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By Natasha Loke, the winner of our 2022 "Write it Down!" Essay Competition

TW: anxiety, eating disorders

The first lockdown saved me.

I don’t like to admit this, because it seems selfish to me. To protect from the physical, the infiltration of the unseen, a virus with a name like the Latin corona, meaning crown… a despot that dominated us.

And we built fortifications against this despot. But walls could not shut out the even more unseen, the internal illness, that multiplied in the isolation and the fear. I do not have to prove it, but the statistics do anyway: over 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December 2020 reported symptoms of depression or anxiety, compared to 11% the year before. In the UK, data from NHS Digital showed that the number of under-20s admitted to hospital for an eating disorder in 2020-21 was almost double the previous year.

Has lockdown made it harder for us to live?

I was immune from the damaging effects of lockdown, for a while. Before, I was alone. I felt the world crumbling around me like a paper ball. I felt my bones eating me up from the inside, like Erisichtyon, but it was my mind that diminished: anxiety cascading into anguish, starvation into solitude more draining than death.

Behind those walls, I felt safe again. Safe from the world. I no longer had to force myself to stay at university, to study, to survive in this half-life, simply because I could not: it was not my perceived weakness that sent me home, but lockdown. Lockdown saved me from the forced intermission that my tutor was almost ready to impose because I could now study from home, where my parents looked after me and helped me eat again.

Maybe I am the exception. I know I am so lucky to have a home and a family that I love. For those who do not, lockdown must be a prison. And for most people, not being able to socialize, not having a routine where you can leave the house and meet people in your daily life is strange and stressful. Some people use food as the only thing they can control. Ubiquitous talk of lockdown weight gain only fuels disordered eating.

As time passes and the enemy with a toxic crown still infiltrates these walls, part of the fear is not knowing when you will be forced into your tortoiseshell once more. Anxiety breeds on uncertainty. And this situation is very much a part of the unknown – on top of the visceral fear of a villain that stalks and kills unseen in the daylight.

Walls are a paradox: providing safety, as well as isolation. In the second ‘real’ lockdown, it was the latter that ensnared me, after the first had healed me enough to find true friends in the short-lived freedom. When I made it out the second time I had forgotten again how to live in the world. I still don’t know. I am trying.

The new world, building up after the siege, is beautiful but scary, especially for those with social anxiety. Life after Ragnarök. Relearning how to socialize. How to function. If lockdown and freedom both trigger mental illnesses in different ways, is that a sign that they will happen anyway, no matter the circumstances? Partly. But the uncertainty that the pandemic has caused, in both directions, has made these pre-existing problems so much more prevalent, and a new fight must begin.

Some walls are made to keep us safe. But others — are meant to be broken.

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