Everybody hurts – 2nd July

Hold on, hold on, Everybody hurts, No, no… you’re not alone.

Everybody Hurts – R.E.M

In the previous “work note”, 11th of May, I said: “I focus on one aim: help others and myself to avoid climbing the walls.” Easier said than done, sadly. I have seen in others and in myself through our various means of communication a marked increase in frustration and, I think, I detect an upsurge in what is almost euphemistically called “low mood”. Frustration spills out in mediated form: text, emojis, GIFs. Isolation tells, perhaps, in the shape of the tweets seeking affirmation: I have published, I have grant success… I exist.

Identifying an assertion of our presence, of our value, is of course not a novel observation but it does seem particularly accute in the context of the ‘new normal’ during a pandemic. We all scramble at our own private ‘walls’, or attempt to remain on level ground. As Michael Stipe laments – the days and nights can be long, but I hope that when we variously “feel we have had too much of this life” – that we choose to “hold on”.

I recently posted to Twitter that I admire the abilities of those who have been productive at work in the last three months but that I really haven’t. Since the beginning of lockdown I havent written, I havent submitted anything for peer review. I’ve been included in a grant app – but I didn’t do much for it and, to be honest, carry feelings of guilt for that. I went on to observe that, of course, we cannot all be model academics – again, not a novel observation but this was as much to remind myself as anything.

It has become fashionable to confess to a ‘mental health’ issue. I am reticent about this – opening up sometimes feels like it makes others feel better rather than actually helping. It’s good that people try to help and say things like ‘people should feel able to talk about these things’. But there is a sense that, in some respects, we are encouraged to perform our vulnerability, almost as if for consumption. As others have pointed out, we are increasingly enticed to surrender every personal detail to the attention economy. So, perhaps, we should also be permitted to invoke Melville’s Bartleby: “I would prefer not to”. For, even with government and media campaigns, I cannot help feeling that the stigma around mental health remains. And who wants to suffer more than we have to? I am not in any way setting myself up as some sort of expert, I claim no special insight and I am not a fan of public self-pity, so the words that follow are just an attempt to reflect…

I suffer from anxiety and depression. I recognise I am by no means alone – others have written things that have definitely helped me. Since March, like many, I have really struggled at work and at home. The UCU strikes were challenging but at least felt like action, but the COVID pandemic has been disabling for many and I include myself in that group. I have looked after my children and tried not to let my depression swallow me. I have been so lucky to receive the support of lovely colleagues, my family and my local GP practice. I recognise my good fortune, even when the walls loom over and I can feel the depression pulling.

Staying off those ‘walls’ and keeping the depression in abeyance takes effort. I chose to take antidepressants. I recognise they are contentious and not for everyone but they have helped me. I say this only in a sort of attempt to de-stigmatise. Even-so, I also need other strategies too. Perhaps one the best, if improbable, resource I have found for bringing momentary light relief has been TikTok. Prof. David Beer noted in the latest email from his always excellent newsletter that Ofcom figures show a significant increase in adult users of TikTok since the beginning of the pandemic. I can appreciate why.

The snippets of visual communication, of comedy, of ‘memes’, of dance, are, perhaps, a ‘spectacle’ in Debord’s terms – we are in some ways capitalising on our own capabilities – but they are also whimsical and joyous. TikTok trends, for doing silly dances (much harder than they look), physical challenges, tricks on others or simple jokes in visual form can make connections, however fleeting or ephemeral, that bring meaning. When many other platforms, such as Twitter, seem to be almost consumed in rage and ill will; it is a relief to share in the whimsical joy of others.

For me, looking for the positives takes conscious effort when my ‘natural’ inclination is to drift towards seeing things negatively. Mindfulness techniques help me make the effort. As does my family. I think the thing it took me a while to realise is that I cannot always trust what ‘feels normal’. As others have highlighted – Carrie Fisher, who suffered the far more serious illness of bipolar, offered this great insight:

“Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather—independently of whatever’s going on in your life. So the facts of your life remain the same, just the emotion that you’re responding to differs.”

Carrie Fisher in her book Wishful Drinking.

So what? Well, I cannot claim any great insight here. If you are down the closest thing to advice I can give is: find a way to ask for help. If you’re anything like me then that may be pretty hard. But I honestly think it is worth it. Beyond that, I would simply like to suggest that in especially hard, or weird, times like these maybe it is worth trying to act with more empathy. I have been trying to bear in mind the insight Fisher offers when dealing with others – colleagues, fellow parents at the school gate, friends.

Care can be a collective act. But it does not need to be grandiose. It might simply be acknowledging others – showing them that someone is listening, or someone can see them and that they matter. Maybe that is what is so compelling about the whimsical snippets of video on TikTok. Simply watching and laughing and sharing seems to me to be an ‘ordinary’ sort of affirmation. Perhaps we could all benefit from a bit more of that kind of affirmation.

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