Conversations with myself: part two

Part Two: Plato’s Socrates

“Socrates said writing would be the death of memory, which is ironic really, considering that he’s only remembered because Plato decided to put pen to paper.”

Sometimes he’s in a genuinely good mood, and we have interesting conversations. I’m not always on the receiving end of a self-talk that would make Donald Trump or Nicklas Bendtner come out like the lion from the Wizard of Oz or Neville Longbottom (early in their respective stories).

“Fair point, and, actually, I really like that. Can I use it in my blog? I think it’s a great bit of thought” I chirp back, on this occasion very grateful for his input.

We were running, but as I’m wasn’t using physical breath to produce that statement, I didn’t really need to worry about it. Sure, it took conscious effort, but as most of my training takes place at ‘conversational pace’, there’s a lot to spare. With an irony that would be sadder if I wasn’t so willfully solitary, I rarely have anyone else to talk to on most of my runs, so the conversations are often of this nature.

The conversations are often of nature, too, and I tend to feel happiest when I’m running through trees and forests that remind me of my ideal of home: peaceful woodland, clean air and soft paths.

“Don’t you mean our blog?”

“If you had a blog nobody would read it, you’re just a voice buddy.” I reply, more playfully than in anger.

“Isn’t every writer just their voice, and what they choose to express? Plus, you need me as much as I need you.”

More rhetorical rhetoric. He’s right too, unfortunately. I couldn’t deal with having nobody to bounce ideas off.

“Is this going on the blog?”

“No, it’s too weird, people wouldn’t get it.”

“Right you are sir. Maybe if you let me talk more people would understand it.”

If I let you talk all the time we’d both be screwed, I pondered silently, trying to play for time before remembering he was probably reading my thoughts again.

“Are you gone?”

“Silence”

I laughed, despite myself, or in fact, because of myself (my self, him? Never mind).

“Did you just say silence? How are we supposed to convey that on paper?”

“Maybe use a different font. Here’s one for you. What typeface did Cicero use?”

“No idea. Garamond? Comic Sans?”

“Not even close. Times Old Roman.”

“That’s terrible. Okay, time for bed, see you in the morning.”

I thought some more.

“Let’s make a deal: if I get up at 2:30 to take a piss, you have to keep quiet.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“Well, if you do it every time, I’ll sleep better, and maybe we’ll get to go to the European Cross country championships.”

“I’d like that. Does it mean we can properly call ourselves an international athlete?”

“Yeah. For real. Deal?”

“Okay, but you’ll have to start tidying up memory lane, I want to try out my new bike, and I’m tired of dodging piles of unfinished stories.”

“Seems fair. Where shall I put them?”

“I’ll just make some room over here…”

Some files start moving around precariously.

“Careful, that looks important!” I shout anxiously.

“Shit. Adam?”

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To be continued…

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Conversations with myself, or, Plato’s Socrates

This is a much less scary title. The original was: Bipolar bare, or, not making heads or tails of it, and frankly I prefer that, but it’s too extreme. This title relates to the more positive part two, and is perhaps wisely a lot less headline grabbing. It’s sad that in order for mental health to be taken seriously, these sorts of scary titles still seem to need to feature in the media and in public consciousness. To be fair, however, a great deal of progress has been made in that respect, and I hope these thoughts make some small contribution.

It’s important to issue a slight trigger warning here. This one’s a little sweary. If you’re offended by bad language (as in rude), or bad language (as in things that aren’t written clearly and can be hard to follow), it’s perhaps best not to read on.

I was worried about being so openly odd on my blog. This was partly dissuaded by the compulsion I felt to publish it after getting some good feedback from friends I shared it with. Mainly though, I put it up because I suspect people often don’t read beyond the first couple of paragraphs, rendering everything below something of an irrelevance anyway.

Caveats over, let’s begin…

Introduction

For the purposes of clarity and avoiding terrifying anyone actually mad enough to read on: I’m not bipolar, or at least I think I’m not. I asked myself, and I said I was okay, so it must be fine, right?

Seriously, I know what it is, and I’m happily a long way away from that side of the psychological spectrum, but I’m not quite wired normally either. It’s important to understand mental health as a variable experience and a fluid state of mind, rather than an unchanging suitcase of static ‘baggage’ that everyone carries around with them.

This is my first attempt at something extremely difficult. In essence, I’m trying to capture the wildly fluctuating internal dialogue of anxiety, depression and whatever else happens to be going on in my head. A lot of the time, it’s positive, and I’m happy, but sometimes it’s a bit scarier. Sorry to be starting with the darker bits, but it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself in for. Part two is cheerier, I promise.

Before we get into it, I should probably offer some explanation for the title. I previously thought of a comedy sketch where mental health concepts are depicted as cartoon animals. This is important, as concepts, rather than realities, is all they are: see the excellent book “crazy like us” for more on this.

Anyway, those characters include: depression dog (with appropriately sad droopy ears), manic monkey (a wildly excitable gibbon) and schizoid snake (who has two heads and no tail), and, my favourite, bipolar bear.

He’s half white and half brown, as in polar and grizzly, because mental health isn’t black and white, and he’s like Beorn from the Hobbit, neither entirely a man nor completely a bear. The quote below is direct from Tolkien’s work (and straight from my memory, though I do admit to getting the word order wrong and correcting it after the fact):

“He is a skin-changer, that is to say that he changes his skin. Sometimes he is a man and sometimes he is an enormous black bear… you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen. He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.”

The title is bipolar bare because I’m trying to nudge at some of the misconceptions we have about mental health, because it’s a pun on the above character name, and because it’s alliterative, which pleases me. The heads and tails thing will make sense in a moment.

Part One: welcome to our brain

He’s in bold. We flipped a coin, and it came up heads. It was a trick coin through, depicting the Roman god Janus, a famously two-headed deity, but at least he pretended to give me a fair shot. I’m in italics, because underlining is really only for titles and headings, and I was never very good at standing up straight.

“Evening mate, how was the day? Get any phone numbers?”

It’s odd to hear the voice again, after a few days of quiet. I very quickly get used to not having ‘him’ around every corner, and spend many happy hours pretending that I’m in control after all. That’s rubbish of course.

“You know bloody well I didn’t, and why do you think it necessary to come up with some witty opener every time? We both know you’re there, and it’s not like you’re going to catch me off guard. We’re both in the same head, for fuck sake.”

“Speak for yourself old chap, I’m anywhere and everywhere really, you’re stuck here all the time, but I can go wherever. You shouldn’t leave our brain switched on this late you know, it’s not healthy.”

He’s always so smug. Just like the Hobbit’s dragon (Smaug, for the uninitiated) is almost smug, I’m always teetering on the precipice of being an arrogant tosser, but happily I never quite manage it. One of our many differences, that.

“And where have your travels taken you recently then?” (I have to humour him, we both know where this is going eventually. I ignore the time comment, he always pretends he’s got nothing to do with it, and that always pisses me off)

“Had a nice walk down memory lane. It’s very interesting, but you really should keep it tidy. There’s too much clutter, no wonder you get lost so often. We’ll need a tourist office and a guidebook soon. Not that we could afford it.”

Always the comedian, I muttered to myself (after thinking of yet another new title*). We could afford it, but the logistics of setting up a tourist office in your own mind, boggles the… well, boggles the brain I suppose.
“You don’t seem to have any trouble getting around, and it’s not like we’re ever going to let anyone else in, is it?”

“Come on Adam, don’t be such a spoilsport.” He returns. “Maybe someone will be interested enough to hang around, and besides, can’t you remember that Dumbledore quote: “to the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure”? You need to get your house in order, and I’m not talking about writing a will.”

Here we go then, back where we both know we’re going to end up every night, with or without a side of depression. Happily without in this case. Sometimes depression is even a main dish, but I only tend to have it for that part of the meal if they’re out of sea bass and that delicious mushroom risotto. The restaurant at the end of our universe, I find myself thinking, wittily. What a shame no one else was there to hear it.

“Don’t be a git, you know I can hear your thoughts too, right?” He breaks my concentration with calculated precision, after giving me just enough of a respite to think he might have wandered off again.

“I suppose it’s too much to ask for you to have anything nice to say, isn’t it?” I retort, though as we’ve established, at this point the actual dialogue is mostly for effect.

“Do you see the thoughts or hear them?”

I suppose I’m thinking aloud here, but in something a lot more like a petulant mutter or an impudent whisper than the sort of calm and measured voice one should probably use when talking to oneself.

“Both. Anyway, even by your dire standards, that restaurant bit wasn’t that funny. More Douglas Bader than Douglas Adams.”

“Douglas Bader?” I replied, incredulous. “The World War Two Flying Ace? Where the hell did that come from?”

“No, you must have misheard me. Douglas Badder. As in, not as good as Douglas Adams. But also because our brain is light on alternative famous Douglases, and the Bayern Munich winger is a bit too left-field. Or maybe he plays on the right… never mind, where were we?”

“Jesus, and people say I’m hard to follow”

“You are, but not for me. On the other hand, I know exactly what you’re going to say, so it’s maybe not a fair game.”

“How about now? … Purple monkey dishwasher!” I offer abruptly, hoping to take him by surprise.

“Bad luck, try again matey.” Comes the infuriatingly sanguine response.

“Expecto patronum!” (That’s bold and italics, because we both said it at the same time. Try to keep up.)

A few moments of silence. Neither of us move. Well, our body doesn’t move, we’re always running around. Never a moment’s peace in this brain.

“So, one more day closer to death then?”

Bad news. He’d cut to the chase,

“Yes. It is. What do you want me to say? You’ll die too, you prick!” I shout, losing my temper. Our temper? Even I’m confused at this point.

“Now now, it’s getting late, try and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early. Maybe I won’t, who knows. You might die in your sleep.”

“Night night. If you get bored, try and write some things down, or draw some pictures.” I offer, forty minutes after we got back home. Whatever else this is, it was at least in real time.

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This is just a photo of me entering coordinates in the ship’s log six years ago. The relevance is that a lot of these conversations take place in the literal and imaginary dark. That, and I wanted some sort of picture.

*That title was “Neurotourism, new frontiers of the mind, or, take a trip on me”, and deals with the idea of being able to experience someone else’s consciousness from the inside, as it were.

It’s a weirdly conceptual approach to the point I made at the start, and very sci-fi’ but there is a vague starting point in reality here. Read more, you know you want to. Here’s a snippet from the article:

“UC Berkeley scientists have developed a system to capture visual activity in human brains and reconstruct it as digital video clips. Eventually, this process will allow you to record and reconstruct your own dreams on a computer screen.”

I would apologise for the digression, but as a good friend recently (rightly!) asked me to stop needlessly apologising, and as we’re still in my head here, I won’t. For the purposes of these pieces, I’ll try and throw excessive digressions in a pile at the end, like this, rather than taking a huge meandering wander away from my point and getting absolutely lost.

No news is bad news (sometimes), or, talking to myself

I realise I haven’t written one of these for absolutely ages. Apologies! I have written heaps of things since, but none of the other ones are finished. This was first finished as a bit of an angry rant, but I’ve cheered it up a bit with chocolate and jokes, so hopefully it reads more positively now.

I don’t like lying to people. Okay, that’s a lie, I’m actually quite fond of mendacity, and only partly because there are so many fantastic words for it. Wonderful words like duplicity and perfidiousness, that make it sound so exciting and important.

I also enjoy dissembling (both the word and the deed itself) which actually means disguise or concealment, rather than lying in a direct sense. This isn’t because I enjoy tricking people, or as a result of a pathological desire to deceive and mislead friends and family. It’s because it makes life enormously more practical.

If I were to report exactly how I felt when asked, the response would occasionally be quite dreadful to read.

Today I didn’t eat any food until the evening, just because I just didn’t quite feel like it. I meant to, but somehow it didn’t quite happen for most of the day.”

“I wanted to leave the house today, but I never quite managed it. I had a slight calf strain, and thought it might be better just to keep myself from walking too far. That, and I was afraid of going outside.”

“Today I looked at houses back home in Northern Ireland, and thought about how lovely and quiet life would be there. I could live in the countryside, away from the caustic London air, polluted by noise, chemicals and incessant light. Maybe I could work a few days a week as a handyman, and make ends meet with some writing or editing.”

(Although I’ve never written professionally, I have worked as a tradesman of sorts, so that bit isn’t quite as ridiculous as it might seem)

The last one doesn’t sound so bad, but to be fair I think those sorts of things most often, and if I tell people that I’d worry they’d think I was taking the city life for granted, and not appreciating my lot. They’d also be right in thinking that I’d be leaving them behind, as I have a lot of friends in London, and would very probably not hurry to return once I left properly.

Happily I manage to eat and leave the house almost every day, so it’s not as bad as all that. More often though, I have days where I’ve hardly left the house, and if I wasn’t running or going to work there would probably be a lot more.

When I’m at home in Northern Ireland, I’ve never not left the house in a day. If I want to get out for some fresh air, I open the door, I don’t need to travel miles to a green space that’s almost clean enough to breathe happily. If I want to see the stars at night, I turn off the lights and look up.

IMG_2337Home! Fine weather not necessarily representative of normal conditions…

If I want to visit one of my oldest friends, I, well, I ask him to pick me up, because I still haven’t bothered to learn to drive, and we always hang out at his house, partly because there was always decent space to play hockey and football. Our garden doesn’t really work for football, unless the game was to be radically reinvented, requiring both teams to kick the ball steeply uphill once they’d carried it past the midfield, towards which they’d carry the ball downwards. It’s a field with a huge dip in the middle, I’m sure you get the picture.

A good friend of mine said that I was the most un-London person he knew, and he was rather amazed I’d been here for so long. So am I. Well, not entirely, because I know how much I’m afraid of change, and how hopeless I am at making important decisions. I’ve never made an important decision about my job, for example, and as a consequence spent four months unemployed after finishing my Masters Degree, and the following three and a half years working in running shops.

Ultimately though, that resulted in my becoming a semi-professional athlete and achieving a lifetime dream, so swings and roundabouts I guess!

Going back to the point about lying, I find I can easily convince myself of things that aren’t true, and a transcript of my self-talk might sometimes be startling.

Here’s an example. I’ve centred it in italics so it stands out, as formatting options are limited here, and caps lock would look dreadful. This choice does sort of make it look like an absurdly bloated haiku, but hopefully that undercuts the dire tone.

I miss the sport I loved. Not running, though I am taking a break at the moment and the lack of running does cover everything with a decidedly murky aura. No, I miss judo.

I don’t like to spend much time thinking about the moment I lost judo, because it’s one of my worst memories, and I won’t write more about it here. Often though, when I’m injured, my mind travels back to that point, and brings out some of the worst aspects of my character.

After every training session, I went home feeling like I’d done a hard evening’s work. I miss the scratches, the bruises and the ache in my arms that stood testament to having tried my best. I never have that now. Running isn’t the same. Either you’re injured, fatigued, exhilarated after hitting a great time, but you never have the same sense of really suffering for something.

Now I come home feeling tired of having to answer people’s stupid questions about whether their foot, knee or ankle pain can be instantaneously and magically solved by a new pair of running shoes. (It almost certainly cannot, but sadly the conversation is never that mercifully brief)

I come home after travelling on a hot, humid and cramped metal cylinder with hundreds of other equally unhappy people (well probably, I don’t ask them, that would be a hideous breach of London public transport protocol, and at the end of the day I’ve spent far more time than I can comfortably handle talking to people).

I come home knowing that I’m paying for the privilege of traveling on that underground train, paying for the vile air and frequently unpleasant population, and paying for a place that has none of the peace and quiet I would sacrifice a lot for. Just not enough, it would seem, to actually do something about it.

I sometimes feel that it’s cowardice and lack of conviction rather than affection that keeps me where I am, and I can lose myself in despair and a sense of being trapped in a city where a clear horizon is so often only in the imagination. Some of my favourite memories are of sailing in an open ocean, and this contrast hits very hard during my darker moments.

During these periods, things like the above come strongly to mind. I can pretend they don’t, and not tell people, but that’s rather less brave than being open about this sort of thing. I’m not an inherently brave person, but I am trying to change that.

Of course I love running, hell, I’ve found myself crying a few times over the last several years during the most banal recovery runs because I’m so happy to be fit and able to compete at my favourite thing in the world. Of course you suffer for something if you’re running, that’s the whole point of endurance sport – you endure stuff!

Working in a running shop is fine, sometimes it’s fun, and though occasionally it’s a bit aggravating, I leave my work behind as soon as I go out the door, and that’s worth so much to me. Sure, the tube is hot and stuffy, but sometimes it goes outside and you do get fresh air! Sometimes it’s really quiet and you can read while you hurtle happily toward a staggering range of destination options.

Sometimes part of a carriage will break out in spontaneous applause when an unknowingly headphoned passenger solves his Rubik’s cube, having followed his progress for minutes of mute entrancement. Okay, that happened once, but I did successfully start the clapping, and it’s also one of my favourite memories.

I spoke to a friend last weekend about depression, and I’d realised in opening up about some of the points above that I made my life sound rather bleak. Ultimately, those are the bad days, and those are outnumbered by the good days I have cause to be happy and grateful.

The main point is that every day I try and wake up hoping it’s going to be a good day, as if I don’t, I might as well stay down. That’s one thing I’ll never forget from judo. I never stayed down then, and if I can keep the same attitude to everything else, I can be happy that I’m doing my best to fight the good fight.

Sometimes it’s not enough, and I lose, sometimes badly, but there’s always another round after the next corner. That’ll do for me.

Would you rather be the best, or be happy? Part One: A path too steep, or, don’t look down

Search anywhere online for ‘motivational slogans’, or similar morale-boosting ephemera, and you’ll probably be inundated with encouragements to the general effect of: “be the best you can be”.

I don’t want to be the best. I don’t even want to be the best I can be. Well, that’s not true, of course I do, but over the last week in particular I’ve been fighting myself about how much I want to put aside to progress further in athletics.

I came to the conclusion that I want to be good enough to be pleased and proud of what I’ve achieved without sacrificing my happiness or peace of mind in the long-term. I originally wrote this without the long-term bit. For so long I’ve been afraid of sustained effort and hard work, and the difficulties that inevitably entails: more on that later.

My priorities are retaining an appreciation of the small things, staying in touch with where I’ve come from and above all for my main focus not to be athletics, but my own mental health and wellbeing. This, alongside being able to support strong relationships with family and friends, is the main thing. Not how fast I can run around in a circle.

For a long time, I was afraid to say that or admit it. Now I’m not.

Again, that sounds great: it’s punchy, brave and probably makes me seem like a brave, punchy guy. That’s rubbish though. I’m still afraid, I’ve never properly punched anyone, and I’m not naturally succinct. More importantly though, putting mental health first can mean worrying about it, and making decisions to protect it when often that’s the worst thing to do.

Even though I’m really afraid of it, I know taking risks is not only more fulfilling and exciting, it’ll also strengthen me mentally for when I need it, like the death of a family member, a serious injury or something entirely unpredictable.

On that note, I had to say goodbye to my grandmother in April, for what I thought would be the last time. Two weeks ago, I had to say goodbye again, unsure whether that would be it or not. This time it was.

Her last words to me on the first occasion, were, smiling, “health is the most important”. I’d stayed fairly emotionally strong in public over the hard work of the last ten months, but this broke me completely. I knew the risks I’d been taking even then, and it’s eaten away at me ever since. That moment brought me well outside the world of athletics for a time, and after a period of depression I’m back there for long enough to have a very honest think about what I want from life, and my sport.

I’ve achieved what I never thought I could and felt worse for doing so. This wasn’t right, and I’m not afraid to change back. That’s not true – I am afraid, but I thought I’d do it anyway… success comes at a cost, and that can be severe if you rush it, or if you take consistent shortcuts in pushing your mind further than you think it really wants to go.

I originally wrote ‘know’ rather than ‘think’, but reading over this again I realise I didn’t know, I just thought I did. I don’t know what I can do, but I was afraid to really find out. I’d started really climbing the mountain, and over the last week I’ve had my first real look down.

When I was younger, I was afraid of heights, and to be honest it only really went away when I started climbing four years ago. I made my way up the wall, and, at some point I fell (though thankfully for this story and my ego not immediately). I kept climbing, and kept falling. Eventually, I would try riskier moves at greater heights, and still fall. But that was okay – I might get a few bruises, but nothing broke,  and I also became a lot less afraid.

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(A random photo of a spontaneous climb on a family holiday last year – note: this is not how I recommend using running shoes!!)

In life, I never climbed high enough to look down and feel a sense of vertigo. I really struggled at some points, but that was mainly through accumulated stress homesickness and feelings of isolation, not because I’d achieved something I couldn’t really comprehend.

The past ten months have been very hard, and I’ve taken the sorts of risks I’ve spent most of my life avoiding through fear and concern for the potential outcome. When I’ve found it hard, I’ve got depressed and worried, then previously decided enough was enough and essentially thrown in the towel. Incidentally, when I left a hotel in Spain six days ago I thought of that as a title, but it sounds a bit too much like I’m conceding everything, despite my witty subtitle (or, fighting the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal).

Giving up before lead to poor academic outcomes first in the end of school, and then in my Masters in London. I protected myself and took the cost of that. After getting my degree, I spent four and a half months unemployed. I say ‘getting my degree’, rather than graduating, as I didn’t go to the second ceremony: my time at UCL ended rather unpleasantly with sharply deteriorating mental health, and I wasn’t keen to be reminded of that, even by the expensive but delightful frivolity of airborne hats, Latin and scrolls…

My next job, and indeed all I’ve done since, was in a running shop. I have two university degrees, one a first, an IQ measured (with great variability across a number of years) at 115-140 and a fluency with words and writing that should counteract even the most mediocre of interview skills. I stayed in a job where I was paid below the London living wage for two years before my focus on athletics made it vaguely legitimate.

I don’t want lots of money, or anything too fancy, but this has still been hard to take at times. I’ve had periods of moderate depression, where I’ve gone a day or so without eating, talking to anyone or leaving the house. That was okay though, because I didn’t tell anyone about it until afterwards, and even then I maybe lied about the food bit to make it seem less scary. There’s nothing wrong with spending the day at home, but if you feel you can’t leave, it’s a very different story than just wanting to get through “just one more series” of Game of Thrones.

As well as the job thing, I gave up on one of my two real dreams a number of years ago: having a family. The other dream is competing for Ireland, and we’ll come back to that later. Despite my athletic success, sporadic academic achievement and many lovely trips abroad, my favourite memory is something very different. I was going to write a blog about this called ‘playing happy families, or, a flicker of possibility‘, but I’ve very rightly decided that it risked lying forever on the ‘to write’ pile, and that I should throw it in here instead.

My aunt Gill, who I’ve always found rather inspiring, was producing a play called ‘Green Street’ set in a beautiful courthouse in Dublin. It was primarily about the revolutionary Robert Emmet and his role in the Irish uprising in 1803, and the audience moved interchangeably through several different rooms of the courthouse itself. This made wonderful use of the historic space, which they had to borrow for the occasion. I mention these details partly because Anglo-Irish politics and criminal justice are two of the topics I feel most passionately about, and might one day get round to discussing here, and partly because it was an amazing experience to be involved in.

Being an inordinately busy and active person anyway, she also had four equally busy children aged 10-17 at that stage (one now the other international athlete in our group of eight cousins), and needed a bit of help around the house. As I had some free time before starting my Masters in London, and because it was something I was very keen to do, I found myself arriving at the door for my longest ever stay in Dublin (ten days or so, if memory serves).

Walking the two youngest girls to and from school, preparing dinner (don’t laugh, I did create some palatable meals…), eating together, and helping them with homework (except Irish!), and going along to tennis lessons was the happiest time of my life. I felt useful, engaged in something bigger, and, for the first time, a ‘grownup’ part of a family.

Getting up every morning knowing that I directly mattered to someone was an incredible honour, and a real joy. That word is thrown around lightly, but I don’t use it casually here. In my heart though, I knew that I couldn’t manage it full-time, and that the stress of supporting a family when for half my life I’ve had intermittent periods of being unable to support, or (very occasionally) even feed myself would be too much.

I’m building up, and getting there slowly, but I worry that by the time I’m able to do so the window will have closed. I try to accept this, but I know that I’m the only person who knows whether or not it’s really possible, and the self-doubt, hope and uncertainty around that is tricky to live with. I’ve spoken about this with a close friend, who, when I said I’d accepted that, pulled me up on it and said ‘it sounds like you haven’t’. He was right, but to be fair I did tell him so at the time.

This sort of thing is important. Sport, for most of us, isn’t in the same league (aha? nevermind). For me it’s different. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like I’ll never be able to handle a ‘proper’ job, but I could do well in sport. Since the start of 2015, I’ve been decent enough at running to be referred to in the family as ‘the runner’ – that being my main role.

People often respected and understood that I was putting a hobby I loved ahead of a career, and I was proud of that. It wasn’t a profession, and I was never going to be able to live off it, but I was putting my effort into something I cared about deeply. That meant a lot, and kept me in much better shape mentally than I would otherwise have been.

This brings us to the second dream. I never thought I’d compete for Northern Ireland in a provincial competition, never mind being offered the green of Ireland I’d seen at the back of my mind since I was six. My dad had played hockey for the island (Ireland is united in international hockey and rugby), and it always seeemed painfully impossible for me to follow his footsteps. Last year, for reasons entirely too elaborate to tell here, I found myself a nascent steeplechase specialist. Sure, I’d race every other distance going, but I eventually found my way into the top 20 in the U.K., being well outside the top hundred for everything else.

The highest level of competition that Northern Ireland compete in without being under the auspices of ‘Team GB’** is the Commonwealth Games. To run for “the province I love” (to use Mary Peter’s immortal words) would mean the world. I decided to give everything towards trying that, and I started down a road that’s lead where I am today.

Just over a year after I ran 9:33 for the steeplechase, qualifying for the English championships by twelve seconds, and a chance to run for Middlesex. Last month I ran 8:37, qualifying for the Commonwealth Games* by five seconds.

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(This was absolutely surreal: like when someone shows you how to alter a website rover display different photos and text – it was a joke, right?)

After the first race, I was triumphant, amazed at myself and in love with a new event. After the second I just felt focused, disciplined, and determined to make the immediate jump to the next standard, the world championships, without really digesting what I’d done. Think of it as the difference between a good meal at pizza express enjoyed slowly and wolfing down something elaborately named and even more fancily prepared at a Michelin star restaurant.

I’d achieved my dream and put myself in the frame for a selection for Ireland this year that I’d never even considered. I was on the BBC sport athletics website, for crying out loud! My time would have put me top 40 in Europe last year! I was eighth on the Irish all time list over the steeplechase! I’d made it!

Then why didn’t it feel that way? Why did I feel scared, rather than overjoyed and fulfilled?

Because I looked down.

More to come. I’m not sure when exactly.

 

Asterisks

*Actual selection pending, see upcoming ‘the Northern Irish hunger games’, a title a friend suggested that I love, for more. Once I write it…

**I put ‘Team GB’ in inverted commas because the full name, Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is rarely used, and the top bit of the island of Ireland (political opinion alert!!) forgotten. I have a lot more on this, but it’s for another time.

 

Other Notes

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Emmet

More on Robert Emmet, and perhaps by doing so nailing my colours to the Irish mast rather obviously.

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-1.529070

A review of the play, which we were all incredibly excited to read. The moment this was read and sent round the family stood out more than my athletics successes – it was a collective achievement, something we could all be proud of, and something we’d all worked towards in a small way.

Green Street Courthouse (below)

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All in, all out: losing when it really matters

(Then winning, or er, coming fourth, when it really, really matters)

Standing on the start line of a race, the first thought is rarely ‘dear me, I’m lucky to be here in one piece’ (more profane exclamations also available). At least occasionally, it should be.

After comprehensively ruining my right shoulder and the remainder of the athletics season in June last year, I sent a text to the county selector after getting back from hospital to let him know I was most certainly out. A first county vest would have meant a great deal: my first selection in sport since I walked away from judo seven years ago. Well, walked is not perhaps the right phrasing, ‘escorted aggressively away by particularly ardent sentinels of despair’ seems more apt, though less snappy. More on that later.

A first race in Northern Ireland colours ran away too, in February. Diminishing health meant a composed and confident first third of the race meant little. Four laps later a largely irrelevant sprint finish mustered from somewhere unexpected took a dispiriting fifth: the first four picked up the red and white vest. As a running friend recently suffered similar ills at the hands of misfortune for national selection, I felt I’d delayed finishing this long enough. Then I delayed a little longer, and while I’m now writing I’m fairly confident the delays won’t end here. [Note, they continued for several months more]

The higher one moves up in sport, the more training that goes into a sharply diminishing pool of key events. For the enthusiastic parkrunner, one missed 5k means fifty one more remain, and by and large the recreational athlete has a healthier relationship with their sport of choice. You catch up most weeks, but neither of you feel cheated if a few dates get missed.

The less recreational athlete is in something more like a long-distance relationship (if I had an editor they’d remove this awful pun, but hey ho). You don’t see each other very often, and when you do it can be really pressurised and you’re always worrying about what might happen if it doesn’t work when you’re apart again.

Despite lots of recent wins in the grand scheme of things I’m a long way from a professional approach, much less actually making a living from this whole cantering around tracks, fields, roads and, well those are pretty much the only places. Nevertheless, steps in that direction from June 2015 to the same point this year have probably produced a bit more sadness than happiness, if I’m brutally honest. I’d rather not be though, it doesn’t sound very nice and I’m generally much more whimsical. All isn’t sunshine and butterflies, but there are a lot of warm caterpillars looking promising.

Some of those caterpillars wiggled around happily as I once again won the county championships on the site of my last 5000m track race before the shoulder injury, with a surprising 800m victory thrown into the bargain.

Since then, well a week since to be precise, I have taken up steeplechase, and a series of rather fortunate events have followed pleasantly. In something of a spoiler, as I started writing this four months ago, there are now fields of joyful insects, but this piece unfortunately isn’t about that. Plenty more are though, so if it is stories of delight you seek, seek elsewhere in my ramblings.

Rather than looking forward, a glance backward returns to the title of this particular journey. A year ago, I lost the chance to compete in the inter-county championships, and, on some level, I wanted to give up. I didn’t have a job that was especially significant, but that was by choice, to allow me to focus on the sport.

Losing that sport for several months to come felt like an eternity. I stood (or more aptly lay ineffectually in pain) at the start of a road that was to last one hundred and thirty nine days. I wanted to cut my ties with London and go back home. I hated the noise, the people and the hustle and bustle of the city centre in summer. It would have been easy enough to go back to the peace and quiet of Lisburn. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I had.

I looked out in resentment at the park, filled with people lying comfortably in the warm grass. I couldn’t lie comfortably on a bed stuffed with pillows and with a nervous system stuffed full of startlingly aggressive painkillers. The point, I think, has been sufficiently elaborated. I’d been depressed at university, and rather substantially, and fairly ill for long period of time at other points in my life, but I’d never really felt like I had that much to lose.

This time was different, I lost both the sport I loved and the opportunities to do something I felt was really significant. This is certainly melodramatic looking back on it, but it’s close to how I felt at the time. You can’t effectively examine anxiety and depression from the outside, it’s a bit like diving into a shark tank with a sturdy cage.

Sure it’s scary, sure there’s the minutest possibility the cage could open and present a delicious tinned snack to mr, mrs, ms or Lord shark*, but 99 percent of the time, you’ll be fine.

*(It definitely seems like a shark should have a pierage…)

You can also probably handily press a panic button and escape immediately. If you press a panic button from the other side of the cage, as mr or mrs anxious*, you get killed by sharks.

*(No peerage here, as any nautical puns would be dead in the water. Ah, sink like a stone. Nevermind.)

Essentially melodrama is the order of the day in anxiety restaurant. It also comes with a deeply disappointing side of depression. You could try depression restaurant, but it’s a bit too dark in there to read the menus, and a side of anxiety attacking from the darkness is pretty scary. And not just for the anxiety.

Sorry for all the jokes, that bit just seemed a bit too serious. See below. Or sea below if you’re on a boat.

 

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Getting through the shoulder injury took a lot of time. For people in love with things, or more normally, other people, this sort of obsession with sport is hard to understand. Sure, people/things you love can leave/disappear (well, hopefully just the things), but by and large you have other people/things you love to fill the void.

Since the start of Autumn 2014, I’ve cared more about running than I did about anything or anyone else (anyone is though singular, family is more important than sport, even in my crazy world). I had a fairly serious Achilles injury for three months or so, but I still felt a long way away from being a genuinely good athlete at that stage, and intermittent unsuccessful attempts to return, while frustrating, kept me in the light to a certain degree.

“But you’ll find someone one day who means more than running” a logical reader might sagely offer. Tried that, bad idea…

Moving on (well, in a narrative sense at any rate) four months after coming back from that, the shoulder injury was the first time since I was 18 that I felt like I genuinely had something to lose, and lost it. I had to give up judo at that age, the sport the kept everything together at a time when it was falling apart, and I never summoned the mental or physical strength to come back. I was afraid running might be the same, and that was too much too handle.

I was also more than a little ill when running the Middlesex cross country championships in January this year, which strings things together rather appropriately. I was so out of it in my last ever judo competition that I had to let my opponent throw me, as I suddenly felt that my ability to even stand up on my own had disobligingly evaporated: I lost knowing that, and I’ve never come back to the sport.

After the start of the third and mercifully final lap, I felt something of the same ilk, though much less disconcerting. I still almost fell over, arms flailing slightly for balance (flailing more than normal, as they’re liable to be a bit wiggly even at the best of times), but and people actually watching me probably assumed I’d just stepped on some slippery mud.

Running, as I mentioned in the last post, is very different from judo, if you feel bad you can just keep doing the same thing a lot more slowly, and it will feel better. In judo, it will feel immediately better, the abruptly afterward, much worse as a very short journey to the floor ends your competition for the day.

Anyway, I carried on rather more slowly, and finished well outside the selection spots for a first county vest in the inter-counties cross country. I remember walking away from that race desolate, feeling like my health had given up again. I pulled off my club vest immediately, and wanted to disappear. A week later though, I was back to normal, and I thought happily about the contrast with my last judo competition.

Sometimes progress is made incrementally, sometimes it takes surprising bounds and leaps, like Tigger. Bounding backwards in time, my first race after the shoulder surgeries* was another cross country race in Stevenage, in November last year.

*plural: happily it was the same shoulder twice, as they marked the right one beforehand (as in correct, but also not left). I’m not sure six inch surgical scars are the kind of thing you want to ‘even out’. Here’s what it looked like after its second encounter with the scalpel. I assume it was a scalpel, but I suppose it could have been an expertly wielded pair of gardening shears.

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My cousin (a junior international athlete since) was over from Ireland for the junior women’s cross country race. She came first in her age category, and before seeing her run I’d been toying rather ominously with the idea of turning straight round and going home again. I wasn’t expected, and didn’t need to be there, or so the excuses went. Inspired, I brushed them aside, and heroically finished.. ah.. sixty eighth, through considerable pain.

Thinking back to this inspiration in the fifth race in the same league in February (Stevenage had been the second), I ran one of the few races where I’ve genuinely surprised myself (such are my lofty yet secretive ambitions) and finished sixty places higher in eighth. Knowing I’d come through that pain made the rather less painful ascent of the Alexandra Palace hills feel like an escalator, and one kindly going the right way. I haven’t thought back to either race much since writing this, but that’s mainly because I’ve been racing almost endlessly since, barring five weeks out with a knee injury.

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A look of genuine surprised delight. I once ate my ‘breaktime’ snack bar during class when I was nine, and then had no food for break. I found a Mars bar in my pocket. 8th in the MET league was right up there with serendipitous chocolate apparition.

I’m writing something separate about my first race for Northern Ireland, a home nations fixture in Manchester, but it’s important to end with here.

Although the running season never truly finishes, or even clearly demarcates itself if you’re racing on the road, cross country, and indoor and outdoor track, as I have since coming back from the shoulder injury, the Manchester race marked a turning point.

Since November last year, I’ve raced, by my count, 21 different events and distances:

800, 1500, 3000 meters and a mile on indoor tracks
(well, actually the same one, Lea Valley, though other venues are available)

800, 1500, 3000, 5000 and 10000 metres on the track, as well as a mile:
all, apart from ten thousand, at least twice

2000 and 3000 metre steeplechase: eleven times in total
One mile and two miles on the road, as well as 5k, 10k, ten miles and two half marathons, the second of which was almost five minutes faster.

And, um, 4.25k (the distance recording convention in running is K for road races, lots of zeros for track races. I didn’t give up a 5k at 4.25k, thankfully that was the race distance.)

Eight, twelve and fifteen kilometres cross country
(As well as silly distances like 7.8km, and those no one was really certain of as they weren’t measured exactly.)

The only conventional distances I haven’t raced in that time are the sprints (100m, 200m and the hideously high 110m hurdles), the 400m with or without hurdles, odd mile races like three, five and seven, the daunting twenty miles, and even more unapproachable, a marathon. Still some work to do there perhaps.

I’ve got a PB in everything I’ve raced at least once, and really couldn’t have asked for much more from my previously notoriously injury-prone frame.

After all this, before Manchester I asked one more thing, just one more. I’d taken ten days off racing beforehand, which sounds like no time, and really is, but for me this was an enormous holiday where I forgot what it felt like to race.

Northern Ireland had picked me in their squad for the Manchester International, and I’d taken the news rather, ah, enthusiastically. So much so in fact that I needed to put my hand on ice for an hour or so afterwards after striking the wall in delight. It would have been absurdly ironic to have ruled myself out of the event celebrating the fact I’d been picked to run. Although it wouldn’t have been lost on me I don’t think I’d have taken it well.

Beforehand, I’d felt what seemed like a rather serious tendon strain, but this is another story. Another story that picks up here (link, um, pending), to be precise. Thanks for reading this one!

Look, depression! (Don’t worry, there are some jokes)

Having had a bit of practice, I find it so much easier than I did to write about mental health, to let people know it’s been a large part of my life, and to draw attention to something a lot of people would rather keep quiet.

There’s an important semantic distinction to be made between depression as a condition and the use of the word ‘depressed’ to describe a state of mind. A lot of people will say they feel depressed when they mean sad or melancholy. It’s a bit like a sore leg and a broken leg. A broken leg (depression in this instance) is certainly sore (i.e. makes you feel sad), but most leg pain isn’t a break.

You don’t often get people who’ve had bruised legs talking about how people with broken legs should toughen up and walk on their fractured limbs though. Of course, it’s nowhere near this simple, but I still think it’s a good example of how frustrating it can be when people tell you to ‘man up’ or ‘get a grip’. “My leg’s ******* broken!’ I always feel like shouting. Without knowlede of this helpful metaphor though, it’s both senseless and likely to provoke some very odd reactions.

As sadness and our descriptions of it are subjective, you can’t definitively say whether you’ve been depressed or not. The classification scale isn’t a categorical measurement, but a soft form of assessment that will probably vary a lot depending on when it’s done and who’s doing it. When measuring height, for example, unless you’re standing on your toes just a little bit, or asking a generous friend to measure you, you’ll get the same figure.

After coming through a bad period earlier in the year (depression and anxiety), I’ve talked to a lot of friends about depression in particular, and it has certainly helped. I sort of thought that once I started fighting it out in the open, it would play fair. Perhaps it might decide to knock before walking through the house with muddy feet and no regard for attentive pleas to be careful not to knock the parsley off the windowsil.

The floor is relatively clean, and the parsley that amazingly survived through the winter and ten days without water is still perplexingly alive. Sadly, in the metaphorical world of thought and imagination, floor and parsley have merged into one sad pile, and socks, instead of simply being thrown around, have been nefariously concealed in assorted alcoves.

It’s difficult to conjour my usual humour in this situation, so even zingers like the hidden socks evoke not so much a burst of laughter as the vaguest of neural impulses. It’s still a good deal better than nothing, and certainly a massive step up from the empty silences… as distinct from the wholesome sort of silence you have meditating or watching mute footage of a tree falling in the woods. To be fair that one did actually make me laugh, as I didn’t think I had a philosophical double entendre in the tank at this time of the morning.

Last time I was feeling a bit down, but not like this, I did a bit of writing, and it seemed to help a lot. Much of the time, things I normally rely on when I’m a bit glum can’t be depended on when ‘properly’ depressed.

Food tends not to help a great deal, unless I use it to make ice cream sculptures, which normally requires a lot more concentration and artistic vision than I’m normally disposed of even at the best of times. Running is often very helpful, but that’s such a normal part of my routine anyway I can’t add any more in, and the low energy normally associated with depression means I almost inevitably do less.

Reading and writing are things I also normally struggle with when depressed, and the words never seem to flow quite as easily from mind to page or screen. To be fair, this can be a good thing, as most of the time that flow is rather too rapid and often regulated as effectively as offshore finance under the current government.

The last two months have been fantastic writing wise, as I’ve probably produced about fifteen thousand words in various capacities, if not closer to twenty. When I’m feeling really good though, there are so many ideas bouncing around that I inevitably leave something just finished enough to come back to and pick up the original thread and flow, knowing where I want to go with it. Feeling like this, I know that if I put the proverbial pen down, it’s not going anywhere for a while.

This isn’t to say that I’m advocating a depressed state of mind as conducive to writing productively, or recommending it at all, that’s just an aspect of it for me. I find it can shift my focus away from bleak introspection just long enough to open up a chance to feel better in hours rather than days, and that makes a huge difference.

I’m not sure how helpful or relatable this is for everyone, but please do put a blank slate down (paper, digital, leaf, stone) and try writing something next time you’re a bit off 100%. I suspect drawing or painting might also work really well, but because I can only make horrible scrawls that would reduce even the most benign and amiable primary school teacher to a hopeless wreck I’ll still to the squiggly word stuff.

Thanks for reading, hope something here you liked, or at least felt was vaguely worth casting an eye over.

Poem – on depression

The words sit still upon the page, lifeless markings show their age,
The life they need lies in your mind, a step ahead, a step behind,
These books you turned to, seeking solace, offer only sealed doors,
Look at your feet, the steps are blood, making scars upon the floors.

These incisions, cuts remain, upon the mind, not form, a stain,
Not to be shown off, or seen, forever hidden by a screen.
For this is a wall of lies, that veils cruelly what’s within,
Its opaque surface lets in none, turns all joy into a sin.

But the others still will help, to seek to breach this shadowed wall,
Bodies flung against its side, when it cracks, they’ll break your fall.
Do not forget to ask, to call, to try to send your message through,
You’ll need to shout, you’ll need to scream, most outside just say you’re blue