It took me months to adjust to lockdown life. Being cooped up in my tiny studio apartment caused a lot of anger and frustration. But as an essential worker at a health centre, I had the freedom to leave the apartment to walk back and forth from work, which helped my mental sanity.
This was followed by six weeks of working from home. Being a social person with a wide network of friends, having to stay locked within the four walls was difficult. Living alone, I had to do everything in my power not to lose my mind.
I started daily yoga and rode my bike to keep myself physically active and mentally sound. I attempted to meditate several times, but it did not work for me. I Face-timed with people, and though it felt good for the hour that it lasted, once the call was done the emptiness returned.
Being an anxious person by nature, spending time alone all day made it worse. You can only watch so much Netflix and exercise to kill the hours. I started to clean more obsessively, but there is a limit to that too. The only respite was the grocery trips, and the chance to get out and breathe fresh air.
As a mental health professional, people started asking me how they could take care of themselves in this difficult time. I gave them the best advice I could. But I did not realise that listening to others experiencing the same frustration and anger would only add to my own.
Struggling with my inability to stay strong, I started to absorb other people’s negativity and feel weaker by the day. My work recommended we talk to other therapists to help ourselves, and I did. My therapist told me to separate other people’s problems from my own and not take them in, but I could not.
I continued to listen to my family and friends about how low they felt. I made sure to be everyone’s cheerleader by checking in on them and encouraging them to try every technique that was proven to work. But while helping others, I did not notice that I needed help myself.
I could not share this with others because this was my field of work. How could I, someone trained in helping others with their mental health issues, admit that I was losing my mind?
Embarrassed and feeling inadequate, I could not understand how despite following every piece of advice in the book, I could not uplift my spirit. I exercised, ate healthy, cleaned and kept in touch with loved ones, but I kept sinking deeper and deeper into this hole.
I kept telling myself that this will pass, and everything will be okay again. I started working with a kind and understanding therapist, and I finally started to feel validated and comfortable in admitting that even mental health professionals need help.
Eventually, I got used to the lockdown and staying indoors. I tried gardening, but I could never get myself into it. I moved to another place, and I began to spend time walking in the backyard and looking at the trees and the birds.
As the lockdown eased, people were so excited to get back to their everyday lives. I thought I would feel the same. After all, I had been waiting for this and I was fully vaccinated, so I felt safe and responsible about going out.
But it had taken me so long to acclimate to being inside that being out in the world again caused me more anxiety. It felt wrong to be outdoors, and I could not enjoy it. I pushed myself to go out and see people, but I would always come home feeling uncomfortable and guilty, thinking of people still struggling at home.
A widespread technique practised by mental health professionals is to write down one thing they appreciate in their lives, I started to do that. I am grateful for many things in my life, but the fluctuation between suddenly being stuck indoors and then having the freedom to run around was harder for me than many others that I know of.
I find it challenging to go out and enjoy myself also because I got so used to being on my own. Last year in July, one of the psychologists I interviewed for an article had told me that people would have a difficult time readjusting to ‘everyday life’. I could not understand why at the time, but I do now.
I have lived in many cities and adjusted to different lifestyles over the years, but by far, this has been the hardest. There is a constant battle between my rational mind, which tells me that we must adjust to changes to live everyday life and move on and my emotional mind that is stubborn and reluctant to change.
I am envious of people who can reacclimate when I feel completely stuck. The truth is that, it does not matter what others say, the most important thing is to try and keep trying till you achieve the desired goal.
My biggest fear is having to go back to the lockdown days again. See-sawing between a life of freedom and being comfortable on my own is one concern that I never imagined I would have. I did not think it would be this hard.
While some people can adapt to changes more quickly, others like me are cautious about adjusting to the new normal because Covid is not over. I yearn for the day when I no longer live in fear. But getting back to my life before the pandemic will not happen overnight. All I can do is be responsible and take care of myself while giving myself time.
Anjana Rajbhandary lives and works in Chicago. She writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues.