There have been a lot of significant days in my life.
The day I was born. My 19th birthday, when I arrived in Beijing after a couple of weeks travelling across Europe and Russia. The day I met my first love. The day I first realised coronavirus wasn’t just like the flu.
But one even more recent day may turn out to be the most significant of all: Wednesday 10th February 2021.
Although it didn’t feel particularly significant at the time, it may turn out to be so because of what it represents: a conflict between two large parts of my life.
This post will explore that conflict and what I’ve concluded from it.
So, what happened on Wednesday 10th February 2021?
Well, it was two things (hence the conflict).
One, it was the day surge testing began in the particular part of London I was living in at the time due to a confirmed case of the South African variant of COVID-19 in the area.
Two, it was the day I sent an email to the senior tutor of my college, formally requesting suspension of my degree for a year due to the state of my mental health.
The conflict is between the part of me that wants to act in line with what I care about and the part of me that is too far gone in its own nosedive of anxiety to care about the things I really care about.
Let me explain.
As you will know, by Wednesday 10th February 2021, COVID-19 had been tearing the fabric of society apart for at least a year, perhaps longer (depending on when you started counting).
But at that time the threat of variants of the virus was much newer. The South African variant in particular, with its rumoured harmful effects on younger people, was getting people worried.
The thing I cared (care) about is stopping — or, more realistically, limiting — the spread of the virus, especially new variants. When I think about how bad the pandemic has been, and how much worse it could get if a more harmful variant starts spreading out of control, I want to do all I can to stop this happening. I care about this on a somewhat visceral, not-completely-abstract, level.
Because the variant had been found very near where I was living at the time, mass testing was being carried out in the streets near me. I walked past signs advertising this every day.
I didn’t get a test.
(To be fair to me, the advertising was not particularly clear. The signs said “we will deliver a test to your home” on one side and “book your test today” on the other.)
When I look back on this day, I find it hard to believe that I would be able to walk past these signs every day and ignore the thought that I might want to help out by getting a test and limiting my social contact. I mean, I knew that it’s crucial to stop variants in their tracks when cases are in the single digits and that mass testing (with appropriate isolation) is the best way of doing this. This is an opinion I probably stated publicly, I suppose without even noticing the internal contradiction.
So, why did I not get tested?
Well, for one, I suppose I was waiting on the side of the sign that said it would deliver a test to my home (and conveniently ignoring the one urging me to get tested today). But this can’t be all of it. Surely, I would’ve thought about the seriousness of the situation and concluded that I may as well err on the side of caution and book a test if I could, or at least Google what the situation was and think about what I ought to do. I have enough faith in my own intelligence to suppose that I would have been capable of this chain of reasoning without too much effort.
Yet, I didn’t book a test, I didn’t do a single Google search. I basically didn’t think about it for longer than a few seconds after I saw the sign each day.
(As it turns out, my flat was just outside the boundary within which they were delivering home test kits. I’m not sure if I would have been offered an asymptomatic test at a test centre, though I think I probably would have been).
So, the question remains: why did I not get tested?
Only one answer seems likely, and this is where the other thing that happened on Wednesday 10th February 2021 comes in.
My decision to send the email formally requesting suspension from my degree was the culmination of one week mulling over the issue, which itself was the culmination of months, perhaps years (depending on when you started counting) of my mental health slowly deteriorating.
Throughout the lockdown, and probably before, I had been battling severe anxiety. I was just about to be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I was struggling to get any work done without feeling like I was falling apart, and I was struggling to focus on much else without a similar result.
Essentially, my thinking was totally dominated by my own problems, worries and obsessions. I was completely stuck in my own head, unable to cope effectively with the real world. In a sense, my mind was eating itself.
This seems the best explanation of my ignoring the advice to “book a test today”. I simply didn’t have the energy to think about whether I should get the test, do the Google search, book the test, etc. I was so wrapped up in my own internal struggle that I had gone blind to the wider struggle of the world — and, at the time, my immediate surroundings — around me.
It was already clear that my mental health was hurting my ability to do certain things: study effectively, relax in my time off and, I now realise, connect with the important people in my life. But, looking back, this was probably the worst of the lot. It was hurting my ability to do the things I cared about. It was stopping me from doing what I thought was right.
This is something I refuse to stand for.
This post is about that tension that I, among many others I’m sure, have felt at many times: how can I spend so much time, effort and money doing things just to help myself, when there are so many others worse off than me? Isn’t that selfish? Surely, if morality is demanding, then it tells us that we have to always put other people first, rather than looking after ourselves?
If you’ve ever thought any of these things, let me tell you from my own experience: NO! It don’t work like that.
No matter how many people are worse off than us, we have to look after ourselves. It’s not selfish, but rather selfless, if done in the right way. Crucially, if morality is demanding, then the conclusion is even stronger. It’s not just ok to look after ourselves, it’s our duty.
At this point, I could give any number of cliches that make the exact point I’m making. Of course, the problem with cliches is that most of them are actually true.
You can’t pour from an empty cup.
You do have to love yourself in order to (fully) love others.
There have been so many times I’ve thought about all the awful things going on in the world and felt bad about all the time and money I spend on myself instead of ‘doing more’ to help. Often, I’ve responded by pushing myself harder or beating myself up. Each time, without fail, I’ve made it harder for myself to actually do more.
I now think that when people think about all the awful things going on in the world, they should form even more resolve to look after themselves (before going on and doing more to help), rather than resolving to spend less resources on themselves. (I have not yet managed to fully take this on.)
Let me be very clear, I am not saying that those with mental health problems are bad people or that people struggling with their own issues are unable to do good. I actually don’t blame myself for failing to get that COVID test (although I do feel guilty); I have a lot of compassion for that guy who was struggling and couldn’t get his head out of itself.
Further, I think that I’ve done a lot of good in my life despite my own mental health issues, as of course have many others. (In fact, having a tendency to worry or think about the bad things in the world may make someone more prone to want to do good, although I really have no idea if this is true).
My point is not to blame people who are struggling… for anything!
My point is that there are probably many many people, with and without mental health disorders, who feel bad about helping themselves. Who feel that it is selfish to put themselves first. Who feel that, if they ought to do anything, they ought to spend more energy on others and less on themselves.
My point is that I DON’T THINK THEY (YOU) SHOULD FEEL THIS WAY!!
It is not selfish to look after yourself. It is good. And not just good for you, good for the world.
If anyone reading this is having a hard time — first things first, reach out to someone, even me, and don’t suffer alone or in silence — and weighing up whether to push yourself just a bit harder or spend a bit of time on self-care, then I urge you: please choose self-care.
Take it from me. It’s what the world wants.