Lockdown, Mental Health & Marian Keyes
I started 2020 like most. Wanting to lose some weight and read some books. So, like anyone else with too much time on their hands and a Goodreads account, I set myself up for the reading challenge. Quietly slipping the Fitbit I’d gotten for Christmas into a drawer in the bathroom, never to be seen again.
For January and February, this meant sitting at the counter of the tiny convenience shop I worked in on my old university campus. After 3pm, as patronage dropped to roughly three customers an hour, usually a group of sports students checking the back of a packet of Starburst for macros, I would take my book out. Careful to avoid any eye contact with lost souls looking for a sandwich much too late in the day.
Right on track for my book-a-week schedule, I made my way through the hugely exciting 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, desperate to fly through as many serious literary titles as I could. Sure that as long as I read these books, something under the surface would be seeping in, making me not just a better writer, but maybe also a better person.
It wasn’t until international students I spoke to on a daily basis started to change their behaviour that I even paid attention to the news reports coming from the radio behind me. At the same time that my manager left every day, I would often switch the station over to the news. Desperate to end the cycle of the same three songs from 1997 on repeat. These same students began placing money on the counter, in a bid to avoid touching my hands.
Vaguely seeping into my consciousness were tales about Chinese provinces, on the other side of the world, going into strict lockdowns. As their government scrambled to avoid the spread of a virus similar to SARS.
At the same time, a friend of mine who teaches English online, began to tell me about how parents of the children she was working with were describing how suddenly their lives had changed overnight. Entire city regions of people were staying at home to avoid the spread of this new illness. Not just out of obligation to one another but because their government had mandated it.
It wasn’t until mid-March, when my mother fell off a ladder while painting my childhood bedroom, that I saw how broadly our behaviours were starting to change. Getting on a packed train at one of Cardiff Central’s busy rush hour platforms, I noticed a handful of people covering their faces. Mostly scarves wrapped around their mouths and noses. People using hand gel after touching buttons or their folding table.
I took out Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander, a novel about a Jewish man who, in turning his back on his family’s faith, pays for someone else, a stranger online, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish – ignoring his late Dad’s request. For my four-hour journey, I sat there reading about a fictional father travelling from New York to Israel in order to right the wrong he did to his family in the 90s, as myself and three strangers sat all crammed into the table seats facing each other. An elderly man directly in front of me casually thumbed his way through a copy of the Bible.
My Dad opened the door when I arrived, with my Mother doing her best to jog around the corner from the living room as she heard my voice. Her face, though bandaged and bruised from her accident, shocked by my appearance, ‘Wash your hands before you touch anything.’
Once we sat down in the living room and I’d changed into fresh pyjamas, hands smelling of the grapefruit hand wash they have in the downstairs toilet, they told me about people coughing and spluttering in A&E, and how they tried to keep their distance. And I realised how, for the first time, my journey could do more to harm than to help.
Over the following week, as I helped out around the house, trying to take the burden off my injured Mother who was doing her best to convince us all she was fine, I found myself unable to focus on anything. Horrified that I’d have too much catching up to do and I’d never meet my reading goal. How wild it seems now that so close to everything changing, that was what I was worried about.
A week after I’d returned home to Cardiff, we moved into our first national lockdown in Wales. One that meant no leaving the house, unless you worked in a supermarket, health and social care, or drove public transport. Myself and everyone I worked with, unsure if we’d get paid, assumed that we likely wouldn’t as zero-hour workers. I was unable to even contemplate finishing the copy of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters that I’d begun on my Kindle.
As the weeks went on and the lockdowns remained in place across the UK, I began to see parts of myself transformed by this unpredictable tragedy. Having always loved to spend as much time as possible outside, going for a coffee, or getting the train to a part of the city I hadn’t explored yet, twelve weeks passed without me venturing beyond the threshold.
The way in which things sneak up on us means we often can’t see the change we’re undergoing. I couldn’t even see myself transforming from someone in love with sitting around and drinking coffee with friends, or sitting in a freezing beer garden on a Wednesday evening basking in the light of the tiny little heaters like a reptile in the zoo, to someone afraid to leave the flat to go check the post downstairs.
The moments in which we realise such a change is happening can often be the most frightening of our lives. How disconcerting it can be to think we know ourselves, only for the changing reality around us to say ‘actually, here’s the thing.’ But often, even if we’re not equipped to deal with it in the moment, provided we hang on long enough, at some point we might be able to.
For me, during the height of feeling mentally unwell and thoroughly checked out, I came across the author Marian Keyes. Specifically, a rebroadcast of Between Ourselves in August 2020. A series in which Marian reads a host of autobiographical stories and discusses them with the fabulous Tara Flynn. Not only was the series striking for its live studio audience – something that had begun to seem incomprehensible even in reruns – but for the way Marian discussed mental illness.
Suddenly, I wasn’t just watching the TV – or more accurately, sitting in front of it and not taking in a second of dialogue or story – but I was able to understand and process what was being said. To feel present enough to digest the information.
Riding the high of this realisation, something that felt huge in and of itself, I downloaded her non-fiction collection Making It Up as I Go Along on Audible. Immersing myself in the pleasure of being read to, and a voice as beautifully kind as it is hilariously funny. The generosity in which Marian writes about the ups and downs she experiences are a balm to anyone feeling, as the equally phenomenal Ruby Wax would put it, frazzled.
Over the following months, as I made my way through her moving and often comic works, listening as I pottered about the flat, I began to feel parts of myself returning. My ability to think about things, to imagine them and to contextualise them in a world where things get better; a world where I too feel better, came back not in floods, but small pieces over a period of weeks.
As my tiny world began to lighten, David Sedaris and Dawn French’s books kept me company. I melted into their ability to make even the most painful of memories and trials of the human experience, something to laugh along with as we heal. Slowly realising as I went along, firing through audiobooks and eventually even hard copies, that books are at their most crucial when they’re at their most mysterious. When all that you’re following when you pick them up is your instinct and your pleasure.