One year ago, I sat down to write my first Dippyman blog post – a whimsical piece about the timeless delights of a seaside holiday in Filey. The year, and the theme of my blog, came to be dominated by something far less jolly.
I’d set up the blog about a month before but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about. I just knew I wanted to write. I toyed with the idea of writing about what it was like to turn 35, but realised that if I didn’t care what it was like to turn 35 nobody else would either. I thought maybe I would write about birds, and indeed I did, although just the once so far.
Once I got started, I thoroughly enjoyed writing, and went on to describe things that amused or interested me, but it was something that was completely devoid of amusement that launched my blog in a new direction – depression.
When I started writing Dippyman, I had been living with depression for nearly two years. I’d been on antidepressants for more than a year and had finished my first round of counselling. As the summer went on, I felt well enough to lower the dose of my medication and that went well for a while, but in my haste to leave the tablets – and (I thought) my depression – behind, I went further than my moods would allow, and had to increase the dose again before the summer had ended. My stress levels were building up.
In September, I wrote about depression for the first time, likening stress and depression to Darth Vader and the Emperor from the Star Wars films. It was a big step to take. I’d only told a handful of people how I’d been feeling, and friends and colleagues reading about it were surprised. I’d obviously hidden it well, although that did me a fat lot of good. Being open about my illness made it easier – less like a dirty secret.
I returned to chirpier subjects for a while, but depression had a sting in its tail. Well, I say a ‘sting in its tail’ – it was more like a whopping great boxing glove smashing me in the face. Bash, bash, bash. It hit me with a knockout blow on 13th October, when I found myself dazed and confused, asking ‘Can brains explode?‘
I staggered zombie-like through a day at work on the 14th, but it was a case of the lights being on (perhaps with a dimmer switch) and nobody being home. My self-esteem plummeted. My moods turned black. The insomnia started. A star was born – my twisted, shadowy alter-ego, Paul Brookes, who made frequent appearances in my blog posts during the bleakest months of my life.
When I was feeling most dreadful, when I was off work and had increased the dose of my antidepressants, something unexpected happened. My blog took off. I’d read on Twitter that some people were using the phrase ‘mental health day’ as a euphemism for throwing a sickie, or skiving off work. I was enraged – perhaps not surprisingly, given my circumstances at the time – so I wrote about it. A friend at work tweeted the link to Alastair Campbell, who read it, described it as ‘excellent’, and shared it with his thousands of followers. It didn’t stop there. Next I spotted a tweet from Jeremy Vine, who also shared the link, saying:
“Man writes brilliant blog about his depression”
The response was way beyond anything I could have expected. Nearly 1,500 people read what I’d written in one day alone. I was overwhelmed and humbled, and in my depressed state didn’t really know what to make of it all, so I just kept writing about how I was feeling. It was quite therapeutic, and the supportive and encouraging comments I was getting – and have carried on getting since (thanks everyone!) – helped me to keep going, at a time when I would be sitting in my car praying for enough strength to cope with the day ahead, lying wide-awake at night silently pleading for sleep, or staring into the distance with an unseen enemy feasting on the destructive thoughts in my head.
Since then, I’ve been privileged to write about depression for a number of great organisations, websites and magazines, have written 40 blog posts (41 now), and my site stats tell me that the pages of Dippyman have received more than 33,600 visits at the time of writing. On one crazy day in January, more than 2,500 people visited in one day, after more kind tweets from those top gents Vine and Campbell and a one-off retweet from Twitter colossus Stephen Fry.
Reading this objectively, it could sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet. Apologies if it comes across that way. Really, it’s just my way of proving to myself – reminding myself – that from the abject misery of depression, something to be proud of has risen. I felt like nobody and this blog, and more importantly the support, encouragement and goodwill that so many people – friends, relatives and strangers alike – have given me, has helped me to feel like somebody.
The blogging year ends with Brookes as the nobody – a fate he deserved all along.
I’ll end this anniversary post the way I started Dippyman last July, with a happy memory of the seaside. I was in Filey again last week, and took this photo of a lifeboat, which – with its bright colours and the promise of help for people lost at sea – seems a fitting way to sign off.
I’ve just been to the seaside for a classic British holiday. Just like in the song, I did like to be beside the seaside, and I did like to be beside the sea. Strolling along the prom, prom, prom was pretty good too, although I didn’t encounter any brass bands going tiddly-om-pom-pom. I would have been quite surprised if they had made that sound, really. But anyway…
Just meeting three of the four criteria from the vintage seaside song isn’t enough to make me a British holiday cliché. I did, however, insist on wearing shorts on the beach, even when it was so cold that I had to sport a jumper and fleece jacket on my top half. I paddled in the sea and ate ice cream more or less every day, despite icy winds blowing in from the North Sea. And – wait for it – I played crazy golf.
While these traditional holiday exploits do sound a little on the silly side, I am not alone in being drawn to them, year after year, like a wasp to a sticky stick of rock. On our annual family trip to the lovely town of Filey, on the glorious yet windblown east coast, we bumped into three other families from our village, an hour’s drive away, doing exactly what we were doing. So what keeps us coming back?
Well, although the weather is predictably unpredictable whether it’s the height of summer or the middle of winter, it doesn’t detract from the spectacular scenery – in one direction, a long, clean, sandy beach stretches into the far distance towards the majestic white cliffs at Bempton and Flamborough; in the other direction lies Filey Brigg, a rocky outcrop that juts out into the sea, sporting a magical array of rock pools and birdlife. In sunny weather, the crumbling clay cliffs approaching the Brigg glow bright orange, contrasting beautifully with the vivid blue sky. When the winds blow, the waves come crashing into the bay, battering the sea wall.
Beyond its natural splendour, Filey has an old-fashioned charm that doesn’t change much and doesn’t need to. It has donkey rides, amusement arcades, sticks of rock, a little funfair on the sea front, buckets and spades and all those other things that are as much fun for my kids as they were for me, my dad and his dad.
So yes, maybe my Filey fascination does make me a British holiday cliché. But there are lots of other holidaymakers in my shorts-wearing, weather-defying, toe-freezing club, happy to keep that traditional British seaside holiday alive as long as there are gulls on the chimney pots, tiny crabs in the rock pools and Flakes in the 99s.