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Letters to the self – on reading Letters from the Belly of the Whale

by Dr Roopa Farooki

 

I was lucky enough to be an early reader of these brave accounts, from young patients, children and teenagers who have suffered with their mental health, of what it was to live through the pandemic. These letters echo the difficult changes that were experienced, the sense of what was lost and the moments of light, written with candour and courage.

A dedicated team from Hampshire Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) started this bold project, encouraging young people to reflect and write on what the time of Covid-19 has meant for them. The anthology includes accounts from children of all ages and communities, nine-year-olds who quite liked staying home, eleven-year-olds who went through Eid celebrations without their wider families, teenagers who missed their friends and felt abandoned, young adults who had a keen insight into their deteriorating mental health, and who sought a way forward. We have honest stories of helplessness, as these young people tried to manage their anxiety, their depression and eating disorders in these unprecedented circumstances, and their resilience, as they tell their stories and open up a window into their lives. Here is a small sample of some of these letters.

I thought Covid-19 would be great because it would take me away from my school, but instead, it took me away from the world.

— Brooke, age 10 

 

Dear reader

This year has been a terrifying one, I believe the youth have been abandoned in our times of crises. We were told to stay home and to not see our friends, our families, our loved ones, we were told it was for theirs and our own safety. While we were at home we were not safe, families who need help couldn’t get it, my mum couldn’t get her blood tests nor could she always get the right medication. We were the ones hiding from the world, no longer having our freedom or our independence. Their decision to shut down our schools for six months was a chaotic one as many students have fallen behind.

We had no choice but their actions affected our lives, our futures and they believe this insanity they caused would not affect our mental health or our learning abilities however it has, it has damaged so many of the youth and yet we did not receive the help we so desperately needed. When we needed the protection of the government we were shut out without a voice to be heard.

We were abandoned when we needed help. We were abandoned by those who were supposed to keep us safe. We were abandoned.

 Lucinda

 

Dear Diary,

Today is Tuesday 29th of September 2020, the year of the coronavirus worldwide pandemic.

Lockdown lasted for 6 months. From March until August. At first, I was excited to do my schoolwork  at home in my pyjamas or comfy clothes. But after a month or so I wanted to go back to school and see my friends. During lockdown, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer that knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and ignored his pleas for air. This has been all over the news for a few months. There have been lots of protests about ‘black lives matter’. This is not saying that all lives do not matter, it is just saying that until we are all treated fairly some lives matter more during one period of time.

— Melissa

 

Dear Future Verity

I am 13 and have struggled with OCD since I was 6 years old. My OCD stopped me from having a relationship with my brother, it made me think he was unclear and dirty. I thought I would get ill if I gave him a hug or sat next to him in the car and even walk into his room. I know it sounds silly however it really did make me feel insecure and scared but in lockdown I realized how important it is to sort out my relationship with him.

One day in lockdown I decided that it’s about time I sort things out. I went to my brother’s room and I gave him a hug, then I got him to sit on my bed, and touch most of the objects in my room. Since then I knew it was possible to have a normal life at home.

However, I know that OCD WILL try to get back into my life and I KNOW I am not going to give in!

It is much easier to cope at home now.

 From Verity

 

Dear future Marnie

I’m writing to you in hope of reminding you what your COVID-19 experience was like. Is COVID-19 over? I’m hoping that by the time you receive this, it will be. Feel free to get emotional.

The first lockdown had me feeling really low. I felt alone and thought no one would understand.

The only thing I could look forward to was seeing a few of my close friends. Most days, my friends Rosa and Sadie would come round to the park near my house and we would talk. Often about nothing. I remember one particular day when we had all held off crying and our emotions had just built up. We just cried. We sat behind a bush and just hugged and cried. We stayed like that for hours. Being able to let out all my emotions and stresses with them felt so good. I knew I could trust them not to tell anyone.

I realised that it wasn’t healthy to let it all build up inside me, so I started having small chats about how I was feeling with my mum. That really helped me. I don’t think I would have been able to keep it together without that. I am so thankful to them and love them all. 

After the summer holiday, I started secondary school. It was all quite normal, except from having to social distance. 

Then we got the news of a third lockdown. It was devastating. Any dreams of having a regular year were demolished. Online school started. As January went on, I started to feel mentally and physically sick. There are so many emotions swirling around in my head: stress, anxiety and fatigue. It’s hard. Impossible. I’m not sure how much longer I can last in this kind of situation.

Yours sincerely,

Marnie

Aged 12

 

Dear future me,

I write in hope that you will find this letter and read it.

Do you remember the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and celebrating Eid at the end of it during the stay at home lockdown? You probably do since life in 2020-2021 (and probably further, I don’t know) was a BIG DEAL. Usually you would go to the masjid to pray Eid Salah, visit people as it is a usual custom on this occasion and go out and about meeting people, but this time is way different.

We did it all at home, instead. 

 Rahmat, Age 11

 

 

Dear future Elenor

Right now the future seems bleak. This virus has swept the world and not left one person unaffected. Whilst lockdown is lifting and some people are excited, I feel lost, scared and angry.

Lost because I can’t see or believe that life will ever be normal again. I can’t see how I’ll ever go back to college – can’t see how I’ll travel abroad in my gap year, go to Uni or even do everyday things like hanging out with friends. What if I never get to do them again? 

Scared because I don’t know how to “be”, every social interaction is awkward; there’s suspicion (have you got it? Are you safe? Have you been responsible?). What if I die? What if I give it to someone else and they die? What if something so joyful as kissing someone means you give them the kiss of death? How can I ever relax and not worry that my actions or the actions of others won’t end in tragedy?

Angry because it’s not fair. Angry because thousands upon thousands have died. Not enough tests, not enough protective equipment, unclear guidelines, restrictive measures coming in too late. It feels as though deaths were avoidable and preventable and that makes me mad. And it’s not fair that life has been so disrupted, it’s not fair that life has been paused and possibly irreversibly changed.

I’m writing this as I never want to forget, never want to take my life for granted.

 Elenor x

 

 

There are more letters in the anthology, from children of eight to young people in their late teens. All bearing witness to this time for their future selves.

I’ve had the privilege of being a junior doctor for young people dealing with their mental health during the pandemic. Some have started their treatment journey with me in a GP surgery, I have looked after them as they came by ambulance into A&E, and on the hospital paediatric wards. I have spent time with them at their bedside, taking their history, and listening to their stories. 

So it is wonderful to see these letters fly out into the world. I hope that you will learn as much as I did from this kaleidoscope of communal experience. These are the personal stories that build bridges between us, that connect us in these strange times. That brave act of writing, that act of connection, is precious.

These young people have much more to say to us.

 I just have these few words: Listen to our stories.

 

www.pgwells.co.uk/shop/local-authors/letters-from-the-belly-of-the-whale/

 

 

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