2021 | Lockdowns, Recovery and Change

So it’s time to say goodbye to the year of 2021; a year of some questionable highs and some very slow lows. The year we discovered that our prime minister cares as little for the COVID regulations as he does for his hair, the year we lost musical genius Steven Sondheim, the year Twitter waved goodbye to Donald Trump and the year we discovered that Spiderman and MJ were in love.

For many of us, this year has been one of uncertainty – with COVID cases rising and falling and restrictions coming and going like tidal wives. We felt lucky to celebrate a single birthday with the ones we love and we all got used to translating muffled mask noises with coffee shop baristas. We returned to the office in our hundreds and then got sent home again a week before Christmas, and many freelancers like myself abruptly stopped receiving the help they needed from the government yet again.

I can’t pretend that this year has been an easy one, but I didn’t want to write a blog post that simply summed up the lowest moments of the past twelve months. I wanted to be honest about my experiences, but also shared some of the lessons I’ve learned from them and some of the advice I want to give others who might be going through similar situations – I want to find the positives in some of the most negative periods of 2021.

If you’ve struggled personally, professionally, mentally or physically this year – just know that you’re not alone, and if this blog post reaches out to you in any way at all, then feel free to drop me and message and let’s chat. Support is the best thing we can give each other this Christmas and I’m more than happy to dish it out in spades.

Lockdown, COVID, Christmas Parties and Pings

Lowest Point: Lockdown in 2020, although distressing, felt a little bit like a communal shared experience where we told Zoom jokes, baked banana bread, played board games with our families and shared the funniest moments of working from home. Lockdown in 2021 was hard. The novelty wore off and it felt like imprisonment (a justified one of course), but after a rough Christmas, more time spent in a quiet cold flat was difficult to go through.

Your luxuries become a little bit stranger and smaller. It was a privilege to go to the cinema or meet a friend for coffee. Every moment spent with family felt like a countdown before another stretch of isolation. Travelling was off the cards and the world seemed to shrink down to the size of our one-bedroom flat in Nottingham. It was hard.

Right now, though, feels even harder. There’s anger at the government for ignoring the rules we stuck to, there’s uncertainty at the decisions yet to be made, there’s confusion over what to do and plans to make. Whilst Boris Johnson sat in a crowded garden drinking wine, I was being pinged hours away from seeing my family and my new baby cousins for the first time in a year. We spent three hours driving home in tears.

The week that followed led to a severe mental health episode – likely caused by the stress and anxiety of that ping, and things rapidly got out of control for my anxiety and my OCD. Not being able to see my friends, my family or even go for a walk was a nightmare and I struggled for months to recover from it.

Highest Point: You know that moment when you’re sitting with your family, doing something completely boring and ordinary and mundane and it suddenly hits you just how lucky you are to have this? Over the past year, I’ve been feeling that more and more in so many situations. When my partner’s parents came up to visit and we watched the F1 together and it felt like a lifetime had passed between their last visit to our home. When I spent the day at the zoo with my family and every moment felt like freedom, like a moment from a past life. When I got to sit in an office with people I cared about and listen to them talk about the coffee machine and office dogs and running out of toilet paper and broken keyboards and it felt so wonderfully normal again after months spent at home. Those moments become so much more important and special, and we take them for granted.

My Lesson: Be grateful for boring. In frightening times like this, boring is wonderful. Enjoy a quiet moment in front of the TV with your family. Enjoy walking your dog and a birthday dinner at a restaurant and the comfort of a cinema seat. Be happy with normal.

Health OCD, Citalopram, Scans and Exposure Therapy

Lowest Point: In February 2021, my mum began having stomach pains and low appetite and was referred by her GP for bowel cancer testing. In the weeks that followed, whilst we waited for the results, my anxiety began to climb and climb until I could no longer function. Every conversation I had, every TV show I watched, every Instagram post I looked at reminded me of these tests and it became impossible to think about anything else. I spent every evening in tears, losing sleep, unable to eat and falling into this deep pit of obsessive anxiety. I couldn’t stop imagining the worst.

Luckily, my mum was clear and cancer-free and is as healthy as can be, but unfortunately, the anxiety stuck around. It had developed into a condition called Health OCD, in which my mind sought out illnesses and cancer warning signs throughout my body and caused me intense anxiety whenever I was reminded of them. I would feel the bump of bone in my wrist and convince myself it was a tumour. My boyfriend would get a headache and I would panic that he was about to die. I avoided hearing or reading anything about cancer for fear of triggering my anxiety and I couldn’t stand the idea of even talking about it with someone.

In July 2021, however, it reached its peak. After spending the aforementioned week in isolation in my house, my mental health was at an all-time low and I had begun experiencing sharp shooting pains in my lower abdomen that I was convinced were ovarian cancer. I spent a difficult and anxious weekend at my mum’s house, lost in night hallucinations, taking beta-blockers like sweets and having panic attacks at 6am, terrified that I was about to die. This was my breaking point, and it took me a long time to recover from it.

I got home and booked a doctors appointment, as well as reached out for some CBT and exposure therapy. Whilst, due to a severe COVID backlog, my GP appointments would remain phone-based for the next four months, I was able to access the therapy needed relatively soon after signing up. I was put through some gruelling and intensive exposure exercises and I was forced to confront my worst fears about cancer. I had to learn how to function again, whilst coping with and learning about the depths of OCD. I was also given the highest possible dosage of anxiety medication, and I felt completely detached from the girl I was before this. I hated feeling so lost.

My treatment continued throughout my medical tests, and luckily for me, my pains were revealed to be a benign ovarian cyst only two weeks prior to writing this.

Highest Point: This moment, right now. Right now I have all of the tools I need to recover from and manage my Health OCD. I have everything I could possibly need for the moments when I feel anxious and lost, I have methods to maintain my calm when things are good and I have a realistic awareness of what cancer is like. I feel like me again – strong and surviving and calm and happy. I’m capable of resting without worrying, I can experience joy without anxiety and I can feel sensations in my body without panicking. I know that there will be dips and struggles again, but I have so many techniques for handling it, and I’m learning to be more aware of potential flare-ups and panic attacks. I’m doing ok.

My Lesson: Hold on and keep going. One of the most important lessons for me to learn was that recovery is always possible. Even at my lowest, I had this awareness that things would get better because they always had done before. I’d always pulled myself out of the pit before and I would keep doing it again and again until it stuck. I also learnt that it’s ok to be poorly for a while. Before, I’d believed that powering through my mental health problems was the way to handle them – but it’s not. It’s ok to let yourself rest and it’s ok to comfort yourself and take time out. It doesn’t make you weak or lazy, it makes you better.

Changes, Clients, Houses and Goals

Lowest Moment: On Christmas Day last year, I decided I wanted to move out of my flat and find a house with my partner. I was taking a walk with my mum past a row of beautiful houses, lit up with fairy lights and holly wreaths and decorations and I just felt like it was time. We’ve lived in our current flat for almost three years now and it’s lovely, but it’s not always practical for the way we live our lives.

We talked it over and decided we wanted to be in a new house by Christmas 2021. I wanted to host my parents in my brand new house, with a glittering Christmas tree near a rustic kitchen table with carols playing in the front room and the Queen’s speech on TV. Sadly this didn’t happen. COVID hit us in the early winter months, my partner changed his job in the spring, I suffered from my mental health episode in the summer, and by the time autumn rolled around, there was nothing left on the market. The fates worked against us and it suddenly became clear that this particular goal wasn’t going to be achieved before the year ended.

Although we have just put in an application for a house, it’s likely we won’t hear back until January and so our little flat will have to do this year. But it stills pains me that we never got to move house over the past twelve months. I was so ready and then life knocked us down.

Highest Moment: Honestly, my highest moment of the year was welcoming a tiny ball of fluff called Holly into our lives. As my mental health was steadily improving, I decided it was time to make a commitment, and we adopted a baby hamster in early November. This was the first pet we’d gotten together and she’s made such a lovely little home for herself in both of our hearts. Big ears, curious eyes, tiny paws and a twitchy nose, she’s improved my mental health so much already and she’s the perfect antidote to a tough old year.

I’m also incredibly proud of myself for the work I’ve completed this year. Despite all of the ups and downs in my life, the one thing I was able to keep consistent was my job and my commitment to my clients. I gained some and I lost some and I kept working, no matter how hard things got inside my head. I got the opportunity to work with a mental health client, Mindamigo, this year and it allowed me to gain some real insight into using my experiences for good. I also got the chance to write an article for lifestyle magazine Happiful over the summer, something I’m incredibly proud of and so excited to see published. I kept my head above water through every pitfall this year and I’m in awe at my own capabilities to do so.

My Lesson: There’s no time limit on change. Everyone moves at their own pace and often, life will put obstacles in your way for a reason. No matter how old or young you are, change will happen and it’s ok if it doesn’t happen right away. There’s still time.

It’s definitely been a year to remember and I know I’ll keep learning and growing and changing over 2022. I want to make goals and plans and dreams, but right now – after the uncertainty of 2021 – I’m happy to just let life guide the way for a while. I’ve got time.

What were your highest and lowest moments of the year? Do you have any goals and plans for 2022? Let me know in the comments below.

Thank you for following this blog series over the past few months and I look forward to writing for you again in the future.

Nikki