The pandemic has resulted in a lot of people fleeing the city, including me.
I remember walking down Whitechapel High Street, of all places, when I first moved to the city six years ago, and thinking that I’d never ever leave. That this is exactly where I belonged. It was a beautiful day—not that it needed to be for me to have this epiphany—and I found everything so exaggeratedly joyful. Dodging pigeons on the pavement, tapping onto the Tube, staring up at towering office buildings full of breadwinners. I was in total awe over this place I’d visited time and time again, but could now call home.
And it’s true, I never thought I’d leave. Up until a year ago, I was so sure that this was my forever home. Okay, maybe not the manky Whitechapel flat that my landlord didn’t know I lived in, nor the scummy Tooting two-bed that a friend and I thought was a palace for all of about a week. Not even the lovely Stratford apartment that my partner and I will forever remember as our first home together. But I did think that, somehow, I’d find a way to find a home here. Become a proper career woman, a True Londoner, and eventually raise a family when I was good and ready… so at least 40 years old.
But then COVID hit.
My mind changed both suddenly and dramatically, but the decision to leave is one I’m hoping will have a positive impact on my mental health for a number of reasons. In fact, that’s why I’m choosing to share this with you now, during Mental Health Week. A week that is arguably more important than ever.
The Big City is just that: big. And although you’re never more than 10ft away from another human being, it’s not implausible to feel like you’re alone.
As it turns out, Londoners aren’t all that forthcoming, and friendships aren’t something you can just pick up in the supermarket alongside your weekly shop. A true, long-lasting friendship takes graft, and unless you’re a bubbly extrovert who is happy attending pub quizzes and exercise classes hans solo, your chances of meeting another person with similar values and interests are pretty low.
Sure, there are apps. I’ve tried them. But finding a forever friend over the internet feels forced—and is far less normalised than searching for a future partner, or even a one-night stand. I’ve certainly never had much luck, but it could be that I’m just not trying hard enough, or maybe I’ve set my standards too high. That said, I wouldn’t settle for anything less than the perfect man, so why shouldn’t I be just as picky when searching for a BFF? Anyway, that’s another story altogether.
Even if you have dozens of pre-existing friends who also live in the city, you probably never anticipated how much life can get in the way. Or perhaps they live in the foreign, faraway land that is south of the river so, naturally, you only ever see them once in a blue moon. And of course, the C word threw a pretty big spanner in the works, too.
For me, the office was the source of most of my socialising. I was one of those jammy people who could use the words ‘colleague’ and ‘friend’ interchangeably, and really mean it.
But then we turned to working from home—a move we all thought would last for a couple of weeks at most—and I went from hating it, to loving it, to hating it, to loving it again. But, on the whole, I learned to be more productive. Rather than missing the far-too-frequent coffee machine chats, I gradually discovered that I had much more time on my hands without them. And actually doing the housework as a means of procrastination gets boring pretty quickly.
I was the best version of myself for the best part of a year. And then, at the beginning of 2021, I started to feel sluggish and drained of all motivation. Symptoms I later realised were early signs of pregnancy, rather than burn out. But huge bombshell aside, it was clear that working from home was mostly working for me. (In fact, I became even more grateful for it, what with morning sickness and unpredictable hormones thrown into the mix.)
I soon realised that I’d been looking at office life through rose-tinted glasses. Although, sure, the pub lunches and desk chatter were excellent perks of the job, I was getting home from work at at least 7pm each night after a relatively short but miserable commute, cooking dinner, and then swiftly getting into bed. I was so time poor (not to mention frequently hungover) and longing for more hours in the day. Now, I am able to budget for my regular working hours, plus a little extra on top (less reluctantly than before, I might add), my share of the housework, as well as that all-important ‘self care’ that was always first to be thrown out of the window previously.
On top of this, I also felt the sweet relief of social anxiety being lifted from my shoulders. Something I have struggled with my whole life. No more awkward small talk, and no more pressure to stay for ‘just one more drink’, or even a drink at all.
This led me to believe that I was coping well; that I suited this slow-paced, antisocial lifestyle. And, mostly, that is true. I certainly don’t miss the urgent, must-be-and-look-busy aspect of normality. But, despite working from home being generally A Good Thing, my mental health suffered at the hands of the pandemic, as it has for so many others. It turns out that the glorious wave of productive boss bitch energy can only carry you so far. Behind that façade, I’ve felt lonely, increasingly lazy (exercise who?), and just generally ‘done’.
In the same breath though, looking back at my lifestyle before lockdown, I knew I couldn’t let things go back to how they were.
So, in a move that I thought was out of character at the time but have come to realise is exactly ‘me’, I decided that I wanted to leave this gorgeous but god forsaken place and move back home.
When I left the town that I grew up in back in 2012, I vowed never to return – not permanently, at least. And yet, here I am, a provisional moving date in the diary, and I can’t wait. Full disclosure: my home town is barely ‘out of London’, but it’s far enough away that I’ll be able to afford to live in an Actual House with an Actual Garden. For me, that fact alone strongly outweighs the cons.
With working from home on the rise, being near to the office is no longer a priority. And moving back to my home town also means being closer to family and close friends; something increasingly important to me now that I have childcare to consider – casually glazed over that one earlier, didn’t I?
To be clear, none of this means that I’ve fallen out of love with London. I will always treasure my time there, and the thought of leaving does terrify me. Does this mark the end of my golden years? Will I regret it once everything fully opens up again? Is having a baby at this age completely mental? Am I just trying to counteract the slow life I’ve lived over the past year by moving too fast now? And yet, it just feels right.
That magic of getting on the tube, walking along the South Bank, popping into one of thousands of independent coffee shops, and just generally feeling unstoppable, will never go away—if anything, it will be accentuated when I do visit in the future. It’s entirely possible to feel at home in London without living and working there full-time.
For now, the best thing for my mind is keeping my distance; escaping the confines of my small and unaffordable flat, and just passing through the city every now and again. The pandemic has pushed me in a new and exciting direction, and now I hope to get the best of both worlds.
Featured image: alice-photo, Shutterstock
Also published on Medium.