Tag Archives: Mental Health

My Study Abroad Overview: Nothing Gold Can Stay

My last exam at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire was held at noon on Friday, December 21st 2012, the day before I flew back to London. Even though I lived in the dorm room adjacent to 459 where Aaron and Akbar stayed, I spent my last night on campus sleeping on their futon. I grabbed my duvet (comforter) and pillows, and had an old school sleepover.

In that last week I was a total mess. I completely prioritized my social endeavors, and academics were a mere afterthought. My semester felt like everything I had ever known, as though I couldn’t remember anything in my life before it. America was no longer a novelty- the initial incredulous shock of “Holy shit, I’m actually in America. This place is real. There are people that live here,” that I felt upon my arrival in August had vanished. Now America felt like home, as though I had always been here. The mythic image of movies and TV was now just that- a myth- and it had become something real, tangible, normal. I was distraught at the idea of leaving my friends behind and the life I had built in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They say time flies when you’re having fun and all that, but that one semester seemed longer than any other period of my life. It contained within it more memories than all my semesters at Winchester put together. I cursed the way time just moves forward, and I wanted more than anything for time to stand still. With every fiber of my being I was a UW-Eau Claire Blugold, and this is exactly what the student exchange coordinators warned us about back home. Ultimately, this wasn’t a transfer. Technically, I wasn’t a Blugold at all. I was still a University of Winchester student, and there was no evidence or documentation to prove otherwise. In fact, there’s no record I was ever at UW-Eau Claire in the first place. Within weeks my student e-mail account was expunged and the whole experience felt like a blurry detour to the Twilight Zone.

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Studying abroad for a semester in the USA in many ways encapsulates what America is. It’s a dream. And dreams end. Every one of us that departed Winchester for the USA was warned that we would fall in love and forget where we came from. We did. The pain we felt at leaving was guaranteed from the outset. It was the price to pay for simulating American life for a few months.

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During one of my Creative Writing Workshop classes, I wrote a story about an American college boy that, in a chance encounter, has sex with the girl of his dreams. I called her Emmaline Smits, the “Lady of the Bay” from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. The guy idealizes the girl, but ultimately realizes he meant nothing to her and that the dream that came true didn’t do anything for him long-term except hurt him. My professor said that she thought I should change the main character to a British exchange student, because she thought that he was me. The Lady of the Bay, she said, represented the American Dream, and that my story was about how you can fall in love with America and everything it offers, but then it can take it away from you, and leave you in the dark. I never thought about all that as I was writing it, so it must have been subconscious. It’s interesting that I wrote that story, because it kind of foreshadowed the pain I went through when my semester ended. Emmaline was my semester abroad.

Anyway, I woke up on the morning of Friday the 21st and started to study for my exam. It was the first time I even looked up what the exam was about, if you can believe it. I had to read a poem by Robert Frost. Here it is:

 

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

 

Nothing gold can stay. Nothing perfect can last. Frost juxtaposes images of heaven with the intrinsically flawed nature of the human world. Heaven and Eden are a dream. God is love- perfect love. And to me the invention of God and heaven by humanity have always represented our desire for perfection in a world that hurts us. Religion is born out of the realization of our flaws; it is a reaction to the glaring imperfections of our world, which seem overwhelming when they hurt us. Now, I don’t want to get hyperbolic about the emotions I felt as the curtains of my semester abroad were drawn. Frost’s poem is way more complex than the issues I want to discuss in this post. But I can’t help but think of the immortal line at the end of this famous poem when I think of my student exchange coming to an end.

America is a dreamy place. And the reality is that it can hurt you, whether you live there as a citizen or at the grace of a student visa. It represents the best we have to offer and the absolute worst. It’s easy to fall in love with its sheer variety of ice cream flavors, its powerful showerheads, and its excellent urban planning. But within this romantic framework there is so much potential for heartache. America will always be a place that is of endless fascination to me; a land where the real world and the dream world live side by side.

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Before I left for my exam, Aaron and Akbar presented me with the best gift I could have ever asked for- a t-shirt signed by everyone I met. Aaron even added a signature that read “L.O.B” meaning Lady of the Bay. I remember being paranoid about how the goodbye would go. It had to go absolutely perfectly, I thought to myself, or I’d be anxious for days. I had to go to the bog to answer nature’s call, and as I sat on the cool porcelain of the toilet seat I texted Aaron “Don’t leave without saying goodbye” and he texted back “I won’t” which I instantly realized was the last thing Elvis Presley said before he tragically passed away in 1977. It was the last message Aaron texted me on my TracPhone, and I vowed to never delete it. I liked the idea of looking at it years from then.

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I rushed down several flights of stairs and found him and Akbar loading his things into the trunk of a car. Beside them were Aaron’s mom Sylvia and his sister Elizabeth. I was very nervous and unsure what to say. Then Akbar said “Here he is. Almost missed Aaron because you were taking a 30-minute dump.”

At that moment I blushed as red as I have ever blushed and froze. Sylvia said “Thanks, I really wanted to know that,” and I worried that everything was ruined. I ended up hanging around with them for longer than I should have- since my exam was in ten minutes and on the other side of campus- trying to think of a way to say something cool or funny. No such thing happened. I wished Aaron a Merry Christmas, told Akbar I’d see him later, I tried to make it to Hibbard as fast as I could without slipping on the ice.

I entered the classroom just as the exam started, and quietly took my blue book and started writing. When the exam was finished, I shook the professor’s hand and wished him a Merry Christmas, feeling very emotional all of a sudden. I left the building and found that the campus outside was almost deserted. Most folks had left. I took the long way back to Towers North, stopping by the bookstore to sell my textbooks, and pausing to admire Little Niagara and the silent, imposing buildings around me. Now that Aaron was gone, the semester was over. I felt like a tourist again, an outsider, walking among buildings and trees that did not belong to me, but which just an hour earlier passed in the periphery of my eye without a second thought. There was something so cold about the buildings and trees that would endure long after I’d gone.

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The snow had stopped falling, and the winter sun bathed the campus in white light. That was the moment my semester ended. In spirit, I was already back in the UK. I was British again. Everything between that moment and the plane landing in Heathrow was just my body going through the various motions of transporting myself back to Nailsea. Throughout the whole trip home- a long sequence of cars, shuttle-buses and planes- I was very impatient. I just wanted all this dead time to be over, since I was already switched off from America. My mind and my heart were blank. Whatever had connected me to the America around me was gone; whatever interface that allowed me to feel and consider the trees, the animals, the road signs, the slang, the body language, the sunsets- the vast details that constituted the life force of the America I had fallen in love with- was no longer working. It was like seeing it all in pictures and movies, even though I was still there. It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever had. And it’s the one I want to end this study abroad series on. Thank you to everyone who has read these little essays since the beginning. Hopefully it was interesting to you. I will still write about the USA, but the story of my study abroad is over. Come next week, I will have started a new project, so stay tuned…

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My Study Abroad Overview: The Roads Not Taken

I’ve always been the kind of person that, whenever I commit to a path, am irresistibly drawn to imagining myself taking the other option. The road not taken. My student exchange to America’s Dairyland was one of the best experiences of my life. But as I’ve stated in my recent posts, it was by no means perfect. For a while now, I’ve wanted to do a post where I share with you my regrets regarding my semester abroad. They’re not necessarily things I agonize over now (it’s been 6 years after all!) but they are things that caused me a great deal of anxiety at the time, and for a while after I left. It’s interesting to imagine how things could have happened differently.

  • I’m an awful decision-maker, and on my first weekend on campus I was presented with a choice that made my anxiety run wild: attend the Blugolds’ season opener in what would have been my first American football game, or play soccer with Akbar and his mates. I chose the latter, and it was fun, but at the time I was paranoid that I’d missed a great opportunity. After all, I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, so by choosing to go with Akbar, I wasn’t really challenging myself or engaging in a cultural experience. I went because I liked Akbar and wanted to get in with his friendship group- which is what ultimately happened. But I still lamented the road not taken, because I knew that the season opener was not an experience I could ever do again. I imagined a crowd full of excited freshmen and myself among them, meeting new people, living as Americans did. The image pained me, and I never ended up going to see a Blugold game that semester.
  • As you know, I’ve always been a big believer of “When in Rome…yada yada” and assimilating to a local culture. But as the above point shows, I don’t always do that. Sometimes I panic and pick the easier, more familiar option. I’ve always hated the way time can slip like sand through your fingers and without even realizing it, opportunities will become closed off. During my exchange, I was told that while the weather was still warm in the first two weeks of September, a lot of Blugolds liked to go “Tubing” on the Chippewa River. It was almost like a rite of passage for students at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. I didn’t find likeminded people that wanted to go tubing and I wasn’t assertive enough to persuade my new friends to do so, so I never did. It felt like a missed opportunity at the time. However, this is one regret I am proud to say that I rectified upon my return to Eau Claire in 2014. When I came back to the city two years later, I told Aaron and Anne-Marie that I wished I had gone tubing during my exchange, and so they took me several times, and now I’m really glad with the way it turned out.
  • Perhaps my biggest regret of the semester (and this is one that still bothers me now) is that I didn’t join any clubs. It was something I knew I wanted to do before I even arrived in the USA and I just wasn’t brave enough or proactive enough to do it. I was dictated by laziness and fear. My friend Jimmy from down the hall was a member of a fraternity, and at the time I did want to join him. It seemed like such a staple of the American collegiate experience, as well as a great way to meet friends. Jimmy told me that the fraternities and the sororities organized events together in order for boys and girls to meet each other. For example, a boy and a girl would be matched together and go on a date to a bowling alley or something. I was utterly fascinated by his stories, but I knew at the same time that I was just not confident enough to try it out. I was also terrified of hazing rituals. Members of fraternities were not allowed to divulge any secrets, and I did not like the idea of going in blind. I can’t even chug a beer or a take a shot, and that’s not even considered mildly adventurous by most people. Goodness knows what sort of challenges they would have come up with. At Winchester (my British university) there was a rumor that to join the soccer team you had to eat a candy bar out of a guy’s arsehole. Seriously, fuck that noise.
  • There were one or two times during my exchange where I felt that I let my friends down. Too often I try to please everyone, and in so doing, end up pissing off everyone. My experiences of being bullied at school, and then being friendless and alone during my time in Bristol and Winchester, have made me into a people-pleaser. But the problem with obsessing over politeness and being liked is that sometimes you don’t take a moment to be honest about what you truly want, and in American culture this does not go down well. Americans like you to be straightforward. They hate any kind of deceit, even if it is well-intentioned. There was one time during my exchange where Jimmy and Zeke wanted to take the bus to the mall and hang out there for an afternoon. They asked Aaron, and because Aaron is American, he told them straight-up that he didn’t want to go. He wasn’t rude about it, but he was clear, and they respected that. I was torn. I felt that I ought to, but I also worried that I wouldn’t get any homework done, I was too lazy to move, and I also had a tendency to follow Aaron and do whatever he did at all times. I could tell Jimmy and Zeke were upset, because it seemed like I didn’t want to hang out with them. As soon as they left, I felt awful about not going. I regretted it instantly. And during that afternoon, all I did was make myself suffer for not going. I didn’t do any homework, I didn’t hang out with Aaron, I just sat in my room and tortured myself psychologically. If I could go back in time now, I would definitely go. Jimmy and Zeke were wonderful friends to me during my semester, and deserved more of my time.
  • In that same vein, I wish I had made more of an effort to be friends with my roommate Brad. We might not have had the same interests, but I could have made a better effort to talk to him more, even if just to make our dorm room a more comfortable place. The problem was I was too wrapped up in my own issues back then. I couldn’t see anything beyond my own failures, and I didn’t have the strength to take the initiative in a social situation. I would have liked to get lunch with him now and then, or chat with his parents when they visited. When the semester was over, I did feel a pang of regret.
  • Later on in the semester, I took a liking to a girl in one of my Literature classes who just happened to be an R.A in Towers North. I never did anything about it, and I’m not sure that I would be able to if I went back in time with the mind I have now. But at the end of the semester, I was disappointed that I didn’t even make the slightest bit of effort. Every American I met told me that American girls were obsessed with British accents. I had a lot of guys come up to me and say they were jealous of the “advantage” I had by speaking with “that Oxford voice”. My host family told me the reason for the obsession was a movie called Love Actually in which there’s a British guy that’s really smooth or something. So having girls want to talk to me (or any British guy) was known as the “Love Actually Effect”. I think the constant reminders of this supposed advantage and the insistence that I use it made me feel very anxious and I collapsed under the pressure. Having just come off the back of 3 years of hiding and living like a recluse, devoid of even the slightest bit of self-esteem, I was in no fighting shape for courting whatsoever. So in that sense, I don’t blame myself as much now as I did when my semester ended, for not letting that girl know I was interested in her. I just wish I had had enough courage to talk to her more often.

In conclusion, I’m happy with how my life has turned out since my semester abroad at UW-Eau Claire. It’s been 6 years now, and I am able to see that the long term consequences of my student exchange have all been amazing. But I wanted to write this post because I think it’s important to remember that however happy I am now, I didn’t necessarily feel this way at the time. These are all regrets that I felt during my exchange and for a while afterwards. It’s important to me that I remember that at the time my exchange ended, I did feel a strong sense of failure. I think the value in documenting that kind of information is that it’s telling about my state of mind, my changing sense of perspective, and my mental health. I still suffer from trying to please people, and I still torture myself over the paths I don’t take. I’ve discovered that I attach overwhelming significance to even the slightest everyday choices, like not going to the mall or whatever. It’s the sort of situation that could happen again, and indeed still does, where I obsess over the social ramifications of making one choice or another. And that’s why I think it’s important to share experiences such as these, because I’ve found that a lot of people have described having similar struggles. There is a comfort in knowing that what once seemed like a problem intrinsic to my character might very well be a common pitfall of the human condition.

“Just Another Mental Health Post”

I never planned to blog about my mental health issues as much as I have. It was only when I started writing my series of memoir-posts about my 2012 student exchange that I realized there was no way around it. To leave out my struggles with anxiety and depression would have been to tell a hollow narrative. It would have been a sequence of pointless events not really worth writing about. It wasn’t until that first post that I realized that to tell the story of my study abroad would mean telling the story of my mental health. I realized through writing about the events of that semester that every moment seemed to be tied in some way to the imbalance in my brain chemistry. Every social situation, from intramural soccer to my first day at class had to be told through the lens of my anxiety, because that’s how I experienced it. Sometimes I felt a little nervous about discussing these issues, because I’ve always been emotionally fragile and hyper-sensitive about what others think of me, but I decided to write them anyway. Part of me felt guilty about blogging about it, and worried at the kind of reaction I’d get. Ultimately I knew I would, because I knew the writing demanded it, and the quality of my writing is more important to me than pretty much anything else- certainly more than fear of embarrassment. But up until now I’ve only ever blogged about mental health insofar as it relates to my experiences and memories. I haven’t done a piece specifically addressing my issues, because I feared that doing so would be stepping into a realm beyond my expertise. I might suffer from these issues, but I’m no medical professional, and that’s my reason for not wanting to discuss mental health in a general sense. I’m uncomfortable offering advice or discussing the experiences of others. I’m nervous about trying to contribute something useful to an issue so destructive for so many people.

However, I’m in an angry mood this afternoon. And it’s this anger that’s prompted this blog post. It’s not a post I have scheduled and it’s not one I’ve planned. I was actually scheduled to release an entirely different post today, but that can wait. I need to get this off my chest while I’m still fired up about it. So think of this as a kind of spontaneous rant. I’m not sure where it’s going, or whether it will amount to anything worthwhile, but here goes.

A little while ago I saw a post on Facebook that caught my eye. For the past two years I’ve been taking an antidepressant called Citalopram. I was in a phase in 2015 where I didn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. I didn’t want to try anything. I loathed myself and I consciously wished that I would fall asleep and never wake up. The pills have helped eschew those dark thoughts and now I’m in a phase where I find myself very unwilling to part with the medication. Anyway, the post on Facebook that I saw contained a picture of these pills, and I was naturally drawn to it. It was a long Facebook post in which the user was discussing the side effects of the medication on her health. It was very interesting to read about someone else’s experience with the same drug I was using. However, the first paragraph of the post was filled with defensive and self-conscious statements such as “I don’t want this to be just another mental health post but…” and that got me thinking. At first I was annoyed because she seemed to be disparaging other mental health related posts even though she herself was clearly trying to write the same thing. But then, I started wondering why she was so self-conscious about writing about mental health. She was obviously worried about the kind of reaction her post would get. She seemed to be echoing a fear that social media is oversaturated with mental health posts, that because more and more people are sharing their stories, the supposed “real issues” were becoming clouded. It hinted at widespread suspicions of anxiety not being a real medical problem, or the sentiment that “everyone’s diagnosed with something now”, a sentiment which (to me) suggests that because so many people are opening up about their suffering, that the issue’s seriousness is therefore diminished.

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I’m not an expert, so I don’t know, nor do I pretend to know, how widespread the issue of anxiety is. But even if it is so common, that doesn’t make it any less toxic. I’m angry today because it’s apparent that we’ve got a long way to go toward making our society more sensitive to these issues. What really set me off today was reading through the comment section of an article on Bleacher Report about Johnny Manziel’s Bipolar diagnosis. I loved watching Johnny Football when he was in college. I wouldn’t say he’s a hero of mine or anything, but he was an exciting athlete doing some pretty flashy things. Reading through the comments beneath the article, I was appalled at the idea that because this guy has made some mistakes in his life, that he is somehow not entitled to our sympathy. In a recent interview with Good Morning America, Manziel was forthcoming about his Bipolar diagnosis, depression, and his commitment to sobriety and therapy. If there’s one thing I admire it’s an individual that tries to better him or herself. We don’t have to like Johnny Manziel, and that’s not my point here. My point is that the reaction I observed to the news of his mental health issues was symptomatic of a wider societal problem regarding the perception of depression and anxiety. Sympathy is never a finite resource; we don’t have to choose between feeling concerned about Syrian refugees and a college football star’s search for a healthy state of mind. Every form of suffering is worth our attention, and in order to create a more sympathetic world, we have to stop categorizing suffering.

I know that sounds preachy, but fuck it. My blood’s up now. I have to express my rage and do what rage demands, what it’s good for; to turn it into a written statement. I was chatting with a friend recently who was describing a “rut” he’s been in. During our chat, he said something that really stuck with me. “I don’t want to use the word depression” he said. It made me think he felt guilty about adopting that word, that his issues weren’t as important as mine. The fact that I take pills doesn’t make my anxiety any more real, or any more important than his or anyone else’s. We should be encouraging people to share, and getting to the root of our problems, so I told my pal to use whatever word he felt best described his experience. It comes back to the idea that because mental health issues are suddenly more widespread, that not every claim is as valid as the next. Are people tired of anxiety related posts? Are they annoyed by them? I’m not. Nothing pleases me more than seeing people share their experiences, be it orally or in a written piece. I love reading the blogs of some of my fellow Creative Writing graduates that touch on issues such as depression or social anxiety. Nothing makes a person so interesting to me as their openness, their self-awareness and self-reflection. I don’t enjoy hearing that other people suffer, but it is comforting to know that my issues are shared by so many, and I seek out these brave accounts of suffering. But you don’t need a degree in Creative Writing or a Citalopram prescription to share your story. Don’t ever be afraid to express your own experiences, and don’t be made to feel that what you are going through does not warrant our attention, because to share is to contribute the continuum of human experience and our understanding of these issues.

I’mma get me some ice cream. Nothing cools me off like a bowl of Neapolitan. Vowles out.

My New Year’s Resolution

I have always been attracted to the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, because I love having a sense of direction in life. I love the idea of building something. It’s not enough just to earn money to stay alive. I love having a project. But I’m not entirely at ease with the concept of Resolutions. I don’t think people should be made to feel that they have to have one. If you’re happy, why change? A cynic might argue that having a Resolution is a sure way to make yourself disappointed in the future. When I listen to other people’s Resolutions, I find they’re most often based on eschewing perceived vices. Vowing to stop eating donuts, smoking cigarettes, or watching porn. But come Spring they have Type 2 Diabetes, a voice as rough as a cement mixer, and they’ve swiftly gone blind. And while I absolutely encourage efforts to live a more healthy lifestyle, it’s not quite the type of Resolution I’m drawn to. It’s what I think of as a Negative Resolution- aimed at resisting a temptation of some kind. It’s often seeing how many months you can go before you’re rushing out to the store for a box of Shipley’s, a packet of Camels, and presumably a fresh stack of tissues.

I’m more interested in what I call Positive Resolutions- an end goal that I work towards. However, I realize we live in an age that encourages dreams and the entitlement to individual achievement. And so it can sometimes be unhelpful to pressure others to feel like they need a dream or a target of their own. I certainly endorse the idea of striving to improve as a person, but you don’t need some grandiose, lofty Resolution to do that. I asked three people on New Year’s Eve what their Resolutions were. The first to answer was an old friend of mine, who declared he wanted a new job. A nice, solid goal to work towards. The next to respond was his cheerful girlfriend, who was less certain. After thinking about it for a bit, she then decided that if she were to have a target, it would be to compete again in a bodybuilding competition (she’s ripped). The last fellow to answer was the most caught off guard. We thought of Resolutions for him, but concluded that honestly he didn’t need one. Resolutions are like freckles. Sure, they look cute & pretty & distinctive, and you might want them- but you don’t need them. Similarly a Resolution is a fine thing to have, but you’re not missing anything by not having one.

I had the same conversation a day later with my family as we sat down for the first supper or 2018. My brother went first, and with wild-eyed excitement told us that he wanted to try a new hobby, something completely new, exotic, and challenging like Kendo, ballroom dancing, or amateur dramatics. My mom went second, and opted for the becoming less-reliant-on-chocolate-to-get-through-the-day route. When it was my dad’s turn, he answered with a stony face and a gruff voice “I don’t believe in Resolutions.”

Then it was my turn. As the eyes around the table fell on me, I thought about what I wanted from 2018. There were a bunch of areas in my life one might think ripe for a Resolution. This blog for example. What’s the next step for TumbleweedWrites? To reach 1000 subscribers? To blog full-time? The answer is I want this blog to steadily improve, to grow, but I don’t have a specific target in mind for it. I will most likely finish my Study Abroad series of personal essays pretty soon, and I have another big subject lined up for this Spring that will surely feature quite heavily in my writing for this site. More details on that will come very soon.

And what about other aspects of my life? Of course I intend to keep my job and perhaps even get a promotion, but it’s not my Resolution. The same can be said for fitness. I need to lose some of this chub and get my stamina back, but once again, that’s not my main ambition for the year. Those of you hoping for a Mrs Tumbleweed to emerge sometime soon will also be disappointed, because getting a girlfriend is not my focus either. If Mrs Right comes along then that’s swell, but I have decided that I’m not going to treat being single as some kind of problem. I need my energy for writing, and I’m not prepared to enter into a relationship that isn’t organic and natural. So I won’t be reinstalling Tinder or hitting the bars.

I would say that my main objective for the year is to find a literary agent for my novel, which (judging by my current rate) ought to be finished by February sometime. But I don’t think it’s helpful for a writer to worry about something beyond his or her control. Maybe it will get represented, maybe it will get published, maybe it will be on shelves at a bookstore near you- but none of those are things I can really control. At that point your manuscript is in the hands of other people. All a writer can do is write. I hope to write at least one other novel before the end of the year, so that’s a more interesting and worthwhile target I think. Finish the current novel and write a second one.

But truly, my New Year’s Resolution is much more personal than anything I have listed above. Mental health is my primary concern. I’ve spent the last 24 hours deep in thought. I’m reevaluating my progress as a person, and I’ve realized that I’m far from where I want to be. Anxiety is a part of me for better or for worse, and I know I want to manage that better. A panic attack is a wake-up call- a reminder that however much I might feel like I’m doing better, I can slip right down to rock bottom at a moment’s notice. I think my Resolution will be trying to become more self-sufficient, more mentally strong and to be able to handle things on my own. I’m still too much of a people-pleaser, I still compromise too much, I’m passive, and lacking in confidence in the moments when I need to back myself the most. This year I hope to be as thoroughly myself as I can possibly be. And this post here is where it starts. My blog has always been a way to hold myself accountable, and TumbleweedWrites will serve as a record of my progress. When I look back on this post in December, what will I think?

My Year in Review: 2017

I’m not sure what I expected from 2017, except more of the same. The same half-hearted attempts at being productive; moments of inspiration that disappeared as quickly as they came- little flashes in the great gray amorphous cloud of boredom and lethargy. The same desperate attempts to recapture isolated instances of joy, which similarly flashed briefly out of a default state of depression. I was in the mindset that nothing would ever change, for better or for worse. That I was being railroaded from one year to the next, that life existed only for me to watch- and not to create. Every year I make a resolution, but there’s always an underlying belief that I don’t have the strength, knowledge, or willpower to follow through. Each year seemed like running the same race over and over again, that I was a greyhound bolting after a rabbit that I would never attain. I’d never read all the awesome novels of the world, I’d never finally finish writing my own, I’d never meet that perfect, “wife-material” lady (somewhere between Emilia Clarke and Hannah Witton), I’d never achieve a more balanced, contented mood.

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In fact, the year started on a rather uninspiring note. I went to a New Year’s party and whilst the party itself was fun, I got pretty drunk and whenever that happens my anxiety levels really spike. I tend to peak ahead of everyone else, before suffering some kind of anxiety attack that snowballs into the morning and the rest of the week. I don’t get hangovers or anything like that, but I have a tendency whenever I drink a lot to get depressed and strangely paranoid. For the first two months of the year I didn’t do anything at all- I couldn’t sleep, I was tired all the time, and I hardly moved. But beginning with March, things seemed to get better, and the year presented me with a few surprises and a decent number of highlights to look back upon. So here’s my Year in Review for 2017:

 

  • I finally got around to passing my driving test after stopping and starting my lessons over a two and a half year period. It was a huge relief because I was close to the point where it had been two years since I passed my theory test, and if I were to fail my road test on my fourth attempt back in February, then I would have had to retake the theory exam, and I can’t think of anything more disheartening than sitting through that piece of shit again. I may have given up on the whole idea of driving altogether and waited instead for those fancy self-driving hovercrafts to take the market by storm.
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  • I had the honor of serving as the wedding photographer for my best friend Elizabeth as she married her soul mate in Witney, UK. It was an awesome experience, not just shooting the wedding, but being included in such an intimate way in the craziest week ever as my American family completely overwhelmed this quaint English village in the countryside.
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  • I got my first pair of glasses this year, after noticing that I couldn’t make out the score when watching Chelsea games or the subtitles when watching Downfall. It was really sudden how my long-distance eyesight deteriorated.
  • I started this very website, and so far it’s grown to be longer than The Hobbit. I’m real happy with myself for writing something over 100,000 words and not getting bored of it. The response from my friends and subscribers has been so encouraging, and it’s moments of kindness like those that have been the best part of the blogging experience.
  • As the year started to improve with Elizabeth’s wedding, I noticed that I was on something of a happy-streak. For once my mood seemed solid, as though I could rely on myself to be happy on a day-to-day basis. It was the first time I could actually remember feeling happy in a permanent sense. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I genuinely had never felt that sense of being happy for no reason. My mind was clear. I told Aaron and said “Maybe I don’t need the pills anymore.”
    He replied, “Don’t you think it might be that the pills are working?”
    Aaron was right. I had started out on Prozac in November 2015, before switching to Citalopram in the New Year, and doubling the dosage a few months later. It’s the kind of drug that takes an affect after a long period of use, and 2016 saw little progress except for making me ravenously hungry. So I decided to stay on the pills after my doctor told me there were no drawbacks to doing so, and that it was entirely about how comfortable I was with them in my life. 2017 has been an amazing year for my mental health; I feel happier, more productive, and I have completely stopped dwelling on mistakes, failures and depressing memories. For once I’m looking forward and I actually want myself to succeed.
  • Following up on that point, this year has seen me approach food in an entirely different way. Not just my attitude toward eating, but the very mechanics of doing so. I can now drink without looking down (something I figured was due to my fear of barfing). I don’t spend forever chewing, I eat quicker, and I eat more. Two years ago I weighed 139lbs (9.9 stone) and now I’m about 190lbs (13.5 stone). At the rate I’m going I’m gonna turn into Jabba the Hutt if I don’t swap the cheesecakes for some kale. As soon as I walked through the door to the doctor’s office this year, my doctor exclaimed “Woah, you look different!”
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  • I spent the summer in Texas with my best friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. It was my fifth period of living in the USA and the fourth summer in a row of living with the two lovebirds. It was the only summer in which I was able achieve a near-perfect balance between productivity and fun, between personal growth and social success. Highlights of my stay include tagging along to Aaron and Ann-Marie’s engagement photos, making an ass-ton of food for the NBA Draft, having the best July 4th yet poolside at a swanky apartment complex, gaining experience of sales and solar energy, making pumpkin bars with Anne-Marie, playing with our border collie Adelaide, and going to the beach on Galveston Island.
  • I started drinking coffee this year and now I don’t know how I ever managed without it. My whole schedule is built on caffeine.
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  • I have worked two jobs. Before the summer I worked as a cleaner at a bar in Nailsea. It was a pretty awful job cleaning up puke and sprayed fecal matter, but I’ll definitely carry that experience with me for life. After the summer I started working in the kitchen of a Middle-Earth-style tavern, also in Nailsea. So far I have quite enjoyed it. It’s frenetic and intense, but it’s an interesting environment. Shout out to my friend Daniel for getting me the job and going out of his way on my behalf.
  • Lastly, I have finally committed to writing an extended piece of fiction, instead of the poems and short stories I have been working on since graduation. At the moment I’m writing a novel and it’s going quite well. It’s already the longest thing I’ve written in over a decade, since that 250-page novel I wrote when I was 14 about wizards fighting sentient robots.

Thank you so much for reading and supporting my blog! It means the world to me. Let me know in the comments if you have any targets for 2018 and what you’ve learned from the year just passed.

How to Create a Schedule and Get Out of a Slump

A great way to get yourself out of a slump is to create a schedule- whether you’re a writer or not. But it’s not as straightforward as I once thought. The trick is to turn that schedule into a lifestyle; doing it so many times that the components become as unconscious and effortless as the day-to-day rituals of showering or brushing your teeth. I’m going to use my progress this year as an example, because the only way to learn how to improve is by looking back.

I wrote a few weeks ago how the most important quality to defeating lethargy and procrastination is your Bouncebackability. You’re gonna fail and fail until you get it right. But the key to getting it right is to examine those failures, because each one holds the secret to success. Your failures are the best resources you have.

I’ve tried so many times over the years to set a schedule for myself but they just never seemed to stick. My thinking was that inevitably each one would crumble because I’m an inherently lazy person, and that the best strategy was to just keep initiating the same schedule. Sure, there were a few tweaks here and there, but each one was hopelessly set up to fail- like a house made of garlic bread.

The first and most important rule to creating a schedule is not to set yourself up for failure. I know that might sound obvious, but what I mean is don’t be over-ambitious at the start of your journey. If the schedule is too punishing, you’ll slip back into laziness. And that brings us to the second rule- implement a schedule that feels like a lifestyle and not a list of chores. Traditionally all my schedules were based off of the Pomodoro method. I broke up the day into regimented slots of about 30 minutes each. The problem came when I wasn’t hitting my targets as effectively as I wanted. But how did I realize this?

During the three-day lifespans of these schedules, I would be happy and satisfied because my thinking was “I might not be smashing every task, but at least I’m getting something done”. My thought process was that some writing is better than none at all. When 2017 started I wasn’t optimistic. I was in a rut. I stayed up all hours of the night, and generally I felt disgusted with my life. Change was an impossible dream. So when I got around to implementing schedules, they did help me to get out of that depressive state, because by comparison they made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile.

But the schedules never lasted. I had made some progress, but now I was stagnating. And here we return to the wise words of Jabari Parker. In the Sports Illustrated video I mentioned earlier this week, he stresses the importance of giving everything 110%. When we use that phrase we tend not to think about it too much. It’s often dismissed as some kind of idiomatic, uplifting cliché. But what the concept of giving 110% refers to is what athletes call “Overload”. Jabari tells the school children that the 10% extra is absolutely crucial to making your ambitions come true. It’s about pushing yourself and not getting comfortable.

And that essentially is how I changed my schedule. I realized I wasn’t giving the 10% extra. I was living a more productive life, spiced up by three-day spurts of regimented and scheduled work- but I was resting on my laurels. Progress had slowed and I realized that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be, I had to increase my output. I had to work harder and faster. Simply being productive was not enough anymore. Now it was about urgency, about living as if I only had a year to live at all. That was the moment I started looking back on my schedules with a view to changing them entirely.

To reach your goals and achieve real change in your life, you need to have an evolving schedule. This is where we get specific. One thing that wasn’t working for me with my Pomodoro-esque day planners were the time slots I devoted to coming up with story ideas. Sometimes ideas come tumbling out and sometimes they don’t. And setting aside time to come up with killer ideas for novels, poems, songs (or whatever it is you are working on) is inherently problematic. You can sit there and think really hard but you can’t force the lightning to strike. Deciding that it’s time to come up with ideas is a surefire way for a writer to give him or herself an overwhelming sense of anxiety, stress and self-doubt. If the 30-minute time slot ended and I hadn’t come up with anything, I’d panic because I had to continue the day-planner and the dedicated time for story ideas was lost. The whole schedule would seem tainted because one of the listed targets was not hit.

Looking back on my diaries this week I saw so many entries from 2010 that read “Sat for ages trying to come up with story ideas, and after realizing that the precious hours of the day were dwindling, I gave up and played Age of Empires 2. Day wasted”. So I looked back on these problems and thought about how to fix them. First I asked myself where ideas come from. Well they either strike at random moments, or they happen when I’m reading. The more I read fiction, the more ideas for fictional stories I get. The same holds true for movie ideas, songs, et cetera I imagine. It makes sense after all. So what I’ve been doing recently is reading with a notebook on hand. I read until I get an idea, and when I run out of ideas I resume reading instead of sitting there stressing out. So far the results have been amazing.

Another trick to living a productive lifestyle is to know the best conditions for your success and to replicate them. I do best when I get up early. If I get out of bed with the whole day ahead of me, I’m happy. I write best in the mornings. I know a lot of writers- such as Anne Tyler for instance- do their writing from about 8am-2pm. I need to be happy to write and I need to write to be happy. Simple right? Well my problem for a while has been simply getting out of bed. When the year started I was a night owl, and when I woke up I was severely depressed and lacking in motivation because half my day was gone. I was tired and groggy all the time, despite the medication I’ve been taking for over a year that’s supposed to help. So I looked back on that and thought how best to turn things around.

During my summer in Texas my roommates and I would all get up early and make coffee. I wanted to be a caffeine drinker but I knew I didn’t really like the taste. Luckily, my friends sorted me out.

“My fiancée makes a mean coffee,” Aaron said, and on the first morning of the summer Anne-Marie brought me a coffee lovingly made with almond creamer, caramel syrup and a bit of sugar. A work of art. I tried it and it was the first time coffee ever tasted good. And what ended up happening with coffee was what I always hoped would happen with alcohol- that the more I drank it, the more I’d like it. I started off trying to replicate Anne-Marie’s sweet coffees, and week by week started making them stronger. By the end of the summer I was able to drink black coffee and I didn’t even need it to be warm either.

Every morning that summer was spent waking up early, making a coffee, and eating a large apple whilst reading novels and snuggling with our pup. I’ve managed to replicate those conditions now (except for the dog, sadly) and it works. Without coffee, having a productive day was a lottery. If I woke up groggy I would find it hard to do much. So I got myself a coffee maker and now I’ve established a routine aimed at recreating the environment that saw the happiest period of my life. I wake up early every morning, make coffee, go on a brisk walk, and come back to drink it, eat my apple, and begin my strategy of reading and jotting down ideas. The great thing about coffee is that it gets rid of my grogginess, and so incorporating it into my life permanently has seen some excellent results. I’m chasing what Theodore Roosevelt called The Strenuous Life. I want to pull the moon down from the sky. I don’t want to play the game- I want to win it. I encourage you to be aggressive with your writing (or whatever it is you are pursuing). Learn from the past, and approach each day like Jabari Parker flying down the lane to crush a tomahawk dunk.

Seizing the Day

It’s time for another spontaneous post. Last night I unearthed my old journals. I have four diaries, covering four periods of my life: spring/summer 2010, fall 2010, winter 2011, and winter 2015. They all make for depressing reading, and it’s interesting to look back on them and see me try and make sense of myself. It seems I spent a lot of time trying to understand just who I was; a lot of entries ask the question “What is wrong with me?”

The process of reading these journals was a little nauseating. I wrote about how each day blurred into the next, how time slipped me by, and how powerless I felt. I’d sit at my desk thinking of ways to be productive, before giving in and merely “passing the time”. I was desperate to do something with my life. I felt like I had nothing of any worth, no life at all. It makes me realize just how significant 2017 has been in regards to my personal growth.

But why blog about the discovery of these old diaries? Isn’t this all personal? Couldn’t this be worked out in a new journal? Yes, I suppose it could. But to analyze my growth as a person is not the point of this post. Why do I blog at all? Because I want my experience to touch others. I see my personal blog posts as contributing to a pool of human experience. At the end of the day I can only offer my own experiences and perceptions. I can’t tell you why you think the way you do, or what your experiences mean. But we can share our experiences to the benefit of all- we can find aggregate truths. If I was only concerned with my own therapy, I’d hit up the journal. I want to learn from others, and I want others to learn from me. We gain greater understanding by sharing with one another. My experiences are valid because I felt them, I went through them- and the same is true for you. No information we share is useless.

Every morning I go on a brisk walk where I think about the day’s targets. Today I told myself that every day I should leave a legacy of some kind. What am I going to do today that contributes to my dreams? I like the idea of adding a brick every day to an ongoing construction project. And as I said this to myself, I thought about the diary entries I read last night and the times I spent worrying that each day was wasted. Seizing the day seemed impossible back then. Now I have the urgency and sense of purpose I’ve always wanted. I’m not so much like a hesitant foal weighing up the decision to ford a river. I know it might sound corny, but I genuinely hope this blog can serve to inspire others to navigate the pitfalls of lethargy, self-loathing and depression.

This week I’m taking my inspiration from Jabari Parker- one of my favorite basketball players. My roommate Aaron linked me to a Sports Illustrated video where he talks to a bunch of school kids. Aside from being a dynamic power-forward, Jabari is also a wise and articulate speaker. In the video (the link of which I shall post below), he tells the children that the key to achieving their dreams is to transform those long-term ambitions into day-to-day targets. What can I do today to help me get to where I want to be? It’s a sheer coincidence that the day after I watched this video, I ended up unearthing my old journals and seeing how relevant his advice was to the troubles I had back then. Jabari talks about commitment, getting up early, and giving everything that 10% extra effort. I’ve realized myself that whatever you do, you need that urgency. I hope I’m getting through to you. I’ll publish another post later this week about some specific methods I use to stay on track. For now, have yourself a badass Wednesday!

Click here to see the full Jabari Parker video!