As months go, I’m not a massive fan of January.
I started the year (as I do most years) with good intentions; I thought I felt motivated, but in reality I was flat, full of cold and afflicted by a serious case of apathy. Dark nights don’t help, and much as the weather hasn’t been too bad, there’s always that morning peep out of the window to check for frost or (the dreaded) snow.
Note to self to put my contact lenses in before I pull back the curtains because the white glare that greets me every morning isn’t actually snow… it’s the blinds.
2016 ended with a 34km (21 mile) indoor row, for which I’d trained both regularly and seriously. I completed the row in a time nearly half an hour faster than my training suggested, so irrespective of the portly reflection in the mirror, I must have been reasonably fit and strong; but the condition that took three months to achieve then seemed to disappear in a matter of days courtesy of a cocktail of some modern equivalent of Beecham’s Powders and a never-ending supply of Quality Street.
Notwithstanding the day job, which I don’t ever discuss in any detail in a public forum, I have entered the fourth year of my “Time to Change” challenges to raise mental health awareness. Much as my wife Elaine and my family will always be my main priority, it is the love and support of those closest to me that has allowed me to push myself to try and somehow make a small difference.
The fact I have felt unable to do anything positive (other than send a few e-mails) this month is therefore a source of very real frustration. That said I know myself well enough to realise I’ve been struggling—the work mask has been very much in place… pretty successfully too, given how few have seen through it; it is a defence mechanism that has served me well over many years, but the acknowledgement or rather self-awareness is a sure sign that the invisible hand is tightening its grip.
At times like this, I should focus on distraction, but my mind has the ability (and strength) to match dark nights with dark thoughts—not a good combination.
We went to a family reunion last weekend. It was wonderful to spend time with relatives that I see so rarely, but the stroll down the road where my late grandparents had lived brought back memories that, whilst consistently happy, also filled me with sadness. I looked at what was their front door and remembered all the times when I would knock and either Nannie or Grandad would open the door… and another magical childhood holiday would be underway. If I had knocked on Saturday, a stranger would have answered—a stranger in my grandparents’ home.
Of course the wheel of life keeps turning, but in that moment, all I wanted was to see Nannie and Grandad again.
I felt so flat at the start of the week, but I think I can sense that the worst of this particular episode is starting to pass. On Wednesday, I sat and spent an hour and a half completing a pencil sketch to tick off my first “challenge” of 2017. It might not sound much, but I know it wouldn’t have happened even twenty-four hours earlier.
For now the weekend beckons; some much-needed quality time with Elaine. February is just around the corner; I’m planning to get back to the gym; and progress and/or finalise arrangements for a number of challenges… oh and we’ve booked a couple to go to Harrogate for a couple of days during a forthcoming week off.
Being objective when you’re feeling overwhelmed is so tough, but I have learned to accept that even when I’m far from my best, I still know that the low mood will eventually pass; and when you know you’re always capable of taking the first and hardest step (even if it takes a few days), then don’t be too hard on yourself… you’re actually doing really well.
My first Time to Change challenge of 2017 (and 77th in total since I started this project just over three years ago) was completed last night when I had a go at drawing a pencil sketch.
There is some artistic ability in the family, especially my sister and my niece Esme (who is ridiculously gifted); my daughter Rebecca is talented too… but the flair she has clearly wasn’t inherited from her father!
That said I’m actually really pleased with the finished picture. It was effectively a sketch of a sketch called “Tear Face” by Esther Burns, and (to my surprise) this was my first and only attempt at trying to recreate the original. I’d bought a book with thirty pristine white pages on the basis that the majority were likely to get scrunched up and thrown in the general direction of the nearest bin accompanied by a tirade of expletives, but amazingly I’ve still got twenty-nine unused pages and I didn’t swear once!
And I’ve also got a box of barely-used pencils (6B to 4H for any graphite aficionados) that will probably end up in the loft now that I’ve called time on the briefest of artistic careers—but it was fun while it lasted.
The picture wasn’t chosen at random; I wanted to try and find an image that in some way reflected the underlying theme of the challenges (viz. raising mental health awareness), but as soon as I saw this face, and the single tear, I immediately thought of Jodie… one of the two central characters in the first and only novel what I have wrote.
I’m not going to say too much more about the character and the book—except that it took me ten years to complete; oh, and it’s available for free download—I was simply fascinated by the striking face that gazed at me from the computer screen (the emotion is as obvious as it is obviously hidden); and I knew in an instant that it was the perfect image for the challenge.
I’ll leave you to judge the merit or otherwise of the end result, but the face that gazed at me from the paper genuinely made me stop and think—something that was unexpected, but on reflection, pretty special too.