Calm amid chaos: How to find joy while living in isolation

The first thing I do each morning is open the back door and sniff the air. Living as an undiagnosed autistic woman until I was nearly 40, I’ve regularly suffered mental and physical crashes that drag me outside of life for a while. Every three years, give or take – and I’m not convinced I’ve broken the cycle yet – anxiety has engulfed me, or I’ve become so exhausted that my body has gone on strike. I’ve lived through periods of continuous panic, when the machinations of my own mind have stood in the way of doing anything of much significance. Every few days, the one on my windowsill produces a desiccatedflower or a yellow leaf that I can ease off the stem and feel like I’m carrying out an act of nurture. These times out of life have an emotional quality all of their own, a heady mix of intensity and drift. Right now, I have boundless capacity for reading newspaper websites, for assessing the contents of my larder and tidying my house, but an utter aversion to the book I’m supposed to be writing. In these moments, I think of the author Jean Rhys, whose magnetic attraction to tumult found her living above a pub in Maidstone in 1951. Her husband, Max, was in the nearby prison for larceny, and Jean had rolled from one form of trouble to another for so long that it seemed like she wouldn’t recognise peace if she stumbled over it. While lodging in Maidstone to be close to Max, Jean’s world shrank – and it seemed to comfort her. She admired the row of black elephants on the mantelpiece, the plate of red apples on the table and the flowers that her landlady brought to her room. I recognise that dream state well: the shifted priorities, the uncanny calm amid chaos, and the way that the minutiae become unexpectedly luminous. It was here that Rhys finally began to write the story she had yearned to tell about the first Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. It’s tempting to claim that this period in exile gave birth to her enduring classic, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Isolation can leave us pacing like a caged tiger, measuring the dimensions of the rooms that contain us. This moment of mass confinement sees many of us grappling with a sudden sense of irrelevance, of being restrained fromsucceeding. We are urged to think of the bigger picture, and we do, but that does nothing to soothe the sense that our life’s work – the sum total of our ambition – is now consideredpetty. Being busy – being part of the brisk congress of daily life – is our code for being important, needed, wanted. In less interesting times, we will meet acquaintances on the street and tell each other how busy we are, what a rush we’re in, how fast life is. In quieter times, we can feel the presence of all thethingswe miss in our hurry. We begin to notice the cobwebs that have formed in forgotten corners, the gardens that are overrun with weeds. After I left my academic job two years ago, I realised that my sense of importance was only relevant in that very specific microcosm, and that the extra financial rewards of a salaried job were mostly squandered on fuelling my headlong pursuit of work itself. The takeaways and expensive groceries; the costly services that preserved my time. It felt like that moment of waking and watching a dream recede, incrementally remembering what is real and what is not. But that’s not to say that crises – and certainly not pandemics – are some kind of divine intervention to make us mend our ways. As writer and philosopher Alan Watts says, we cannot be happy until we find a way to accept that our life is riddled with insecurity. I’m embracing change yet again, pounding on my exercise bike in front of the TV, following ridiculous workout videos on YouTube, dancing to old records. Buy a copy for £12.59 at Gallery: 15 Ways to Lower Stress and Anxiety About the Coronavirus (Eat This, Not That)