‘I woke up with an elephant on my chest this morning’

When lockdowns were first announced, many were relieved that they no longer had to commute to work and could spend more time at home. I know it was me No one likes hopping on public transit or having difficult meetings with intimidating colleagues about tricky projects.

But all those little things that we occasionally wake up and dread are actually the things that, in the long run, allow us to really enjoy our lives. When we’re forced to challenge ourselves on a regular basis, we also have an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back. The more we challenge ourselves, the less challenging life seems to us. And so the opposite is the case.

Of course, a pandemic is a challenge. Nobody can dispute that. But the resulting limitations have left most people unable to meaningfully challenge themselves in everyday life. This means things that previously seemed like an annoyance can feel like an impossibility.

If you don’t regularly refill your “I can do hard things” bank, your belief in yourself will diminish until one day you wake up with an elephant on your chest and wonder why life is so damn hard. And that’s why you feel oddly relieved when the government announces there’s a new twist on the opportunity to cut yourself off and duck back under your covers.

I think this explains why it can seem like people like being active in lockdown. Actually, they like to feel safe and secure and not threatened. When you are depressed or have low self-esteem, you crave security.

And there’s a strange kind of security in being locked away from yourself. This is what depression feels like, and this is what life feels like for a lot of people right now.

If this all sounds bleak, then I have good news. As a person with a history of depression, I find it quite comforting to have a sense of why I feel this way. In my time writing about mental health and working on my own head, I’ve learned that depression is a weird survival mechanism, a way of alerting you that your life isn’t working the way it is.

In this context, a collective sense of not feeling quite right during a pandemic is actually the best thing to do. Of course, life feels tough: you’ve been living in fight-or-flight mode for almost two years.

And while I hate feeling this way – or not feeling this way, as I should perhaps say – there is also a voice in my head telling me that this state of clinical depression is inevitable given the circumstances, a small voice which gives me a tiny sense of optimism that has always been lacking in previous depressive episodes.

It tells me it’s getting better. It tells me that if I keep doing the things I’ve done to help me through past episodes, I’ll come out the other end successfully.

The elephant in the room and on your chest tends to disappear as we talk about it. I hope that if you read this, you will also get permission to do so.

The Broken Boiler Theory

You know some well-meaning gurus who tell you to imagine yourself as a bird, dolphin, or brave lioness roaming free on the African savannas? Well, I want you to introduce yourself as Boiler.

In particular a slightly run down boiler in dire need of maintenance, the type that needs careful attention so you can get half a shower’s hot water out of it.

You know the guy… we all had one, usually in our college or shared days: the kind of boiler you don’t really have to bother calling your landlord about because it kind of still works if you fiddle around play around with it a bit and the landlord will likely hold you responsible for anything wrong with it and take your deposit to pay for the repairs. Such a kettle.

Coincidentally, my house currently has one of these boilers and I have no excuses… I’m 41, I own the property and should have called a repairman weeks ago.

Like me, our boiler is old, broken and very irregular. I need to protect it from drafts to keep its pilot light burning. Now kettles only work when the pilot light is on, and humans aren’t really any different.

I want you to envision your self-esteem, your healthy self, the part of you that hasn’t been eaten up by depression and anxiety, as that pilot light.

you are that flame And you must do whatever it takes to keep that self-esteem pilot light going. you want to keep it on This pilot light of self-esteem is what will protect you from the mental health issues that try to sneak in like the slow seasonal change of winter, leaving you horribly exposed.

Whenever you want to do something, ask yourself: will this keep my pilot light of self-esteem, or will it help blow it out? If it’s supposed to save him, then do it. If it will blow out, stay far away. Will it help my pilot flame to beat myself up?

Will mindlessly scrolling through social media help my pilot flame? Could it help to call my boss and explain that I feel overwhelmed because I have a mental health issue to keep my check engine light on?

Is signing up for an advanced meditation class good for my pilot light, or maybe listening to a podcast about it while out walking? Will getting drunk help my pilot flame? Will crawling into bed and drawing the curtains in the middle of the day help my back burner?

Will it help me to talk to my mom who doesn’t really know anything about mental health or is it better to talk to my sister who does know? Does canceling this therapy appointment at short notice because I’m afraid I may have a cold help keep my pilot flame going?

Encourage that self-esteem. Bit by bit, keep it up. Don’t delete it. It’s the thing that will help you reclaim your body and your life. It’s the thing that will bring you back to you.

Excerpt from No Such Thing as Normal: What My Mental Illness Has Teach Me About Mental Wellness (Headline, £9.99), available now. Order your copy from the Telegraph bookshop.

Bryony Gordon: No Such Thing as Normal LIVE takes place at Alexandra Palace, London on Sunday 6th February 2022, visit website for tickets and more information. ‘I woke up with an elephant on my chest this morning’

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