“Excruciating back pain while self-isolating alone”: life in a time of Covid-19

(Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels)

Julie McWilliam

I have worked from home for the last twenty years, lived alone for the last twelve and I thoroughly enjoy my own company. I am one of those people who is always hugely relieved if arrangements are cancelled. Don’t get me wrong, I have lovely friends, plenty of opportunities to socialise and always enjoy myself when I do actually go out, but equally I feel like I’ve been given a gift if an outing is cancelled.

So why should this current isolation feel so alien?

It’s enforced – there’s the difference.

From what I’ve said above, you would be right to conclude that I enjoy great independence, make all my own decisions and don’t need or want to consult anyone else, never feel lonely and do what I want to do when I want to do it. So being told to stay in and limit contact sits deeply uncomfortably with me.


Unfortunately, I have also been dealt a double whammy at the moment – the enforced isolation and an excruciatingly painful back. I know my daughters would happily come to my rescue, but they can’t. We are all assiduously observing the ‘lockdown laws’.

I have tried to access medical opinion on my back and several other symptoms. However, I have been told that although the usual course of action would be a neurologist referral and MRI scan, given the strain on NHS services caused by the pandemic, the only secondary care referrals that are being accepted are cancer-related. So my only recourse is an increase in stronger painkillers, which are ineffective and make me sleepy – not ideal. Of course this is all understandable, but equally it means this is not a good time to be ill.

(Photo by Julie McWilliam)

I presume many others are also having trouble accessing services for non-Covid 19-related problems. I wonder how this is affecting them. In my case, living with this severe back pain, while trying to manage on my own, is causing my mental health to suffer. I feel sad and guilty that I am unable to properly look after my pets, especially Pixie, my Bichon Frise. Her long hair needs regular brushing and trips to the groomer. But now my poor baby looks as if nobody owns her.

I feel stressed and upset as it seems I have been abandoned by the health services; my problems minimised, and their impact not understood. I look at, and think about, the many things I could be doing but are impossible for me to do now. For example, I need things to be in order and when something is out of place, it is a huge cause of anxiety for me. This is exacerbated by not being able to ask anyone else to do it. My daughters are in constant contact (all hail WhatsApp!) but are really worried about me. This upsets me even more and so I don’t tell them everything, and they know it.

Indirect effects

It’s strange that during this pandemic, my back problems are having a greater impact on my life than Covid-19 itself – but this is an example of some of the far reaching effects of this situation. Not everything is directly related to the disease.

For these reasons, I think it’s so important that research being carried out is designed to look at both the direct and indirect consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s lives, with a strong focus on their mental health. Involving a diverse group of people, including those with lived experience of mental health issues, will be essential to accurately grasp the full extent of these impacts. It won’t be easy, but it is the only way to better understand how the pandemic has affected people, how to help those affected and how to prepare for it if it ever happens again.

Julie McWilliam is a regional researcher for the north-west of England, on the McPin Foundation evaluation team for Women Side by Side.

If you need help or support with your mental health, or are worried about somebody else, there are a number of organisations listed here that may be able to assist you. There are also links to information about staying well during Covid-19 on this page.