'I hardly remember the last time my daily to-do list was quite this empty'juliet babinsky for varsity

Content Note: This article contains discussion of mental health, therapy and the impacts of coronavirus.

Spring sunshine pokes its head through the open back door. Magic Radio on full blast. My sister, still in her plaid pyjama bottoms, is dancing around the kitchen. My mom diligently checks the latest coronavirus headlines for the fourth time this morning.

I hadn’t quite realised how much I had grown to love my Cambridge life until I was faced with six long months away from it

I am acutely aware that this peace, my precious bubble of calm, is starkly at odds with the turmoil elsewhere in the world. Reminders of the coronavirus pandemic are all around us. Supermarket shelves are empty. Vulnerable people are fighting for their lives. Already weakened by decades of Tory austerity, the NHS risks being overwhelmed.

But right now, on this Sunday morning, in our family kitchen, the rest of the world feels far away. I hardly remember the last time my daily to-do list was quite this empty, the last time I felt quite this grateful. This gratitude feels insensitive, callous even, but in many ways it makes perfect sense.

Like so many in our mad modern world, pressing pause has never been something I’ve found particularly easy.

Even as a child, I filled whole weekends with school projects. For me, a simple piece of geography homework on the structure of the earth would turn into pages and pages of creative writing, accompanied by elaborate illustrations. This ruthless perfectionism, this refusal to put anything less than my all into any project, followed me doggedly through my education.

Over the years, a pattern emerged. Every time my mental health began to unravel, I clung to my academic studies all the tighter. My last year at school was particularly rough. I hid the struggles in my head behind a wall of endless practice papers, engineering projects, weeks of fundraising, and a general aura of busyness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach eventually proved unsustainable.

The ‘staying well’ plan I left therapy with said nothing about ‘social distancing’ or ‘self-isolation’

I came to university determined not to make the same mistakes. At first, this was more difficult than I had imagined – it turns out Cambridge can be a difficult place to prioritise self-care. But gradually, towards the end of my second term, I started getting better at choosing my mental health over my degree, my friends over my unfinished examples papers.

The intensity of the sadness I felt when I read about the cancelation of Easter term took me by surprise. I hadn’t realised quite how much I had grown to love my Cambridge life until I was faced with the prospect of six long months away from it.

For those with a history of mental illness, the prospect of months at home can be particularly dangerous. Put it this way: the ‘staying well’ plan I left therapy with said nothing about ‘social distancing’ or ‘self-isolation.’ For me, it is tempting to fall back into old habits, to fill all my new-found time with revision for exams that might or might not be happening, with the past Tripos questions my supervisors set us before the chaos began in earnest.

Even if I maintain a healthy relationship with my academic work, this unexpected time at home still comes with some hefty expectations. Learn a language, play an instrument, take up crocheting, perfect your MasterChef signature dish, make it big on TikTok — the internet is full of advice on how to make the most of the coming weeks.


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These are all noble pursuits. But just because there are hundreds of things you could be doing doesn’t mean that you have to feel guilty for the lazy mornings in bed, the afternoons spent reading in the garden, the evenings watching Netflix or the quiet time you need to catch your breath.

This restlessness, the pressure to always appear busy extends far beyond this strange lockdown period. In Cambridge, being productive is about so much more than just one’s academic studies. Everyone seems to be a Blue, a semi-professional musician, in half a dozen plays a term, climbing the slippery slope of student politics, or more often than not, some combination of these. While I am truly blown away by the talents of my peers, as someone who fits squarely into the ‘none of the above’ category, the inevitable ‘and when you’re not studying?’ often leaves me feeling woefully inadequate.

I am still very much a work in progress. It is difficult to unlearn a lifetime of unhealthy habits. True self-acceptance still feels impossibly far away. And yet, slowly but surely, I am beginning to accept a gentler way of living, both in lockdown and in life.

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