Anyone who's ever read my writing won't be surprised to learn that I have mental health problems. If I had a penny for every time I've been described as warped, I'd have..... well, I'd have four or five pence. But that's not the point. The only question here is why fate couldn't come up with anything more original for me than that tired old cliche - the depressive comedy writer.
But let's start with some of my poems about the despair of suicide.
This one's called 'Why is My Oven Electric?'...
Or perhaps not. It's one thing to be depressed, it's another to be depressing. If this page has a purpose, it's to make the point that mental illness shouldn't be something to be ashamed of. We all have something wrong with us, but that doesn't make us different, it makes us all the same. Clinical depression is what's wrong with me. And what's different about me? Only that I'm being open about it.
My brain was always the one part of my body I was proud of. So let's face it, it was always going to be the first organ to fail. Fate has an ironic streak like that. Illness has cost me my twenties, but it could so easily have cost me my life, so in the words of Al Bundy, "That doesn't make me a loser, that makes me a winner." Of course, Al Bundy really was a loser, so my argument falls down there.
I've recovered a lot from my illness in the last three years. If I hadn't, you wouldn't be reading this now. A few years ago I wasn't capable of writing so much as a post-it note, so this website alone is proof of the progress I've made. Whatever you may think of my writing, the fact that I can produce anything at all after nine years of illness is a source of great pride to me.
I'm very quickly going to get bored with typing the word 'depression' here, so for comedy purposes I think I'll substitute the word 'Dave' for depression, ok?
Right. I first went to the doctor to complain about Dave in the late summer of 1994. He'd been hanging around and bothering me for quite a few months. My doctor knew all about him - she'd encountered Dave's effect on quite a number of other patients. I was given anti-Dave pills on my very first visit, which slightly surprised me, but to be honest it was just a relief to be told my feelings were down to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and not laziness, or the curse a gypsy woman put on me two years earlier when I'd refused to buy some lucky heather at Romford market.
I was put on about five or six different drugs over the next two and a half years, but still Dave refused to leave. In fact, the two of us formed an even closer relationship. I was spending so much time with Dave that I couldn't do anything else, or see another soul. I became a total recluse. And on top of that, the anti-Dave drugs were having horrendous side effects. These ranged from tiredness so extreme that I couldn't walk 400 yards without falling asleep for an hour, to nightmares so vivid I would literally wake up screaming. Oh happy days.
Ironically, the one drug which didn't cause me side effects was Lustral, which has since been held at least partially responsible for the actions of an American man who shot dead three members of his family and then killed himself. So quite honestly, I got away lightly. I just suffered dreams about things like that. I didn't have to experience the reality.
But a serious point: I know anti-depressants do help a lot of people, but we wouldn't put a dog through the kind of side effects these pills can trigger. I can't honestly believe we should be licensing drugs which are known to have such damaging effects. And depressed people are the one group least equipped to deal with them. By definition they lack the mental strength to cope with drug induced side effects. I can't help wondering how many people take their own lives because of the illness, and how many because of the drugs. All jmho, but I feel I'm in a position to comment.
Back to the plot. The drugs had a major effect on me... but none at all on Dave. He couldn't care less what pills I took. Psychiatrists had a similar effect. Nothing bolstered Dave like a bit of counselling. I'd like to give an example now of the quality work that is taking place in NHS psychiatry departments in Britain today. This was my first major psychiatric consultation, held not with some small-time newly qualified doc, but with the doctor in charge of psychiatry for the whole of south Cambridgeshire. The big cheese if you will. Or the big fruitcake as I prefer to think of her. With the bedside manner of a rottweiler, these are the questions she barked at me within two minutes of sitting down:
Date of Birth?
Do you masturbate?
And the scary thing is, I'm not joking. As a naive 21 year old, depressed, and already terrified at having to see a psychiatrist, that virtually pushed me over the edge. In fact, over the following few months, this particular doctor did more to push me towards suicide than Dave ever could. And that was despite me refusing to go and see her after being genuinely traumatised by that first meeting. It didn't stop her turning up at the house and threatening me in person though. Which brings me to...
Serious point number two: There's still a stigma attached to mental illness in this country, and one of the major causes imho is the behaviour of certain healthcare professionals. I wasn't mad, I wasn't dangerous, I wasn't a threat to anybody but myself, but still I was treated at times like an animal who ought to be locked up. At one stage this doctor turned up unannounced and told me she would have me sectioned if I didn't do as she said. If this is how the top doctors treat depressed people, then it's not surprising there's a general suspicion and mistrust of the mentally ill in this country.
OK. Well in all my years, I've never felt closer to Dave than I invariably did in the aftermath of a counselling session. So clearly that wasn't the answer for me. And if Dave didn't kill me himself, then the drugs would have, so that avenue was a bit of a cul-de-sac too. I came off the anti-Dave drugs in early 1997, and after clinging on by my fingertips for a few more months, I tried homeopathic medicine. By no means the first 'alternative' treatment I'd tried, but the first to have a measurable effect. Improvement has been slow and gradual, but ongoing, and I can date it precisely from the week I started taking those tablets. I've taken them ever since.
Moving home was the other major factor. The cliche of a fresh start in a new area, away from the scenes of so many bad experiences. Dave found it hard to settle in Shotley Gate, and he started to spend less time here, giving me more time to spend on other things.
In spring 2000 I got myself a computer and experienced the internet for the first time, which also proved to be a bit of a watershed in my relationship with Dave. Unable to face people in real life, I found I could communicate online. It gave me a connection with the outside world for the first time in six years. And bizarrely it was a gaming site which made all the difference to me - Funbets - silly name, great site (but sadly now defunct). I made numerous friends there, most of whom are on the other side of the Atlantic, and all of whom, bar one, knew nothing of Dave. I started posting on the Funbets Newsgroup, and for the first time in five years I was writing again. Just short paragraphs on an internet message board, but more than I'd been able to write in years. I started getting private messages from people telling me how much they loved my writing.... people saying they'd waited all day just for me to come online and post something funny.... people announcing that their one wish for 2001 would be for me to post more on the newsgroup.... even someone forcing their husband to join the game just so that he could vote for me in a player popularity poll.
None of these people knew anything about me, and as a consequence had no idea just what a difference they were making to my life. Which only made it all the more powerful - I knew they weren't just being nice out of pity for me. After years of believing, knowing, that my life was over, these people made me start to feel that maybe I wasn't quite so useless after all, and that maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to write again.
And then there was Paula (who I'm sure is going to be thrilled that the only mention she gets on this site is near the bottom of the depression page). She was the one Funbetter who knew the terrible truth about me and Dave, and she became my closest friend, a position she still manages to cling onto to this day. She not only understood me, she understood Dave too, and I can't underestimate the difference she made to my life. (However much I try, hehe...)
Ironically, Funbets helped me so much that I was able to start doing other things, and consequently began to spend less and less time there. Writing this piece is an attempt to appease not only my conscience, but also those Funbetters who have every reason to be a bit narked at me ignoring them so much after all they did for me. Sorry guys.
When I was shut away at home with Dave all day, I put on ten stone in five years. One of my biggest achievements has been to lose more than nine stone of that in the last two years. It's also the most obvious change in me, being the only physical manifestation of a mental illness.
So that's it. Am I cured now? No. But I've learnt to manage my illness like a pro. There are things wrong with me, but there's also a lot that's right. Depression affects every aspect of my life in some way, and limits some of the things I can do, but that's changing all the time. For each of the past four years I've been capable of more than I was the previous year. I've missed out on a lot of things in life - I'm at the age when most people are starting to think about settling down, and I've barely even begun yet. But for the first time in 7 or 8 years, I'm looking forward to the future, rather than thinking about the past.
Oh my god, I can't end on a cheesy line like that. Um...
Abandoned in a hedgerow at birth and raised by sparrows, I still find time to hold the occasional reunion with members of my adoptive family. With hair and glasses like that I clearly had good reason to be depressed, but ironically this was two years before I started hanging out with Dave.
Celebrating four years of unbroken friendship, I smuggle Dave down the steps under my t-shirt.
He doesn't write, he doesn't return my calls - sometimes I wonder if Dave loves me at all. Ignore the expression on my face - I'm actually less insane than I used to be, honestly.
I wrote the above on 15th February 2003. It's now September 3rd, so I think it's time for a little update. In the past six months, my relationship with Dave has grown increasingly distant. He still keeps in touch, and calls round when he can, but I've managed to limit his effect on my life, while continually expanding the range of activities I'm now capable of.
I've written another play, another short film, branched out into micro fiction, and written various bits and pieces, some of which I'm even proud of. But of most importance to me is a return to enthusiastic songwriting after a gap of ten years. Having written over twenty songs in 1993 - the last year before I met Dave, I didn't write another until late 2000. I wrote another two in the following year, and then... nothing. I just couldn't recapture my passion for writing music. But that's begun to change this summer. I've found myself writing, recording and playing music with an enthusiasm I haven't had for a decade. I've had the chance to spend a day in a recording studio, and perform in public for the first time in eleven years, and the first time ever as a solo artist.
July brought the first social occasion I've actually been able to enjoy for more than a decade. A simple party, but the first for ten years which hadn't been an ordeal from start to finish, and to which Dave had definitely not been invited.
I've had my happiest summer since 1992, and my confidence and self belief has grown exponentially. As has my propensity to use words like exponentially. And propensity.
I've pushed myself hard over the past two years to make changes to my life, and start living again, which has been extraordinarily difficult at times - Dave doesn't like change, and resists it wherever possible. I've frequently wondered if it's worth it, and whether I wouldn't be better off accepting my fate and vegging out in front of the TV with a few bars of chocolate and a disability benefit book for the rest of my days. Believe me, it would be an easy road to take. But this summer I've finally started to see the results of my efforts, and realise just how worthwhile it's been.
This update wouldn't be complete without two namechecks. The first is for Marie, who necessitates only a brief mention, for the simple reason that she can't stand sentimentality, and is liable to hit me if I wax lyrical about her here. That's if she's still talking to me after I recorded her singing on my answerphone and put it on a CD. But Marie did a lot to introduce me to reality in the spring. For which thanks.
Then there's Helen, who has done more for me this summer than she's willing to admit. The noticeable change in me over the last three months has been entirely down to her. From songwriting to socialising, she's done more to bring me back to life than anyone, and just having her as a friend gives me a constant source of confidence. Her belief in me has brought about a belief in myself, and she's been responsible for some of the happiest times I've had for more than a decade. If she knew just how much good she'd done me, she'd probably demand money. So it's just as well she's the modest type. But thanks H, you're very special to me.
The only question is, just how long will it take these girls to discover that I've written this update? My money's on a couple of months at least...
The Importance of Being Fucked Up
Things may be better, but I still have my bad days.
I wrote this at 2:30am on Wednesday, 15th October 2003.
"You are fucked, and you are fucking us". So said the late Bill Hicks of those who work in advertising. Well I'm fucked. But I'm not fucking anyone or anything. And neither do I work. I'm just fucked up.
There are times when it seems like everyone in the world has what you want. And none of them are prepared to share it with you. Everyone you meet thinks you're the greatest, most talented individual they've ever met. But none of them want you. Some of the finest compliments I've received in my life are from girls in the process of telling me why they're not prepared to spend an evening in my company.
You spend your life making yourself the best you can be. Making the most of the fucked up hand you've been dealt. Turning your life around from the crap it had become, to the neo crap it now is. And all with one purpose: to make your life, your body, your youness, acceptable to others. And what happens? Every girl you meet sings the same tune: she's not good enough for you, you're so special, you shouldn't settle for her, you deserve someone better. I'd just like to meet one goddamn person who doesn't have an opinion on what's best for me. One girl who doesn't care what I deserve, and who will let me choose what I want.
Because right now I'm too 'special' to even have a friend.
Everyone likes me. Everyone says how lucky they are to know me. But none of them are prepared to rescue me from the days and nights, the weeks, months and years of being alone. They say I'm the most wonderful guy they've ever met. Then they choose to spend their weekends with another. I'm too perfect to have company. Too wonderful to be be loved. Too special to spend my life with anyone but myself.
Too fucked up. That's the reality. Too fucked up by life, too fucked up by people, too fucked up by a world which cast me out to the edge, then reeled me back in to keep the game alive a little longer. Three years of work, three years of fighting, of climbing, of enduring seven worlds of crap to build a new life, and here I am, at the top of the mountain, alone as always, with the air thin and the view no clearer.
You work harder than anyone alive. But you don't work. You write when writing is the hardest task the gods could set. You write humour when you have none. When you feel like crying. When you want nothing more passionately than to stay in bed and never wake up. You walk miles when one step seems too far. You push yourself beyond the bounds of most people's imagination. To do things harder than most will ever attempt. And what do you get? "It's alright for you. You don't work".
The importance of being fucked up. It's all an illusion. I'm no less fucked than I ever was. I had no life before. I have a different kind of nothing now.
"It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness."
As You Like It - Act IV, Scene 1.
(Blimey, that was a bit self-pitying wasn't it.)
OUTRAGEOUSLY OVERDUE UPDATE
Doesn't time fly. It's now 15th October 2004, and over thirteen months since the last update, so let's have a brief rundown of the past year's adventures shall we.
Ok, well we left Phil and Dave as no more than distant acquaintances at the end of the long hot summer of 2003. Things were looking up, confidence levels had increased, positivity was at an all-time high, and I strode forth boldly to claim a stake in the future which was rightfully mine.
So naturally it was all downhill from there. As it transpired I had a difficult autumn. I had two overwhelming priorities at the beginning of September: to write a new full-length play, and (let's not beat around the bush) to find myself a girlfriend. Helen had worked such wonders for my self-esteem that for the first time in ten years I actually believed in myself enough to feel that a relationship was a simple task and only a matter of time. As a result, I chose to put love on the back burner and concentrate on play-writing.
I won't say this was a mistake, but... well ok, it was a mistake. In the short term anyway. I began writing 'Be Worth It', which soon became a struggle of gargantuan proportions. Despite knocking out the film script for 'Internet Cafe' in five days at the beginning of October, which was the high point of the autumn, my new play became more of a struggle with each passing week, and seemed (at the time) far too great a task for me ever to complete. In addition, I was unwittingly isolating myself by spending so much time at home writing, leading to increased loneliness, which in turn made it more difficult to write, which brought me down further, and so on and so forth, descending into a neverending recurring nightmare of murky helldom. Hurrah!
By the beginning of November I was feeling close to Dave, but removed from everyone else. I felt desperately lonely, yet too insular to do anything about it. As a result I regretted the decision to concentrate on my writing, and felt that had I taken advantage of my peaking confidence at the beginning of September, I could have found the kind of relationship I needed, which in turn would have helped my ability to write, and by bonfire night I'd have been living happily ever after in eternal bliss.
But hey, that's life. Fortunately I got through it, and somehow completed 'Be Worth It' a week before Christmas, which was the turning point of the last twelve months. Despite being the most difficult piece of work I'd ever attempted, in the most difficult of circumstances, I had not only completed it, but had, I felt, produced my best work to date. Which was the encouragement I needed. I may have hated the previous three months, and struggled hugely at times, but I'd come out the other side with something I was (and am) immensely proud of.
So I began 2004 with a new resolve. I'd achieved one of my original aims, and that achievement gave me a new enthusiasm to pursue the other things I wanted. I began to feel better from that moment onwards. In fact... and I don't want to be too pretentious here... but having finished 'Be Worth It', I felt better about life in general, because I'd written something which I felt was worth writing. Throughout my years of illness I had a major fear that I would never write anything worthwhile, and that I would die before being able to fulfill any kind of potential I may have once had. 'Be Worth It' allayed that fear. To me, I felt as though my worthless life had finally produced something of note.
I began to make better use of my blog, writing lengthier and more frequent posts, a habit I've continued to this day, producing almost 60,000 words since January. In February I embarked on my first ever foreign holiday - a fortnight in Texas with my sister - to most people a relaxing and fun experience, to me another genuine achievement. Coping with the stresses of foreign travel, every experience a new one, was tough at times, but undoubtedly worth the effort. I returned infinitely stronger for it.
And four weeks later I met Lisa. Which is a sentence I really should put in bold type. And capitals. And underline six times. Because it's probably the most significant statement, not just of this update, but of my whole life. Having already been by far my most valuable friend over the previous few months, supporting me greatly throughout the writing of 'Be Worth It', I met Lisa in person on March 23rd. Two months later, on May 29th, we officially became an item, and I haven't looked back since. (Due to a slightly stiff neck).
Lisa's not a lover of corn (the sentimental variety, not on-the-cob), so she won't enjoy these next couple of paragraphs, but the fact remains that the past five months have exceeded all my expectations, and made me happier than I thought was possible. Much as I tried to be optimistic, I had frequently doubted my ability to form a successful relationship after so many years of life-changing illness. I was hardly the typical 30 year old, and the chances of a smooth transition into this aspect of a 'normal' life seemed remote.
But I didn't account for the kind of fateful good fortune which would enable me to meet someone so suited to me. I think Lisa was constructed in some kind of factory whose only job was to create my perfect partner. I never imagined that a relationship could feel so absolutely right from day one, and feel even righter (?) four and a half months later. I could not be happier, or more comfortable, with Lisa, and I love her more than she realises.
Though if she read that, she'd probably have a panic attack. Which is why I'm not telling her I've updated this page. She'll thank me for it later.
So Lisa and her phenomenal recorder-playing have turned my life around once more. In August and September 2004 I finally came off painkillers which I'd been taking daily since 1994, and to which I had been helplessly addicted for years. It was another tough challenge, yet one which has now been successfully completed (thanks to Lisa - there's no getting away from it, and believe me, if I could take the credit myself, I would), and I've now been off the tablets for six weeks, after ten years of constant use.
In addition I worked from May to October on a new writing project, which was completed last week. Details are currently confidential, but it's another piece of work of which I am immensely proud. I still find it difficult to write, indeed I find many aspects of life difficult, but the fact remains that despite struggling at times, and despite having to push myself harder than most, no matter how tough it may be on occasions, I AM able to lead a life which features the two things most important to me, and which I spent eight years believing I would never have: the ability to write, and a girl I love to share it with me.
This page was created on 15th February 2003. Four years on, I no longer consider myself depressed (although I no longer consider myself fat either, yet still some people argue), but this page remains as a memorial to a part of my life I will never deny or be ashamed of, and from which, I'm pleased to say, it is possible to recover. I might still be a fruit loop, but happily not in the clinical sense.