Life in lockdown - Tips on surviving isolation from a Kidnap survivor

At the end of March, South Africa went into a strict five-tier lockdown. Seven weeks into one of the toughest lockdowns, in which cigarettes and alcohol sales were banned.

At the end of March, South Africa went into a strict five-tier lockdown. Seven weeks into one of the toughest lockdowns, in which cigarettes and alcohol sales were banned, there have been some gradual easing of confinement. This has involved allowing citizens to exercise outdoors and some businesses to resume. Citizens are still being encouraged to stay home where possible and the likelihood is that cities, including Cape Town and Johannesburg, which can be hotspots of infections are likely to stay under even tighter controls.

Nigel Brennan, who was kidnapped in Somalia and held hostage for 462 days, shares his tips for surviving life in lockdown – and the important lessons he learned during his ordeal.

Nigel forms part of the Schillings Critical Risk Team – a team of experts focused on battling kidnap for ransom, blackmail, unlawful detention, piracy, hijack, stalking and cyber extortion. His global case experience includes a particular focus on Australasia and Africa.

How are you doing in your “lockdown journey”?

For most of us the reality of self-isolation is really starting to kick in now – and the novelty is rapidly wearing off. A few weeks seemed challenging enough at first – but, with conflicting reports of when we might be allowed to resume something resembling normal life again, the prospect of staying at home for months is tipping many people into despair.

I know all too well what the effects of forced isolation can do to a person and one’s mind. Having survived 460 days as a hostage, I spent the vast majority of that time alone in a room with little more than my thoughts and imagination to keep me company.

While it’s unlikely anyone in lockdown will experience anything this drastic, I’d like to share my 5 top tips I learnt from captivity on how we all might get through this pandemic that is holding the world hostage in 2020.

Routine, Routine, Routine

Creating a routine is probably one of the most imperative things we can do for our wellbeing. Our brains thrive on routine, that’s why we used to get up, commute into the office, work excessive hours, go home and then do it all over again. It’s a little harder now working from home and having to spend more time indoors than we would like.

When I say ‘create a routine’ I don’t mean binging on Netflix, drinking at midday and sleeping excessively (that would have been a dream in captivity). For me, activities like exercise, (even though I wasn’t allowed to), reading books, (I only had 3 and read each countless times) and cleaning the small room my captors held me in allowed me to feel as though I had some control of the situation. I chose simple coping mechanisms that enabled me to survive an extreme environment and come out mentally intact. A structured routine not only keeps you motivated it negates listlessness and depression.

Do something creative

Let’s be honest, we all have a little spare time on our hands these days so why not use it wisely before our lives go back to normal -whenever that might be!

During my confinement, every day facing hours of mind-numbing boredom, I had no other choice than get creative. With scarce resources, (a pencil, paper, straightedge and scale taken from a crossword puzzle) I rediscovered my passion of technical drawing. So began what I can only describe as obsessive-compulsive behaviour as I spent months designing houses that I hoped I would one day get the chance to build.

We all have dreams, things we would do if we just had more time like becoming bilingual, learning to play an instrument, taking dance lessons or refining your cooking skills. Nobody expects you to write your answer to “War and Peace”, but even something small and simple can make all the difference. Now’s the perfect time - so what are you waiting for?

Don’t try to escape

I am sure the thought of escaping the monotony of the current lockdowns has crossed all of our minds. Going for a morning coffee, heading into work then slipping out to the boozer in the afternoon before dinner and finishing off at the theatre all seems so 2019 now. Most of us would be grateful to just hang out with some friends. We miss our creature comforts and the thought of busting down the door and making a run for it sounds tantalizing. Would it really do any harm?

I tried to escape as a hostage and it didn’t bode well for my remaining time in captivity. Imagine a chicken with its head cut off - that was me once I had exited the house. As I ran around aimlessly, the sad reality became clear that there was nowhere to go. Yes, the 25 minutes of adrenaline filled freedom was incredible - our authority on the other hand was not so impressed. What I didn’t realise at the time was staying in my room was probably far safer than running around outside with a lot of men with guns.

The only reason I attempted it was because my life was under threat. Right now if you go out ‘as normal’ you are potentially putting your life, and the life of others, at risk. For the safety of all of us, particularly our health workers, emergency service personnel and those that are vulnerable, don’t risk it unless it’s for essential travel.

Look for the beauty around us

It was in the latter part of my kidnapping that my eyes became more attuned, not just to light and shadows but to the things that surround us that we don’t normally take in as we are generally rushing from place to place. I can tell you hands down that staring at four walls is one of the most demoralising thing you can do to a human being.

Nature became my porn, I spent hours watching ants crawling across my floor and spiders wrap their victims in silk until fully covered. In one particular houseI was held, the most exciting part of my day was a trip to the bathroom....stay with me! In that room I could lock the door, a sense of relief washing over me, my fear and anxiety levels reducing slightly as I got down to business....again stay with me! The room had a small window, barred of course, which became my window to the world - David Attenborough would have appreciated it under the circumstances and the stench. I would stand at that window and drink it all in, watching birds, (never did I think I would become a twitcher in this lifetime). I was mesmerised for minutes by their grace, motion, colour and freedom before the banging on the door ripped me back to reality.

There is beauty in everything around us, you just have to stop to appreciate it. We are so often humans doing and not human beings. Now is the perfect time to be present and appreciate what this amazing planet abounds with. We so often take it for granted. Now’s the time to change that.

Find a good mantra

It took me about 12 months in captivity to get to a place of acceptance and the reality that the only thing I could focus on was the present moment. I went through all the emotions one faces when hit by a traumatic event - disbelief, shock, guilt, anger and despair. Many people will be going through these as I write.

Once I had accepted my circumstances I realised the only thing I could control was my mind. Having practiced meditation years prior to my kidnapping I took solace that nothing is constant. From moment to moment everything is changing. I set a goal everyday, simply to survive the 14 long hours that lay in front of me. Each night before I lay my head down I would repeat the mantra “This too shall pass”.

The trauma the world faces at this moment in time is unprecedented - but it will not last forever. We have to look out for each other, be kind to one another, show resilience, be compassionate, be grateful and remember, we will only get through this together.

Stay safe. This too shall pass.

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