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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!!

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.

A Levels and the big wide world

31 May

I realised earlier on today that it is fifteen years since I sat my A level exams. 4th June 1997 to be precise. 2 As, 1 B, 1 C, and a C in my AS level as well, if you were wondering, but it is not important. Suffice to say that my subjects were very Arts based, and included an ancient language as well.
I’ve said before that I could perform academically, and that was how I got my recognition as a young person, at the expense of other facets of life. And so, having worked bloody hard for my exams, the end result was a just reward for my efforts. My mother even said that my results were the best thing I could have done for her…
Anyway, once results were out, I could confirm my University place. I was going up North to read English, but not until the following year. As I wrote in Nkosi Sikelei l’Afrika, I had plans but nothing firmed up for the year. However, that was the only independent decision I took in the process, as I shall explain here…
At a younger age, I had various career thoughts- lawyer, historian, Labour MP, and even a particularly zealous period where I was going to be an Anglican priest, and become an Army Padre. From the age of 15 however, my attentions became much more focused on elements of directly supporting people on a more practical level, somewhere in the field of social policy work. And of course spending a year volunteering in Africa first.
Unfortunately, these career plans did not meet with familial approval, and the expectation was that this was just the rebellious, revolutionary stage that all teenagers go through, before settling into a career path with prospects, which could be discussed at length by proud parents when they had people “round for supper”.
I suspect you can guess which Universities I was encouraged to apply for… I was enthusiastic indeed about the suggestion until about 16, when I began to realise that there was more to life than just academia.
The precursor to the University interviews themselves was my other chosen path, that of trying to win a choral scholarship to one of the colleges at a certain University with one or two spires. The selection took place in the October of my final year of Sixth Form. Unbelievably, I passed, and so provided that I met with approval on the academic side, I would be an Oxbridge student, reading English with a choral scholarship on the side.
Oddly, the achievement of being awarded the choral scholarship did not win the support or overt congratulations from my family. Instead, the satisfaction with my achievement was tempered with a delay in praise until I had also succeeded on the academic front also. Like Tantalus of Greek mythology, the things I needed always to be just out of reach for me, and I was condemned to forever stretch out, but never receive the recognition I do desired.
Anyway, having proved myself as a singer, I returned to the University city in the December for an interview at one of colleges for an English degree. The whole experience was enough to put anyone off ever picking up a book again. On being summoned into a professor’s study, I found a stern looking woman sat upright on a chaissez lounge, and a postgraduate student, who looked even more gormless than me, was dressed in tweed and cords sat on the other side of her.
The professor asked me about literature, what I read and what I liked, with no visible interest in any of my answers. When asked what my favourite novel was, I answered “Jude the Obscure”, a decision I instantly regretted for two reasons; firstly because I hadn’t actually finished reading it at the time, and also because j realised that championing a book about a man who desires to be considered erudite enough to attend an esteemed university, but does not achieve it because of his lusts, probably didn’t showcase my diplomacy or passion to study very much at all. Poetry killed it for me. The woman lent ostentatiously towards an ornate bookcase groaning under the weight of books. She took down a book and asked me to read one of the poems and discuss it with her and the postgraduate. She picked Philip Larkin’s “this be the verse”, the poem which opens with the classic line “They fuck you up your Mum and Dad”. I read it through in my head, and she asked me, “what do you think of the opening line?” and proceeded to quote it, with particular embellishment on the word “FUCK” that makes the word sound quite risqué, when delivered with a cut glass accent. My initial reaction was to agree, and to say that this bloke knew what he was talking about. I thought better of it, and spouted some nonsense about syntax and dramatic effect. She went on to ask me if I found the poem “sententious”, pausing for a moment to deliver the cutting retort, “you do know what sententious means, don’t you”. Unable to bluff, I said no, and a description followed, but I wasn’t really listening. I wanted to take her book and put it and her bloody posh settee through the mullioned windows, as I could tell her a thing or two about being “Fucked up by your mum and dad’. Of course, none of this happened, and the interview concluded with the briefest of pleasantries.
The second hurdle was the written test, which was a literary critique of another poem, this time WB Yeats’ “Innisfree”, a truly beautiful short elegy to a quieter and simpler life. I wrote my essay under the exam conditions, and looked around at the furrowed brows underlining and visibly working out the meter of the poem. At that moment I knew that this was the last thing I wanted to do with the next 3 years of my life.
My decision was backed fully by the University, who rejected my application outright. Feedback requested by my school indicated that not only had I not appeared knowledgable about literature in the interview, but my writing style had been found to be “workman-like”. If you ever hear a more arrogant, supercilious or class based criticism, be sure to let me know…
So, having failed and disappointed my family, my fallback position was a North Eastern University with a reputation for taking the rejects from it’s two more well known illustrious southern counterparts. Despite being offered a place, I rejected this, for precisely the reason I outlined about its reputation. Sending my family, particularly my mother, into fits of apoplexy, I agreed upon another northern “red brick” as my non -degree holding family rather disparagingly called it. All was set for the year after.
In the meantime, as I’ve talked about previously, my gap year plans went awry long before results day, but by Christmas I did have a plan in place. In another world and lifetime, I will talk about what I did in that time, because it was incredible. Suffice to say that I worked at the frontline of social policy as a volunteer, and it opened my eyes to the real world, and made me grow up very fast.
In those few months at the beginning of 1998, I changed my mind altogether, and wanted more than anything to go into mental health work. Ideally, i wanted to be a psychiatric nurse.At the end of my voluntary position, I was even offered some work at a housing project on the strength of my volunteering, which would have a decent salary and beginning of a great career.
So why didn’t I do it? The answer is that I did not have the balls to stand up to my mother, who completely rubbished this suggestion, informing me that she had not sacrificed so much of her own career in bringing up her children, only for me to throw away the one that I was supposed to have.
I therefore turned down the job offer, and returned to live at home for a couple of months before University started. I regretted this from the moment that the coach pulled out of London. I was 18, and had squandered all of the independence I had built up for myself and passed up an amazing opportunity to do something I really wanted to, based in someone else’s expectations of what I had to do with my life.
I of course failed the English degree, but only by a few marks, as I noticed when I found the results sheet recently. I was between 3 and 5 marks off passing two modules in the 1st year, which would have passported me through to the next year. Probably just as well, because it at least it let me extricate myself, albeit chaotically from the quagmire I had found myself in.
So, I never did get any degree, or get into the exact field of work I wanted, and could have done. Everyone lost out in the end, most of all me.
Determined that some good has got to come out of such a mess, I have added here my encouragement to anyone sitting their A levels,applying to Uni, or moving into a job for the first time. Follow these- because I didn’t!!!
1) Work as hard as you can, because the achievement will belong to you
2) It is your life – you choose what you want to do, regardless of what anyone else’s expectations of you are
3) your gut instinct is just that – a very natural reaction to situations. If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t right for you
4) go where and do what you want to do, never what you are persuaded or coerced into doing
5) above all, best of luck – there are few jobs, little prospect of decent pensions or affordable housing for the current generation of A level students for some time, so make the most of the next few years. You have got the rest of your life to be grown up, live a little now. They’ll never admit, but your parents did in their day, I’m sure!!

On the Top of the World

26 May

Today marks the day I start to make headway on my list of things to do now I am mentally well. And so, to capitalise on the beautiful weather, I have taken myself off to Edale, where I intend to write this in as close to real time as I can.
Edale is the southernmost end of the Pennine Way, opened in 1965 as a designated route, and it is also the home of Kinder Scout, the hill made famous by the right to roam protests in 1932, leading to the foundation of the Ramblers Association, and the opening up of previously private prohibited land to the hoi polloi, particularly those wanting to escape the industrial smog of Manchester and Sheffield. While successive governments have put paid to the prosperous industries which put these cities on the map, thankfully no legislation or initiative has yet been tabled to decimate the beautiful countryside in between.
To say I am so fond of the area, it is perhaps ironic to point out that I have only ever been once, and that was a bit of a flying visit. My fascination and desire to explore the area on foot has come about through endless train journeys between Sheffield and Manchester, either for work, or to get on a plane. I am always amazed that, ten minutes outside of either city, you are suddenly in the middle of dramatic open countryside. However, due to a lack of inclination to actually carry out any enjoyable task, owing to long standing and well documented depression and associated mental health, I have always merely passed through, resolving to one day venture out, but never succeeding.
So today I am putting that right. For the small cost for a mission of such significance, of £7.60 train fare, and a twenty minute ride, I will finally be doing what I have so long wanted to do – to walk to the top of the hill, just for the hell of it, and sing or shout at the top of my voice if I so wish, simply because I can.

****To be updated shortly****

Daydream Believer

18 May

Following a recent post entitlted “I’m moving on up now, out of the darkness”, I have had a ton of positive feedback and suggestions about how to finish this list off. I have to say that, since first committing these ideas to the wider world via the blog, I could easily have added several more goals to this list. I have resisted the temptation, as positive as it is, to ensure I don’t fall into the trap of “Optimistic Recovery Overload”, where a person runs around trying to make up for lost time so quickly, that they can neither enjoy or effective achieve the goals which they have set.

In order to keep myself “on target” I have provided an update on my list here, for anyone interested in following my progress, and as before any further suggestions or comments are most welcome!

 “Top 10 of things I am going to do now I am mentally well”

1) Learn French, Spanish and Italian, so I can converse fluently on a one to one basis when I next go abroad.

So far, I have downloaded my French and Spanish CDs onto my Iphone (no mean feat for a Luddite such as myself) but have yet to start on these. Need to crack on! I have however bought myself a Parisian cafe CD, as I figured that having a tune sung in French, would start to implant it in my mind. This is certainy starting to work, although I don’t think the neighbours are too enamoured with my rendition of “La Mer” in the style of Charles Trenet. Doubtless, experimenting with Edith Piaf will earn me an ASBO.

2) Learn to drive. So that I can buy the Triumph Spitfire I have always promised myself.

This really is turning out to be complicated. I have of course had to declare to DVLA that I have been hospitalised with mental health, and provide a plethora of medical information. Having duly sent all of this off, I have now received a further medical questionnaire, as I seem to have implied that I have epilepsy somewhere. Which I do not. Having got my little heart set on my Triumph, this is the goal which is causing me a little concern at present

3) Give up smoking once and for all. Filthy, dirty habit. Bleugh!

DONT EVEN GO THERE. A whole further blog can (and probably will) be filled with this one. However, after many attempts at doing cold turkey, I am now in a smoking cessation clinic. Now I just have to stop smoking. Next stop, Champix I suspect…

4) Walk across the top of Mam Tor near Edale, and sing at the top of my voice, just for the hell of it.

I have nearly done this twice so far, only prevented by the weather. I am hoping that I will be able to take a weekday holiday at the beginning of June, and actually do this in fine weather. Expect to hear about this via national news, when Mountain Rescue have assisted a man down from the Peaks, who was found wandering singing on a hill!

5) Enter the Allotment of the year competition in Sheffield, and do myself PROUD with my vegetable growing. Rather than the weeds currently inhabiting my raised borders.

Errrr yes, the Allotment of the year competition in 2013, obviously. Sadly, weather has also prevented anything like the work I wuold have liked to do up to now. Expect photographic evidence of the current state of the land in the next few days in the new blog category “Down on the Allotment” . Be warned, Percy Thrower, I aint…

6) Run at least one of the half marathons I have entered for this year in under 1 hour 45 mins. Or at least not be overtaken by my neighbour, like the last time I ran one of these. My neighbour was 78 at the time.

I have entered an extra half marathon, the Sheffield one scheduled for 29th May. This is either brave or very foolhardy, but I have a PB of 2 hours 54 minutes to beat from the last time, and my neighbour is now sadly too ill to compete. I hope to shave a good 20 minutes off the previous time, as I have actually started training this time. Hoping that the October ones will see me hit the 1 hour 45 mark.

7) Set off from home for at least 3 days with only a tent, camping stove and a book and Ipod, and get on a bus or train to the first place I think of and explore!

Not even thought about yet, although I have booked to go to Strawberry Fields Festival in August, which does include camping and somewhere new…

8) Do a parachute jump or skydive. It is time for me to “man up”, and stop pretending that I get vertigo at any height above 3 feet. I have been a fool to myself on this front, and jumping out of a plane may cure this.

Rather scared about my previous enthusiasm for this, but no matter, will return to this, as more of a slow burner. When I have grown a pair…

9) From being 5 years old, and watching the terrible famine in Ethiopia, I have wanted to build, houses, schools, or sanitation in Africa. Time for me to finally do this, and not just buy a goat for my team at work every Christmas.

As documented in Nkosi Sikelei l’Afrika, this proposed plan I perceived to be the hardest to achieve, but I have already been alerted to the possibilities of achieving this within 18 months. I am most pleased with progress on this, and very grateful to the people who have alerted me to the possibilites of achieving this. I will however still buy a goat or an allotment at work this Christmas, as this is far more valuable than sending Yuletide Felicitations to every colleague and their families on overpriced gold embossed cards, destined for the recycling by early January.

10) This is where I need your help. I have been so cautious, hesitant and unconfident in my time, unless I have been mad (see above), drunk, or convinced that true love lay down whichever foolish path I started upon. I need a suggestion from someone else, and as long as it is legal, costs no more than £500, and is definitely NOT Morris Dancing, I would do it- the more outlandish the better.

At the risk of sounding smug here, I am rather impressed with how  I have incorporated people’s suggestions into filling the vacant 10th goal. I had three excellent ideas suggested through comments on the original post, which were:

  • Taking up something which I had stopped doing, such as a sport or a hobby
  • Doing a charity trek or such like in exotic climes
  • Visiting caves, as this seemed a fitting analogy for the recovery journey I have undertaken through mental health. 

So, I have cheated slightly, and decided that I will add an 11th goal, but make this the first goal on the 2013 list. Bear with me..

The 10th goal is.. taking up singing again, because this is something I used to enjoy doing, and joining a male voice choir, as I have been meaning to do for so long. One of the local ones in Sheffield is actually holding a performance IN A CAVE in the summer, so I think the word is “Howzat”?

Number 11 has got me thinking, and as the sports I have never been good at involve water, I will be taking up sports around swimming, surfing, and rowing (the last of which I have actually competed in, albeit not since the mid 1990s). I will then undertake a charity event abroad, which incorporates my new (and undoubtedly excellent) sporting ability.

That’s enough for one year I think. Thank you once again for all of your kind comments and suggestions. I will update this soon with further progress!

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Teeth

18 May

“Oh I wish I’d looked after me teeth” Pam Ayres

 For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently.
~William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

 Quoting Pam Ayres and Shakespeare together, now that would be one hell of a fantasy dinner party. Throw in Frank Sinatra, Desmond Tutu and Barbara Castle, and it would a night to remember!

 This is a blog about all matters of the teeth. Mine have been a nightmare for many years, but I have never done anything responsible about them, despite many agonizing outbreaks of toothaches.

 I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of planned appointments I have had with a dentist in the last ten years. On a usual cycle of normal people, I should have had at least twenty in this time. If I had, I perhaps would not have had quite so many filings, or now to have to have a tooth completely removed, as it is beyond saving.

 That being said, my teeth are in remarkably good shape, to say how little professional assistance they have had.

 So, am I one of those Kim and Aggie style reality TV people, who don’t wash, and who occupy a space surrounded by squalor and every bacteria known to the scientific world? No, not at all. Put simply, my dental health has been as poor as my mental health. When you have a very low opinion of yourself, and a reluctance to engage with the outside world, the last thing you have any concern for is the state of your smile. Because you don’t feel the need to smile all that often.

 For me, the dentist has conjured up images of physical pain, drills and poking around that will cause pain, and with even the most professional manner, I always know when a dentist is surprised at how poor my teeth are. It is with envy that I have looked at other people’s teeth for years, not just the celebrity poses, but ordinary people in the street and on buses. Many is the time that I have clawed the leatherette of the dentist chair arms, and dental nurses have had to diplomatically wipe my brow, as beads of sweat have run down my face in sheer terror while the dentist performs his or her attempt to remedy my latest acute tooth problem.

With depression, it is actually possible to think, as I did, that maybe bad teeth were just another indication of lesser standing as an individual.

 I have made a pact to myself that I would start looking after my teeth, along with every other part of my health. I am now registered with a local dentist, have had initial assessments, and have a planned course of treatment. As I sat in the chair yesterday, I reflected that the process of a going to the dentist is very similar to recovery from mental health. After the initial uncomfort of admitting there is a problem, and getting the right help, you eventually feel better in yourself and in your self confidence. And teeth and mental health also have another thing in common – you don’t ever notice them while they are okay, but when there is any problem with them, it affects all aspects of your daily life.

 I have also learnt a new phrase, which I think is brilliant. My dentist described my teeth to the nurse for records, and described a number of the molars as “occluded amalgam”. I have no idea yet what this means, and thought better of asking him at the time, as he had fingers of both hands, a mirror and a vicious spiked tool in my mouth at the time.

 So on one of these fine days, expect a picture of an extremely shiny set of gnashers , which belong to me, and which incredibly will still all be my own. I will be looking forward to describing my teeth in the words of the Yorkshire vernacular as my “laughing gear”.

 

“Addicted to Love”

15 May

As promised, here is part two…

A week after spliting up with my first ever boyfriend, I found true love. Well, I say “found”, but it was more like staggered over drunkenly to a very good looking bloke, and attempted to engage him in conversation, despite the fact that most of words were slurred together. This attempt did not work, not surprisingly, and all I succeeded in doing was making an idiot of myself.  Thankfully the same bloke was both forgiving, and far more receptive to my advances the following week in the same nightclub, when I actually managed to turn up sober. He was perfect, obviously. He was tall, with short spiky black hair, and he had the most beautiful Cornish accent. To top it all, he was a student psychiatric nurse, and when I told him about my mental health problems, he said that he didn’t care, he still liked me, and he told me that I was “sexy”, a word I had never considered anyone would use to describe me, and never a thought which came into my own head when looking in the mirror. After talking for the first time, for about half an hour, he moved closer towards me, and my heartbeat was as loud in my head as the bass of the dance music playing in the background.  The way he kissed me surpassed all other previous experience, and for the first time I felt loved.

We went out after that, doing normal things like going for lunch and dinner, we held hands and we sat in pubs. We never actually said we were “going out” together as such, but the signs were all good. After my first experience, I was exceedingly sensible, and agreed with him that we should wait a bit, and spend time with each other before taking anything to another level. For the first time in years, I leapt out of bed on a morning, I had a warm feeling inside, and I had the confidence to walk tall in the street, not actually noticing if anyone was looking at me or judging me. As we were not formally in a relationship, I agreed that I would probably see him in the nightclub on the Friday, being quite cool about it, but actually counting down the hours, minutes and even seconds until I saw him again. When Friday night came, I saw him in the nightclub, and walked towards him. He was immediately stand offish, and clearly having a conversation with another guy, and I was interrupting. He said that he would catch up with me another time. I walked away, feeling confused at the mixed signals I was getting. When I looked around again shortly afterwards, he had gone. I asked a couple I knew if they had seen where he had gone. The shifty looks they gave me, coupled with an awkward shuffling from foot to foot alarmed me, and I repeated my enquiry with more urgency. At this point, my worst suspicions were realised, as I was informed that he had left with the bloke I had seen him talking to earlier on. The pitying looks from this couple, along with the words, “He’s just like that. I knew that would end in tears for you!” didn’t do much to salvage the situation for me. In fact, it really did end in tears, as I felt myself welling up, and took this as a sign to get out of the club right away. I walked furhter up the road, and sat on a wall, where I cried my eyes out. I felt so hurt, especially as I had had so much hope for this being the beginning of something special. By the time I had composed myself it was closing time at the club. As I began to think about walking towards the taxi rank, a guy who I had briefly spoken to in the club a few times over the last couple of week came up to me, and asked if I was alright. He was a perfectly pleasant bloke, a local student, and a bit camp, but I was not attracted to him. I realised that he felt differently, as he asked if I wanted to go home with him. The look on his face implied that his motivation was not to ask me to edit his dissertation, but I nevertheless agreed to go with him. I regretted this decision a few hours later, and left his house to go home. I felt pretty low, and that I had really let myself down. Like everything else in my life, something which should have brought great happiness and a sense of wellbeing, was actually just another way of me feeling inadequate, and that I had fallen short of expectations of myself. Walking home in the early morning quietness, I felt that love was not something I was going to experience in my life as I had hoped, and so having casual sex would be my only comfort.

I embarked upon a rather self destructive course from this point. My biggest downfall was the necessity for several pints of cheap Dutch lager inside me, literally Dutch Courage, prior to each visit to the gay pub in town. With beer goggles firmly wedged onto my face , my perceptions were impaired. Unlike my earlier years, I was now in an environment where the boys felt the same way that I did. The problem was that the genuine, nice blokes, who I should have associated with, were none too attracted to the already inebriated young man who looked out of place, and a bit pathetic from the moment he walked through the door. To say that I therefore attracted a less savoury type of suitor would be an understatement. Sure, I had a string of “lovers”, but the average length of these relationships was about six hours. As I moved to different parts of the country over the next three years, this pattern of behaviour did not change. I realised that I had got into a habit of enjoying the process of chasing after men, rather than any end result. I convinced myself that I was looking for love, but I knew deep down that really all I could hope for was someone who would provide temporary physical intimacy, without any prospect of anyhting approaching a meeting of hearts or minds. The sex itself was more often than not forgettable, and not to put too fine a point on it, involved no outcome which could not have been achieved alone. Worst of all, because of the considerable volumes of alcohol consumed during the previous evening, by both myself and the  conquest I had ended up with this time, it was often the case that neither of us could really remember if anything had actually happened between us, and I was always secretly relieved when they admitted that they couldn’t remember my name, before I had t0 acknowledge the same.

I would like to say that I lost count of the number of these sorry predicaments I found myself in. However, I did once sit down to take stock, many years ago, and was able to account for just over eighty. Some people may brag about having hadthis many sexual partners, that is entirely up to them, but it made me extremely disappointed in myself, and the depths to which my self esteem must have fallen, especially when considering that only three of those encounters led to anything resembling a common or garden relationship. Never destined to make life easy for myself, the first was a long distance relationship, following my ad in the dating pages of Gay Times. I think the thing that attracted me to this individual was that he was the only correspondent who could actually write in sentences. The second was my university fling, where once again I gave my heart, only to be dropped like a hot brick when my mental health problems came to light. The third I am afraid to say ended in me being subjected to violence, at the Millenium no less. Of all the things I did at this time in my life, I am grateful that I least I had enough self respect to end that particular union immediately, making it very clear that I would not tolerate being hit by someone who was supposed to love me.

I am delighted to say that life is very, very different for me these days. I would however offer these five tips to anyone embarking out on the road to love, particularly if you are young and new to all of this aspect of life. I am no expert in the ways of love, but as I have got it spectacularly wrong in my past, the following advice may help you to avoid ending up in the kind of self-created, God awful mess that I did :

  • If you are happy to accept that sometimes a relationship extends no further than a one night stand, then good for you. If you are not, make sure that the person you want to be with realises that, preferably before the next morning.
  • If you are looking for love, sex on a first date is a pretty bad idea. It often becomes the last date.
  • For a successful relationship, your ideal partner has got to have more to them than just the possession of the body parts you prefer.
  • Alcohol and dating mix very poorly. The boy or girl of your dreams at 2am may seem less appealing to you at 9am.
  • For goodness sake, always always take precautions. Because there is nothing liable to make your low self esteem plummet to its deepest depths than an examination in the GUM clinic.

I cannot promise that following this advice will land you the lover of your dreams, but it will hopefully prevent you from losing your self respect, and ending up looking back at what could have been the most exciting part of your life with regret, rather than fond remembrance.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

15 May

One of the clearest memories I have of early childhood is watching television coverage of the appalling famine in Ethiopia in 1984. As the unfolding tragedy occupied the main spot on the news programmes each day, I decided that I wanted to go and help, so I asked my mother if I could go to Ethiopia and help hand out the food supplies which were just beginning to arrive in the country. I had never been further than Cornwall, and aged 5, I had limited knowledge or experience of front line emergency relief protocols and working practice in developing countries, but the thought was definitely there. I did however save up my pocket money to buy “Do they know it’s Christmas” due for release at the end of the year. To this day, I detest being in restaurants or supermarkets at Christmas, when the Band Aid song plays. Using it as background music for peoples’ often over indulgent celebrations has always seemed so wrong to me, and I can only hope that any associated royalties from the playing of the song, and its continued inclusion on Christmas compilation CDs still goes towards the charitable purpose for which it was originally recorded.

 Fast forward to the early 1990s,and I was once again in front of a television, although this time it was in the Audio Visual room at school, where we watched films on a big screen. When I say big screen, it was about thirty inches, which seems to be standard sized for a small living room these days, judging by a stroll up and down my street. This room could comfortably accommodate fifty pupils, as long as you didn’t mind sitting on the tables at the back of the room as well as the chairs at the front. In the days before schools introduced PHSE lessons, we had periodic sessions, loosely tied in with Religious Education lessons, where we watched films with a moral or ethical message. Each film would take about four weeks to watch, stretched across a number of lessons, and invariably the first ten minutes of each lesson were wasted by teachers setting up the TV and video, and of course rewinding the tape to the right part. This never happened correctly, and so we always missed at least five minutes of each film, more often than not which included the crucial plot twist. These lessons were quite a respite for me at school, considering everything else that was going on, as documented elsewhere.

One film above all others stood out for me, “Cry Freedom”, the Richard Attenborough film of 1987, dramatising the controversial story of the death of Steve Biko, and the subsequent escape from South Africa of Donald Woods and his family, when he exposed the story in 1977. I was inspired by this story, and remember being sat on a table at the back of the room, completely entranced by the liberation song Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which  later became the South African National Anthem when the new republic was formed in 1994. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. Watching the film developed my understanding of injustice, and I began reading widely on all matters to do with African politics, Third World Debt, and the development projects which ran in this part of the world. Instinctively, I felt this was something I wanted to be a part of, and so I decided then that I would take a gap year between school and university, some four years hence forward. I wanted an amazing experience helping other people, as well as being able to explore a new part of the world, where I would be able to stand in the open plains observing the wildlife and admiring the view I could see for miles.

 In those four years, several things happened, as I have described mainly in A View from a bridge, and Teenage Kicks (In the Head). Suffice to say that, on the last day of my A levels, all of my university choices were made for the following year, but there were no plans in place for the year in front of me. I did however have no less than three jobs lined up, so I had plenty of earning potential to soon save up. Two things conspired against me from the start, making this prospect far less likely. First, the deterioration of my mental health, and secondly the unexpected extra cost to myself of £200 rent per month which I was expected to pay to continue living at home. Or else move out.

With a more mature outlook and balanced perspective, the notion of contributing to the household expenses as someone in full time employment was a reasonable request. But as I had taken the year out in order to travel, as well as to do something meaningful which had been a long held dream, the concept of paying more than thirty percent of my income from a full time job, in order to remain living in “family” home was daunting (hence my getting two other jobs to increase my earning). I worked between fifty and sixty hours per week, but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere fast in the process of saving money. In my bar job, I found myself pouring pints all evening, and then drinking them on the other side of the bar until the early hours. The combination of paying the rent and running a social life which revolved around chasing boys for love, led to a bank balance at the end of each month of precisely zero. I can’t explain why I had such an inability to save my wages for the purpose which was so important to me, but it certainly didn’t help matters when it was suggested to me at home that I might not be mentally stable enough to cope with working in a developing country, and even that I may be more of a hindrance than help.

 By the October of that year, with only a few months remaining of potential time to go on an expedition, I had to accept the fact that I had neither the resources, the available lead up planning time, or indeed the support to carry out my dream, and so I had to refocus on what I was going to do with the rest of my year out. I decided upon charity work in Britain, for the simple reason that it was fairly easy to apply, and most positions had a small volunteer wage, which meant that my lack of savings would not be an issue. With this decision made, I closed my mind to the plans I had held dear for so long, and conceded that I would not be bridge building in Tanzania, working on school buildings projects in Ghana and Mozambique, or going on safari across the Serengeti. My primary goal became to leave home, in anyway, anyhow and to anywhere I could.

 The airmail letters and postcards from across Africa landed on my doorstep throughout the autumn from friends who had gone to such projects, describing in detail their amazing journeys.  I read them on the bus to work on a morning, with feelings of great envy as well as deep regret that my plans had not come off for whatever reason. By December, I finally had plans, and I moved away in early January and worked on an amazing project in London, still the best job I have ever done. However, while it was a great start to a career, it was no substitute for my original plans.

 Over the years, I have thought about the Africa volunteering, wondering if I would ever consider this again. The constraints on this have always revolved around time off work, other commitments, and the ever present pang of regret that my time to do this had already passed.

 Now, presented with a new perspective on life, and an opportunity to finally work on the “real me”, I have added volunteering in Africa to my list of 10 things I want to do, having finally overcome my mental health problems. I know now that I wont be fooled again by feelings of low self esteem, which provided more barriers to me than any vaccination, visa or funding requirement ever did before. I have even received an unexpected offer of actually taking part in a forthcoming trip, which was incredibly kind. While I am unable to take part in this trip this time round, it has completely reinvigorated my desire to go, and once again I am planning this experience with the same optimism which I once had. Although a great deal older than those of my generation who did manage to do this in their late teens and early twenties, I know that when my flight eventually takes off to whichever part of Africa I am going to work, all of those years of regret and prevarication will be forgotten before the plane reaches altitude. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

Keep on Running

14 May

I have always enjoyed running. It is a sport which I can do, I am not bad at, and owing to a sturdy build and a certain degree of bloody minded ness, I can accomplish long distances if not at record speed, then at least before dusk.
I was a cross country runner at school, following my short lived career as a rower. I signed up to the school team, and attended some inter school tournaments, mainly because these always seemed to take place at the same time as double Physics in the timetable, meaning I got out of these tedious lessons in order to compete.
If I was an accomplished writer, I would now incorporate the many different strands of my thinking into this blog, culminating in a dramatic crescendo involving a skillful use of a finishing line analogy. As I am just a bloke who writes things down, I’m afraid that this is the moment, ladies and gentlemen, to fasten your seatbelts and prepare yourselves for a tale which spans thirty years and several separate events, all of which took place within a two mile radius. If you can keep up, you are doing better than me!
Tomorrow morning, I am running the London 10k for C.A.L.M., an amazing charity which supports young men who are at risk of suicide, and who are having a hard time, and need support and someone to talk to before things get so bad that they consider taking their own lives. This in itself is incentive enough for me to get on a coach in the early hours from Sheffield to get there in time for the race. I have decided to leave my e-cigarette at home however….
There is added incentive for me, given the route of the race around Westminster and central London. It is a bit of a tale of first and lasts and of long held memories.
You may be surprised to learn, given how long winded I am inclined to be, that I did not speak my first word until aged nearly 2. My first utterance is reported to have been some exclamation about Big Ben, while being wheeled across Westminster Bridge by my Dad in a pushchair. Just the other side of the river, by County Hall, is the taxi rank where I bundled him into a black cab (and had to pay!) the last time I saw him before he became ill, as he headed home, and I continued my trip.
Under the lamplight by Cleopatra’s Needle, my first proper adult relationship was sealed with a kiss, and ended four months later, in the early morning as the sun rose over St Pauls and Tower Bridge.
My first proper job took me around the Mall and Victoria, as well as the roads linked to the Embankment, where I located rough sleepers. It was truly shocking to see the prevalence of homelessness at the (then) centre of British government, monarchy and Catholic and Anglican churches. For such institutions, which preach to varying degrees of their worth and value to people, observing destitute men and women sleeping with cardboard boxes and blankets, underneath their grand historic buildings was a sobering sight, and only served to cement the youthful enthusiasm of my socialism even further.
So all in all, this run represents three things for me; being able to raise money for a cause close to my heart, a sense of closure on my own feelings of grief at the death of my Dad, and in the words of Nelson Mandela, himself now represented in bronze on the run’s route, to experience the sensation that:
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged, to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”.
As I cross the finishing line, hopefully no more than an hour after the starting line, I know that, on top of a sense of achievement will be a kind of Proustian reminiscence, as well as the realisation that this is a new chapter of my life, with the finishing line of my own mental health recovery fast approaching. Tomorrow will be a new memory to look back on in years to come.

If you would like to sponsor me to run the London 10k for C.A.L.M., I would be very grateful, as this will enable the charity to continue helping young men who are at a crisis point in their lives, as I once was myself. Thank you!

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