Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Turning Points

The worst thing about back pain is no one can see it.

Hurt your back and only other back pain sufferers will be able to truly sympathise with you. Any pain that isn't visible can have mental repercussions.

When I worked at the County Council I was torn between the feeling that half of my colleagues wanted me to be wearing a visible scar of my ordeal just to appease their belief that I was subjecting myself to all that shit on purpose and those others that completely understood where I was and what I was going through.

I've never been shy about wearing things on my sleeve and in the eyes of some of my friends, a few of my enemies and myself, I am a drama queen. It's essentially a Hall trait. We all make dramas out of crises in our own distinct ways and while once upon a time it was really just an attention seeking device, as we all got older (and the need for attention waned), we just adapted it like any habit - or, it was a habit rather than a mental need.

When you live in a loud house with loud people all competing with each other, then attention seeking is pretty normal and loses a lot of its narcissistic elements. I know there's been an attention seeker lurking inside me for most of my life, yet juxtapose this with the fact I worked (as the distant #2) for the largest self-serving egotist in British comics for over ten years, in an existence where the only 'I' was him and him alone...

If I was a serial attention seeker I probably wouldn't do it in such an understated way, at times, nor would it be so sporadic. The problem I think is some people confuse being loud or opinionated with a need for attention and that is only true to a certain point. One of Nature's interesting quirks is it made all mammals quite needy and humans terribly so. I'd guess most humans seek attention, some just do it in ways that aren't side shows or vaudeville acts.

And then there's social media...

I've blogged about my bad back for ever. I've blogged about my life, my dogs, my wife, some of my jobs, the idiots I've witnessed doing fuckwitted things, my neighbours and my friends and family. I've logged deaths, births, joy, sorrow, success and happiness (although not so much of the latter in recent times) and, at times, I've got a bit... personal. I embraced the on-line diary much more enthusiastically than I did Facebook styled social media and especially Twitter. I'm verbose, how the fuck is Twitter going to quench that thirst?

In the 'research' I did for this specific blog, I discovered that the amount of times I have delved into personal dramas is a surprisingly small percentage - less than 10% - and the general theme is to try and make light of bad situations or to see the irony. The number of truly downbeat blogs until a certain point in time was almost non-existent. In fact, my blog despite using it as a diary of sorts, has little 'from the heart' type rambles.

Facebook heralded a new way of sharing ones life with others. I have posted on average 0.92 things per day since I first got the account and I had to double check my figures. First because I couldn't believe that I'd posted almost 1 thing a day and then because it didn't seem enough. Here's a weird one for you - really being stumped by the result of something that seems both too much and too little at the same time... If you scrutinised my posting habits you'd find out that I can go weeks without posting anything. It is normal for me to go three or four days without even looking at it let alone posting anything and the way peoples news feeds are set up the more friends I have with lots of their own friends, the less chance of them seeing everything I post.

I'm sure you're beginning to wonder what the bloody hell I'm waffling on about and I agree this seems like a very convoluted way of denouncing something - a point - I haven't even mooted yet, but, you know me... The point I'm making is I'm not actually in your in-boxes as much as you might sometimes think. Familiarity doesn't just breed contempt, it also over-familiarises things to the point where you notice them more than you would. The truth is you don't, but the thing is now prominent in your psyche and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes when you buy a new car you then think everyone else had the same idea as you because you see them everywhere; it's only because you didn't have one of those cars before to prick your memory the way it does after the event.

I'm also loud, brash, in your face, passionate and emotional - I'm sure a true attention seeker goes for the most impact rather than little ones anyhow and social media revelations from me have tended to be impact driven. The writer in me appreciates melodrama and the power of words in headings to maximise the impact. The thing is ... of the 0.92 posts a day on Facebook I've done since May 2008, less than 2% of them have actually been 'melodramatic'. There is nothing in any of them that aggrandises me; they aren't strewn with tragedy and reaction. The drama queen that many of my friends, my wife and I know all too well is strangely absent. Well, until May 2015...

In fact, until May 2015, I had talked about depression in my blog but never on a 'live' social media forum. I usually whinge about my physical health and - I'm very close to it - I don't think you can accuse me of self-pity or searching for sympathy in my blogs that have highlighted back and shoulder problems - I like to think that if it was just me moaning incessantly (and humorously) then I wouldn't see so many people reading the thing. Besides, my moaning is legendary and moaning isn't attention seeking.

Now, back during that time when I worked for the Massive Yorkshire Ego, a number of my friends were pretty much of the impression that I had the cushiest job in the world - writing about a subject I liked, hanging out with the Stan Lee of British comics 5 days a week, smoking the finest spliff, having cafe lunches every day and going down the pub all this and earning far too much money... Wot a lucky bastard...

Oddly enough that's pretty much what it was like, except take the rose-tinted specs off and I had to input over a quarter of a million words every four weeks and if you think that sounds easy, try copy typing 250,000 words and see how long that takes you. Working for Skinn was hard work in many ways; it was just all concentrated into 2½ weeks and people saw me swanning about for the other 2 weeks and thought I had it easy.

Of course, these people never saw the conjunctivitis I suffered; the 72 hour stretches without sleep; the poor diet; the smoke filled rooms, the utter arsehole who EMPLOYED me and subjected me to mental and verbal abuse that belonged in a Dickens novel. They just saw happy old Phil taking another two weeks off from that easy job he had; swanning around smoking pot and being bohemian.

2015 has pretty much been a living, waking nightmare. Every single day has felt like I'm a greenfly trapped in molasses. There have been days when I only put outside clothes on to take the dogs out or to give the wife the impression I've been doing something. I have sat and sobbed my heart out at times because I'm scared of everything - the past, the present and especially the future. For most of 2015, if you read any of my social media statuses, you would have been pretty surprised by the stream of depression-laden rhetoric and public airing of private mental laundry that eventually spewed out during May.

Yes, there had been some histrionic outbursts in the past; and I'm not shy in coming forward in some things; yet to pretty much admit to so many people that suicide has been a topic on my mind; or that the relentless bad luck, vicious circle creating consequences can spiral so far out of your ability to rationalise them, it really does seem like your life is out of control. Yet, this was the first time I had admitted publicly that I was suffering from severe depression (and even then some information was withheld because once you get to a certain position with your mental health you become paranoid about people discovering certain things and there's rarely a rational reason behind this either).

The support I got from a huge bunch of people was remarkable - both publicly and privately I was blown away by the willingness of others and the support they showed me; the positive words, the selfless offers. A lot of these people were old friends; people who I've known from social care, even from comics and as May started to spiral completely out of control and with a tragic destiny, one of things that kept me going was the thoughts and comments - which I viewed without cynicism or doubt.

Then as the light at the end of the tunnel was first extinguished then phoenix-like reappeared and started drawing closer, two comments were made to me, in person, which deeply affected me...

Two people, very close to me personally, said things that upset me.

The first was an old friend who said I needed to 'man up'; that real men don't talk publicly about depression and crying and that shit. I didn't really expect much difference from this person, but it bothered me that he still had no real idea what it's like for people to go through a terribly shit time where you have no idea how to cope and no idea where you're going to get any support.

The second event could have ended up with a horrendous outcome; but fortunately I'd had the fight beaten out of me long ago and all that came out was a kind of resigned 'you could say that but you haven't been inside my head for the last six months', which was probably for the best considering how much it has bothered me since.

While I was out on Friday evening, having a beer with my friend, trying to cheer myself up after a daunting week, but also celebrate the changes in my work situation, he suggested that I'd never really been depressed, I'd just been 'a bit down'. Or that I couldn't possibly have been depressed because I would have been hospitalised, because 'real depression is a serious illness and not just a term used by people feeling down'. Now, you need to understand what made this feel harsh was I was talking to the only person outside of my doctor that I'd admitted having suicidal thoughts to - back in November - and he'd been suitably shocked and I believed realised how awful our lives had become. Seven months later, in the week I lost a dog to cancer, in a year that had rained insult, injury and all manner of shit on me and mine, he said, 'If you had been serious about killing yourself you would have tried...' He even wanted to know how I felt when I felt suicidal because, you know, I didn't do it so I must have just been attention seeking...

I was then reminded what a drama queen I was. I agreed. I almost felt like I was being remonstrated at for having shared all my crap with people on Facebook and therefore by the process of the logic held by someone who doesn't know how depression works, by posting about my shit life publicly it can't possibly have been that bad. I felt slightly uncomfortable with the amount of dubious incredulity being aimed at me - it has to be said not in a malicious way at all - like there is a stereotypical way that depressed people have to act and putting on a good show to ensure your friends don't know about it isn't one of them.

When I tried to point out that I've already been diagnosed, by a proper doctor, that I suffer from chronic illness-based depression, he didn't actually realise just how bad my COPD was; or even what it really entailed. But... and this is what hurt the most, none of the doubts seemed to be through ill-education, they seemed to be based on the fact I'm an attention seeker so therefore nothing that is wrong with me is going to be that bad because I have a history of making mountains out of mole hills. Or I'm, in his eyes, the boy who cried wolf, because I'm not in a fucking wheelchair or wired up to an iron lung. This was the same reaction I had from people who didn't understand the job I had in the 1990s...

He doesn't know that I've been praised by my COPD practitioner for managing my chronic illness very well. Or that I have discussed on several occasions suicide, antidepressants and a whole bunch of other things with my GP that I don't tell him or you about. He doesn't seem to realise that Public Phil Hall does keep a lot of his private life to himself. I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I hide my piles in my pants and keep my low weeing pressure to myself...

In my defence, as I said, all I could say to him was he didn't know what went on inside my head. He wasn't with me when I'd sit and stare into space for hours, not knowing where to start let alone what to do. I explained that I had been scared to seek help; I'd hidden away from people, especially the ones trying to help me. I explained that sometimes you hide it well from others and others aren't really looking for it, so hiding it doesn't become that difficult. I reminded him that depressed people are very good at hiding things from their loved ones and this was sadly met with a certain amount of derision and it was at this point that I realised my friend had never been depressed and had this completely wrong impression of what depression really was and also disputed his belief of that misconception vehemently.

Despite knowing me extremely well, he was basing his entire belief of my health on what he'd heard from me or read on line and ironically I think, if you analyse it, his problem was he is averse to the public airing of laundry - telling people how your life is crumbling around your ears isn't terribly British and not the expected thing, you know. I think it was the fact he wouldn't do that himself in such a public forum that has made him so sceptical of the reasons I did it and therefore even more doubtful that my depression was anything more than me just being miserable.

Talking about depression is a form of therapy in itself. Admitting the problem is an extremely positive step to take, especially given what is going on in your mind at the time. Discovering people care is better than any drug because it is a positive reinforcement, something which your mind can't argue with (or if it does it loses). I've seen therapists - they give about 75% less input and feedback than my friends on Facebook have. A lot of it is talking about it to try and identify the indicators yourself - there is a lot of holistic stuff going on and it's just a less detached process.

And sometimes you just want the rest of the fucking world to know that you're fed up to the back teeth with being kicked repeatedly.

I have to emphasise that the person in question upset me, not annoyed me. I was disappointed because I thought my friends would know, but equally the wife and I have said for over 30 years that we have no idea what goes on in our friends houses once we've gone home and we have no idea how much attention people pay to things.

I'd urge anyone who thinks depression is one specific thing to read up on it. It'll take 10 minutes and at the end of it you'll understand just how serious it can be and how the ignorance of others can just make it much much worse.

***

In the wake of the totally unpredictable week just gone, I would like to say that sometimes pulling out of depression can achieved by the oddest of things. When I originally set out to write this, I was going to talk about Ritilin - the ADHD drug, which is effectively speed given to kids who are already naturally whizzing their tits off. The effect is like a double negative - one cancels the other out.

The three days leading up to Murray's death (which I'm sure I'll document at some point) were, in many ways, so bad they made me feel physically ill. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how sad, lonely, lost and helpless I felt and how I would have willingly given up my life, there and then, for my dog.

Then he died and the two jobs I had to zombie walk through the interviews of both offered more than hope and ... it ridiculously felt like it actually wasn't going to get worse...

My shoulder was being fixed. There were job offers. The roads were being resurfaced. My boy was now free from pain. A few little, almost inconsequential, things happened that isolated might have meant nowt, but now seemed to reinforce that it might actually begin to get better.

But (and I know you should never start a sentence with one, but...), I might view the next six months as a challenge I can face a little easier. It helps knowing the next six months are pretty much unknown and full of potential excitement. First I'm going to sort me out and then I'll sort the other things out. It might be slow; it might be two steps forward and one back; whatever it is it's me saying it's time to 'get up, stand up and don't give up the fight' because it is worth fighting for.