Me, my mind and COVID-19: one small firm owner's story

Sally Azarmi contracted COVID-19 in November. She discusses frankly how it's transformed her and her outlook on life and work, and five key things that have helped her cope.

Sunshine through clouds

Only a few days ago, the ground outside was frozen and spring seemed far away. Today, with the sun shining, I am certain it is only a matter of days away. People are getting vaccinated and the government has announced firm plans for a road out of lockdown.

Much as I want life to go back to something like it was, I don’t want to forget what the last year has taught me. Although I have read practically every self-help book ever published, I am highly suspicious of anyone who claims they have the formula for leading a “happy” life.

As solicitors, we lead sedentary and, of late, solitary or isolated lives, which are at times stressful. The stress can be immense at times, but it is often constant and low-key, forever buzzing along in the background (becoming a negative lifelong companion). Not a great combination for our health and wellbeing.

In November 2020, I contracted COVID-19. Very sadly, my brother-in-law, who caught it at the same time, didn’t survive beyond the week. I was very lucky to recover within a few weeks, but COVID-19 landed me in a dark place.

It’s not just COVID-19, though. I think the last year has intensified and accelerated the issues which routinely affect our mental wellbeing. I am 53 and my three wonderful children are all over 18 and living independent lives. I appreciate I do not have the same calls on my time as I once did, but every stage in life has its own challenges and seismic shifts – that applies to your 50s as much as any other time. This last year has been jam-packed full of them.

These are without doubt immensely challenging times to be running a business and meeting the demands of clients and our own self-imposed standards of perfection. But I am speaking more to our own health and mental wellbeing here. Who could not be affected by the tragic loss of life around us and the huge changes and risks to our everyday lives and health?

As for most of the population, COVID-19 has been mentally and emotionally challenging, and I have had to fight my way out of it. I used old coping mechanisms, and created new ones. In fact, I am more at ease now and suffer from less anxiety than I did in my 30s and 40s, but that is not to say I am free of it. Anxiety, mental and emotional challenges are all part of being human, whether we choose to be open about them or not.

I don’t want to forget what I have learnt in the last year. Here are five simple things I have learnt/done to get me into the light again. 

1. Have an MOT

For a time, I was feeling very irritable, and just not right. During lockdown, I have increasingly been eating more vegetarian food and thought I was being very healthily. I have a history of high blood pressure (BP) (partly due to the job – be warned, younger solicitors) and decided to take my own BP. It was sky-high. Rather than ignoring it, I thought about what could be causing it. It dawned on me that my new vegetarian diet probably contained three or four times my daily allowance of salt (soya sauce, vegetable stock etc). I didn’t want to self-medicate, so I spoke with my doctor and we agreed that I should try to cut down on salt for two weeks and see what happened.

Amazingly, two weeks later, for the first time in years, my BP was consistently normal. This in itself has made me feel better about myself, physically and mentally.

At my age, we tend to put other people first. We have children who still need our attention, and elderly parents. We have highly demanding clients. We are caught in the middle and often ignore our own health. This is a huge mistake. A little mindfulness about our own health – anything that may not feel right or needs attention (whether it is mental, emotional or physical) – can make an immense difference to our lives, and everyone around us. I think this is called self-care, something that does not come easily to many.

2. Talk, listen, connect

We may all be sick of Zoom meetings, but it has helped to see and hear people, and just talk. To be open and receptive to people – what a revelation! I am naturally an introvert, and chit-chat has never come easily to me. Nowadays, though, I see every call as a way of connecting with another human being at some level and learning from them or making their day a little better, perhaps. I find that chit-chat has become much more 'real' and deeper, and that really suits me. I will ask my clients how things are in their part of the world, how they have been coping – and every time, people want to talk. Whether I am speaking with a clerk at chambers, the solicitor on the other side, or someone sat at the Home Office, everyone seems happy to talk and share.

I have also found that my children and my assistant, all of whom are in their early 20s, have very wise heads on their shoulders. They teach me something every day. And there are, of course, my friends in the legal profession, who are all going through similar experiences. It is good to talk with them all, and often we can help each other see things differently and in a better light. 

3. Run for it

Dog walks, long walks, short walks, walks or jogs on my treadmill. Without a doubt, exercise has helped my mental and physical health more than anything else over the years.

I have an ancient treadmill and an app which takes me around the world (albeit virtually). It's encouraged me to drag myself away from my desk and actually move a little. Twenty minutes or more on the treadmill with music, running virtually on the Amalfi coast, or just an aimless and endless walk in the open air, and I see the world and any problems I am trying to solve, in a completely new light. I feel uplifted and happy at the end of it.

4. Stop worrying

I was sick with COVID-19 for most of November. Although I was fortunate and my practice ran smoothly with the help of my assistant and consultants, a couple of deadlines had to be extended. Before, I would have berated myself and worried myself sick about it.

This time, I knew that I had absolutely no control over what had happened and was lucky, frankly, just to be alive and able to work. I could put things into perspective. The Tribunal was immensely understanding. I learnt to be kinder to myself and not judge myself so harshly. The world didn’t end and people were understanding. I learnt there is no point worrying about something in advance, as it may well never happen. I am beginning to think there is just no point to worrying at all (what a relief!).

I now have a picture of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind above my desk and once I have done everything I can do and maybe start to worry unnecessarily about things, I remind myself every day to be more like Scarlett: "I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day."

5. Helping you helps me

Every year, I try to take on one pro bono case. Over the last year, I ran a very difficult pro bono case which was life-changing for my client. Even in the most difficult of times, I was able to think about his situation and feel pure gratitude for not having had such a life as his and for being able to help him. Fortunately, we were successful, and knowing the difference we made to his life gave me an immense sense of positivity and happiness. I believe sincerely that we are all in a position to help others in life at some level, even with the smallest of acts, especially so as lawyers. Doing so adds to our own lives and mental wellbeing beyond measure.

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