What must self-isolation be like for those suddenly living alone or single-parenting for the first time?
When this lockdown started, my heart went out immediately to the Restored Lives community, and to any new or long-term separated people who aren’t lucky enough to have discovered Restored Lives yet. It’s 13 years since my split (9 since my divorce) and I remember so well the intensity of that initial shock and grief. I got through it with hugs and long chats with friends and relatives, and with the help of the Restored Lives course, which introduced me to others in the same boat and made me realise I wasn’t going to have to do this on my own. Now I keep thinking, what must self-isolation be like for those who are suddenly living alone or single-parenting for the first time – possibly also dealing with illness and/or job insecurity?
On a work Zoom video meeting a couple of weeks ago, a relatively new, senior member of staff – a father of youngish children – mentioned that he was on his own in a new flat, and someone joked that the peace and quiet must be quite nice. He looked down and replied quietly that it was ‘quite sad, actually.’ I’m not sure most people heard, but I recognised that pain. He has recently separated from his wife and at that stage was working pressurised 14-hour days, only seeing his children at the weekend.
The crisis is hard for everyone but I feel relatively lucky
This crisis is testing us all, from those who have had to become teachers overnight to those who cannot be with loved ones and are feeling more isolated than ever before.
I’m one of the relatively lucky ones. My days of single-parenting two often angry and unhappy teenagers are in the past. I still have my part-time job, for the time being. For a few hours a day there’s a little patch of sunshine in my tiny London garden. I have food shops within easy walking distance, neighbours I can wave at or say a socially distanced ‘hi’ to in passing. And – although I wish I had a partner for intimacy, box-set-bingeing and general mutual support – I have company.
Muddling along one day at a time
My 24-year-old daughter is back at home, having recently been through a painful split herself, and we are carefully negotiating a new way of living together. Not always getting it right, but who’s perfect? I’m sure the situation isn’t what she would have chosen, and her clutter obstacle courses are demanding new heights of patience from me. She’s not a naturally demonstrative or chatty type, while I like hugs and communication. She’s quite nocturnal (she’s been watching a lot of vampire-slaying on TV – should I be worried?!); I’ve done hours of admin and chores before she even wakes up. Mealtimes are all over the place, but the silver lining of our different body clocks is that each of us has some privacy time at one end of the day. Our relationship has been over some bumps in recent years, so to have her literally back in my life every day, whatever the reason, is something I wouldn’t have dreamed possible a few months ago. The best moments, I think, are our glass-of-wine-and-good-film ones; the worst, the occasional intensified fall-outs and feelings of claustrophobia. We’re muddling along one day at a time, and perhaps that’s all anyone can ask at the moment.
I miss my other child and worry about my mother
I miss my other child – my 20-year-old son, who decided to lockdown in his university town. He’d be there under normal circumstances anyway, but in the current climate, my maternal instinct is to keep him close. We text and chat fairly regularly, and I’m proud of how well he seems to be managing. But I don’t know when I’ll next see him – or my elderly, increasingly disabled mother, who lives alone. I’m in phone, ‘ForeheadTime’ or online Scrabble contact with her every day, but friends of mine have lost elderly relatives to the virus and of course, I worry about her.
8 coping strategies
On a bad day, my thoughts stray to my ex-husband and his wife, helping each other through this crisis, and I wonder what it would have been like to experience it with him by my side; but I immediately do a sharp U-turn back to reality, reminding myself that we might well have driven each other mad and that they may be doing just that. I’ve come a long way. Life hasn’t followed the path I thought it would, but I know from experience that I can get through this as a single person and, amid all the obvious anxieties, even enjoy much of what it brings. What are my coping strategies? Well, Rule No. 1 is not to spend too long each day reading about other people’s coping strategies! The pressure to make the perfect sourdough starter, write a first novel, read every book on my teetering must-read pile, do a virtual tour of every gallery, become a world-class knitter, run a marathon indoors or create THE funny video that goes viral feels like a kind of tyranny. For me, it’s about being non-competitively kind to myself. So, call me a hypocrite but here are some more of my tips…
1 Mindfulness. It’s not rocket science and has always made sense to me, but almost overnight the target of a spoof Ladybird book has become a global mental health go-to. After all, taking joy in the small things is something we do naturally in times of crisis. Today a robin sat and watched me eat my lunch, and I found a skeleton hydrangea bloom that looks like a mass of lace butterflies. If I wake feeling stressed, I make myself think about the things and people I’m grateful for. I’m appreciating the freeze-frame effect on the London rat race: the quietness, the clearer air, the surprising chance to pause and just be.
2 A routine? Sort of. I write myself a to-do list every day for a sense of structure and purpose but know I won’t get through it and forgive myself in advance. I get dressed (OK, not at 7 am…). I started off trying to do something creative every day, however small, but I don’t want to make it a stressful hard-and-fast rule.
3 Looking after myself. Doing Zumba classes in the kitchen, and the odd bit of pilates, yoga or basic meditation. Reading when I get a moment. Watching some good comedy, great films and bad-but-escapist TV.
4 Staying in regular touch with the most important and uplifting people in my life, but stepping back from Facebook and any WhatsApp groups that exhaust me or up the anxiety.
5 Turning off depressing programmes and trying (not always successfully) to limit my exposure to the news.
6 Supporting others so it doesn’t become all about me.
7 Accepting that this is psychologically tiring, and reminding myself it’s is not forever.
8 Suppressing my inner cynic and hoping that we’ll emerge stronger, more self-aware, more compassionate beings.
All of which takes me back to the Restored Lives advice. It’s so much about learning to accept situations beyond our control, changing how we respond to them and practising self-care.
A message to other separated or divorced people
To anyone out there in great emotional pain, struggling with the double whammy of Covid-19 isolation and relationship breakdown, I’d say…
You are not alone. There are people thinking of you, friends, volunteers and professionals you can talk to, and others going through similar stuff. Believe in yourself and give yourself mental (or even physical) hugs. This hardest of times will pass. The pain will ease. There’ll be better days and shi**ier days, but you’ll make it. You can do this, one step at a time. If you haven’t already done the Restored Lives course, read the book and got the proverbial T-shirt, maybe now is the time…
Oh, and if you’d like an idea for distracting yourself from the serious stuff for an afternoon, try spilling half a tin of emulsion paint over your bare feet and clothes in a small, half-height space. I did that yesterday and it worked a treat.
Restored Lives is preparing to run its course online via Zoom, starting on the 11th May 2020. For more details visit www.htb.org/restoredlives