This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week and the Mental Health Foundation’s focus for the week has been ‘Nature’. I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health over the last year, and especially these last couple of weeks as I’ve been on furlough for the first time.
Throughout the pandemic I’ve tried to make the most of the nature around me by spending time walking and visiting parks and natural spaces, but it hasn’t always been easy. Sure, I love walking, but when walking is one of the only things you can do when you leave your house, it can become a bit of a chore. It’s fine if I have a purpose, like I might walk the long way to the shop and back to combine exercise with an errand, but there have been plenty of times over the last year when I’ve really had to drag myself out for a walk just to make sure I haven’t sat inside at home on my own all day (and there have of course also been plenty of times when I have sat inside all day on my own).
When I went on furlough I was worried that I might not feel inclined to keep going out for walks to the same places and could end up staying home feeling bored and lonely, but actually so far I’ve been pretty busy and have managed to get out a lot because I wanted to, not because I had to.
As we both live alone, I’m in a support bubble with my mum, who lives a few hours away down in Bognor Regis. Given all the free time I had on my hands, I decided to take the opportunity to go and visit her this week so we could enjoy some walks and nature together. It’s been hard for us both, living alone and having limited options of where we can go, but we’ve both found that walks in local green areas and by the water (sea for her, harbour for me) have helped a lot through this crazy year. Although we both have some close friends to share these walks with, there’s nothing like sharing our favourite places with each other.
So today we went to visit a local nature reserve, Bersted Park, and I have to say it was like medicine for the soul. Sitting on a bench sipping local coffee and listening to the birds chirping in the trees, spotting swans through the tall grass, breathing in the fresh air, marvelling at the sculptures made of wood and positive messages painted onto stones set into the path. It may not sound like much to some – it’s hardly a wild party or a massive adventure – but this simple burst of nature was just enough to calm and realign me, ready to face the world again.
Read more about Mental Health Awareness Week here and if you have the chance, do try to find the time to connect with nature. If you can, go outside, listen to the birds, look at some flowers, breathe the fresh air. Make the most of this moment, of those around you, and of what you’ve got. It doesn’t have to be grand. Spotting the beginnings of a simple flower on your houseplant may be enough to bring some much needed nature, and hope, into your life.
furlough/ˈfəːləʊ/noun – leave of absence
Most of us had never even heard this word just over a year ago. I’ve been really lucky, working as I do in the travel industry, to have been able to keep working all this time whilst many of my colleagues have been furloughed, and of course many people (not just in my industry) have lost their jobs. It’s been a tough year though, and I don’t mind admitting that I did like the idea of having a break when things were really stressful, but it wasn’t feasible at the time.
I first brushed with furlough a few months ago when I was told I would go from 5 to 4 days a week and be ‘flexi-furloughed’ for one day. It took a little while to get used to this bonus day off, but to be honest I quite like a 4 day week. Then came the big one – a month of furlough. My company is doing the right thing, making the most of the support available, and I guess it was inevitable that I would be furloughed eventually. So, here I am, about to start my stint of furlough. A month off work.
It’s strange, now that everything is starting to open up in the UK and many people are going back to work, to suddenly find myself with time on my hands. At first I freaked out and in my panic started making a mental list of all the things I would have to do during this time to make it worthwhile. Pole, stretch, dance, do Couch to 5k again, walk 12,000 steps a day, tidy everything, read all those books that are piling up… the list went on and my brain hurt. Then I stopped. Literally, in the middle of the street as I was pacing about. I stopped and realised I don’t need to be a superhuman. I don’t have to prove anything
But I know how my brain works, and I know what’s best for my mental health. I need some kind of structure, and I need goals, even little ones. So, here’s my furlough plan:
- Relax and enjoy some downtime. Don’t feel guilty if one day I watch a lot of TV, or another day I take a book to the park and sit and read all day. It’s about time I had a bit of a break and time to recharge.
- Work on my pole, fitness and flexibility goals, but listen to my body as I go. It’s not possible or sensible to train hard every day – I need time to recover too.
- Spend time outside – whether it’s walking, running, or sitting, I want to get out of this flat and see something other than these four walls!
- Cook! It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, but use this time to cook nice things. I’ve found when I’m busy or stressed I still turn to convenience food (and there is so much yummy vegan convenience food!) but I do actually love to cook, so now’s the time to dust off those recipe books.
- Just be. Every day doesn’t have to be full of achievements or Instagram-worthy moments. Some days it’s perfectly fine to just be. See some friends. Go for a walk by myself. Read. Dance in my kitchen. Whatever makes me happy.
None of this is to say that you won’t be seeing a bit more of me on Instagram and maybe even here in this blog over the coming month. I will be learning new pole things, I am doing a running challenge, and I will hopefully cook something worthy of taking a photo of at some point. But I don’t want to obsess over the numbers and the achievements. When the first lockdown happened last year and lots of people found themselves on furlough, there was a huge amount of pressure on everyone to achieve. Is this the time to write that novel I’ve always dreamt of publishing? Maybe, but probably not if I’m honest. Is this the time to enjoy some (hopefully!) nice weather and have a bit of a break? Yes. And is this the time to simply do what feels good? Definitely.
Let’s see where the month takes me…
I started yoga a few years ago when my company began offering cheap classes in our lunch breaks, and before and after work, with a local instructor who came in to our office. I had tried yoga a few times before that, but I’d never really got on with it. I wanted to be the kind of person who did yoga (you know, the Instagram version of a yogi), but I feared that I wasn’t. Or at least, I was made to feel that I wasn’t by some of the scary teachers (and intimidating participants!) I encountered. Luckily, the local instructor we had at work was fantastic, and her relaxed and happy-go-lucky demeanour made me instantly warm to both her and the practice.
When lockdown happened a year ago today, I knew I was going to have to form some kind of routine, so I decided to make yoga a part of that. Initially I started with one of the Yoga with Adriene 30 day programmes, and I practiced every working day (so generally 5 days a week). When I finished the 30 days, I randomly selected a different Adriene video every day, sometimes practicing for just 10 minutes, other days closer to an hour.
I’ve stuck with Adriene this whole time, doing a little bit of yoga every week, even if not every day. When restrictions eased and I briefly had other things to do, it was harder to fit it in, but I always came back to it.
This year on January 1st I started Adriene’s latest 30 day programme, and since then I have followed her free monthly calendars, practicing every single day so far (82 days of yoga!). I may not be super flexible, and I’m certainly not that Insta-yogi I once thought I wanted to be, but regular yoga practice has really made a difference to my lockdown life. No matter how stressed I am, or how much I want to stay in bed, getting up and showing up on the mat always makes me feel better. It’s a chance to breathe. To move. To stretch. And, as Adriene says, to find what feels good.
I’m fed up with faces on screens
Endless memes about 2020
and what a shit show it’s been
I’m fed up with working from home
Living alone and seeing
no one’s face but my own
I’m fed up with lockdown
With going around in circles
not able to leave my town
I’m fed up with walking for the sake of it
An attempt to keep fit and snatch
a breath of fresh air, but I’m over it
I’m fed up with covering my face
Keeping my space and nodding politely
when I want to embrace
I’m fed up with rules and restrictions
All these contradictions and not knowing
what’s fact and what’s fiction
I’m fed up with not seeing my friends
When will this end and
when can I hug you again?
I’ve neglected this blog. You would have thought that the last year would have been the perfect time to write, but until now I simply haven’t felt inspired.
I used to blog constantly. It was my main hobby really, until I started dancing. Once salsa took over, I happily let blogging slide out of view in favour of more minutes on the dance floor. I dipped in occasionally, but life was simply too busy to sit in front of a computer all evening.
Yes, life was busy, and I loved it. Up until March 2020 I was dancing 4 or 5 times a week; a regular on the local dance floor as well as a number of festivals across the country. As well as salsa and other Latin and Afro dances (such as bachata and kizomba), I had also begun my pole dancing journey. Pole dancing is a whole different kettle of fish to salsa, but one that I instantly connected with and wanted to learn more about.
And then Covid came along. Slowly, one by one, all the things I did outside of work started to close. I clung on to salsa classes for as long as I could, dancing every last dance, hugging every last friend as I reluctantly left the hall, but everything had to stop. The gyms closed, and the pole classes I had just started to really enjoy also had to end. I remember writing on my Facebook on 15th March 2020:
The idea of having the one thing that keeps me sane, the one thing that actually gets me out of the office and stops me working all night taken away from me for an indefinite period, is scary. A week or so of chilling, watching movies and reading sounds nice at first, but the idea of weeks, months, who knows how long without the chance to dance is actually something I can’t bear. What are we supposed to do?
And what were we supposed to do? No one knew really. These were ‘unprecedented times’ after all.
I’m going to just pause here and say I know that in all of this I’m really fortunate. I’m fortunate that Covid hasn’t affected me personally in any massive way, and my heart goes out to all of those who have lost someone. I’m fortunate to have been working this whole time (although with reduced pay and hours, and it hasn’t been easy). And I’m extremely fortunate to have a nice little rented one-bedroom flat where I’m safe and comfortable. I choose to live alone in this little space, and pre-Covid that was just perfect for me as I was always out dancing anyway. I remember how I used to look forward to those occasional nights in, where I could have a long bubble bath in peace, or even a rare weekend with no plans where I could wear my PJs and no make-up for a whole day if I wanted. I used to enjoy that moment of silence when I came home after a night of dancing and closed the front door behind me. I loved being alone, but I never realised that I loved it because it was the balance to my busy life.
On 23rd March I started working from home, and we all had to get used to this ‘new normal’ of seeing our colleagues in tiny boxes on a screen instead of over a coffee in the kitchen. I’d always quite fancied the idea of escaping the noise of the office for a few days a week, and with a good desk and IT set up at home, I felt quite happy initially. I would get up in the morning and lay out my yoga mat in the middle of the living room floor, do a Yoga with Adriene session, roll up the mat and go for a quick walk before work so I could ‘arrive’ at work with a fresh mind. My ‘office’ was a desk in the corner of my living room, and at lunch I would take two steps to the sofa and listen to the radio. I tried to keep good habits and finish work on time, and as soon as 5:30 came around I would put my work notebook away, turn off my computer and push my chair into my desk to symbolise that the ‘office’ was closed. Then, the living room floor would once again become an exercise space as I did a PT via Whatsapp, or a dance floor as I tried to support my teachers by joining their solo footwork classes (sorry downstairs neighbours, but a girl’s gotta dance!).
And every day I kept to this pattern of transforming my living room from living and dining space, to gym, to office, to dance floor. As the months passed, I got more pieces of equipment and would find myself stashing a kettlebell under my desk, or using a weights bench as an extra table when I wasn’t working out. Dance classes lost momentum after a while. There’s only so much solo footwork and choreography I could do before I simply felt sad that I couldn’t dance with my friends. I missed the connection that salsa brought me – both physical and mental. But I continued to move my body in other ways. Movement was what was keeping me sane in these four walls.
After a few more pole dancing classes in the studio over the summer when restrictions were eased (eased enough for solo pole, but not enough for partner dancing), I realised I was going to need to bite the bullet. If I wanted to get through the winter and another long and lonely lockdown by myself, I was going to need a pole. How could I possibly fit more exercise equipment into my tiny flat? It seemed impossible, and slightly ridiculous, but all those years of playing Tetris were now paying off. Now, with my shiny new pole standing proudly behind me on every video call at work, it was less a case of having to pack up and transform my small space every day, and more a case of doing a slight assault course when I needed to make a cup of tea. Did the pole work in the space? Just. Did it bring me absolute joy to be able to take online pole classes and build my strength and technique? More than you can ever imagine.
Back in March I asked the question “what are we supposed to do?”, and I guess what this experience has taught me over the last 12 months is that actually I knew what I was supposed to do all along. I was supposed to dance. I was supposed to keep moving, in any way possible. I learnt that dancing, training, learning new things my body can do, even hula hooping and knocking things off my shelves, would get me through this. I learnt to ‘close the office’, lay out the mat and switch my day from one mode to another. Did this work perfectly every day? No. Were there times when I was too stressed and tired to do more than practically fall from my desk chair to my sofa and wrap myself up like a burrito in a fluffy blanket? Yes. Am I going to beat myself up for not exercising every day and pushing through the stress. Hell no!
But for the most part, if I could just make that switch from work to home, my evening’s activities would put a smile on my face and lift my mood, no matter what the day had thrown at me. I miss social dancing with my friends terribly, but at least with pole I can dance with my static partner. I can move my body in new ways, express myself to the music, learn new things and have a hell of a lot of fun.
I can’t wait to get back to dance and pole classes in person, but for now I’ll keep dancing on my own.