The effect of the pandemic on my mental health (by )

I'm definitely not alone in finding the current pandemic a time for difficult emotions, but it's taken me a while to unpick the emotions I've been having. Having managed this, however, I'm documenting them here - as a record for myself, to save me repeating myself when explaining them to people who ask how I'm feeling, and in the hope that it might provide some ideas for people who are still trying to work their feelings out; you might have something in common with me.


First, some history.

As I'd mentioned a while ago, just when this was starting, available time is an issue for me. I've been on that kind of busy schedule since we moved home in January 2012, and decided that we would keep the kids in the same school, rather than disrupting their lives with a change of school (and they school they were in is rather good, we didn't want to lose that). This meant the start of spending two hours every day on school runs, on top of a full-time job; and having moved house greatly improved Sarah's opportunities to expand her career, which then meant a lot of weekends spent supporting her in that (she's disabled, so depends on me to drive, carry stuff, and support her medically - thanks to a traumatic brain injury several years ago, she needs somebody around who knows how to recognise and deal with her seizures). Moving house was the right thing for us as a family, on various levels (the situation we were in before was... problematic), but it's been a net increase in stress for me personally, and in many ways I feel like my life went on pause then. Please note that I wasn't forced to do this - I have volunteered my time for my wife and children because I believe that's the right thing to do, and my only complaint is that bad luck has put us in a situation where there are so many things we need done that only I can do or that the others can only do with me present, and that the economics of the automobile mean we're in a society that expects people to be able to travel to far away places at the drop of a hat, allowing economies of scale to increasingly centralise things in space and therefore making them further and further away from the population. I have chosen to put my life on pause rather than deprive the three other people in my family of their opportunities to grow. It sucks, but it's not their fault.

I used to be a lot more involved in open-source software projects - my own, Chicken Scheme, and various other smaller things. I was making progress on writing projects, and gestating ideas for other projects that, either years later, remain as headings in my file.

This hasn't been good for my self confidence. At first, I didn't realise how much the changes in routines would impact me, and failed to distinguish transient kerfuffle caused by a house move for permanent changes. And so I spoke confidently of things I was going to do, then failed to do them. I'm not sure to what extent my friends were actually disappointed in me compared to me just feeling guilt and shame over this, but either way, I went from confidently offering to do things for people and communities to slinking away from them in shame; and the rewarding feeling of having made somebody's life better, which has always been very important to me, was gone. I cried when I realised that the only free day I'd reserved for making my friends' wedding rings was actually already reserved for going out to an event (they got married without them; I still want to make them for them, but without the pressure of the deadline, and now feeling guilty about the whole thing, I've yet to actually do this).

Sure, I was doing a lot for my wife and children, and still running my Cub pack (albeit at a bare-minimum level as I was struggling to do it justice) but that's different. When I invented something for somebody, I was using my special skills to make a difference. When I am driving people around and carrying boxes, I am doing things I do no better than most people, probably a bit worse than average; I feel I could be replaced and the result would probably be an improvement.

I became dependent on work to get that satisfaction, but that's risky. Due to moving house, and the events that forced us to move house in the first place, we were in debt. With that and the restriction that I needed to be available to be able to drop a child off at school between 8:30am and 8:45am, and pick her up again at 3:10pm and get her home, available job opportunities were driven largely by the practicalities of earning enough, flexible hours, and working from a location compatible with the school run travel timings (a situation that I'm sure will be familiar to working parents worldwide - I know the school run burden falls disproportionately on mothers, which is evident from looking at the faces waiting at the school gates with me, but that's another issue entirely). Life satisfaction wasn't really able to be near the top of the priority list, but I was lucky to have recently started a job at a local firm making database software - one of my passions! - and they were able to accept my slightly wobbly timekeeping around school runs, so we were OK. OK, but not great. For various reasons I spent a lot of time twiddling my thumbs and doing really, really, tedious work because there was nothing else to do, career progression wasn't really available, and eventually, the company was bought by another and, after another year, closed down.

I bumbled between various jobs since then; perhaps the highlight was working for a company undergoing some difficult changes, which I got to be instrumental in helping them through. I got to think about the big picture, solve challenges under pressure, the sort of thing I enjoy; but the market the company worked in was something completely uninteresting to me. I was solving interesting human challenges, but the technical challenges were pretty trivial. And, more urgently, the company needed me to work in their office for normal hours (and the office was too far from home to do the full school run); I'd managed this through an arrangement with another family where I'd take their kid into school in exchange for them bringing my kid home, but their kid was going to leave the school soon so it couldn't last; and I was nervous being away from home for so long each day, not able to keep an eye on Sarah's health.

A particularly low period was when I had a colleague at another job who disagreed with me a lot. That's not a problem in itself - I find interacting with people with very different philosophies refreshing, as it helps me to question my own biases, and I can often learn things from them - but this person unfortunately combined "widely different philosophy" with "contempt for other philosophies", which meant that they referred to my opinions and choices with a certain jeering disrespect, that:

  1. Really, really, angered me. It touched a raw nerve.
  2. Kinda clashed with the whole guilt/insecurity thing I'd built up about not doing open source work any more or, indeed, doing anything particularly technically challenging at work. Because: What basis did I have to have confidence in my opinions any more? What did I actually have to show for my supposed wisdom and experience? All I'd done for years has been trivial stuff.
  3. Somewhat implied an attack on my competence, not just an attack on my particular idea. It was hard not to take "That idea is laughably stupid in a way that's so obvious I don't even need to explain why" as a personal attack.
  4. Consisted of sweeping generalisations ("It's simpler") or appeals to subjectivity ("That's ugly"), which are easy to say but require time and energy for me to refute through logical argument. And when I took the time to explain my reasoning at length, he'd usually just go quiet. But then continue to give the same argument again in another context.

As an aside, the last point is a long-standing bugbear of mine. It's basically the same problem as populists in the press offering simple-sounding explanations for their opinions that, superficially, seem reasonable, common-sense, and based in unarguable obvious facts - like "There's lots of foreign people doing jobs, way more than there used to be, while we're facing falling wages, higher unemployment, and over-stretched public resources. If we sent them home, there would be more jobs for us!". There it is, in two sentences. I challenge you to explain the real economic pressures causing the financial problems faced by many in Britain today, and how immigration has stimulated our economy, or how immigrants and their taxes are shoring up our public services, two easy-to-understand sentences! I really, really, wish I was the kind of person who could come up with snappy one-liners. I'm more of a "essay with sections" kind of communicator. Which is great for explaining things to people, but bad for swaying their opinions. But, on with the essay...

So, yeah, I spent a lot of time struggling to find the energy to get out of bed with that job; my workdays consisted of a mixture of attacks on my self-esteem, and tedious work that didn't let me use my core skills so I felt pretty useless much of the time anyway.

So: There's some history as to my mental state before a pandemic came and turned the world upside down.


The horrible thing is that the lockdown has been awesome for me, and that fact has also made it terrible. Here's why.

At first, it was like a sudden extra school holiday - no school runs, no taking kids to their clubs. That's a good fifteen or so hours of life back a week, meaning I'm largely getting enough sleep, and getting to spend more time on cooking and housework so we're eating a better diet and the house is in a better state than it usually is. Now, the school summer holiday is usually when Sarah's weekend work gets busiest, so the increase in time during the week is usually offset by the loss of weekends - but in the lockdown, that's not happened. At the time of writing, I've had several consecutive weekends where, as well as generally being under a lot less pressure from little things, and being well-rested, I've had anything from half a day to a day to actually choose what I'm going to do with my time.

For the first weekend, as usual, I had no energy so just slobbed around. And then sparkles of The Enthusiasm began to return. However, all I've been enthusiastic so far have been "infrastructure projects": making shelves, tidying, making my DC power breakout box, fixing my workshop roof, building myself a new desk. I think this is mainly because these things have hung over me for a while (literally, in the case of the roof...) as niggling annoyances with my environment that I want to fix.

But it has the downside that these aren't the improve-the-world-and-make-people-happy projects I used to get so much out of. At best, writing about them might inspire others to do something similar, but that's a far cry from me making something for another person. I am hoping that I'll be able to work through the list of infrastructure annoyances and, with them not bothering me any more and a delicious new workspace making me feel all refreshed and ready, I'll be able to face the world and start working on my real projects again. I think/hope that this is just a longer-term evolution of the issue of needing time to decompress first.

So I'm really enjoying getting to work on projects because I choose to, but I've also been having nightmares about it, because:

  1. I am terrified of it ending. If I can get through these initial "decompression stages" and back into my natural state of doing cool things and sharing them with people for a while, then sure, it'll have been a nice break and will recharge my self-esteem and I'll be refreshed enough to return to the grindstone and might survive another eight years of it without going insane. But if it all ends and I need to return to my normal routines while I'm still in this transition phase, waking up to the breathtaking possibility of doing cool stuff again then having to stop before I get there... I'm not sure how I'll cope. Recent talk of schools reopening in three weeks' time gave me a cold sweat.
  2. I'm also scared that I have "lost it" somehow, that my memories of being awesome are just memories and I've fallen behind the state of the art / gotten old and stupid / etc and won't actually do any cool stuff, even if I try. That I'm doing all this infrastructure because I'm avoiding actually doing cool things. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if I avoid doing cool things because I'm scared I'll fail, so I'm trying to be alert for that so I can nip it in the bud!
  3. I'm worried that, through either of the above two points, I'll fail to do any of the amazing productive things I'm always moaning I don't have time to do during this period; and I'm so scared of being/appearing to be/worrying that people think I am the "empty promises person", talking endlessly of what they could do if only things that weren't his fault weren't stopping them.
  4. I'm scared about making promises I'm going to do something - either by directly offering to do a specific thing for a person, or even just saying "I'm going to write my awesome system monitoring software and open-source it". Because I might well not.
  5. And I'm feeling really guilty/ashamed that I'm enjoying something that is killing people and ruining lives - and hoping that it never ends.

And on top of that, having enough sleep, and free time to think, also means that I'm getting energy and time to think about stuff that I couldn't afford to think about enough at the time. Yesterday evening I burst into tears because I was going back over memories of the 2017 miscarriage; and today's a day I actually have some time to work on the workshop roof, but I'm struggling to muster the energy to do more than flop around again right now... So I'm doing a few minor projects, catching up on emails, and finishing editing this blog post.

So, yeah, that's what the pandemic has meant for me, so far. This probably sounds decidedly whiny to people who've lost loved ones or are facing financial ruin, but this is what I'm personally facing right now!

1 Comment

  • By dsp, Fri 24th Apr 2020 @ 2:49 pm

    This was an intriguing read. thanks for taking the time to organize into text problems that i'm sure others (and some of them myself) are facing. Probably you have investigated it already as a solution but here it goes... When i was originally a teenager my mother who is a smart and successful person used this argument to help me get out from a hole from time to time "most problems can be solved with money, except for very hard problems which can be usually solved with lots of money" ;). At the moment i thought that this is a shallow way of thinking and that only shows the difference in quality of thought etc etc. you know. teenager stuff. But years afterwards i realized the essence of her argument. It was meant as a way to allow me to distance myself from the emotions that the problem brings and make me invulnerable to it, also reassuring that just something stupid and pointless such as "money" can be employed to just make it go away. The cool-headed state that this brought allowed me to tackle problems efficiently. So here is a suggestion: how about investigating the investment of hiring a friendly driver for the school run maybe originally a couple of days per week? there are people who will need the money and you need the time. Time is important and you shouldn't feel bad for wanting to reclaim it and for the virus stopping the insane pace of the society and allowing everyone to reflect a bit. It is really the time of your life :).

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