptiness and dissatisfaction.
And then COVID-19 happened and I no longer had a choice.
Striving my way to burn out
As restrictions around socialising and work encroached, I panicked. The prospect of having to spend more time with myself terrified me. For the first time, my regular distractions were ripped away. My nervous system went into overdrive; I became extremely anxious, restless, and sleepless.
Desperately seeking a way to continue avoiding myself, I was drawn in by those misguided messages on social media, that the extra time at home was an opportunity to achieve the goals that we hadn’t had time for.
What those messages – pushing for self-improvement - failed to consider is the level of stress, instability and collective trauma that accompanied the restrictions.
It is almost impossible to learn, develop or thrive when our brains and bodies are in survival mode. This is especially true for people with a history of trauma and mental illness, like me, who have been in survival mode for much longer than this pandemic.
Still, I threw myself into more work, less nourishment, more exercise, less rest. I pushed myself hard and I quickly burned out.
I swung between overwhelming anxiety and deep depression. When I struggled with concentration and motivation, I took this as additional evidence that I was, at my core, worthless and incapable. This thinking was reinforced by toxic messages disguised as motivational statements - that anyone who comes out of the lockdown without having developed a new skill was lazy and lacking in discipline.
I harshly criticised myself for my lack of productivity, and my mental health spiralled further.
Resisting the pressure to self-improve
In my recovery, I have been working towards cultivating balance.
I am learning to replace restriction with permission, self-sacrifice with self-care and with the guidance of my therapist, I realised something else;
I eventually realised that I needed to slow down, not speed up, to survive this pandemic.
I took time off my studies, voluntarily, for the first time in my life. I shifted my focus to doing things that would lift my mood, to keep myself alive. I rediscovered my love for dance, I began exercising for joy instead of self-punishment. I started cooking creatively and gave myself permission to enjoy food. I rediscovered singing and writing, and stayed connected with my social and professional supports.
I listened to my own needs and I took time for myself.
The COVID-19 restrictions gave me exposure to stillness. They forced me to stop running away from myself. It was terrifying at first, but ultimately, I learned how to look after myself. It took a lot of work and support, but I started to believe that slowing down didn’t make me useless, or a failure. It was what I needed to do to survive.
And when all this is over, I will try to remember the things I have learnt: I don’t have to keep running away from myself, it is okay to take time for me, and I can be comfortable in those quiet moments.
Taking time for myself was the most productive thing that I could have done with this time.
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*Named changed to protect privacy