Unwanted Time Alone: Emotional and Mental Isolation During Lockdown
Luke Campbell is a queer working class community worker based in West Pilton. Born in Paisley and having grown up in Dundee, he has spent the last seven years working across the Scottish central belt addressing social inclusion, supporting anti-hate crime initiatives, and promoting adult education. He became a member of the Scottish Socialist Party in 2016.
‘If he is blue collar, he is likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless, and perhaps claiming to suffer from low self-esteem brought on by unemployment [whilst if] he is white collar, he is likely to be little better’.
Boris Johnson (1995)
The last few months have been rough for so many of us. The Covid-19 Coronavirus has wreaked havoc for many working class folk, whilst being a significant inconvenience for others in more securely affluent positions. During this time I’ve been one of those ‘cramming onto what remains of public transport’ to arrive at our key worker roles (as Em Hubberstey described us for this blog in May 2020). See, I co-run a Community Hub / Foodbank Partnership in Edinburgh - something I wrote about in Lumpen Issue #3 (‘A Call for Solidarity’) and we’ve sought to sustain our practice twice-a-week, helping folk into secure accommodation, assisting them with medical appointments, and aiding those experiencing food or energy poverty.
At the Hub we work with local rough sleepers, those in precarious tenancies, the unemployed, people with underlying health issues, refugees, and others in need of emotional, financial, or social support. At this time, those with the ‘entitlement’ to do so have often been forced to access payday loans or crisis grants from the Scottish Welfare whilst they wait several weeks for their first Universal Credit payment. Harley Brewer reminded us that the wait is ‘an ideological rather than bureaucratic necessity’, yet it’s the reality many folk I’m led by in my practice faced long before the pandemic; and one which thousands of others now encounter. Indeed, less than a month ago, a student of mine sent me a screen grab which showed her aunt as 51,327th in an online queue to claim Universal Credit…
It’s not only financial concerns working class folk are living with during this lockdown. As D. Hunter discussed in Chav Solidarity, many living in sustained poverty have the knowledge and lived experience to navigate such hardship and, consequently, for a lot of people, the social isolation of the lockdown has been worse - threatening the return of destructive habits. Little over a week ago, a long-term ‘service user’ at the Hub relapsed after feeling incredibly isolated and knowing alcohol is an issue I struggled with for many years, she wanted tips on how to try and manage her drinking. Going cold turkey like me certainly doesn’t work for everyone. After a long talk, I ultimately offered the basic advice of making it harder for yourself by never storing drink in the house - ‘force yourself to have to take those extra steps before you are able to fall back into it’, I told her. She thanked me, told me she’d try, and headed home where she lives alone with her staffie, without family, without internet access, and currently without the ability to meet with friends in a safe and secure environment.
That day after work, I had a long chat with a close friend and former partner about my constant insomnia throughout the crisis. I’m not alone. We’ve both noted more and more cisgendered men in particular who’ve posted on social media about increasingly poor mental health and struggles for adequate rest during the lockdown. She suggested that the usual distractions - pub, football, etc. - being absent has left many facing their own thoughts for the first time (potentially ever), and much of their stress, anxiety, and uncertainty has caught up with them now that such feelings are harder to mask. Obviously that’s not exclusive to men, but the higher male suicide rate has often been attributed to an inability for lads to break from more toxic masculinities and open themselves up emotionally. Now it's not even possible to try talking to a friend in a shared space where you can feel some semblance of comfort or safety in your confidant’s body language and touch. It’s also been notable how many folk on Grindr continue to select their ‘right now’ option even now with the demand for physical distancing. Isolation and the need for contact or intimacy of any kind is very real.
For me, I talk to my closest friends every couple of days, but that inability to hop on an off-peak train or Megabus over to Glasgow or, when it’s financially-viable, to book the cheapest overnight seat down to London every few months makes these connections feel so much more limited. Yet, I also know and fully acknowledge that I’m incredibly fortunate to have a two year part-time contract teaching at a university and to still have my freelance role with the Hub/Foodbank going during this lockdown. However, as the teaching-only contract isn’t secure longer term, this means I’m constantly doing extra unpaid academic work (independent research) to try and publish for some sense of validity within that sector for when this role dies so that I have any chance of returning to this kind of work in the future. D.’s comment in his book that ‘[n]o matter how long this comfort I feel now has existed, it feels temporary’ is a sensation so many of us live with every day. The thing is though, my frontline work is what I get the most meaning out of (supporting and helping folk however and with whatever they ask; I even doubled up my weekly hours spent in-person with folk at the foodbank when the teaching semester ended).
As much as I adore my time with the students, a significant element of that teaching position is having financial security for the first time in my life. I live with a constant fear of losing that safety even though I obviously survived long before that and will / would manage again. Amidst this, I’ve struggled at times to align my own experience of the lockdown with how I’ve witnessed some folk’s depictions of treating the pandemic as a ‘holiday’ - as if the death and trauma surrounding us weren’t real. Maybe their blissful ignorance is down to the fact they’ve been more fortunate than I and haven’t lost friends or family to the virus. I obviously don’t mean someone having a daft wee can of Stella and hanging out in the garden or the folk posting selfies with a glass of wine after managing working from home alongside childcare, etc... I mean those for whom their own or familial wealth means they have the luxury of personal safety through the knowledge that they can survive without work for some time if necessary and that the furlough scheme has safeguarded the lifestyle afforded to them via their supposedly ‘high skilled’, high paid jobs - a myth shattered publicly through the realities of ‘key workers’ during the pandemic being those in health and social care, food harvesting and distribution, etc. The B.B.C. News ran a story recently asking whether ‘the virus [has] prompted an early mid-life crisis for some?’ - an article exclusively featuring interviews with folk who had just shifted their usual work online or who were now on furlough, one of which had ‘decided to leave a well-paid graduate job at one of the world's biggest advertising agencies’. Reading this article really hammered home that despite how many times political figures and celebrities claim ‘we’re all in this together’, nothing could be further from the truth.
Something I often tell folk who’re struggling mentally or emotionally but who criticise themself for those feelings because they know ‘others are out there dealing with far worse circumstances’, is that everything is deeply contextual and their issues are real - even if I do, at times, find it harder to empathise with folk who’ve never felt uncomfortable financially or faced going into debt to pay their bills. Despite that, emotional, physical, and mental traumas can - and do - impact us all; much of it leaving legacies for many years. I get flashbacks to selling fags to other kids to buy myself ‘a better lunch’ during high school and try to see that as some form of agency. Then there was the struggles to live with the dynamics of such a clear class divide in school, the homophobic vitriol and queer bashing, witnessing daily Islamophobia and xenophobic bigotry, and the absence of expectations or hopes for many of us who weren’t even asked whether we wanted to consider applying to college or university. Drowning myself in Tesco value vodka (half the time on my own) or whatever the fuck was in the mixed bowls at empties was treated as normal for certain folk, when it should really have served as a warning of far deeper issues for others.
Quitting the drink three and a half years ago (pills some six months prior) has certainly left me far more reflexive and whilst I feel more capable of expressing how I’m feeling directly - be that missing someone, telling them I love them, trying to articulate a crush, or coming to terms with myself on many fronts and handle the occasionally negative repercussions of being forward appropriately; I do struggle to find ways to manage the more challenging moments right now in isolation. The Covid-19-induced-insomnia only serves to exacerbate that. Boxing is grand when it’s possible though my ideal gym is a fifty minute bus ride away, and my alternative queer boxing space is located in an entirely different city. It’s very unlikely such intimate sporting settings will return for some time; but even now at home I’m working out more, cooking healthier bulk meals, and have cut myself down to one tin of juice a week without feeling better. I’ll dive into certain books or revisit series but there’s only so much cheap clutter you can delude yourself into buying off Wish, or so many sixth-hand books you can afford off eBay when I’ve not given my current ones the time the content and authors deserve. Life is very different to what I expected or deserved even five years a ago - two failed engagements and various other relationships with emotionally or physically abusive people were evidence of where I was at. Isolation has certainly left us with time to reflect and whilst I’m fortunate enough to still be working on the ‘frontlines’, I’m not sure that for me or many others that this a welcomed or comfortable space to occupy.