Lots of exciting stuff due to happen on the challenge front over the next few weeks, with at least three of the remaining five scheduled to be attempted (and hopefully completed) between now and the end of the month.
Strictly speaking it’s the start of next month, as my indoor rowing marathon will take place at Eston Leisure Centre on the morning, afternoon (and quite possibly evening) of Sunday 1 October.
The distance is 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42,195 metres in new money. Goal number one is obviously to finish, but I’m looking to fulfil a second aim of finishing inside four hours. Actually, the real target is 3 hours 45 minutes (which would almost certainly mean beating my cross Channel—34,000m—record in the process), but it’s important that I’m realistic and focus on just completing the marathon rather than worrying about the time.
That said, it’s pretty hard to ignore the clock, seeing as there’s a performance monitor mounted right in front of your face.
Training has gone pretty well. I started back at the gym in April and have been concentrating on the rowing machine since the beginning of May, since when I have rowed just under 800km (500 miles). If it’s hard to put the bare distance into some sort of perspective, it is roughly the equivalent of rowing from Penzance on the tip of the Cornish coast all the way up to Morpeth in Northumberland.
Obviously that would be a stupid thing to do, seeing as I live in Middlesbrough and would clearly stop before heading further north … and to be honest, if I was going to travel that far, I’d probably use my car.
Back in December last year, I completed the equivalent of an English Channel crossing thanks to some hugely appreciated support—in fact two people (my unofficial trainer Julian Bunn, and Louise Hobson from BBC Tees) stayed for the entire duration. Dedication beyond the call of duty!
The company made an enormous difference. Long-distance rowing is a tough physical endurance sport; there are mental challenges to face as well, but having people with me provided a constant distraction that helped to make the whole event a memorable experience.
This time however, there will be no company; it’ll be me, my mp3 player and headphones, plenty of fluids and a packet of Jaffa Cakes. I train at 23-24 strokes a minutes, which (over four hours) will equate to between 5000 and 6000 strokes in total. My hands are already a mess from hours of gripping the handles, but my biggest concern is actually sitting on the rower for so long, because it gets really uncomfortable—and lengthy discomfort can actually become painful.
But that is just another part of the test… another challenge to overcome.
And we all have challenges to overcome…
Most of my blogs end in similar fashion because the message stays the same: it’s fine to talk about mental health, and asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness.
I’ll let you know how everything goes.
During the past three-and-a-half years, I’ve had a go at things that I used to be reasonably good at; things I thought I might not be too bad at; and things I was hoping against hope I wouldn’t be totally rubbish at.
Recording a song came very much in that final category.
True, I had been a chorister whilst at junior school, but my angelic treble tones disappeared in a flurry of teenage hormones, and I was left with a voice that would have been classified as basso profundo… had I retained the ability to stay in tune.
That said when I’m driving to and from work with the window down and the volume up, I genuinely believe I can sing; it wasn’t until I taped myself practising for this particular challenge that I realised that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was a sobering moment….
When I added the recording task, I thought it would be a good idea to sing a duet, thereby offering me an opportunity to hide behind someone who had a much better and stronger voice.
The Lee to my Peters happened totally by accident; a random conversation with a colleague at work. That colleague was Georgina Sayers; it seemed like she was a talented singer, so I took the plunge and asked how she felt about singing with me if I was able to get everything arranged?
I was actually taken aback when Georgina said would; although part of me suspected she’d only agreed because the likelihood of the plan reaching fruition probably appeared minimal!
Even so, we chatted over possible suitable songs, and the final choice was on of Georgina’s suggestions: “Set the Fire to the Third Bar” by Snow Patrol (featuring Nancy Wainwright). I didn’t know the song, but even on first listen, I really liked it. It was a was sung as a duet all the way through, so I could hopefully hide behind Georgina’s voice; and although it was essentially of no consequence, I had seen Snow Patrol in concert sometime around 2000—before they hit the big time, so I still felt relevant and trendy… but obviously only a little bit.
The next stage should have been the most difficult to finalise—finding a studio where we could record the song.
I decided to send an e-mail to Lee Tuck, who I’d met a few times when he had been the bass player in an excellent rock-band called The Karma Heart. I hadn’t seen Lee for a good few years, but I thought he might possibly know someone involved with a recording studio who I could contact and ask for help.
Lee did know someone… mainly because he had set up his own studio in South Shields a year or so earlier!
We talked through what I was hoping to do, and he said he’d be happy to get involved, to not only record the song, but video us as we were singing, and also film a short covering video about my reasons for wanting to raise mental health awareness. It was an incredibly generous gesture; something that I could never have expected when I typed the original e-mail. This all happened sometime in February 2017, but we decided to wait until early May before going into the studio because Lee was about to become a father… oh and I needed to practice!
The moment when I recorded myself (with such a dreadful result) came just two days before we were due to sing for real, and my nerves quickly escalated towards anxiety; but I tried to convince myself that Lee and his fellow director at The Garage Studios, Kyle Martin, would have state-of-art computer equipment capable of working miracles—even with voices like mine.
On the morning of May 8, Georgina picked me up, and as we headed north up the A19, we sang the song together for the first time. As I suspected, Georgina had a lovely voice, but much as I was still concerned about how I would sound, we both agreed this was an experience we might never have again, and it was important that we made sure we enjoyed it.
We arrived at the Garage Studios just before ten o’clock; Lee and Kyle appeared a couple of minutes later; we climbed the stairs and ventured into the studio… and it all felt quite daunting. While Lee set up the lighting in the studio, Kyle was busy sorting out the backing track and all things technical. After setting up the studio, Lee joined Kyle in what I would have called the “control room”; they could talk to us, but we could not see them—and as far as our nerves were concerned, that was no bad thing.
Although we had both learned the words, we had a copy of the lyrics on a music stand, just in case one or both minds went blank when the recording got underway. We did a first run-though, which went reasonably well except that I just couldn’t find the right pitch for the opening note of the first and third lines of the chorus. It was the one part of the song where the two voices diverged (if that’s the right word); and, of course, I was conscious that there were two more choruses to come.
Georgina was very reassuring, just as I would have been had I been note perfect! I could sense I was on edge (something that Georgina had picked up as well), but the second rehearsal was a bit better. The third attempt was recorded (audio only) and it was reassuring when Lee came into the studio with a thumbs up.
He then proceeded to position the three cameras; one that would have us both in view, and one pointing directly at each of us. Funnily enough I didn’t feel fazed by the cameras, nor the microphone; I just wanted to do my best and get the chorus right. We both seemed much more relaxed, and the first “take” (as we call it…) went well—as did the second. By then I felt much less self-conscious and thoroughly enjoyed those live recordings. Georgina sounded amazing, and singing together was a lovely feeling.
Lee entered the studio once again; this time to say that they had everything they needed. Basically, they had two video and three audio recordings and could use them to create the best overall finished product possible. They said it was just a case of cutting and pasting, but I’m sure it was a bit more involved than that; either way, I hoped that I didn’t irreparably damage their auto-tuning software; and I also encouraged them to consider auto-chin software for future videos—sometimes one chin is all you want to see!
Lee then rearranged the cameras and lighting for the video, which I did in one take and a ten second introduction… which took two! A couple of photos of the four of us and as the clocked ticked towards midday, the challenge was essentially completed.
Except of course that there was the small matter of the recording: how would we sound… and what would we look like?
I was like a child on Christmas morning waiting for the link to the files to appear in my inbox, but after hearing nothing for the rest of the day, a message from Lee appeared at just after six o’clock the following morning. I downloaded the files, then played the video….
It was amazing. Of course, I could easily pick all sorts of faults with the way I looked, but I thought the piece to camera definitely conveyed the message that it is fine to ask for help; and the song just totally blew me away.
However good I thought Georgina had sounded in the studio, the final recording was stunning; I can’t believe how lucky I was that she chose to do this with me. I sounded far better than I imagined possible (don’t you just love technology); I was in tune, and actually our voices blended together really well.
It was all very surreal—especially listening to the audio. You know it’s you… yet it’s hard to fully accept that it actually is.
What Lee and Kyle did to help me complete this challenge was just fantastic. They have made a massive and lasting contribution, and to be honest, it’s not really possible to convey my thanks through a few written words.
This was the 86th completed challenge, so many experiences and memories… but I’m not sure one individual challenge has made me feel such a range of emotions; and that in itself says a lot about my visit to the Garage Studios.
So, thank you Lee… thank you Kyle… and thank you too Georgina; it was a day I will never forget.
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.
At the risk of banging what appears to be my one and only drum, I remain heavily involved in… and committed to raising awareness of mental health issues through my series of “challenges”. The fact that I have a condition called dysthymia—something I’ve lived with for probably the past forty years—is no great secret, but whilst it’s simple to give a list of symptoms, I’m not sure I’ve ever really conveyed just how it feels to have a form of depression. But I’m going to try….
Right from the outset, I want to point out that dysthymia, whilst chronic, is a relatively mild condition (you can use the word “illness” if you want; I just choose not to). What follows is therefore arguably the tip of the proverbial iceberg should you perhaps decide to contemplate the possible effects of (and the consequent daily struggles with) more serious depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anorexia or bulimia (nervosa)… and so the list continues.
Every morning, I wake feeling flat. Not some or most mornings… every morning.
I liken the feeling to having my head held tightly by a giant hand. On a “good” day, the hand is still there; the exact definition of “not so good” depends very much on how tightly the hand chooses to squeeze.
I readily accept I have no reason to feel low; I have a wonderful (understatement) wife, a loving family, plenty of friends, a nice home, good job, and reasonable health for an old bloke with dodgy hips. There will be some of you who can’t understand why I don’t spring out of bed and skip down the stairs every single morning (hips notwithstanding)… and to an extent I agree; but do you not think if it was easy, I’d have found that consistent daily waking rush of inner happiness at some point during the past four-and-a-bit decades?
Dysthymia does not necessarily give you the exaggerated highs and lows that may be seen in other conditions. It basically mirrors whatever your own personal definition of “normality” may be; it’s just that the reflection is always that much gloomier. But when you’ve known no different, then it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that because you essentially feel the same every day, then that is “normal”, and that being the case, you just “get on with it” because… well… that’s what everybody does.
From being in my teens, I would have times of unexplained, but profound sadness. The more it happened, the more I amended my definition of “normal” and just accepted the tears. Actually, I didn’t just accept them… I would almost go out of my way to encourage them. I wanted to cry… I needed to cry… and so I would find a quiet corner and think about literally anything (real or imaginary) that would make me keep crying until that hand finally loosened its grip.
Many years later, I finally recognised that the more extreme emotion (sometimes, but by no means always caused by a traumatic life episode) was not “normal”, but it still took quite a long time—and countless conversations with those who could see the outward signs that I refused to acknowledge—before I sought the help I so desperately needed. In the intervening years (more than a quarter of a century), I continued to experience irrational periods of desolation and the dark thoughts that always came along for the ride. I reached a point where the negative side of my personality was so dominant that I almost functioned “better” when I felt overwhelmed by sorrow.
My “normal” had shifted yet further. Dark thoughts had now become usual… compulsive… and occasionally genuinely compelling. Part of me knew something was wrong, but I simply wasn’t strong enough to fight, let alone overcome, my demons (if that’s the right word). In truth, the stronger part of me didn’t want to fight… I deserved to feel the way I did.
It was a potentially dangerous downward spiral and much as I tried, whether instinctively or deliberately, to hide what others may have perceived as weakness; those who cared most could see through the charade. Eventually, I crumbled… specifically from the pressure of trying to deal with a hugely traumatic series of events; and I had that single brief moment of objective clarity that enabled me to make the call to the doctor—and that, I suppose, was the first step to getting to where I am today.
I was originally diagnosed with depression, but the correct diagnosis should actually have been “double depression”. Whilst my underlying (and undetected) dysthymia was always present, but manageable; it was the second episode (on top of the pre-existing condition) that was a big enough change from the familiar to finally make me pick up the phone. The second layer of depression was treated (pretty successfully), but the dysthymia remained… because it was so much part of who I was (and am) that the specific symptoms were either lost in the extremes or not even raised for consideration.
That was in 2004; it’s 2016 now and in many respects I am a totally different person.
Meeting Elaine was undoubtedly the most important single course-changing moment of my life; and whilst my sleep remains disturbed by recurring bad dreams (some of which I’ve had for over thirty years) and subconscious memories of not-so-good times gone by, my waking hours are so much better because of the person with whom every single day starts and ends.
That said I still have dysthymia. I will always have dysthymia. It’s part of me and who I am, but the difference is it’s no longer in a totally negative way. The massive lows are rare, but can still happen (November 2011 and June 2015 were the last two); now though I recognise the signs and I know that the feelings will eventually pass. Yes I still have a low opinion of myself… I fear failure, and usually expect to fail, and as I mentioned right at the start, I continue to struggle with those feelings of “doom and gloom”—but as well as having the support of Elaine, my parents and other close family and friends, my “challenges” have undeniably taught me so much.
The list may not be the toughest tests or biggest adrenaline rushes in the world, but I have done things I never thought I would, or could. I have reached out and asked for help… and it’s been there—and I’m so grateful. If there is a moral to this blog, it would be to translate the previous sentence to relate to dealing with a mental health issue rather than planning a stand-up comedy routine (for example). I know just how much strength it takes simply to ask for help… but don’t ever underestimate the possible consequences….
I might not always look happy… in fairness I may not always feel happy; but deep down, I am happy… very happy indeed.
Having spent most of the past two years undertaking numerous and varied challenges on behalf of the charity Mind and the Time to Change programme, I was planning a much quieter year in 2016… plenty of writing, trying to get fit and losing a bit of weight etc… but there is still a desire to push myself, to experience or achieve something new; and to continue raising awareness of mental health issues.
To that end, I am setting myself the goal of recording a single during 2016.
On the basis that I haven’t played a musical instrument since I was eleven (Grade 3 Trumpet—with a “merit” no less), I will provide what I can only loosely describe as vocals. I would then need someone to sing with me (then at least the song will be 50% in tune), a guitarist (or two), bass player and drummer—otherwise known as a band I guess!—who would be prepared to participate, a song (I grew up in the punk/new wave era, but I like lots of music), a bit of time to rehearse and a however long it takes in a recording studio (which I’ll happily pay for)… and hopefully, if modern technology can work a miracle with my voice, there will be a finished article that prove just what can be achieved by a willingness to ask for help, and a determination to succeed—two things that are so important in dealing with any form of mental illness.
Irrespective of the fifty-four tasks that I have already completed, much of the recent inspiration to start another project has come from an old friend Ian Jones, a former team mate of mine at Chester le Street Cricket Club, who not only trained for, competed in, but actually won a charity bout in the boxing ring earlier this month. As someone who sparred for just three minutes against unbeaten light-welterweight Josh Leather back in 2014, and was hit (fairly repeatedly) in the face by punches I never even saw, I have so much admiration for what Ian has achieved—congratulations mate. Tough guy with a big heart.
So many people have done such great things for charity during 2015—Andy Kelly and Jeannette Carroll immediately spring to mind for their amazing “journeys” (arghhh, I hate that word so much!)—that it just wouldn’t feel right not to get involved again next year.
I’ll hopefully get fit enough to attempt something a bit more physical in the summer, but for now if you live in the north east and you play in a band, or know someone who does (please share like you’ve never shared before), or you think you might be able to help in any way at all, I’d really love to hear from you.
I will not be able to do this without the help of others, but if that help is forthcoming, there will be updates, blogs and eventually an end product that might not get to no.1 in the charts (although top ten would be nice), but will serve as a permanent reminder of the reason why I started these challenges in the first place….
Finally, in wishing a happy and healthy New Year to anyone who has taken the time to read any/some/all of my blogs during 2015, I want to send my very best wishes to my good friend Glen Durrant who will be aiming to become the BDO World Darts Champion at Lakeside over the next couple of weeks.
Over the past two years, Glen has inspired and encouraged me, and taken me from someone affected by almost uncontrollable nerves to someone capable of hitting back-to-back 180s in a leg against the current world no.1 earlier this week… still lost though!! So thank you Glen… good luck… and just for the record, if you do lift the trophy on January 10, I will be holding you solely responsible for my subsequent failure to complete “Dry January”!
Mid-December already… we say it every year, but where has the time gone??
As another year draws to a close, now seems like the appropriate time for some personal (but publicly shared) reflection.
Away from the workplace, much of the past two years has been dominated by my attempts to raise awareness of mental health issues and stigma through a series of what turned out to be fifty-four “challenges”, as well as a willingness to share my personal life experiences.
2015 was the year in which the condition I have had for probably four decades was identified as dysthymia… for so many things to suddenly fall into place after all those years was a massive deal for me. Subsequently I have spoken about my condition and how it can affect/has affected me on live radio and, even more recently, in front of my work colleagues. It wasn’t an easy thing to do (maybe that’s the point…), but much as a diagnosis of “depression” felt like both a heavy burden and an unwanted label, the realisation of what I actually have… and who I actually am, has been as much of a release as my symptoms will allow. It felt right to share… because you just never know when your story might a strike a chord.
Like everyone who is reading this (well… providing you’ve read this far), there have been any number of ups and downs over the last eleven months--such is life I guess. Elaine has certainly had more than her fair share to deal with; yet she conducts herself with such incredible dignity. I am both extremely lucky and immensely proud to be her husband.
If I was to pick out a couple of my most memorable moments from 2015’s “challenges”, facing England badminton international Rhys Walker definitely stands out. I hadn’t played for ten years, I’m totally unfit, and my hips are completely shot; but for forty minutes I gave everything I had to try and compete… and it felt fantastic. Meeting the Olympic gold medallist Ann Packer (now Brightwell) was another wonderful experience. I would normally shy away from meeting people for whom I have so much admiration, but Ann was lovely—and it was the perfect way to bring the challenge project to an end.
As a sublimely gifted couch potato, my highlights from the world of sport were the stunning performance of England’s women to win the EuroHockey championships, and Glen Durrant proving that nice guys can finish first by lifting darts Winmau World Masters Trophy just a few short weeks ago. And finally, my enduring sporting image of 2015 is of Scotland netballer Gemma Sole (below right), piping her team mates onto court during the World Cup in August… a wonderful moment.
I would just like to thank everyone who has supported my work for Mind and Time to Change these past two years, and to wish Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year to: all my family, and the friends I have made… through any of my varied challenges; from my time playing cricket for Gateshead Fell and Chester le Street; from watching Gateshead FC and Gateshead Thunder; members and fans of Killing for Company, Epic Problem, The Karma Heart and This Elegant Chaos; friends from St Peter’s and Newcastle Polytechnic (as it was way back when…), those who have helped me with, bought, read (and hopefully) enjoyed my books on Doctor Who, Marilyn Monroe or Marie Prevost; to my friends from the local Muslim Community, work colleagues past and present, everyone I’ve got to know at Grangetown Netball Club, new friends at Netball Ireland, and anyone I may have inadvertently overlooked (for which I apologise)….
I’ve got to go now… I’m playing darts against the “Silverback” Tony O’Shea later this evening. My recent form can best be described as “crap”, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll be better tonight.
It started out with a random idea back in January 2014 and ended yesterday over a cup of tea and at chat at the home of an Olympic gold medallist....
Over the intervening 23 months, I arranged and completed fifty-four separate challenges, all of which were undertaken in order to initially raise funds for the mental health charity Mind, and latterly to support the “Time to Change” programme the aim of which is to work towards ending mental health discrimination. I will endeavour to keep raising awareness into 2016 and beyond, but now feels like the right time to bring down the curtain on what has been a truly memorable adventure (notice how I craftily avoided using the word “journey”!).
I am not going to list each and every one of the tasks I set myself; suffice to say that in amongst the planning, the e-mails, and the hundreds of miles of driving, I have met some wonderful people, and enjoyed experiences that I will cherish for always—holding a snake and riding the rickety rollercoaster are not included in my definition of “enjoyable”.
I have done things I either didn’t think I’d get the chance to do, or didn’t believe I could or would do: viz. live stand-up comedy, (an attempt at) sparring with a pro boxer, getting a tattoo, going on stage to play a leg of darts against an international opponent (actually that ended up as opponents plural...), and so the list continues... all the way through to yesterday and a meeting with Ann Brightwell (née Packer), the lady responsible for my favourite ever moment in British sport.
The story behind Ann’s victory in the 800m at Tokyo in 1964 is fascinating... the race itself nothing short of remarkable, but to put the medal into context, British women have won just ten individual track and field golds in the whole history of the modern Olympic Games. Mary Rand, an incredibly gifted all-round athlete was the first; her long jump success coming just a few days before her room-mate’s triumph over two laps in Tokyo.
Just for the record, the full list will be given at the end of the blog, but to be not only be offered the chance to meet Ann (although we had spoken at length over the phone earlier in the year) but to be invited into her Cheshire home was something very special, and it was with a mixture of excitement and nerves that I made the trip across the M62... M60... A627... A34... etc....
In fairness, despite the weather, the journey was fine... except for a crack on my windscreen that emanated from a chip that must have happened fairly early on in proceedings. The crack grew to about six or seven inches in length but thankfully got no worse... there’ll be a call to Autoglass later today.
It was always going to be a slightly surreal moment when I knocked on the Brightwell’s front door, but after that initial meeting Ann and I sat in her kitchen and chatted away for something like an hour and a half and barely paused for breath. Ann’s husband Robbie (a medallist himself at the Tokyo games) popped in a few times... and I even had a chance to see their medals as well as wearing Ann’s 1964 Olympic 400m silver medal.
I had spoken with Elaine during the week and told her that I couldn’t think of a better way of bringing the challenges to an end than by spending time with someone for whom I have so much admiration... I hoped it would be the perfect end to an amazing couple of years and that’s exactly how it proved.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to meet Ann and Robbie, and I want to thank them, along with absolutely everyone who has helped and supported me over the months (especially my darling wife Elaine... I love you xx); I just hope that I’ve managed to make a small difference along the way....
British Women’s Olympic Track and Field Gold Medals
Mary Rand (Long Jump)
Ann Packer (800m)
Mary Peters (Pentathlon)
Tessa Sanderson (Javelin)
Sally Gunnell (400m Hurdles)
Denis Lewis (Heptathlon)
Kelly Holmes (800m & 1500m)
Christine Ohuruogu (400m)
Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon)
I will admit from the outset that I’m not really sure of the direction which this blog will take. Nominally, the purpose is to confirm the completion of another of my “Time to Change” challenges: that of meeting a Doctor Who companion (which was achieved at the Dimensions 2015 event, which was held at the Copthorne Hotel in Newcastle).
But... in doing so, I learned quite a lot about the nature of these clearly incredibly popular events, and the apparent culture of what I believe was/is called “fandom”; and I found the experience slightly... what’s the word I’m looking for... “uncomfortable” perhaps?
There were some massive positives to come out of the day; but the second thing you notice (the first being that a lot of people are wearing Doctor Who-related costumes – I must be getting old because I just don’t see the attraction at all) is that almost everything revolves around money.
If you ignore the travel, accommodation, food, drink etc., the price of admission is far from cheap (I had what amounted to the economy ticket... and that cost £50). For that you were entitled to queue for an autograph from most of the guests; although there was a charge associated with others; but woe betide you if you asked for a photograph... because a series of separate “official” photoshoots would set you back anything from £15 to £40... each!
You could buy a silver or gold ticket that would gain you a number of “free” photos, but any extras meant another peek inside a wallet that was probably begging for mercy. On the basis that this “experience” was always likely to be a one-off, I had pre-ordered a photo with Daphne Ashbrook (who played Grace Holloway in the 1996 Doctor Who movie), and at the appointed time I joined the queue... it grew into a very long queue, but happily I was about tenth in line....
Well I was until gold pass holders were ushered to the front, with silver following right behind. As for me with my contemptibly cheap £50 day pass and £15 photo ticket: “Please would you just join the back of the queue....”
The shoot itself was little more than a conveyor belt. Sit, smile, click, bye... but at this point, I need to mention the highlight of my day: meeting Daphne Ashbrook.
Many moons ago I wrote a book about Doctor Who - the first two editions were self-published and profits given to charity, before the third edition was published by BearManor Media in the U.S.. The premise of the book was that I would build a personal history of a programme I had watched since 1968 (and yes I know I don’t look old enough) around a search to obtain a signed photo from as many female TARDIS companions as possible.
I was incredibly grateful to everyone who took the time to reply, and genuinely humbled by the lengths some people went to support the project: the late (and much missed) Caroline John wrote a couple of lovely letters, and Daphne took the time to send a fantastic personalised photo all the way across the Atlantic. Yesterday I had the opportunity to thank her in person, and give her a copy of the book....
A couple of hours before the official photo, I spent a couple of minutes in Daphne’s company, explained about the book and my mental health awareness work, and she was an absolute joy. I asked for the photo (to complete the challenge); she immediately agreed although her “minder” was slightly more reluctant. The flash didn’t go off, so the picture is a bit grainy, but the photo proves two things: one, I actually met the fantastic Daphne Ashbrook; and two, I’m still eminently huggable! I took a selfie for good measure, but I haven’t seen the “professional” photo yet as I had to leave before it was printed - an unforeseen two hour delay presumably caused by the sheer volume of pictures... or maybe I’d simply been dispatched to the back of another queue!
Hopefully I will receive the photo in due course, and I would like to say a quick thank you to the member of the event staff who offered to post the picture to me. I did ask how he would know which picture was actually mine. I expected some really clever technical explanation, but he simply said: “grey top, red sleeves!”
I met three other people who had appeared in Doctor Who at various points during its near fifty-two year history, and I also want to mention Jacqueline King, who played companion Donna Noble’s mother Sylvia in relatively recent times. She took a real interest in what I had been doing, and the photo was absolutely no trouble at all. A lovely lady.
From what I could gather, the level of interaction very much depended on the allocated minder; one of whom issued a refusal to a photo request that was blunt enough to actually take the actress concerned by surprise. Another looked like he was going to have palpitations when a former companion agreed to a quick photo that wasn’t going to boost the coffers by that all-important £15.
Twenty-four hours on, I can look back on a slightly surreal trip to Newcastle. Meeting Daphne and Jacqueline was brilliant. Seeing a couple of other former companions was nice, but no more memorable than it was for them to meet me; but I did enjoy having the chance to catch up with Cory and Tricia who I had met at my first (and probably only) book-signing in Mansfield a couple of years ago.
Above all however, the day was about ticking another challenge off my list (thank you so much Daphne) and continuing to raise awareness of mental health issues in the best way I can. My bank manager might not be speaking to me right now, but he can relax because it’s pretty safe to say I won’t be making the journey north again next year. As the day progressed I became increasingly aware that I was (rather ironically it has to be said) the odd one out; and in future I think I should stick to sharing my love of the programme through the written word because the atmosphere and genuine excitement I sensed amongst so many others attending Dimensions 2015 was something I just didn’t feel.
Next stop for me? A chance to meet 1964 Olympic gold medallist Ann Packer (now Brightwell) and, having set myself a goal of 13st 13lbs, a very definite need to lose some weight.
Last night I paid my first visit to the new Middlesbrough Sports Village to complete my latest “Time to Change” challenge—the fifty-first since the start of 2014… how long ago does that seem?!
Despite still being in some discomfort from my badminton lesson at the hands of England international Rhys Walker nearly three weeks ago (muscles don’t heal all that quickly at my age… hang on… muscles?!!!), I was going to put the old body through its paces one more—or perhaps that should read “one last”—time, with the badminton court now being replaced by one of the netball variety.
The venue will be hosting Grangetown Netball Club’s home fixtures in National Premier League 2, which gets underway this Sunday, and I have to say the facilities look superb. When I arrived, the girls were just about to start a full practice match, and I settled down to watch… and hopefully learn.
As many of you know, I started following netball through watching my younger daughter, who played club and county age group netball during her mid-teens. She lives (and plays) in Edinburgh now, but I have been really fortunate that Grangetown have welcomed me into their club, and allowed me to write a few reports, interviews and articles on behalf of their Prem squad.
It is a fantastic, friendly club, which offers opportunities for players of all ages and abilities. The Prem squad comprises some of the finest local netballers, and will be further strengthened by a number of current internationals during the season. The standard is extremely high—as you would expect from a club effectively ranked in the top fifteen in the country—and the club lacks nothing in belief and ambition, both on and off the court.
Their strong community focus was perhaps highlighted by a willingness to allow me to spend ten minutes on court, despite the seriousness of the preparations that had preceded my somewhat incongruous appearance alongside club captain Vicky Rees at the heart of the defence…
Last year, I had a go at shooting, but found that the ball was too big and the net way too small (and too high up). Clearly all that has changed during the intervening twelve months because shots were finding the target with almost ridiculous regularity, mainly courtesy of young Tasha Grylls, who was scoring pretty much at will from pretty much anywhere inside the shooting circle…
At least I had the decency to make the game look difficult!
Within the opening minute I managed to collide with the post. In my defence I was trying to keep track of my shooter… I failed. It hurt.
It was great to witness at first hand the pace at which the game is played, the quality of movement, awareness, and the athleticism of everyone on court—with one elderly portly exception. I did wear Grangetown colours in an attempt to look the part, and even managed to make a couple of interceptions (more by luck than judgement I hasten to add); but if I was to summarise my “performance” in one word, it would be “clumsy”—although one other adjective beginning with “c” was under serious consideration.
The final whistle not only brought down the curtain on my netball “career” (amid huge sighs of relief from team mates and opponents alike); but on participation in sport in general. It’s now almost a decade since I was told that I’d need hip replacement surgery within “two to fifteen years” depending on how much sport I chose to play. Over the past few months I’ve bowled at a test cricketer, sparred with an unbeaten pro boxer, played badminton against an England international and had a go at netball… I think I should probably quit while I’m at least marginally ahead—but I do want to say a massive thank you to Head Coach Gel Williams and all the girls at the club, not just for last night, but also for making me feel part of the “Grangetown family”…
Finally, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I undertook this challenge (as well as the preceding fifty) to raise awareness of mental health issues: the fact that it is fine to talk… and the fact that help is there if you can find the strength to ask for it. As far as challenging the stigma of mental health is concerned, it’s is very much “Time to Change”—but from the point of view of me and netball… it’s definitely “Time to Retire”!
My interview with Niamh Murphy, the Irish netball captain has been provisionally arranged for this Saturday morning. I’m really looking forward to chatting to Niamh for a number of reasons: she was lovely when we met in Dublin recently, and I’m sure it’s going to be a really interesting conversation; it will be good to learn more about the sport in the Republic of Ireland and be able to share the resulting article… and the “interviewing an international sportswoman” task will actually be the fiftieth challenge I’ve completed since my work for Mind and Time to Change began back in January 2014.
I’ve lost count of how many e-mails I’ve sent, phone calls I’ve made and miles I’ve driven to get to this point (although I suspect the mileage will be in excess of two thousand by now…). I’ve also tried to forget how hard it’s been to walk after some of the sporting challenges, but I have never lost sight of the reasons behind everything I’ve done… and will continue to do.
From a personal and arguably slightly selfish point of view, I’ve met some wonderful people and had some memorable experiences (but please don’t presume that “memorable” has always meant “enjoyable” - snake and rollercoaster spring immediately to mind). Some of the tasks may have seemed relatively straightforward on the surface, but will still have required planning and (particularly relevantly) help - quite possibly from someone I hadn’t met before; others were fairly obviously going to be “challenging”, be that physically, mentally… or both.
The underlying theme has always been that if you are affected by mental health issues, you don’t have to suffer in silence. The prospect of talking, let alone asking for help (there’s that word again…) may seem - and often is - incredibly daunting, but having the strength and courage to take that first step can lead to the kind of positive change that would have been unimaginable during darker times.
As many of you will know, it was the tragic death of the Wales football manager Gary Speed that prompted me to decide to write openly about my experiences with depression. For any number of reasons, very few people knew the person I’d tried so hard to hide for all those years, but since seeking help from my GP in 2004, I’d made so much progress and it felt like I’d reached a point where the possibility (however small) of making that proverbial difference to someone… somewhere… was far more important than how I may or may not be perceived by anyone who chose to read my story.
I realise that in the overall scheme of things I’m neither important nor special, and clearly there are people whose experiences or opinions will attract more attention (if that’s the right word). But in a way, that just makes me more determined to carry on….
Last year, I got a call from a local radio station, asking if I’d go on air and talk about mental illness following the passing of Robin Williams. I agreed – only for the interview to be cut short because it was time for a travel update… but not before I’d told the presenter that whilst Williams’ suicide was desperately sad, it was equally disappointing that it almost needed a high-profile suicide before the subject of mental health became worthy of coverage…
In a sense it’s similar to only buying your wife flowers on Valentine’s Day or her birthday: what’s wrong with buying flowers today? You don’t love someone any less on 16th September than on 14th February… just the same as everyday mental health issues don’t disappear just because of a lack of celebrity deaths…
The fact remains that mental illness can affect anybody. No rhyme nor reason, no why nor wherefore… the illness may be unseen, but the effects can be devastating.
I still have occasional dark moments and difficult days – and I probably always will; but I class myself as being incredibly lucky. I can talk openly, safe in the knowledge that those who care for me will listen (whether or not they fully understand), and that eventually the feelings will pass…
So many people face an uphill struggle simply to get through the day… just to start all over again the following morning. You can be surrounded by friends and family, yet feel totally alone; you can have everything you ever wanted in life, yet still you feel shrouded in sadness…
It is easy to let the negativity engulf you; in fact there’s an almost perverse comfort in the familiar; but much as you believe that no one else could ever feel the way you do… you’d be wrong. Self-acceptance took many years but I eventually sought help to deal with my feelings, in much the same way as I have asked for help to fulfil my first forty-nine challenges. The link might seem tenuous, but to me it underpins everything I’ve done…
Never be afraid to talk. Never be afraid to ask for help. You might just be amazed at what you can achieve.