As we enter into our third week of lockdown, I started reflecting on the main things that I miss from the outside world. For me one of the biggest is our Food for Thought dinners. Like many organisations, this year we have only been able to host a handful of events.
In the lead up to our dinner last month I started feeling incredibly anxious about hosting the event, considering the rising number of COVID infections in Vienna. I thought about the possibility of someone contracting the virus at our dinner and if I could handle the guilt of that. What if they went on to infect more people? What if they themselves reacted badly, got really sick or even died. These concerns plagued my mind in the days leading up to the dinner as I began to seriously consider canceling all together.
We had a surge of interest in the event and our guest-list was full weeks before. I received messages of excitement from our guests planning to attend, as well as both Syrian women who were delighted to share their time and cooking.
I decided to go ahead and try to do everything in our power to make the environment as safe as possible for everyone attending. I disinfected everything from the dishes to the table half a dozen times, I spaced the seating so there was distance between each chair and I reminded everyone to keep their masks on unless they were sitting at the table.
The guests arrived and we began our introductions and the prosecco started flowing. Due to the limited seating, we were a much smaller group than usual and mostly strangers to one-another. Someone suggested we could go around the table and introduce ourselves, say where we were from and how long we’d been in Vienna. Normally we avoid these ice-breakers as we don’t want to put someone on the spot to talk in front of a large group in case it makes them uncomfortable but as this was a much smaller group it worked very nicely.
The introductions softened the mood, everyone relaxed into their seat and tucked in to the banquet of gorgeous food in front of us. The small group created a close environment with one conversation at the table that everyone was involved in.
An hour into the meal we started discussing our own experiences from this year and how this global change had affected us all personally. Varying stories of lock down and isolation, including some thankful for the time at home with their families, some feeling like they had needed the rest, and some feeling like this pandemic had given them a positive sense of perspective. In Spite of all the positive’s mentioned, everyone noted that to some degree or another they had all suffered from anxiety.
My mental health suffered enormously this year, and I believe it was not a result of COVID more that COVID was an enabler. All the reasons I started to feel anxious were due to traumas that had happened prior to 2020. But when the lockdown came and I lost my routine and the option to see my family and friends I had nothing to distract me from them. I began to lose my sense of identity and daily purpose locked in my bubble of self isolation. I realise now how important both routine and social contact is to keep worries and existential questions at bay, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time.
It felt so comforting to hear and share stories of similar feelings with these women even though the majority I did not know very well. The problem with anxiety is that you think it exists just in your head. Like this invisible dark cloud that hangs over you and you alone. Learning that others share your somewhat irrational feelings and fears lets you realise you’re not in this alone, and the fog starts to clear as you begin to feel stronger again.
I can only speak from my own experience, and in the grand scheme of things I have led a very happy life. I’ve had the fortune to grow up in a safe place filled with love and have lived only in countries unaffected by war. The house I grew up in is still standing, my human rights have never been threatened nor my civil liberties violated. So I cannot begin to imagine how our Syrian members must be feeling in this current political climate with the addition of lockdown and isolation.
After the dinner I realised just how important our events are. I completely appreciate how serious this virus is and agree that all of the protocols in place to minimize the spread are necessary. However I also believe that we should not let it detract from the things we require for our mental health. Yes phone calls and zoom chats can help alleviate some of the angst but it is not the same as real life social contact.
The foundation of Food for Thought is to bring women together in a safe space. Now more than ever we need this space, not just for our Syrian members whose existing struggles have now worsened, but for everyone. The opportunity to meet and talk really does help relieve this communal cloud of anxiety existing all over the world right now. The sense of community and connection between the women at the table is a great comfort and relief to everyone.
Hopefully the situation will improve in the coming weeks and it won’t be long until we can meet together around the table again.
Photographs by Ewa Podgórska