So although the UK isn’t technically on lockdown the way a number of other European countries are, most people are beginning to find out what it’s like to spend a lot of time at home. The over-70s and people with pre-existing conditions that put them at additional risk if they contract COVID-19 are virtually confined to the house, while millions of people are now working from home. Others are about to find themselves unemployed as the entertainment and hospitality industries reel from the advice to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, and cafés and restaurants see dwindling numbers of customers. And so a great many people are suddenly realising what it means to be at home for the vast majority of the time.
For once, I am seeing abled people take the advice of sick and disabled people seriously. People with physical or mental health problems that preclude them from working outside the home have a wealth of accumulated wisdom about how to get through the day without leaving the house. For once, we are the experts! It’s almost funny to see “top tips” circulated in the mainstream media as if it isn’t all stuff that spoonies do every day. Until recently, many of of us were pitied for having mainly online circles of friends; now keeping in touch by social media and WhatsApp groups is all the rage. People used to working outside the home are finding out how important it is to structure their days, to go to bed and get up at set times, to find creative outlets, to think how they can exercise now that they can’t go to the gym. In other words, be on the end of the advice we’ve been getting from professional our whole lives.
Many disabled people are bitter at finding that measures that have for many years been judged “unreasonable” are suddenly eminently doable. Working from home? Fine! Travelling outside rush hour? Sensible! Communicating via email rather than attending face to face meetings? It only makes sense! If, disabled people are asking, it’s suddenly possible to shift entire companies to working in these ways, how come proposing them as reasonable adjustments for a single worker tends to be greeted by a knock back?
The coronavirus situation is of course hugely anxiety-provoking for a large proportion of the population, but again I can’t help feeling like, Oh, do tell? That sound snarky, and I don’t really mean it to, but it’s another instance of abled people suddenly entering our world. I have spent years working with my Community Psychiatric Nurse trying to address my isolation by overcoming my anxiety and joining in activities in my town. She’s been worried that over time my life has become smaller and smaller, particularly as I can’t manage public transport, and has referred me for cognitive behavioural therapy to tackle the problem. But now there’s nothing to try to be brave for; the yoga classes and choir I enjoy weekly have closed down, as have the Zumba class and ukulele group I occasionally attend. The library and the leisure centre have shut up shop. As almost all journeys by public transport are now deemed unnecessary, I don’t feel such a freak for avoiding the bus. I sometimes find it impossible to force myself to go out and meet even my dearest of friends, but now nobody wants to meet up in public anyway and we’re all avoiding having or being visitors.
If generally well people think that their current anxiety is bad, they could spare a thought for the with existing anxiety disorders. People with obsessive compulsive disorder who obsess about cleanliness are now struggling to know whether their hand-washing is a sensible precaution, or an out of proportion compulsion. Many people who struggle with obsessional thoughts have intrusive beliefs that they may cause harm to other people, and again it’s very hard to tell the pragmatic from the panicked with so much advice circulating about individual responsibility to protect the most vulnerable. Knowing that there actually is a real threat lurking outside the front door plays right into the hands of panic disorder and agoraphobia. Those who suffer from health anxiety at the best of times must be terrified each time they cough and again, is taking your temperature daily pathological, or just sensible?
Because it is very common, anxiety is very often written off as a lesser mental health issue. The terminology is not well understood. Until I explained to one HR manager exactly what “generalised anxiety disorder” meant, he assumed it meant “ordinary anxiety that the general population gets.” OCD is joked about thousands of times a day as people who straighten their pens get a “diagnosis” from their colleagues. Little thought is usually given by the abled majority to people so debilitated by anxiety that they cannot leave their homes.
If I were more of a glass half full person, I might choose to believe that the free-floating anxiety generated by the coronavirus pandemic and the experiences of isolation will give abled people an empathy-generating insight into the lives of people whose lives are made smaller by anxiety disorders. I suppose there is hope that now it’s proven that businesses can survive home working and flexible start times, manager might start to view such requests from disabled people as genuinely reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. Sadly, I’m not a glass half full person, and I can’t tell whether this is part of my bipolar, or just the benefit of decades of experience of disability. In the meantime, I’m continuing to give abled friends and relatives the benefit of that experience, offering people who I know will spend a lot of time alone support through video calling or texting, making arrangements for virtual meet ups, and sharing a lot of cat pictures (if you haven’t met my cat yet, she’s @MissCinnamon6 on Twitter!).
I promised a friend that we would keep each other accountable in structuring our days indoors and my goal was to write from 2.30-3.30pm. It’s 3.20pm now, and by the time I have re-read and edited, I’ll have hit my target. There you go, Agnes!
(Image shows an magnified picture of the coronavirus and was sourced from Flickr, where it was added by Alachua County. Modifications and commercial use of this image are permitted.)