Nicholas Fearn describes how enforced social distancing led him to reflect on what he really wanted out of life.
Lockdown has been an uphill battle for many people. It’s easy to feel depressed and anxious when you’re living in a state of social isolation, pretty much confined to four walls 24/7, worried about catching a deadly disease, exposed to constant reports of death and fearful of what a post-COVID world will look like.
"Although I’m autistic and often struggle with socialising, I’m lucky to have a great group of friends who understand me. My social life only really blossomed after university, so it’s like everything has come to a halt all of a sudden."
The pandemic is having a profound impact on people’s mental health, with the World Health Organization warning that COVID-19 “may never go away” and stating that it is resulting in a mental health crisis. Devora Kestel, who heads up its mental health department, recently said: “The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil – they all cause or could cause psychological distress.”
I’ve been affected by mental health issues for most of my life. At the age of fourteen, I was diagnosed with autism, anxiety disorder and OCD while experiencing extreme bullying that led me to move home and school. I tried to take my own life after the mental trauma got so bad and I just wanted a way out.
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But I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been struggling immensely during lockdown and that my mental health has never been this bad. After moving to a more understanding school and eventually going to university, my mental health improved vastly. However, I’ve spent the last few weeks doubting my entire existence.
For someone on the autistic spectrum, you’d assume that social isolation would be a blessing rather than a curse because autism is a lifelong developmental condition predominantly affecting social communication skills. Granted, I find meeting new people and being in crowds overwhelming. But when the government introduced lockdown, I felt like my life changed overnight. I’m lucky to have a small group of friends who I’ve known since I was a child and who understand me. Unable to see them, get out of the house and ultimately go about my normal life, I knew that I would struggle.
While the lockdown rules stipulate that you can exercise daily, you can’t travel further afield (at least in Wales). I live in a small village in the Welsh valleys and am extremely paranoid of coming into contact with the people who made my life hell when I was younger. If I wanted to go for a walk prior to lockdown, my partner and I would drive to the beach or somewhere else just as idyllic.
Not seeing my friends has also been difficult. Although I’m autistic and often struggle with socialising, I’m lucky to have a great group of friends who understand me. My social life only really blossomed after university, so it’s like everything has come to a halt all of a sudden.
Like many people, I've spent most of lockdown working full time. A month or so before lockdown, I changed career paths after leaving journalism to take a job in public relations. Despite economic uncertainty, business had been booming for my employer. I initially thought I’d be able to manage my new job while living in isolation, although this soon turned out not to be true.
The dark demons soon caught up with me - I couldn’t stop doubting myself and feeling stressed about everything. My coping mechanism was alcohol, which only made me feel worse. I even tried killing myself again. Luckily, I have a supportive fiance and family around me. So they’ve helped me to get through everything.
This week, I made the decision to leave my full-time PR job. Some people might say I'm 'crazy' for giving up a safe job to go freelance during these uncertain times, but it was a decision I made for my own health. I felt happier when I was freelance, and the flexibility it brings suits my needs. I’m really excited to be doing something I love: journalism.
If there’s something I’ve learnt during lockdown, it’s that life can get dark suddenly and feels like you have no way out. I’m very vocal about my struggle with mental health and have been called all sorts of names because of this, one of which being “snowflake”. But guess what? It doesn’t matter what others think - and it’s fine to admit that you’re having a tough time. My attitude is that obstacles aren’t a bad thing; they train you for life.
Without admitting to myself that I wasn’t enjoying my job and that my mental health wasn’t in the best place, I wouldn't have put my wellbeing first by quitting and going back to doing something I love. Even though it’s only been a few days, I feel a million times better. It’s like a weight lifted off my shoulder. You need to follow your heart and do what’s right for you, not what others think.
A version of this article also appears on our sister site, Learning Disability Today.