What if…?

One morning, as I stood outside my son’s classroom, he said to me: “Daddy, there’s a massive tree in the little playground, and it’s bigger than a giant!”

“Really?” I asked.

“It’s AWESOME!” he said.

For young children, the world is full of possibilities and discoveries and excitement. Everything is, as the Lego song says, awesome.

But as we get older, we often stop daring to believe anything is possible, because we’re scared of failing – understandably a lot of the time. I think the opportunities for awesomeness do start to shrink once you have to earn money and pay bills, and feel the burden of responsibility on your shoulders.

We become ‘what-iffers’, forever worrying about what could go wrong if we take a chance on something. “What if it doesn’t work? What if someone gets hurt? What if they don’t like it? What if it rains?” And our fretting over ‘What if…?” ruins the moment.

In Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, chocolate-making genius Willy Wonka is flying his glass elevator through space, and is proposing to land on the famous Space Hotel USA. His fellow travellers have their doubts…

‘What if they come after us?’ said Mr Bucket, speaking for the first time. ‘What if they capture us?’ said Mrs Bucket. ‘What if they shoot us?’ said Grandma Georgina. ‘What if my beard were made of green spinach?’ cried Mr Wonka. ‘Bunkum and tummyrot! You’ll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that. Would Columbus have discovered America if he’d said “What if I sink on the way over? What if I meet pirates? What if I never come back?” He wouldn’t even have started.’

I’ve often been guilty of what-iffing, especially when the commentator in my head gets the better of me. Self-doubt can hold me back and prevent me from doing things.

We can either let ‘What if…?’ hold us back, ignore it (difficult), or turn it on its head, and imagine the possibilities instead of the worst-case scenario (even more difficult, if that’s not your brain’s default setting). A friend recently showed me this lovely little poem by Erin Hanson:

There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask “What if I fall?”

Oh but my darling,

What if you fly?

It’s four years since I posted my first Dippyman blog and overcame a ‘What if I fall?’ moment of my own. I still hear those ‘What ifs’ in my head every time I post a blog. What if nobody reads it? What if it’s no good? What if someone hates it and starts an argument?

But now, I know I can counter those ‘What ifs’ with a different kind of ‘What if…?’. So what if nobody reads it? What if it’s no good? What if someone hates it and starts an argument? What’s the worst that could happen, really?

It’s not comfortable, and it doesn’t come naturally, but it’s getting easier to think of the right kind of ‘What if…?’

I’ve written loads of times on the scary subject of depression, and nothing terrible has happened to me as a result – quite the opposite. I’ve even written about my faith (only once – I’m not that brave).

Many, many great things would not have happened to me if I’d allowed my what-iffing to stop me writing this blog.

What if I stop what-iffing?


Enjoyment returns to centre stage

One little thought really encapsulates the progress I have made in the past year in my fight with depression. I was getting ready for the matinee performance of my pantomime and I thought “This is the show I’m really looking forward to”.

That little thought stopped me in my tracks. Rewinding to any point in the previous two or three years, ‘looking forward’ to anything was an alien concept to me.

I worried about things. I got nervous about things. I dreaded things. But I never looked forward to them. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be excited about something.

The reason I was looking forward to my matinee show was that my wife and children were coming to see it. Last year, with my depression hat on, it was the show I was most anxious about. I put enormous pressure on myself to be the best I could possibly be. For the past few years, I’ve worked myself into an almost frenzied state of fear in panto week and placed far too much importance and significance on my performance.

Now I realise the best way to do that is to remember to enjoy myself. I thought that unless I worried intensely about my performance, it wouldn’t be good enough. It turns out that being more relaxed has made my acting and singing better rather than worse. Who’d have guessed? Not me.

Enjoying and looking forward to things are such difficult notions for me to grasp that I decided to write down before the week of the show what I love about doing it, to focus my mind on those things rather than everything I could worry about.

After a long and stressful dress rehearsal, I took another step back to look at what I would do during the daytime before each show. The answer was LESS. I scrapped any plans that were too ambitious, planned time to try and relax, and, most importantly, caught up on some sleep.

Just to illustrate how my mind was starting to behave in the build-up to the panto, here’s the beginning of a blog post I started a week or two before but never posted:

Right, Paul Brook, we need to have a chat. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Something that you should be looking forward to has turned into something you’re anxious about.

Hang on a minute. ‘Should’? You know that’s a bad word, other Paul Brook. ‘Should’, ‘ought to’ – these are words that immediately make you feel bad about yourself. They make you feel guilty and you beat yourself up over whatever it is you should have done or felt but didn’t.

And you’re talking to yourself, in a blog. That’s not good either, so let’s stop it right now. What exactly are you chuntering on about?

It’s my pantomime next week. I love doing the panto – I get to be a great big idiot for a week, telling bad jokes, doing a spot of singing, being part of the panto family. But here’s the thing. I fret so much in the two weeks beforehand that I nearly ruin it for myself.

Perhaps even more dangerously, I’d come to rely on the panto as my one annual boost to my desperately low self-esteem.

Thankfully I have learned a few ways of protecting myself from these thoughts during the last year. As a result, I was mentally and physically prepared for the panto this time.

It was an epic week of energetically throwing everything I had at every performance, late nights, difficulty getting to sleep and making sure my voice worked, but it was fun.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, had a great time at the after-show party, relished the positive reviews and – best of all from my perspective – didn’t experience a post-panto mood crash of the kind that kicked off my depression in December 2009.

By keeping a diary of positive comments and feelings over the last few months, I’ve realised there are other things to enjoy, to feel good about and to look forward to.

The show may be BEHIND ME but I’m not just soldiering on afterwards. I am marching forth – sometimes even bounding along.

Have a great Christmas everyone and thanks for all your support this year – particularly to my wife, Jane, who is truly the wind beneath my wings.


P.S. Here are a couple of photos from the panto.

Me as Simple Simon in Jack and the Beanstalk, 2012

Me as Simple Simon in Jack and the Beanstalk, 2012

Joining my 'brother' Jack (Bobbie Parrish) to milk our cow, Pat.

Joining my ‘brother’ Jack (Bobbie Parrish) to milk our cow, Pat.

Confidence? What confidence?

Confidence, self-esteem, self-worth… Whatever you call it, I wish I had more of it.

Judging by the number of helpful people who offer insightful advice like “You just need more confidence,” there must be plenty of it out there, growing on trees, bushes and all around, just waiting to be picked.

When you feel like you’re invisible and inaudible, like nothing you say is of any consequence and nothing you do matters or is good enough, confidence is very hard to find.

In my case, low self-esteem has been one of the most crushing aspects of depression and its lingering aftermath. It’s like the nasty green stuff you still find yourself coughing up three weeks after a cold. It festers in your head and makes you feel lousy – small, insignificant and feeble, yet angry that you should feel that way, or that others might not value you as much as you think they should.

Even in areas where you used to feel confident – things you once knew you could do well – you can lose belief completely, and that lack of faith in yourself can prevent you from doing anything.

It’s not just your abilities you start to doubt. You can find fault with just about any aspect of your personality and appearance. In particular, my depression has made me feel older and fatter than I am. At times, I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and just felt grey and lifeless.

I find myself worrying about the clothes I wear, and whether they suit me. I doubt the decisions I make on just about every aspect of my life.

When you’re so self-critical, you assume everyone else thinks the same, so you can become paranoid and anxious. Just going out to meet friends at the pub can seem overwhelming.

So what can you do about depression’s mean-spirited assault on your confidence? How can you build it back up?

I think the main answer lies in a battle between reality and your perception.

The worst thing you can do is to keep telling yourself that you have no confidence. In reality, you do still have the abilities you had before depression came along, and it’s unlikely that you really look much different, so don’t let the voice of depression tell you otherwise.

People aren’t always looking at you and judging you. You’re just more self-conscious. Even if someone is judging you, well so what? Is it up to them who you are and what you do? No. Only you get to decide that.

I find it helpful to write down positive things that happen to me, and nice things that people say, on a daily basis, and to read these notes regularly to remind myself that actually I’m doing pretty well and it will take more than a bad day to undo the progress I’ve made.

Aside from that, I guess it’s just a matter of giving yourself time, being patient and not giving up. All these things are difficult when you’re beating yourself up over everything, but you can’t just flick a switch and suddenly feel confident, so just try doing some small things when you feel able to.

I bet you’re better than you think you are.

First published by Black Dog Tribe

Upgrade your thinking to colour

Black and white tellies were all very well in the days before you could buy a reasonably priced colour set. But let’s face it – the world looks better in colour, and few would go back to those days of monochrome.

I’m slowly realising that the same is true of the way I think. I am often guilty of what a therapist might call ‘black and white thinking’. For instance, if I were responsible for proofreading something, then spotted a missing comma or full stop in the final, printed publication, I would want nothing to do with it, no matter how much work I’d done on it or how good it was. My thinking can be that absolute.

Black and white thinking is the domain of the perfectionist. Yep, guilty again. If something I’ve done isn’t perfect, it’s no good at all. I could, for instance, draw a picture of a tranquil beach for my parents – a place we’d been to on holiday, and which held happy memories for us all – and feel annoyed every time I looked at it because I hadn’t drawn the rocks as well as I’d have liked. Do mum and dad like the picture? Yes. Is it framed and on their kitchen wall? Yes. Am I happy with it. Er, well no. You see, the shading just isn’t right on those rocks. The way I’ve drawn them makes them look closer than they should, and… Ah, there I go again.

The two examples above are not imagined. They are real. This is how critical I have been of myself. Would I be this harsh to anyone else? Would I judge them with such eagle-eyed scrutiny? Of course not.

Here are some other examples of black and white thinking, or perfectionism, and the conclusions it can lead you to:

  • You take your children out for the day and everyone is having a great time, when suddenly the kids do something really silly. You lose your temper and shout at them. That’s it – day ruined. You’ve shouted at your children. That makes you a bad parent and an angry person. Self-loathing 1, self-esteem 0.
  • You once upset someone by choosing to do one thing instead of another. The fact they were upset with you (could be recently, could be years ago) means that you are a bad person who can’t be trusted to make good decisions. Oh, and that person hates you and holds a grudge against you and that makes you feel annoyed with them. How dare they judge you? Time for an imaginary argument.

In my case, this kind of thinking is part and parcel of depression. I don’t know which came first: the negative thinking or the depression. They feed each other.

I am trying to trade in this negative, black and white thinking for something more rainbow-hued. I’m trying to put into practice the things I’ve learned from counselling and from wise friends. Take, for example, 2011. It would be easy for me to look back at this past year and label it a bad year. I started the year on a pretty good note. I finished my counselling and felt good about myself. But by the autumn, I was on a downward spiral and depression was back with a vengeance. Therefore, Black-and-white Me would conclude, I have failed to get better and this year might as well not have happened.

That, though, would not be an honest or fair review of this year. Lots of very good things have happened, as I can see when I look back through the notebook I’ve been writing positive things in every day since January 2011. Things like the pantomime I’ve just been in; a lovely weekend away with my wife at our friends’ wedding; some exciting new experiences; meeting some fantastic people; and starting this blog.

Writing about depression has been one of the most beneficial things I have ever done. I have been truly humbled by the way people have responded. I’ve had so many encouraging conversations, read so many supportive comments, and none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t had depression. My evil alter-ego, Paul Brookes, is not going to like reading this – but he has inadvertently inspired me. 

Thank you everyone for your help, guidance, empathy and support since I started this blog. Each positive comment is a poke in the eye or a kick up the backside for Brookes, and another step in the right direction for me.

I hope that if you’re experiencing depression or any other mental illness that you can turn it on its head in 2012 and find the inspiration that will propel you out of it. Maybe we can all start living our lives in colour.

A panto tale of self-esteem versus depression

This blog is about self-esteem. It’s about friendship. And it’s about a pantomime. Oh yes it is!

I have just finished a week-long run as Athos in our village panto production of The Three Musketeers. You might say it’s now BEHIND ME! Ho ho.

We’d been rehearsing twice a week since early September and it paid off – the show was a roaring success. Our audiences loved it and so did we. It was successful for me in a very personal way too.

Shortly after rehearsals began, my depression reared its ugly head and decided to make life difficult. It was nothing to do with the panto and I managed to keep going with the sword fighting, singing, dancing and acting, but I must have been on autopilot for a while. There was too much on my mind, and my confidence had slipped below zero. But this panto is a story with a happy ending. As I made my way home from our after-show party, I felt content. And, in the last couple of years, feeling truly content has been such a rare experience that I tend to write it down when it happens. “An after-show party,” I hear you say. “So you were drunk then.” Well no, not a drop of alcohol had passed my lips. Citalopram, the antidepressant I’m taking, doesn’t mix well with booze, and the last thing my jubilant panto chums would want is one of their musketeers passing out in the pub, or moping tragically in a corner.

So why the contentment?

It was a heady mix of positive things, but most notably I had enjoyed being me – the real me, the person who actually knows how to have fun and enjoy being in the moment, doing spontaneous things for no good reason other than it was funny at the time, and not worrying about everything.

During my depression, I’ve found this person rather elusive. I’ve found nights out overwhelming at times. Joining in with other people who are having fun has often been too daunting. I’ve had to give my apologies for various events, even the most minor and unthreatening of outings, because I just haven’t had the self-confidence to take part in them. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to this party either. I knew it would be busy in the pub; full of excited, happy people, having a great time. I thought I’d probably drop in for a while, hang around the edges of the main throng, then say my goodbyes and mooch off.

But I underestimated the power of the party. I underestimated the special atmosphere that my friends – some of whom I’ve known for years and others for a very short time – could create. And I underestimated myself.

That’s not to say I went diving headfirst into the core of the revelry and danced riotously on the bar. In fact, the dancefloor remained as intimidating as always until well into the night. But I was enjoying chatting to everyone, and somehow relaxed (another unusual feeling) and got into the spirit of it all. The last half hour I was at that party was among the happiest I can remember for a long time. I sang at the top of my voice – not that there was much of a voice coming out by then – in the middle of the miniature dancefloor with my energetic panto buddies. Brilliant. And there were lovely warm hugs all round, and lots of kind words. I was part of the family. People liked me (hmm, at least I think they did – there are some good actors in our group…). Heck, I even liked myself!

It was the third time that week I’d proved myself wrong, and learned a valuable lesson in the process. Well, when I say I learned a valuable lesson, what I mean is that a valuable lesson I had already learned in my counselling actually sank in and meant something: don’t worry about the future; just concentrate on the present. On top of that, you don’t have to excel at everything. Just do the best you can at that time.

On Monday, prior to the opening night of the show, I felt completely flat. Everyone else seemed excited and couldn’t wait to get on stage. I was just worried and stressed out. The thing that made me worry most was the prospect of getting ill during the week. It had happened before – only once, but enough to give me something to worry about. Fact 1: I might not have got ill, so there was no point worrying about it. Fact 2: If I were to get ill, I’d just have to deal with it. But facts often vanish behind the black cloak of my evil alter-ego, Paul Brookes, who enjoys my worrying and fuels it with misgivings.

And I did get ill. From Wednesday to Friday, I woke up with no voice at all, and spent each day downing hot honey and lemon drinks, vitamin C tablets, fruit smoothies and various throat lozenges to give my voice a chance of doing the required shouting and singing each night. But fighting this throaty lurgy had a strange, unexpectedly positive effect. It made me forget about my nerves and worries and focus on each day, one at a time. Each time I got through a show, it felt like a great victory.

The next time I felt flat was in the hour before our final show. We’d done the matinee performance and that had gone well. I’d dashed home for some tea and a top-up of my various throat-soothing concoctions, and returned to the dressing room to get ready for The Big One – the Saturday night show. It’s done differently to our other shows. There’s a bar and cabaret-style seating around tables. Demand for tickets is so high that people start queuing before 7.30am on the day they go on sale – at 11am. The audience is especially lively, and on that particular day, at that particular moment, I was not feeling up to stepping out on stage in front of them. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the dressing room was one of giddy excitement and hilarity. But not for me. I felt withdrawn, tired and lacking in va-va-voom.

Somehow, though, the mood passed, and the show was fantastic. I’d defeated the dark powers of Brookes for the second time that week. And then came the party. Paul Brook 3, Paul Brookes 0.

So thank you, Ebor Players, not just for being brilliantly talented, lovely people; not just for being great friends; but for doing more than you could have realised to give me back some of my self-esteem and confidence. All for one – and ONE FOR ALL!

Extreme worrying: not for the faint-hearted

I am a champion in an extreme sport – something perilous and fraught with danger. So what is it? White water rafting? Bungee jumping? Skydiving? Extreme ironing?

Ha, no. I laugh in the face of such reckless pursuits. Well, when I say I laugh in their faces, I kind of do it from a great distance, in a non-participatory sort of way. My sport is one I have worked at for years, day in, day out, often through the night too. My dedication to excellence in this field, my commitment to outstanding achievement in this discipline, is the stuff true champions are made of.

Will you see me proudly wearing a gold medal in the London Olympics? Alas, no. Because, in truth, there are no rewards for champions in my sport. It’s dangerous, but unexciting. It’s demanding, physically and mentally, but lacks the thrill and white-knuckle experiences associated with other extreme sports. My sport, ladies and gentlemen, is extreme worrying.

I’m a born worrier. I think it’s in my blood. It’s something I learned when I was young – probably in my teens – and worked on through my twenties, but true mastery didn’t come to me until I was in my thirties, loosely coinciding with fatherhood. Having children gives the extreme worrier something really substantial to fret over. And when you’re already a cutting-edge worrier, this extra potential for worrying can mark you out from the rest of the field.

One of my inspirations for worrying is Mr Worry, one of Roger Hargreaves’ marvellous Mr Men. Mr Worry is a legendary worrier. He is a benchmark, a pacemaker – the one who sets the gold standard for other worriers to follow. He worries about everything and everybody. One day, though, he meets a helpful wizard, as you do, and the wizard tells him to write a list of everything he is worried about. It is a long list, but the wizard pledges to make sure none of these onerous things ever happen. For a week, Mr Worry hasn’t a care in the world. But oh dear, what’s this? Monday morning has come around and Mr Worry is worried again (a familiar feeling for many of us, I’m sure). But why? What is bothering him?

“I’m worried because I don’t have anything to worry about!”

This is where I am like Mr Worry. I am capable of worrying about everything, anything and nothing – often all at once. There are times when this is actually useful. A spot of worrying can make you really good at planning in meticulous detail and ensuring that multiple projects are delivered on time, to a high standard and all the rest of it.

But extreme worrying is not helpful. It is destructive. Once you start down the path of extreme worrying, you are likely to enter other, darker domains – stress, anxiety, depression… This is the reason extreme worrying is dangerous. Along with its sinister companions, it attacks your confidence, withers your self-esteem, stops you looking forward to anything, and takes you by the hand into the unwelcoming world of mental illness. This is a world inhabited by the likes of Paul Brookes, my cruel and dastardly alter-ego. Brookes feasts on worry. It is his staple diet. It nourishes him, and at times of extreme extreme worry he gorges himself silly on a lustful binge of worry on toast, with worry sauce and a side portion of worry, washed down with a worry smoothie and finished off with a worry sundae and a cafetière of freshly ground worry. With some worry mints perched on the edge of his saucer.

After belching and smugly leaning back in his chair, he looks into my mind with a glint in his eye and sees there is more worry to be had. Is he full? Never. “Bring on the worry,” he says. “I am a hungry Brookes.”

Brookes has been getting rather plump lately. He has enjoyed a rich and varied diet of worry. There are worries about things that are perhaps worth worrying about, things that aren’t really worth worrying about, things that DEFINITELY aren’t worth worrying about and things that are actually good things but can still be worried about if you offer them to Brookes and invite him to twist them into something that generates pressure, fear or anxiety.

And this is one of the most tricky problems for the extreme worrier to deal with. Worrying, stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and depression don’t just feed the likes of Paul Brookes: they feed each other, creating a destructive circle of self-critical, self-loathing, resentful, angry thoughts.

There is a lot of advice and support available for the extreme worrier, but if, like me, you are prone to sinking in the quicksand of depression, you might become skilled in ignoring it. I have a Bible verse on my wall, offering wise and true words about why I shouldn’t worry:

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

I ignore this exquisite nugget of common sense every day. Worrying is, by and large, pointless, as the verse suggests. Extreme worrying is not just pointless – it’s potentially the start of a slippery slope into greater mental torment. So if you’re a worrier, especially if you’re an extreme worrier, try doing the following things that I’m trying – but rarely managing – to do myself:

  • Do what you can to examine your worries and whether you really need to worry about them.
  • If you do need to worry about them, act on them so you don’t have to worry about them any more.
  • If you can’t do anything about them, accept that you can’t do anything about them.
  • Recognise the good things in your life and enjoy them.
  • Try to put everything in perspective.
  • Be kind to yourself.

Mr Worry is a great character but not a great role model. Mr Happy might be too big a stretch for me at the moment, but I can at least try to enjoy being Mr Silly or Mr Funny and see where that takes me.

Tired of insomnia

So here we are, in witching hour. Or, in my case, Brookes hour, that time of the night when my malevolent alter-ego, Paul Brookes, decides I should be wide awake.

I don’t agree with Brookes. I’m tired. I want to be asleep. But Brookes is not the sort you can have a rational argument with about such things, especially not at this time of night, when it’s just him against me. As of this evening he has a temporary new ally to help him in his nocturnal nuisance-making – Spike the sore throat.

Hideous and miserable it may have been, but the cold I’ve had for the last few days actually wiped out my feelings of depression for a short while. They do say every cloud has a silver lining. Brookes couldn’t compete with the torrent of mucus that this voracious lurgy unleashed. 

But Brookes is a crafty beast. He was just hibernating, waiting for the right moment to attack. That’s what depression can be like – you feel fine for a while, but then up it pops, like some kind of demonic mole. He’s also a wily operator. He knows just when to strike and he knows just how to strike. He’ll turn up fully armed with all his favourite weapons. Take tonight, for example. It’s vintage Brookes. Just look at his cold-hearted, calculating methods:

  1. Lull Paul into a false sense of security by allowing him to watch the X Factor – and indeed the Xtra Factor on ITV2 – free of troubles or worries.
  2. About 20 minutes before he goes to bed, plant a seed of self-doubt and inadequacy – a little something to ponder over when he tries to sleep.
  3. As soon as his head settles on his pillow, set his mind racing. Take that seed of self-doubt and inadequacy and blow it up into a tumultuous drama that has to be lived out in his brain there and then.
  4. Be relentless. One episode of this drama is not enough. Use that hyperactive brain to conjure up more and more destructive thoughts.

That’s the typical pattern of my insomnia. When I first suffered from depression, its main weapons were headaches and mood swings. This second phase – call it my double-dip depression if you like – is characterised by an over-active mind, which has introduced insomnia to my life. It is not a welcome addition.

Tonight, I’ve decided to play Brookes at his own game. I have put my restless brain to use and have written this blog. He won’t like that. He is a shadowy entity, skulking around in the dark, whispering in the night. Well, Brookes, I’m exposing you. I know you’re there. Now everybody else does too. So pack your bags and take Spike with you.

Hmm, not sure that fighting talk worked. I’m still wide awake…