Niceness does not mean weakness

Whoever said nice guys never win was wrong. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I prepare to enter a battle that I really need to win.

But am I too nice to fight? After all, the only fight I’ve ever had was in 1987 and resulted in me getting my ears boxed. I am, by and large, a fairly gentle soul. I try to be kind and thoughtful. I try to put myself in other people’s shoes, however ill-fitting they may feel. I’m generally quite affable, pleasant and jolly. Chirpy even. I enjoy making people laugh. I am, of course, only human. I’m also impatient, stubborn and sometimes grumpy. I say things and do things that I later wish I hadn’t. But I think ‘nice’ is a word quite a few people would use to describe me. So that takes us back to the question about whether I’m too nice.

Well, too nice would suggest that there is something wrong with niceness. It would imply that niceness is something undesirable – a chink in the armour, a flaw in my personality. Maybe I’m some kind of nice doormat for people to step on. Perhaps I’m a wispy bit of wishy-washy niceness that gets pushed aside as the stronger personalities barge past.

I’ve decided in the last couple of days to stop thinking of my niceness as a weakness – something I need to change if I am to become respected and successful. I will recognise that being nice is part of being me, and I’m giving myself permission to accept it, not to fight it.

Niceness is, after all, a good thing. Surely it’s better than being nasty. A nice friend of mine unwittingly confirmed this today when she said:

“My mum always said when I was a little girl that being nice is the most important thing as it makes the world go round.”

Niceness is a strength. If you can still be nice to people every day – even when you feel like you can’t cope, that life has trodden you down and it would be easier if you didn’t have to be you – then that is a sure sign that you are made of strong stuff. You’re a tough nut to crack.

There can, however, be a hidden downside to niceness, and to being a tough nut. A ‘nice’ person is often one who is diligent, reliable, sensitive, has a strong conscience and sense of responsibility – all admirable qualities, but all things that can bring extra stress. Dr Tim Cantopher, in his book Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, says:

“Give a set of stresses to someone who is weak, cynical or lazy and he will quickly give up, so he will never get stressed enough to become ill. A strong person on the other hand, will react to these pressures by trying to overcome them. After all, she has overcome every challenge she has faced in the past through diligence and effort. So she keeps going, absorbing more and more, until, inevitably, symptoms emerge.”

And that’s pretty much a summary of how I ended up with depression. I carried on coping at work, wherever I was working and whatever the demands. I carried on coping at home, in spite of a total of three years of disrupted nights while I adjusted to the challenging world of fatherhood. I was strong. I kept going. But something had to give – and it did.

The fight I mentioned earlier is not a physical fight. I’m not going to enter a boxing ring and pummel someone senseless. I’m not going to get into a street brawl. I am, though, going to be handing out a severe beating to a special someone: Paul Brookes.

“Who is this unfortunate character?” I hear you ask. “What did this chap do to you?”

He’s my twisted alter-ego. My nemesis. The vicious, low-life, power-crazed villain who skulks in my subconscious. And I’ll tell you what he did to me. He brought me down. It wasn’t even a fair fight. There was no ‘Paul Brook in the blue corner, Paul Brookes in the red corner – ding ding, round one’. No, he crept up behind me, pulled a sack over my head and suffocated me. He is my depression – and he deserves what is coming to him.

So what form will this fight take? I’ve thrown pills at Brookes, and he’s been weakened but hasn’t retreated. He was knocked down by my first round of counselling, but had a rest and made an unexpected comeback when he was ready.

A very wise gentleman who lived next door to me when I was a boy once gave me a pen and told me:

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Although I mostly write using a computer these days rather than a pen, the message is the same. Words are powerful. I’ve been blogging about depression for a few months now, and each post has, in some small way, punched a small hole in the force field surrounding Brookes.

It’s time to take the fight to the next level. Armed with my own resilient brand of niceness, I will kick Brookes’s backside with the boots of merriment; stab him with the sword of silliness; knock his lights out with the fist of fun; and render him powerless with the shield of pleasantry.

To help me win this duel once and for all, I am going back to my counsellor. And that is what this blog post is really all about, under all the dramatic metaphor. A normal, fairly nice bloke, struggling with an illness, getting some help – and mustering up some extra courage and fire in his belly to try and shut that illness down for good. Begun this war has.


Shine a light into the darkness

Depression is like a slippery serpent, slinking about in the shadows. It slithers into your mind, where it feasts on – and feeds – your fears, doubts, worries and anger. And once it’s got hold of you, it makes you jive to its sinister tunes.

You could look at it as a vampire. Not the young, sexy kind of vampire you might be used to seeing in the movies, but the evil, vicious sort that’s too busy eating away at your confidence and self-esteem to pause for a pout.

Whether you see it as a serpent, a vampire, a bully or – as many do – a black dog or a dark cloud, depression is an invisible illness that relishes the dark.

Because you often have no outward symptoms of depression, it’s not the kind of illness where someone will come up to you in the kitchen at work and say ‘Oh dear, you don’t look well’. There are no spots or swellings to give the game away.

This is perhaps why depression can end up feeling like a dirty secret. Nobody will know about it if you don’t tell them. And the cruel thing about this illness is that it makes you feel ashamed of it. If you admit to it, terrible things might happen to you. The doctor might PUT YOU ON TABLETS. Oh the shame. You might even get SIGNED OFF WORK. How humiliating.

Both of these things have happened to me. Both have been necessary, and both have helped me. Nobody has given me any stick for it. In fact, the more people I talk to about my depression, the more I realise how common it is, and how many people – old and young, male and female – have experienced it at some point in their lives.

I didn’t talk about my depression for a long time, because I didn’t really want to admit I’d got it. I gradually told a few more of my friends, and the encouraging thing was that they were all so supportive and understanding. Nobody came out with those classic lines ‘Well you look OK to me’ or ‘Pull yourself together’.

The big change for me, though, was when I wrote my first blog about depression. I’d previously written about light-hearted stuff, like going on holiday and bird watching, but something compelled me to write about this hidden scourge of my life. I took a deep breath, posted the link on Twitter and Facebook, where I knew my friends and colleagues would see it, and then sat and wondered whether I’d done the right thing.

Well, I needn’t have worried. The response was overwhelming – humbling, even. And it has been the same whenever I’ve posted anything about depression. There are loads of people out there who are experiencing the same thing, supporting and encouraging each other.

Don’t let your depression trap you in a dark corner. Shine a bright light on it – expose it for the snivelling little viper that it really is. It really won’t like it.

My first step to confronting depression was to admit to myself that I needed some help. My second step was to get that help. And my third was to ‘come out’ about it – to write openly and honestly about what was happening to me. It’s actually quite therapeutic.

Does this mean I’m cheerfully shouting out about my illness from the rooftops? No – it’s much easier for me to write about it than to talk about it. Not long ago, when someone asked me on the phone why I’d been off work, I told him I wouldn’t bore him with the details, and swiftly moved on. But that was because I didn’t know him very well and felt it was none of his business.

Many people do know about my depression, including you. And I’m happy about that. Keeping a secret can be stressful – and let’s face it, there are enough stresses in life without creating more of them for yourself. This is one secret you should share.

I wrote this blog for the Time to Talk campaign from Time to Change, which is encouraging people to talk about mental health. Join thousands of others, like me, who have pledged to do just that.

How I lost my kitchen door

Last night, I lost my kitchen door. And, when I found it, I wondered if I might have lost my mind too.

I was about to go to bed and had just put some stuff in the kitchen. I stood there, in the doorway, wondering where the door was so I could close it. I found myself totally disorientated, and waved my hands around in bewilderment, trying to locate the door handle. Eventually it dawned on me. The door opened the other way, not the way I was facing. Dear me. So I turned round, and there it was, along with a big, clear sign saying ‘You need some sleep, Paul’.

Thankfully I did get some sleep (unlike the night before) and today have returned to my more common state of absent-mindedness and forgetfulness.

I think I used to have a good memory, but I can’t remember. It seems a lot of things can cause a person to become absentminded and forgetful. Stress is one of them. Tiredness is another. So is depression. As I tick all three of these boxes, I am entitled to a bit of mild memory loss. While parenthood isn’t generally listed as a cause of memory loss, it is, without question, a reliable source of tiredness and stress.

Until my daughter was born, I hadn’t experienced tiredness like the kind brought on by severe sleep deprivation over a prolonged period of time. It was one year until she slept through the night for the first time, then another year before this became anything like a regular occurrence. When my son was born, we had another year of sleep deprivation to add to our collection.

These days, it’s the depression that intermittently gives me sleepless nights, while the madness of day-to-day life as a working parent delivers the stress that causes further tiredness. No wonder, then, that I often find myself in the middle of something and suddenly stop, saying “what was I doing?” or “why did I come in here?”

It’s the same when I stop mid-sentence, my mind having gone completely blank. “What was I talking about?” has practically become my catchphrase.

Most of the time, this vagueness causes a bit of amusement with no drastic consequences – like when I found myself putting the kettle in the fridge, or trying to make coffee for a colleague using the water cooler. Sometimes it’s more embarrassing or unfortunate, like the time my mind stopped mid-Elvis impersonation and left a cringe-worthy pause in my rendition of Are You Lonesome Tonight? Or when, in a meeting, someone asks me a question about something I’m working on, and I can’t recall a single thing I’ve been doing, even though – or perhaps because – I’ve been working very hard on all kinds of different things.

And, most frustratingly, I had a classic ‘the lights are on but nobody’s home’ moment in a job interview, when I was asked to give examples of the creative work I claimed to have done. The most creative thing I could muster right then was a drawn-out “eerrrrrrrrm”.

I hope this vagueness will pass in time and is just a temporary blip. In due course, it would be nice to discover that my mind is actually still razor sharp. In the meantime, I’ll just have to embrace the vagueness – and go to bed earlier.

New year, new start?

It’s the time for new year’s resolutions, isn’t it? So this year I am setting myself a target. It’s a tough target – one of the toughest I have ever set myself. And that target is…

… not to have any targets.

So does that mean I won’t bother to do anything? Have I just given up? Don’t I want to achieve anything? No, no and yes. I have learned, in a slow, drawn out and not particularly pleasant way, that setting myself targets when there is no need to is one of my greatest problems. It’s one of the things that makes me most anxious, most unfulfilled and most unhappy.

I’m not talking about necessary deadlines. I’ve worked to deadlines all my career, and if I decided to ignore them now, it would undo years of good work and make me a rather useless colleague and employee. The kind of targets and deadlines I’m giving up this year are the pointless ones I impose on myself. Things like:

  • I’ll be rich and famous by the time I’m 30. Oh, that didn’t happen. I’m a failure.
  • If I can get off my antidepressants by the end of the summer I can reward myself with a cold beer. I didn’t manage that. Will I EVER get off these tablets?
  • I want to lose x pounds in weight before my holiday. I didn’t, so I am fat.

You can see from these examples why self-imposed targets can be destructive and demoralising. Each one sets an expectation that something will be achieved. Each one sets a deadline for something that doesn’t need one. None of these allows for other events – things like changes of direction in your life, experiencing stress and depression, having no energy and needing to rest, and so on.

They are also big, ambitious targets. I am an ambitious, determined person, but also one who has been low on confidence and energy. The two can be a very frustrating – and depressing – combination. If you remain determined to achieve something big and ambitious, but ignore the signs your body gives you to ease off, you’re probably going to make it even more difficult to achieve what you want. Take the second of the examples above. I am on antidepressants. I decide I want to come off them. I then set myself a deadline for when I want to finish taking them. This target drives me to reduce my dose sooner than perhaps I ought to. My moods quickly get blacker, and back I go, up to the regular dose within days. The challenge suddenly seems harder to rise to; the obstacles even more insurmountable.

On a smaller scale, I’m also a clock watcher, always thinking ahead to what needs doing when. The impact of this is that it’s hard to enjoy anything, because I can’t relax and experience the moment I am in at any given time. I could be pushing one of my children on a swing while thinking about how long we’ve got before we need to stop for lunch, and where the nearest toilets are, because we’ll need to go to the toilet before we eat, and what time the cafe closes, and what time we will need to set off home… and so on. 

That’s why my new year’s resolution means freedom. It means liberating myself from the shackles of self-imposed demands, time limits and restrictions. It means being more spontaneous and trying to enjoy what I’m doing. It means turning round to my shadowy alter-ego, Paul Brookes, laughing in his face, and saying “The only time that’s limited around here is yours, loser”.

There have been glimpses of the old me these last few weeks. I want to be that me all the time. Something Brookes-shaped is still holding me back, particularly in the mornings. The war has not yet been won, but some battles have – and recognising that fact is, for me, a significant victory in itself.

This is a year, then, not for wild optimism or head-in-the-clouds positive thinking, but for being realistic. I don’t know what lies ahead in 2012. There will be good things and bad things. Some of these are things I will make happen myself; others will happen regardless. When I need to meet a deadline, I will meet it. But I will not be setting any for myself. I wouldn’t want to give Brookes that pleasure…