How did lockdown feel?

In September 2021 my colleague Charlie and I were awarded a small grant by the British Academy to conduct a study on the emotional well-being of EU citizens in the UK, who had been affected by the double whammy of Brexit and Covid. We were especially interested in hearing from those, mainly middle-aged individuals, who have family responsibilities both in the UK and in Europe. We wanted to understand how they felt during the lockdowns, when the imposed travel restrictions added to the vulnerability caused by Brexit and their changed citizenship status. Because our aim was to open a window on their emotions and feelings, we opted for an art-based method. It was surprisingly easy to persuade them to engage in some form of creative work and even more amazing to receive the set of really interesting visual materials they sent.

In this blog I will focus on the pieces produced by some of our women participants, artworks that I found particularly powerful in expressing how the pandemic (and Brexit) affected their state of mind. Out of 25 participants to the study,  16 were middle-aged women of different nationalities (Italian, French, Hungarian, Danish, Polish, German, Spanish, Czech and Latvian) and backgrounds, who were living in England and Scotland at the time of the first lockdown. Their age varied between 35 and 55, indeed quite a wide span, reflected in the different life experience they illustrated in their art and later described in our  conversations. What was most fascinating for us researchers was to watch the emotional world of these people slowly emerge from their artwork and the descriptions they offered during the interviews. Many told us that, for the first time, they had the chance to speak about the emotional states they went through and that the study gave them the opportunity to reflect on the often muddled feelings that had formed  an underlying ‘soundtrack’ to that strangest of times. The following are some of the emotions they revealed.

Cracks and splits

The series of repeated lockdowns between 2020 and 2021, with the forced isolation this entailed, made many of our female participants feel split in two, separated from their family abroad and often broken from the inside by the pain caused by estrangement and alienation.

In Fig.1 Corinne’s picture represents the pain she experienced during the lockdown, when she was worried about her elderly parents in France and had to home-school  two sons, a situation which she found challenging and caused her depression. Describing her drawing says: I felt like I was cracking from the inside. It really did feel like that, like I wasn’t whole or strong and it felt that ….what I like about myself I couldn’t find anymore and I was all broken. So even at night I would wake up and… So the red as well is the blood, the pain, it’s everything that’s raw, the rage, the anger… And about the black background she adds: the black is all the negativity…I am completely surrounded and stuck in it. I just, I’m full of it and I contribute to it, I am making it, I am. I feel it’s all the guilt as well…. The black is this heavy heavy feeling that I can’t be initiating that, it’s like I don’t know if it was water I would be completely wrapped with an algae or whatever and the black because it’s negative.

Figure 1, Corinne, French

A crack, a big rupture appears also in Fig.2, which shows how Sandra, an Italian single mother of two small children, felt during the lockdown: I was already stuck that was a fact, right? I was here (in the UK) and there was this huge blue dark barrier (separating her from Italy and her family)…the yellow … represents the sea of words and nonsense and confusion and that’s why I scattered letters over it and it’s just I couldn’t get through. … for the first time since I’ve been living abroad which was, let me think, seven to eight years I missed home. I really missed it.

The two red marks at the sides of the picture are the halves of her heart, and the woman’s figure on the left, which represents Sandra herself, shows a hole in her chest: it’s a hole where my heart should sit… it’s actually ripped out and half here and half there. it’s been pulled out. You know I think if it’s been pushed from the inside it would have come out as a hole but because it’s been pulled out then it’s not such a nice circle, clean shape.

What is ‘home’ during lockdown?

The sense of displacement caused by Brexit and the isolation from Europe caused by the lockdown periods has led many of our participants to interrogate themselves on the meaning of “home” leaving many of them very ambivalent about where “home” might be. Added to this, during lockdown “home” took on another different sense, often feeling like a trap, a suffocating cage where feelings are played out and re-chewed with no possible outlet.

Figure 3, Lili, Hungarian

In her artwork, Lili,  an Hungarian woman living in a rural area of Scotland, revisits the sense of ‘being at home’ during the periods of lockdown. She explains mug is for me, is the home, is the comfort, yeah it’s a homeliness, but at this point you’re just getting tired of always being at home … it comes to a point when you’re just going around in circles…and then elaborating on the drawing, she adds:  It’s quite a bleak drawing. I would say it’s quite a bleak feeling that it expresses…. I tried to draw here a body and not a face, just a body that represents how my thoughts were going around and because they don’t have an outlet..they became something that just goes… [sigh] goes around in circles… that’s why the elongated body is knotted up, tangled up…something that didn’t yield any product, [sigh] Going around, becoming a bit compulsive, becoming a bit unproductive.

Figure 4, Ilma, Latvian
Figure 4, Ilma, Latvian

In Fig.4 the home in Edinburgh becomes a cage for Ilma, a Latvian woman living with her husband and a two year old son. She elaborates that’s a cage, like trapped in a cage and it’s kind of, well, a golden cage because comparing to others we were in a very good situation like we could be at home with our kid but at the same time you feel like you are trapped and it’s not the best situation because we can’t do anything and noone’s around and yeah… Golden cage. The water at the bottom are tears: there were lots of those….and the rubber duck [says that] you still have to play and do things (with little son) even if you don’t feel like having fun For this participant, the real home, with all the positive connotations of familiarity, love and comfort is elsewhere, back in Latvia, where, she says, she and her partner have decided to return.Focusing on the bubble at the top right of the picture, Ilma says: the green in the picture is life, my home country is green, you are out in nature….. and I think I didn’t realise that before… how much I need the feeling that you are home…. with the kid I started to feel like I wanted to feel like home and I don’t feel like home here and at least there you have people that make this feeling like home.

There are many other themes that the women interviewed mentioned and that we picked up on in our analysis of the visual and narrative data. Going back to the connection between the vulnerability induced by Brexit and the emotions experienced in the lockdown, it appears that the imposed isolation during the pandemic gave a much more definite shape to the fear of loss and separation from their home and loved ones that EU citizens already felt in the wake of the referendum. Especially for women, being cut off from their families and friends on the continent created feelings of anxiety and fear. At the same time the responsibility of caring for their families in the UK suddenly became much more demanding, with the home-schooling of often unwilling pupils and  the other complexities of caring for others without the help of any external network. In many ways, it looks like the lockdown functioned as a catalyst of some of the sentiments induced by Brexit, but also gave these women the opportunity to better identify  these anxieties and to work out  practical responses to them.

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