For many people the Covid-19 lockdown has been a first and unwelcome taste of social isolation and restricted movement. Not seeing friends, getting away on holiday, or heading to the shops for a bit of retail therapy has been challenging for some and traumatic for others.
But it wasn’t something new for singer/songwriter Julia Green. Having suffered with severe M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis) since 2016, the 23-year-old Balerno resident is well-acquainted with feeling isolated and trapped – not for months, but for years.
Julia had begun the second year of her HND in music performance at Edinburgh College when a neurologist diagnosed her M.E. Also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the illness had been affecting her increasingly for about a year. Doctors could not explain why she was experiencing migraines, pain in her legs, muscle spasms and extreme fatigue.
Have the events of 2020 and the changes we’ve all had to make sensitised us to those around us in their own personal “lockdown”?
She struggled to rehearse with her band and to cope with the two-bus journey home. Eventually, after Julia collapsed at college, a lecturer convinced her to defer her studies. “I was just starting to get gigs,” she recalls. “In fact, the following year I was offered a contract to do nightly shows at the Edinburgh Festival, but I had to say no.”
This was the start of Julia’s own personal lockdown. As her energy level dropped, her freedom seemed to evaporate. She was no longer able to take a bus into town, meet a friend for coffee or take a walk lasting more than 10 minutes. “I’m a foodie,” she says, “but at times I didn’t have the strength to pick up a fork.” She could sometimes watch films on her laptop, if the volume was turned down quite low – extreme sensitivity to noise and light often comes with M.E. But looking at screens exhausts her, so she had to be careful. And she had to “budget” whatever energy she did have each week, so she wouldn’t be flattened. Most of her days were spent lying on the couch. So that she could go out occasionally, her parents invested in a wheelchair.
Asked what the worst thing about this period was, Julia says, “Not seeing friends. I couldn’t go out to meet people, and I didn’t get that many visitors. I knew my friends were busy with their studies or jobs – getting on with their lives – but it was really hard being on my own so much.”
Since spring 2018 Julia has been getting increasingly stronger, and today she is singing and recording again. The wheelchair has been retired and, were it not for Covid-19 restrictions, she could once again travel into town to meet a friend for lunch. No doubt her own personal lockdown experience taught her patience and resilience, and she developed her own strategies for coping with the limitations and isolation.
Like Julia, many people who live in our community feel cut off from social interaction and/or lack freedom to do what they would really like to do. Perhaps this temporary curtailment of our normal activities has opened our eyes to what is, for many people, just normal life. Many types of physical illness are life-limiting, and this may be long-term. People with disabilities may have to accept that there are things they cannot do, while pushing themselves to do everything they can possibly do. And people with mental health issues commonly experience isolation and restrictions.
Have the events of 2020 and the changes we’ve all had to make sensitised us to those around us in their own personal “lockdown”? Neighbours have become so much better at looking after one another. Could this continue after the virus threat has passed? As we’ve all had a taste of a more restricted life, will we be more aware of people around us who are physically restricted, or isolated because of circumstances – or those who feel cut off for one reason or another? Once we all start working and shopping, and eating out and meeting friends again, will we spare a thought for the ones in our life who do not enjoy such freedoms?
Asked what lessons her personal lockdown has taught her, Julia says: “To focus on what really matters in life. For me, that’s my Christian faith and also my relationships with others. I realised I need to love myself, and that I am not responsible for other people’s happiness. I’ve seen my family learn to pull together more, as my illness made us all more sensitive to one another.”
Published in Konect July 2020
Author: Suzanne Green