Blogging at the crossroads

Legend has it that blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and agreed to sell his soul in exchange for his musical talent.

I’m at a crossroads myself. I won’t be making any deals with the devil, but I could do with some inspiration on the writing front.

The crossroads in question is a blogging crossroads. The road I have been travelling seems to have reached a confusing junction. It has been a good journey, but what has brought me this far might not take me much further.

If this blog was a TV series, its declining viewing figures would point to inevitable cancellation. That’s the danger of studying blog stats – when it’s going well, the incoming comments and viewing figures are addictively enthralling. When you post something and the figures are low, it’s demoralising. The unhelpful voice in my head tells me to give up; that I’m a has-been. It compares me to other bloggers and says “They’re doing better than you. Why do you bother?”

I find myself wondering what to write about, and indeed whether to keep blogging at all, as I have plenty of other things to keep me occupied. On the occasions I have time to blog, sometimes I just can’t be bothered. Other times, I’ve got an idea for a blog and talk myself out of writing it because I don’t think anyone will be interested – and I’m not even sure that I’m interested myself. I’ve talked myself out of writing this post several times and am only really posting it to spite myself.

My writing was most compelling when I was ill with depression. I wrote because I needed to get it all out of my head, and people seemed to relate to it.

But I’m happy to say I’m not ill any more. As I’ve got better, the story has become less gripping, and fewer people read it and feel moved to share it. And I don’t have that same drive and impetus to blog at the moment. I used to post almost every week. Now it’s once a month, if that. The momentum has gone.

I’ve written a lot about depression and sometimes wonder if there’s anything useful I can do with that back catalogue. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and hugely grateful for all the amazing support you’ve given me. I know from the comments I’ve received that my blog has helped a lot of people, which I love to hear. In return, every comment, retweet or like has helped me.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure I have much left to say about depression. I’ve been writing about it since 2011 and don’t want to keep dredging up memories that I’d rather forget. And I don’t want to bore people, or myself, by going over the same things over and over again. On the other hand, supporting people with mental health problems is something I really care about, and writing is one way I can do that. I’ve got to know many brilliant people through sharing my story – people whose friendship has enriched my life – and we all need to stick together to fight the stigma of mental illness.

I do love writing about wildlife, especially birds. Birding is something that helps me stay well, and I mainly write about what helps me to keep depression away these days, rather than depression itself. But I don’t think I want to restrict myself to a theme. I like writing about random stuff like pantomimes and music too.

I’ve written light-hearted stuff about parenting, but my kids are getting older and I don’t want to embarrass them – not in a blog anyway.

I also fancy writing more fiction and comedy. But is this blog the right place for that?

And so I stand at the crossroads. I know I want to write (sometimes anyway), but I’m not sure what. In some ways, it’s like starting again.

But there is only one of me. I have a finite amount of time, energy and inspiration. So another factor to fit into the equation – along with all the many other things I want to do all at once – is finding time to relax, and simply to be.

The main thing is that I stay well. I’ve burned myself out before and am always on guard against doing it again. I’m grateful to be well enough to have reached the crossroads, however frustrating it may be.

So, I don’t know what you can expect from Dippyman in the coming months. What do you think I should do?

 


My magical mobile memories

“So it’s a phone with a COMPUTER in it? And a CAMERA? And it can make FILMS? And you can send messages all over the world, just like that? What, and it fits in your POCKET?”

If you’d described a smartphone to me when I was little, it would have sounded impossibly fantastic. Phones still had dials, not keypads. They were definitely not mobile. Computers were big things, with primitive games that ran on cassettes. If you took pictures on a camera, you couldn’t see what they looked like until you’d taken 24 or 36 photos and had waited for the film to be processed. As for filming, you might occasionally encounter a video camera, if you were lucky, but it seemed very glamorous and exciting, and most people didn’t have one. And the Internet… Sorry, the what?

We forget how incredible smartphones are. Yes, they have a downside – we spend so much time gawping at them that we sometimes forget where we are – but they can be good for us too.

Having a camera on me at all times is a great way to capture memories, and it encourages me to look up and marvel at the world around me. If I get a decent photo, I can share it immediately with people all over the world. And I can look back at it in the future to recall a happy moment, however small.

Here are ten of my favourite mobile moments from the past year.

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I was getting out of the car at work and it was about to rain heavily. Just before it did, this splendid full rainbow arched across the sky.

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I enjoy walking from work into York city centre, particularly along the riverside path (not at the moment – it’s under water). I took this picture on a sunny day in autumn, when the leaves had started to fall.

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I’m lucky to work right next to a glorious park, and spend many of my lunch breaks there, walking around and watching birds. One of my favourite parts of the park is this pond.

 

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Spurn Point is an incredible place; unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. I made two birding trips there in the autumn, and on the second trip I walked all the way to the end of the point. The first of these pictures shows the rows of weathered groynes on a stretch of the beach next to where the former road was destroyed by a storm. You can only get down to the point now when the tide is out. The second picture shows where I ate my lunch after a three-mile walk in unexpectedly hot sunshine, looking out over the mouth of the Humber and North Sea, over to North Lincolnshire. The third shows the sun starting to go down over the Humber.

 

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We have a family holiday in Filey every summer. It’s a rich source of photo opportunities. Even the gulls pose for pictures.

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One evening, my wife and I were out walking and it looked like a good sunset might be starting, so we legged it to the top of Carr Naze, a cliff offering views across to Scarborough and beyond, and caught the sun dipping over the horizon.

 

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Here’s an image that brings back memories of a great night with friends on Bonfire Night. It also puts ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown into my head, which is no bad thing.

 

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My brother and I have a strange tradition of finding hideous ornaments and sending pictures of them to each other. This was my best effort of 2015 – a disturbing-looking zombie sailor baby, found in a café on the east coast.


The small things that make a big difference to my mental health


It’s a few years now since depression made an unwelcome appearance in my life. Recovery is a slow and bumpy process, and I always have to be on my guard against my old enemy. To stay well, I need to look after myself, and I’ve gradually built up a list of things I do to manage my mental health.

This World Mental Health Day (10 October) focuses on those small things that can help you, or help you to support someone else. By sharing the things that work for us, we can all help each other. Here’s what works for me. Let me know what helps you.

Writing a diary

I quite often find ‘positive thinking’ a bit grating but one thing I’ve done consistently since I had counselling is to keep a daily diary of positive things. It could be something kind someone has said, or something I’ve enjoyed doing. It works in two ways – it makes me recall the good parts of every day, and, in difficult times, it’s helpful to read back as a reminder that good things do happen on a regular basis.

Birdwatching

It’s very important to do something you enjoy as often as possible. For me, that means going birdwatching. I try to arrange fairly regular days when I can take a break from my daily routine and go somewhere to get immersed in birdwatching, whether it’s looking for a particular bird or generally enjoying the distraction of being somewhere different and seeing what’s there.

Walking

When I was off work with depression in 2011, I made myself go out for a short walk every day, just to get out of the house. Walking is a healthy combination of fresh air, a change of scene, daylight, distraction and exercise. I still walk as much and as often as I can.

Looking up

It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and pay no attention to what’s happening around you. I’ve found that looking up at the sky is a rewarding alternative. It somehow helps to give me a little perspective. I like to take pictures of the sky and tree tops on my mobile phone when I’m out for a walk.

Lunch breaks

I often use my lunch break to get a bit of ‘me time’. My mornings are a rush to get the kids ready for school, and my evenings often involve being somewhere – or the kids being somewhere – by a particular time. The middle of the day is a perfect time to get out for a walk or just sit somewhere quiet for a while.

Meditation

I did some Mind Calm classes this summer and – when I remember to practise – find it helpful in stopping my mind racing and flitting about. Mindfulness is widely talked about as a way of coping with depression, and this is the version I’ve found most helpful so far.

Running

I have a rocky relationship with running. I’ve had some great highs and off-putting lows with it, and really have to force myself to do it, but once I get going I quite enjoy it. I’ve just started going running again after a 14-month break, because I was feeling unfit and could feel myself over-thinking things and getting a bit agitated. Running helps me with both those things.

Self-care

I find it’s easier to support other people than to look after myself, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. All of the things in my list are a kind of self-care. It’s also worth trying a regular BuddyBox, either for yourself or someone else. BuddyBox is a new initiative from my friends at the Blurt Foundation. Each month, they fill a box with items to help, comfort or inspire anyone who needs a boost.


Five weirdest things I have done in pantomimes

I’ve recently started rehearsing for Beauty and The Beast, my 15th pantomime with my local group, the Ebor Players.

Panto is a bizarre tradition that has given me many fond memories, a great bunch of friends, and a number of surreal experiences that just couldn’t happen in any other setting. Here are five of the weirdest.

Doing a Ministry of Silly Walks dance to a Queen song

Fear makes you do strange things sometimes. In my first panto – Jack and the Beanstalk (1999) – I was playing a hugely unconvincing giant, who was several inches shorter than the dame, wearing a terrible fake beard and a flat cap. I had a scene with my magic harp, in which I said: “Harp! Play me some music. Something soothing.” The music in question ended up being ‘One Vision’ by Queen, as you’d expect. It was the week of the show, and we hadn’t really worked out what I would do while the music was playing. Left with a largely empty stage and a feeling of abject terror, I had to do something, so I did what any self-respecting giant would do in such a situation – a peculiar dance inspired by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

Singing as Elvis while dressed as a fairy

In my next panto, Dick Whittington, I was a vision in chiffon – a nightmarish vision, in a blonde wig, white dress and copious glitter. The good fairy had a spell put on her, and was turned into me, the Hairy Fairy. My role was largely to impart wisdom to the hero. There came a moment where I had to advise him to ‘turn again’ – the perfect time for a song. At the after-show party the year before, I’d ended up entertaining/boring the cast and crew in the pub with numerous Elvis songs, and that’s how the musical director and I came to write ‘London Town’. Loosely based on ‘The Wonder of You’, the song was a series of Elvis song puns, and I performed/murdered it in an Elvis wig and shades – still wearing my fairy dress.

Doing a workout with a dancing panda

You know how it is. You wake up after sleeping for 100 years and a panda turns up and makes you dance to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ by Wham. Towards the end of Sleeping Beauty (2006), this is exactly what happened. Brought to life by a kindly fairy (naturally), the panda was Princess Beauty’s favourite toy, and was there to lead an extremely invigorating workout when a palace full of drowsy guests, royals and servants (including me as Oddjob, the palace handyman) awoke from their century-long slumber.

Being Vanilla Ice, in beach wear

Nine years after playing the fairy in Dick Whittington, we performed a different version of the show. I played Silly Billy, and was joining the rest of the cast on a trip overseas. We were going to buy or sell spices, I think. Rapper Vanilla Ice had recently teamed up with Jedward for a new version of his hit Ice Ice Baby, and the comedy duo that year came up with the ingenious idea of doing ‘Spice Spice Baby’. But they needed someone to be Vanilla Ice, and that’s where I came in. My obvious rapper credentials were seriously compromised by my outrageously colourful Hawaiian beachwear, and adding a baseball cap just made it look sillier. But given that we were three men who couldn’t really dance or rap, doing a rap and a dance routine, my apparel was the least of my worries…

Dad dancing as Darth Vader

Our 2014 panto, a Long Time Ago, was a tribute to the science fiction greats, and so it came to pass that I was playing the villain’s psychiatrist, Dr Vader. I got to dress up in a proper Darth Vader costume, thus fulfilling a boyhood dream. But there was a catch. At the time, a popular YouTube clip featured Darth Vader busting some crazy dance moves with some Stormtroopers to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ – and yours truly was charged with recreating this in the panto. The result was an improvised dad-dancing masterclass. The mask was a blessing.

Here's me as Dr Vader, hanging out with Yoda. Picture by Jo Curran.

Here’s me as Dr Vader, hanging out with Yoda.
Picture by Jo Curran.


A decade of daily dad daftness

It’s ten years since I sat in a hospital room, cuddling my tiny newborn daughter, and a nurse asked me to be quiet because I was singing too loudly – probably the first time I showed ‘embarrassing dad’ potential.

Her tenth birthday, and my son’s seventh, have prompted me to ponder the ups and downs of my first decade of fatherhood.

There are moments with kids when you feel so proud you find yourself welling up. There are times you laugh so much you find yourself in tears again. There are teeth-clenching, knuckle-chewing moments when your children – or someone else’s – drive you up the wall. There are times of great elation and despair.

But, by and large, I think being a parent is often about the funny little things you find yourself doing every day – like having to protect a giant cookie in a rain storm.

Shortly before her tenth birthday, my daughter declared that she didn’t like cake, and my almost-hysterical response of “You don’t like CAKE?” couldn’t persuade her otherwise. Thankfully, somewhere in my brain a little light went on, and I remembered that Millie’s Cookies do giant, personalised cookies.

So, the Monday before her birthday, I marched into town at lunchtime, and ordered the cookie, with blue and white icing (everything used to be pink and purple…) and a suitable birthday greeting, and arranged to pick it up on Friday.

Friday came around, and I headed back into town, coat-free, sunglasses on and enjoying the sunshine. I examined the cookie, which looked very appetising, paid, and carried it off, packed in a cardboard box and a big paper carrier bag.

But there was trouble brewing. The skies were darkening above the city centre. Like a jeep fleeing a twister in a disaster movie, I tried to outrun the increasingly ominous clouds, but they were heading my way, and I was only five minutes into my twenty-minute walk back to the office when I felt the first spot of rain.

I cast a worried glance at the bag. It was gaping open at the top, and holding the handles wouldn’t do enough to stop the rain getting in and soaking the box – which could mean catastrophic cookie damage.

The rain was getting heavier. Storming ahead as quickly as I could, I was a rather tragic, desperate figure, both hands clutching the top of the bag, hell-bent on complete cookie protection.

Only halfway back, the sky burst all over me. Gritting my teeth and shielding my precious cargo, I marched tenaciously on.

By the time I’d arrived back at the office, I looked pretty pathetic – and the rain had almost stopped. Like a bald, bargain-basement Mr Darcy, I staggered inside with my shirt completely soaked through.

But the cookie box was perfectly dry. Dad mission accomplished. Later that day, a happy little girl was delighted with her surprise, and I enjoyed basking in the glow of one of those rare, special moments when I knew I’d got everything just right.

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With my children at Fountains Abbey

With my children at Fountains Abbey


Why birdwatching is good for my mental health

One of the good things to come out of my second bout of depression four years ago was the revelation that going birdwatching could help me in my recovery.

It was October 2011 and I had been signed off work. My mood would inevitably worsen if I was alone at home with my thoughts for too long, so I made sure I got out of the house once a day, even if only to walk to the shop and back.

The combination of fresh air, daylight and exercise seemed to do me good. Taking my binoculars – and sometimes my camera – with me gave me an added purpose.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given during my counselling and GP appointments was to make sure I found time to do something I enjoyed, and birding certainly fell into that category.

Now, if I feel stressed or anxious, or if I can feel my mood darkening – even if I just feel stuck in a rut – I make time to get out birding, and it helps to distract me and give me something positive to do. I find it relaxing but also exciting, because the wonder of birding is that you never know what you will see next. That sense of anticipation – something to look forward to and get excited about – is a feeling that can get lost in the spirit-crushing mire of depression.

Later that autumn, the possibility of seeing something new took me to Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, about an hour’s drive from home. I’d wanted to make the trip earlier, as it’s a great spot for autumn migrants, but I hadn’t felt up to it. When I felt I had enough energy, I set off with the intention of walking along Filey Brigg, a rocky outcrop that juts out into the North Sea. That walk alone was worth the trip, as a fellow birder –one armed with a telescope – pointed out a velvet scoter bobbing on the waves with a group of common scoters. It was a first for me.

Better was to come. I called in for some food at the café in the country park on the clifftop, where the local ornithological group kept a record of its sightings. Fresh up on the blackboard was something that quickened my pulse – a glossy ibis had been seen at Filey Dams nature reserve.

Pleasingly, I arrived there just in time for a cracking view of this elegant and rather exotic bird, and enjoyed watching it for five minutes before it flew off. A frustrated group of birders arrived just after it had gone. I felt a small glow of satisfaction that I had been there and seen it for myself.

I should have stopped there but I was on a roll. I carried on to Flamborough, a renowned rarity hotspot further down the coast. There, I saw nothing, my legs started to feel heavy and I was overcome with tiredness. I’d overdone it (see top tips below).

Here are my top tips for how to approach birding if you’re experiencing depression:

  • A good birding trip is a great way to lift your mood, but it can also be too demanding if you’re not feeling well, so don’t try to do too much. I had a heavy cold while off with depression, but one day heard that common gulls (a bogey species at the time) could easily be seen at a site across town. I dragged myself out, got blown about by a strong, cold wind, joylessly saw the common gulls and wheezed all the way home, feeling thoroughly miserable. It really wasn’t worth it.
  • Try to keep your birding trips short until you feel stronger and more able to try travelling further. I enjoyed some very satisfying and rewarding local birding, and my slower pace actually helped me to see more on familiar patches, such as the discovery of yellow wagtails in a field close to home and some lovely views of yellowhammers and golden plovers.
  • While you’re restricted in what you can manage, enjoy what you can see and hear, rather than worrying about what you might be missing or can’t identify – there’s no point adding to your stress levels. You can learn songs, behaviour and subtleties of plumage that you might never have noticed before if you hadn’t stopped and savoured the moment. Taking time to appreciate the colours of a male chaffinch or the song of a dunnock while you’re walking down the road can be as rewarding as something harder earned.
  • Do some of your birding alone and some with other people whose company you enjoy. Complete solitude isn’t always good for you if you’re suffering from depression. A friend took me out birding to one of our favourite local wetland reserves one weekend and an obliging water rail strolled out close to the hide where we were sitting – literally seconds after I’d mentioned that I’d never seen one – before sloping off into the reeds again. If I’d stayed at home and not made the effort to go out, I wouldn’t have this happy memory to recall.
  • Depression doesn’t have to stop you getting out and about. The combination of exercise, fresh air, a change of scenery and doing something you enjoy means birding can be very beneficial. Keep it simple, do what you feel able to do, and quit while you’re ahead.

A buddy in the battle against depression

Last summer, I took a great big leap out of my comfort zone and did some public speaking at a place in London that I’d never been to before.

I am not a keen public speaker, but on this occasion I had something to say, about something important, so my nerves just had to play second fiddle.

It seemed appropriate that the event in question was taking place in Churchill’s War Rooms, as my talk was about a battle. A very personal battle. It was about depression and self-care – that constant battle to look after yourself when you’re in depression’s cruel grip.

My talk was based on what I’d learned from my own experiences of depression, and was part of an event organised by the Blurt Foundation, an organisation close to my heart.

Blurt supports people with depression, and its brilliant founders, Jayne and Dom Hardy, are always coming up with great ideas to help other people. One such idea was Blurt’s email mentoring scheme, which was a great help to me when I needed to blurt out how I was feeling to someone who would understand, without having to worry my family and friends.

I’ve discovered in recent months that I need a ‘psychological first aid kit’ (as my counsellor put it) – a checklist of things I will do to help myself stay well – self-care, in fact. In my case, that’s things like going walking and birdwatching, watching terrible-quality disaster movies, drawing, writing in my diary and trying to keep up with some meditation to help me relax and live in the present.

The latest great idea from Blurt is partly about self-care and partly about caring for someone else. It’s called BuddyBox.

It’s a simple concept. There’s a box, with things in it that might help you relax or sleep, or could comfort, inspire or surprise you. You can either buy BuddyBoxes as a gift for a friend who’s struggling, to show you’re thinking of them and to give them a small boost, or you can buy them for yourself, to help you gently fight that battle I was talking about earlier.

Now, Blurt will be the first people to tell you that depression cannot be treated with things – but things like those found in a BuddyBox can be a chink of light in an otherwise dark day.

So, what’s in a BuddyBox? Well, the contents are different each month, but I can tell you what was in mine:

  • A box of chamomile tea – perfect timing as I’m cutting down on caffeine at the moment. I’m having a cup as I write this and very nice it is too.
  • Some sleep balm, and a lavender-scented bag, both to aid sleep. I’m not having difficulty sleeping at the moment, but when I was having regular bouts of insomnia I’d have welcomed any new tricks to help me get back to sleep.
  • My favourite thing – a mindfulness colouring book and some colouring pencils. I’ve always loved drawing and colouring things in, and earlier this year I bought myself a colouring book (a grown-up one, of course). The idea is that colouring distracts you and gets you doing something you enjoy – which helps you stay in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or future. Unfortunately, the book I bought brought out the perfectionist in me, as the patterns were intricate, detailed and required great concentration – but the one in my BuddyBox is perfect. There’s a range of different patterns, some that need very little focus and some that I can get more absorbed in.

BuddyBox is available from the Blurt Foundation by subscription. You can choose to subscribe monthly, quarterly, six-monthly or annually. Read what other people thought of their first BuddyBox.

My BuddyBox from the Blurt Foundation.

My BuddyBox from the Blurt Foundation.


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