Managing an empty nest and Covid-19 with anxiety and OCD

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The last few months have been tough on the strongest of us. I’m not normally prone to anxiety, but coronavirus has hit me hard. Imagine dealing with a pandemic on top of a long term anxiety disorder and OCD. Then throw in leaving both of your children at university in a big city and going home to an empty nest. As you can imagine, things have not been easy lately for Jilly Mackenzie. I feel so honoured that she has chosen to share her experiences with us through my Untold Stories segment and that she feels courageous enough to share her name too. Please show Jilly some kindness and support by leaving a comment if you can. You can read more Untold Stories here.

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Today, I did the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve had my share of really hard times, but this has just been the hardest day. Today was the day that I took my girls (20 and 18) to their student accommodation in Glasgow.

This year has definitely been hard on everyone, but two weeks ago, we had a totally unexpected event that just overwhelmed all of us. My eldest has been in a four-and-a-half year relationship with her boyfriend. A young man who we have loved as one of our own. But two weeks ago, after a short holiday with his parents, he ended the relationship via a text message (yes, you read that correctly, a text message). She was utterly blindsided, immediately came out in hives and within two days was on beta blockers and meds for a nasty IBS flare-up.

I watched my normally strong daughter turn into a completely heartbroken wreck.

I have felt so helpless watching her blame herself, sob herself to sleep, grapple with severe physical and emotional pain. There have been times that I’ve had to take myself off for a cry and also times I’ve had to restrain myself from turning up at his home and lecturing him about dumping her a week before they were meant to move back in together.

I have found the situation particularly hard as I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I also battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), bouts of depression and IBS (yes! I get all the fun). The unwelcome arrival of Covid-19 just about broke me – all my coping mechanisms fled from my brain like a crowd of shoppers fleeing from a single cough in a supermarket (I submitted an Untold Story here about my marriage during coronavirus, which will explain a bit more).

Most of the last few months I have been in therapy to just keep coping and I was dreading my youngest moving out. When my eldest moved out, I was certainly emotional – feeling the wrench of sending my big girl out in the world. But she was 19 years old, starting 3rd year at uni and with her boyfriend, who I trusted implicitly. As we drove away from the flats for home, I cried for a long time. I should probably point out here that we only live 40 minutes away….but it felt like an impassable chasm.

I want my girls to really live life, take opportunities that I was too afraid to take and gain a real sense of themselves. I truly admire both my girls as they have taken courageous decisions to change directions and stand by what they really want to study.

So what do I have to worry about, I hear you cry? Two loving, bright, dedicated children. Two girls who make me laugh hysterically with their different senses of humour; two girls who sit with me when I’m so anxious I can barely breathe; two beautiful souls who love me without condition. Covid-19.  Covid-19 is what I have to worry about.

I’m sending my children into a huge city to live, in the middle of a pandemic. Youngest, just 18, is going into nursing at possibly the worst time. And now they have moved in, I will have to social distance with them for goodness knows how long. I won’t be able to hug my own children. I couldn’t even go into their new accommodation to settle them in. Because we’ve all been home together since the beginning of April, my house and my heart have been full. Full of laughter, tears, frustration, hilarity, music, TV, movies, chatting, nonsense. Noise. Company. Comfort. Love.

I have been sobbing in the shower at the thought of letting them both go, especially now that my eldest has suffered such a terrible blow emotionally and the physical effects will take time to settle.  And significantly, my baby is leaving home. I haven’t worked since my eldest was born. Home has been my office for the last nearly 21 years. Home has been my “job”. I’m rarely alone. The days have been punctuated with University Open Days, exams, piano exams, orchestra competitions and concerts, parents nights, social events.

The last few months have been punctuated with literally nothing, but I have never been alone. But now, my life is going to change dramatically. It’s a grief that catches me at random moments, as I try to suppress great sobs of sadness. I feel as though my youngest is a new born baby all over again, and that someone is trying to take her from me. I am even having dreams of having a baby and then not knowing where I’ve put it and trying to find it in a fit of panic.

My heart is actually broken and I can’t believe I’m sending my baby and her more streetwise sister out there to live during a pandemic, in a group of flats with four other students they have never met. I catch myself wondering “what the HELL are you doing? Are you actually INSANE?”.

My heart aches. I have had this overwhelming desire to bar the doors and refuse to let them out of my sight, because it’s all too scary out there. Keeping them at home is what I need, but not what they need. However, the pressure of my perceived responsibility that only I can keep them safe, weighs like an articulated lorry-load of bricks.

I never thought I’d dread NOT tripping over umpteen pairs of shoes abandoned on the stairs and the hallway. Not once did it occur to me that I’d miss searching for glasses, mugs and plates that have found their way into bedrooms and never returned to the kitchen. Despite knowing this was coming, I have nothing prepared for myself.

This isn’t “freedom” –  it’s a loss. And in the current circumstances, it’s an enormous burden of worry, paranoia and distress – especially if you have GAD and OCD. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to cope. Leaving them was so hard today. My youngest was overwhelmed with excitement and sadness and was very weepy. I sobbed all the way home.

My husband and I have struggled this year to live in harmony, due to my intense anxiety clashing with his eternal optimism and impatience with me. I have wondered if we’ll even talk or sit in the same room when the girls have left. It’s like an abyss, dark and endless and I’m standing on the edge of it.

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