On coping and nothingness

Morning sky, 19th December 2020

I cried this morning.

In spite of the very best efforts of this ludicrous year, I haven’t cried for months. Can’t remember the last time. But there it was, unbidden and uncontrollable, the hot prickle of something trying to make its way out – and as sometimes happens, that something turns out in part to be words.

So, can we talk about coping?

This year has been, let’s not be delicate about it, an absolute bitch for a lot of people. For me personally, three-quarters of my regular work (close contact complementary therapies) was wiped out overnight. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to the hospice role that I loved dearly and was incredibly lucky to have at all. People I knew and saw regularly through my other, voluntary, hospice role have died. People I was deeply fond of, who were part of the fabric of what used to be my routine. Friends have been ill with Covid, some with long-lasting effects. Others have suffered their own losses. Both my husband and I have experienced wild oscillations in our mental health. We’ve lost former colleagues, our last remaining next-door neighbour and three extended family members – which has also meant seeing relatives lose both their parents in the space of a year. That’s a t-shirt I earned a long time ago, but watching it happen to other people can still push a sharp nail into those tender spots.

Everyone’s dealing with their own stuff, of course. None of what I’ve just told you is particularly unique. Earlier in the year, it was easier to see it all as a temporary thing and to meet it with something resembling optimism. I took writing courses, enjoyed creating and met some fantastic people in the process. Knowing it wouldn’t last forever, I wanted to use the unexpected time out in ways that felt worthwhile. I still do, but now we are further into what is clearly a long haul. The dark half of the year with its thin, meagrely rationed sunlight, is upon us as I write this only a couple of days before the Winter Solstice.

And what I am currently doing is nothing. Which would be absolutely fine, if it were not for other people.

I have known for a long time that doing nothing (or very very little, to be exact – thankfully we’re nowhere near approaching the Abandonment Of All Self Care / Not Leaving The House stage) is a coping mechanism for me. When things become overwhelming, when the rug is pulled from under you in such an entirely unforeseeable way as this year has done, when the future is no longer anything like what you thought it would be, when you are grieving for people and for the absence of everything you thought your life was, what I need to do is to stop. To allow myself to put aside responsibilities and to just live a day at a time.

Here’s the thing: I shouldn’t be, but I’m ashamed of that. Embarrassed. For lots of reasons. Look around you. The Covid circus continues, round and round it goes, because stopping is Not Allowed. Many people have no choice, of course, and although things are a little tight for us right now, being able to simply wait things out is a privilege and don’t I know it. So many people cope by throwing themselves into things, by making themselves busy, I know that too. There are a host of shoulds taunting me, all the ways my guilt tells me I ought to be filling my blank days up with productive things, because what are we if we aren’t productive and how will anyone else recognise our worth if not by the things we have done and the hours we have filled? Laziness. Selfishness. Aimlessness. I’m afraid of people thinking those things of me. It shouldn’t matter what they think, of course, but it does.

And I’m embarrassed because I don’t want help. I don’t want it because ultimately I don’t need it. I know myself well enough by now to know that if I sit with this for as long as it takes – however long that is, I know it is temporary – somewhere in the back of my brain, unconsciously, I am working things out. Eventually, the clarity and the motivation will return and I will pick things up, inching back towards some kind of structure and meaning. I’m not entirely OK now, but I will be in good time. But I am awkward and stubborn and heaven knows I always have been, so please, please don’t offer me helpful suggestions or well-meaning ideas about making lists or writing things down or things I could be doing, because however much I love you, all I will hear is please deal with things in a way that makes more sense to me. And I can’t do that, I’m really sorry, but I can’t.

I have to do it my way, and my way is bloody-minded and socially unacceptable and honestly, it’s excruciating to say that out loud but there it is. That’s how I cope. Quiet. Nothing. Lots of it. And if I need anything to get me through, it is for people to be OK enough with that to just let me get on with it.

I promise I will do the same for you.