This is a full transcript of 'When the pandemic started, my panic attacks stopped' as first broadcast on 21 May 2020 and presented by Emma Tracey with Seaneen Molloy and Mark Brown.
SEANEEN -I don't like thinking about what's it going to be like next year, that kind of freaks me out.
MARKWe're living in a big long now.
SEANEEN -Yeah man. You see, it's all that thing, live in the present, mindfulness. No, don't. [laughter] It never ends. Live in the future, live ten years in the future and six years in the past, that's the way to do it.
EMMA -Hello, and welcome to the Cabin Fever podcast from BBC Ouch. I'm Emma Tracey. How has your mental health been since lockdown began? Have you been struggling with it for the first in your life, or, if you have pre-existing mental health conditions, have they worsened since the pandemic hit? We're recording this during Mental Health Awareness Week, when 80% of people who took a survey by Rethink mental illness charity said that the crisis had led to a deterioration in their mental health.
Seaneen Molloy and Mark Brown are here to unpack that frankly scary stat and to give us the benefit of their experience. We've been inviting them to ponder mental health stuff for a very long time here on Ouch, so I'm going to mostly sit back and let them do the talking. Just before we get going I want to acknowledge the slightly glitchy sound in parts of this episode. It's because we're recording it from home with varying internet speeds and there were some technical difficulties on the day.
EMMA -Hi, Seaneen and Mark, you're very welcome back to Ouch, to the Cabin Fever podcast.
MARK -Hello, thank you. It is, it's very enjoyable being in a cabin in Southeast London. It literally is a cabin actually, I moved in to a prefab just before the pandemic began, and it literally is basically like living in a shed.
EMMA -Wow. I wasn't expecting that. [laughter] And thanks for joining us as well, Seaneen, you're really welcome.
SEANEEN -Thank you for having me. I'm not in a cabin, I'm in a house in Belfast.
EMMA -How are you describing yourselves nowadays?
SEANEEN -Well, I'm the same as I ever was, a writer, blogger. I'm also a charity worker, general chatter person on mental health. And yeah, I've got my own lived experience, that's how I got involved in this whole big mental health world.
MARK -And if you're asking me how I'd describe myself at the minute, a great big bag of wind usually. But if I'm forced to describe myself in terms of what I actually do I do mental health stuff. I do some writing stuff, I do some journalism stuff, and some of you might know me as @MarkOneinFour from Twitter. How has lockdown life been in Belfast?
SEANEEN -It's been weird. It's eerie. I mean, we haven't been as badly affected here in Northern Ireland, we haven't got the same population density. The only time I see anyone is on a Thursday when people come out and do the clap.
MARK -That's the only time period now isn't there? There's bin day and clap day and you just measure the seasons as those things pass.
SEANEEN -That's pretty much it. It's bin day, clap day and then interminable Zoom calls which is the only reason I ever put makeup on anymore, or a bra. I have lost every single bra I own. They have vanished into thin air because they rebelled at lack of use.
MARK -When lockdown finally ends there's just going to be a massive cloud of moths coming in from a suburb of Belfast.
SEANEEN -And I'll be running out freely. It's been strange. So how is it in London?
MARK -If you listen to the UK media London is the centre of everything, including the pandemic. And people say, "Well, what's it been like there?" and I'm like, "Well I don't know because I've not been out of the house very much." It's been very quiet. It's been a weird period for me I think. It's kind of felt like being very lucky to have a degree of comfort at home and kind of for the first time in my life a degree of space, having moved into a new place. It's a post-war prefab, it's one of the remaining ones in the entire country and it's kind of beautiful and full of history and stuff like that.
Within these walls everything's been quite nice and it's felt like a very stressful extended holiday. I don't have kids, you know, so there's not been those sort of changes, but it's felt like the kind of outside world pressing at the windows. A kind of sense of rising dread and anxiety every time I've turned on the computer or I've looked at my phone, a sense of like all of this terrible news kind of washing up against the beach of this safe haven, this little island. It's been a really anxious time for me, I was actually a bit ill, and was just really, really worried about dying. And I think that's been like a kind of haze over the top of everything.
SEANEEN -I know what you mean about the bad tidal wave of news washing up against the shore of normality, and I feel the same way, it is a bit apocalyptic. There's an element of dystopia with all the masks around but then you look out of your window and everything's pretty quiet and feels sort of ordinary.
MARK -Yes, it has confirmed one of the things that I always thought about the apocalypse that I thought maybe zombie film and stuff got wrong which was basically the apocalypse will be 97% boredom and 3% deciding what you're going to have for dinner. These have become massively important, if we're not punctuating the week with bin day and clap day it's meals that's punctuated the day. All this chance to be away from work or be able to get on my embarrassing purchase of an exercise bike and get myself beach ready, and none of those things have happened. And I remember seeing someone say on Twitter that actually in some ways for some people this is a great opportunity not to have to be productive, just be for a bit.
SEANEEN -I really wish that was how I was experiencing this. It's just been relentlessly busy. I mean I'm glad I have the structure of work, I have a child, and basically once I finish my work I go and look after my child and then I get to ten o'clock and I'm too tired to do anything but go to sleep. And I'm just saying everybody's saying go out for your state sanctioned walk, and I'm also a massive hypocrite because working for a mental health charity and what we communicate out is like make sure you do take exercise and make sure you do things for your wellbeing. What a hypocrite. I write it and then don't actually leave the house for weeks.
But I was interested, because you said earlier that you were a bit unwell, worried about dying, so I started therapy this year and I was having therapy for the whole death, phobia, existential terror type thing. And I was having panic attacks basically every single night, and then when the pandemic started my panic attacks stopped. And they stopped for a while and I think it was suddenly the pressure of trying to keep a lid on my anxiety and my terror had come off because everyone else was experiencing a similar terror and anxiety.
And they did come back. It took a few weeks though, and I think they came back actually when that crisis period stopped, because the first couple of weeks it was real like, oh my god, the world's ending! So then suddenly it was like look outside and people are putting their bins out. And the more normality came back the more my panic returned, which is strange. I think it's partly that dissonance where you've walking around with this terror inside you where everyone else seems oblivious. It's that dissonance and contrast that can make you feel worse and make you panic. So I think that's probably why they came back.
It's a bit of a pain, I wish they hadn't. Maybe there could be another pandemic sometime. A therapeutic pandemic every year or something so I can get a wee break from panic attacks would be great. [laughs] But for a brief period I actually felt more mentally well than I had done in a long time.
MARK -I've seen a few people talk about this, about how despite the kind of 80% of people in Rethink's survey saying that they felt their mental health had worsened. And I've seen people saying that for certain elements of the things they experience they've felt better than they have for years. It kind of underlines for me the feeling that we're pretty soon going to end up with an attempt to build one story of what this period was like for everyone, and more than any point there's ever been, because we're all isolated in our homes, cut off from some of the things that were binding us together, actually it's about individual stories. I am really, really scared that when we come out of this there's going to be a keep calm and carry on or we beat this terrible thing story and all of the real experience will get erased and people won't have a chance to talk about what this time really was like.
SEANEEN -I totally share your concerns, like there's already been this very wartime messaging around it, you know, we will get through this, and I think you're right that there's going to be a massive attempt at the end to sweep away the trauma that people are experiencing. Individually people are coping in very different ways, and that survey from Rethink, it would also… It came out in the news recently about people are experiencing mental illness for the first time since this has started. And we've talked about this years ago, Mark, just saying that those experiences are sometimes just one step beyond the normal experience.
I think that's interesting and quite scary, that people who've never been unwell before are starting to get unwell. It begins to show some of these things that are happening to people now are things that other people have been coping with for years. Social isolation, financial difficulty, being cut off from support networks, that everybody knows has an impact on your mental health but has never really been taken seriously, because mental health has been so individualised as a personal responsibility rather than a collective one.
And I think this is beginning to really, I hope it helps people understand that mental health is a collective responsibility, it's a societal one, a financial one that people who've never been sick are getting sick now, and that that's not anything to do with what's going in their four walls, that's what's going on in the crazy dystopia outside.
MARK -You say we've all been affected by it but we're all affected in different ways and a lot of those ways lay along the paths of inequalities and exclusions and difficulties and stuff like that. I think in the broader world, the disability world, you know, people have been saying well, this is what it's been like for us for ages. It's going to be really hard to bring all of those stories together. It's going to be like everyone went on holiday and then they came back and it turns out everyone went on holiday to different places, no one's got anything in common.
Do you feel like there's a sense in which at the point of crisis we were being more gentle with each other, and then as normality comes back we go back to our old habits?
SEANEEN -I don't know, I think like we're having a chat about this being Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme is kindness. It was going to be sleep, but you know, [laughs] I can see why they didn't bother with that one. So the theme this year's kindness and I think one of the big discussions that's been coming out of this is there has been an increase in kind of civic mindedness, community spirit. Again Mark, though, it's bringing in that wartime thing again, so I'm a bit iffy about it. There was that initial kind of crisis period of organisation, I was definitely noticing people being more gentle and kind, and I hope it continues because it has been an uplifting, uniting thing.
I guess if it's been decreasing there's a bit of a tension at the moment because lockdown is continuing, but there's some change. And there's a wee element of snitching going on, dobbing your neighbours in, but I'm not going to say like wow, wasn't it great in the early days of the pandemic? [laughter] It was wonderful when people couldn't leave the house to go and get their medicine and they had to call on strangers to help. No, because it wasn't, but there was definitely an element of increasing civic mindedness. And I think it was trying to just increase that feeling of connectedness when we're all isolated. I mean, that's been something that has been coming out in the mental health area, which is even when you're isolated you're not alone, and just keeping that in mind.
I still can't get my head around the kindness thing as the theme. The people who create the theme is the Mental Health Foundation for Mental Health Awareness Week, so I think kindness came out because, I can't speak for the Mental Health Foundation but it's basically around the mental health benefits of kindness which it has mental health benefits for ourselves and also for others, reduces anxiety, increases self-esteem. And I think I know, this happens every single time in Mental Health Awareness Week, the conversation is we have to stop talking about it, we need action, and that is true, that is always true.
But I think discussions around kindness are around helping people to reach out to each other, and I think expressing some kindness to ourselves as well because this is really hard. Some people will have it much harder right now, some people are going to be in absolutely shocking, dire circumstances, but I think everyone is experiencing the same feeling that they're not coping with it well enough. They're not doing enough home schooling, they're not eating well enough, they're not exercising well enough, they're not earning money.
There's an element of failure in everyone's life right now when really what we need to do is just actually get through it, that's it. And it's hard to be kind to yourself, and I think that's kind of why the theme is kindness this year, you know, it's being borne out in the news, we have a mental health crisis flying at us like a tsunami and people are really struggling. And one of the biggest things you can do to help your own mental health, and I'm going to say it, I feel like such an eject saying it, but it's self-compassion, it's having a feeling of compassion for yourself. So I think it is quite an important theme.
MARK -I've been watching Twitter and responses to the idea of kindness and there's this theme, a number of people are saying that the idea of kindness is a very wishy-washy thing, saying we don't need kindness, what we need is services, and saying we need to hold onto our anger and not be kind. I thought that was really interesting because the opposite of kindness isn't anger.
SEANEEN -No, it's cruelty.
MARK -It's cruelty or it's indifference. I thought this was very, very interesting that the idea of kindness was seen as a very wishy-washy thing, as a kind of deflecting thing from talking about the real issues. One of the things that I think a lot about is our capacity to be kind to each other, to be able to hold differences of opinion and find ways of being with each other when the ways that we've been forced to live in our past lives have made us find it very difficult to be vulnerable enough to be kind to other people.
Like, I'll give you a sad example of what I hoped was kindness. I took my first big long first walk out of the house for 12 days, went to a big park in South London, was wondering around, like looking at the flowers, and this older woman, she must have been maybe late 50s, sort of nodded and I nodded and she sort of said, "Oh, isn't this park lovely? We're so lucky to have this on our doorstep." And I said, "Yeah, we are, it's lovely isn't it?" And she went, "My mother died last week and I've not talked to anyone since she died." And I went, "Oh my god, that's terrible." And she was like, "Yeah, none of my family have rung me. Friends I've known for years, people who grew up with me, no one's rung me. I couldn't even go and see her after she died." And she was like, "No one has got in touch with me."
And we were standing two meters apart and I was like, "If I could, I would give you a hug but obviously I can't and like, all I can say, and I know this isn't very much help, is that that sounds terrible and hard. Unfortunately there's nothing I can do apart from hear you." I told her my name and she refused to give me hers, and she wandered off into the park as if like it was too close to exchange names. I thought that was an example of some kind of kindness, but it didn't leave me feeling like I'd done an amazing thing, it left me feeling very sad that the current situation is as it is. I'm kind of in favour of kindness. Revolutionary principle: I'm in favour of kindness.
SEANEEN -To be honest, there is an extent to which it is a revolutionary principle. These are strange times, people are in more isolated situations like that, and in terms of anger I understand why people don't want to lose anger and you shouldn't because it's what changes things, but the anger is fuelled by kindness. We're not activists for ourselves, we're for everyone, for other people. It comes from a place of kindness, and kindness fuels justice.
So I'm in favour too, I do understand the objections. I think it's quite difficult because one of the kind of criticisms around Mental Health Awareness Week can sometimes be that it's far too general, but we are talking, especially right now generally because we're having people who have never experienced mental illness becoming unwell, who this is a completely new thing to. And we do need to reach those people.
MARK -The question for us though is how, and those of us who've lived with mental health difficulties, like how can we be kind to someone who's just kind of entering this world blinking, surprised at how it turns out. I thought there'd loads of services, there doesn't appear to be any. How do we with our kind of grizzled…?
SEAN -[laughs] Cynicism.
MARK -Cynicism, you know, it's written in the wrinkles on our face, how do we be kind and gentle to someone for whom this is new?
SEANEEN -I think it's like you said, to listen and acknowledge and accept someone's feelings that that is, you know, it's terrible. I remember when I was first diagnosed and it came after a period I was in hospital and stuff and I live online, that's been what I've always done, but the first thing I did was ask people what happens? And I really appreciated the people who took the time to explain, who'd all had different experiences, some really negative and some more positive.
I'm really indebted to those people back then, you know, I was like 19? They kind of set me on my way helping me to understand things. So for the new people blinking in the light, I guess it's just being there really to explain how things work. I think it must be really horrible right now to be accessing services and where I work we're still running our services, but things look a bit different. And not scaring the life out of people, which can sometimes be hard.
MARK -It can be extremely hard.
MARK -You were talking about growing up online. How's it felt during the lockdown for everyone else to move online?
SEANEEN -Vindicated! Vindicated! [laughter] It has felt suddenly like your kind of cool room has been crowded with strangers, like what are you doing, get off my chair? Me and Mark, we've talked about this a lot on Ouch, elsewhere, like we are positive about social media. Obviously there's an awful lot out there about its impact on mental health, but generally I believe it's a force for good. So that suddenly that has become the saviour of the day, it's just… Part of me is just like yeah, we've been telling you for years that this is a brilliant way to connect people and to help people feel less alone and isolated.
MARK -The thing that struck me actually is how much time we've spent over the last ten years wrestling with people to suggest that digital would be useful for people's mental health. I've got to put my hand up, I've not been enjoying an endless cavalcade of Zoom calls, it's been like chat roulette but you're not allowed to hang up when someone gets boring. And it's been very, very weird for me because I've felt a bit like a lot of people have been rushing to get stuff online without thinking of the experience of the people at the other end of that.
SEANEEN -Yeah, no that has definitely been the case I've seen. I understand why though, I understand why people are doing that, but yeah, it needs to be thought through a bit better.
MARK -Because it's just felt like to me as a writer on the internet I just keep looking at people announcing that they're going to do hula hoop classes online or they're going to do a gig and stuff, and there's a bit of me that goes, oh my god, the extraverts have arrived. Seriously, you and I have known each other online for longer than we've known each other offline.
MARK -How's it felt for you switching to an online relationship with people you might have seen every day otherwise?
SEANEEN -It's pretty much the same. [laughs] Like I'm not like a social butterfly to be honest, so it hasn't really changed that much. For the introverts, I get what you mean, like they've suddenly arrived and are messing up our furniture, but make room, they can hang out for a while if they want.
MARK -The thing that I felt really strongly is, and I tweeted this the other day, it's this quote from a Talking Heads song, it's like the world crashes into your living room, and it's felt like absolutely everything suddenly collapsed into, to quote Charlie Booker of 'Black Mirror', there's no chance for going out and stretching your legs between meetings, there's no chance of changing place. And I found that really tiring to switch from a personal video call to a professional video call. The switching of identities almost I found really difficult, because you find yourself doing like all of your personal gestures when you're in a Zoom call with a panel of complete strangers. All your secret private faces that you only do to your loved ones and you just broadcast them to the entire world.
SEANEEN -Yes. [laughs]
EMMA -As a blind person I did not know people had secret private faces.
SEANEEN -It's like the voice, you know, the work voice versus the home voice. I don't like the video calls because it's like the world in your living room. But I try to switch the videos off if I can because there is a lot of weird social competitiveness around videos. You always see it on the news, people's books. They're in this palatial library, whereas I don't have an office, I am sitting in my bed. Occasionally I will turn on the fairy lights behind me so I look slightly classy in a kind of '90s Suede video aesthetic, and I feel like, oh no, they're seeing into my life where I'm not a person with an office, I sit on my bed all day eating crisps while I'm working but you're not meant to know that.
MARK -Yeah, I feel like I missed a massive opportunity to actually stage a bookcase in the background that's just like bottles of dry shampoo and straight to video specials of 1990 soap operas too racy for television.
EMMA -Just like bringing this back to mental health guys, just for a second, yeah, has that whole change of how things are done affected your mental health?
MARK -In terms of my own mental health, are you familiar with the idea that you should open the windows to air the house?
SEANEEN -Mark, I'm Irish, of course I'm familiar. [laughter]
MARK - It's really difficult to not have the space to clear the air of your mental room. That's the thing that I've found most difficult, to not be able to move beyond four walls to find the space to have a word with myself. And it's weird because I work from home anyway, but just being able to go, right, I'm not going anywhere, I'm going to go for a walk round the block. In those early days of the lockdown it just felt like the bad air building up in me. There wasn't enough space for me to get a distance from myself. How about you?
SEANEEN -In some ways things like having a child and a job, I guess part of me's been quite grateful that that side of things hasn't changed to so much in terms of having a job and stuff, and it has kept a sort of routine up, which again, as much as I hate to admit it, I need. But it's something I have to keep a lid on because I've got a bit of a tendency to be hyper focused and over work and stuff. I have to remind myself to kind of stop.
I think I can't do this much longer, I know that. I don't think it's around working from home or anything that that's reason, it's the feeling of being trapped. And ironically what I need is isolation. I want to be on my own. I love my child, I love my husband and everything, but like the not being able to be alone thing is kind of driving me mad. For my mental health I need to be on my own sometimes. But again, I wouldn't want to be in the situation where I was physically on my own all the time, but what's got into me is the feeling of trapped-ness, it's the lack of choice. And it's also the uncertainty, I don't like not knowing things.
And I have seen a pretty bad impact on people close to me in terms of their mental health, people not behaving in ways I expected them to. I don't mean that positively or negatively. The same way, I don't think I'm coping the way I thought I would either. I don't like the not knowing. I don't like thinking about what's it going to be like next year, that kind of freaks me out.
MARK -We're living in a big long now.
SEANEEN -Yeah man. You see, it's all that thing, live in the present, mindfulness. No, don't. [laughter] It never ends. Live in the future, live ten years in the future and six years in the past, that's the way to do it.
MARK -Well that's how I've been rolling. It will always be 2003 according to my wardrobe, so…
EMMA -Mark Brown and Seaneen Molloy, thank you so much for letting us basically record your chat. It was super entertaining but also a big insight into how people's mental health is just now.
MARK -Thank you.
SEANEEN -You're very welcome, thank you for having us.
EMMA -You've been listening to Cabin Fever from BBC Ouch. You can contact us in lots of different ways. Via Twitter @bbcouch. Find us on Facebook at BBC Ouch or email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And please do subscribe to us on BBC Sounds, or you can find a decade of episodes of the Ouch podcast. It includes last week's brilliant listen, part of our mini series called Meet the Vulnerables, where 22 year old BBC journalist, Octavia Woodward met Baroness Jane Campbell and talked to her about everything from parents to the pandemic. And their mutual dislike of the V word. V being for vulnerable of course. Thanks for listening. See you next time.