My Half-Lockdown: The Good

Things could be a lot worse. In fact they couldn’t be any better.

My last post was about what my half-lockdown depression and anxiety feel like at their worst. But the good news is that I don’t feel them at their worst all the time. Not even most of the time. One of the most liberating things I’ve learned over the past year and a half is that the best way to deal with my neuroses isn’t to “fix” them or even shrink them. All I need to do is cultivate the part of myself that’s open, relaxed and free, and watch as it expands wide enough to encompass everything else. The neuroses don’t get smaller; the rest of me gets bigger.

I have a range of go-tos I use to remind myself that the world’s bigger than my small, scared ego thinks it is. Wilson Pickett blasted through a 10-watt Bluetooth speaker. Nick Hornby novels. Singing and playing the piano. Relaxing in the sun. Classic movies, NowTV dramas, stand-up. Travel. I’m just back from a short local break that’s shown me my mystery illness hasn’t knocked me back quite as badly as I feared it had. The trip also indicated how much progress I’ve made with my Covid OCD since this time last year, when I could barely leave the house.

Then there’s family and friends. Despite what I said in the last post (that was “the bad and the ugly”, remember?), they’re both key sources of support. My family wouldn’t cause me so much pain if I wasn’t so close to them. And I get a lot out of meeting the right friend on the right day.

Most important of all, there’s the inner work I’ve been doing. It’s far less important to me to change my circumstances than to change my attitude towards my current circumstances. I don’t think the term “self-improvement” quite captures my ambitions here. I want to reprogram myself.


Acceptance is a slow process, and it often feels like nothing is happening, but over time I’ve found that a little reprogramming each day gets results. It’s no different than when I was learning to play piano: I’m only infinitesimally better at the D minor scale today than I was yesterday, but by the end of the year I’ll be much better at it. When you instruct your conscious mind to do the same things over and over again, you’re sending a message to your unconscious mind that the things are more important than it thinks they are at first. It sits up and takes notice. Eventually it takes over from your conscious mind and keeps the new behaviours going without supervision.

The key difference between learning piano and training your thoughts and feelings being that with the contents of your mind, it’s more like you’ve already learned to play piano the wrong way. You keep putting minor chords in where they’re not wanted and the fingerings are all over the place. But if you were teaching a student who’d learned all the wrong fingerings, would you waste time making them feel bad about it or get on with showing them the right ones? Keep at it long enough and their muscle memory eventually makes the switch. The same way, I don’t fight my negative scripts so much as introduce new scripts alongside them and wait for my unconscious to take them on board.

Examples: my natural inclination is to focus on what’s wrong with my life, so now I take a bit of time at the end of the day to remind myself of things I’m grateful for. I’m equally inclined to focus on what I don’t like in myself, so I’ll also remind myself of everything I did during the day that I’m proud of and make a point of congratulating myself. I’ve been doing this for the last couple of months whenever I remember (I really should put a note by my bed or something), and I’m already noticing myself spontaneously saying nice things to myself more often. My unconscious is starting to get the message.

Other behaviours: dipping into the positive reinforcement well as needed throughout the day (slogans, mantras, whatever it takes), paying attention to my body’s demands instead of overriding them, forcing myself to stop whatever I’m doing for a couple of minutes whenever my stress builds to an unmanageable pitch, meditating, spending a little time each day reading books that change my thought patterns, listening to my beloved Ram Dass on Spotify while I’m getting a meal together or doing my teeth, becoming aware of more and more of the behaviours that get me into trouble, trying to be gentle with myself as I address them, noting what physical and emotional conditions trigger what thought patterns, watching them happen instead of getting sucked into their Urgency and Truth (‘No my life isn’t over, I just haven’t eaten since 2pm’)…


All this obviously doesn’t hurt my mental health, and I believe it’s also vital for my physical health. I don’t believe my mystery condition is entirely psychosomatic — it may or may not have been the result of a psychological buildup, but that doesn’t mean there’s no purely physical component now that it’s here — but it’s certainly highly susceptible to my moods. If I’m discouraged or stressed that makes me feel worse physically, if I feel bad physically that impacts my mood, and so on and so on in a vicious cycle. Whereas when I’m energised by something like good company or a change of scene, I’m sometimes astonished at what my body’s able to do.

This doesn’t mean I can just “push through” my problem and watch it vanish, or that I can instantly magick bad moods into good ones, any more than that miseducated piano student can will themselves to jump from the C major scale to mastering the Waldstein sonata. And none of my reprogramming takes my various physical and spiritual complaints away. But a couple of times recently I’ve noticed myself feeling simultaneously anxious and peaceful, or resentful and accepting. That tells me I’m slowly transitioning from being inside my misery wishing I was peaceful to being inside my peace noticing I’m miserable.

That may look glib or even nonsensical on paper, but it’s transformative in practice. When you stop playing chess in your head and start thinking of yourself as the board on which the game happens, it takes the sting out of the whole thing. Your anxiety becomes just another of those things, like a barking dog or a persistent itch.


BE HERE NOW

Finally, there’s pulling myself into the here-and-now, over and over again. Mindfulness may just be the most effective reprogramming method of all — rather than replacing negative stories with positive stories, the idea is to enter a state where you aren’t telling yourself stories at all, where you’re just existing. You decouple from the mind’s chatter and focus on what’s right in front of you.

In my last post I complained that there wasn’t much about the present moment worth focusing on, but that’s not true. I’m an introvert, which means being alone is just as stimulating as being with other people — often more. I enjoy my own thoughts and get excited by my own ideas. Meanwhile, vastly more things are right than wrong with my life: I have access to a piano, a Mac, an Internet connection, plenty of unread books and a courtyard where I can sit in the sun on a good day. If I manage my condition well my discomfort isn’t acute, and stinging pain of the ‘Ouch, that hurt!’ variety is very rare.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with my situation apart from the distortions and stories I impose on it. Whenever I think of the present as dissatisfying, frustrating or boring it’s because I’m looking at it through the lens of the past or the future (‘Remember when I used to…will I ever get to…’). Or an alternate-reality present where I’m having more fun or doing myself prouder (‘Imagine if I was…I should be…’). Or someone else’s supposed present — equally imaginary, because I’ve no idea what anyone else’s experience actually feels like (‘Bet so-and-so’s having a good time…’).

I recently came across an aphorism along the lines of ‘Depression is about the past, anxiety is about the future, and peace is about the present.’ So now when I catch myself feeling depressed I tell myself that no matter how many times I’ve messed up before — even if the most recent incident was five minutes ago — my second chance begins right now. I’m not a slave to my patterns; I’m not trapped. And when I’m anxious I tell myself that I’ve no idea what’ll happen in the future, but my best chance of coping with it is being kind to myself this very moment. If I can manage my emotions now, I have a better chance of being able to do it then.


Of course, detaching from all these ideas about what things used to be and will be and should be isn’t easy — the ego clings to them like grim death, because it thinks the best way to engineer a better life for myself is to be relentlessly dissatisfied with the one I have now. Naturally the complete opposite is true: the more satisfied I am with this version of my life, the more I’ll find myself acting in the sorts of ways that are likely to improve it.

In other words, things will only get better if I accept that they don’t need to get better because they’re perfect the way they are. And I’ll only get better once I realise that I’m perfect as I am, that I’m already enlightened, that joy, peace and love constitute my natural state of being, that the only things that stop all this being apparent are the inaccurate stories that prevent me from seeing what’s right in front of my face. From this point of view, what I call “reprogramming” myself really consists of nothing more than peeling away all the layers of fear-based brainwashing until I can get a proper look at what’s always already there.

So yes, things are hard for me at the moment. But I still believe that life is inherently good, interesting, beautiful and motivating. My only job is to feel that more and more of the time. I can’t think of a better half-lockdown project than that.