On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.
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Christmas (and cricket) for people who don’t like it

Cricket is a strange sport. Steeped in tradition and the nebulous ‘spirit of cricket’; decency, fair-play and public-spiritedness are all part of the sport’s rich history. Yet scratch a little beneath the surface and despite what the defenders of the sport may seek to say, it’s much like any other sport. Don’t get me wrong; I love cricket, especially test match cricket, with a passion. But it can be a dark, aggressive, lonely sport.

I once heard a talk by someone who had worked closely with the England team over a good span of years (this is some time ago now – when the current players were still at school); the speaker was reflecting on the loneliness and boredom that can overtake players on foreign tours. He told us that he knew for a fact that on one tour not a single player was faithful to his partner whilst he was away. He was well placed to know that. Times have changed for the better in that regard – wives, girlfriends and children are actively encouraged to travel with the England team for parts of the tour. But darkness remains in cricket’s heart.

Whether it’s sledging – verbal on-field insults aimed to achieve the famed ‘mental disintegration’ of the opponent  – or fast-bowling aiming a small, hard leather object in the vicinity of the opponent’s head at 90 miles per hour, intimidation with word and deed has been part of the game since well before England’s attempts to squeeze the all-time great Australian Don Bradman out of the game led to a full scale international diplomatic incident. Any individual or team who claims to be above this is simply one that hasn’t yet been caught at it.

This is all because cricket  – especially the long version of it – is a game played in the head. It’s a team sport that depends on individuals to excel as individuals within a team context; hours spent in a lonely fielding position; running in to bowl 120 times a day in sweltering heat whilst your colleagues stand stationary waiting for something to happen; long stretches in a dressing room watching others do brilliantly or terribly, all of which adds to the stress and strain when it comes to your turn.

All this and more has been bought into sharp relief when one of the world’s leading batsmen (England’s Jonathan Trott) left England’s scarcely begun tour of Australia with a ‘stress-related condition’ in the wake of the allegedly unrelated comments by an Australian cricketer that Trott was scared and weak.  Whatever the cause, he’s the latest in a line of cricketer’s to have his mental health thrust into the spotlight; despite claims that cricket and those who play it are no less prone to mental health issues than anyone else, it does appear to be a sport in which these things at the very least gain more publicity than they might otherwise. The same speaker who told me of English cricketers’ infidelity also told me of a high level of depression, suicidal tendencies and attempts amongst cricketers at all levels.

There is some good coming out of this – if mental health issues, especially those of prominent, admired men  – are being talked about openly that does give to the many who think they are alone some much-needed solace and maybe an encouragement to seek help. If cricket does something to people, so does the Christmas season. All the family issues, the excess of food and drink, financial pressures exacerbated by the pressure to spend, the insistence that we must be jolly whilst doing so, the round after round of socialising, the darker days and harsher weather (in the northern hemisphere). It’s a tough holiday season, especially if you add in the heightened reminders of recent bereavements and other loss whilst others celebrate their families. Depression, suicide and general misery seems to rocket in line with the enforced jollity.

Cricket and Christmas force us inside ourselves (imagine, then, for a moment what it’s like for a cricketer, struggling with his profession, away from home for months, over Christmas); they both force the participant into a space where mental frailties and fractures are likely to be pressured to breaking point. Duty or love or some combination of the 2 forces us into situations where we may not like what gets forced to the surface. How to survive? A few tips, whether you love cricket or hate it …

1) Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to some invitations if they’re not going to put you in a beneficial space. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to another drink or helping if it’s bad for you. It’s OK not to enjoy what others are enjoying. In short, it’s OK to be the person God has made you to be even if she or he doesn’t quite fit in with what’s going on around them.

2) Plan things you know you’ll enjoy. Whether it’s a book you love, a place you like to walk or a film that’s special to you or a favourite piece of music – if the season is full of hard things you know won’t energise you, make sure you actively plan stuff that you like.

3) Remember, when you’re feeling frail and weak, that Christmas is about God packing himself into the frail and weak skin and bones of a helpless baby. If you’re feeling frail and weak you are in good company. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15).

4) If you know you’re going to be in some situations you will find difficult, make a plan for what you’ll say and do when the things you expect to happen do happen. Write them down on your phone or tablet or diary – pull them out to look at them if you need to. You’ll have a safety net and will feel much more confident as a result.

5) January is often harder for people than Christmas. Make plans for positive things in January now.

6) Remember that the worst may not happen. As well as thinking about the bad things you expect to happen, think what the best case scenarios might be and what you might be able to do to help bring them about.

7) Keep reminding yourself that God rejoices over youThe Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

Since I first wrote this article, David Warner has issued an apology for his comments about Jonathan Trott.

Silver Linings Playbook

Some movies just shouldn’t work. They should, if you strip them down to their constituent elements, be run of the mill stories which flow along predictable narrative lines. There are many movies which do that; only a few have a plot that’s entirely predictable but still manage to engage and move. We’ve had a few of those in recent times – take Zero Dark Thirty or Argoboth of which had entirely predictable narratives which still more than kept the attention. Silver Linings Playbook is another.

At its heart it’s a conventional romantic comedy based on a popular novel. Bradley Cooper is a teacher returning from a stint in a mental health facility having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; we find out early on this was precipitated by his violent assault on the man his wife was having an affair with. His marriage was on the rocks; he comes out and forms a friendship with Jennifer Lawrence’s young widow, a woman who on losing her husband had slept with every one of her co-workers. She agrees to help him reconnect with his wife if he’ll help her out by learning to dance and dance with her in a competition she’d always wanted to enter.

From a bare description you know where this is headed. There’s not a single plot-spolier there, but you can fill in the blanks. There’s so much to like here, though. You know already about the performances. Bradley Cooper is playing an awards-fodder role, but he still does it well. Jennifer Lawrence is simply superb – again. In her young career she’s showed star-power and variety in the roles she’ll take on. Her’s is a necessarily more still performance, low-key to Cooper’s major, but holds the film together.As a woman who dances to heal and express herself, it’s a role fraught with the danger of cliché or the dreaded ‘life-lessons’; her awards are richly deserved because you simply believe her. She’s going to have a special career if she keeps choosing roles with the wisdom she has done.

What I really liked, though, is the earthiness of the presentation of mental illness.When you’re suffering, when you’re in the depths of depression, when the black dog is barking and snarling and foaming at the mouth; when it’s like that, sometimes it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. The film revolves around the achievement of some things are desperately ordinary  – watching a game with the family; getting an average score, getting to have a conversation with someone you love. None of these are major, but for those under dark clouds they’re the defining thing, the summit to scale. In showing believable, ordinary people and families struggling just to get to normality, the film does a great service. To do so  – and lovingly, gently point out the irrational coping mechanisms of the so-called un-afflicted along the way – removes stigma, enhances understanding and does so with a smile and a knowing glance. All that in a conventional romantic comedy. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to a simple thing well.

I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com