'I was the life of the party before Covid - but now I'm happier alone'
By ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian
After another whirlwind night out in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, Mel Sims hitched a ride home on the back of a bin lorry.
Then 25, she woke up with cuts all over her body and bits of shiny glass scattered on her bed – she had fallen onto a mirror in her bedroom in the middle of the night.
Known and loved by locals as the woman from south Wales who spoke fluent Spanish and “never wanted the fun to end”, it was a night out that became the hallmark of Mel’s youth.
Her popularity and seemingly endless energy continued well into her 40s, after years full of socialising, drinking, dancing on tables and, on odd occasions, skinny dipping.
She was the life of the party – then came lockdown.
“People knew me for years as the outgoing and confident Mel, and it took something as big as Covid to make me just stay at home,” Mel, now 49, told ITV News.
“I realised the reason I accepted all the party invites is it kept me from looking inwards, and there was something in me... this constant restlessness.
“Before, I could have wine and that would mellow it, and work kept my mind off it... but it wasn’t nice to then just be with myself.”
Fast-forward 21 months, and Mel is happy to spend Christmas – typically a time of socialising and togetherness – alone.
Like a growing number of others, Mel found unexpected benefits during lockdown-enforced isolation over the past couple of years, despite otherwise horrid circumstances.
But this was a gradual process – the first lockdown was tough for Mel, who was usually so on-the-go she wouldn’t even allow herself five minutes to sit down with a cup of tea.
“I felt like that was wasting time, I felt guilty,” she explained. She could work 14 hours a day without stopping and play just as tirelessly.
Her phone constantly buzzed with messages from friends she didn’t really want and she lived with never-ending “background noise”, as she described it, unable slow down her brain and ignore distractions.
The contrast between her life before and after lockdown couldn’t have been greater. “I’d say to people ‘let’s go out’ and then we would be out all night, I just didn’t want the fun to ever end,” she said.
“And when I got home, I didn’t know how to calm down.”
In lockdown, she had no choice but to stop and, while she was “really uncomfortable” with herself to begin with, she gradually started to reflect.
She began reading more and, with no party invitations blowing up her phone, she gradually gave herself time to sit alone with her thoughts. She set up a new business creating low-alcohol wine and gin, called Mooze 12%.
Time in isolation with her 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, gave them the chance to strengthen their bond, with Mel home-schooling her for the duration.
“I think I let go of friends that perhaps I wasn’t able to be the real me around, I let go of a lot of ‘drinky’, socialising people and I got to know my daughter again,” she said.
“Now, rather than rushing around and getting distracted, I realise sometimes I just need to sit down and have tea and that isn’t a waste of time.
“I realised I wasn’t being forgiving to myself and it was OK to be different.”
That realisation has been a long time coming. From a young age, Mel knew she was “different” but never stopped to understand why. More time alone led her to finally seek an outside perspective.
In April this year, she took a psychology test online and followed it up with a visit to the doctors, where the diagnosis matched the results – she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It suddenly started to make sense for Mel. “To validate that you were not mad is really releasing for your soul,” she said of her diagnosis.
“I thought I was mad, but I’m not mad. I just never understood why I felt on the outside and that’s because I was self-soothing by always doing things.”
For her, it explained why she was regularly late; often for frivolous reasons like preparing broccoli soup from scratch ten minutes before her cab was due, or painting over a small mark she just noticed on her wall and dirtying her dress in the process.
But would she have eventually reached this answer if Covid didn’t put her into forced isolation?
“Absolutely not,” she insists.
“I feel that I had masked my entire life and I didn’t know I was doing it. If you can imagine the job of a dam to keep water out – that was like my job to keep as many distractions out as possible.
“ADHD is about not having any regulator whatsoever for attention. If I hear a baby crying on a plane, that’s all I hear. If I hear a bird in distress outside, that’s all I can think about.”
“The moment I would walk in a bar I had to have a drink... I was chasing adventures.”
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The idea of spending time in solitude to self-reflect is not a new one, but the crossover into social settings is a growing trend in some parts of the world already.
In South Korea, choosing to spend time alone has become a culture, known as ‘Honjok’ which translates as ‘tribe of one.’
More people there are living alone - around 6.8 million people, according to the country’s latest official statistics. That’s 31.7% of all households in the country, which is a larger share than any other household type. Its share was just 15.5% in 2000.
Hong Kong-based journalist Crystal Tai, who co-authored ‘Honjok: The Art of Living Alone’, says Honjok is a “global phenomenon.”
“It’s just that South Korean culture identified it and gave it a name,” she explains.
“In the US, China, UK, and other developed countries, we are seeing a rapid increase in single-person households ranging between all ages, ethnicities and genders.”
Psychotherapist Francie Healey, co-author, says she sometimes recommends patients incorporate aspects of Honjok when appropriate.
“There are a lot of benefits,” she told ITV News. “In my opinion, Honjok invites us to consider who we are outside of established societal and cultural norms.
“It’s an opportunity to discover how to be our own best company, and when you invest in building your tolerance for being alone and getting to know yourself without the veneer of your identity – meaning ‘I am this person, I’m supposed to do these things’ – there’s more richness that happens, there’s more peace, there’s more ease.”
What this all means now is Mel, whose final pre-lockdown night out was a round of festive drinks, happily spent Christmas Day alone.
“My daughter went to her dad’s on Christmas Eve... rather than the old me thinking ‘I have to do things to make everyone happy’, I thought I might just stay on my own.
“I might be seen as selfish but that’s the real me.”
Mel isn’t alone in finding peace in isolation. Marilyn Devonish, a mental health coach from London, has been going solo for decades – even getting on a Caribbean cruise by herself.
“It started as a way of getting out of myself, as I rarely went out before 32 and had few friends and was shy,” she said.
“So it started off as pushback to that, I’ve spent 32 years hiding and feeling out of place. So now I have to make up for lost time and not everyone is going to do what I want to do - so let me go out and be comfortable.”
Likewise Teresa Brooks, a business and mindset coach from Bedford, says “it’s empowering to do things on my own.”
“Now I think, ‘do I want to spend time with you?’ I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, but I think we fill our lives with people,” she said.
“I’ve become very comfortable, and the pandemic pushed me to become more reflective. I’ve kind of welcomed that.
“As we move forward, I think people are relating to each other differently, and I think it would be OK for people to be OK by themselves.
“Mental health has shot up but I think a lot of people are knowing how they feel now.”
Indeed, the pandemic has had a massive impact on mental health in the UK.
Earlier this year, figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed rates of depression have more than doubled since before Covid.
A little more than a fifth of people in Britain experienced some form of depression between January 27 and March 7, 2021, twice the pre-pandemic figure.
The impact was felt more greatly in younger adults, women and people who live alone - with 43% of women aged between 16 to 29 reporting some form of depression.
And according to ONS figures, there were around 7.8 million people living alone in 2020.
Mel was therefore one of the lucky ones to find some positives in lockdown.
Possibly her greatest benefit, she says, is a closer relationship with her mum, for which she credits her ADHD diagnosis.
Over the years she said it became “so normal” for her mum to say “oh Mel” if she had forgotten something.
“I told my mum we don’t get on sometimes because I am waiting for you to be disappointed, I want her to know it’s not through lack of trying that I don’t call at the right time,” she said.
“Now my mum doesn’t say ‘oh Mel’, and do you know what... our relationship has blossomed. And that’s amazing for me.”
Do you need help?
If you're having trouble with mental health, contact Mind at the charity's infoline on 0300 123 3393 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact the Samaritans by calling 116 123 or emailing email@example.com.
For more information on ADHA, visit the NHS website.