I can see clearly now the rain has gone

30 Jun

So, after a bit of a crazy couple of months, things are finally clear.
The post I put on here back in April was a foolish act, borne of desperation at the situation in which I found myself.
Now I have a proper diagnosis, I find myself feeling both relieved and sad in equal measure; the realisation that how I have felt and reacted to situations for the entirety of my adult life can be described as part of a treatable (or at least manageable)disorder, means that the prospect of a life sentence of bouts of crushing depression is now far less likely.
On the other hand, the dawning awareness of just what effect my actions have had on those around me, and how I have pushed away and ostracised so many people over the years is extremely painful.
When you come to realise that so many life decisions have been made through a fog of internal critical voices, it starts to raise the question of how much of what I say, do or even feel is actually “me”, and how much is symptomatic of a condition caused by my early childhood experiences?
Reading back over my earlier blog posts this week, it has struck me that I must have been aware of all of the symptoms, albeit on a subconscious level, but did not connect them up into a cohesive format. Disassociative behaviours, suicidal ideation, feelings of immense worthlessness and the ability to fall apart at the mere suggestion of alienation or abandonment of any kind with alarming frequency, have all been there as the soundtrack to my life for as long as I can remember.
So finally, I know I have a form of post traumatic stress disorder. Yes, certainly there is some depression there as well, but as part and parcel of something far more deep rooted, not a stand alone illness.
With this knowledge, I am now at least able to know my enemy; the battle has raged for so many years now, and I have fought the shame and guilt of feeling bad, knowing full well that I want to feel good, and do good. I have been like some sort of toxic Ying and Yang, permanently entwined, with neither side of my persona appearing to be able to dominate the other. At times, it has felt as if both Holmes and Moriarty have to fall into the water in order to resolve this psychological warfare.
However, after 18 months of intensive counselling therapy, I finally feel completely present in the here and now, almost all of the time. Disturbing flashbacks and recollections are still there, but I can now see them in the context of what they really are. In place of irrational fear and untrammelled anger and bitterness at an internal adversary, I now find myself acknowledging that a scared and frightened young kid “shut down” many years ago, and has been clamouring for my attention for some time. I have ignored this at my own detriment, as well as that of the people around me whom I care about and love.
To get to this point has taken a gradual peeling back of the layers, bringing with it a great deal of rawness and vulnerability. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious git, I feel like I have spent the past 3 months as Odysseus, strapped to the mast, being tormented by the song of the sirens, while the rest of the world rows on around me oblivious, ears stuffed with wax.
To feel emotions properly for the first time I can ever recall is an immense sensation. To be in the moment, and truly appreciate that people DO care, and DO love me is a liberating feeling. It is therefore with horror that I realise that reciprocally, what I have demonstrated to the people around me is a polar opposite response, and given that they do feel emotions, I have deeply hurt and saddened them with my self destructive and negative, tunnel visioned approach to life.
I now realise that I successfully destroyed the best relationship I ever had with another person in my life, no mean feat, to say that we were together for more than a decade. I have lost very good friends, and have only recently managed to decimate one of the best friendships I have known, purely through fear of rejection and grinding down. Your mates don’t tell you they love you very often (not in blokes, anyway), so when they do, it is best not to jettison such a bond. No prizes for guessing what I’ve done, then….
I wish I’d known that this was what was wrong all along, but in the nature of the beast, the denouement comes in the aftermath of the devastation, sadly not at the point where disaster can be averted.
So, now is the time when, finally free from the demons and ties to the past, and unlocked from the place I’ve been inhabiting for the past 30 years (literally and metaphorically), I know that my actions are entirely my own, and responsibility for them lies with me, and no hangovers or hang ups from the past.
I think this is commonly known as living, and its about time I started doing it properly!

My 2012 in pictures

31 Dec

Here are some of the photos of my year. It has been an incredible year for me, and I am so very grateful to all of the followers of both this blog and Twitter for your continual support, advice and encouragement throughout 2012.

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To you all, a peaceful and prosperous 2013! X

2012 in review

31 Dec

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

The darkest hour is just before dawn

4 Nov

The darkest hour is just before dawn” is one of my favourite lyrics of the Mamas and Papas, from the song Dedicated to the One I Love. Any parent, night shift worker, hardened clubber or insomniac will, I am sure, attest to this fact, that before it gets light, the night time does indeed seem to get even darker. For anyone with any propensity towards a depressive illness, the change of season, with increased hours of darkness from teatime on one day through to the end of Breakfast News on the next, is possibly the worst thing Mother Nature could prescribe. Like many, I also have a mild case of seasonal affective disorder, and find myself drawn to lights at this time of year, and always feel better in daylight hours. The changing of the clocks has also been a significant trigger for the deterioration of my mental health into depression in the past, and so it was with some trepidation that I counted down the days to the end of BST last week.
Additionally, I have been gearing up to today, 4th November, for some time.
Fourteen years ago, I was an inpatient at one of the last old school mental health hospitals, and a year ago to the day, was the beginning of what I can only describe as the meltdown which triggered my ultimate realisation that I could no longer pretend that I could manage my mental health by simply pretending it wasn’t there.
In the last year, I have moved house (twice), completely changed career, as well as ticking off several items from a list of things I have always wanted to do. Most notable of these has been to reconnect with some of my old school friends, whom I have lost touch with over the years, due to a deep depression, and the feeling that I would just be a burden to them. To be told that, contrary to these beliefs I have held for so long, I was greatly missed for almost fifteen years does make me realise how mistaken (or indeed, ill) I was.
Also, my trip to South Africa, volunteering in a school in Cape Town was a life changing experience, and it was a mixture of standing in front of a class of 10 and 11 year olds, teaching them WB Yeats (my choice, definitely not theirs, as it transpired), as well as standing at the top of Table Mountain, looking out to the southernmost point of the African continent, which made me realise that I was almost completely “recovered”. Having been dogged by depression for all of my adult life, and most of my adolescence, the sensation of a weight being lifted off my shoulders was immense. I can only equate this with the feeling you get the first day after having had the common cold; the ability to breathe normally again, after days of congestion which has disrupted both waking and sleeping hours, making you thoroughly miserable, is like a liberation. Sadly though, while I can guarantee a certain level of sympathy for bouts of “man flu”, I never dreamed of being quite explicit about my mental health until 12 months ago, owing to the fear of the stigma this would leave me susceptible to.
The last few weeks, from my return to the UK, and the lead up to this anniversary, have probably been the most ‘wobbly’ I have experienced in a year, with a couple of curve balls thrown in for good measure.
Now safely back on firm ground, and having overcome the obstacle of the 1st anniversary of a significant mental health episode, I realise that I still had further to go to say I felt ‘better’ than simply doing the things I had wanted to do for so long.
I had found doing the good things in life to be an incredible motivator for wellness, but for sustainability, I still had to confront some of the old mindsets head on, to enable me to truly stand, and indeed walk tall in my own right.
So, in the real world, I finally told all of my friends the true extent of my illness over the years, as well as the people with whom I have contact with on a day to day basis. Having been open and honest, I have found a new confidence, and an ability to manage my depression in a way I could not even have imagined last year. While I would not seek to shout about it from the rooftops, I am however now in a position to begin to feel comfortable acknowledging my previous experiences to those around me, as well as to be able to tackle the old mindsets for my own part whenever these have arisen. After months of counselling, and a long term programme of medication, I now practise the art of mindfulness, which I prefer to call by its proper therapeutic title of “having a word with yourself”.
So in terms of recovery, I feel ‘recovered’, not because I think I will never get ill again, but because I now feel in control of my mental health, and I know what to do to safeguard it.
I still hate the nights drawing in early, but, as with everything else in life, I now have to confront this head on. Unless of course I win the Lottery, in which case I will spend 6 months of each year in Norway, revelling in the fact that the sun will not set for the duration of my stay. Right now however, I will have to make do with switching on every lamp in the house!!

We don’t need no education….

27 Aug

Where do I start?… I am now a teacher of Mathematics to a class of 25 10 year old children in a South African Primary School, on the outskirts of Cape Town. The make up of the class is very mixed, but predominantly from the local area, but including kids from some of the care homes and the townships.

Anyone who worries that the English state education system is on its knees really ought to come out here for a few days; lack of resources means that every textbook resembles a handful of loose papers held together with varying layers of sticky tape, depending on the severity of damage to or age of the book. The school desks are reminiscent of those used in Britain up to the 1970s with the lift up lids, and the seat attached by means of a tubular steel structure. These are extremely uncomfortable, and not conducive to a learning environment. Especially if you are 32, and slightly larger than the average primary school child.

On first sight in my classroom, the impressively large map of the African continent looks like a useful teaching aid, until closer inspection indicates that the country just above South Africa and Mozambique is titled “Rhodesia”. Not only is this map therefore older than me, but given the seismic changes in politics of both this country and (now) Zimbabwe,  this demonstrates very clearly that the finances of the ‘new” South Africa can hardly be described as healthy.

It is fair to say that the teachers in the school are extremely pressured and often prone to taking a negative, or at least slightly cynical view of any initiatives or attempts to improve the educational and welfare standards of the children in the school. I have been more than a little surprised at the manner of shouting at pupils, and the high levels of discipline expected by teachers. Comments such as “Do you like your teeth? I will knock them out if you do not be quiet!” and “I pray to God that I keep my hands off you if I lose my temper” are daily occurrences within the general flow of the lessons. And yet, in quiet moments, I have seen teachers demonstrating real concern for individual pupils, especially those for the whom the social problems of this nation impinge greatly upon. I have even witnessed a teacher giving away their own packed lunch to a child who has been sent to school hungry and with no food. These small indicators make you realise that there are wider issues to consider than can be resolved with a Western style liberal education model. While the centre of Cape Town may boast history, relative affluence and luxury shops, apartments and Wi-Fi cafes,  it is clear only 10 kilometres outside that you are in a struggling African country, however cosmopolitan or entrepreneurial the metropolis down the road has become.

The biggest surprise I have had is the general apathy I have encountered amongst learners towards their education, however under funded or ill resourced this may be. Most children appear to be the dreadful position of being too far behind in their school work to be able to comprehend what is being taught on a daily basis, but are also too scared or embarrassed to ask for extra help, which would not be available even if they did ask. This predicament manifests itself in a feigned indifference, and while teachers here do not have the time to be able to spend to motivate each pupil to understand the key elements of each lesson, it is frustrating to be a volunteer doing exactly this, but knowing how much more time and investment these struggling children need to achieve the appropriate levels for their ages.

The irony of the present situation is that I am the man who scraped a C for GCSE Maths, and even that I am sure was more by luck than design. So, while I wander round the class teaching times tables in the catechism style so popular in the South African education system, I am not sure who is more petrified of getting the answers wrong- me or the children!

To be continued….

Nkosi Sikelei l’Afrika Part 2

18 Aug

This is what you might call a stop gap blog entry, as I am at the outset of a journey, with only aspirations at the present time.
I am sat here, actually having to pinch myself that this is really happening….
As I finished off my original post “Nkosi Sikelei l’Afrika” I had no idea that, only three months later, I would be only hours away from getting the flight to Africa to do the volunteering I decided almost twenty years ago that I wanted to do.
On my list of things to do, finally getting to Africa in some sort of volunteering capacity was the most labour intensive ambition to fulfill, and, as I believed at the time, the one most likely to be the last to cross off the list, some time in mid 2013.
In actual fact, I will be on a plane at 5.30am this morning, destined for Cape Town, South Africa, and will be teaching in a government primary school from Tuesday morning.
This trip represents for the complete embodiment of what I imagine “recovery” from mental ill health to be. It is active, involves putting right old regrets and actually doing rather than saying I will do something.
On top of academic work, I fully intend to immerse myself in the art of teaching the pupils how to play cricket, although my success in this will largely depend on whether the England team can redeem themselves at Lords by the end of the current Test Match against South Africa at Lords.
This evening, I have mostly sat down to watch “Cry Freedom” once more, the film that inspired this whole ambition all those years ago. I am not ashamed to say that I had tears rolling down my face by the end, in the full knowledge that tomorrow night, I will be sat in a bar in Cape Town, at the furthest point away from home I have ever been, yet as close to the life goal I set myself in adolescence.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, I was also delighted to learn that I will be met by someone at the airport with my name on a sign at Arrivals. To truly mark this defining moment in my life, I changed my name by deed poll earlier in the month. You may now call me Bond. James Bond.

I’m in the Mood for Dancing…

22 Jun

It was a night out with work colleagues, one of those which started with just one drink after work in the pub next door to the office. I had just started out on my management career, having been promoted within the company. In true first line manager tradition, I made sure that I bought the first round of drinks being very conscious of creating a “good” impression with my colleagues, who were,like me, trying to adjust to my new position. I was also conscious that my predecessor in the job, whose position I was “acting up to”, had on a number of occasions got very drunk when out with workers, and on one occasion had also tried to stick her tongue down my throat. I had found this alarming, as I was having a conversation with her about client attrition rates from the service at the time.

I have to say that this job was something of a baptism of fire. Having worked in the same place with the same people for just over a year, I suddenly found myself being ostracised, and universally vilified when it came to setting rotas, or having the temerity to suggest that people did not slope off early on a Friday. I had therefore seized the opportunity to try to ameliorate my new team, and my former colleagues, and show them that I was actually still human.

The first couple of pints slipped down nicely, and I began to feel relaxed amongst other people. Once we had established the boundaries of what I was and was not going to discuss, agree to or divulge to them on a Friday night in a pub, we all got along well. Had I left the pub at that point and gone home, it is not an overstatement to say that my life would have been completely different now, and certainly in the short term then.

Feeling more mellowed than I had done for some time, I joined in the rounds for pints three and four. As I was in my mid twenties at the time, with a relationship, responsibilities and a mortgage, I didn’t go out much to pubs any more, and I hadn’t set foot in a nightclub once in the preceding five years. Watching my colleagues letting their hair down made me envious, and I felt myself settling into the group, and after a couple of tetchy phone calls to home, I ceremoniously turned off my mobile, to universal cheers from the rest of the group, prompting me to venture once more to the bar to get the drinks in.

People started to leave, and a core of about ten people remained. We moved on to a more swanky bar at this point, populated by revellers who were out for the evening, as opposed to just having a drink after work. Six or seven pints of real ale down by this point, I moved onto bottled lager. We stayed for some time in this bar, and it came to decision time as to what to do next.  A few of the younger colleagues were gearing up to go out clubbing, while others were getting ready to call it a night, as it was getting on for about 10pm by this point. I weighed up the decision for my own part : I could either stay out, as I was enjoying myself, and go out to the club with the others, or go home back to reality, where at the time, it is fair to say things were rather rocky. The former won over the latter in an instant. Finishing our drinks, and calculating that I must now have been on number nine or ten, we left the bar, to visit banks, drop bags off in cars, and sort out taxis to the club. Coming out into the night air, I was shocked. Being unaccustomed to local  nightlife, I discovered that West Street, normally a fairly quiet thoroughfare on my journey into and out of work daily on the tram was now a bustling hive of activity, the pavements crammed with people spilling out of bars, and the dull thud of music coming from each individual establishment. I also realised that I was a lot drunker than I was used to being, and certainly when out with acquaintances rather than close friends.

We got to the club, I put my coat in the cloakroom, and I looked around at the hundred or so people dancing to the Scissor Sisters, and felt myself being physically shaken by both the volume of the music, and the vibration of the floor bouncing under the weight of so many bodies writhing to “I don’t feel like dancing”. Having visited the bar, I found myself leaning against the wall at the side of the large dance floor with a bottle of lager, benignly smiling along to my colleagues who were all dancing. I felt like a fish out of water, and I also began to notice something which I had not experienced for a very long time. As people walked past me or looked over in my direction, I got the distinction impression that I was being “checked out”, and I got the odd smile, or so I thought. I wondered for a moment if this was a gay night, as it seemed to be young guys looking my way, and then I  became very confused as it seemed to be women as well. I joined my colleagues to dance for a few minutes, if for no other reason than to show willing. Having made enough of a fool of myself, I went back to the bar, and this time was joined by one of the women from work. She asked me if I was okay, as I seemed a bit quiet since we had got to the club. I told her that I had a few problems at home, and I was stressed with some of the stuff at work, and she was sympathetic. We stayed at the bar for a while, and had a few sambuca shots. I told her that I wasn’t used to the music being so loud, and that I must be getting old, at which point she informed me that in this vast cavernous establishment there was an Indie and soul room as well. This was (quite literally) music to my ears, and I wandered off to investigate the other room. As I got through the door, Stevie Wonder “Superstitious” was playing, a sure sign that this was more my scene. None of my colleagues were in this room, but I wasn’t bothered, as I felt far more relaxed in here than in the main area with the thumping beat which was hurting my ears.

I woke up the next morning, in my own bed, having absolutely no recollection of the previous night from the point of walking into the Indie room, and I did not have a clue how I had got home. I was clearly in the dog house on the domestic front, as the drink after work had turned into a bender, with me not returning until the small hours of the morning. I racked my brains trying to remember what had happened the previous evening. One by one the recollections came back to me: I was fairly clear up to the point of entering the Indie room, and then I recalled dancing manically to James “Sit Down” feeling that the spotlights on the dancefloor were changing shape and actually following me around as entities in their own right.

The memories which followed came thick and fast over the following 24 hours, and became overwhelming.

It was with a mix of shame,embarrassment and horror that I began to recall snorting lines of cocaine, having sex with at least two women in toilet cubicles, as well as engaging in a long intense kissing session with a man as well. Hazy memories of arguments with both colleagues and random strangers came back to me, and my overall sense was that in the space of a few hours, I had most likely done enough damage to lose both my job and most likely my relationship as well. I spent the day in a state of catatonia, masked by the mother of all hangovers, as I tried to work out what the hell to say or do. By Sunday night, I was a complete nervous wreck, and confessed to my other half what had happened on the night. To say that the atmosphere between us became frosty would be a monumental understatement.

I went to work on the Monday morning, nervous and apprehensive as to what kind of reaction I would receive, and absolutely dreading the accounts and recollections of my colleagues as to my antics on the night out. Bizarrely, nothing was said at all, and everyone was perfectly friendly. I assumed that this was a conspiracy of silence, and that an almighty revelation was going to be disclosed before the day was out. A worker rang in mid morning, to say that they would be late in, as they had been burgled over the weekend. As I put the phone down from the call, I suddenly remembered that it had in fact been me that had broken into the person’s flat on the previous Friday. Feeling unable to breathe, I ran outside to get some air. I saw my reflection in the office window, and while I knew it was me, I was becoming increasingly frightened and alarmed at what I had done. When the local news that night carried the story of the student who had been stabbed in the city centre over the weekend, my heart felt like it had stopped. I could see him in front of me, as I had been arguing with him, just before taking the knife out of my pocket and stabbing him. As he lay bleeding on the pavement, I had blocked out the sound of his girlfriend screaming for help, and calling for someone to chase after me for what I had done.

I could not work out over the next couple of days why I had not been found out. I could hear voices in my head telling me that I had to keep going on as normal, and keep up a pretence of being okay. These voices were in a constant argument with my own conscience, and on more than one occasion, I sat and cried, truly shocked at the person I had become, and the terrible things I had done. I spent a lot of time with the man who had moved in with us, and he advised me what was happening, and what to do next. I resented him being here, but knew I had to follow his instructions. He reminded me constantly that I had helped him commit the murders the week before, and had buried the bodies by the reservoir with him. If I told ANYONE what had happened, then my family would be murdered, followed by me also. All I had to do was keep quiet until the end of the week, when his boss was released from prison, after which I would be running away with them to another city, and would be given a new identity. Although I would never be able to see anyone in my family again, I would escape life imprisonment for committing multiple murders.

By this time, some ten days after the night out, I was no longer going to work, and my every thought was on the plans for the end of the following week. Every time I was on my own in the house, I tried to find the bugs which had been placed around, before the man came back in to check on me. I worked out that by writing notes down on a pad I concealed in my trouser pocket, I was able to communicate with my other half without being monitored, as long as I did not expressly disclose what had I done, and who I was involved with. Naturally this led to a great deal of concern, as I sat in the front room on an evening forbidding any conversation, and insisting that all correspondence was conducted on my notepad.

Eventually, by the Wednesday, I cracked. While the man was out of the house, I told my other half what I had done, as well as saying that we had to flee straight away, and tell the Police. I knew that this would mean I would face life imprisonment, but I knew that I deserved it, and at least there would then be some protection for my family from the people I had inadvertently become involved with.

We had a screaming blazing row, as I tried to impress the urgency of getting out immediately, but was met with stubborn disbelief, and was remonstrated with that I needed urgent help. As far as I was concerned, I knew how mad everything sounded, but I also knew that there was clear and impending danger to everyone around me if we did not act immediately. Realising that I had disclosed all of this information with the house still bugged, I started sweeping books off the shelves, unplugging the TV and DVD players, and finally smashing through a large quantity of crockery, convinced that somewhere within these household items, devices had been buried.

Once it was apparent that I was not being believed, I remembered the other part of the conditions which had been made by the man. He had hypnotised everyone around me to disbelieve anything I said about murdering people, as a safeguard against me blurting anything out and ruining the plans. I also remembered, with a sickness in the pit of my stomach that if I did alert anyone to the murders, people would immediately round up all of my family, deliver them to my house, and murder them in front of me, and then kill me also, setting me up as a mass murderer, who had also killed all of his own family, before himself, thus covering their tracks. I also remembered that I had been given one get out from this nightmare scenario. Should I accidentally confess to anyone what I had done, then I would be given one hour’s grace to get to the nearest police station to confess to the murders, before a bearded man in a blue hat would walk in to the station and murder me in the reception. As the Police were all hypnotised, they would assume that I had committed suicide, but crucially, while I had provided the alibi for the man and his motley crew, my family would NOT then be murdered.

And so, I left the house and ran to the nearest Police station, about a mile away from the house, knowing that I was going to my certain death. As I tried to confess to the murders to the Police, I realised that I could not remember the names of anyone I had killed, but I knew where I had buried them. I told them that they needed to get a squad car round to my house to protect my family immediately. When they sat me down in the interview room, they kept asking me questions, to the point that I had to shout at them that they had all been hypnotised, and needed to listen to me.

I was sat back in the reception, even though I told the officers they needed to lock me up for multiple murders. As they sat me down, I heard a voice coming over the radio alerting one of them to the fact that a squad car with two officers had arrived at my address and that everyone was safe inside, contrary to my protestations. The officers went back behind the front desk and disappeared into a back office. The front door to the Police station opened, and as the bearded man in the blue hat walked in, I knew what was coming next.

I do not remember anything until it was light outside, which must have been the middle of the following day. I was on a psychiatric ward, refusing to eat or drink anything, due to a fear of everything being poisoned. I was by this time petrified, and was screaming at nurses, patients and anyone who would listen that I was going to be murdered at any second, and that no-one understood as they had all been hypnotised also. I was told that I was suffering from paranoia, and would be given some tablets. When I tried to open the door to get out, it was made clear to me that I could not leave, and would be there for quite some time. The next few days after this are a complete blur, but I can fill in from what I was told afterwards. I was sedated with the classic “5 and 2” of Haloperidol and Lorezepam three times initially to try to calm me down. Apparently for the first 24 hours on the ward, I shuffled up and down the corridors, flinching away from anyone who came near, and was convinced of imminent danger. I was, although unaware at the time, under constant supervision, until the point when I finally fell asleep for the first time, for a period of 18 hours solid.  I am told that, on being brought to the ward by the Police, initial suspicions were either that I had developed some form of schizophrenia, or more likely that I had suffered a stroke, as one side of my body appeared to be significantly weaker than the other, and tests on my cognitive functioning had raised concerns.

It must have been about five days into my stay on the ward that I finally began to form meaningful memories, and awareness of my surroundings. I cannot fully put into words the crushing sense of dread and fear, that at the age of only 26, I was destined to spend the rest of my life in prison. I thought about killing myself several times, but to be honest, was so confused, and also in agony with the paralysing effect of the Haloperidol, that I did not really know what I was thinking.

Eventually, I was called in to see the psychiatrist, and nurses, and my other half was also there. Following a thorough Police investigation, I was informed that no murders had taken place, and extensive CCTV footage of my night out, when I had alleged the incidents took place, indicated quite clearly my movements, and the fact that I had gone home directly from the city centre in a taxi. Checks of the area where I had admitted to burying the bodies also demonstrated that nothing of the sort had happened. Footage from inside the nightclub itself had also been checked, which, when spliced together made it very unlikely that I had been having sex with random people in toilet cubicles, or generally getting up to no good and taking drugs.  What the cameras did show however, was that, not long after entering what was presumed to be the Indie room, I was seen drinking from a bottle, which someone else had got me, as I had been on the dance floor the whole time. At the best of times, I can exhibit bizarre and frankly embarrassingly poor movement to music, but after partaking of the drink, the description of my dancing was given as “manic and wild”. The suspicion therefore, was that what I was drinking had been spiked, either intended for me, or drinks had got mixed up from the bar back to the dance floor. Based on all of my subsequent behaviour, as well as local intelligence, a working hypothesis was devised that I had most likely had a night out on Crystal Meth, a derivative of amphetamine which can have extreme effects on both emotion and memory. Unfortunately, too much time had elapsed from the event to the results of numerous blood tests taken once I arrived on the ward, to be able to verify this, and in that respect, there could be no final evidence of either cause, or indeed malicious intent on the part of any person in adulterating the drink. For the record, after my student cannabis use, I had never touched a drug again, so this revelation came as quite a shock to me.

Slowly over the next few days, I had to adjust to the fact that the reality I had lived for the preceding fortnight was actually a falsification made in my own mind, and that far from being hypnotised, the people around me were perfectly sane and measured, and were encouraging me back to the same frame of mind also. No man had moved into my house, nothing was bugged, and I had not burgled a colleague or stabbed a student.

After a week, I saw the psychiatrist again, who discussed the hypothesis once again, but also asked me a series of questions about life stresses, including childhood abuse or neglect, any experience of miscarriage or loss of a baby, difficult work situations, and problems with self esteem. As I ticked these off one by one in my own mind, the overall picture of a diagnosis became more complex, and I began to feel that I may have a mental health condition caused by being allergic to myself.

I was discharged shortly after this, a minor miracle, as it had been assumed that I may be sectioned for several months at my initial assessment, not discharged only eight days later.

Whatever had happened to me, in life up to this point, or in a nightclub on a Friday night, the effect on me was profound. Not only had I well and truly “lost the plot”, but it felt as if, like a kaleidoscope, all of my memories, thoughts and feelings had been shaken up, with no clear indication as to the pattern they would eventually settle back into. I returned to work a couple of months later, having recovered, and been cleared to return to front line duties.

If it were not for the quick thinking of the Police and their diligent and compassionate approach to trying to work out what I was saying, and subsequent investigating, I may not be alive now, and I certainly would not have had the capacity to recover as fully as I have ultimately. I feel guilty still at the amount of time and resources which must have been invested on my behalf at the time (and indeed after this occasion). I can only hope that they kept the footage of my bizarre dancing to play at Christmas dos forever more for Force entertainment!

In hindsight, it actually took a further six years to stop being afraid of my mental health, and to tackle it head on. If I had hidden it up to the point of my psychotic eposide, I practically buried it afterwards, along with my feelings, for fear of ever again being in a position of such chaos. Unfortunately, that was the worst thing I could have ever done!

The moral of this story? Never store up stress. Talk about anything which plays upon your mind. And if out in a nightclub, never take your eye off your drink.

 

I left my heart in….. Birmingham?!

11 Jun

Two things have always set me against considering the city of Birmingham with any fondness. My first trip there in about 1983 for a start; I was only 4, and it was the biggest, noisiest, busiest place I could remember ever visiting, and I did not enjoy it, other than seeing Spaghetti Junction… The second reason is that the University of Birmingham rejected my application outright many years ago, probably due to the Oxbridge application contained in the same form. I was disappointed, as I was hoping like hell that a normal Uni would accept me, so that I could avoid the Dreaming Spires nightmare.
Since my late teenage years therefore, Birmingham has always been a gateway stopping place or transfer point for any journey I have taken, either on long tedious yet very cheap coach journeys in younger days to go back home, or in latter days, use of the train for my home as an adult, as well as for work.
Unfortunately, the place got a further negative connotation when my Dad became ill. Arriving into Birmingham New Street from the North, and the subsequent change in direction dictated I would get the sinking feeling of being utterly helpless to see my Dad rapidly fading in front of me, while at the same time having to joke along with him that it was all fine, and that cancer was like a common cold these days. On one particular morning, a very bright early February Saturday as I recall, I spent the entire time from Sheffield to Birmingham with a card open in front of me not knowing what to write. Coming past the Bullring on the journey on to the South, with the sunshine glistening off the curves of the building, I realised that whatever I wrote would be the last thing I ever wrote for my Dad, as he had been given only a few weeks to live by this point. I ended up writing “Dear Dad” and then just signing it, a lifetime of regrets, too lates, and pointless hope filling the blank gap between the perfunctory words.
So sorry Birmingham, but that memory, coupled with the journey home after his death, and then his funeral, did make me think you a Godforsaken place.
In the newfound spirit of trying new things, I have just spent a very pleasant couple of days in the city. I must confess this was not the aim of my trip, but has been an unexpected bonus. Let me explain…
My Dad absolutely loved cricket. It was his kind of sport he liked, slow, complex, little physical effort and terribly English. I think he played at school, but had no further impact on the game after the late Fifties.
And so, I therefore decided to come to a Test match, and Edgbaston just happened to be looming as I made this decision, leading to clutching tickets for Days 4 and 5 of the match against the West Indies only 24 hours later. Many, many times, Dad and I spoke of going to Headingley to watch a match, given my proximity to the ground, and his love of all things Yorkshire. We never made it to the ground, something which I have deeply regretted for the past few years. Undoubtedly, he would have turned up looking ridiculous in an ill fitting blazer and man from Del Monte hat, trying to look like he had been born in the Members Club. He would have fallen asleep just at the point in play when a century or end of an innings was due, or moaned about the torrential rain or blazing sun, whichever weather condition happened to be prevailing at the time.
As I took my seat for the opening of the 4th day, the England team came out of the pavilion, to the strains of “Jerusalem”, in glorious sunshine. A more perfect moment for my Dad couldn’t have been possible, and his absence from my side, and life in general hit me hard at this point. There are times in life when people feel that they have been dealt a particularly harsh hand, and this was definitely one of them for me.
By the end of that day’s play, and with composure suitably restored, I felt glad to have made the effort to come, and adding another achievement to the list of things I really want to do in life.
Taking up some local intelligence on places to eat, I ended up in a rather excellent curry house in the evening. My Dad had a particular foible for ordering a table full of food, and normally the hottest, spiciest food on the menu at that. While at first, he would receive raised eyebrows in new places, this invariably turned to applause and accolades from waiters and other diners upon finishing his mammoth feast.
Being unashamed to confess my inability to handle a hot curry, I passed on this element of tribute, and opted instead for the large volume of food option. Feeling suitably pleased with myself, I devoured the nicest Balti I have ever eaten, complete with pilau rice, and a naan bread of roughly the same size as Luxembourg.
As I was dining alone, I received a few sideways looks, at this slightly unusual disregard for social mores. Then, remembering the reason for my visit. It is safe to say I became bloody minded. Having finished both rice and Balti, themselves sufficient to fill any hungry grown man, I set about the large quantity of naan bread which had thusfar been hanging on its stand in the middle of the table. I duly finished it, which gave me a sense of achievement, as well as almost instant indigestion, but worth it for the looks on the faces of others, when I had just consumed my bodyweight in bread. Walking out of the restaurant, I reflected that of all the things I have ever done in my life of which my Dad had been proud, this one would have got a gold star, and probably even a manly handshake.
I now sit in the cricket ground for the final day’s play, freezing cold, and feeling a little frustrated that I am sat watching an empty pitch, being one of no more than 100 spectators, and drinking weak tea which is extortionately priced. But I do realise one thing. All of these grumbles made by me now, are exactly what my Dad would say. Sometimes it is alarming when you realise just how close the acorn fell from the oak tree, but today, I am actually quite enjoying the feeling. So, rain has stopped play, it is unlikely that anything will happen today, other than me getting wet, failing to finish the crossword, and eventually going home tired. But I am happy with that, because sometimes life isn’t perfect, and springs unpleasant surprises and challenges on you. It is how you face up to them, which dictates if you go for a duck, or score a century.
Walking around Birmingham, I have been surprised to find it really rather a beautiful place, where the people are friendly, and I will be leaving later feeling I could stay longer. But this time, I know that I will come back soon to visit, not just pass through.

Image 7 Jun

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(Not much) Sun, (but plenty of) Sea and Sand.

5 Jun

If I was writing you a postcard from my jaunt to Devon, this is exactly what would have been written on it from Saturday night, as it is what I wrote in at the time….

 “ I am sat in the tent, the wind is blowing the sides left and right, and water is pouring in from every extremity. I am sat in my sleeping bag (which incidentally is also very wet) Why is this? Probably something to do with the idiot who has parked up next to me in a campervan, who has obviously run over one of my guy ropes, causing the said deluge to prevail upon my temporary canvas abode, while I have been out surfing. To cap it all, he has come out of his camper van to nod over at me, turned up his nose at my small tent, the smell of my Madras cooking, and has then proceeded to hang a bag containing milk and butter from an overhanging tree, but with some sort of pulley system with a stick beating against the side of his campervan, presumably to scare any animal foolish enough to make a play for his “I can’t believe it’s not butter” in the night. He also has a small Terrier, which has been yapping around for ages, and came sauntering over when I was cooking my curry, to engage in a staring out competition, which I obviously won. The mood I am in now, with my tent doing the hokey cokey in the wind, while I lay inside slowly drowning, coupled with the percussion of sticks beating against a metal vehicle and a howling dog, makes me seriously wonder if I will make it to morning without committing a murder, either man or beast, and whether my sanity, if not my dignity will still be intact.”

 You may think that I have brought this all upon myself, having decided to hike off with a tent and a rucksack onto the open road, risking the great British weather, when really I could have been far more sensible and economical and booked a cheap package deal in the sun for the Jubilee weekend. Or at least a Bed and Breakfast. So why the bloody hell did  I go camping, only to be rained on, and chased by herds of cows in fields? There is one simple reason: because this is exactly where I came for our first ever family holiday, some 22 years ago. Having invested in a new tent, my mother and stepfather took us toNorth Devonin the August of 1990. I actually really enjoyed the camping element of the trip, even in the rain. The expectation of a holiday however, was not something which I can honestly say was achieved for me at this time. There were no beaches immediately nearby, and the key aims of the holiday seemed to be following the trail of Lorna Doone, the historical novel set in and around this part of the country. It was, and still is a beautiful part of the world, with some stunning scenery, but show me the 10 year old boy who wants to lots of country walks on a summer holiday, visiting places mentioned in a nineteenth century novel about love and betrayal?. There were various picnics, long walks and opportunities to read. This was all very civilised, but was not really a holiday for kids like me and my younger sibling. I wanted two things from a holiday, either to go to Pontins, playing in the ball pool and dancing with the crocodile. (Had the company not gone bust, I think I would still enjoy that!), and my other goal was to have a beach holiday in nice weather. In the absence of an alternative, this was therefore what I concluded holidays were about.

There was one other particularly striking thing, which has only occurred to me in later years; on holidays, people are normally more relaxed than usual, and parents tend to be a little more lenient with their children. But for us on this holiday, there was a military precision and high expectations of best behaviour as part of our routine, and this put paid to the notion of a “relaxing” holiday.

On the one day we drove to the beach, we ended up a bit further south, at Woolacombe. As it was August inBritain, it was predictably, wet, cold and overcast, but I didn’t care as this is the bit of the holiday I really wanted to do. I just wanted to play on the beach and in the sea like all of my friends did, when they went on holidays. It was also the day of the holiday when my mother seemed to be in her worst mood of the week. She did not want to go to the beach at all as I recall. However, undeterred by the inclement weather, I set off for the sea, having already put on my swimming shorts in preparation back in the tent before leaving. Having left my T-shirt on the shore line, I paddled in, and at knee height was knocked backwards by the sheer force of a wave. I walked in further, and stayed there just splashing about, enjoying the sense of being hit by successive waves.

I have been on quite a few Mediterranean holidays since becoming an adult, happily swimming about in the open sea, but this was the first time I can recall actually going out into the sea, having only learnt to swim the previous year. The water had an element of danger, but I enjoyed scaring myself, and seeing how far out I dared to go. As it was freezing, and I was rather a nervous child at times, this wasn’t really very far at all.

After a while, my stepfather came to get me out of the water, saying that neither he nor my mother had known where I was. On approaching my mother, I could see that her face was a picture of disapproval, and I was proved right, as she expressed her displeasure at the fact that I was completely sodden. She declared her annoyance at the fact that we would now have to go on to the next place via the campsite, so that I could get changed, not having anything else to wear with me. Following a particularly bad tempered stop in a café for a cup of tea, that was it, and we left Woolacombe, less than three hours after arriving.

So, I came on “holiday” for myself last week for a few days, to recreate that holiday for myself doing the things that I had wanted to do all those years ago, figuring that I could replace old negative memories with fresh and positive new ones.

I walked for miles and miles along the coastline, aimlessly in any direction I chose, and completely failed in my map reading abilities. However, no-one told me off for reading it wrongly, or for not being able to correctly identify the type of church a mile henceforth purely from the symbols on the Ordnance Survey map. But best of all, I went back to Woolacombe, and decided that this was the time to try something completely new. And this is how I ended up becoming a wannabe surfer; I spent a couple of hours running into the waves, and being allowed to get wet to my heart’s content. On that day, I was 10 once again, and this time no-one could take away my enjoyment. I had no fear at all of the water, which may have led to my ingestion of rather a lot of sea water in the first twenty minutes or so. But as I caught my first wave, the feeling was amazing, as I hurtled towards the shore on my board. I wont pretend that I excelled at surfing, or even that I managed to stand up, but I did realise that there is a huge difference between being “no good” at something, a description often used about me and by me to describe my abilities, and being “not good”. With the latter, there is always room for improvement. I will definitely be back to practice my surfing in the near future, but for this time, the biggest achievement was going back out into the water, challenging myself to do something new, and creating a good memory of a place for which previously the recollection had not been so good.

As the rain came down during Saturday night, I must confess I started to feel quite down. After the high point of the afternoon’s surfing, the thought of staying in a wet tent all night did make me begin to wonder if my trip had perhaps gone wrong, and that I was kidding myself to think that I could ultimately shake off the feelings of not ever being quite succeeding enough, which I have carried like a ball and chain through most of my life. To try to forget about all of this, I put my iPod on. After skipping a couple of tracks, I came across “Under Attack” by Abba. With such a camp soundtrack, I immediately laughed at myself for being so dramatic, and, realised that a leaking tent really wasn’t an indication of the state of my life. I lay down to sleep, swaying to the music across the tent, through a combination of the wind outside and the water underneath my sleeping mat, imagining that I was once again on my surfboard on the waves.

On Sunday morning, I opened up my tent, and started wringing out my saturated clothes and bedding. The man with the bag of butter and howling dog in the campervan walked over towards me. I really wasn’t in the mood for any hastle, but I braced myself for some comment or other. He asked me if I was alright, as he and his wife had noticed from the van that I seemed to have been waterlogged in the night. He then told me that their dog was very unwell and had been sick everywhere, and they were worried about her. The final blow came as he went on to say that his wife was just making a pot of coffee, and “would you like one?”

My previous venting and judgemental scribbling from the night before (as written at the outset of this blog) came back to haunt me, and I felt very glad not to have sabotaged his carrier bag of dairy products in the night, just because I was fed up myself. I told him that a coffee would be absolutely wonderful, and he went off to get it.

Sitting in the door of my tent, having dried or thrown out anything that had become wet, I set about making some breakfast. The man’s wife came over with a steaming mug of coffee, her concern for my bedraggled state clear behind the proffered brew. She told me that her and her husband used to camp in a tent like mine before they had kids, and I was welcome to come and have a look at their campervan if I wanted to. Thanking her profusely, I returned to sit squelching in the doorway of the tent, and as I began to fry a pan of bacon which sizzled and hissed in the rain, and drink my mug of coffee made with a mother’s love, the woes of the previous night disappeared. I reflected that my trip had been a success after all, and I realised that the excursion planned for that day, to revisit the landmarks of the Lorna Doone trail was not required. After all, that had never been what I wanted to do as a child on my holiday, and so by NOT doing it this time was more far more empowering than trying to recreate a more enjoyable version of that walk as an adult. I had even bought a local map of the trail to follow, and so having decided to jettison this walk, I gave the pristine if slightly damp map to my newfound guardian angels, along with a now empty coffee cup. I had also brought a copy of Lorna Doone itself with me, as I had still never read it. Apologies to any RD Blackmore fans, but a few pages in, I realised it was utter crap. In fact, it read like Catherine Cookson, except for a middle class audience.

With everything achieved in a short space of time, I decided to return a day early to my home comforts, feeling rather pleased with myself. I packed up, and it was only as I took down the tent and put it in its bag that I looked at the label, which clearly read “Beach shelter tent”, and therefore, not suitable for sleeping in, and certainly not in a howling gale. No wonder it only cost me a tenner….