The lockdown life-changers: six people on their 2020 transformations – from giving up gambling to getting fit

The lockdown life-changers: six people on their 2020 transformations – from giving up gambling to getting fit

As soon as he heard about the impending lockdown, Alex Harrison, 34, drove to his local casino in Liverpool and asked them to ban him for life. In the manager’s office, his photograph was taken and his details were recorded on an iPad. To his surprise, the manager congratulated him.

Harrison has battled with a gambling addiction for 10 years. When he walked into the casino that day, he owed around £1,000 to friends, family and payday lenders. Occasionally, he would gamble his entire month’s salary on the day he was paid.

“The next day I would wake up hungover and penniless, in a state of despair,” he says. “The lowest point was using my girlfriend’s bank card to withdraw money to gamble. I’m pretty sure with the amount I’ve gambled over the years, I could have paid for a deposit on a house.”

Harrison started gambling when he became a waiter in his mid-20s, after being made redundant from his job as a researcher at a film company. He would go to the casino after work, put all of his tips on either red or black, and leave after that bet. Gradually, he started betting more than his tips, often staying on to gamble away any winnings. “Within a few years I was going whenever I had money.”

When he did “win big”, he would quickly fritter the money away: eating out each night, buying expensive clothes and paying for his friends to go drinking with him. A few years ago, he had to pawn his belongings, including a camera he had bought for his old job, to pay his bills.

Lockdown meant that he could no longer visit casinos, and gave him the chance to turn his life around. Harrison has never been tempted by online gambling – it was the casino’s atmosphere which drew him in. He hasn’t gambled since.

“We passed the casino in the car the other day, and I felt proud that I haven’t done anything,” he says. “I get paid this week, and I’ve got money in my account. It’s something so simple, but I know that I can go to the shop and buy my girlfriend an ice-cream. I’ve bought presents for my nieces and nephews. It’s taken lockdown to get me out of that cycle.”

For years, Alistair, 36, felt tormented over his sexuality. But the growing coronavirus death toll has become “a stark reminder of the fragility of life”, he says. “I decided that living life how someone else wants me to is not the best use of my time.”

Alistair had been in relationships with women up until his late 20s when he started to explore his attraction to men. “I went into that world, did a bit of dating, but it didn’t really feel authentic to me. For the past 10 years, I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing, and wondering what I am,” he says. “It was kind of what a 16-year-old might go through, wondering and questioning.”

During the pandemic, he joined a mutual aid group. Every week, he’s been phoning an elderly man in his local area to check that he’s OK. This man had a traumatic life, Alistair explains, and married a woman who also suffered abuse.

“He’s telling me: ‘You have no idea how short life is. I look over my shoulder and I see a young fella in shorts.’ That really resonated with me,” Alistair says. “I thought: ‘Why am I wasting time wondering who I am?’”

Rather than worrying about defining himself, Alistair has decided to just accept who he is. “Before I was trying to find out, am I gay, am I straight? And I just thought: ‘Who cares?’ I don’t know if I’m 100% gay or 100% straight, I don’t need to know. Now I’m going to be open to anyone coming into my life and falling in love,” he says. “Whatever my truth is, I’m going to run with it.”

Despite his new carefree attitude, one thing he has been afraid to admit to people is that he’s actually enjoyed lockdown. “For me it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab a hold of things and reassess.”

“I’ve been overweight for the greater part of my life,” says Cameron, 31. “When I was younger, I used to work for Greggs and I could eat whatever I wanted. But when I started working for a bank at 25, I didn’t amend my eating habits.”

Since 2018, he has been cycling 2.5 miles to work, but pre-lockdown, his weight was “substantial” at about 100kg (15st 10lb). “When the government’s daily exercise rule came into effect, I resolved to do some longer rides,” he says. “Giving myself something to work towards, especially something health-based, has made me feel better about myself.”

His rides increased gradually, beginning with him “cantering along” an eight-mile ride motivated largely by sheer boredom. “Exercise was the only thing to do, so I took to it quite quickly, and the weather was nice,” he says.

This grew to 10 miles, and then 15. Recently, he cycled 42 miles in three hours. He has lost more than 13kg during lockdown and says he is “fitter than I’ve been since school, if not ever”.

Cameron is keen to continue cycling as lockdown eases. Recently, he returned to the office after months working from home, and has already been cycling after work. He’s proud of himself for making a “really positive” change to his life.

Elaine Gregersen, 39, and her husband, Mark, had been isolating for several months before lockdown began. A year ago, she was rushed to hospital while 24 weeks pregnant with twins when her waters began to break. She gave birth to two boys, Henry and Blake, who weighed around 700g each.

Henry died six days later, while Blake remained critically ill. He spent 123 days in neonatal intensive care. Elaine and Mark were told several times to prepare for the worst. They were moved into temporary accommodation near the hospital to be close to their son, and spent their evenings watching TV and films.

Blake came home on his due date, still on medical oxygen and with chronic lung disease. He had an infection almost every week in hospital, so the couple “shielded him from the world”, says Elaine. By February, she was just beginning to feel confident enough to visit a coffee shop.

Lockdown meant she had to retreat to the safety of her home again. “Blake has cousins he’s never met, and he’s a year old,” she says incredulously. Their friends and relatives have also found it difficult to approach the subject of Henry’s death because it’s been so long since they’ve seen Elaine and Mark in person.

The couple wanted to open up to their loved ones, and also realised they needed to find a way to keep their relationship strong. They created a podcast named the Honeymoon Period, a tongue-in-cheek reference to how quickly Elaine fell pregnant after they got married, which cut short their time enjoying newly wedded bliss. As well as Henry’s death and Blake’s first months, the couple talk about film and TV, which became lifelines after the boys were born.

“We thought we’d get sympathy listens,” Elaine says. “I thought most would be Mark’s mum downloading it a few times.” Instead, they have around 700 listeners for each episode. “It’s grown beyond our imagination.”

The podcast has helped them cope with their grief. “It really kept us going,” Elaine says. “Mark has said how amazing it is to have a time where we sit down, face to face with no distractions, and just talk.”

Alison Iboro Offong, 57, wanted to study for a master’s ever since she finished her religion and social anthropology degree in 1988, but says “the opportunity just did not present itself”. She was busy bringing up four children on her own, and holding down a full-time job.

“All of a sudden the pandemic came along and changed everything,” she says. Forced to work from home during lockdown, she started thinking about doing a master’s in politics at the University of Birmingham, where she works in administration. In May, she applied and got an offer.

“I’m excited – it gives me the opportunity to work out how I can contribute to debates,” says Iboro Offong. She has already started on the reading list, and has done two short courses online. She will begin the master’s part-time in September, fitting it around her work with the support of her line manager.

“There are big questions about socio-economic inequality, race relations, and I feel lucky to have the luxury now to think about those things” she says. “I’m in my 50s. I’ve had a lifetime of experience, with political engagement at different levels, and lived in three countries. Lockdown has given me the time to think about how I can leverage that experience to make change.”

Before lockdown, Emma, 38, started work at 7.30am and finished after 6pm, with a 50-minute commute each way. As the mother of two small children, she felt a “pervasive sense of guilt”.

“You just keep going unthinkingly because you don’t have time for introspection. But I always feel bad about missing out on either work or children. You can never do both fully.”

Lockdown gave her the chance to reconsider her career in financial services, and she has decided to take a year off work. As well as spending more time with her children, she is looking forward to making the most of her new hobby.

“I really got into mudlarking,” she says. This involves scavenging through muddy areas, usually around rivers or beaches, to uncover buried objects. “During lockdown, I’d spend my daily exercise going to Battersea and beach-combing. There’s so much to find from the past lives of Londoners. I found one Tudor clay pipe, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of thinking about past epidemics. It gives you some perspective.”

Without lockdown, Emma says she wouldn’t have had the courage to take a sabbatical. “I realised that to make impactful changes in life you have to sometimes do unconventional things.”

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