My deepest regret

I don’t know what it is that makes us look back sometimes, hunting down the smallest, most insignificant and mostly forgotten corners of our lives to find new material with which to torture ourselves. Perhaps as you get older it becomes easier to look back instead of forwards, given there are more years under your belt than over it; and perhaps the valleys of negative events are etched more vividly and viscerally into our memories than the featureless plain of happier times.

For whatever reason, a particular regret has been playing on my mind of late. I tend to live my life without regret, since everything I’ve done, right and wrong, has contributed to who and where I am now – the mountain does not blame the wind that shapes it. True, some things I might wonder about – what if I’d gone to university at 18; what if I’d continued my nursing studies; what if I hadn’t met my wife? – but for the most part, I don’t worry too much about the past. After all, the only thing we can influence is the present, and we can always strive to be better in the future. I have no qualms admitting when I’ve done wrong, and am not too proud to refrain from asking forgiveness.

However, as an intensely moral person, there are a few things I’m sensitive about. I like to think that, while I’m not necessarily a nice, or kind, or even friendly person, I am at least a good person; that is, when the chips are down, I do what is right, not what is easy. In my life I’ve helped drunks back to their flats, carried old people’s groceries to their cars, taken injured wildlife to the vet and tended those I couldn’t save. I’ve broken up fights, stood up for the weak, given lifts to people in distress and taken the punishments I knew others couldn’t endure. It is when I have fallen short of these ideals that I find most difficult to forgive myself.

So what is my deepest regret?

Every summer from the age of 9 to 15, I was sent off to Christian camp. It was an organisation called Covenanters, and I hated it. While I had some very enjoyable experiences over the years – rock climbing, abseiling, surfing, cliff diving – I detested everything else. I have never been comfortable in a social environment, struggling to form friendships or fit in, and since it would be another 15 years before anyone realised I had autism, I had zero insight into or support for my difficulties. My coping mechanisms didn’t extend beyond locking myself in the toilet to cry and lying awake at night wondering what I could say to my parents to get them to pick me up. Alas, these were my prime ‘character building’ years, so I had to take my punishment like a man.

The first three years of camp weren’t actually that bad because I was less aware of how much of a social misfit I was, and because we stayed in posh boarding schools – it felt a little like Harry Potter many years before Harry Potter was a thing. Other than group showers and raiders from other dorms, the indignities were kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately, in the final four years, camp became a literal camp. Home was a circular bell tent in a muddy field, the toilet was a plastic bucket behind canvas, and the showers were sprinklers over a wooden pallet. I no longer even had the minimal privacy of a bunk, and finding a toilet to cry in meant walking down to the local village on the occasional free afternoon.

Worse, puberty had kicked in, and with it a heightened sense of my own awkwardness and inability to get on with people. Desperate to fit in, everything I tried made me ever more of a social pariah. I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and be left alone, but of course, that made me more of a target. Considering these were Christian camps, the boys who went to them were the furthest from Christian behaviour I ever met. I suppose I could have spoken to an adult, but back then I was conditioned to putting on a brave face as I died a little more inside with every day that passed.

The final three years, the camp was at Polzeath in Cornwall. It was truly awful when I was 13, but I had my brother in my tent, so no matter how bad it got, at least I had an ally. When I was 14, it was just about the worst two weeks of my life. My brother was now a Junior Officer, so I barely ever saw him. I was a piece of meat served up to the butcher’s block, and they tore strips off me.

There were six to eight kids to a tent, ranging in age from 12 to 15, and there’s a lot of difference between a 12-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, especially when the older ones get their kicks from bullying the younger. If it’s never happened to you, you can never know what it’s like to have people go through your bag and mess with your stuff; to hide your things or tread them in the mud; to pour water in your sleeping bag; to ostracise you, make fun of you, call you names, mock everything you do and everything you stand for over two entire weeks, what you wear, what you say, how you say it, what you do, how you walk, every insecurity, the drip, drip, drip of breaking you down until you’re a wreck. And God forbid you show any emotion, or they circle round like hyenas. Baby’s crying, aw, you miss your mummy?

I saw my first porno mag that summer, many, many times, because when they realised I didn’t like it, they kept forcing it on me. Look at the flaps on that one! they’d say as they shoved a photo of a vagina in my face. What’s the matter, are you gay?

Other than me, the youngest in the tent was their whipping boy, but he spent the whole time trying to be their friends while I spent the whole time keeping my head down and trying not to get noticed. They held him down once and shaved his head with face razors while he screamed, and still he went back for more. The couple of nights it got physically violent – after they told him his parents were dead and he was an orphan – I stepped in to protect him, taking the blows and the anger directed at him, which made my situation even worse. So of course, he joined them in mocking me, because he wanted to be in their tribe, and it was obvious I was never going to be.

Understandably, I didn’t want to go back to camp when I was 15. I mean, fuck that, right? But there was still character-building to be done, so back I went.

Things had changed, however. Between the end of that awful summer of 1994 and the start of the next, I had changed. I’d started listening to a band whose lead singer had just killed himself, and for the first time I found a voice for my frustrations, a channel for my angst. I’d started teaching myself to play the guitar, and I’d discovered hitherto untapped depths of resilience from all the bullshit I was enduring at school.

I made plans. This time, I swore I wasn’t going to let camp beat me. I bought clip-on shades for my glasses so I could hide behind them if I needed to; a bunch of band T-shirts so I could wear my identity like a suit of armour on my chest; a cross-pendant necklace to remind myself of strength in the face of suffering; and a bag chock full of cassettes and batteries so I could shut out the world and be alone with my music. I would bring my guitar to fill up the spare moments; sign up to every activity and volunteer for every shitty job going, just to stay active and stay safe.

As an officer, my brother had to help set up the camp, so we arrived a day earlier than the other campers and spent the day erecting the marquee and toilet tents. There were only two others like me, so the three of us were put in the same tent that night.

Sometimes the darkness never seems to end; the morning never comes; and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desolate. I remember sitting at breakfast on a rough wooden bench, surrounded by adults, and none of them spotted I was crying behind my shades as I ate my cornflakes, lost in utter devastation. The night with those boys had broken me. Despite my preparation, nothing was different; I was no different. I wouldn’t survive the next two weeks.

Behind the scenes, however, my parents has been pulling a few strings to make things a bit easier for me. They’d insisted I be appointed tent leader – the camper in charge of the group when the junior, senior and tent officers weren’t around – and that I be the oldest in my tent. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the group dynamics of a bunch of teenage boys can probably tell you that appointing a leader is an utterly futile gesture, but there you go. It was better than nothing.

I moved my things to my assigned tent, put in my headphones and waited for my bullies to arrive.

And then the strangest thing happened, so strange I can scarce believe it even now – as they arrived one by one, and as the day passed, and then the night, and then the next day, they didn’t pick on me. I was shocked. Stunned. I felt like I was walking along a tightrope, and any moment I’d fall off it and they’d start on me, but as we ended the first week, and entered the second, it still hadn’t happened. I was surviving!

Of course, they didn’t think I was cool – that’d be too much to ask – but they didn’t mess with me either, and I was free to listen to my music, play the guitar, and do all the activities I’d signed up for without anyone making fun of me. I was so used to being excoriated simply for existing, to be free of it was like feeling the sun on my face after a lifetime of winter. For the first time, I wasn’t sneaking off to the village to cry in the toilets. For the first time, I felt like I could make it to the end without sobbing down the phone to my parents.

But there was a reason, and this brings me to the thing that’s been on my mind lately, my deepest regret. The youngest kid in the tent was a 12-year-old called John who looked 10 and dressed like he was 8 – tailored shorts, checked short-sleeved shirts, elasticated bow ties and neatly combed hair, like his mum had picked out his outfit, as she clearly had. You can imagine how the kids in my tent treated him.

The reason they didn’t bully me that summer was because there was someone else to pick on. And, to my eternal shame, instead of sticking up for him, all I could think was: thank God it isn’t me. Oh thank God it isn’t me.

I don’t want to minimise it in any way, but their bullying of him wasn’t bad relative to some of the stuff I’d not only witnessed but endured. They made fun of his clothes, of how young he looked, and how posh he sounded. They got cross with him when he was rubbish at inter-tent sports, and criticised him for being him. They teased him relentlessly, but they didn’t physically attack him or mess with his things or tell him his parents were dead. But of course, having been bullied all my life, looking at it objectively, and trying to say who had it worse, is to do a disservice to the lived experience – to John, it was torture.

How do I know this? Because he told me. Because we took it in turns, in pairs, to wash up at mealtimes, and he was my partner, and as I stood with my hands in the bowl in that greasy hot water, and as he dried up the plastic camping plates, he’d tell me how much he was struggling, and how he was looking forward to his parents coming to pick him up, and how he just wished it was over now, and you know what I said to him? Do you know what I did?

I cringe when I think of it. Despite knowing how he felt, despite being the person best-placed to help him, I fobbed him off with the exact same platitudes I couldn’t bear myself. ‘You’ll get through it. You just have to toughen up. It’s not that bad. You’ll look back on this experience and laugh.’ And worst of all, I gave him advice on how not to make himself a target.

He turned to me for help, me, his tent leader, and what did I do to help? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Other than a couple of, ‘Come on, guys, knock it off’, when they were taking it a bit too far, I let the others pick on him because I was afraid that if I intervened they’d start to pick on me. How cowardly. I had the chance to do the right thing and I stood by and did nothing. And that cowardice haunts me to this day.

I keep trying to excuse myself. I wasn’t doing the bullying, I say; I was never mean to him myself. But that’s not good enough – by allowing it, by enabling the others to act as they did, I’m equally culpable.

I was young, I tell myself, only 15 – but I knew right from wrong, even at that time, and I chose to do the wrong thing; rather, I chose not to do the right thing, out of fear for myself. I wanted him to be bullied, not me – age is no excuse.

I was bullied myself, I say, I was psychologically damaged, so I’m not responsible for whatever actions I took to protect myself. But that doesn’t work either, since knowing so intimately the damage that bullying can cause, I should have prevented it happening to another.

And he could have gone to an adult for help, I argue. But then, so could I. That’s victim-blaming at it’s finest. And he came to me, who was close enough to an adult to have done something. It was more than I ever did.

None of my excuses work. After six years of being eaten alive at summer camp, in the seventh I threw fresh meat to the wolves and fled up a tree. That’s about as far from a ‘good’ person as you can get.

If I could go back there, I’d tell the others to back off, no matter the consequences. I would rather I had been bullied that year than John. I was already damaged; I could take it. Instead, I might have started a sequence of events that led to him being bullied year on year. I could have stopped someone feeling as bad as I did, and I didn’t.

I’ve carried that guilt with me all my life. I knew him for two weeks twenty-five years ago. I don’t know his name or even where he was from. I don’t know if he remembers me; if this was a single blip he quickly got over or a recurring theme, if it shaped him as a person or lies forgotten. In truth, none of that matters.

What’s important is that remember. And it still torments me.

But then perhaps, as with everything, this event, and my inability to forgive myself for it, has made me the person I am today. Perhaps it’s this failure to do good that has made me so determined to do good in my life, and I should accept that while I’m always going to feel sore about it, it ultimately led to good. I can’t change what happened. I can’t change what I did, or really what I didn’t do. I can only promise never to repeat that mistake. You regret the things you don’t do far more than the things you do.

And if anyone knows a John in his late thirties who went to Covenanter Camp at Polzeath in 1995, tell him I’m sorry I wasn’t there for him when he needed me. If it’s any comfort, it’s my deepest regret.

The little things that kill: living with depression

As humans, I think we’re programmed to believe that only the big things matter. As kids, we innately believe that accidentally breaking the TV is worse than deliberately breaking a pencil, and even though we develop a better understanding of morality as we grow older, we continue to associate damage with size. I’ve argued before that we can see evidence of this in conspiracy theories, as we mistakenly believe that large effects must have equally large causes, and so invent labyrinthine plots to fit reality to our preconceptions, rather than our preconceptions to reality.

The same is true when we look at our lives. We spend so much time looking at the ‘big picture’ – our income, job, achievements, social status, family relationships – that we miss the little details that make up the whole. So often we reduce the wondrous complexity of our individual experience to a linear sliding scale, with ‘success’ at one end and ‘failure’ at the other, and pigeonhole ourselves as monolithic entities, without appreciating that we are a multitude of successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses – we are not the sum of our parts.

Yet despite knowing better, we apply this same misunderstanding to mental health.

In the media, in fiction, among our families and friends, the emphasis is always on singular, disproportionately large and simplistic explanations. A person is depressed because they’re single, or they lost their job, or they’ve suffered a bereavement; they kill themselves because of a relationship breakdown, money worries or a sudden trauma. It’s comforting to think like this, because it means the causes can be identified, and therefore treated. Like a weed growing in our minds, all we have to do is cut out the roots, and the mental illness will wither and die.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. For most of us with lifelong depression, it doesn’t have a single identifiable cause. It’s not a weed that can be excised, but a symbiotic parasite so interwoven throughout our being that the only way of killing it is destroying the host. I’m always suspicious of people who say they used to be depressed but they’re now ‘cured’, because I don’t believe it ever really goes away. Sometimes you’re winning, sometimes you’re losing, but you never stop fighting, and just as in any war, there are casualties in this conflict that can never be made whole again.

What people don’t want to acknowledge – what is perhaps terrifying to accept – is that there are millions of causes of depression, most of them so small and inconsequential that they pass us by unnoticed as the parasite slowly winds it’s way into our bodies. You don’t suffer a shock one day and wake up the next with depression – if only it were that easy! No, it creeps up on you, little by little, so that by the time you realise how much of a hold it has on you, it’s too late.

It’s the everyday things, the little things that don’t seem to matter, that lead you into depression. It’s the family get-together you skip because you can’t face the hassle. It’s the meal you miss because you can’t be bothered to cook. It’s the text message from a friend you mean to respond to, but put off so long you no longer know what to say. It’s the hobby that you can’t seem to find the time for any more. It’s the chocolate bar you insist is a one-off treat as the empty packets pile up around you. It’s yesterday’s clothes you put on because it’s too much effort to pick out a new outfit. It’s the letter you don’t open because it looks scary. It’s the lawn that grows too long because there are more important things to do. It’s the cross word with your partner that doesn’t get resolved. It’s the walls you put up against the people you love.

And it’s the escape you sink yourself into, the dark pit where you can curl up and feel safe. It’s the irritation you feel when people try to reach out to you. It’s the excuses you use to avoid anything that might help. It’s the growing awareness of how awful you feel, and how awful you are, and how awful the future appears, and how little you want to leave your isolated little hole.

That’s depression. Not a comet landing in your neatly ordered life and leaving devastation in its wake – it’s the glacier that slips slowly and silently and unstoppably into your world, covering everything in an impenetrable sheet of ice, where you can see your friends, your family, the sun, but they’re like ghosts behind glass, drifting away in a dimension you can never reach.

And the worst part? Most of the time you don’t have the self-awareness, the reflexivity, to even understand what’s going on. You think this is normal.

It’s only rarely, very rarely, that we can see ourselves from outside, when we have what alcoholics call ‘a moment of clarity’, or drug addicts ‘hitting rock bottom’, where we understand what we’re doing, and where we are, and the damage we’ve done to ourselves and others with our self-destructive behaviours. Most of the time we feel numb, and pointless – most of the time we don’t think what we do matters to anyone else – but for a few brief moments the cloud lifts from our minds and we can see how we fit into the world around us, and the impact we have on our loved ones, and we finally feel something, albeit bitterness, pain and regret.

And then, all too soon, it’s gone.

So what should we do in these moments? We have to focus on the little things. We have to do the opposite of what we want. If we want to hide in a dark hole, we need to step out into the light. If we’ve put up walls, we need to tear them down, hug and kiss our spouse, to enact the affection we no longer feel until we feel it again. We need to play with our children to bring back some of the joy. We need to laugh. We need to respond to friends and family. We need to restart the hobby we dropped. We need to open the post, mow the lawn, and make tomorrow a little easier than it is today.

In short, we need to resume the habits we’ve dropped, set us back on the right course, and do it quickly before the cloud returns in the hope those habits will hold us together until our next moment of clarity.

The little things got us here. Focusing on the little things will get us through.

For a time, at least.

It’s never too late to pick a new path

As a 23-year-old who had just finished a degree in film and just started a degree in nursing, I did something very stupid for someone living in a student house, working twelve-hour shifts in hospitals and care homes, and who didn’t have two pennies to rub together: I bought a violin.

Why a violin? At school, I used to watch other kids leave early to go to their violin lessons, and I was desperate to be one of them. There was something so sophisticated, so otherworldly, about those little black cases and those gorgeous wooden instruments. They spoke of a history and a culture almost unimaginable to a kid raised on Christian music and whose cultural horizons ended just outside the front door.

The violin stirred something in me, a nameless and poorly understood yearning for sharp suits, Corinthian columns and a tender beauty barely glimpsed behind a gossamer veil. I was terrified that if I reached out towards it, it would shatter – that such a fragile magnificence would never survive the cold light of day – but nonetheless, I wanted to throw myself into this feeling, and either triumph or be consumed.

Trouble was, I didn’t come from a musical family. There was an acoustic guitar in one corner for the occasional folk song and an organ in the other for hymns, but my parents weren’t particularly musical. They knew what they knew, and what they knew wasn’t much. While many of the children around me had rich educations in classical, or jazz, or blues, or rock, thanks to the tastes of their families, my brother and I knew the Christian songbook and little else.

But that doesn’t mean my parents weren’t open to our learning music. Being two years older, my brother was the trailblazer by which to gauge our musical potential, and his musical potential was, frankly, shit. My parents bought him a trumpet and paid for endless lessons, and over a couple of years of tone-deafness and refusal to practice, he hadn’t progressed beyond making fart sounds. In fact, I think his favourite thing about the trumpet was draining the spit from it.

So when it was my turn, I was rewarded with the recorder, a cheap, plastic abomination of an instrument that is torture for anyone within earshot, including the player, and a music teacher (the school’s head) so frightening that my hands would literally shake as I played. We learnt and played in a large group, and if there were any squeaks she’d stop mid-piece and make you all play solo so she could work out which of you to shout at. Needless to say, my recorder experience was not a crowning success.

When I later floated the idea, multiple times, of learning the violin, it’s therefore no surprise it wasn’t met with any enthusiasm. It was a waste of time and money for someone who hadn’t shown an ounce of musical flair, so while other kids had these fetishistic attachments to polishing pads and reeds and bows, gleaming metal and shining wood, I sat and watched and envied and swore that one day I’d learn violin.

Then something happened in my teens. My brother bought a CD by a band called Nirvana, whose singer had killed himself a couple of months earlier, and through the bedroom wall I heard something that I just couldn’t ignore. When he got bored of Nevermind after a few weeks, I bought it off him, and played it endlessly. For the first time in my life, I felt a visceral connection with something beyond myself, some intangible sense of the sublime, and I wanted to disappear into it.

Luckily, there was an acoustic guitar downstairs. Getting some guitar books with chord shapes in them, and watching a video that explained tablature, I threw myself into learning the guitar with the typical obsessiveness of an autistic teenager. I played every spare moment I had, teaching myself by ear, mastering techniques I didn’t know the names of like hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, natural and pinch harmonics, tremolos, palm-muting, pick slides. Eight to ten hours a day, I drove my family absolutely nuts repeating the same riffs over and over until I could play them perfectly without looking.

There were, however, a few massive problems with my training. As a lonely social outcast, I saw the guitar as my gateway into the larger world of music. If I could master the guitar, I thought, people would think I was cool and want to be my friend. The guitar was therefore a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I didn’t play it because I enjoyed it, though there was an element of that – what I enjoyed was impressing people with my ability, turning my obsessiveness into a positive and using my guitar-playing to compensate for my social deficits.

That meant that while I was focused on playing songs and riffs and solos, I wasn’t interested in anything to do with musical theory. You don’t need to understand why something works, I thought, in order to make it work. If I’m impressing someone with the solo from ‘Enter Sandman’, what does it matter that I can’t read music or know any scales or what all the notes are?

Looking back, I think this was partly because of my autism, since we’re often great at rote learning but lack a genuine, broader understanding of a topic. But in larger part, I think it’s because I’ve always had a massive inferiority complex to ‘musicians’. I was useless at music – the recorder showed me that. It’s too hard. I’m not capable; I’ll never be able to learn music; I’ll never be able to learn scales. Every lunchtime I watched the other kids go off into that glorious, unreachable world of orchestra and band practice, a world I knew was beyond my grasp.

I therefore ‘mastered’ the guitar without really knowing or understanding anything about the guitar. It got me out and about, it got me into bands, it got me socialising, but that was where it ended.

‘I can play the guitar, but I’m not musical,’ I used to say. ‘I know nothing about music.’

At 23, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be me. I thought that being able to play the violin would make me interesting, so I bought one – not because I wanted to play it for itself, but so I could be somebody else.

Of course, in an age before YouTube and on a shoestring budget with unkind (or sensible) housemates, teaching myself the violin the way I’d taught myself the guitar wasn’t something I had the time or inclination to pursue. After a few weeks I put it in the back of the wardrobe with the idea that I’d learn to play it eventually.

And there it sat for sixteen years.

It was a constant reminder that I’m not musical; that I don’t have what it takes to be a musician. Musicians are a special, select group, walking among us like gods who inhabit a mysterious, divine world that we mere mortals can only dream of.

A few weeks ago, I took it back out.

Earlier this year, I was in a really bad place. Nearing forty, I thought I’d reached the end of me. Nothing really gave me any pleasure. I didn’t look forward to anything, didn’t get excited, didn’t care if I lived or died. It was too late for me to do anything, I thought. Where I am now was where I would always remain.

One of the side-effects of depression, something I’ve struggled with all my life, is a lack of motivation. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say depression was invented by a diabolical genius – it makes you unwilling to do the very things that help lift you out of depression. Particularly if it’s something new.

So a few weeks ago, I decided I’d try to force myself out of my depression by teaching myself the violin. I spent hours watching videos online and trying to apply what I’d learnt, the cat-screech wail of my instrument testament to my utter lack of musical ability.

I was about to give in as the failure I always knew I was, when I suddenly came to a startling realisation that I wish I’d known sixteen years ago:

I don’t like the violin.

All these years I’ve spent looking up to violinists, I’ve been fixated on what they are rather than what they’re playing.

Even a good violin, played by a good violinist, is whiny. I don’t mind it as part of an orchestra to highlight or accentuate movements, but on its own it isn’t very pleasing to my ear. Why would I want to invest that much time and energy learning to play something in a room on its own that I don’t like the sound of in a room on its own?

So I asked myself the question: what do I like? The answer should have been obvious from the start.

Four years ago, while feeding my baby late one night, I was flicking through channels on the TV when I came across a concert by 2Cellos, a classically-trained Croatian two-piece. They were playing Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and there’s no other way to describe my reaction than that they blew my freaking mind. I had never seen such passion, energy, grace and talent, and when, a few days later, I recorded their 2013 concert at Pula Arena, I discovered that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the least of their triumphs. I then watched it more than fifty times, and bugged everybody in my life to watch it too.

For four years I’ve listened to people playing the cello and loved every moment of it. What started with 2Cellos moved on to Hauser and Yo-Yo Ma, ‘Schindler’s List‘ to Bach’s ‘Cello Suite No.1 Prelude‘. My favourite piece of music of all time is the opening four-note run in 2Cellos’ version of ‘Now We Are Free’ from Gladiator. It’s the bit where, in the original, Lisa Gerrard sang ‘We de(ee) zu’. I can’t explain why but those four notes resonate with something inside me. They communicate in a language beyond words, as if I have strings in my heart and God is playing them. People talk about having a ‘God-shaped hole’, and as someone who’s spent his whole life feeling disconnected, I’ve longed for the touch of the divine. Listening to the cello is the closest I’ve ever been to heaven.

So it is strange that never once in all that time, even in passing, have I ever considered learning to play the cello. It genuinely never occurred to me; didn’t cross my mind for a second. I see movies set in space and wonder if I’d make a good astronaut; I go to the doctor and wonder if I’d be a good doctor; so how big a mental blindspot must I have to obsess over cellists and never once consider learning to play the cello?

I guess it’s because I thought cellos are for musicians. They’re for other people, better people; people who went to orchestra at lunch, who understand music and would’ve been able to play the recorder. I believed, without question, that mine is to watch in humbled awe, to listen and be moved, not to participate. I never believed the magic could be mine to hold.

But why not? I suddenly realised, in this blinding explosion of the obvious, that I don’t want to play the violin – I want to play the cello. Not because of how it’ll make me look, not to make friends, not to join an orchestra or bore my family with recitals – I want to play the cello because I genuinely like the cello. I want to play it for me. I want to sit in a room on my own with nobody listening and play it for its own sake, with no other goal than to play. I want to feel the notes vibrating in my chest, and I want to understand it all.

For the first time in forever, which I know sounds awful for someone with a wife and two young children, I feel excited about the future. I feel hope. It’s like being a kid again, the first day of a new school. There’s a long journey ahead, but you look down at your feet and watch yourself take your first step, and you step into a larger world, a more colourful world, a bright place of endless opportunities, where things will never be quite the same.

I’m not unrealistic. I know it’s going to be hard. I’ll become disillusioned at times, there’s going to be plenty of frustration and tears, but it’s better to be on a path you want to follow than on literally any other path. All I know is that a year from now, I’ll be a better cellist than I am today; that in five years, I’ll be better than that; and in ten, who knows how far along that path I’ll be?

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we can’t do something because we’re too old, or we’re not good enough, or we failed in the past. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I can’t do music, that I’m too old to learn a new instrument, that unless you have a musical background growing up, there’s no place for music in your life. Therefore, for my whole life, I’ve been completely full of shit.

It’s never too late to pick a new path. Nothing is impossible.

I’m looking forward to the coming year.

Mental Illness and Me: a Testimonial

I am mentally ill.

Despite having been mentally ill for much of my adolescence and most of my adult life, it is still not an easy thing to admit. Nor is the word ‘depression’ something I’ve ever really been comfortable owning.

The Black Dog, the Cancer In My Mind, the Darkness That Never Seems To Let Me Go – all of those seem better somehow, more free from the stigma of depression. I’ve spent my life trying to pass it off as something else – genius twinned with madness, a self-destructive temperament, a personality disorder. Depressed? No, never that.

Luckily for me, I was diagnosed with autism, which is one of the best ways of avoiding facing up to your illness. You can attribute all of your problems and difficulties, whether motivational, social, functional, emotional, behavioural or cognitive, to that umbrella term. Don’t want to leave the house? Autism. Always interpret things in a negative way? Autism. Feel you just can’t cope anymore as a husband, a father, a human being? Always the autism.

And so I’ve spent the better part of a decade denying that I suffer from depression. I take antidepressants to tamp down the overactive sensory and central nervous system responses caused by my autism, I say. I take anxiety management and mindfulness courses to address my social phobia, I pretend. I wrestle with the urge to self-harm because I’m a father and I don’t want them to take away my kids, without ever asking why I even have those urges to begin with.

Why do I never admit I have depression?

Because I hate depression and I always have, ever since I was first formally diagnosed with it at 17. Because despite repeated assurances to the contrary, I always felt it was a weakness, something that happens to melodramatic teenagers and socially incompetent adults, and not real people. And because, as an illness, it’s just so self-centred, indulgent and sick.

Most of my prejudice comes from within. You’re a wimp, I think. Just get up and do it. Everyone else manages, so why can’t you? You haven’t got anything to be miserable about. Why are you just wallowing? Why can’t you take steps to get yourself out of this funk? Stop being such a fucking baby.

And yet the big secret, the one that nobody likes to admit, is that deep down we actually love our depression. Because it’s ours, and it’s been with us all our lives, our constant companion, and we don’t want to lose it. We get off on just how miserable we are. It’s part of us, and we look on those who ‘get better’ as traitors to themselves, because it’s not real, there’s no ever getting better, this is who we are, depression is what makes us special, and we think we can coexist with it, channel it, control it.

Until we reach a point, as I did a little over two weeks ago, where we realise that it has taken control of us, and it’s eating us alive, and there’s no place else to go but down.

I wish you didn’t have to reach rock bottom to get that epiphany. I wish there was a way that the insight would be granted you before you’re at the point of desperation. But there it is.

I went my doctor with a care worker, and as I started to tell her how I felt, all the denials fell away, and even I hadn’t realised how bad I’d become. As I put into words all the thoughts and feelings I’d bottled up, I discovered just how much I’d been holding in. For forty minutes it kept pouring out of me, the emptiness, the misery, the tears I had never shed. And bless the doctor, even though the appointment massively overran, she gave me the attention that I desperately needed at the time I needed it most.

She prescribed a new antidepressant, in addition to the one I’m already on, referred me to the Community Mental Health Team and sent me for blood tests for possible ME. And despite being hit by a multitude of side-effects – dry mouth, tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, and a sudden dizziness that comes on every time a dog barks, a door slams or my phone vibrates in my pocket – I feel like a different person. Whether it is because of the pills, the distraction of the side-effects, the outpouring of emotion or some kind of placebo doesn’t matter to me at all. All that matters is that I’m not where I was.

What is astonishing is the change I’ve seen. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. My thoughts are clear, my heart is stilled. The guy who walked into that doctor’s office a week ago – that angry, bitter, resentful, miserable, broken wretch of a person – is gone. And I’m glad. That guy wasn’t me. I don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t me. A veil has descended over him, as over the dead, and I struggle even to connect him to me. It is as though Gillan died, and I am what has been reborn in his stead.

So finally, with the clarity of thought to reflect, I look at him, this agitated, toxic, troubled soul, and I think: how the hell did he get like that? How did he get like that and how did he manage to keep going so long?

The second question answers the first: he got that way because he kept going so long.

I read a book a few years ago entitled Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, by Dr Tim Cantopher. The central premise flips the received wisdom on its head – people with depression are not the weak ones in society but the strong. The weak encounter something difficult, unhealthy, damaging, and they run away from it, quit, give up. The strong put up with it, and press on, and keep going, long after they should. The weak do not endure long enough to get depression; the strong keep going, with no let up or sense of quit, until they’re used up and literally can’t go on any more.

That’s why Gillan got to where he was two weeks ago. He was too damn strong for his own good.

But now he is me, and I will no longer deny it.

I am mentally ill.

I am depressed.

I won’t be quite so strong in future.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.