When I idly mooted the idea of a digital journal about life under lockdown — known by various names such as the movement control order, circuit breaker and shelter in place — I had no idea so many of my friends would sign up as contributors. And I had even less idea that this community chronicle would prove to be my own anchor in my lockdown life.
My intention was to document the unique, yet shared, everyday joys, challenges and sorrows experienced by all of us in different parts of the world; perhaps some time in the future, we could look back at these days without that crushing sense of dread deep inside. And that is how The Lockdown Diaries was born, as a multiauthor digital diary. The blog is now a month old, and has over 110 posts by 24 writers from Malaysia, India, UAE the USA, Canada, UK and Germany as of now. These posts touch upon themes as varied as tentative chats with neighbours in New York City to gerontophobia in Germany, from cooking one-pot meals to ideas on repurposing leftovers.
As someone who has been battling chronic depression and anxiety issues for 20 years now, a move to a new country — my husband and I shifted base from Bangalore to Kuala Lumpur in mid February — was stressful to start with. Four weeks into our new life, Malaysia announced a near-total lockdown, meaning that I had no chance of stepping out of home even to meet friends of friends, helpfully introduced over emails and social media channels. As a freelance journalist, I was used to working from home and being indoors for long periods of time, but work was erratic and inadequate now. Without a social support system or access to a trusted psychiatrist, I found myself struggling to stay in remission from my depression that waxes and wanes in intensity. I could not allow the doom and gloom all around to drag me down; I would perhaps never recover this time.
It was at this stage that I thought about reviving my journal. When I was at the depth of one of my depression cycles, my therapist had urged me to start writing in a journal. With great hesitation, I began the practice, putting aside my need for perfection and allowing myself to ramble on without worrying about editing and polishing those stream of consciousness outpourings. I will not state grandly that journaling saved my life, but it certainly became the third pillar of my treatment, along with medication and psychotherapy. Over time, it managed to reach into the deep recesses of my mind, helped me unravel the multiple streams of knotted emotions, and answered questions that had been plaguing my mind for years.
Only this time, instead of a personal dear diary, I decided to go digital and collective. I believed it would be ideal for these times when we all need social distancing but also emotional intimacy. Not once did I imagine this would turn out to be all the therapy I would need. But that is more or less how things have turned out. Managing this community chronicle has come to provide a clear purpose to the long days punctuated only by house chores, Netflix binges and the occasional work spree. This blog has kept me engaged and energized for several hours in the day with all the coordinating, guiding newbie bloggers on posting and formatting, reassuring those unsure of their writing skills, moderating the comments and then some.
If there is one lesson I have quickly learnt from this, it is that this is a global crisis, but at the same time, it is intensely personal for each one of us. I cannot presume to speak for all the authors on the blog, but writing down even mundane, daily experiences can be cathartic. This is indeed one of the reasons I chose to start a blog — a medium said to be dying or already dead — over say, a Facebook group where anyone could drop by for a quick rant. I have also seen here how in times of crisis, our thoughts turn to our most basic needs; so many of the posts on the blog are about food and cooking, for instance.
This has also been a way for some of us to express and the pleasure of being able to do something we once took for granted, such as watching trees in the neighbourhood bloom in spring or talking a walk with the kids. As one of the writers said over chat, she never realised how traumatic it had all been for her until she put her thoughts down in black and white. Someone else told me that she had intended to document her experiences for her very young daughters to read when they grow up, and this gave her the nudge she needed.
Journaling has long been lauded as an important practice in self-care, a way for our minds to systematically make sense of what seems worrying, frightening or overwhelming. Research has also shown that journaling can be helpful in other ways, such as reduction in stress levels, improvement in memory and better sleep. And I am glad that at this terrible time, I have been able to use journaling — in this form as a multiauthor blog — to channel my own and a few friends’ complex emotions.
Charukesi Ramadurai lives in Kuala Lumpur and writes on travel, food, art and culture for publications such as South China Morning Post, The Guardian, BBC and National Geographic Traveller. She likes jazz, watching the rain, cryptic crosswords, glorious sunsets and PG Wodehouse novels. The last, she worships.