In retrospect, it was wild how quickly everything changed. Whether you saw the lockdown coming or were completely blindsided, the speed with which the foundations of normalcy (going to work, leaving your home, seeing your loved ones) were outlawed was unlike anything in living memory. Even writing it down feels hyperbolic but it’s worth emphasising how alien our current existence would have seemed to many of us at the beginning of 2020. Yet after three months, what was novel has become the new normal. It’s hard to see how things could ever be the same again.
For many, this has been a time of loneliness, frustration and often grief, as we are unable to process anything the way we traditionally would. The end of lockdown was not so much anticipated as craved. "When things begin to ease up," we said to ourselves, "we’re going to embrace everything and each other with open arms." But now that time has come and we begin to re-emerge into the world, it feels less like the school doors being flung open at the end of term and more like a hibernating bear cautiously pawing the ground. No matter how isolated we may have been, we can’t fling ourselves into each other’s embraces, hold gatherings any larger than six (unless under specific circumstances) or share indoor space in any meaningful way.
That sense of caution is just one of the many reasons why the path out of lockdown will make the loneliness and isolation worse, not better. And it’s important to hold space for those who are struggling, or even unable to follow the path out.
Part of that is to do with just how confusing that path is. As psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Linda Boutet told R29, the government deliberately put us into a state of panic which we are now being told to disregard. "Basically, they wanted us to be scared and now they're trying to make us feel it's okay to be happy and go shopping as Boris Johnson said." The confusing rollout of the changing rules around family visits, masks and public spaces (paired with Dominic Cummings’ flagrant disregard for said rules) has led to many feeling that they can sack it all off. Parks filled up again, people left their communities and 'bubbles' and lockdown proper was treated like it was over. But for every person throwing a picnic in the park, there are those who can’t.
The gendered divide of childcare has deepened during lockdown, with experts warning that UK society is "regressing back to the 1950s for many women" who are taking on the burden of childcare. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that the proportion of mothers responsible for 90 to 100% of childcare increased from 27% to 45% during lockdown. As restrictions ease, there are mothers who remain isolated in their childrearing role while their male partners embrace the reintroduced freedoms. Linda points to one of her clients who exemplifies this: "I've actually worked with one particular chap whose wife has three children (she had twins and then a little boy, very, very soon after). She can't even physically get three children out with a twin buggy and a baby and she's very isolated because her mother lives more than five miles [away] (this is in mid Wales) and yet [he’s out] playing golf and hot desking."
Physical and geographical isolation is another major factor. As Kayleigh Dray pointed out in Stylist, unless you live within walking distance of your friends, have access to a car or feel ready to brave public transport again, the bubbles suggested by the government mean little. And that’s assuming your loved ones live in the same country as you. Linda shares another example of an 18-year-old client who is unable to graduate "because her parents can't come from the other side of the world. She's not able to collect a degree."
"It's almost giving you a new pattern and one which legally you have to adopt," Linda tells me about a client with OCD who has enjoyed the lockdown. "It gives a sense of containment, that it's okay not to want to go out and not to want to do this. [In their mind they think], ‘I feel safe, and I don't want to feel unsafe. And when I see people who are all hugging each other and saying, "I'm so happy to see you", I can't do that.'" This leaves you with the sense of being on the outside looking in or, more accurately, on the inside looking out, as friends, loved ones and strangers embrace the lifting of lockdown with seemingly no worry.
It also leaves behind those for whom the lockdown way of living was a fact of life – whether because of chronic illness, terminal illness or disability. The shops, pubs and public transport that are reopening were never accessible for everyone and people who have been classed as vulnerable by the government were already isolated from a society that is inaccessible and individual (not community) focused. As we come out of lockdown with a new understanding of what that isolation can be like, it’s a chance to work towards a society that doesn’t isolate some for the sake of others.
In order to do so we must be patient with ourselves and kind to one another. It’s understandable that so many are clamouring for the sense of freedom they had before lockdown. But in that impatience we are inevitably going to expect too much of ourselves and end up exhausted from relatively small social interactions.
Instead we must remind ourselves that it will take time and patience to rebuild our relationships and our ability to socialise. Linda compares a return to socialising to returning to exercise after not using those muscles for weeks. "People have got used to everything being very flat, very one-dimensional… When we link up with other people again, understandably we're going to assume on an intellectual level that we're back where we were before it all happened, but actually we're not."
If you're struggling coming out of lockdown, feeling exhausted and disoriented and out of control, you are far from alone. But with patience and self-care it will right itself again. Linda advises: "Be aware of how you feel. Don't expect to feel abundantly happy, like people on television seem to be, rushing into each other's arms when you are allowed to see people. And listen to your body and your mind if you feel tired: have short meetings just for a cup of coffee outdoors, maybe a short walk in the park, maybe limit the amount of time you spend online with people."
As we endeavour to show meaningful kindness to ourselves and slowly retrain our ability to socialise, we have the opportunity to extend to others the empathy and kindness that will prevent them from being isolated again. We can push for workplaces to better accommodate people and be flexible with their 'in office' rules. We can remind those we love who are flouting the rules entirely that we feel isolated from them because they don’t care about themselves the way we care about them. All of these things will forge a connection between us even as we are still kept apart. And by talking about the sense of isolation that so many currently and will continue to feel, it will help all of us push for a world that looks distinctly different from what we had before.