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My motivation for volunteering during lockdown was almost completely selfish. That’s fine.

About to go on first shift. No make-up. 20 March 2020

This blog is a reblog from Jo‘s personal blog!

I am intensely interested in other people. This was even the case when I was sectioned on back in early 2017. Why were the other people on the ward there? What diagnoses did they have? What was their home situation? Did they get visitors? Who were they?

So once I got put back on the right meds and they began to work, I began to take a much more active interest in other people and their lives. By the end of my time there, I had started to people-watch again. Sometimes I’d get chatting to people who wanted to tell me about themselves, and to be honest, it was a blessed relief to have something else to talk about than my own profound misery.

(I am going somewhere with this, bear with me).

Almost three years to the day I got taken off section and sent home to pick my life up (23 March 2017, never forget), lockdown started. I was in Newcastle when things rapidly started to move in a scary direction, on a month’s paid fellowship at Durham University, which was the first bit of remunerated research time I’d had – ever – since finishing my PhD in 2014. As things were ramping up with COVID, my work – the John Rylands Library in Manchester (where I no longer had a place to live – long story) – got in touch and said ‘we’re shutting and everyone is working from home’. My boyfriend began working from home in London, and I had to reconcile myself with the idea of going into a lockdown in a flat I don’t particularly like, which still gives me flashbacks to a time when I was very ill indeed. I could cope with it when I barely lived there, commuting to Manchester weekly and coming home at weekends. How was I going to spend hours there, cooped up in the bedroom, trying to work without access to my work laptop or the unique manuscripts I was working with, only able to go out once a day? When would it all end? Was it permanent? I put on a brave face, but inside I was going ‘Edge, you might be screwed again here and hahahaha guess what if you lose it again there is no way you’ll get the sort of referral you need again because COVID means everything is even more fucked than it was’.

I’d already begun MadCovid with Bethan and Nell in mid-March, knowing we were in for some sort of long-term crisis in which mentally ill people would be on the sharp end of things: it was coping by mobilising, as I tend towards. But that was very much a computer/bedroom thing. It didn’t provide the sort of in-person human contact I need. I also really lost the ability to do thinky-work for a while. I needed something practical. And in all honesty, I get very little from Zoom, Teams and the rest of it. People are hot water bottles to me. I need to see them, in the flesh.

Wind back: during the 2018 UCU strikes over pensions I had begun volunteering at Southwark food bank down in Peckham, but my time there ended quite quickly because I started working in Manchester that summer and was away all week. So I got in touch with them on the off-chance they needed me, and my first shift was the Friday when the pubs shut (Google tells me this was 20 March). The warehouse hadn’t changed at all but all the faces were new. Didn’t matter. In mid-April I was (finally) furloughed from work, and spent as many mornings as I was needed there. Between that day in March and mid-September, no single week went by where I didn’t work multiple shifts – in August, I was in every single day.

In those early months of lockdown – March, April, May – everything was complete chaos. We were all coping with an ever-changing situation and at the peak of the whole thing, we were delivering over 50 food parcels a day to people in the borough. I didn’t stop the whole time I was on shift. I barely had time to check my phone. I was off Twitter. I was off email. Facebook. WhatsApp. Keybase. All the rest of the apps that constantly pinged and flashed up on my phone. I realised I did not miss it, because I was doing something *intensely important* and *incredibly urgent* and *very time critical*. It was a relief to be away from the drama, just for a while.

Above all, what I really treasure about that chaotic time is that I built the sort of bonds that I genuinely value: relationships with the best kind of gallows humour in-jokes, things nobody else understands because they don’t have that same unique frame of reference. I am, after all, intensely interested in people. One thing I am good at is fitting in with whatever’s going on. My general rule (when well and stable) is ‘take an interest in others before you talk about yourself’. I try and stick to this whenever I can. It doesn’t always happen. But you know what, there’s nothing worse than people who just talk about themselves constantly.

Thing is, I can multitask quite well. I can be boxing up eggs while having an earnest conversation about my Special Interests (whatever they are that week, got to love monomania) or sorting out cans of soup while listening to someone talking about their kids or whatever particular problem they’re having. You can cover a surprising amount of ground in a three-hour shift.

I don’t remember if I told anyone about being mentally ill at the start. It kind of came out if and when it was relevant to the conversation, I guess. I’m desperately trying (and mostly failing) to stop marking myself out as ‘the mad one’ immediately in any new situation. The thing about my brain and its various means of self-sabotage is its unwavering ability to make me doubt everything. Relive every conversation, wince over every awkward situation, read too much into nothing. I think one thing about being so chronically bullied as a kid means my default is to disbelieve that I’m likeable or nice: but that’s really miserable so I sort of go with the evidence now. People seem happy to see me. I don’t think anyone I volunteer with there would mark me down as shy. I’m very good at hiding it.

Lockdown has been the biggest test of my sanity in three years and I don’t know what would have happened if I’d not had keyworker status in those hard, early weeks and the opportunity to form those bonds and have all the genuine belly laughs we’ve had. Over the summer, as things slowly went more and more ‘back to normal’, people would peel off one by one, summoned back to work, often at the last minute, and I hated it. Now I’ve begun a lectureship – again at Manchester, but for now it’s totally online, so I’m down at the food bank once a week still. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let go of it completely.

I have not done a tenth for Southwark food bank as it has done for me. Doesn’t actually matter though does it?

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