Shelly Berry moved to the local area shortly before the pandemic took hold. Here, the counsellor and novelist reflects on her observations of how and why people responded differently to lockdown restrictions
Imoved to this area at the end of 2019. By the time I had unpacked, celebrated my 40th and recovered from Christmas, the pandemic was looming.
It’s been a strange time to get to know a neighbourhood. Before lockdown hit, I was finding my way around the High Street and discovering haunts where I could write over a steady supply of coffee. Since last March, any writing outside of my new flat has been limited to my balcony or secluded spots on Leyton Flats. It’s the open spaces that surround my new home that I have been able to explore. I feel I know every tree in our patch of Epping Forest intimately and, whilst a good 30-minute walk away, Wanstead Flats has provided a welcome alternative for longer weekend rambles.
We’ve been living through what I recognise as a counsellor as a collective trauma, to which we all respond differently. Some of us have responded with hypervigilance, protecting ourselves and our loved ones through careful social distancing and self-isolation. Others have struggled to follow guidelines that cut us off from our social lifelines, especially if we live alone with only mental health problems for company.
Whilst it can be difficult to comprehend how others respond to Covid-19, as a counsellor and writer, I am constantly striving to understand why people behave the way they do. In my novel Outreach, I write about a young woman working with people with addictive behaviour, whose obsession with her boss some people would find hard to empathise with. I am now writing the collective stories of a group of people connected through one London estate, some of whom engage in controlling and violent behaviour. Whilst it might be easy to sensationalise the actions of my characters, I use my writing to explore why some people behave in ways that are, from the outside, quite alarming. In my experience, many addictions and other destructive behaviours stem from past experiences that, if left unchecked, affect the way we think, feel and act long afterwards.
As someone who has, for 20 years, worked with people who are often termed challenging and antisocial, I have seen the power behind taking the time to understand the root of individual difficulties, rather than trying to ‘treat’ or punish how they manifest on the outside. I’ve witnessed and experienced the impact of feeling heard, and how stuck we can get if we don’t feel understood, something that is true for the characters in my writing but also for a lot of us living through this pandemic. I hope that, as we come out of lockdown, all of us who need that affirmation after the events of the last 12 months experience the same compassion.