There is no isolation that compares with the isolation of mental illness, and the fear that goes with it is its own prison too. It’s no good trying to reason with that fear: it isn’t based on reason, but on an overwhelming terror which makes us misinterpret the evidence of our own eyes and ears. When we’re ill we can believe that we have an invisible enemy who might attack and kill us at any time. But in this time of Covid-19 such fears are a terrible reality for all of us.
We are being urged now to keep safe by staying at home, not socialising, avoiding people, including our closest relatives and friends. So how then can we go on caring and helping the ones who are dear to us, family members and friends, who are dealing not only with the real fear of this virus, but also with unreal fears, overwhelming anxiety or depression? And how can we do it at a time when the NHS and social services are under extreme pressure, and charities like Hafal seeing more people than ever in need of their help, and less money than ever to support them?
You can get clear and practical details of the regulations about this crisis on the website of our sister charity Rethink Mental Illness: go to https://www.rethink.org/news-and-stories/blogs/2020/03/coronavirus-advice-for-carers-of-those-with-severe-mental-illness/?fbclid=IwAR2vgoHJfOmT0VsZCOo-9IX7x2yJFaXatl_7cUIxZEEwuzYBrJ7p6AXL_YY. You will see that we can still do a lot of the things which help with our caring responsibilities, although there are some restrictions.
The big thing, in my experience anyway, is to keep at the usual routine as far as possible. Doing those little things which show we care for others is even more important in these difficult days. Every little gesture of concern is precious when we are feeling depressed, lonely and fearful. There’s no danger in picking up the ‘phone for a chat, and the social media are really showing their value now. In Welsh we tell each other “Yn ddigidol, yn ddiogel” – “Digitally is safely”! Or, if the one we care for is afraid of the ‘phone or the computer, what about an old fashioned letter or card, which will be a visual and lasting proof of your relationship?
But what if we are trying to self-isolate with the person you care for? We have to admit that the uncertainty of this time weighs heavily on anyone who depends on a reassuring routine. The question my vulnerable friends keep asking me is “How long is this going to go on?” – and nobody can answer that question, not even the experts.
So again it is vitally important to keep on doing the everyday little things as far as we possibly can. Not trying to reason things out, or talk in circles, because discussing them can reinforce our fears – just doing things. Some of us have gardens, and now is the time to get started in the garden, and plan and look forward to future flowers and veg – still keeping the safe distance, of course. Even a couple of pots on a window sill can cheer us up!
But for those of us who don’t have a garden, cooking can be a part of a familiar, comfortable and secure life. What about making some of the food we liked when we were children? Giving cawl a go again, or mam’s rice pudding? Or jelly? Or beans on toast? The taste of food which reminds of happy days can cheer us up, and we have a chance to share memories. We can talk about the past, which doesn’t change, and the people we loved (or loathed!) rather than the uncertain future.
Have you got any board games, a set of cards or jigsaws? Old things that we put away when life was busy, but are still there, still able to divert us, and turn our attention from our fears to winning the game or finding the vital piece that finishes the jigsaw. And these games can be found on the web too if they’ve vanished from the cupboard under the stairs. But remember that what works for us once may not work every time. It’s always worth having a variety of different things to do, so that you can ring the changes.
The Rethink website reminds us too to plan ahead, and to prepare in good time in case we carers ourselves need medical care. Although just thinking about that may seem an extra worry, it’s worth doing, since it does ease our own minds in the long run, helping us to care better.
And let’s remember too that we will all fail sometimes. Mental illness is a serious and difficult condition, and at our best we are only very fallible human beings. Don’t think that if you fail once to help someone feel better that you have failed forever. Try again tomorrow – the rainbows in the windows of our streets remind us that better days are coming, despite the storm. The virus will go away, and the sun will shine again!