Tag Archives: depression

Cowboy

7 Jun
The lone cowboy sitting astride his steed travelling the vast planes in search of Gold. Well, astride a Stokke kneeling stool anyway.
In the Spring of ’83 my mother exchanged her beloved portable typewriter (a very collectable Olympia) for this huge electric contraption so that I could finally complete my Ph.D. thesis.
We were living in Moss Side, Manchester and I was struggling to comprehend how I could finish my studies with no job prospects having just become a dad and come to the end of my research grant.
In hindsight, I realise I might have been suffering from my first serious bout of depression.
Over the years that followed and following my eventual diagnosis with Manic Depression (or Bipolar Disorder) in 2001, I developed a robust method of sensing when depression was about to strike.
Only last week our first ever, and most loyal customer to our cafe, Tea with Percie took his own life.
He was a gifted artist and beloved by many for his depth and sensitivity. In the end he lost his fight with depression, or the  The Black Dog as some would call it.
Last week I felt the Black Dog leave the artist’s house with the undertakers and the police as they moved his remains from his home.
Clare, my wife, was very upset, she really liked him, and his good friends too were distraught.
I knew I had to do something, because the manner of his passing was too close to home for me. The Black Dog loomed.
I went in to my studio and carefully took apart a distressed but beautiful old Parker Knoll reclining chair, cleaned up all the joints and rebuilt it with a bit of Love. I find this the best glue.
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 I find that if I am quick enough to take action – particularly through making, or repairing – I can usually short circuit the negative thoughts and the looming cloud of depression. Perhaps because focus is needed to make, or repair something with manual skill requires, which requires concentration. This focus allows the black thoughts to slink away.  Depression feeds when the mind is unfocussed – it is why work is so important to us, and unemployment so destructive.
I like to think of it as using the ‘mental floss’ method of escaping the accumulating plaque of depression – just like Cowboy Henk might do:
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Cowboy Henk is the maverick creation of artist Herr Seele and writer Kamagurka. He is a big Belgian Cowboy who finds solutions to life’s problem which invariably involve action, are often absurd rude and somewhat offensive – and always funny.
In the old Southwest of the USA ‘maverick‘ was a word coined to describe  an unbranded steer which had become separated from its mother. Because the calf could not be muzzled (feed from its mother) it made a lot of irritating noise.
James Garner played Bret Maverick in the eponymous hit 60’s TV show.
in which the main character always has an answer to every problem.
Not surprisingly I admired this character greatly as a young man.
Nowadays the word ‘maverick’ has come to mean a lone dissenter, an intellectual or an artist, a dissident – a free thinker.
Other synonyms include – nonconformist, individualist, loner, lone wolf.
I suspect Mavericks are particularly prone to the Black Dog, because they invariably tend to be self reliant, rarely seeking help because they are usually effective at finding their own solutions.
I have been called ‘maverick’ in the pejorative sense many times, not least by close relatives. I am, in some people’s eyes a cowboy, a rebel and a loose canon.
For example;
A few years after I finishing my Ph.D. on that monster typewriter, I was working as a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in a laboratory studying insect vision. It fulfilled the important criteria of giving my daughter and her mum a safe place to live and grow in a lovely city and provide a reasonable standard of living.
Two years in to a three year research contract there I was invited to give a talk to the annual Science and Engineering Council’s annual conference in Edinburgh.
The chair of the session in which I presented my paper was a Professor to whom I had just applied for a new job. At the end of my lecture, which was well received, he drew me to one side and said
“You are nothing like I imagined Dr. Littlewood. Perhaps you need to be more careful whom you chose as a referee.”
I was a bit bemused.
He kindly gave me a copy of the reference written about me by my boss at Newcastle University for the fellowship in the Professor’s lab.
The letter began:
“Dear Sir,
Dr. Littlewood, is completely un-housetrained, he is a maverick…………” and carried on in the same vein.
Needless to say, I was not interviewed for the position, and I began to wonder how many other applications had gone awry because of similar derogatory references.
What I had done to draw this ire?
I had developed a novel brain research technique which allowed neurophysiologists to visualise the connections between nerve cells – the synapses under the electron microscope. At the time my boss’s wife (also a neuroscientist) was applying for a Royal Society fellowship & wanted to put her name to my paper.
I refused as she had not contributed. This is not how to play the game, Henk.
Cowboy Henk.
In addition to the poor references, my contract came to an abrupt end that very Christmas. My boss and Newcastle University ‘let me go’.
I was out on my uppers with a six year old daughter and no roof over our heads – because our accommodation was tied to the job.
As it turned out, this sequence of events was a blessing, because that was when I first started making furniture seriously using the woodwork skills drawn from me by my teacher, Mr Paulson all those years ago and encouraged throughout my life by my father.
I was offered a small corner in an artist’s studio at The Cluny Warehouse, Newcastle upon Tyne and I made a number of pieces of furniture for kind and encouraging paying clients.
Action will always put a smile on your face even if you are screaming inside folks. Turn a bad situation to your advantage by letting your hands pull you free,
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Esme McCall on spoons                                  Cowboy Henk on wagon wheel.

Tapas

18 Dec

Tapas – Calamares, bocquerrones and Croquettas with a side order of ice cold beer: shared, bite sized and tasty – that’s how life should be.

I would never have eaten these had it not been for one, very particular human being who intervened just in time.

A few years ago I was asked to attend a series of therapeutic workshops for people who had just been diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder. The idea was to introduce these poor beknighted sods to a fellow sufferer who had lived with the diagnosis for a long time. That would be me.

The Community Practitioner Nurse (CPN) who organised the programme invited me to a NHS Mental Health facility in Sheffield to meet a group of new BP clients. He was not there on the day.

I felt like Ernest Borgnine on The Poseidon Adventure. A survivor with limited knowledge asked to lead a group of fellow passengers into the light.

We had nothing in common, except for a similar diagnosis. A young mental health worker introduced me (and the fact I was self employed), and said I would answer the questions I felt able to.

People in the group asked me about how I coped with Lithium (my meds), how I held down a job and then gone on to run a small business, whether I had ‘episodes’ and so on. I answered these as openly and honestly as I could and was feeling ok at that point. The group seemed interested.

The mental health worker then asked “How do you cope with suicidal thoughts?”

“You can’t” I responded “By the time you are that depressed you are no longer functional. Someone else must intervene, or you’re going to be dead.”

I wrote to this individual’s line manager. I was so pissed off at her clumsy intervention. It had plunged me into a depressive state almost immediately and poured cold water over the session.

Fortunately for me I have a strategy in these situations.


When entering a dark, depressive tunnel against my will I imagine a small figure up ahead saying “Hurry up for fuck’s sake I’m scared!”

I find this emboldens me to push forward, not go back. The ‘hurrying up’ is the key, for physical activity leads me to a lighter state – The Light – so to speak.


And there at the end, instead of the grey and black of fear, it is the colour, taste and smell of choice. Tapas and a beer with my pal. Clare, the woman who intervened.


So if you are feeling blue, come into the hole with me and push on through to the light. I’ll be waiting with a beer and a plate of tapas with bits of shell in my beard.


Believe me, dear reader, life is so worth living.

Merry Christmas

X

H

Sonnet

26 May

I am a sucker for a beautiful smile, yet, at 55 it was an enormous shock to me that I could still fall hard for a baby. When I met my niece, Hazel, for the first time last year she was about 5 months old and just beginning to charm the world with her curly locks and big brown almond shaped eyes. My brother Simon, simply handed her to me when we arrived at their home in Pacifica Ca., straight from the airport. She looked at me and beamed. I was her servant from that moment on.

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This little girl is as perfect as a poem.

The sonnet is a perfect poetic form.

One of my favourite writers of sonnets is the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn. Here he remembers his first wife – an artist cruelly afflicted by terminal cancer of the eye.

 

A constant artist, dedicated to

Curves, shapes, the pleasant shades, the feel of colour,

She did not care what shapes, what red, what blue,

Scorning the dull to ridicule the duller

With a disinterested, loyal eye.

So Sandra brought her this and taped it up –

Three seagulls from a white and indoor sky –

A gift of artistic comradeship.

“Blow on them, Love.” Those silent birds winged round

On thermals of my breath. On her last night,

Trying to stay awake, I saw love crowned

In tears and wooden birds and candlelight.

She did not wake again. To prove our love

Each gull, each gull, each gull, turned into a dove.

 

I find the wistful mood created by Dunn’s Elegies most perfectly resonates with my own from time to time, for whilst we feel his sorrow at the passage of time and the tragedy of his wife’s passing before him, we cannot ignore the vibrancy and life within the language and imagery of the poem. Sonnets are very exacting to write, and I suspect that the discipline required to write this may have helped him to face his grief.

So why should Hazel’s smile make me think of this sad poem?

It is difficult to capture a mood in a painting, or a piece of prose and only the most talented artists can take us there. Something in us complicates our experiences with analysis and description. Reason and memory become like old paint on a fine ceiling moulding, blurring the crisp edge of the original. My experience with Hazel was very uncomplicated, because she basically liked me and she let me hold her while she comfortably watched her mum, dad and sister, Percie going about their morning routines,  making appreciative baby noises and grabbing stuff. Put simply, I could share the rhyme of her.

It is this over-complication and analysis which lies at the root of depression. When faced with a situation where experience no longer matches the expectations we have constructed in our head we can become very disappointed, frustrated and angry. If nothing changes in us, we may continue to experience external reality  with an unprepared (and closed) mind. the effects can be long lasting and ultimately disastrous.

Making stuff with my hands helps to keep me rooted in direct experiential reality – anchored firmly to the now. Unlike meditation, which can allow all sorts of old unpleasant memories to surface, making requires concentration and focus – it frees the logical mind from introspection and ennui, because it does not allow space for the mind to create objections to reality. Miss with the hammer and you hit your thumb.

It is not without significance that I met Douglas Dunn at the cottage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in Todmorden whilst on a poetry course back in 1998. Lots of the other students were in awe of him. I did not at the time know him from Adam, so I offered him a glass of whisky – he relaxed a lot after that.

Many things happened that summer. I discovered my first wife (we had been together over 20 years) had been having an affair – a reality so shocking I was unable to make sense of it at the time because it really did not match my cosy mental picture of our family. Then, like a bolt out of the blue I met the woman who was to become my new partner and with whom I fell in love, on the train to Todmorden – Clare was the ‘Trolley Dolly’ on the TransPennine express.  She made me a nice cup to tea on the way back.  I also wrote my first sonnet after talking to a Rastafarian poet called Henry (my English namesake) who told me; ‘Ya man, ya need ta sloooow down!’. He explained that in order (for me) to skip out of the deep groove I had worn in my existence I needed to let the world go by a bit and see the other grooves running alongside. The adventure was just beginning.

So forget reason for a moment, just pick up the baby, or read a sonnet.

 

 

Two Towers

9 Sep

Many years ago I was sat in a psychiatric ward pumped full of Haloperidol having spent several weeks becoming more and more psychotic and driving my poor wife, Clare to despair.

She said the hardest thing she had ever had to do in her life was call the doctor and have me sectioned. It turned out to be a life saving decision. In my humble opinion she was forced to enact the judgement of Solomon. Either through an act of love, remove my freedom for my own good, or through an act of Good let be me free but lose my Love.

Most of the following record has been told to me and deduced from secondary sources – my mind was on vacation at the time if you take my meaning.

Late on Sunday the 8th of September 2001 they finally carted me off in an ambulance in handcuffs after I had broken my mind.

At the end of 3 months of craziness, I’d spent the whole of the weekend wandering about the garden, butt naked except for a Borsalino Fedora hat and talking utter bollocks.

I hadn’t slept for 3 months and spent ludicrous amounts of money. I had driven my motorcycle at warp speeds, nearly killing us both and capped it all off with a week of utter lunacy, in a new job.

I was a school teacher:  poor children, poor parents, bastard governors – why did it take so long for them to realise I was cuckoo? Where was their duty of care? They knew about my depression; yet they still burned me.

When I arrived at the hospital, dressed only in a bath robe I fell to my knees and proclaimed “Take me Jesus, I’m yours!”. After I spat out the pills they gave me, with a sly grin to Clare, one of the nurses jabbed me in the backside with a hypodermic laced with liquid straight jacket and I went down like a sack of spuds.

The effect of the haloperidol was to put me in a state of catatonic immobility, and it was in this condition that I sat in the locked ward TV lounge every day, with a pyromaniac, an OCD knitter and a self proclaimed psychopath for company as the horrific events of 9/11 and the terrible tragedy unfolded on the common room TV.

We were witnessing 9/11  the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York.

I had appealed my section and was awaiting a review on the 11/9/2001. I had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983.

I did not comprehend what was going on, staring dumbly at the TV screen, so wrapped up was I in the chemically induced fog and shattered mental state I had reached. Two Towers falling down, the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, if you will.

On that day I talked to a Social Worker about my appeal. What was left of my mind was still clinging to the arrogant certainty of my ‘rightness’. The Social Worker pierced through my sorry state with this argument:

“If you win your appeal then you can leave. If you don’t win, then they can keep you here indefinitely. Do you think it fair to continue to subject your wife, Clare, to your destructive behaviour?”

That was the watershed. Just as the Twin Towers with those oh, so many lives came crashing down, so too my ego unravelled.

The social worker was right of course, what right did I have to subject anyone to my psychosis? Straight away, I spoke to my case worker, a nurse, and asked him if I could withdraw my appeal.

The next day they took me off the ‘section and I was free to chose to stay and get better.

Outside the hospital my wife had to cope with the fall out of my crazy behaviour, all on her own apart from the wonderful support of my dad. I stayed in the psychiatric hospital for 6 weeks and I received a diagnosis of Bipolar type 2 disorder. I prefer the more accurate ‘manic depression’ to be honest. Apparently the years and years of depression I experienced, followed by a spectacular manic episode constituted a classic set of indicators for the diagnosis.

Today I am a self employed carpenter running Henk’s Woodwork. It is the grain that keeps me sane it seems.

It was with these twin towers I began my recovery. So it is to Clare and my Dad, my twin towers, and my new friends that I dedicate my work and my life. My health and my continuing good humour and mindfulness results from the memory of the human tragedy of 9/11.

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

Daughters

24 May

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This is my daughter, Polly. Once a year we try to get together and do something neither of us has done before and meet on unbroken ground. We discovered that this was a marvellous way to share a bit of time together without the tedious dynamics of parent and child, because in the situations we choose we are both kids again. Sure, I am the dad and may be called upon to give what P calls ‘dadly’ advice – a delicate technique involving listening carefully (not my strong suit) and delivering wisdom (saying the right thing), which is bloody tricky. Yes, P is the daughter, but at 30 years of age is an experienced and successful business woman in her own right, so she provides the good humour.

I have come to the conclusion that, for me the most attractive quality in daughters is their ability to make us love and laugh.

This one is an absolute genius at it:

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Here is my wife, Clare, taking the piss out of me collecting a hazel rod, which I had cut to make a walking sticks …. “I’m Gandalf!”

Her wit literally saved my life 13 years ago at a time when I was experiencing depression – in a park in Barcelona this acutely shy woman perfumed her ‘Special Ballet’ – just for me – to bring me out from a very dark place. It worked then, I am a sucker for physical comedy, and it works now.

She is of course a daughter too, the youngest of four children from a working class Welsh family, brought up in an atmosphere which promoted earning a decent wage above all else (from the age of 14 in Clare’s case) and limited ambition. Barren ground for a fierce intellect.

Clare’s favourite ‘daughter’ is her niece Percie:

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Percie lives in California, here she is explaining to me that “It’s not SUMS Uncle Henk, it’s MATH” ….and making me laugh, a fine quality. Her other Aunt, Anna is no longer with us. I commemorated Anna in the blog ‘In Memoriam’. Here she is chatting up a handsome friend, using her wit to his advantage.

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This daughter burned very brightly and she is still greatly loved.

I’m going to give my daughter away in August, when she gets married. A very odd concept, since she was never really mine to give, but I will try to do it with the same dignity as Fred seen here with his daughter, Whitney (Percie’s mum) to my youngest brother Simon.

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Whitney was a stunningly beautiful bride on the day, but Fred was the class act. He managed, during his speech, to argue that because his family was descended from the Pilgrim Fathers, and had left Plymouth all those years ago, that Simon (who grew up in Devon) was actually marrying the girl next door. In this way he cemented the bond between two families in a laid back, unruffled way and allowed his daughter to be her lovely self.

If I can emulate this in August I will have honoured my daughter. For she, and all the daughters I have known give us life.