“I originally came to house-sit for a relative in Piddlehinton, and just loved it. Then, in 2008, shortly after I qualified as a nurse and got a job at Dorchester Hospital, a house in the Close came onto the market.
I still work at the hospital, doing one night shift a fortnight. I pre-book to work in Intensive Care because that’s what I love – my little zone. You either love it or it’s not for you. I like the busyness, the quickness, the unexpected. I get a real buzz from it.
It did feel frightening when we knew the virus was coming. My family were concerned, although not so much because I’m a nurse. They saw my living in a village as being quite isolating, and none of them were near. To be honest, although I was frightened I felt safe, purely because of where I live. If there was anywhere I’d want to be locked down, it’s here. And knowing that, made me think that I could do it alone. That, and the Whatsapp group and the fact that I’m very close to Vickey – everyone needs a Vickey in their life. She gets what home life is for me.
I have two sons, Alfie and Regan. Alfie was diagnosed with autism when he was three; then later on Vickey became his learning support at school. I don’t say how severe his autism is; to me autism is just autism. But I probably don’t know many people in the village because I’ve always been so busy being a mum to him. When he was younger I was lucky if I could stop and say hello, let alone have a conversation with anyone. I was always running after him, calling, ‘Sorry, I’m not being rude,’ as I ran. As he’s got older he’s got a lot better – touch wood – and I’m more able to talk to people. And now, because of the Whatsapp, people will say, ‘Hi Abi’. And it’s like, ‘Oh you know my name!’ Which is nice.
When Alfie was little I did feel really judged. The comments and looks I’d get; I stopped taking him to supermarkets. These days I just don’t care. But also, not many people knew about my situation, I just didn’t used to tell anyone. Now I’ve got a sign on my car, and so many people stop me and say it’s brilliant. It says, ‘Child on Board with Autism. In the case of an accident he may resist help.’ Because he would run. Or he would hit. Or he would scream.
It feels like there’s a lot more understanding of people on the spectrum now. Alfie himself recognises that his brain works differently, while I see his autism as an ability, not a disability. He’s bright enough to think, ‘That person is understanding me, or that person is judging me’. And he’ll play up and dislike that person accordingly. If he feels comfortable, and they’re open to his needs, he’ll interact.
But it meant that I was never able to do the young mums’ social scene, and my life was very restricted. When he was in mainstream school I’d get phone calls willy-nilly, like, ‘Can you come and collect him’ or even, ‘We’ve lost him.’ What?! I could never plan anything, never even leave Dorchester. Mum would be like, ‘Come shopping in Poole’, but I never would; it felt too far away.
When Alfie went to special school in Weymouth I felt l like I’d got my life back. Not watching the time, not constantly checking my phone. School collect him every morning and I feel I can do whatever I want when he’s there, go wherever I want. If he has a meltdown they don’t tell me – they just deal with it. Because they get it. Which means I now have so much freedom, because I know he’s safe.
Of course, all of that disappeared in lockdown. And if you asked me my lowest point I’d have to say, being stuck inside with Alfie. She laughs. Much as I blinkin’ love him.
Covid meant he hit the anxiety of the unknown. I couldn’t actually get him out of the house for four weeks – not even into the garden. He was like, ‘We can’t go out, Mummy, because of the virus,’ and it then took another month to get him out the front door.
I did a lot of self-talk. I was like, okay, let’s not panic about this. Because he’s very emotionally driven. He’ll sense how I’m feeling. So I just said to myself, I can go in the garden, Regan can go in the garden, Alfie will come around. If we go out there, eventually he’ll come around. Regan missed his friends, but actually for Alfie lockdown was a dream; happy in his bubble. He’ll play with water, with toys. He likes his computer programmes and baths. He’ll stay in there for hours.
For three months I didn’t see anyone. Apart from doing my weekly food shop, going to work, and one time when Mum came and sat on the lawn. I’ve got to be honest with you, out of our whole family I know Mum thought, ‘Abi’s going to struggle with this’. But when we came out of it, she said, ‘Abi, you did better than anyone. The rest of us struggled, but you just sailed through it. How did you do that?’
And I said, ‘Coz it’s my happy place. Where I live. Purely that.’
My house has always been full of bright colours – I try and keep things positive like that. You see, going back to 2009 I had an experience of depression and anxiety. So now I’m so aware of it and will always work to prevent it happening again. Be positive. Monitor my moods. Because I never saw it coming and it put me at rock bottom. I couldn’t even get out of the bedroom, and it lasted for nine months. They said it was a mental breakdown.
I was so ecstatic that I’d bought this house and was working full-time as a nurse. Apparently, I over-exhausted myself at work. I had CBT and medication, and I spoke a lot in my counselling about things I’d never thought bothered me. Just little things, from my childhood – but obviously they’d piled up.
Now, because of my own experience, my mental framework means that any sort of situation where Alfie’s kicking off, I’ll think, ‘What’s the worst that can happen here? He needs to get through this. I need to get through this. Don’t react. Stay calm.’
It’s like when Alfie refused to go out I just thought, the doors are open, he’s getting fresh air. If I try and make him, it’s not gonna work. But then, once I finally persuaded him … Woah! My God. He literally was flying his arms up and down and I was like, ‘Alfie, this is all you needed to do. You’re with Mummy.’ But he was so frightened of seeing another human who could have Covid.
Of course, they’d still see me going to work, which was hard. Alfie was like, ‘Mummy, please be careful’. But even though I worked in the Covid bay, I did feel safe – once I was completely kitted out. We had to wear this all in one thin plastic boiler suit, with an apron on top. I wore an air-hood – so that I didn’t breathe the air in – a net over my hair and gloves on my hands and feet. Literally no skin.
It took a good fifteen minutes to put on and it was hot, working in it for up to four hours. It was quite a cold bay, luckily, but the suit was claustrophobic. Where it gave you air, I constantly had this wooshing sound, as well as trying to hear my hand-over or my patients’ vital signs. It was exhausting, to be fair.
I experienced the ward at its busiest, when we had six in a bay. When I watched snippets of London ICUs, I felt like I was having the same experience down here. I felt like saying to everybody, believe what they’re showing on the news, because that’s here.
It was frightening. Although moral stayed high, because, wow, we’re such a good team, we keep it good. We don’t really moan a lot. We did when we were struggling to get hold of kit. That was a hard time. But generally we just kept positive in our bubble, because we had to. We’re the ones dealing with it, aren’t we?
What the news didn’t tell you was that Covid19 affects the renal system, along with the respiratory one. Those patients were all ventilated – all prone, quite still, many with kidney failure. Some were old, but there were also younger people too. It felt like being in some science fiction film, or – the way I was kitted out – that I was going to the moon.
It’s been going on so long now that a part of me is a bit blasé now. But, having been in the bay, it still frightens me and I think, please don’t come back. I know a pupil at Alfie’s school has tested positive, which makes me feel it’s really close to home again.
Knowing what I knew did make me quite angry with people at times; feeling their behaviour was putting me more at risk. 100%. For me, during lockdown, unless it was a necessity and a need, I didn’t go out. I remember thinking, I’m constantly with my kids, unless I’m at work – which is totally draining – and then I come home, and see no-one.
Just do what you need to do, not what you want to, I kept thinking. And then, when they opened the beaches! I thought that was so wrong. We weren’t weaned back into reality slowly enough. We’re still not at reality – what that will be I don’t know. It just all could have been done a lot more sensibly – and that’s still the case.
For me, the highlight of lockdown was the singing. Yeah! Thursday nights: that was the highlight of my week. The boys’ dad, Luke, and me split up in 2017, but we still co-parent really well and are friends. So he would come over and watch Alfie, because I was like: ‘It’s Thursday, Regan and I are going’, and nothing would get in the way. Regan loved it. Oh my gosh, it was our special night. Later on, there was a time that Luke couldn’t come and I said to Alfie, ‘There’s no choice, you’re coming with me.’ He kicked my heels all the way through it. She laughs. But yeah, he came.
And the clapping… Oh! I cried every week. I’d stand outside on my own and clap and I could literally hear echoing from all over the village. That was nice. And meant a lot to be honest. And other things like the village sending me flowers? Hell yeah, that too made such a difference. They made me feel so special, like people felt I had a role – although not in the village itself. I wanted to help, but just couldn’t. My priority was often just… to get through each day.
With the nursing, however, I always feel a little bit apprehensive and just wanna put it out there that I only do two shifts a month. I think a lot about the people who are there full-time, because it was hard, doing just the one shift. Mentally and physically exhausting. So I don’t think I can take much praise, because there’s people doing it every day.
The WhatsApp group has been another highlight. Although I know a few more people in the village these days, spontaneous visits aren’t great; because Alfie has to be prepped. So the group is perfect. I often worried about what would happen if me or one of the kids got poorly – what would I do then? I tried not to think about it, because that’s negative, but the WhatsApp makes me feel reassured that if I did need something I could send out a message – for someone to grab me some milk or something – and I know that somebody would. I wouldn’t have done that before so I hope that the group continues FOREVER! It’s really important to me.
What’s also important is that I’ve got Vickey down the road. I don’t speak to her very often, but I know that I could turn up at her house and she’d be there. Or I could phone her, which is nice. There was one night when I met her in her garden and we just sat there, talking, watching the moon come up, the stars come out, until about midnight. I did hear about another secret drinking group. I wasn’t invited – and couldn’t have gone – but I love that.
And the ice lollies, they were great, because they involved the kids and were a routine thing. Perhaps for others in the village these were only small things, but for me they were the highlights.
But lockdown has meant more to me than just those things. Something quite life changing. If we were to take away the fact that it came with Covid – which is a horrible, horrible disease – my life is better because of it. It made me realise what life is about, what’s important to me, that you don’t need a lot. I hope it’s changed everyone’s perspective.
And it benefited me personally. It made me really embrace my home. I love where I live. It made me realise I’m lucky – even though it could be hard with Alfie – because it made me realise that I’m strong. That I can do this alone.
I’m not cross with my situation. I’m quite happy. I try to be positive and I’m properly into self-care. The kids go to bed early, because they have to; otherwise I’d lose my plot. And then I’m: bath; listen to music; cup of tea. I’m never lonely. Of course, I have the odd time when I get emotional, purely because I’m not with someone here. But my friends have been amazing. Constantly on the phone, sending me parcels – little gin glasses, that kind of thing. (Because at times I did like a little afternoon tipple, just to get me through to the kids’ bedtime).
When my mum said what she did, I was like ‘Whoop!’ because she’s never said something like that before. And it’s meant that Luke is now a bit more appreciative of me. He tells me I’m an amazing mum, which is lovely. And I can’t fault him as a dad. He’s never not turned up when I’ve asked him to come over.
Lockdown was a unique experience, for it meant that I had all that time on my own, with my kids. And it really made me learn about them, connect with them – even more. So for me, that’s the biggest positive of all.
Although I am anxious about going into another one. Because yeah, I did do it, I did cope. But could I do it again? Her lips form a raspberry, and she softly blows out…