I’m sure that most of us have, at some point or another, been inspired by a person that we’ve never met—whether that be someone who has passed away, or maybe two paths that simply haven’t crossed. The thought was prompted after watching the recent programme about Marilyn Monroe (specifically the auction of clothes, photos and other memorabilia), because I have a number of friends who know an amazing amount about Marilyn’s life, and it’s quite possible that she been a source of inspiration to some of them.
There are a number of people for whom I have huge admiration and I would love to have met: Stan Laurel, Jean Harlow, Virgil Grissom, Muhammad Ali to name but four; but there is a huge difference between admiration and inspiration. If my readers each gave the name of the one person who inspires or has inspired them the most, I can guarantee that no one else’s choice would match mine.
Her name is Jane Kirby and she is my great great grandmother.
I know virtually nothing about Jane; when she was born, what she looked like, what she sounded like, but what I do know is that she must have been a remarkable, selfless and resilient woman.
Jane was a single mother (hence why my surname is Kirby), who gave birth to my great grandfather John in York’s workhouse in July 1879. The workhouse was the place where you went when there was literally no other option—but the social stigma of being an unmarried mother meant that Jane may well have been simply cast aside by her family.
Whilst the Victorian upper classes enjoyed a life filled with almost unimaginable luxury, those at the opposite end of the social scale often had to ensure squalid, insanitary and overcrowded living conditions—and it was into poverty that John was born. By the following year, Jane was living in Wrightson’s Yard in Walmgate. It was one of the poorest areas of York, home to slaughterhouses, factories and mills; and the crude nature of manufacturing at the time meant that the air above nearby homes would have been literally black with acrid smoke and fumes.
But this was Jane’s life; she had a son and needed to provide for him... and herself. She did so by working from home, making matchboxes. It was incredibly hard work, especially for a mother trying to raise an infant on her own. Raw materials had to be purchased and a solid thirteen hour working day would yield between 9d and one shilling (at a rate of 2d per gross). Out of this, Jane would need to buy the material for the next batch of boxes as well as pay for rent and food. Things we take for granted today, like clothes for example, must have been almost impossible to afford....
I keep a coin in my wallet; a half crown issued in the year John was born. In decimal terms the half crown was worth 12½p, but to earn this single coin, Jane would have had to work for three weeks. I sometimes wonder if she ever even held a half crown….
The coin serves as a daily reminder of Jane and the amazing sacrifices she made to give her son a chance in life. John took his chance; he moved to Darlington (via Leeds) where he worked as a railway blacksmith. He named his eldest son Eric, whose only child David is my father. All my direct ancestors on both sides of my family have played a part in shaping the person I am and, to an extent, the life I have; but if ever I feel like I’m taking life for granted, I can hold this coin and think about Jane—my great great grandmother… and an inspiration.
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.
On this very day twelve months ago, I left the office I had called “home” since 2002 for the last time. I have been lucky enough to have been in constant employment since my teens, but this was the first time I had been in a job for more than ten years.
My previous “record” (if that’s the right word) was eight years, a term that was brought to a fairly abrupt end by redundancy as my role was being relocated to Preston… and I wasn’t prepared to make the move to Lancashire. And to a certain extent history repeated itself last year, when my job (and that of a number of colleagues across the country) was disestablished in what was somewhat politely called a “restructure”, although “cull” might have been a more suitable, albeit emotive word given that people had to travel to Sheffield from places as far afield as Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Lancaster to be told in a presentation that lasted barely five minutes that ninety per cent of the room would be out of work by February 2015.
It was pretty brutal, and understandably a massive shock to many people, but strangely I felt quite calm… yes I know; not like me at all. The reason was that the intention to restructure had been announced more than two years earlier, and with the relatively recent confirmation that layers of management would be wiped from the payroll, the news for our department was simply never going to be good; and in the end ongoing employment effectively boiled down to a geographical lottery.
I had already sat with Elaine and discussed what I would (hopefully) do if the axe was to descend; and that meeting in Sheffield simply forced me to put plans into action.
We were given something like a year’s notice… presumably in the hope that staff would jump ship and save big redundancy pay outs—but this was very much what I was aiming for. Jobs were (and are) not easy to come by, and if an opportunity was to present itself, I was definitely going to try and take it… after all, I’d never had any money before, so getting a new position at the same grade wouldn’t change our way of life… and I knew how the level of worry would increase as any lump sum dwindled with every month that passed without finding work.
Over the next eight months, I only applied for four positions… and in the September, after what was only my second interview, Hambleton Richmondshire and Whitby Clinical Commissioning Group offered me a job—a matter of hours after I’d visited their Northallerton office… whilst I was pedalling away on my exercise bike in actual fact.
It’s hard to describe the feeling when someone rings you to say they want you to join their organisation… their team. I was excited and nervous at the same time. As far as accepting the offer was concerned, there was no decision to make… the job sounded great on paper, and the people who interviewed me couldn’t have been nicer.
There was a bit of a wait whilst various bits of red tape were untangled, but it felt fantastic when I was able to hand in my notice. And when that day came to leave, there wasn’t a single backward glance.
I rarely write about work, and notwithstanding my view of the way the restructure was handled (which I would claim as “fair comment”), I have no intention of saying anything negative about the time with my previous employer (an organisation I purposely haven’t mentioned by name). I met and worked with some good people, and most importantly if I hadn’t been taken on, I would never have met Elaine… and for that I will always be grateful.
But in the end, I was no longer wanted… and there was nothing I could do about it. I completely understood the need for “efficiencies”, but I wasn’t willing to just sit back and accept my fate… even if it came with a fat cheque.
But did I make the right choice?
Undeniably yes. The work is varied, challenging and rewarding. Starting again without the level of knowledge I had gained in my former role was (and to an extent still is) quite daunting, but I have a fantastic and supportive manager, great colleagues... and my petrol bill has halved! The past year has absolutely flown by (although my actual anniversary is not until 3rd November), and although I am happy to spend a moment to give a gentle nod to the past, I am now able to enjoy the present... and look forward to the future—and that is a lovely feeling.
It’s been a brilliant few days for British sport... well unless you happen to be English I suppose!
I am extremely patriotic; I’m proud to be English, but I am equally proud to be British and follow the fortunes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in pretty much any and every international sport – something that applies to the Republic of Ireland as well. I particularly love watching the players as they sing their national anthem, and seeing just what it means for elite sportsmen and women to represent their country.
The little photo collage highlights Scotland’s progress into the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, the qualification of Wales and Northern Ireland for Euro 2016 – the first in a major competition for both countries since 1958 and 1982 respectively - and the Republic’s stunning victory over Germany, a result that sets up Martin O’Neill’s side for today’s crucial game with Poland.
As for England, well our rugby side exited the World Cup with barely a whimper and the footballers overcame the might of Estonia in a fairly drab encounter at Wembley. In doing so England preserved their 100% record in the qualifying group, and given that only five other teams have ever achieved that throughout a full European Championship programme, it is a pretty impressive record. Less impressive is the fact that England haven’t set the world (or Europe for that matter) alight when it comes to tournament finals... and of the other five countries to qualify with an unblemished record, only one made it to the final (Spain in 2012). For now though you can do no more than top your group, and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in France next year.
I would not single out any of the events or achievements of these past few days as being more notable than another, but in the week of World Mental Health Day, I want to remember Gary Speed, the former Wales manager, who made such a positive difference to Welsh football before his untimely and tragic passing in 2011.
It was Gary’s death that prompted me to talk openly about my own experiences with what was diagnosed as depression, but I now know is more specifically dysthymia; and in duly acknowledging the fine on-field performances of all those British and Irish teams this week, I want to close by simply saluting the memory and the bravery of Gary Speed.
It was a word I had never even heard until Monday… but the definition of these nine letters described me (and parts of my life) so accurately that I just had to share.
The word is dysthymia.
The condition was first identified as recently as 1980, and its diagnosis, certainly in this country, is very much on the increase. There are “official” symptoms of dysthymia, but essentially, it is a form of chronic depression that may be mild or intermittent for many years; to the extent that the sufferer may not even be aware there is anything wrong.
Symptoms can be vague in younger people, but when I saw this list of possible effects, I was shocked at how many I could (to a greater or lesser degree) tick off: habitually gloomy, pessimistic, humourless, or incapable of fun; passive and lethargic; introverted; sceptical, hypercritical, or complaining; self-critical, self-reproaching, and self-derogatory; and preoccupied with inadequacy, failure, and negative events.
I am definitely not all of the above… hard as it may be to believe… (I don’t see myself humourless, nor incapable of fun; in fact I enjoy a laugh almost as much as I love a double negative), but there are many traits there that have been part of me for as long as I can remember. When I was diagnosed with “depression”, there was a part of me that was relieved that there was an explanation for the way I was, but there was also a sense of being something of a fraud (if that’s the right word) because I didn’t feel “ill” as such, and there were no obvious outward signs of how hard it was to face or cope with every day—and interestingly that feeling of what can almost amount to deception (in the eyes of the sufferer) is another tell-tale sign of dysthymia.
The reason why the diagnosis is most often clumped together under the general banner of depression is that any visit to a doctor is likely to have been prompted by the effects of an unrelated illness or traumatic event, which has led to more extreme symptoms of withdrawal—i.e. “classic” depression symptoms. Strictly speaking, this extreme dysthymia is called “double depression” and it is the one-off more serious episode that is treated, rather than the long-standing underlying feelings, which the sufferer would almost certainly describe as “normal”.
What is really positive however is that it is possible to overcome the lack of energy, feelings of isolation and debilitating negative thoughts and still be able to achieve personal goals. It may be harder and take longer, but whilst dysthymia is a heavy burden to carry, failure is not inevitable; and the feeling on realising an aim or ambition is arguably much greater as a result. I can certainly identify with that sense of achievement at the fulfilment of a challenge (just as I can with the enduring symptoms of dysthymia), and whilst I may never completely conquer my lifelong fear of failure, no one can ever say I haven’t tried my best… and I’m actually really proud of that.
I saw this on Facebook, and thought I’d pre-empt the flurry of requests to participate by completing my random A-Z. Some answers may be different tomorrow... but I suppose by definition some will be different in sixty seconds...
A- Age: 51
B- Biggest Fear: Failure
C- Current Time: 06:09
D- Drink you last had: Tea
E- Easiest Person To Talk to: Anyone who's willing to listen.
F- Favourite Song: Too many to choose from... most influential is “Someone’s Gonna Die” by Blitz
G- Ghosts, are they real: Yes
H- Hometown: York
I- In love with: Elaine
J- Jealous Of: No one (occasionally slightly envious maybe!)
K- Killed Someone?: No
L- Last time you cried?: Listening to Lizzie Jones singing at Rugby League’s Challenge Cup Final
M- Middle Name: John
N- Number of Siblings: One
O- One Wish: Good health
P- Person who last called you: Someone asking if I’d had a recent accident that wasn’t my fault!
Q- Question you're always asked: Can I have your autograph Mr Clooney...?
R- Reason to smile: Making it this far
S- Song last sang: Rag Doll by the Four Seasons – can I hit the high notes? Absolutely I can!
T- Time you woke up: 5:23
U- Underwear Colour: Hang on a second.... Black
V- Vacation Destination: Croatia
W- Worst Habit: Worrying
X- X-Rays you've had: Brain, teeth, chest, hand, hips, knee...
Y- Your favourite food: Normally chocolate; right now it’s cold white toast
Z- Zodiac Sign: Gemini
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.
I’ve spent a lovely day today with my wife Elaine and my parents Anna and David, taking Dad back to his home town, Darlington. One port of call was Feethams, home of Darlington Cricket Club, where he had played in the 1950s before progressing into the Durham minor counties side, earning a Cambridge University “Blue”, and finally becoming Leicestershire County Cricket Club captain in 1962.
It was Dad’s first visit to Feethams in well over half a century, and although there have been plenty of changes, you could sense the memories were starting to flood back as he stepped onto the outfield.
Later in the day, we were chatting about cricketing times gone by; in particular a game played between Cambridge University and Leicestershire in July 1961.
Although Dad had already represented Leicestershire, he was skippering the University in this fixture, which was played at Loughborough.
The county won the toss, batted first and made 283, with opening batsman (and captain) Maurice Hallam top-scoring with 115. Dad came on first change (as you could when you were skipper...) and took 5-76, his career-best figures and only first-class five-wicket haul.
As you will soon see, however, the bowling honours were destined to belong to one of his team mates....
The University replied with 337-5 declared. Eddie Craig made 101 and Tony Goodfellow 81, the openers sharing a stand of 185.
It was uncommon for a first-class county to lose to university opposition, but at 154-9 in their second innings, the Foxes were in very real trouble. Their last man was Brian Boshier, whose reputation with the bat was such that the Grace Road groundsman would regularly start up his tractor as the tall medium-pacer strode out to the wicket.
What made the situation even more noteworthy was that the Cambridge opening bowler, Tony Pearson, had taken all nine wickets and the right-arm quickie was just one victim away from a rare and remarkable feat. Leicestershire obviously didn’t want to lose, but Dad knew only too well that they would want to avoid being on the wrong end of a “ten-for” at all costs.
He therefore brought himself onto bowl...
The first five deliveries were aimed well outside the off and leg stumps; wide enough to be essentially unplayable, but not wide enough to interest the umpire. However Boshier connected with the last ball of the over, and sent it sailing high towards mid-off....
The fielders all had clear instructions... catch nothing; but as the ball slipped through mid-off’s fingers, it started rolling towards the stumps. Boshier had perhaps unwisely started to run a single, but was hardly sprinting to make his ground as the ball continued rolling....
Eventually, the ball trickled past the stumps... Pearson handed the umpire his jumper (metaphorically, I have no idea what the weather was like)... and Boshier (career batting average 4.32) was on strike. Just three balls later, Leicestershire were all out (for 160), as Michael Willard claimed the catch to give Pearson figures of 10-78 from 30.3 overs.
At the time it was the joint 48th best analysis in the history of the game; fifty-four years later it is still ranked joint 60th. Unsurprisingly it was, and would remain, Pearson’s best-ever bowling figures, but it is interesting that he had never taken five wickets in a first-class innings before that extraordinary day.
Cambridge University, whose line-up included two future England captains in Tony Lewis and Mike Brearley, comfortably reached their victory target for the loss of four wickets, with Eddie Craig smashing an unbeaten 80 out of a final total of 109-4....
Time moves on I suppose, but it’s great that the memories remain... today has been a very good day!
As a postscript, here is Dad leading out the Cambridge side to face the Australian tourists at Fenners in 1961. He is flanked by Tony Lewis (left) and the tall figure of Richard Jefferson to the right. Jefferson (whose son Will also became a first-class cricketer) was a quick bowler capable of using his height to extract bounce from even the most placid of pitches. On one occasion, whilst bowling at Lord's, Jefferson produced a delivery that hit the famous ridge and flew at the batsman, hitting him in the face and dislodging a couple of teeth.
The batsman? In my Dad's eyes the best cricketer ever to have played the game... Sir Garry Sobers.