Warrior

Existing can be tough. Being a functioning human and getting through each day is a challenge, yet if you’re reading this you’ve succeeded. Every single day you’ve achieved a thousand tiny miracles that have made you the person that you are today. It’s one of those things that you’re programmed to take for granted, but it’s worth pausing to think about. You’ve made it, however much the odds were against you. However black some of those days and nights seemed, you’ve won.

You’ll win tomorrow too, whatever it brings.

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.

Don’t Give Up

Suicide has been in the news again this week. It seems that the number of well-known personalities lost to suicide in the past few of years has increased dramatically, and statistics on suicide rates in broader society correspond with this observation. We’ve all heard that it’s currently the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, but it’s also on the rise in almost every other demographic that you could name. It’s become an epidemic, and it’s something that is likely to touch all of our lives at some point.

I find it hugely heartening that people are increasingly willing to speak up about their experiences, as it’s only through learning from these experiences that we can hope to beat it. I’d normally prefer to dig a hole to the centre of the earth and hide in it than talk about what I’m going to talk about, but I think the time is right for the story to be told. I’m not claiming that any of my opinions are unique or provide any answers, but shared experience is ultimately the only way that we as a society can learn to process and deal with tragedy, and indeed try to tackle the underlying issues which ultimately lead someone to follow such a devastating and final path.

I’m going to start with one major plot spoiler – my mom killed herself. This is probably the only time I’ll write about this because it’s not a great deal of fun. If you think that reading about it may upset you then please feel free to bale out now. I understand that this is an uncomfortable subject, and the last thing I want to do is to make anyone feel bad. Go and do something better with your time, I know I would. Climb a tree, paint a picture, have a wank.

The second important point to make before I start is that this isn’t just my story. It’s my telling of some events that I was central to, but it’s equally the story of several others caught up in the shitty maelstrom, most notably my sister Ruth and my dad, but also other family members, in-laws and friends. I haven’t tried to speak for anyone else but I’d imagine their experiences don’t diverge greatly from my own. Right, here goes…

Prior to October 2011 I’d never really thought about suicide. It was certainly never something that had directly touched my life, and my only real contact with it had been through some of my teen heroes and anti-heroes, the likes of Kurt Cobain and Ernest Hemingway, who had found solace in the form of a bullet. To my naive mind these stories had an almost romantic mystique about them, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” and all that, but I’d soon learn how wrong I was. There’s nothing romantic about it, it’s horrific.

6th October 2011. I was sat at work pulling together a tedious report when my phone rang. Dad. It was strange for him to call me during the day. As two taciturn brummie men we generally confined our correspondence to brief weekly calls focused around car maintenance or garden tools. On this occasion he didn’t want to talk about either. In fact, he didn’t talk at all for some time. The first moment I heard his breathless whimper followed by “Thomas, it’s your dad” I knew something was very wrong. I don’t remember the exact words, but the line “your mom’s decided to take a load of tablets” has stayed with me vividly. Decided to. Not by accident. Intent. He then told me that he was at Selly Oak Hospital, which I should have realised had closed down some months before, but he was so frantic that he couldn’t remember where he was. I called my sister to break the news, and she subsequently spoke to Dad and managed to work out which hospital he was actually at.

I quickly made my excuses at work and jumped into my car, driving at breakneck speed to the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch. It was a surreal journey, I had no idea if mom was alive or dead and I was so full of adrenaline that I was on the verge of passing out. It’s a horrible, sickening feeling, I’m sure some of you know it. I was the first to arrive at the hospital and found dad outside, pacing back and forth in tears. I’d only ever seen him cry once before on the night that his own mom died, and throughout my childhood he’d always been a figure of steadfast stoicism. It was yet another surreal moment in a period full of them, and seeing my dad cry was something I would become painfully accustomed to.

Mom was alive. We walked into the Accident and Emergency department, into a small booth behind a curtain where she was on a bed wired up to a series of computers and monitors. I was stunned to find her awake and lucid, although her heart monitor showed 234 bpm as a result of the cocktail of drugs in her system. Dad had come home from work find her on the bed surrounded by empty medicine packages, including a variety of antidepressants and painkillers. It’s the painkillers that fuck you up, your body can’t deal with them in that quantity. I held her hand and we had a brief conversation before we were shepherded back out of the room by a nurse. Mom told me that she was sorry for being so selfish, which I took to be an admission of regret. I thought she was saying that she wanted to live, but then she asked the doctor why the overdose hadn’t worked yet, and when it would. In layman’s terms she was asking “will I die soon?”. That’s haunted me for a long time, it’s one of the few aspects of the whole period that I struggle to think about.

My sister arrived and spent some time with mom, presumably going through a similar experience to me. My next memory is myself and Ruth standing outside the hospital trying to call mom’s sister, Cate. Neither of us managed to keep it together on the phone, although strangely this was one of only two times that I remember crying during the whole incident. I’ve developed a strange relationship with my own emotions, to the point where I’ve built an imaginary wall between myself and the things that happen close to me. A sick puppy will have me in tears, but personal tragedy gets internalised into something ultimately much more unhealthy. I can’t remember whether I’ve always been that way or whether it was a response to that particular time, but I feel that it’s a key trigger behind some of my subsequent tribulations.

At some point mom was moved to a ward and we were advised to go home. I drove back, dad beside me, broken and weeping. At this point I felt reasonably optimistic that things would be alright, that mom had got through the worst and would get better. I told dad this, but he wasn’t listening. I dropped him off and asked if he wanted me to stay, but he said no. I then drove home and got undressed for bed. I lay back, still fizzing with sickening adrenaline, and glanced at my phone. Two missed calls from dad. Fuck. I called him back, and in a child’s voice he said “we’ve got to go back, mom’s very poorly”. Clothes back on and out the door, another mad dash to the hospital. Dad was crying all the way. I put my hand on his knee, I didn’t know what else to do.

Mom had gone into cardiac arrest after we left, and they were still trying to revive her when we arrived. For some reason we were put in a position where we could see them frantically trying to resuscitate her. Ruth also overheard a nurse joking on the phone about how she’d had a crap evening because someone (mom) had gone into cardiac arrest five times (how very inconvenient), something for which we received a piss-poor apology afterwards. They managed to stabilise her, but I think we all knew she’d been gone for too long. The nurse who came to apologise made some faintheartedly reassuring comments and asked if we had any questions. I was angry, and wanted to know why they hadn’t pumped her stomach as soon as she arrived at the hospital. I never got a satisfactory answer, and I still wonder whether they could have saved her. Who knows. I’m not a doctor, I’m sure they did the right thing, but it still niggles.

She was in an induced coma for seven days, kept alive by a machine. We’d visit every day hoping for some sign of improvement, but it never came. Occasionally her body would spasm involuntary, but we never got the miracle we hoped for. Eventually they removed the machines that kept her unconscious and she remained in natural coma for another week, but didn’t improve. My memory of these few days is vague, I’ve deliberately pushed it out of my head, but there is very little more depressing than repeatedly visiting a loved one when you know deep down that things are hopeless. You get to know the ward staff and engage in pointless small talk, and you get to spend time in the ‘family room’, AKA a cupboard with chairs where they put relatives who are waiting for their loved one to die. It’s soul-crushingly sad. The drab decor, the over friendly staff, the horrible attempts at wall art, all of it.

Mom did die, eventually. Fourteen days after the original overdose she finally got her wish. We were called to the hospital when the end was imminent, and I spent several hours in a family room with my sister whilst dad sat by mom’s bedside. I think Ruth went in to say goodbye, but I couldn’t do it. I’m weak in that regard, I hide from things that I know will hurt me. I also made the stupid decision of leaving the hospital for a while to buy some food, however I managed to crash my car due to my mind being broken. It was a fucking stupid decision, something I’m no stranger to. Fortunately nobody was hurt. Back to the hospital and another hour in the family room, before dad appeared. “Mom’s at peace now”. We sort of half hugged, and went home. It was an appalling experience, but it was a relief when it happened. We knew she was going, and I selfishly thought that a quick death would be a much better outcome than having to care for a vegetable. Cruel, but ultimately true. It’s amazing how selfish you can be even when things are at their worst.

I genuinely don’t remember much after that. I don’t remember the funeral, apart from the fact that it ended with an Everly Brothers song that I don’t like. I don’t remember the wake either, which stunned my sister a few years later when we went to the same hotel after my dad’s funeral. I had no recollection of ever going there before. Weird how the mind works huh? The only other thing that I remember is that we had to attend an inquest into the death at a court in Stourport a few weeks later. The coroner returned an open verdict, which is common in the case of suicides. It means that the death was non-natural, but there was insufficient evidence to provide whether the deceased intended to die or not. My dad found this whole procedure incredibly difficult. Once again I retreated into myself and just sat through it like a zombie. Not healthy.

The incident fundamentally changed all of us left behind, and I’m sure it had a profound impact on mom’s other friends and relations too. I’ve personally suffered from a number of bouts of depression since it happened. It’s hard to tell if this would have happened anyway, it’s certainly in the genes, but I personally feel that internalising everything and trying to be strong pushed me to breaking point. I’ve got it under control now, but mental illness is something I’ll always have to manage. I’m simply not the same person that I was before all of this happened.

Ruth went through a similar experience to me in the aftermath, although her story isn’t mine to tell. The fact that she’s had two awesome kids in the past few years and is clearly a brilliant mom is, however, testament to the fact that she’s also learning to cope with things. We both have our wobbles occasionally, but we’re getting there slowly.

Dad never really got over what happened. I never saw the old dad again after mom went, he became increasingly withdrawn and vulnerable. Myself and Ruth effectively became his carers, and he reverted back to being a child. It was heartbreaking to see, because he’d always been someone who could do things, and now he couldn’t do anything. Little more than five years after we lost mom, dad went too. His last couple of years were blighted by his own battle with mental illness, something that he tried to suppress with drink. It took a heavy toll on the rest of us as we tried our best to keep him going, but the end was painfully inevitable. He died in July 2016, and again I felt relief.

I try to avoid thinking of it, but the thing that hurts me most is that they were both so young (54 and 62) when they died, and they spend their whole lives striving for something better, something that never came. I suppose I’m just being a working class martyr, but they fact that they never got their happy ending fucks me up more than anything else. It’s shit, and it’s unfair, and I fucking hate it.

That’s the end of the story, congratulations if you made it this far. You’re probably wondering what the point of me telling it was, and you’re right to ask. Firstly I suppose it’s catharsis for me, it’s something I’ve never talked about and I probably should have. Secondly, we all need to be better at understanding what other people may be going through, and what could happen to them. In this case mom had suffered badly with depression for several years, as had many other members of the wider family, but I had never considered that it would end in the way that it did. I think back now and try to work out what I could have done differently, and whether I could have helped her to deal with things before it got this far. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I would have done anything that I could to have made things different.

A lot of those around us are struggling with things that we can’t see, and this example highlights that fact that we can’t just assume that people will be alright. Sometimes they won’t, but perhaps we can reach out and help divert them from taking such drastic steps? We can at least try.

Suicide isn’t quick. It isn’t painless, and it certainly isn’t romantic. People aren’t just bright lights that wink out of existence. Suicides change the fabric of the world around them, leaving a visceral, ragged wound that can never be fixed. The fact that some of us feel so desperate that that this seems to be the only way out needs to be addressed, now.

Traditionally mental illness has never been considered in the same bracket as diseases such as cancer, but that needs to change. Mental illness is a cancer, it’s just a cancer of the psyche rather than the body, and we have to think of it as such. The fact that many mental illnesses are less tangible than physical illnesses makes it difficult, but it’s up to all of us to reach out. Just the simple action of asking someone if they’re ok could save a life.

None of us are alone. None of us are experiencing things that have never been experienced before. There’s always an alternative path, and there’s always a way back from the precipice. Never give up, please.

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

Saturnine

I had the bird dream again. It never changes; the eternal corridor with the blinding light. I vary my direction but it’s always there. Hours pass, or maybe seconds. A silent world apart from my own haltering breath. Adrenaline surges. The quiet is crushed by wingbeats and the chatter of its cruel bill. I run from the cruel talons until my heart bursts and the light fades to black.

It waits for me there, always. Some nights I don’t sleep. It’s killing me.

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.

Renewal

Spring changes everything.

The viscous fog that held me bound is melting away. I’ll soon be free, born again into the realm of the May Queen. She walks the wild places, making everything new. Untold shades of green are a canvass for wildflowers of every hue, each a rare gemstone shining light into the dark corners. The spring flowers are the pioneers, harbingers of impending summer.

The air is different. The thin, biting wind of winter has been replaced by something new, a zephyr dense with pollen and scent, imbued with warmth. Close your eyes, let your other senses assume control. Breath it in. Taste it. Stand still and listen to the sound the spring breeze carries to your discerning ear. Birdsong. Nature’s great chorus, performing cantatas of endless variety for you alone.

Foremost among the May Queen’s haunts are the woodlands. I know she’s been as soon as I skip over the shallow brook and step past the hazel threshold. I’m not religious, but at times the divide between nature and faith seems paper-thin. The woodland in spring is my place of worship, my cathedral. The mighty boles of ash and oak are its great stone pillars, the crown-shy canopy its vaulted ceiling. Each glade is a quiet chapel, and each shaft of sunlight permeating that leafy ceiling shapes a dappled glow more beautiful than any stained glass lancet. The fallen log is my pew, a place for quiet reflection. I consider the elegant mosaic that stretches before me. Bluebell, anemone and archangel, a carpet woven by the seraphim.

The winter malaise is banished for another year. I step out of the woods renewed, more alert than ever to the world around me. I am part of nature, and it is part of me.

Spring changes everything. Blue skies bring joy.

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 

 

Nautilus

Entirely by accident he found himself in his early 30s, a fully grown man with responsibilities and a crap beard.

He was older now than his parents had been when he was born, dragged kicking and screaming into a bleak world of Thatcher and synthpop. He still felt like a child in many respects, and he supposed that his parents must have felt the same way back then. He had always assumed that there was a hard divide between childhood and the realm of grown-ups, a point of crossing the rubicon where innocent thoughts were left behind and you were issued with a mortgage and a poorly-paid job by a man in a grey suit. It had never really happened that way though. His experience, and he expected the experience of a great many others too, was one of perpetual childhood around which he had formed a concrete shell to protect him from the hammer blows that the past few years had dealt him. Behind the emotional wall he was a little boy, weak and fragile. He was glass.

His childhood memories were bizarrely selective, his mind having disposed of or suppressed huge tranches of what he assumed must have been banal normality. The bits that he did remember, however, were rendered in vivid technicolour. Each of these memories was linked to extreme emotion, moments of heightened joy, sadness and despair that had remained with him as if experienced only yesterday. A painful fall, a moment of embarrassment, a cruel insult or a death, each given equal emotional weight and importance by his odd mind. He could only assume that his brain knew what it was doing, as he had very little control over it. The abiding memory of his childhood was one of failure to live up to expectations, and being crushed beneath the weight of them. He was held up as the golden boy, only for the lustre to fade to grey. His mother had only lived long enough to see him disappoint, and sometimes that still troubled him.

His late teens and early twenties had been a shambles, characterised by confusion, loneliness and a pathetic absence of focus. He didn’t know who he was, or indeed who he wanted to be, and he drifted around the fringes of academia, overweight and angst ridden. He was arrogant enough to know that he was more intelligent than most, but what intellectual capacity he had was wasted within a shell that lacked emotional maturity and social skills. He could mask these flaws to some extent with alcohol, but when sober he was at best tedious, and at worst, plain bad company. Still childlike at this time, but without the self awareness to start building the shell.

His mid to late twenties were a brighter period, and a time when he experienced some of the emotional development that should have happened years before. His life was changed by two things: a girl who taught him to see himself from the outside, and a job that gave him the sense of purpose that he’d always lacked. His confidence and self belief grew exponentially during this time, aided by great friends and new experiences. This buoyant period would be shattered in time by tragedy, but the progress he made would stay with him always.

His mother’s unexpected death would change him profoundly. Perversely, through the sadness and confusion the defining feeling would be one of acceptance and defiance, firing his desire to move on, to set aside the last vestige of childishness and to look forward rather than inward. More difficult times would come in the following years, including a formal diagnosis of the depression that had lain dormant for years, and the slow decline and eventual death of his father. It would be logical to assume that the hardships of the past decade might have broken him, and he wouldn’t deny that there were times that it came close, but entering his 34th year he found himself more confident and cheerful than ever. Certainly more comfortable in his own skin, and more optimistic than at any time he could recall. He had realised recently how primitive he was, how his spirits could be lifted instantly by a ray of sunlight bursting through the clouds, and this primal kinship with nature gave him great comfort.

He was me. He still is.

Time

I had my semi-regular check up this week to see how mental I am. The answer was, reassuringly, not very mental, although two days later I had a bit of a wobble that could have gone either way. It got me thinking.

Firstly I should explain how I perceive time. It sounds daft, I know, but recently I’ve learned that we all experience time slightly differently. Some see a calendar year as a linear thing, beginning in January and following a straight line until the end of December. Others see time as a loop, or clock face, months ticking by and years beginning afresh. Personally I visualise each year as a parabola, with January to April a shallow incline to be conquered, May through August almost a plateau, and September onwards a sharp, uncontrollable fall. Don’t ask me how I perceive longer time periods, I don’t even know how to explain it myself. Suffice to say that there are right angles…

I don’t think I’ve always experienced time as a curve. Certainly as a child I belonged to the ‘straight line’ crowd, with acute peaks during times of excitement like summer holidays and Christmas. The warping and curving has only really happened in the past decade or so, which broadly correlates with the period I’ve spent tussling with the world and my place in it. Ergo, time passes differently when you’re mad. I’m not very mad, but just enough to see beyond the magician’s curtain (and occasionally the wizard’s sleeve).

The slopes of the parabola are the times that I find difficult. Like many who suffer with relatively benign depression, the black dog comes with the dark. Summertime is generally fine, with the long sunny days keeping the silos of good chemicals in my strange brain topped up. Vitamin D, serotonin, dopamine, all present and correct. Autumn is when things start to change, happy chemicals starting to deplete as the nights draw in. I can generally feel myself weakening, as the sun-fuelled forcefield melts slowly away. By the time November comes I’m quite fragile, and during the bad years this is when the real tussle starts. It’s a tussle with myself, so you’d think I’d know the rules and how to win, but apparently not. It’s frustrating, because autumn and early winter are two of my favourite times of the year. I’ve said it before, but I prefer Bonfire Night to Christmas. It’s the smell of woodsmoke and candy floss that does it.

I’m going to gloss over the winter part because I want to write about it as much as you want to read about it (i.e. not at all). Suffice to say once you’ve tried to push through three months of feeling broken and worthless, you won’t want to do it again. It’s a handy learning curve if nothing else. Finally you get through to the other side and spring is on the horizon. The nights get longer and the lazy sun starts to make an effort once again. It’s an upward struggle to drag myself to April, but that’s usually the time where my old friends the good chemicals generally kick back in.

Back to the parabola again. It was only this week that I finally worked out why I see time that way, or at least I’ve come up with an explanation that my brain finds convincing. I think I want to see time as a loop, probably an oval, but my broken brain can’t connect the two loose ends of the curve. December should grade into January and begin the annual cycle afresh, but for some reason I can’t handle that. I fall into a void between the two ends of the thread, and it is often a real fight to end one year and find my way to the start of another. January and February are when I’m at my least motivated, and I sometimes obsess over the fear of getting back on the treadmill and living through another year. It doesn’t last long, but it’s always there.

I’m lucky in many ways that my job is also my passion, namely nature and wildlife. Nature can, however, be a real bugger for those with a tendency to dwell on the passage of time. Nature gives the open-minded depressive any number of allegories to cling to, some helpful but most less so. The birds are the worst offenders, the spring chorus of the migrant breeders raising our spirits and gladdening our hearts before they abandon us to our solitude once more. The swifts are the ones that get me, one moment wheeling through the sky en masse and screaming with the pure joy of being alive and free, then August arrives and they depart suddenly on the changing winds. They’re oblivious of course, but the swifts taking their leave is a sure sign that I need to batten down the hatches for the gathering storm.

It’s mid August as I write this, and I’m fine. I’ve been on my second spell of antidepressants for over a year now and they seem to keep all my chemicals balanced without making me an emotionless robot. The swifts are preparing their exit strategy and the leaves will soon start to turn, but I’m fairly optimistic about the coming months. I think Bonfire Night should be a good one this year.