This January, my friend Dan Rhodes took his own life, aged 39, after battling mental illness on and off for 15 years.
He was a lovely, genuine, funny, talented man and is much missed by his family and friends. His death shocked and saddened us all.
On 3 August, I’m running the York 10K with my friends Kate Wilkinson and Keith Bremner to raise money in Dan’s memory.
We want to remember him by raising as much money as we can for his memorial fund at his church, Jubilee Church Hull. The money will go towards the church’s work supporting people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Hull.
If you’d like to make a donation, you can do so on the church’s website here.
Your donation will help to empower vulnerable people and offer practical support. This year, the church is providing showers and laundry facilities and opening a recovery college, providing accessible educational opportunities.
Thank you very much,
Paul, Kate and Keith
P.S. Dan loved a good ‘dad joke’ – the sort of terrible pun that makes you cringe. Share your best ones with us!
I’ve learned a lot through my hideous experience of depression and my long, slow, bumpy recovery and, although I forget a lot of this new-found wisdom most of the time, I’m determined not to let it go to waste.
Putting this learning into action is my best chance of fending off any future attacks from my nemesis and staying well.
So, here are the most important things I’ve learned. They might seem obvious, but these are all things I couldn’t do when I started counselling in 2010.
I’m bound to have forgotten something vital, but, in line with point number 2, I won’t beat myself up about it.
1. Learn to accept ‘good enough’. You can’t do everything to the absolute best of your ability the whole time, Mr Perfectionist, and you can’t please everyone all the time. Most situations are not a case of all or nothing. Save your best for when you really need it. Imagine you’re a car – too many extra miles and you’ll find yourself in the garage.
2. Give yourself a break. Stop criticising yourself and putting yourself down. Stop setting yourself unnecessary targets and challenges. Work out what your strengths and qualities are, and remember them. Ask someone else if you don’t know what they are. I did. Write them down if that helps.
3. Don’t worry about what other people think. More often than not, you have no idea what people are actually thinking, and are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion, so you’ll end up taking everything personally. And don’t worry what people think of you. Define yourself on your own terms. Only you have the right to decide who you are and what you do with your life.
4. If something has happened to irritate, infuriate or upset you and it is festering in your mind, you either have to do something about it or accept it and let it go. Dwelling on it will do you nothing but harm. Nelson Mandela put it better than me:
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
5. Don’t think when tired. Nobody is at their best when they’re tired. Tiredness really does affect your state of mind. If I start thinking when I’m tired, I end up in imaginary arguments, over-thinking everything and feeding paranoia. Distract yourself with some music or whatever works for you.
6. Find time to do something you enjoy. Do it because you love it. Not everything you do has to achieve something, so stop the striving – enjoying something is a result in itself. Everyone needs to relax. Nobody is invincible.
7. Savour the moment. Recognise when you feel good. Notice when you are enjoying something. Write it down – maybe in a diary, like the one I started keeping during my depression and still write in. Take a photo. Remember it. It’s your evidence against the voice that says everything is miserable and hopeless.
8. Live in the present. Don’t let the past rule your life now, and don’t worry about the future so much that it spoils today. Take some advice from Oogway, the wise tortoise in Kung Fu Panda:
You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.
9. It’s not weak to ask for help. Talking to someone about how you’re feeling can change – or even save – your life. Don’t try and keep it in through some misguided sense that you are tough, strong and can handle anything and everything. That’s not tough or strong – it’s daft.
10. Don’t stop believing. When you’re in a dark place, believe the light will return. Keep hoping. Keep the faith. Believe things can improve and you can get better. You just don’t know what’s coming next, so don’t write off yourself or your future.
First posted by Time To Change.
It took me a while to tell all my friends about my depression. It wasn’t something I really wanted to talk about at first. It was only when I started to open up about it that I realised how much talking helped.
My friends just accepted it, and without making a big deal about it they let me know they were looking out for me. I began to find out about other people’s experiences, which helped too.
Here are six ways you can support a friend who’s going through depression, based on what I’ve valued most.
- Treat them as normal. Don’t be wary of them, don’t fuss over them, don’t pity them, don’t pussyfoot around them. Depression is an alienating experience, and a little normality in an alien world can be very welcome. Your friend is still the same person, so you should be the same with them.
- Keep inviting them to things. Don’t leave them out because you think they won’t feel up to it. They might not, and that’s fine, but I was always very grateful for friends who remembered me and tried to include me, no matter how many times I turned down their offers. Just remember to reply to your friend’s messages. I felt paranoid with my depression and would worry if someone didn’t reply. I just assumed they were annoyed with me. On the times I did say yes to an invitation, it was good to get out and have a much-needed laugh or a change of scene. And following on from that…
- Help your friend get out of the house. Daytime outings – even a simple walk – might be better than evenings. I struggled to sleep, so in the mornings I was like a zombie and by the evening I was shattered, so afternoons were the best time to get out. I was also low on confidence, and the idea of going out somewhere busy often felt overwhelming, so somewhere quiet in the open air suited me best.
- Ask them how they are, and listen. It can be a call, a text, a message on Facebook, whatever works best, but keep in touch. Don’t be scared to talk – it’s important. It doesn’t have to be a deep, soul-searching, psychologically probing conversation. On the whole, that would just be weird and hard work for both of you. Just a simple “How are you doing?” is just right.
- Don’t try to cure them. A bag of sweets, some daft jokes or a trip out somewhere is much better than a heavy-handed dose of amateur therapy, or badly judged motivational pep talks. Saying ‘Could be worse’, ‘Man up’ or ‘Snap out of it’ will do far more harm than good, so just don’t. Ever. If you’re not sure how you can help, just ask them.
- Be patient. Depression can be a stubborn companion and recovery can take many months. You might see no improvement for a long time. It affects people in lots of different ways – for example memory loss, so don’t hold it against them if they forget something.
This is a blog I’ve written for Mental Health Awareness Week at work. I was asked to describe depression.
I’ve written and talked a lot about depression since I first ‘went public’ three years ago. It’s an everyday subject for me now. Being open about it might seem to have given me a kind of superpower and turned me into Depression Boy – the plucky underdog who has fought to overcome an evil genius hell-bent on demolition.
That’s the comic-book version of fighting depression, but the reality is far less exciting. Battling depression has been a long, mundane, drawn-out process that has involved counselling, medication, education and the support, patience and kindness of family, friends, colleagues and strangers who I’ve got to know through social media, over months and years.
Depression is like a thick, energy-sapping fog that gets into your head and drains you of vitality. It’s not the sort of villain that you can shoot, kick or punch with a Batman-style ‘KERPOW!’
It operates by stealth, creeping about in the shadows and striking hardest when you’re on your own; when nobody else can see. The outside world sees you smiling and carrying on, but in your head, in your inner turmoil, you’re fighting a constant battle against an onslaught of ever-churning destructive thoughts and feelings.
This secretive stalking is what gives depression its power. It’s a bully in your brain, trapping you in your own private prison, relentlessly battering you with anger and self-doubt, crushing your confidence, eroding your self-esteem and erasing your memory. You feel paranoid, vague, weak and ashamed. Even now that I have been well for a while, there are dips and those feelings return – for briefer spells, thankfully.
The feelings of weakness and shame stop us talking about depression, which makes it hard for people to understand. In turn, this can create ignorance, misunderstanding and stigma, which only makes matters worse for people living with the illness.
But here’s the good news. You can get through depression and rediscover what life was like before it came along, using what you’ve learned along the way to create a new, wiser version of yourself, better equipped to cope with any future attacks.
The only superpowers you need are hope and, if you feel up to it, openness. Talk to someone about it. Bring it out of the dark, and like me, you will discover there are countless other people who have been through it and are still going through it – people who can help and empathise.
The more of us who expose this cruel enemy for what it is, the weaker its powers over us will become.
One crucial thing I learned in my counselling for depression was that it’s important to find time to do something you enjoy. One of the things I enjoy most is birdwatching.
Fitting my hobby around work and family life isn’t easy, but I’ve found ways of managing it. Sometimes I go out for a spot of lunchtime birding and take pleasure from the birds I can see in the park next to where I work, or just up the road at Rawcliffe Meadows.
Occasionally, my wife and I take our children to a family-friendly nature reserve, like Fairburn Ings, Skipwith Common or Askham Bog. I don’t get to do much real birding on those occasions – the birds can usually hear my son’s voice from a mile away and go into hiding – but it’s still nice to get out and enjoy the odd glimpse of a feathered friend.
But what really excites me – and I do get a boyish sense of restless excitement about this – is planning a BIRDING MISSION, when I take a day’s leave from work and head off somewhere to seek out birds I haven’t seen before, or at least haven’t seen for a long time.
My last birding mission was in October, when I made the epic journey (well, less than two hours but it seems to take forever) to Spurn Point, where Yorkshire’s east coast comes to a sandy end, jutting out into the gaping mouth of the River Humber.
My previous trip to Spurn, several years ago, had been a birding bonanza, and I had high hopes. In the build-up, I pretty much stalked Spurn Bird Observatory on Twitter to keep track of the latest sightings. I studied a map of the area to get familiar with place names and local landmarks. There had been a Firecrest in the churchyard; Jack Snipe in the canal zone; Little Gulls near the pub; and all kinds of rarities cropping up pretty much all over the place.
I arrived in Kilnsea, the small village nearest the point, some time around ten, and Spurn seemed to be alive with birds. A little egret rose up from the water’s edge, gulls were flying over, a garden over the road was under siege from various small birds, and I couldn’t wait to get out there and explore. Two helpful and highly excitable birders who’d been there since the crack of dawn had seen all sorts, and pointed out a great skua in the distance.
From there, though, things didn’t quite go to plan. The Firecrest had disappeared from the churchyard. The Jack Snipe had gone. A Great Grey Shrike had turned up in a hedge, but by the time I got to the scene a crow had scared it off. I found an exotic-looking bunting that turned out to be a common female Reed Bunting.
Then I heard about an obscure Pallas’s Leaf Warbler that had been seen right at the end of the point. I found out what they looked like – cute, tiny and green, with a stripy head – and decided I’d try and track it down. Then I found the road to the end, three miles away, had been washed away by a recent storm.
I marched on, but a steady stream of mournful-looking birders began coming past me in the opposite direction.
“No sign of it,” they said.
Out of a stubborn desire to reach the tip, I kept going, but as the weather got more and more blustery, I began to regret the decision. Not only had the warbler made itself scarce, it had taken all the other birds with it – or maybe the wind had done that. It had carried me to the end of the point, but it was not so helpful on the way back. It battered me so hard I could hardly walk at times, especially when I pulled a muscle in my right leg with the effort of it all.
I’d seen plenty of birds but nothing new. A bit disappointing, given the promise the day had held, but with some highlights, not least the mass arrival of migrant Redwings, Fieldfares and Goldcrests.
Rather comically, when I checked Twitter the following morning, the Great Grey Shrike had popped up again, joined by a friend.
They might wear me out sometimes, and they might seem to hide deliberately just to taunt me, but I reckon birds are good for me. And the excitement of my birding missions is good for me. That’s why I’m planning another one in May…
Once upon a time, there was a little chap called Paul who loved books.
The pudgy-faced young lad, with his tufty blonde hair, would carry a new Mr Men book in his chubby hands for a whole day before allowing someone to read it to him.
As he grew older, slightly less tubby and slightly less blonde, the lad discovered Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Michael Bond’s Paddington books, Norman Hunter’s Professor Brainstawm stories, then progressed to adventures with the Hardy Boys and Swallows and Amazons, and mysteries with Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators.
That fiction-loving young whippersnapper was, of course, me, and, since my teens or possibly even earlier, I’ve wanted to write my own books for children. My fondness for my own childhood favourites has never gone away, and these days I read them to my own children. My daughter has just peered over my shoulder to see what I’m writing, having just enjoyed a chapter of Paddington Helps Out.
I wrote my first children’s book – Splot (a story about an alien who crash-lands in a garden pond) -as an assignment for my English language A Level, and revived it for a publishing assignment as part of my degree. I still have copies of it, and for several years have planned to re-work it.
Other stories have languished somewhere either in the back of my mind, partly sketched out in a notepad somewhere or lurking on my laptop, or long forgotten in a drawer or a box, and it occurred to me last week that I’d given up too easily on my ambition. I’ve entered some competitions, got nowhere, and admitted defeat.
Although all my jobs since I left college have involved writing and publishing to some extent, they haven’t allowed me to make things up using what my teacher at infant school called my ‘vivid imagination’.
I do, however, enjoy the freedom of writing this blog. Sometimes the story is sad, sometimes funny, but it’s my story, and I’m telling it my way.
So the former pudgy-faced, tufty-haired youngster, now bald, 37 and a father of two, sat up in bed one night and thought: “I know what – I’ll dig out a story I’ve written for children, and post it on this blog so that other people can read it to their children.” And that’s exactly what he did.
This is a short story I wrote fairly recently about a monkey toddler who has an unexpected adventure on the way to the banana shop. Tell me what you think, and, more importantly, what your children think.
Scampy Monk and the Bus Full of Babbits
It was the middle of a morning in May and Scampy Monk was bouncing on his bed, bellowing for bananas.
“Bla bla!” he shouted. “Bla bla!”
“A banana?” replied Mumsy Monk. “But you’ve eaten them all! We’ll have to go to the shop.”
Scampy Monk bounced with a big boing off his bed, bumped down the stairs on his bottom and gave his mum a big hug. “Bla bla,” he said, with a cheeky grin on his little monkey face.
He grabbed his yellow bus, put on his blue shoes and stood by the door of Monkey Treehouse.
“Bla bla,” he said again.
Five minutes later, Mumsy Monk, Dadsy Monk and Scampy Monk were swinging down the tree trunk and on their way to the banana shop.
Scampy Monk went bounding down the lane, busily brumming his bus.
He stopped, as he always did, by the broken bench, where he liked to peek at the sheep through the old, wooden fence.
“Zeep!” he said, pointing happily.
“Yes, a sheep,” said Dadsy Monk.
“Two zeep!” said Scampy Monk.
“That’s right, two sheep! Good counting!” said Dadsy Monk.
“Babbits!” squealed Scampy Monk suddenly. “Two babbits! More babbits!”
“Ooh yes, lots of rabbits,” said Mumsy Monk.
“Babbits go lellow bus?” asked Scampy Monk.
“I’m sure the rabbits would love a ride in your bus,” said Mumsy Monk, “but I think they’re a bit big. Let’s go and get you a banana.”
Scampy Monk called out “Bye bye, zeep! Bye bye, babbits!” and with a friendly wave he was off, carrying his yellow bus above his head as if it could fly.
They were just down the road from the banana shop when they heard the loud but cheerful “BEEP BEEP!” of a horn behind them.
As they turned round, Scampy Monk was surprised but thrilled to see a big, yellow bus.
“Lellow bus!” he cried in delight.
“That driver,” said Dadsy Monk, “looks just like a sheep.”
“It is a sheep!” gasped Mumsy Monk. “But sheep can’t drive buses!”
“Zeep!” squeaked Scampy Monk, bouncing with excitement.
The sheepy driver was not the only strange thing about the bus. Scampy Monk noticed something funny about the passengers too.
“Babbits!” he shrieked. “Babbits on lellow bus!”
All the passengers were rabbits. Some were brown, some were grey, some were black and some were white. Some were a mixture of colours. Some were chatting to each other. Some were playing games. Some were looking out of the window. Quite a lot of them were eating carrot crisps, and one or two were having a nap.
The sheepy driver leaned out of the open window.
“Would you like to join us?” she asked.
Scampy Monk had jumped onto the bus before his mum and dad could answer, so they followed him.
“Seatbelts on!” called the driver.
Everyone quickly fastened their seatbelts. Scampy Monk was extremely excited, especially when he heard the bus engine start.
He had a huge surprise when he looked out of the window.
“Bus flying!” he cheered.
“Oh!” said Dadsy Monk. “I wasn’t expecting that!”
Scampy Monk was amazed to see clouds drifting past the window as the bus flew higher and higher, and the sheep and rabbits he had seen in the field below got smaller and smaller. An owl looked in through the window and hooted.
The rabbits on the bus chattered loudly. Scampy Monk turned round and waved at them.
“Hello babbits!” he said.
The rabbits waved back and made rabbity noises.
“Hold on tight!” bleated the bus driver. “We’re going up!”
The bus engine made a loud, grumbling, rumbling sound – more like an aeroplane, or even a rocket, than a bus.
Then WHOOSH! The bus went zooming straight up through the clouds.
“Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” squeaked Scampy Monk.
For a few moments, the monkey family and the rabbits were in clear, blue sky, looking down on a bed of snowy white clouds. Then the sky became dark.
“Time for bed?” asked Scampy Monk.
“No, sweet pea,” said Mumsy Monk. “I think we’re in space.” And they were.
As they left Earth, looking like a green and blue bouncy ball far below them, Scampy Monk spotted something ahead of them that made his eyes goggle.
It was the Moon, and it looked just like a…
“Bla bla!” whooped Scampy Monk. “Big bla bla!”
“That’s not a banana, dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “It’s the Moon. It does look like a banana though, doesn’t it?”
“Moooooooon,” said Scampy Monk. He sat up as high as he could in his seat to get a better view.
“I wasn’t expecting this either,” said Dadsy Monk.
As the bus got closer and closer to the Moon, it slowed down. Slower and slower it crept, until it had pulled up next to the Moon.
“Everybody off!” called the driver.
Scampy Monk bounced up and down on his seat, waiting to walk on the Moon.
The sheep driver gave each passenger a space helmet to wear as they got off the yellow bus. Scampy Monk felt like his little head was in a great big bubble – but it was fun.
There were some steps on the banana-shaped Moon, which everyone climbed to the top. The sheep led the way, and handed out slippery mats. It was a giant slide! Scampy Monk watched the rabbits whizzing down.
“Me! Me!” he yelled, tugging on Mumsy and Dadsy Monk’s arm.
“Let’s all go together!” said Dadsy Monk, who was nearly as excited as his son.
Scampy Monk sat at the front of the mat, holding on to Mumsy Monk’s legs. Dadsy Monk, who had the longest legs, sat at the back.
“Are you ready?” asked the sheep.
“Yes!” shouted all three monkeys at the same time.
The sheep gave them a gentle push, and they were off, speeding down the steep slope.
“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!” cried Scampy Monk, loving the ride.
When they got to the bottom, the three monkeys rolled off their mat onto a big, flat rock, laughing merrily.
“Again!” said Scampy Monk, straight away. “Again!”
They went on the slide another ten times, going faster each time.
“BEEP BEEP!” The sheep was sounding the horn.
“Everybody back on the bus please!” she called, as she drove the bus round to the end of the slide. “One last ride!”
Scampy Monk, Mumsy Monk and Dadsy Monk took their slippery mat to the top of the slide for the last time and went zipping down to the bottom, flying through the open bus door. The sheep took their space helmets and the rabbits all got on board.
“Off we go!” shouted the sheep, turning the bus round and driving off into space.
“Bye bye, Moon,” said Scampy Monk, waving as the Moon got smaller and smaller.
“Ball!” he chattered, looking at the Earth.
“No dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “That’s the Earth. That’s where we live.”
Soon the sky was blue again and Scampy Monk could see the clouds, then the fields and the trees.
“I wasn’t expecting any of that,” said Dadsy Monk, as the bus landed at the bus stop.
The bus door opened and the sheep stood up.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said, smiling. “I hope you enjoyed your trip.”
The passengers unfastened their seatbelts and, one by one, walked to the front of the bus and thanked the driver.
“Bye bye, zeep,” said Scampy Monk, hopping down the bus step. “Bye bye, babbits!”
“I bet you weren’t expecting that,” said the sheep to Dadsy Monk, with a wink.
Once everyone was off the bus, the driver closed the door, and with a wave of her hoof she was off down the lane.
“Right,” said Mumsy Monk. “What shall we do now?”
“Bla bla!” chirped Scampy Monk, with a big grin.
“Good idea,” said Dadsy Monk. “I’m a bit hungry after all that sliding.”
I am quite like Gollum in some ways. Not only do we both lack hair, we’ve spent a fair bit of time in darkness and have arguments with ourselves.
I realised when watching the first of the Hobbit films the other night that there are several other parallels between this classic adventure story and my own epic battle with depression.
The film starts with the dwarves losing their home to a large and dangerous dragon, and that’s kind of how depression feels – an unstoppable force that takes control of your life and leaves you feeling lost and confused, with a permanent sense of doom, fear, paranoia and anger.
The mighty dwarf kingdom swiftly goes from domination to desolation, and they are cast out and obliterated, with just a small band clinging on for survival. That sounds familiar too.
The story follows their mission to claim back what is rightfully theirs, and that’s what the long road to recovery is like. There are dark forces and enemies to contend with on the way, steep and treacherous paths to navigate, many perils, threats and dangers to overcome – some that seem impossible to escape from – and countless twists and turns that throw up great challenges and battles.
Let’s go back to Gollum for a moment. He’s one of my favourite characters in any book or film – a disturbed creature, possessed by the power of a ring, in turn both playful and vicious, perky and tortured.
Everything the wretched creature does is accompanied by his own running commentary, and that’s where he reminds me most of myself. His head is full of conflicting thoughts and moods in a constantly shifting power struggle. Even now I am much better, there are times I find myself caught up in a Gollum-like argument with myself – often in the morning, and most commonly in my own company. The dark powers and over-thinking can take over for a while, but, like invading orcs, hungry trolls or sly goblins, they can be overcome.
And then there’s Bilbo Baggins, our unlikely little hero, plucked from his cosy home to go on a great adventure, which will change his life – and Bilbo himself – forever.
Maybe I’m a bit like Bilbo and the dwarves myself. Rather them than Gollum, anyway. Life now is about rediscovering what depression clouded or took away, and it’s about discovering new things.
It’s been an unexpected journey, but one I am determined to learn from.