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Coming out, all over again

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but this week’s unremittingly horrible events in the French Alps and the subsequent reporting of them have nudged me to get on with it.

A few weeks ago I went to an event at the gorgeous new Foyles on Charing Cross Road. An author called Matt Haig was talking about his new book, Reasons to Stay Alive. I discovered Matt last year, when a friend retweeted once of his tweets, the subject of which I have long forgotten. Whatever it was it got my attention, and I clicked through to read some more of his tweets and found I liked what he had to say. Then I bought his book The Humans, which is well worth a read. I also learned that Matt had suffered with depression and was writing a book about it, the aforementioned Reasons to Stay Alive. He posted some extracts like this one which really caught my attention.

They caught my attention because at the time I was “going through some crap”, or “having some health problems” as I had coyly taken to calling it. Or, to be technically and medically accurate, I was suffering from anxiety and depression. To cut to the end of the story (spoiler alert!) I’m now much better, although one of the many things I’ve learned is that it’s not something you can ever be “cured” of. I’ve had two bouts of it in the past few years, and odds are it will happen again. It will always be loitering somewhere in the depths of my brain, though hopefully dormant for the majority of the time. And with every bad spell I learn more about how it works and how I can deal with it. And most importantly I know that I’ve felt rubbish before and it has gone away. This too will pass…. It’s a cliché for a reason.

Anyway, back to the stuffy room on the top floor of Foyles with a warm glass of wine. Matt mentioned how talking about depression was like coming out. As someone who has done the more traditional coming out as well as this one, it’s entirely true. In both contexts I absolutely hate the “coming out” conversations; if I could click my fingers and have people just know, that would be fine. By all means gossip about me behind my back, saves me the hassle. Because in my (maybe lucky) experience, nobody has a problem with my sexuality or my mental health… at worst they feel awkward and don’t know what to say. And frankly if people do have a problem with it, I don’t care, it’s their problem and they’re welcome to get out of my life.

It’s often said that the first person you have to come out to is yourself, to acknowledge who you are. It’s the same with mental health. At some point you have to realise that a line has been crossed. Everyone gets stressed sometimes, or maybe has bouts of feeling fed up, or low, or “small d” depressed. It’s difficult to spot when it has become capital S Stress, capital D Depression, or in my case capital A Anxiety, not least because you’re not thinking too clearly at the time.

What was it for me? I had been pretty fed up for a while, a few things were not working out as I had hoped and I was pretty angry and fed up about them, plus I had quite a lot on my plate. Nothing special about that – bit of small s stress and small d depression. Eventually though that spiralled into more destructive thoughts that all too easily became self-perpetuating: life was a disappointment (hello capital D Depression), I had so much to do and couldn’t get my head around how to tackle any of it (hello capital S Stress) and I would waste huge amounts of time being indecisive over what the best course of action was (hello capital A Anxiety).

Every day began with the mammoth challenge of getting out of bed. Despite knowing that getting up and doing something, anything, would instantly make me feel better and that staying in bed never helped, it’s all I was able to do. The logical side of my brain was screaming at me to just get on with it, but the hysterical side was screaming louder. It was very noisy. If each side had just shut up for 5 minutes maybe I could have snapped out of it. Then you move onto the meta-depression – depressed about being depressed. What if I never snapped out of this? Was I going to waste my entire life? Fail to live up to my potential? How Depressing!

To make myself feel even worse I threw a hefty dose of guilt into the mix as well. I had an OK life… a decent job which paid well and, despite my protestations, people thought I was good at. I had a roof over my head, which I even owned (well, co-owned with the bank). I had good friends and family and my health, silly brain aside, was fine. What right did I have to be so unhappy?

I couldn’t even explain what the problem was. I am fortunate enough to have many people in my life who I could talk to and who were endlessly supportive. One friend in particular would regularly get in touch to check how I was feeling; I always felt terrible to report that nothing had changed. How endlessly tedious for them; they were trying to help and I wasn’t giving them anything back.

Fortunately for me I was able to acknowledge that something was wrong and I went to my GP to get some help, which came in the form of a prescription for anti-depressants and some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Taking the first pill was a huge step… I stared at it for a good while, attaching far greater significance to it than was reasonable. It felt like crossing a line and committing to this being the new me. I didn’t want to be on anti-depressants, it didn’t fit in with who I thought I was. But I was ill and I didn’t want that, far more than I didn’t want to have to swallow a pill every morning.

I don’t want to get into the debate over the effectiveness of anti-depressants, not least because everyone is different and my experience is unique to me. In short the medication made me worse in the short term, which is very normal. I have no idea how much it helped in the long run; I took them and now I’m much better and am coming off them. How much did the pills contribute to my turnaround? I have no idea. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter.

Brilliant though our NHS is it took a good few months to start the CBT and by that time I was feeling much better. It’s very difficult to do CBT when the tangled mess of thoughts is no longer clogging up your brain… it’s pretty indescribable when you’re going through it, let alone when it has passed. So instead I spent a few sessions with a therapist discussing the condition from a theoretical standpoint, which was fascinating. Just having someone listen and recognise the symptoms I was talking about, which to me seemed ridiculous, was hugely reassuring. Another point Matt Haig makes is how you can feel like the only person in the world who has ever been through this experience, or at least this flavour of it. As it turns out we’re not unique and we’re not special. Sorry.

And that’s the reason I’m writing this. Something that did make me feel better was knowing that I wasn’t the only one going through this, and the internet is an endless source of articles, blogs and thoughts on the matter. Talking helps, and so does listening and reading. So this is my contribution. Maybe it will help someone to read about a normal(ish) guy who got laid low by this illness. Middle class, gay accountants who work in higher education and have an unhealthy enthusiasm for the Minions from Despicable Me can get depression too.

The other reason I wanted to write is because of what has happened this week. I doubt we will ever know what was going on in the mind of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot believed to have deliberately guided Germanwings flight 4U9525 into the Alps. Clearly something went horribly wrong, and it’s right that all efforts are made to work out what that was and more importantly if anything can be done to prevent it happening again.

The reality of the story has been horrific and that should be the focus. Yet I have spent more time this week reflecting on the horror of how the newspapers have reacted. At best crass and reactionary, at worst downright dangerous, I am stunned that in 2015 we have seen the headlines that we did this week. I would give some examples, but frankly it’s too depressing (pun intended). To attempt to understand Lubitz’s condition is not to condone his actions, and demonising or scare-mongering about mental health will only serve to fuel the stigma and deter vulnerable people from opening up about it, which clearly was a major factor in this case. This nonsense has to stop. Now. It’s unhelpful, it’s dangerous and, frankly, it really pisses me off.

As my mouse veers towards the “Publish” button, I feel like I should be nervous… what if, for example, an employer reads this? What if the newspapers are simply reflective of their attitude to mental health? Could I be damaging my career? I’m pleased to say that my current employer is incredibly supportive on issues like this. And as for a future employer, if they do have a problem then I probably don’t want to work for them anyway. Their loss.

 

PS In the style of a sincere end credits voiceover, if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, I would recommend having a read of Mind’s website which has some excellent resources and advice. Go and see your GP… they won’t roll their eyes and laugh you out of their office, honest. Read Matt Haig’s book. And talk to someone (even me if you like), it helps.

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Something unremittingly happy

Ashley and Ivanka's weddingI am often, and probably fairly, accused of being something of a grump. Well, we all need to be good at something. So just for a change, here’s something that is 100% positive, cheerful and uplifting.

Last weekend I had the joy of being part of Ashley and Ivanka’s big fat Ukranian wedding in Manchester, taking up the dubiously titled role of best man. As my good friend Matt has so eloquently blogged, weddings can be somewhat trying affairs, especially for us singletons, and all the more so when you have responsibilities including getting up in front of a room full of strangers and trying to be funny. Obviously one is always happy to see their friends celebrate their union, but let’s face it, weddings can be ten-a-penny when you’re in your late twenties and early thirties.

So here’s the thing… it was lovely. From start to finish. Even though I didn’t have a clue what was happening for a lot of the time (there was a lot in Ukranian). Starting with the rehearsal and dinner on Thursday, the quiet night in with Ash’s family on the Friday, to the big day itself. Having been so busy worrying about all the things that needed to be done and remembered, it suddenly hit me that actually what this was all about was my two friends getting married.

There was of course the added pressure of the speech – I think it went reasonably well, people seemed to laugh at the right places and nobody walked out. A few people who weren’t there have asked to read it, so I’ve reproduced it below. Apparently some of the stories turn out not to be 100% accurate, but why let the truth get in the way of a giggle.

With that out of the way, it was time to let the hair down. By which I mean get riotously drunk. I don’t think I disgraced myself, but it was great to spend an evening laughing, dancing and generally being daft with good friends. I finally got to bed at 4:30… which given I had to drive from Manchester to London the following day probably wasn’t sensible. But screw sensible for once… although if anyone has video of the midnight performance of the Macarena, I want all copies destroyed.

The hotel was stunning, and there’s nothing quite like staying in a hotel where you’re part of the wedding party – nothing is too much trouble. Pot of tea at 11:30pm? No problem. Although I was alarmed by how easy it was to get a key to the honeymoon suite at 1am! And I’m sure they judged us for the 3:30am room service call for more champagne: “No, we don’t want anything to eat with that!”.

There are some pictures on my (new) Flickr account, although I’m sure others will have many more that are far better – I can’t wait to see the official ones. And just down there is a little video I shot at the reception of the Ukranian dance troop that Ivanka was once part of, trying to teach Ash some moves. Note I was hiding behind a pillar, for fear of being roped in myself!

And surely, someone, somewhere must have been able to take one picture of me that I actually like. Well, not so far. Shit, this was meant to be unremittingly positive wasn’t it.

The speech

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m James, the questionably titled best man. 10 years ago in the corridors of Imperial College’s computer science department I met a shy, cantankerous, geeky young man with a receding hairline and for both our sins we’ve been friends and drinking partners ever since.

Before we get down to business, I must first reiterate the groom’s compliments to the bridesmaids who have done a wonderful job and look absolutely amazing, and on their behalf thanks to Ashley for his kind words. On any other day these bridesmaids would have stolen the show but of course that accolade belongs firmly to the beautiful bride – Ivanka you look stunning, and I think we can all agree that Ashley is a very lucky man.

Can I also say a big thank you to my fellow groomsmen Matt and JJ who haven’t scrubbed up too badly themselves and have proved invaluable in the run up and the course of today.

Finally on the list of thank yous, on behalf of I’m sure everyone here I would like to thank Ashley and Ivanka for inviting us to be part of their special day. It has been truly magical and it has been a pleasure for us all to share it with you, so thank you for having us.

It was an honour to be asked to be Ashley’s best man. Being the awkward modern man that most of us are, the invitation wasn’t exactly moving – I seem to remember Ash’s exact words were “Ivanka says I should ask you to be my best man”, which I think sets the scene quite nicely.

Of course the answer was yes and it is a pleasure to be here now, but I must admit to some anxieties as the day approached. Of course the main worry for any best man is the speech – what if they don’t laugh? Well I’ve sorted that, so if the dozen or so people I have bribed to find everything I say hysterical would like to come and find me at the end, you can collect your five pound notes. (Alright, I’ll make it a tenner).

The other big anxiety was the sheer complexity of the wedding ceremony and the proceedings surrounding it. Not being familiar with the Ukranian traditions I have been keen over the past year to get my head around all the customs that would form part of this special day, but to be honest it’s all been a bit of a blur. All I kept hearing about was lots of sacred cloths, lots of candles being passed back and forth and a fair amount of vodka. The whole thing sounded to me like something of a fire risk.

Of course a fire risk would be appropriate since our lovely couple met thanks to their involvement in the College Motor Club which maintains Jez, a 1916 Dennis Brothers N type London Fire Brigade appliance and now mascot of the Royal College of Science (is that right?) which you may have seen over the course of today. Many decades old, prone to regular breakdown and in need of constant care and attention, Ashley spent many an hour in the Jez garage, which is where he met Ivanka. Eventually Ashley summoned up the courage to ask Ivanka on their first proper date. As we’ve already heard, Ash is a master of the sincere and touching invitation, and I think us singletons could learn a thing or two about the art of enticing that special someone out for a romantic evening. So what were the words that Ivanka could not resist? What was it that finally melted her heart and persuaded her that Ashley was worth the time of day. Pens and paper at the ready gentlemen, here they were:

“I’ve got a 2 for 1 voucher for Bella Italia, fancy going dutch?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ivanka may not have recognised the significance of this invitation. Either that or some kind of automatic defence mechanism meant her brain refused to process the concept of a date with Ashley, so she perhaps thought this was just a friendly invite from a mate, and not a romantic gesture. As a result, her response was not quite what Ash had in mind:

“Sure. Let’s invite JJ along too.”

Ashley was, as you would expect, heartbroken. Because as all good spend-thrifts know, a 2 for 1 voucher with 3 people is not maximising the saving.

So with that in mind, I have a little something for our happy couple… a 2 for 1 voucher at Bella Italia! So you can recreate that special evening – with or without JJ, it’s up to you.

Despite this initial hiccup, eventually the seeds of love were sewn and 6 years later here we are. The fact that Ashley proposed shortly after finding a discount voucher for suit hire is, I’m assured, completely coincidental.

When I came to write this speech, I thought I should include something about why Ashley and I have been friends for so long. I thought long and hard about this…. but came up with nothing. Fortunately being a compulsive geek, I have kept almost every email I have ever sent and received so thought I would go back and see what Ashley and I used to talk about back when we first met, and there I found the answer as to why he has been such an invaluable friend. For what I found was dozens of emails of him answering my annoying questions about how to do various pieces of coursework and programming exercises – I knew there must have been some reason why I put up with him!

But what I also found was that Ashley tended to use email mainly to forward jokes to his friends. And one in particular caught my eye – in total honesty Ashley sent this to me on 16th December 2001, and I would like to share it with you now. It’s called “Romance Mathematics” (yes, we really were that cool). According to this formula, a dumb man plus a dumb woman equals a one night stand. A smart man plus a dumb woman equals an affair. But a smart man plus a smart woman equals romance. Is that what we have here today?

Of course there is one more combination left… a dumb man plan plus a smart woman. And that ladies and gentleman, equals marriage.

Another traditional element of the best man’s speech is of course the tales of drunkenness and depravity involving the groom. Unfortunately as Ash and I were both born middle-aged – although in my case only in mind-set and not hairline – there was not much to tell. I had hoped that the stag weekend would throw up something revelatory, but alas I made the mistake of appointing JJ the head of debauchery and the best he could come up with was a shaving foam pie in the face. I’m reliably informed that won’t happen today, though Ash if you’ve got the 2 for 1 voucher for the dry cleaning I’d keep it handy.

There were however some snippets of conversation that I think warrant sharing… obviously it would be indiscreet of me to disclose too much, so I shall remove all context and just give you with the following three quotes from the groom himself:

  • “A camel is much more useful than a woman.” (someone might be getting the hump)
  • Referring to Chris, his sister’s boyfriend: “I’d swap Ivanka for Chris”. Look out Stacey.
  • “If I’m going to wake up with face full of shaving foam then I want JJ’s sausage afterwards”.

I’d like to tell you that these were less disturbing with the benefit of context, but they really weren’t.

Stag night aside I did try to seek out embarrassing stories from Ashley’s past – I even asked his little sister for any stories of his younger years, but nothing was forthcoming. Which can only mean that he has a completely clear record and has led a life of purity, integrity and decency. Or, more believably, that he has had anyone with anything to tell sworn to silence through bribery, blackmail or, most likely, sinister threat. Nobody, it seems, dares mess with Dr Brown. In fact after the cheap shots about his hairline I’m half expecting to find a horse’s head in my bed tonight.

But enough of his Lordship here, what of our beautiful bride? We can all see how beautiful she is, but what you can’t see with your eyes is that she has a beautiful personality to match. Always with an infectious smile on her face, always up for a good chat, always interested in other people, even those she’s just met – she really is one of the friendliest people I know. And knowing Ashley’s exacting standards, she must be doing something right to have won him round.

It’s almost 10 years to the day that I’ve known Ashley, and I can honestly say that the 6 he has been with Ivanka have been his happiest. He’s gone from being that geeky boy that I met in a corridor in 2001 to being the charming, successful man who has achieved amazing things, albeit with less hair.  And I’m sure his success and happiness has been more than partly thanks to his other half.

Ivanka, all joking aside, you’ve got one of life’s good guys, and I’m sure he will spend the rest of his life loving and supporting you and doing his utmost to bring you every happiness, as I’m sure you will him.

And if all else fails, at least he can always fix the computer.

Ladies and gentlemen that’s me done, so all that remains is for me to ask you to be upstanding….

And raise your glasses to Ivanka and Ashley, the bride and groom.

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