Image shows a low quality 35mm photo of a forest scene; yellowish-green and bare trees & grass, and a slice of water.

✨ MHN’s #MakeThingsApril ✨

april 26: five things you’re grateful for

this month, I’ll be taking part in Morgan Harper Nichols’s #MakeThingsApril 30 day challenge & making something every day in April! I’m not setting out to produce polished, perfect content every single day nor do I have any particular goal, other than setting time aside every day to let my creative & cathartic juices flow and to allow myself some space to just aimlessly write some words.

TW / mentions of: poor mental health, unhappy living situations, allusions to suicidal thoughts.

I want to preface this piece with a quick note about ‘gratitude’.

Gratitude is too often weaponised, I feel. If you’re mentally ill or experiencing grief or just not having a good time, you may have been told to ‘be grateful for what you have’ or ‘be grateful that you’re not X,Y or Z’. Gratefulness is too often thrust upon us as a panacea for any ill-fate that might come our way, or else a means of discrediting our very real feelings (i.e. ‘you can’t be depressed, you have so much to be grateful for’ or something similar).

I say this because I don’t want the tone of this post to be one of empty, performative inspiration. Being grateful for something doesn’t remove any bad aspects of your life, it just serves as a pleasant reminder that the light can still bleed through the cracks and makes coexisting with the bad parts a bit easier. The parts of our lives that we are able to feel gratitude for are a privilege but they don’t negate our susceptibility to negative experiences. We are, of course, immensely complex beings, and gratitude is just one thing that we can feel amongst a thousand other simultaneous emotions.

With this disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to share five things that I am grateful for. Our current situation, while it has exacerbated certain parts of my mental illness, has also strengthened my appreciation for certain things that I’m lucky enough to have.

Image shows a family in front of a Christmas tree — L-R is a young woman, a mum, a young boy, a dad, and a teenage girl.

My family

The other day, my mam reminded me that had we been placed on lockdown this time last year I’d have been living outside of the family home in a rickety, unhappy Glasgow flat. This, for me, just doesn’t bear thinking about. If I’m going to be stuck somewhere, I wouldn’t want to be stuck anywhere else other than with my family. Indeed, this time last year I was staying at home for an extended period of time to study for my final year Law exams because studying in my flat, where I was deeply unhappy, wasn’t a possibility.

There are seven of us in our little house — me, my parents, my siblings, and our two cats. My brother’s school and my sister’s college have been closed; my mam’s job is currently operating on a staggered rota basis, caring for the children of key workers; and my dad is a key worker, delivering free food parcels to vulnerable people on behalf of the Scottish Government. We’ve been passing our time with walks, cleaning, reading, films, baking — whatever happens to take our fancy on the day. We don’t pressure ourselves to be constantly productive or to do anything when we’re having an off day. Mental health is spoken about openly and we try out best to support each other, taking each day as it comes.

I come from a family of hard-working, resilient people on both sides and I’m incredibly grateful for their spirit right now (not so much a British ‘keep calm and carry on’; we’ve inherited our Irish relatives’ mentality of taking the hand that we’re dealt and still trying to have a laugh in shit circumstances). I’m very thankful to be surrounded by people who provide shoulders to lean on and make my shoulders rock as I howl with laughter, in equal measures.

While I miss my extended family massively, especially my grandparents, we keep in touch really well and are keeping each other in good spirits. My mam does my Gran and Pap’s shopping every Friday and takes it to them and my dad drops essentials in to my Granda regularly (my uncle lives with my Granda, so he has someone there for most of his needs). We all got to briefly visit my Gran and Paps today to drop in my Pap’s birthday present and have a fifteen minute chat (in the back garden, from a distance), which was positively lovely. It was strange not to be able to hug them but if I ever needed a reminder of why we have to stick stringently to lockdown measures, I got it today. I’m keeping my family and everyone else’s family safe and we live in the hope of seeing them properly very soon.

My partner

I’m sure we’ve all heard that silly Winnie the Pooh quote, about being lucky to have something that makes saying goodbye so difficult. When it comes to Conor, my partner, those words do resonate somewhat. I miss him every day. We went from seeing each other a few times a week, being able to spend our nights together, and having the freedom to go and visit whenever we liked, to not seeing each other at all. It’s incredibly strange and difficult.

Image shows a couple (a man and a woman) — the woman is smiling at the camera and the man is facing the woman.

That being said, I’ve never been more grateful for the fact that we are a brilliant team. We work hard at communicating well, scheduling in virtual date nights, and trying to do things ‘together’ when the other is having a bad day. I’m regularly reminded how loved, supported and thought of I am and we talk for ages about what we’d love to do when we can finally be together again. Love is boundless and we have adapted well to ensure that ours is still nurtured when sudden strict boundaries take root. I am appreciative of our collective ability to overcome adversity and support each other in whatever comes our way. From the very beginning of our relationship, we were forced to deal with huge burdens which served to strengthen our bond and ready us for any future hardship. It is a love I am so grateful to have.

The lesser-known sights of my hometown

I live in a small town sandwiched between other small towns, the same town where my parents and grandparents grew up. Generally, I’d have said we knew this place like the back of our hand — but lockdown has given us the time to focus in on some overlooked or forgotten details. Here in Scotland, we are allowed to leave our homes for food, medicine, work or to exercise once a day. My mam and I have been enjoying being able to pick slightly different walking routes and she has been revisiting old haunts from her youth.

Image shows a forest scene, yellowish and green trees, and a lady in a pink hoodie towards the left of the photo.

The other day, possibly my favourite walk thus far, we had a long country walk — seeing cows, sheep (in lambing season) and horses, and appreciating the quiet of wide open fields and the crunch of dry gravel paths. My mam used to frequent this path, she told me, and often met my dad and their friends there ‘because you couldn’t be seen from the road so it was perfect to have a drink and a smoke’. We even stumbled upon a partly-hidden wooded path which we decided to venture down (only regretting it a couple of times when the woods got thicker and the path disappeared).

Where we live is hardly the pinnacle of countryside and we don’t live near parks or proper walking trails, but nevertheless I am so, so grateful for the little slices of nature that we do have nearby. I have a chronic illness and struggled at the beginning with not being able to fully make the most of my good days, it felt like my rarely-present energy was going to waste because I couldn’t go very far. I’ve since tried to reason with myself that ‘making the most’ just looks a bit different at the moment. It used to mean visiting other towns and cities, going into my university to work, going to see friends or my partner; now, it means pleasant long walks and spending more time with my family — and I remain grateful for it.

Working from home in a balanced way

I’m a research student, meaning that 100% of my work is independent and I am marked on the final compilation of my research into a 30,000 word thesis. I’m used to working from home and at the start I naively believed that nothing would change, other than my supervisory meetings being held remotely. I’ve since realised that ‘business as usual’ and lockdown are entirely incompatible. We quite simply cannot expect to operate as normal under the conditions of a global pandemic — and that’s okay!

Image shows a desk, with a laptop open, a mug, water bottle, book stand and open book, some plants and a bright lamp.

I’m still managing to get some work done. My university has been nothing short of outstanding in keeping staff, students and researchers informed and comfortable. My library loans have been extended significantly (I thankfully took out a huge pile of books before our library closed) and any books I may need can be either accessed online or sent to me. I have two wonderful supervisors who have always given me flexibility and shown me support and kindness; even more so now. I have deadline extensions, voluntary study suspensions, crisis funding and a mass of online mental health support available to me. I’m incredibly grateful for this.

The online community I am a part of

Any time I feel like I’m hitting rock bottom, I am drawn back from the brink by my online community — made up of my ‘real life’ friends and those I only know virtually. The internet can be a truly foul place at times and I have seen firsthand how it can plant seeds of targeted hatred and ensure they blossom into something monstrous. That being said, in the same way that gratitude for the good doesn’t remove the bad, I have also witnessed incredible kindness blooming from the same place.

Image shows a Zoom call between six friends.

We are regularly inundated with negativity online and the very act of being present on the internet is met with inherent worries. We counteract that with love, compassion, and community. Now, more than ever, it is incumbent upon us to be kind to each other. I can confidently say that I am a part of and a beneficiary of that effort. I live safe in the knowledge that I have friends who will listen, make me laugh, and make my anxiety feel like less of a load to bear, and I hope that I have the same effect on others too. We can’t be together right now but we can still care for one another and keep each other in good spirits. I’m endlessly grateful to be a part of such a wonderful online community and I cannot wait to be reunited with my friends (and to finally meet the ones I haven’t had the privilege of a proper introduction with yet).

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University of Glasgow scholar, postgraduate researcher in criminal law & justice, poet & writer of bits and bobs, passionate feminist, mental health advocate.

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Holly McKenna

Holly McKenna

University of Glasgow scholar, postgraduate researcher in criminal law & justice, poet & writer of bits and bobs, passionate feminist, mental health advocate.

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