I’m sure I’ve mentioned more than just a couple of times by now that I’m a huge fan of the classic British comedy series, Blackadder. Baldrick is by far my favourite character; for those who’ve never seen the show, Baldrick is a lovable, dim-witted character, renowned for his obsession with turnips, as well as his ridiculous, highly amusing cunning plans.
Like the time in the World War One fourth series when one morning down the trenches, Captain Blackadder asked Private Baldrick what he was doing. With the sound of heavy gunfire in the background, Private Baldrick replied that he was “carving Baldrick on a bullet”. Baldrick went on to explain that he had recently heard the saying that somewhere there’s a bullet with your name on it. His cunning plan, therefore, was that if he owned the bullet with his name on it, he’d never get hit by it – because, as he declared, he’d never shoot himself.
Blackadder has brought me many great laughs over the years. I used to watch a few episodes every week with my best mate and best man Charlie before we would head out to the pubs and clubs of Glasgow. While we were not exactly renowned for frequently picking up any girls with our killer one-liners, watching the show would put us in such a great mood that we would always laugh the night away together regardless.
Several years later, I introduced Tess to Blackadder as we spent a long, rainy weekend in our apartment in Melbourne. It should come as no surprise that by then I knew practically every line from every episode by heart. Tess, however, seeing each episode for the first time, laughed so loudly throughout each one we watched, that I ended up laughing more at her eye-watering reaction to the classic one-liners than I did at the lines themselves.
I’m such a big fan of the show and the happier moments it has brought me over the years that Tess and I named our first dog Baldrick. This seemed like a cunning plan in itself at the time, as well as a fitting tribute to my favourite television comedy character. But in hindsight, I’m pretty sure that red wine was heavily involved in the naming process. Let’s just say that while the name does in fact suit him quite well, we’ve had some quite bizarre looks when chastising our family pet in public places.
Our Baldrick was advertised as a Jack Russell when we bought him from the breeder – but we have our doubts. Now fully grown, as you can see he has the head shape and body size of a Labrador puppy, the broad chest of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and he eats like a pig.
When he first came to live with us, Baldrick was also a complete and utter coward. We took him along with our other new Jack Russell, Queenie, to puppy school; for the entire first session, while all the other puppies ran playfully around the field, Baldrick literally whined and cowered in the corner. The trainer looked at us and said, word for word, “it’s going to take a lot of work to bring that one out of his shell. A LOT of work.”
Yet just two weeks later, after surviving some hair-raising incidents with a few more fearful fully grown dogs, Baldrick was playfully running around the same puppy school field, bossing all the other puppies around. The trainer just looked at us completely gobsmacked and said “he’s like a different dog!”
It is said that Jack Russells are so bold and fearless that they are like big dogs in little dogs’ bodies. Well, Baldrick continued to outgrow his fearlessness so much so that I once saw him literally hanging from a big dog’s body. From the mouth, to be more specific, of the adult Great Dane who dared pinch his toy hoop down on the dog beach one day.
As you can see from his photo, Baldrick doesn’t have the classic Jack Russell patchy brown and white fur. He is almost entirely white, apart from some brown patching on his ears, and a near-perfectly round brown spot, not much bigger than a fifty cent piece, smack bang centre at the bottom of his back. I like to think that as near pure-white as he is, these small brown patches are there to remind him of his darker days, when he was once such a coward. In doing so, I also hope that it allows him to fully appreciate his now bold and fearless nature. I doubt it does of course, because he is just a daft wee dug. But it’s a nice thought, isn’t it?
The same, of course, can be said for me. Though my transformation – my emerging from the cave – took place over months rather than just a couple of weeks, after I started to take my medication. I also still bear some healthy mental scars in the form of memories that remind me where I’ve been. I’d like to think they make me a better person today as a result. I can say for sure, however that I really do more fully appreciate each and every day as a result.
So where did my own transformation for the better all start to take place? Well, it would be difficult to pinpoint an exact moment. It was more like a series of increasingly positive moments that occurred over time, like I was chipping away at a wall of ice, with slightly larger chunks coming away each time, and before I knew it, the ice had actually melted.
I will delve into some of the following experiences and feelings in more detail in future posts, but for now I just want to give a general sense of how it felt to continue my final emersion from the cave.
I mentioned in my last post that when I was at my lowest point, my first ray of hope of any form was reading in a newspaper article that it is not uncommon to get a lot worse before you start to get better when taking antidepressants. It was also around this time, while I was on my two weeks stress leave, that I also clearly remember watching the highlights of one of the matches in the 2010 Football World Cup (FIFA, that is; round-balled football, for the benefit of any Aussie readers). I can’t even remember which teams were playing in this particular match. I just remember one of the teams scoring a late winner, and then the entire team being absolutely ecstatic as they celebrated the late wonder goal that put them through to the next round.
I remember sitting on our couch and thinking “Big deal, a man kicked a ball into the back of a net. And in a few games time, a few more men will have kicked more balls in the backs of nets, one team will lift a big trophy, and they will all go home. So what? What difference does it really make?”
It all seemed completely and utterly pointless. For years in fact I often instinctively used to ask myself the same question about a lot of things – what’s the point of going to work, why bother going on holiday, what’s the point of playing a sport, why bother reading a book or watching a movie? And of course, from that Scottish tightarse so-what-er in me, what’s the point of eating in a restaurant when I can eat just as well at home for a fraction of the price? They were all a bit like mini versions of my all-consuming what-ifs.
Having my so-what mindset didn’t stop me from doing any of the things I used to so-what about. I would still get excited before going on a holiday, enjoy reading a book or watching a movie, heck I would even enjoy eating out in restaurants with friends. It was just one of those occasional questions I would ask myself, one that in hindsight I realise stopped me from fully enjoying the experiences.
Well, on that day as I watched the Unknown Footballer kick a ball into the Unknown Net at the end of the Unknown Match, the enormity, the apparent complete and utter lack of purpose in everything just overwhelmed me. If my underlying up and down lack of purpose over the years could be likened to a pair of lungs breathing in and out, this was like I was experiencing for the first time what it was like to fully breathe out and completely empty every single molecule of air from my lungs.
But little did I realise as I cowered away in my cave that day, completely bereft of any sense of purpose, that I was about to stumble upon possibly the greatest and yet simplest secret to living a more happy and meaningful life.
I had spent the best part of four decades always looking for a sense of purpose in everything I did. Opportunities would come up from time to time, whether it was to do something on a weekend, or take on a project at work. Sometimes I would take them up; sometimes I wouldn’t. But as I look back, I realise now that often I would not take up some offers or opportunities because I would be waiting for something better, something with a wow factor, something more meaningful and full of purpose to come along.
I’m talking about pretty simple stuff here. I might, for example, get invited along to a footy match on a weekend, between two teams that I had no real interest in. And yet even if I had nothing else planned on the weekend I might politely refuse, in the hope of that something better coming along, only to find myself ending up doing absolutely nothing on the weekend as a result. And of course wishing I’d gone to the footy match!
Well, after watching the Unknown Match in the World Cup that morning, as I sat there wallowing in a pool of self pity, I wanted nothing more than to shake off this terrible raw emptiness and lack of purpose.
And then, from nowhere, came a lightbulb moment.
It suddenly dawned on me that I had spent all those years searching for a sense of purpose in everything I did, when perhaps what I should really have been doing was to just try to rid myself of the sense purposelessness.
I should add that if things are starting to sound a little weird at this point, bear with me! I know where I am going with this, I’m just trying to find the right words to get there.
I had read a book ten years earlier that might provide another effective way of looking at it. Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch is a fairly full-on but life-changing and mind-blowing book that appeals to religious and non-religious alike. Amongst other things, the author puts forward the case that the purpose of life is basically to continually create yourself anew in order to discover who you truly are. But in order to do so, you must also discover who you are not.
I interpreted this to mean that you could choose to argue (most importantly, with yourself!) that every single situation you are in – good or bad, so you or so not you – can help you learn about and define who you are. It is simply up to you to choose to make the definition every time.
In other words, sometimes we do jobs we don’t love, we have friends we don’t like spending time with as much as others, we drive better or worse cars than them, live in bigger or smaller houses than them, even eat in a restaurant with them, get sick (preferably not of them or by the food), get well, try out a new sport, go and watch a footy match between two teams we couldn’t give a toss about, whatever.
Sometimes we only have to endure unpleasant situations for a short time, such as talking to someone we find annoying, eating something we find unpleasant, taking part in an apparently pointless meeting at work, or sitting through a movie at the cinema that ain’t rocking our boat. Sometimes these unpleasant situations may seem like they last for decades, such as the wrong choice of career. And sometimes the unpleasant situations only need minor tweaks rather than grinning and bearing them or fully rejecting them in favour of others, in order to turn them into experiences that both help you define who you are and at the same time are enjoyable.
I also realised that the irony of looking at life this way is that in order to find overall purpose in everything you do, you actually need to stop looking for purpose in whatever you do. If it still sounds like I’m on drugs here, remember – I am. But have a good think about that one.
Well, you would think after that particular light-bulb-going-off experience and with all this going on in my head, I would be absolutely elated to have found a whole new way of looking for purpose. But no, my body chemistry was still in the early stages of trying to change the habits of four decades. In short, I still felt like shit.
Slowly, however, over the next few weeks, things did begin to get better and better. Another key moment that sticks out for me for so many reasons was a time I was driving back from the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon, with Jack and Freddie in the back seats. I had taken them both with me to give Tess as well-deserved break. I had literally dragged myself around the aisles, constantly asking myself “Why am I bothering? What’s the point?” while trying my hardest (and thankfully succeeding) to not burst into tears in a public place. As I was driving home, still feeling like a total failure, I caught Jack’s eye in the rear view mirror. Against my albeit clouded better judgement, and now ever so slightly failing to hold back those tears, I blubbed out “Jack, I’m sorry I’m being such an awful Dad these days, I’m trying my hardest mate, really I am.”
And then, my adoring and adored angel of a son emphatically replied back “No Dad! You’re the bestest Dad ever, ever in the whole entire Universe!”
Sure, whatever, you might say. That’s what any four year old would say about their own Dad. But Jack said it so emotionally, so emphatically. It was as if he knew it was really the black dog talking and not me, and he was saying “how dare you say that about my Dad”.
More importantly, for the first time in as long as I could remember, that was the moment I realised I was of immeasurable value to my family – just by being around. I still felt like shit, though considerably less shit-like than had been the recent norm.
It was also around this time that I returned to work after two weeks of stress leave. As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t feel fully ready to go back, but I had certainly improved during my time off. My psychologist gave me the proverbial thumbs-up and my doctor gave me the all-important literal tick in the box.
It was an absolute drag of the grandest proportions getting out of bed and down to the train station to go back to work. I ran my first full marathon in 2008, and I liken that first day back at work to going for my first post-marathon run after a week’s R&R. My legs were still aching but going for that run was actually the best thing I could have done because it actually served to loosen up my legs and speed up full recovery. In both my physical and mental marathons, continuing to lie on the couch just waiting to get better past those points would most certainly have been the worst thing to do.
Within two hours of me being back at my desk, myself and several colleagues were in a key strategy meeting with my customer’s management team. Bearing in mind that barely a week before, I wasn’t even sure if I was ever going back to work anywhere, the first ten minutes felt like I was in a bad dream, with everyone talking in English but their words seemed all jumbled up (analogy, not drugs, just so we are clear on that!)
All I could think was “I’m actually expected to contribute something to this meeting – but I just want this big table to swallow me up! I can’t wait till it’s over!” So at first I just sat there – like a stunned mullet.
But then the fog started to lift. Everyone’s random word generators broke down, and what they were saying started to make sense. All I could then think was “Say something, Mark. For God’s sake, say anything!”
I can’t remember what it was I said, but I opened my mouth, everyone around the big table looked at me, and words – relevant words and in a meaningful order – spouted forth. And then, to my utter amazement, all the heads around the big table nodded in agreement, before someone else continued to talk where I had finished.
I was back! I still had a long way to go, yes I still felt like shit. But I was back! I was at the start of the end of a long journey, and I was back!
What happened slowly over the next few weeks and months was nothing short of miraculous. Both around me and within my head, things started to become clear – a lot clearer than ever before in fact. I also began to think more rationally than ever before. Issues that would previously have become all-consuming worries started to become healthy concerns that I could now confidently deal with. No more highly irrational what-ifs firing off inside my head!
An(other!) analogy that I can personally relate to because it also literally happened to me a few months later still, is that the whole experience was like putting on a pair of reading glasses for the first time. For years I had been proud of my excellent (but unbeknownst to me, slowly deteriorating) eyesight, and when I finally did get my eyes tested and don a pair of prescription reading glasses, I just could not believe how incredibly clear everything actually looked. More to the point, I could not believe how unclear things had actually been before. It was like putting on a pair of internal reading glasses for my mind.
As the weeks and months continued to pass, I also started to slowly but surely feel more normal than I ever had before. And contrary to what people may think, I hope you realise that I don’t walk around like I’m on a permanent “wow man, far out that’s so radically awesome” drug-induced high.
Several people have asked me how would I know what normal feels like. Well, that is a very good question indeed. I would answer by saying that I started to feel more instinctively normal than I ever had before, more in tune with the world around me. I also started to trust my instincts more than ever before, and became more confident, albeit not over-confident, nor too trusting in my instincts.
There was another point at which I realised I was indeed walking the road to recovery. It was while talking to my close colleague and fellow writer, Alec, over a coffee one day. I decided that if managed tofully pull through, I would write about my experiences in the hope of helping others. As much as I was itching to get started, Alec rightly pointed out to me that I was perhaps still a little raw from the experience and that I should wait. But even just the realisation that I might soon have something to offer as a result of my nightmarish experiences was in itself another positive sign of recovery.
I also started to walk the talk of the revelation I had when I was back in my cave, and I often found myself able to just enjoy even the simplest of experiences and be in the moment. Sometimes I would do so without trying; sometimes I found myself in a less-enjoyable situation such as being in an apparently pointless meeting, or talking with someone I’d rather not, or sitting in a traffic jam. I would then realise that I had a choice I could make in that moment about who I was in relation to the experience. Importantly, however, I am only human, and sometimes I would make the choice to still be shitty. But at least I would realise that was my choice!
Most importantly of all, and bearing in mind that none of my life circumstances had actually changed – I still lived in the same house with the same wife and children, and I still had the same job – I startedto feel what I can only describe as the most incredible sense of freedom. And I still continue to do so to this day.
I still can’t tell how much of my transformation has been down to medication, and how much counselling hascontributed. I’m sure it is also partially down to me counting myself lucky because at my lowest point, in my own head at least, I really did face up to the reality of losing absolutely everything – and now I just feel eternally grateful to still have those things in my life.
Perhaps I will never know how big a part medication has played. But then do I really need to know? What I do know for sure, and again instinctively so, is that they all played an important part.
In closing for now, I would like to share something about the research I’ve carried out into my medication. As I also briefly touched on in my last post, Paroxetine, the daily sweetener I take just after my morning coffee, is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI). Switching briefly into Biology Teacher Mode here, Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain. It is usually recycled, or “reuptaken” once it has served its purpose in transmitting any particular message. Paroxetine basically works by restoring the natural balance of serotonin in the brain ie it enables the serotonin to hang around a bit longer by blocking or delaying the reuptaking process.
It is important to point out that for all its miracle-like benefits, Paroxetine can only be used to address a serotonin imbalance. Someone without such an imbalance can’t just take lots of the stuff and turn into a superhero. Overloading on an SSRI will cause Serotonin Syndrome, which has all kinds of nasty symptoms such as hallucinations, nausea and vomiting.
With all the good stuff in mind, however, I believe that by commonly referring to drugs like Paroxetine as antidepressants isn’t exactly helping matters. Doing so still creates an association with having a mental condition. To further illustrate my point, we don’t go around calling reading glasses “anti-vision-deterioration devices” nor do we refer to Lemsip as an “acute viral rhinopharyngitis reliever”.
So maybe we could do something similar to help lift the stigma around taking medication to combat mental conditions. I do wonder what would happen, after all, if rather than having the term antidepressant proverbially carved on SSRI pills, we instead began to refer to them simply as serotonin boosters. Now wouldn’t that be a cunning plan.