It’s mid afternoon on 31st October 2020 and news starts circulating in my girl gang Whatsapp group that Boris Johnson has called a last minute press conference for later that evening. We’ve seen enough of BoJo over the course of the year to know exactly what’s coming when his face graces the TV screen at 7pm: tighter restrictions in the fight against Covid-19.
The panic that we are about to be thrust into Lockdown 2.0 after a glorious few months of loosened social distancing rules starts to set in, and by 5pm we have collectively scoured the internet to find any restaurant which will take us (we are all living within tier one at the time, and the rule of six applies indoors). I leave my six-week old baby at home for the first time, and, without so much as stopping to apply some make-up or change out of my baby sick stained dungarees, I am driving to my local Pizza Express branch.
That meal, seated by candlelit with three of my closest pals is one of my favourite memories from a hideously hard year. It had all the spontaneity of the kind of life we lived before a pandemic took us hostage, and all the simplicity of a life that I choose, perhaps naively, to believe is not too far out of reach.
We ordered wine and watched on our phones as BBC News confirmed that over the next few days life would start shutting down again, and we’d be forced into a bear-like hibernation. We feasted on pizza, and then tiramisu and shared stories and memories from our glory days together at sixth form. We talked sex and nostalgic crushes and laughed over nights out from a lifetime ago. It was the kind of evening that wasn’t uncommon before covid, even with three rambunctious toddlers between us, but the kind of evening we perhaps had all learned to take for granted. The kind of evening, that right here at the start of 2021, we’d probably all think about pulling our fingernails off – one by one – for.
The past year has been unbelievably hard-hitting for so many of us. Whilst some have been bravely flung onto the frontline, others have lost loved ones, jobs, money and memories that they believed were guaranteed. And, regardless of how tough and strong we think we might be, our mental health has taken a complete and utter battering, due to the loss of the simplest, most natural need among our species – human connection.
When Lockdown 1.0 first kicked in, it felt as though it would be a short-lived, temporary change of pace. That if we could just survive a few weeks hidden away from the world, normality would swiftly resume. And I think for me, those early days were the hardest. Whilst the sun did not dare stop shining, for fear that we would all crumble without its upbeat and positive presence, the loss of all the daily routines and coping mechanisms I’d put in place in order to feel like the best version of myself, hit me hard. I was faced with two options: bottle it up and try and ride it out alone, or to talk openly about how I was feeling with my closest friends. And so, I chose the latter.
Over the next few months, our chats changed from “Anyone about for a cup of tea today?” to “How’s everyone’s mental health holding up?”. Whilst I would have considered us an open and honest group before, lockdown forced us to check in with each other in a more direct way, perhaps because it was harder to assess someone’s emotional state without actually seeing them in the flesh. We had good days, we had bad days and we had absolutely downright savage days – days where we doubted our place in the world. But we had each other, if only via our phones, with such a fierce devotion that I knew, that even when lockdown threatened to engulf me, I was never ever alone.
Gone was any question of small talk or avoiding the big issues, and it was replaced with complete frankness – messages that asked for help, messages that told of struggles and of tears and of despair. Messages which were painful to write, and equally as painful to read.
We dropped flowers and cards on each other’s doorsteps during daily walks – to celebrate job promotions and to lift each other when the world felt too much. We came together virtually for 30th birthdays and baby showers and Christmas get-togethers. We supported each other through marital breakdowns, pregnancy, mental illness, job losses and family problems. And then, as the eve of summer set in, we started to meet, one-on one, for outdoor mates dates that felt so alien and riddled with joy, all at the same time. As if we were so completely unsure of how to interact with each other IRL after so long of relying on voicenotes and memes.
I have had strong friendships before. I have felt loved and supported and valued. But now I feel as though I am part of something bigger, something so tight and unbreakable. I feel sure that if ever I am to fall, I will be caught, without question. I can show my whole self, I do not need to water myself down or hide parts of who I am. I can show up on good days and on bad days, and I will be accepted regardless. I know that I am cared for so intensely. I feel that we have lived through something together which is so extraordinary, and yet has come to feel like a normal way of life, albeit one that is stripped of the kind of joy and excitement and opportunity which catapulted us to this point. We are united by a shared trauma.
And it is not just my girl gang holding me together, it is the best friend who leaves me voicenotes to find every morning when I wake up. The one who asks me how my night feeds went and what my plans are for the day, as if I have just arrived in an office and am having a morning chit chat with my work BFF. There is the ‘Fake NCT’ Whatsapp chat I created with women I knew from all walks of life who were due their babies at the same time as me. That group has been a pillar of strength from me through the night feeds and makes me feel as though if I just close my eyes a bit, I could be at a baby group in a local village hall.
And so, whilst I would never dream of living through another global pandemic, and I hold all my hope together that the light is beginning to shine brightly at the end of the tunnel, there are some small but beautiful silver linings to be found.
And so to all the wonderful strong women in my life, all of you who have picked me up and held me together when it felt as though I was breaking into a million pieces, thank you. You are the world, and I am sure, unbelievably so, that there are better days coming, if we can only just ride out this last wave together.