One of the symptoms of a number of mental health conditions – including the dysthymia from which I suffer – is the mind’s ability to find the negative in almost any situation and instil an objectively disproportionate but subjectively almost overwhelming sense of failure.
Consequently, now might be considered as perhaps not the best time to be writing this blog; but I actually think it’s the perfect time…
Essentially yesterday was intended to be a “road trip” to visit ten professional rugby league grounds in seven hours, with the “challenge” (for the hundred-and-somethingth time) being used to raise mental health awareness and (for the first time) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Gateshead Thunder’s debut season as a rugby league club.
As with any event of this kind, there had been plenty of planning … and Castleford, Wakefield, Dewsbury and Braford were all “ticked off” with a minimum of fuss.
I’d never been to in Castleford before, but Gateshead Thunder enjoyed a narrow win at “The Jungle” against Stuart Raper’s 1999 side in front of the Sky cameras – a result that gave the newly-assembled squad some real credibility given how strong Cas were that season.
My first ever Gateshead Thunder away game was at Wakefield. I stood in the corner of the ground, on the opposite side to the rest of the relatively small, but incessantly noisy Thunder Army, and watched as a likely defeat turned into an exhilarating victory with a last-minute try from Brett Grogan.
Dewsbury was a club that Thunder faced after the Super League adventure had ended. We played well there on a couple of occasions, but the home side were always just too strong.
I also stood on the Odsal terraces back in ’99, as the Bulls ran out comfortable winners. They had an outstanding squad and headed the division at the end of Super League IV, but lost out to St Helens in the Grand Final. Yesterday though, there was still as sense of euphoria around the stadium, after the club’s thrilling televised Challenge Cup win over Leeds Rhinos.
I’m sure the celebrations went on well into the West Yorkshire night, but judging by the number of plastic cups that were being cleared from the terraces, the alcohol had been flowing fairly freely during the 80 minutes as well.
The next leg of the journey was the 15 miles to Huddersfield. I’d heard on the news that the westbound M62 was shut, but was hoping that whatever the reason, the motorway would be back up and running when I needed to cross into Lancashire. The sat-nav said it would take 33 minutes to get to the John Smiths Stadium – it lied.
An hour and 15 minutes later I trundled into the car park and strolled into the stadium that had witnessed the first hat-trick to be scored by a Gateshead Thunder player. Deon Bird was the man who crossed for three tries 20 years ago … and it was fitting that I was wearing Deon’s original away shirt as I gazed out across the pitch.
Rochdale was only 15 miles away. The M62 was apparently still closed, but the sat-nav said an alternative route would take 66 minutes – it lied.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I was still (according to the ever-reliable technology) 57 minutes away, with stationary traffic queuing as far as the eye could see.
By then, it was a question of whether the car engine or my mobile would overheat first, and it soon became obvious that there was no realistic chance of reaching any (let alone all) of the remaining five grounds before offices would begin to close for the day; so I decided to turn the car round and head back east – a manoeuvre that I completed perfectly except for stalling on the uphill reverse section of my five-point turn.
As I drove home, I was just so disappointed. It’s hard to convey how I felt because the reality was that I’d simply got stuck in an unavoidable traffic jam. However I’ve always made a direct connection between whatever “challenge” I’ve attempted and the messages that it’s fine to talk about mental health or ask for help if you’re struggling … but how could I expect people to listen to those messages when I couldn’t even drive to ten rugby league grounds?
To many, it will sound trivial; but in my mind, at that moment, I’d failed.
And whilst I still can’t fully erase the feelings of failure that have accompanied me over the past 40 years, I am incredibly fortunate that since that first visit to my GP (some 15 years ago now), I have become able to speak openly about how I feel and equally importantly have the ability to take a step back and look at things with some objective clarity.
To me the admittedly simplistic connection between the challenges and talking about mental health has real validity. If I look beyond the initial sense of failure, there is perhaps a different message to take from the day…
Very few things in life are accomplished without some sort of effort. If we don’t try, we can’t realistically succeed. I didn’t reach all ten grounds … but I tried; and if I’d simply stayed at home, I wouldn’t have relived so many wonderful memories from years gone by.
Yesterday has reinforced the fact that there are always things in life that are out of our control – and even if it sounds naïve (or even contrived) the M62 simply reflected the reality of mental health recovery. It’s not easy, and sometimes there are setbacks along the way; but it’s so important to try … and keep trying … because you’re only ever one day away from a “better day” and one attempt away from achieving something amazing.