When my mental health suffers, the sun's movements give me structure


Written by Steph Hebdon

I have never really liked the sun. Even as a child, my mother would tease me for my painfully pale ‘Irish skin.’ Mine was a blanched, reluctant face that seemed to eternally glower from within an otherwise golden scene in family photographs. Expression both contorted and reluctant, my dismay was thinly veiled and probably accentuated by a mop of fine hair hiding beneath the shadow of a washed out baseball cap.

The sun, to me, is almost intrinsically linked to humiliation - or more definitively, to the very specific humiliation that comes with sunburn. It is an inevitability from which I could never escape. No matter the factor, the application method or the ferocity with which my mother would apply (and reapply) sunscreen, alleged UV filters never seemed to alleviate the severity with which I would burn. The sun would inevitably seek me out and I would return home redder than before - shameful of a burn that could not be reversed - with a permanent blush emblazoned on my skin. 

I felt betrayed by my own body’s natural, inevitable reaction to sunlight, and my desire to stay away from the sun became a preference that neared compulsion. Every year, when summer began to tiptoe through the impalpable border between hazy memories and present day reality, I would panic. I allowed these fears to spiral into something much stronger than I ever had the will to question. 

"Unending quiet periods, empty rooms and a ceaseless stream of thoughts have left me truly exhausted. Days have lost their structure; time in the absence of schedule seems irrelevant, and almost nothing is tangible, nothing constant."


I have always feared a loss of control. It is something that truly terrifies me - I become anxious when plans change, or when I do not know every detail about a trip, event, or situation due to happen. For the most part, this is ineffectual to my daily experience and, in the vast amphitheatre of the everyday, it hardly seems to matter. But we are, of course, no longer living in what could be deemed the ‘normal’ everyday.

Having moved into a flat alone merely a few weeks before lockdown began, I have spent much of this time isolated. Unending quiet periods, empty rooms and a ceaseless stream of thoughts have left me truly exhausted. Days have lost their structure; time in the absence of schedule seems irrelevant, and almost nothing is tangible, nothing constant. I have said goodbye to my proclivity to evade the most distressing thoughts with frequent plans, and my emotive experience has ranged from steadfast courage to chaotic and all-consuming despair. I have, like all of us, relinquished control of the world surrounding me, and with it, I feel as if I am losing everything.

I have struggled. I have stayed in bed. I’ve drank, video called friends, and taken part in the obligatory zoom quizzes. I’ve cried hysterically because nothing is okay, and I’ve switched off, continued with my day, and pretended this simply is not happening. My home has felt both comforting and restrictive, because ‘lockdown’ is a paradox: an indefinite constant of change. The situation we are surviving is both static and tumultuous, and there is no room for control in the unending chaos.

"I found some solace in the solar cycle. No matter who we are and what is going on in our lives, the sun is always there. I began to know this as a very singular, but very honest and reliable truth. To recognise its movements; to wait for them. "


A fact: the sun is 4.6 billion years old. Which makes us, this situation, and my childish revulsion of the sun itself, seem profoundly small. An observation: the sun and its movements, have been what has helped me through lockdown.

It was a couple of weeks into lockdown when the weather in the UK began to brighten, somehow managing to both please and ridicule us all at the same time. Perhaps it was simply a couple of weeks before I really paid attention. Lost in my thoughts, and in the helplessness of the situation, I could have missed it. But as the duplicate days dragged on, I became increasingly and intimately aware of the intricate details of my surroundings. 

The church bells, somewhere in the distance, that chime every quarter of an hour. The routine sounds of my neighbours slamming car doors, going about their daily schedules. The cupboard door that sits ever so slightly ajar, and the continuous but progressive light cast by the sun that washes across it, bathing it in muted tones of peach and bronze in repeated, predictable patterns.

"I know which window the sun will hit first, and in what order the others will be subject to its cleansing brilliance. I know what time it arrives, and what time it disappears; in this, I have found the structure to my days which I so ardently desired."


I found some solace in the solar cycle. No matter who we are and what is going on in our lives, the sun is always there. It, much like the situation we find ourselves in, is bigger than us. It is beyond our control, but it is there, and it is unrelenting. Amid unending hours spent at home, I began to know this as a very singular, but very honest and reliable truth. To recognise its movements; to wait for them. 

When the church bells chime on the third hour after noon, I know the sun will be shining on my tiny balcony. Whether I stay in bed or not, the sun will project clear, dappled light on my ceiling first thing in the morning, and an angular but hazy beam in the afternoon. I know which window it will hit first, and in what order the others will be subject to its cleansing brilliance. I know what time it arrives, and what time it disappears; in this, I have found the structure to my days which I so ardently desired. 

It feels as if everything I had previously built my life on is slipping through my fingers. My mental health is spiralling. My loved ones feel so, so far away. But I know the sun will not change. It fades, it disappears for a few days, but it always returns, and I have started taking refuge in its light, no matter the form it takes.

I do not know what happens from here. None of us do. I have not fully gained back the control I so desperately wish I had. Lockdown is still hard. I am still alone, and my skin will still burn if I spend too long in the light. However, the sun has taught me that the upside down, the unnatural, and the ability to relinquish control is not always bad. It is simply bigger than ourselves. The sun is beyond my control - it is entirely unaffected by my existence. But no matter how hard this gets, or how ruinous it feels, the sun is always there. Every day, at 3pm, it will be shining on my balcony, and I choose to bask in it. Even if I burn. 

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