I like to think I am quite well-prepared for chaos. I have an alarmingly chill reaction to disaster and can take events that might completely ruin someone else’s year in my stride as almost absentmindedly casual.
It’s a mixed blessing because obviously the more rapidly you move on from one thing going wrong, in these end-of-days times, the faster you can run into the next. But I have spent the best part of the last fifteen years bouncing from disaster to disaster like a cheery Italian plumber over pipes filled with carnivorous blossoms.
The princess has always turned out to be in another castle once I’ve negotiated my way through each “this week, after which everything’ll calm down a bit” but the next level loads up whether you’re ready or not and off we bounce again. It’s a common problem, made worse because the better we all get at it, the faster we can chain the weeks after which we hope things will calm down a bit together, until you’re speed-running life in real time with no saves.
What crisis were you on, at the end of February? It’s difficult to think back that far, let alone contextualise problems that seem completely abstract now.
I’d had a seizure from a concussion I should have paid more attention to the medical advice about, two years previously. Which had somewhat knocked me for six, literally because normally what I am very good at is never sleeping, working all the time and somehow holding it together. I say ‘very good at’ — it’s probably why I can’t hold down jobs and I get nervous at the concept of time off but anyway, I’m very accustomed to doing that particular series of side-scrolling jumps so it surprised me when I suddenly missed one and fell into the spike pit below.
By the end of the month I was fairly sure a job I’d really loved was over and also not absolutely clear on whether my own brain was trying to kill me in more than the usual common-or-garden depression ways. It felt a bit worrying about whether I’d be able to travel as much as you need to, in as tricky ways as is economical, to be a motorsport journalist, for awhile.
At least that hasn’t proven to be so much of an issue in the intervening seven months. It’s funny how the complete shutdown of everything can really put things into total non-perspective.
After all, it’s not as though I’ve spent 2020 rediscovering a life without a relentless international schedule and coming to appreciate the quieter things in life. Although I do get very excited about supermarket delivery slots, now. But if the familiar level map has stopped being there, it’s only because the whole thing’s been flattened.
Where there were peaks and troughs to jump to and over, everything’s now just the same. Safe tower, spike pit — you trudge on over them regardless. There’s no end point, just the strange, creeping revelation that it’s October and you’re still stuck on this bit.
The same way stringing sprints together before had been a delicate balancing act, this is now except with no distance between success and failure, the consequences are so immediate. There’s no drop to the spike pit now and maybe that makes it easier to drag yourself over or just that you don’t even get the chance to reset a life.
It’s the huge things: my friend died and I wrote it up as editorial obituary, instead of going to his funeral. The, ultimately, kind of frivolous things: I was in a Hollywood documentary released this year and I never got a moment to mark that and I’ve written it off as another career achievement that, for whatever reason, doesn’t count and kind of upsets me to even think about.
The things that slip: I’ve been meaning to move out of my ex’s house since January and yet here I still am, letting him nap on me on the sofa. The genuinely difficult things: I was meant to be finding a new job, since mine doesn’t exist anymore but it turns out I might only be qualified for one incredibly niche thing now and the repeated, shameful process of borrowing money to cover even just my worst debts has been too terrible to really think through. The truly weird things: somehow, last month, I got kind of cancelled in Finland’s biggest newspaper in the middle of a spray of abuse from self-declared neonazis.
Which is all oddly specific but same as whatever your February crisis was, I bet you’ve got your own list. And just as nebulous, de-anchored from time, un-moved-on-from, written off in this limbo space that doesn’t count but which is accumulating, dusty and messy, all around you.
We all keep joking about wearing proper clothes again some time, don’t we but it’s October and you’re still in sweatpants and the to-do list is still full of things that hardly seem meaningful anymore and there’s just always so much washing up to do, for some reason.
I’ve had several-month-long, fugue state breakdowns before where I neglect my life and barely cling to work and lose contact with people and get stranger and smaller and snippier, hurting myself to jam ever further into whatever short, dark hole I’ve dug. Every time, it’s been a process of self-beratement that I ought to be able to just stop being a feral little goblin and pull myself together, the ugly cycle of collapse just before you reach, finally, the even more hideous catharsis of a full breakdown.
That ending isn’t happening, to the lockdown. There’s no pause in the amount of stuff you’re navigating; in fact there’s a lot more and you’re a lot less equipped to deal with it, that flattened landscape drawing out endlessly without a horizon.
I’ve been meaning, for months now, to write a piece called ‘the recovery starts here’ — it was going to be when I moved house but that didn’t happen and it was maybe going to be when I got some work again but that’s just got sort of complicated and without any fanfare-style announcement to make and there isn’t… this isn’t going to end, is it?
Just as, at least in the UK, lockdown was stumbled into and mismanaged, I — like everyone else I know, pretty much — have been stumbling through and barely managing the experience. It’s not because we’re deficient, it’s because this is unmanageable and we’re all just pretending.
I know everyone keeps saying that. But it is actually unmanageable. If you’ve managed to keep your job so some of the basic economic demands of continuing to be alive are at least relatively sorted, you’re still navigating the hellscape of shielding, no unnecessary trips, somehow still watching at least 50% of the people you know go on holiday each weekend via the cinema of ghouls that is Instagram Stories, maybe you lived in one of the places — I did — where food was still kind of tricky and sporadic to buy until maybe June, maybe you’re working from tiny, cramped apartments not designed to spend time in or with your entire family bundled in around you or at risk and in layers of PPE.
And it’s not going away, it’s actually getting worse. There’s a border in Kent now or something — I’ve been trying not to keep up with the news because it’s too horrible realising not only do I have absolutely no control over the things happening in that but everything could just shut down again any second, completely rightly, in a game of musical chairs where it feels like a lot of contestants will just refuse to acknowledge if they’re caught out. You know, politicians…
I don’t often have meltdowns. I take most things on the chin. In January some idiots decided to threaten to ‘leak’ a picture of me in my underwear because I said 25 F1 races a year was too many, so I posted it myself, from a hotel room in Peru and forgot it even happened. Things happen a lot and usually I just pick myself up and move on from them.
By the second month of lockdown I got told off by a PR for some genuinely distressed, erratic tweets that, yes, I shouldn’t have sent but also it’s quite unusual for me to be a person of interest to anyone’s PR. Anyway, in the process of being told off I phrased swinging between ‘suicidally doomed’ and ‘suicidal but for a different reason,’ during the period where I stoically waited to declare bankruptcy (and by stoically I mean stayed up until 4am drinking neat vodka), as “struggling to regulate my emotions in lockdown.”
It’s quite a good phrase, I highly recommend it for excusing anything from snapping at the people you cohabit with to a full-blown, public breakdown. It’s clinical, you know, has that official feel — not ‘tired and emotional’ (though god, we all are all the time now) but an ‘you asked me how I was doing and I want it to be clear that a follow-up question will be at your own peril’ implied threat is frontloaded.
Tiny, stupid things I would have crowingly laughed at set me right off now. I had to leave Twitter and Tumblr for a week because of some nitpicking anons I wouldn’t have let worry me any other time. I have to exercise extreme self-restraint not to look at people I know post a lot of whining about me — I never do this. I shrug it off. I have a lifetime’s supply of not letting things get in my head and suddenly every tiny thing is.
I don’t do anything as useful or cathartic as cry about it, just scud along on this flatline emotional landscape where the highs are very low and the depths are incredibly immediate and crushing and it’s so hard not to just be furious and panicked and desperate all the time.
I keep thinking there’ll be a bit where things recover — you know, stuff goes more back to normal — and life’s landscape gets excitingly sculpted again and I can merrily careen off over the bumps and towers. You do, too, I know because even my most pragmatically-minded friends keep talking about ‘when this is all over’ as though it will be and we’ll all have a party and it won’t be in the smoking ruins of the burnt-out planet.
I don’t know if it’s helpful to you but it’s sort of been helpful to me to move on from thinking that. I kept hoping things might pick up where they left off, at some point, that the career I’d spent years building might be salvageable in something like its then-form, that things might not have to change too drastically but it’s more useful, for me, to accept it now. The highs might not come back and when they do they might be really different and much harder to jump from one-to-one of.
Or they might be covered with other people and I have to accept the flat, low landscape longer, maybe indefinitely. And it’s not unfair, although it is, because although it might make you want to howl in frustration and ragequit, it’s just what’s happening now.
We regret to inform you that it is October and the princess is still in another castle…