What Christmas 2020 meant to me

My favourite tradition

My favourite Christmas tradition is to wake up early whilst the rest of the house sleeps on, shrouded in darkness. I pad downstairs in my dressing gown and slippers and turn on the Christmas tree lights, breathe in its piney scent and watch the lights twinkle lazily, hearing only the reliant ticking of the clock. I love the solitude of these moments: reflecting on the sentimentality of each Christmas decoration and embracing that ‘Christmassy’ anticipation that only comes round once a year.

Usually, these opportunities of peace and quiet are rare across the festive season. The weeks leading up to the big day are a frenzy of spending, searching and ticking off lists. We plan 6-hour car journeys, menus, presents and the dreaded Christmas dinner. There is constant worry: did I send cards to all the right people? Will the turkey feed all 10 of us? What will great Aunt Maud do to offend mum this year?

This rush is always a given – there’s no other choice. The planning and worrying and purchasing is all forgotten on Christmas Day when we’re surrounded by loved ones, wholly absorbed in cheer and warmth (and a few too many glasses of Buck’s Fizz). The following week flies by in a blur of food, alcohol and TV and, before we know it, the holidays are over and January is upon us. We’re in a new year but with slightly larger waistlines and still with the slight remnants of a hangover. Although we know we had a lovely time, we’re also exhausted and don’t feel we had much of a break at all.

But now as I sit on my sofa, watching the lights twinkle and drinking tea, I realise 2020 altered the typical construct of Christmas. It’s just Callum and I at home this year, in Tier 4 – a far cry away from the Christmas we’d planned with Callum’s family coming to stay. The big dinner, family games and long dog walks we’d envisioned were replaced with lots of Christmas films and colouring books. For the first time, my favourite moments of peace and quiet aren’t limited to 07:00 in the morning whilst the rest of the house sleeps on. On the 27th of December, I’m immersed in silence and have the rest of the Christmas break yawning ahead of me with no places to be or even a reason to get out of my pyjamas. Now don’t get me wrong… Christmas away from family has been heart-wrenching, particularly because the distance between us means we’ve not seen each other for at least 6 months. But, I’m a glass-half-full type of person: the perks of modern technology and frequent FaceTimes help us feel not too far away – I still saw my nephew excitedly open his Christmas presents and my parents’ delight when I opened mine.

This year taught me the festive period doesn’t need to be as manic as the rest of the year. Taking time to enjoy the holiday is important. The winter season is all about slowing down, enjoying creature comforts and – like our animal friends – hibernating (although self-isolation has taken that a step too far for many of us). Next year, I hope the pain and sadness Covid-19 brought to the world is long behind us – there’s that optimism creeping in again – and that we combine the rare positives taken from this year with the love of being back with those we care about most.

Buying our first house in lockdown

Being the superstitious worrier that I am, I’ve delayed writing this post to avoid jinxing the very motive behind it. Clearly the House-Buying Gods smiled down on me and appreciated my thought because thankfully this blog can go ahead. We own our own house!

Thinking back to pre-lockdown feels like years ago. Nevertheless, it’s only been five short months since we started looking at buying our first property. We fell in love with only the second we viewed and, one cold February night after our third viewing, excitedly called the estate agent from a local bar (obviously, liquid courage was necessary) and made an offer. My partner and I both work in sales so aimed to play the estate agent at their own game and after some back-and-forth it wasn’t long before we had our offer – which was nicely below asking price – accepted and mortgage confirmed. It only became real when this monstrously large figure was added to our direct debit accounts after moving in.

We had a week of blissful stress-free skiing in France and were, no surprise, sat in a local bar when we heard about the lockdown that had just hit Europe. We frantically called our mortgage advisor who started hinting at some potential outcomes and outlined a couple of additional considerations: delays further up the chain, halts in the housing market in the future, dramatic reduction in house-prices… Maybe the House-Buying Gods weren’t going to be so kind after all. We had 0 experience of purchasing anything more expensive than a car so the thought of gambling with hundreds of thousands of pounds (as well as the next ten years of our lives) was terrifying.

Being the worrier I am, I had visions of being stuck in a house for the next 30 years with no ability to sell because the house wasn’t worth what we paid for it. I had premonitions of wanting to start a family but with no hope of moving somewhere closer to our own parents in Devon. We couldn’t even go to see the house again because of lockdown restrictions and no number of drive-bys eased our concern. My partner is without question the less-stressed one in the relationship so thankfully his cool head and process-driven methodology kept us on the straight-and-narrow. We both spent time researching the housing market (which, in hindsight I like to think we would have done had lockdown not happened) and took our parents’ advice to sit tight.

Now, living hundreds of miles away from our friends and family and with both of us working from home through lockdown (and sans printer) made signing contracts and having witnesses for said contracts extremely difficult. What would usually take us an hour or two took us weeks, adding to the anxiety that we wouldn’t get our paperwork completed by our exchange date – which unbeknownst to us – was taking place six weeks earlier than planned. Cue extreme wine-drinking and feeling like we were in a scene from Money Heist gathering thousands of pounds for our deposit ready to send to our solicitor.

And then, there was nothing. We received polite emails to confirm our life savings had been safely stashed and were told to wait for a call on the day of completion weeks later to pick up our keys. We organised delivery vans and carpet cleaners and packed up about 2 weeks earlier than necessary, then before we knew it the 15th July was here and we were driving to pick up the keys (clearly we were driving far too hastily as we got caught speeding on the motorway. Great start.)

But, finally, we did it! We spent 2 solid days scrubbing the place top to bottom and running up and down *our own* stairs like children. Our first few nights felt like we were staying in a hotel and having cool glasses of G&T in the garden in the evenings felt like living in a dream. The weeks between our move-in date and today have been one huge blur. We’ve had both sets of our parents travel up from Devon and have spent more time in the sun in the last few weeks than we did in the entirety of last year (a garden with sun is 100% my favourite part of the house).

I’ve only started to understand just how stressed living in a built up area with no garden or sunlight was making me. I’m so much more relaxed being in our own place where I can see a sunrise and sunset and am in walking distance of a woods (and yes I’ve already scoped out at least 10 riding stables in the local area). Having our own base really is priceless and I’m so happy we stuck with our guns – particularly for a home that really is everything we wanted it to be.

I’m sat in the garden with a G&T on one of the hottest days of the year, the sun beaming down, feeling truly content. Next step… a puppy!

Mental Health in Lockdown

It’s in your hands

As someone who has notoriously struggled to prioritise improving my own mental health, I’ve always been great at finding welcome distractions to ensure it’s never at the top of my list. But, deprived of interruptions through lock-down, I gave time toย think about the way I think.

What I found wasnโ€™t great.

Working in a high-pressure environment and generally putting high pressure on myself in life, I learned I thrive off nervous energy (and black coffee), only feel I’m succeeding when working myself to the bone, and had stopped giving attention to hobbies Iโ€™ve always loved.

Lock-down meant I had no choice but to slow down. Spend weekends in. Have hours with nothing whatsoever to do. At first this meant panicking about not being productive and definitely drinking too much wine. Lately though, I’ve made a conscious effort to get back to old hobbies and find excitement in doing things I’ve always loved.

So many people are going through hardship and I imagine many feel the way I have: burnt out, stressed, nervous of what this pandemic means for our lives long term. Without realising, these thoughts can take over, removing the ability to find the positive.

I wanted to share some methods which helped me re-focus my mind-set and seek to find something good in each day, no matter how small.

What’s helped me see the good:

 ‘Positive emails’ inbox: My job involves a lot of highs and a lot of lows, meaning appreciation always goes a long way. Since joining BJ in 2018, I’ve started saving positive emails into a folder. When having a hard day I spend time reading these and reminding myself of times my colleagues and managers have gone out of their way to tell me I’m doing well.

– The ‘good things’ list: I was recently reminded of some really great things that had happened lately which I’d totally lost sight of in amongst colossal negatives in the world. It shocked me how easily I’d let these positives pass me by. Now, I give 5 minutes a week to think of at least 5 things which have happened in the last 7 days which were positive or that I’m proud of.

 Look around: Maybe lock-down has given you time to redecorate. Maybe you cleaned the windows for the first time since moving into your apartment (guilty). Maybe you nailed a job application, or finished a first draft of a CV. Maybe you binge-watched the entirety of Money Heist in four days (also guilty). Remind yourself of what you achieve every day and high-five yourself for it.

– Gratitude: There’s been a lot of anger lately. But there’s also been a lot of thanks. I’m so grateful for my partner making sure I eat lunch everyday and I’m thankful for my big sister who makes me laugh with daily videos of her home-schooling my nephew. Remind yourself of the people who bring positivity into your life without even trying.

– Hobbies that are just yours: I’ve found a new love of jigsaws, rejuvenated the love I get from writing, and go barely a few hours without reading some of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (yes I bought all 20 books). Find/rejuvenate a hobby that you only need yourself to do. My guilty pleasure is Wasgij puzzles and Talk Radio on a Saturday night.

These have been a small selection of things which have worked for me. In no way do I mean for this to take away from the impact of what has been a monumentally challenging few months, but I hope that it provides some support to those out there who need it.

For anybody struggling with their mental health, please reach out to one of the following resources:

–         www.anxietyuk.org.uk

–         https://thelucyraynerfoundation.com/

–         www.menshealthforum.org.uk

–         www.mentalhealth.org.uk

–         www.mind.org.uk