1st Place Winner – Lily Stafford!

Congratulations Lily Stafford for winning 1st place in the Young Carers – Life Under Lockdown creative competition (16-24) with your incredibly moving story, Life in Lockdown: Mending the Cracks…

Life in Lockdown: Mending the Cracks

– By Lily Stafford

There’s a Japanese art called ‘kintsugi’, or ‘mending with gold.’ Rather than throwing away broken pottery, or hiding the cracks, artists repair them using lacquer mixed with gold. After all, we can’t turn back time. Broken pottery can never ‘return to normal.’ But instead of treating the change as shameful, they highlight the unique beauty of each crack. The disaster gives birth to a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Kintsugi shows how objects – and people – grow more beautiful from having once broken.

Right now, we all need that message.

The lockdown has been tough, but I’m no stranger to sudden change. I’ve seen how lives can shatter overnight, whether from loved ones suffering life-changing injuries or from coming out as trans and becoming a second-class citizen. Through it all, I pride myself in my ability to grow and adapt. Becoming a young carer taught me compassion and resilience. Coming out as trans helped me become an activist, giving me the motivation and first-hand experience to change lives. And the lockdown, as horrible as it’s been, has felt the same. It’s given me time and space to heal – to mend all my cracks, both old and new.

The lockdown shattered my old life. I’m mending it with gold.

When the lockdown began, I was terrified of stagnating at home. I’d already spent three years living with my parents, watching my university friends build new lives while I sunk deeper into caregiving. My house felt like a prison cell, rancid with the stench of rotting dreams. I was ashamed. So I volunteered and applied for jobs, desperate to feel like I was progressing. Distracting myself from how stagnant life had become. Because if I couldn’t make progress, I was afraid the shame would consume me. To me, lockdown wasn’t just months of isolation – it meant being forced back into stagnation. At first, I didn’t think I could handle it.

As weeks passed, the cracks began to show. I made lists of ambitious goals – sleep more, write more, exercise more – anything that felt like progress. I clung to my old coping strategies, hoping that ‘seizing this opportunity’ for self-improvement would quench my cabin fever and shame. But as my family members grew more stressed, each missing normality in our own way, our arguments grew worse and worse. Caregiving became harder and harder. I couldn’t save myself or my family from this suffering, let alone both at once. As my compassion fatigue grew and my new routines began falling apart, I felt myself slipping back into stagnation. The more I cracked, the worse my shame became.

Eventually, I shattered.

After one family argument too many, I realised I couldn’t repress my shame any more. So I opened the floodgates and let myself feel. All my stress, all my shame and a thousand other traumas that I’d bottled away until now. I spent hours sobbing in the nearby woods. For three nights in a row, I woke up at 2am in a cold sweat. My worst nightmare was about leaving on a deep-space voyage, naively proud of my bravery, only to realise – as I crossed the point of no return – that I’d thrown away everything I’d ever known and loved. That’s how it felt to lower my guard. It seemed almost suicidal – throwing away my coping strategies and diving into the abyss, knowing I could never un-feel the emotions I’d set loose.

That was my low point. After that, life got better.

At long last, I stopped hiding from my shame and focused on self-care. I let myself experience my thoughts and feelings without distractions, knowing that I had all the time in the world to soothe myself. I sat outside and appreciated life – the birdsong, the rustling trees and the sun on my face. I l tilted back my head to watch the clouds, then realised that I hadn’t looked up once since graduating. I’d been too busy looking ahead. As I finally let myself process my feelings, I felt lighter and more cleansed than ever before

The next time a family argument erupted, I didn’t bury the pain. Instead, I went for a woodland walk with an open heart – and had the most Zen experience of my life. Each time a feeling bubbled up, I invited it to walk alongside me as a companion rather than overwhelm me. I wandered down a familiar forest path, looking at each tree individually – some had fascinating shapes I’d never noticed before. And as I watched each tree bending in the wind, I imagined how that breeze must have crossed the whole forest, touching every tree and every house in the area at once. I felt connected in a surreal way that I’d never experienced before. Once I lowered my defences and let myself be vulnerable, I discovered something beautiful.

That’s when I began mending with gold.

Since then, the lockdown hasn’t felt so bad. Rather than longing for life to be different – wishing that the pottery of my life would un-shatter – I’ve embraced everything that the lockdown has to offer. My friendships with my university friends are flourishing – when nobody can travel anyway, distance is no longer an obstacle. I spend sunny afternoons playing badminton with my family – rather than struggling to carry their burdens, I share joy with them instead. And best of all, I have time to simply exist, unshackled from deadlines and self-imposed schedules. I’ve reframed isolation – my old prison cell has become my monastery.

And so, in the middle of a global pandemic, I’ve never felt more at peace than I do now.

The lockdown shattered my unhealthy coping strategies. It’s been the perfect storm for personal growth – too much stress to hold inside, plus all the time in the world to heal. My lifestyle before the pandemic was never ideal, but since my distractions and goal-chasing worked ‘well enough’ back then, I didn’t stop to consider a better option. Once I accepted that my old approach simply could not work, I could start fresh and fix the underlying problems that caused me to shatter. I stopped running away from my shame and learned to trust myself – I could handle my emotions. And while the pandemic will end eventually, the resilience and inner peace I’ve developed will last a lifetime.

I’ve become more beautiful for having once broken.

This isn’t the first time my life has shattered, and it certainly won’t be the last. Life is predictably unpredictable like that – disaster can strike when you least expect it. But each time we shatter, we have an opportunity to start fresh. Disasters force us to confront problems we should have faced long ago – and then we heal. We become stronger, kinder and more beautiful than before. And we learn to adapt, which is such a valuable skill. We learn to trust ourselves to handle change. So while the lockdown has been horrible, I’m grateful for this opportunity. I’ve found purpose and meaning in this experience – not from the suffering itself, but from the ways that I adapt.

That’s what kintsugi means to me.

For now, the lockdown is our new normal – that won’t change for months. It’s painful and horrifying to accept, but we can’t turn back time. We can’t ‘return to normal.’ All we can do is adapt. But rather than being ashamed of the changes, or blaming ourselves for struggling, we all have an opportunity to create something beautiful. We can heal. Not by hiding the cracks in our lives – by starting fresh and celebrating our unique ways of mending. Rather than longing for the past, let’s move forward and embrace something new.

The lockdown shattered our old lives. Let’s mend them with gold.