The dilemma Several months ago my partner of five years left me very suddenly. He’d gone abroad to work, but as far as I knew everything was fine. I even had flights booked to go and visit. The break-up was a huge shock that left me in a low place. After a few weeks I felt I was beginning to come out of the fog and start moving on with my life, going out and seeing friends, going to classes, etc, but then the lockdown was imposed. Being shut away in my flat all day, alone with my thoughts, I seem to be going backwards.
I’m very aware that we are in the middle of a global crisis and it’s awful for everyone. Luckily, I’m in a good position regarding pay and I’m not paying rent, so I really don’t have any reason to complain. However, all I can think about is my ex. It’s driving me a little bit mad. Do you have any advice on dealing with non-Covid-related troubles during this crisis? Talking to others about it is hard, and I don’t want to make it all about myself.
Mariella replies That’s a pandemic for you! This insidious, headline-hungry virus doesn’t detract from the very real dilemmas that each of us will be confronting, but it does reduce our airtime for complaint. Big issues, such as how to survive economically and even physically, can be a compelling distraction from more mundane meditations, but that doesn’t make the minutiae of daily existence any less of a hardship. I’ve noticed that the less stress-inducing activity there is going on in our lives, the faster smaller concerns expand to fit the allotted space.
The enormity of Covid-19 fears may dwarf our day-to-day dilemmas, but it doesn’t make what we are feeling any less relevant or painful. For some people, their biggest issues lie within their own four walls (the rise in domestic violence is a particular concern), for others the dangers are less immediate. Either way, few are entirely carefree.
Whether it’s regrets and fears, vivid dreams or sudden contact from the very-much-alive ghosts of our past, this virus is playing as much havoc with our subconscious as it is with the economy. The mental flotsam and jetsam bobbing by in the deep of night – and even in our daydreams – can be overwhelming.
It’s been fascinating to watch the highlights reel of my five-plus decades played out in my mind during these weeks of isolation. I presume I’m not alone in waking up from unexpected erotic nightmares or moments of particular passion or pain, dreams of contagion and euphoria, angst over abandoned friendships and pernicious thoughts about those lost over the years… I’m getting more sleep than usual, but I’m not sure it’s what you’d describe as restful as my mind relentlessly pounds the pavements of my past.
Dreams during lockdown feel more like they spring from the imaginations of the likes of JG Ballard and Isabel Allende – not little old humdrum me. The sheer unexpected nature of where my unconscious takes off to is unsettling in itself. Daytime, too, with so many manual chores and so little mental stimulation, is provoking all kinds of extraordinary and unexpected emotional memory drifts. I’m sure I’m not alone in hearing from people I thought I’d never see again and, as a result, am reliving events I’d presumed were firmly consigned to the past.
Thoughts of your ex are surfacing just as they might be expected to, and without the distraction of daily life it’s hard to shrug off such melancholic meanderings.
I heard an item the other day about online dating, where even the dates are now happening via apps and on other platforms. It seems to me an excellent way to distract yourself. Either you will end up with a tale to recount to your friends that will amuse and distract you all or, as you check out prospective candidates, you might even find one worth downloading into your real-world contacts to be pursued when the lockdown is over.
Being preoccupied with thoughts of your ex is predictable and unavoidable, but minimising the time you have to languish over them is in your power. There are three seasons of Ozark to watch, five of Peaky Blinders, there are documentaries on plastic in our oceans and Trump’s rise to power. There’s the pulse-racing dramatisation of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt to listen to on BBC Sounds, and a whole eternity of other books that you can finally get around to reading.
My go-to tomes for romantic possibility are from the Australian writer Tim Winton, but Ann Patchett does a good line in the triumph of hope over adversity, too. Limit the time for thoughts of your ex and you’ll gradually reduce his hold on your imagination.
A few months is a short time to recover from five years together, so look on lockdown as an opportunity to heal and don’t battle too hard against thoughts that will eventually fade. Our brains are in some ways similar to our bodies. We can’t remake them, but we can certainly train them to behave better. Try disciplining and inspiring yours to be a little less active where lost love is concerned and more proactive about where you’re off to next.
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