Adapting: A COVID-Inspired Autobiography

As I sit and write this, I suppose I should first note that today is ‘not a good day’.

I’ve had a few of those now, thankfully not as often as I’d feared. It’s important to add that it doesn’t seem to be the ‘worst day’ either, but I think I might be saving that up for the future. (Have you also found yourself thinking about the future a hundred times more often than you normally do these days?)

We’re in a state of absolute chaos in the world right now. If I wasn’t so impacted by it, I’d probably just sit back in sheer fascination at what seems to be unfolding. The economy is crashing, people are dying and families can’t bury them, everyone is suffering in one form or another: physically, psychologically, emotionally. The entire globe is on red alert.

Don’t be a degenerate. Be a fermion. (Credit to an absolutely genius man on facebook for posting this first and bringing me much needed joy)

We can argue for days about what the best solution to this crisis is. I’ve personally seen enough agitators on every side of every argument, from the handling of the lockdowns to the handling of the economy. My goal with this post is not to tell you about what I think a good solution is or what I think the future looks like; my goal is to let you know how I’ve tried to handle it from my individual state in the world. Maybe it might make you feel less alone in trying to handle it too. Maybe you might learn something that helps you in the future. I hope it does.

Isolation

It’s day 11 of no physical human contact.

A better morning, from a few days ago. The sun was kind to me for most of this time alone and I’m actually grateful for it. One of the things I like is the quiet. It doesn’t disturb me. It calms me.

When I wake up, it’s usually very early (say 6am) and usually in one of two moods: serene and energised or anxious and lethargic. There doesn’t seem to be much of an in-between, which isn’t particularly heartening. Today was definitely the latter.

I always start the morning with a coffee. There’s something innately comforting about the ritual of it, the taste and the serenity of sipping something warm in the half-light of the not-yet-risen sun. It’s a good time to focus. I tend to get a lot of work done in that hour of wakefulness and calmness, unless the anxiety is so overpowering that even that best time is not enough.

The next thing on the list is usually a run outside – I’m very lucky to live next to one of the more secluded and beautiful river walkways in Glasgow. Generally this hour outside, sweating and breathing in the fresh air and morning light is the absolute best part of the day. There are few people around at 7/8am and the guilt of being outside during quarantine is almost non-existent. There are A LOT of squirrels up in Dawsholm park. I think they’ve taken over.

Squirrel kingdom, my kingdom. Thankfully, the park is pretty much empty during my runs and the views are enough to pull me out of the sadness of it all, even if for only a little while.

Sadly, today was also not a day for a morning run. I managed to mess up a muscle in my left calf (I KNOW, DURING QUARANTINE? For those of you that know me, you’ll not be surprised. It was generally all the running and dancing and raving) and I figured it might be good to rest it. It was also the first morning post-‘lockdown’, so I figured it’d be good to see what happens first.

The rest of the day usually consists of constant and futile attempts to get all my PhD work done. There is a lot. Not much gets accomplished. I take as many breaks as I can to get my head in gear: dancing around the house, playing the piano, reading and drawing, watching videos about the history of music. Hell, just crying, for the sheer catharsis of it all. It really doesn’t seem to help most times.

Then it’s 10pm and I feel like the day was mostly wasted and I can’t wait to just conk out and wait for the next day to come, to have this distant long-awaited future drop into my lap as soon as possible. It often feels like defeat.

But it’s not always like that. In fact, it’s been getting better. And on ‘not a good day’, I’d like to remind myself and anyone that might want to read this of exactly that. Of what we’re capable of. Of what it takes to make it to the next day. Of the sheer power of intellect paired with emotion, when they are working in tandem. I know this sounds preachy and maybe it is, I don’t know. But I’d like to say a few words about adaptability.

Adaptability – a Mini Autobiography

I have been trained from a ridiculously young age to adapt, particularly emotionally (it is always the hardest type of adjustment you have to make, trust me). My parents divorced when I was about 2 or 3 years old and my mum and I moved away to a tiny apartment in Vilnius. When I started primary school, I was alone very often, coming home from school to an empty house and frankly doing nothing but inhaling* books and watching cartoons all afternoon until my mum got home.

When I was 8, my mother did something genuinely incredible – she dumped her job as a Marketing Assistant at PricewaterhouseCoopers and passed an exam to become an administrator at the EU Intellectual Property Office in Alicante, Spain. This from a woman that had known almost nothing of the world outside Lithuania for most of her life and had been brought up in a very different regime. I am still in awe sometimes at what she’s accomplished.

So at the tender age of 9, I moved abroad. Around about 3000km away, to be more precise. I had never been abroad before. I think I couldn’t believe the first time I saw a palm tree in real life – I thought it was fake.

During our time in Alicante, we moved twice, meaning I lived in 3 different locations over the 5 years we spent there. A lot of that time I also had to spend alone at home, though we had Art Attack on TV (my room was overflowing with drawings and crafts) as well as a swimming pool which I practically lived in. I continued to inhale thousands of books.

Once her contract was over, five years later, we agreed that it would be best to move away and ended up in… Helsinki?

Well, there was an in-between period back in Lithuania of about 3 months. Oh, and mum had just had twins a few months before we left Spain, the absolute bestest brothers in the world I could have asked for. Of course at the time this meant sleepless nights, feeding, diaper changes, taking care of 3 other people while still trying to get through 8th grade (not to mention taking care of mum during pregnancy, FUN)! It was incredible that we made it out sane to be honest. Oh and the school I went to in Lithuania during that time was soul-crushing. SOUL. CRUSHING.

Then there was Finland. A tiny apartment, 2 tiny babies and an anxiety-prone mother-and-daughter duo, a newly-opened school with no kids in it (I was the eldest in Secondary school at the age of 14, of 6 actual people in said school). We’d moved from heat and eccentric extroversion to cold and quiet isolation. It took some getting used to, lemme tell you that much.

We moved twice while in Helsinki, too, before settling in my mum’s current flat. I managed to save myself from the tiny, bully-filled school I’d started out in and got myself a proper, amazing High School. Then I got an eating disorder that almost killed me.

Eh, you win some, you lose some.

I had to take a year out before starting University because of it though. And if there was ever a situation in my life I could compare to the quarantine we’re facing now, it would be that one year. I felt like a ghost half the time. My friends had moved on, my mind and health were unstable, my plans uncertain. I wandered the city every day, learning and reading and trying to stay sane with whatever friends I could find while also trying to get better. It was a strange time. It was sadness and anger and fear and loneliness.

But I got better. I overcame. In fact, apparently I overcame so well that I’m in a special group of kick-ass people. Mine lasted about 2-3 years, while the average is 8 and that usually involves a lot of relapses later on too. I think it still affects me, somewhere in the back of my mind, but I am healthy now and have never dropped below the right weight.

There really is a certain black magic to the first years of University. Honestly I’d give anything to go back, just for one day, just to feel it again.

Then came University and Edinburgh – so that I might experience some of the best years of my life. I remember I thought so little of the notion of moving away to a new country on my own that even I was surprised when I caught myself thinking about it. I’d been so used to dealing with things alone and adapting to new environments that it only seemed natural to keep doing it. Like that was what I’d been built for. This was further exemplified by the fact that I moved to a new apartment every single year of University, living with completely different people in completely different circumstances every single time.

Being me, I obviously picked the most intense degree I could think of: Computer Science and Physics. It was the best, most important choice in my life. Both subjects changed my entire perception of everything I’d ever known. It was tough though. I’d self-taught programming in my anorexia-recovery year and while I’d always loved Physics, I was by no means an outstanding specimen. It was really tough.

I made it through though! Made it through only to find that in my overzealousness I’d managed to not get any of the PhD offers I’d wanted, despite an objectively impressive CV. I dropped into a bout of depression then. Once again everything in my life seemed to have collapsed in on itself like a star turning into a Black Hole. Of course, despite the depression, I never fully gave up. I don’t think someone as high-functioning as me is capable of completely giving up. I cried every day and stopped seeing friends but I never stopped sending emails. It’s kind staggering, thinking back to how close I’d been to really… hurting myself and yet how determined I was to fix it with sheer willpower, despite believing that it couldn’t be fixed. Intellect and emotions working in tandem indeed.

It got fixed. I have an incredible PhD. I am still alive. I have people who care and people to care for. It was a long trip and a lot to learn but… wow. It was a hell of a trip. That’s all I can say in this stream-of-consciousness mode I’m in right now.

Covid-19 is just another trip.

Adaptability – a Non-Fictional Superpower

The reason for the above long-winded story (which doesn’t cover even a 10th of what I wanted to illustrate) is that it reminds me of how CAPABLE we can be to adapt. To endure. To see the best in circumstances that might even break a person.

I have lived in 14 different homes since I was born. I have gained and lost friends, been bullied, been alone, been an outcast and a powerhouse of socialising. I have been at the highest of heights and the lowest of lows, over many many years. I love and I hate and I am happy and I am sad and the world is a magnificent place, whether it’s outside of you or just in your own mind.

First ever hillwalk on the Isle of Skye. I remember not really believing where I was, what was happening. I remember it like it was yesterday, honestly, and sometimes I drown in that memory.

I will wake up every morning for the next month or so, ready to be alone. I will wake up every morning for the next month or so, hoping to see and hug someone I love. I will adapt. I will learn new things and learn to cope emotionally with a situation that is obviously far outside of my control, as most of my life has been. I can’t control this, but I won’t turn that lack of control into something damaging like anorexia. I will treat each day as a day when I’m moving into a new, tougher and weirder environment. I will treat is as I’ve treated every obstacle in my life: as something to be overcome, or at least to be outlasted.

Maybe some of you have not gone through 3 years of self-damage. Maybe some of you have never needed to adapt to 10 different ways of life. Maybe, to some, loneliness is even tougher than it is for me. I genuinely think most of you can adapt, though, and the rest are strong enough to endure the difficulties. You, more than I in the past, are at least doing it to save someone’s life, even if not directly. This crisis will pass, whether it takes a year or 5 to stop feeling its impact – or at least to adapt enough to not care about its impact.

Anyway, I needed to get this off my chest, whether it is ever read by anyone or not. I love you all, GENUINELY. If you are a person in my life then you have someone to turn to. Just reach out. Or just be happy on your own.

*I read the fourth Harry Potter book in about 2 days. At the age of 7. IT’S ABOUT 700 PAGES LONG. Even having been present for it I’m still rather amazed.

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