In this post one of our volunteers describes the highs and lows of volunteering and returning to the world of work under lock-down. Exploring mental health, recovery, immigration, self-care and gratitude.
“Well, here we go again!”
I was quite excited about working with the Fulfilling Lives project – it was a space where I felt I could find a support group with a broader purpose along with working on myself and feeling like a contributing member of society again. I began volunteering with the project in Brighton in early March 2020, a few days before the COVID-19 crisis escalated, resulting in a full-blown pandemic and worldwide enforced lockdowns of varying degrees.
My first thought on hearing this news was …“well here we go again!” My last job, which was nothing short of a dream, came to an end as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January. I quit my studies in psychology for it. The job lasted three months and was the first job I had had after three difficult years of recovery from mental illness, constant financial precarity, immigration issues, a string of job rejections and feeling like a loser for still having my parents support me in my late twenties/early thirties, since I had no recourse to public funds.
“Move on and move up”
I desperately wanted to move on and move up in life. I wanted to rebuild my life again and grow some solid roots in a place that has been home for the last six years. I finally had the energy and the motivation, but my confidence felt akin to a flimsy fabric in tatters and my mental health a thin sheet of ice ready to crack open under undue stress and pressure.
Back in March, as the prospects of an indefinite lockdown became all too real, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that our weekly Action Group meetings for the Fulfilling Lives volunteers were to continue despite the restrictions. Our meetings were to be held online on Microsoft Teams. From past experience, it’s quite challenging to have productive online meetings or sustain these interactions because face-to-face interactions are indeed difficult to replace. So, I didn’t have high hopes, I trusted my typical self to lose interest if this carried on.
Amazingly, it has been more than three months now and I have only missed one meeting so far. The support and engagement opportunities from the staff at Fulfilling Lives has been absolutely phenomenal. It has been refreshing to have Teams as an online communication platform because you know that you can write a quick note or have a phone call straight away. It reduced the time that it takes to formulate a well-worded email and get a response. It has also increased the fluidity of these interactions, which helps you feel like you’re working and being productive; having those channels of instant feedback can help you feel validated.
But what really made it work? In my opinion, the focus on the structure of the meetings and good timekeeping was noteworthy. The project consultants facilitating these weekly meetings for volunteers would religiously send out an agenda before the meeting, stick to it and send us the minutes of the meeting after it ended, even if all of that effort was just for one person in attendance. If everything else in your life feels like it’s in disarray the last thing you would expect is a weekly meeting to join the party.
I was relieved that life had slowed down for everyone. I was tired of constantly playing catch-up and feeling like I’m falling behind. I’ve always grossly underestimated how long it takes me to get from point A to point B – this has probably been one of my biggest downfalls. I think the fact that the only travel I made to participate in the weekly meetings was from my bedroom to my living room played a huge role in helping me build my confidence again. The option to partake in meetings yet not be seen can be comforting for someone having a bad day for whatever reason. Now that this area of work has caught my interest and solidified my confidence, maybe as next steps, I can work on addressing my travel anxiety now that the lockdown has been finally lifted.
Similarly, I have also been able to participate in other staff-level Theme meetings, which are open to volunteers and brought together frontline workers, team leads and project consultants in one room around a specific topic like ‘Domestic Abuse’ or ‘Health Inequalities’ or ‘Treatment Pathways’ and more. This deepened my interest in the project but in normal circumstances, these spaces would’ve felt out of bounds or too much of an effort, given that participating in these meetings required travelling between the offices based in Brighton, Eastbourne, and Hastings. I’m not implying that face-to-face meetings should be replaced but not having to travel has made a world of a difference to this process of building confidence and finding value in volunteering. So perhaps, this could’ve been one big experiment to explore more hybrid ways of working or maybe it’s a testament to living beings’ innate ability to survive and adapt in any given situation.
Outside of my life as a volunteer, I’ve been doing several things to keep well, since I couldn’t afford ongoing psychological support. I read the books on recovery-focused self-help books for mind and body that I had collected over the years – brilliant authors like Gabor Maté, Johann Hari, Carl Rogers, Carl Jung, Peter Levine among others. I’m also eternally grateful for how many professionals and organisations have generously offered their time and knowledge at no cost or by donation/self-selective fee. As a result, I attended several conferences, events, workshops and festivals online. I took a Level 2 certification course on supporting people with mental health needs at the Greater Brighton MET College and self-improvement courses on Personal Boundaries and Self Expression. I meditated for an hour every day with a lovely online support group called Stay Aligned that was led by two local mindfulness meditation teachers. I played music online every week with a recovery orchestra, the New Note Orchestra. I took clowning and theatre lessons and free dancing lessons that were sponsored by the Brighton & Hove City Council among many other activities.
I intentionally kept myself busier in confinement than I am otherwise. The fear of relapse in such a situation is what drove me to fill my time and clear my inner space. While I might come across as someone who is on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, I’m hyper-aware that it may take very little to throw me off track. Also, repeated setbacks in life have really tested my resilience to cope. But since the lockdown, I figured that if I don’t stare down at the abyss that forever awaits me, then one day I will, almost magically, find a fully-grown pair of wings that will help me fly again.
Living With Gratitude
I began writing in my journal every time I felt overwhelmed – these were my own thoughts and some letters I will never send, but also poems, literary excerpts or quotes that I had come across, which felt like unlikely guides or signs from above and beyond. And, there is one simple ritual I follow every night – I ask myself what I have learnt and what am I grateful for today, which I would really recommend as a daily practice to anyone. Finally, I will leave you with a thought-provoking question that my mindfulness meditation teacher often pulls out during our sessions: When times are grim, are happy people more grateful or are grateful people happier?
Thank you for reading.
Artwork by Rosi Tooth, please check her amazing work out over at https://www.rosi-illustration.com/shop