Midsummer Musings

It’s been two weeks since the druids packed away their cloaks and stopped touching each other’s bottoms at Stonehenge, and the race downhill into the dark months has begun. It must seem like a strange thought process for any normal people reading this, but it’s one of the things that marks me out as being one of the mad folk. That and my bright orange scrotum.

I’m hyper-aware of time. I’ve written about it before and won’t bore you with the retelling, but I have two main trains of thought on the subject. Firstly, I obsess over the death of time and the passage of life into memory, and secondly I’m guilty of counting down the days until the veil of bleakness descends for another year. Cheerful eh? It’s not quite as grim as it sounds. I’ve recently made peace with my fears, but I’ve not quite managed to train my fecund mind to stop predicting catastrophe whenever the nights begin to draw in. Today is a great example of this; we’re currently experiencing an epic heatwave and I’ve spend the best part of the afternoon trying to work out whether I can hibernate between October and March. So far the planning hasn’t been hugely successful; I’m pinning my hopes on an injection of bear genes, however my pessimistic brain tells me that I’d probably be the subject of a terrible mixup and end up getting the skunk jab instead. They don’t even bloody hibernate.

I’ve had two awful winters and two average winters since I was diagnosed as an official mental. The awful ones are those where I descend into full on depression, where my brain switches to kamikaze autopilot and I float outside of myself like a grey balloon. In the average winters I retain control of my mental faculties and generally function well – I can get out of bed, dress myself, go to work etc. “But Tom, you handsome bugger, surely that’s a good winter?” I hear you ask. You’re right to ask; any time spent in control of one’s mind can only be a good thing, but it’s more complex than that. I can function, but I’m diminished. The best way to explain it is with a tedious car analogy – I’m like a modern car but my engine management light comes on and my engine switches to ‘limp home’ mode. Eco setting. Low battery. Clogged filter. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a thousand times better than the alternative.

Maybe some of you reading this can recognise your own experiences in mine. Maybe your experiences are different but equally unhelpful. Either way, it’s clear that this tendency towards unhelpful thought processes holds us back, maybe even damages us. So what to do about it? I don’t have all the answers, but I want to share some things that have been helpful for me:

a. Train your mind to take joy in the small things. We’re forever bombarded by the big stuff and it takes a toll on us, but there’s much happiness to be found in the minutiae. When it all seems too much, narrow your world view and really focus on something. Ask yourself questions and try to work out the answer. I immerse myself in nature because I can find a million things to ponder, but you don’t need to go the full David Attenborough like me. Look around you. Take an interest in patterns. Try to figure out how things work. Dogs are weird aren’t they? What the fuck is electricity? Where do ducks come from, and what do they want from us? Is there a squidgier food than malt loaf?

b. Try to live in the moment, and don’t take the amazing things that you do every day for granted. This is a tough one as it’s often very hard to control how you feel, but it’s rewarding if you can. For example, yesterday I went to London to watch a magnificent set by one of my favourite ever bands. Yet I began today by stressing about distant winter instead of reflecting on a wonderful experience. We are constantly making incredible memories but are too often guilty of letting them go, like a balloon release that ends up choking a swan.

c. No matter what, never be afraid to talk. Talk constantly, talk loudly. Write things down and share them with the world. Let the people around you know who you are, let them see your humanity. Your brain might tell you to keep everything inside, but it’s truly never the answer. Those internal musings are often much easier to see as the lies that they are in the cold light of day, whereas they’re infinitely more convincing when you hold them in. Unpack the unhelpful thoughts from your mind, and make room to let the beauty in. Don’t be scared, and don’t be disheartened. Tell your story.

I’m still getting to know myself, but every day I learn new tactics that help me to better understand who I am. I’m a strange aubergine, but I’m learning to like me.

Nurse, fetch me my jelly!

Thomas J. Skunk

Nordic Notions

Wanna hear a secret? For over a decade I’ve been having a secret romantic tryst. Shocking, I know. You’re probably appalled at me, but you needn’t be. My love affair isn’t with a person, but with a place. Scandinavia, Fennoscandia, call it what you will. This beautiful, strange little peninsula has changed and enriched my life beyond measure. This place is a part of me. It’s in my blood.

I’m in Sweden as I write this, ensconced in a small hotel in suburban Gothenburg. It’s 10pm, and the sky above me is beginning to fade to a deep indigo. Time moves slowly here, and the light is different. There’s a tendency to think of this part of the world as a cold, unforgiving place, and for half of the year that’s certainly true, but spring and summer at this latitude are joyous. It’s early June as I write, a time of endless days and the briefest of nights. A time of cloudless skies of the richest blue imaginable, a blue rendered in stereo by the seas, rivers and lakes that permeate this place. A cerulean plexus, serene and perfect.

A slash of green divides the blue, a jagged horizon that reminds me that this is a place of trees and forests where man is but an interloper. It’s been written that the human eye can detect more shades of green that any other colour, and sometimes it seems like this place has them all. Green is my colour. I derive a huge feeling of calm from being enveloped by it, from the deep, dark greens of the pine canopies to the soft, sun-dappled shades of the parkland broadleaves. As a functioning depressive it’s one of my great releases and a well of succour that I will always return to.

I felt a special connection with this region from the moment I first visited. I came here from a world that I always found, and still find, claustrophobic, a world of relentless cerebral overstimulation that comes from urban living, work pressure and family drama/tragedy. My standard response has always been to retreat and hide away like a modern day anchorite, venturing out sporadically to remind people that I’m not dead yet. I feel different here though, calmer and more confident. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about the wide streets and empty open spaces that nourishes me, both physically and mentally. I imagine it’s the difference between a caged tiger and one living freely. This is my natural habitat, my niche gestalt.

It sounds as though I’m unhappy with regular life, but that’s not the case. By any measure I have a very privileged existence, living in a place I love and doing a job that I enjoy. I’ve learned to accept the things that used to stop me from being happy and to live my life in a way that works for me. My frequent retreats to the northern latitudes are part of my self-prescribed therapy, and part of my attempt to live my best life. Maybe I’ve got some Viking blood in me – it would certainly explain the daft ginger beard.

I’ll draw this to a close now as my eyelids are growing heavy. It’s 11.45pm, and the sky is still a rich navy hue. The sound of trams rattling along outside reverberates in my ears as the gentle hum of the city at night lulls me to sleep.

Try to find your natural habitat. It’ll save your life x

Strawberry Milk

The date was set months ago. He agreed in haste, unconsciously sowing a tiny seed of anxiety in his fertile mind. A hometown show by his favourite band, surrounded by his closest friends. Measured by any metric this was something to look forward to.

Four weeks to go. He was still excited, but the tiny seed had sent out green shoots of worry. He barely noticed, save for an occasional prickle at the edge of his consciousness. He thought about the club, an oppressive concrete box with low ceilings. It would be busy. Hot. Sweaty. Claustrophobic. He could still have fun though. Maybe.

One week to go. He was driving, listening to songs that reminded him of past times and places, words triggering vivid recollections of youth. Tunes first encountered when he was in his prime, if indeed those years could be described as such. It was a strange time, filled with academia, loneliness and a crippling lack of self esteem. He had largely expunged it from his memory, but he’d held on to the music. Always the music.

It’s the day of the gig. The anxiety seed is now full-grown, a complicated vine of creeping dread infiltrating every fibre of him. He’s at work, and whilst his body and mind are busy with the challenges of his job he can keep the unhelpful thoughts at bay. Work is his safe place, a sanctuary where his confidence in his own ability is unshakable. Within those office walls he is invulnerable, but the dread vine waits patiently outside. As soon as he steps out the doors it strikes, triffid-like, and panic sets in. “You’re the worst. It’ll be too busy. It’ll be too hot. You’ll look stupid. You’ve got nothing to wear. You’re going to embarrass yourself you fat fuck”. He doesn’t want to go anymore. He’s not going to go.

He is going to go. It’s two hours before the show and he sits waiting for a taxi. He feels uncomfortable in his ill-fitting clothes, and he’s started to sweat. Scared.

He meets his friends for a drink before the show, and the anxiety melts away slightly. He knows his brain is playing tricks, he knows he’s just the same as everyone else, but his mind won’t let him believe it. Alcohol gives the panic a fuzzy edge that seems less intimidating, and he relaxes slightly. They walk to the venue, and the cool breeze soothes his sweaty brow.

A short queue. Ticket scanned. A quick search from a security guard and he’s in. The wave of sticky heat hits him immediately, just as he predicted. The unique ambience of thousands of human forms temporarily entombed in a windowless bunker, perspiration condensing and dripping from the ceiling. Visions of wartime, but with a funkier bassline. He inhales a plastic cup of beer, then heads to the merch stand to waste some money. The endorphin boost is disappointingly brief, but it’s good to feel something. He buys another cigarette lighter. He doesn’t even smoke.

The venue fills, becoming packed like the metaphorical sardine tin. He takes up his regular position at the back, near to the sound desk. You always get the best sound near the desk. He struggles to find a position where he’s not constantly in contact with the writhing mass of other people, and gives up. The sweat comes again. He feels like a bear in a cheap man suit, and he convinced himself that people see him as some sort of landmark. “Meet you by the man-bear”. The lights dim and the band comes on. They start with an old song. His favourite. Adrenaline pumps, and he moves his right leg in an awkward near-dance, like someone trying to dislodge an amorous ferret from their trouser leg. He soon gives up and heads to the bar.

The bar. Thirty minutes spent in a seething ball of life, during which he sweats out enough liquid to fill Gas Street Basin. He emerges with a small cup of warm beer, which is immediately knocked from his hand by a man with a face that appears to have been drawn onto a deflating balloon. Fuck this.

He rejoins the crowd. Strobe lights flicker, framing the singer in a slow-motion sepia world. The crowd are mesmerised, but all our hero can focus on are those around him. The gig-talkers, the portrait-filmers, the pissed-up dancers windmilling their arms with gay abandon. An idiot in front crouches down, ingesting his MDMA somewhat less subtly than he thinks, before exploding back to a standing position and sending a young girl sprawling to the floor. The idiot doesn’t notice, and starts to windmill with renewed vigour.

His nerves are on edge, and all he can think about is how much he hates everyone around him. He imagines telling them to stop, imagines getting involved in an awkward fight under the strobe lights, all missed punches and kicks. He never wins his imagined fights, and he knows he’d never be brave enough to do it anyway.

A mid-gig lull. The band are playing new songs. The sound is muffled, and they seem to be coasting. Something is missing, some spark of danger and excitement. Before he knows it he’s heading for the exit, pushing his way through two sets of doors and out into the open. The cold air shocks him, a bolt of adrenaline runs through him as he realises that he’s free. He can still hear the band plodding through a disappointing album track as he skirts around the railings, ignoring the bootleg t-shirt sellers as he makes his escape. He doesn’t have a plan, but with every step away from the club the anxiety melts away. He walks the wrong way down the main road into town, away from the buses and taxis that could carry him home. At least a mile passes before he stops to collect his thoughts. He calls a cab, and heads into a nearby corner shop to buy a pint of strawberry milk. It’s been a bizarre evening by even his own strange standards, but sometimes the anxious thoughts win, and sometimes things don’t always go according to plan. That’s alright though, he doesn’t mind.

He sits back in the taxi seat, strawberry milk in hand, feeling calm. Until next time.

Declaration of War

Depression is a fucking liar. If I could reach out to you, I’d tell you that. The sad thing is that you wouldn’t believe me, but it’s true.

The sly voice in your ear tells you that you’re worthless, but you’re not. It tells you that you’ve made bad choices and done bad things, but you haven’t. That you’re a fraud, an imposter, a chancer. You’re none of those things. Look around you. Look at the things you’ve achieved, the places you’ve been, the people that love you. When did depression last tell you that you’re amazing? You are. Depression hasn’t got a clue.

Depression is a fucking liar, but it’s also a fool. Its arguments are weak, falling apart at the merest hint of scrutiny and fact, yet we fall for it every time. Depression is Boris Johnson. Depression is Jacob Rees Mogg.

I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of people I love being lied to. I’ve had enough of beautiful souls being wounded by slander and deceit. We need to rebel, to look the black beast in the eye and let it know that it can never win.

We are many, yet we are one. Look out depression, we’re coming for you.

 

* The crow sketch on cardboard is by my lovely talented friend Sarah.  Check her out on instagram @sarahrussell_illustrates