12 – Unless I’m Mistaken

“So have you been with the company for long?” I asked my new boss Tim in a clear, calm confident and, dare I say it, career-building manner on my first day at my new job in London.

“Oh, about two years”, replied Tim, towering over me, in his booming ex-army English gentlemanly manner. “And which part of Scotland might you be from?” he added with interest.

Tim’s account of that first conversation, however, was quite different to mine, one that I can only describe as my first mistake on my first day at my new job in London. A mistake, if I may add, that I would keep making – time and time and time again.

Tim’s version of our conversation went something like this:

“Ochaye-alreetbigmanhuvyebeenwurkinhereawhileorwhit?” I blurted out in a garbled, seemingly foreign, completely incomprehensible tongue.

“Sorry?” replied Tim, staring back at me in a confused, bemused and, dare I say it, slightly shell-shocked manner. “Did you say something?” he continued, wiping my phlegm from his brow.

My mistake had nothing to do with the fact that I had inadvertedly spat on my new boss. No, my mistake was that it took several months living in London, several similar such “conversations”, before I finally realised people weren’t just poking fun at my accent. No, they really didn’t understand me.

As I slowly settled into life in London, I also used to recall the story of Dick Whittington, who once set off to seek his fortune there, because he had heard that the streets of London were paved with gold.

The long and short of the story is that Little Dickie ended up hungry, cold and tired, falling asleep on a London street that was paved in something alright, but it certainly wasn’t gold.

Our disillusioned adventurer managed to scrape together a meager living by scraping dirt from and shining shoes. The room he slept in at night was rat-infested, so he eventually saved up enough to buy a cat to keep those pesky rats at bay. So skilled was his cat at catching the rats, in fact, that he ended up selling his feline friend for a princely sum to a rich man in a far away land. In doing so, he realised that fortune he had originally set out to seek.

Just for good measure, and to make the story all the more convincing, Not-So-Little-Any-More Dickie ended up becoming Lord Mayor of London not once, not twice, but thrice, as predicted by the bow bells of a big ship. I’m not sure what drugs the author of this story was on, but they sure weren’t the same ones I’m on today.

As a kid, I used to re-enact part of the adventure by packing a small bag of toys, walking down our garden path, biding Mum and Dad and my sister Claire a fond farewell and telling them that I was off to London.

I am pleased to say that when I did eventually leave home for London for real, I didn’t end up hungry, cold or tired during my own brief stint there. But rather than finding streets paved with gold, to me the streets of London – in fact everywhere in London – seemed to be paved with mistakes.

Take the famous London Underground – or The Tube as it is more commonly known – as a classic example. My daily routine would begin every morning around eight o’clock, when I would leave the small share flat where I lived in the suburb of Clapham, walk along the top edge of Clapham Common, and them make my way hesitantly down the stairs into Clapham Common tube station.

And every morning, without fail, she was there to greet me – the cloud of fumes and dust stirred up by each passing train, left lingering over the platform like an indoor morning smog. Smelling sharp, bitter and chalky, she clung to my hair and my clothes, and followed me around for the rest of the day.

Prolonging my exposure to the cloud was the fact that the trains – probably fifteen carriages long, and stretching the entire length of the platform – were always crammed full of people no doubt going through a similar routine to mine. The seemingly endless trains arrived at two minute intervals during peak times on the busy Northern Line. They were often so crammed full by the time they reached Clapham Common that I would have to let several of them leave without me before I would finally spot a glimmer of space on one, and literally squeeze myself on.

Once aboard, and with body in strange contorted position, I was then subject to the ironic unwritten condition of entry to the carriage, whereby eye contact with fellow commuters was strictly off-limits. Contact with all other body parts, however, was inevitable. Indeed, one’s very survival often depended on it.

There was a second cloud that engulfed many of my fellow morning commuters. This particular cloud didn’t linger in the air around them, but rather could be seen in the weariness in their eyes – on the occasion, that is, when you might actually dare to look them in the eye. Furthermore, this cloud didn’t have a lingering bitter odour, but they could all be forgiven for feeling bitter inside because of it.

I had seen this cloud on a smaller scale elsewhere many times before, including in the mirror. But now that I was so deeply immersed in this dense sea of people, it became more apparent than ever before. Quite simply, many of these people would rather be elsewhere, or at least on their way to be doing something else.

I’m sure many of them were just grateful to have a job – any job really – so that they could scrape together desperately needed money, in much the same way Dick Whittington had done a long time before but not quite so far, far away. Perhaps they too had come to London to seek their own fortune; perhaps some of them had escaped a life of unimaginable circumstances elsewhere, and at least now felt safe, albeit unfulfilled.

Possibly the most tragic of all, however, were those who simply didn’t realise – those who were making one of the biggest mistakes of all in convincing themselves that they already were where they wanted to be, doing what they wanted to do. Those, that is, who pretended even to themselves that they were happy with their high-powered career because of how it made them look, when deep down beneath all the denial, they knew differently.

I’m sure that many also fell into a similar category to my own. I had a relatively lucky upbringing in the grander scheme of things. We were neither rich nor poor – I was never really left wanting for much as long as my wants were not extravagant.  Sure, all my hopes and expectations about life in London were quickly quashed – but I found myself there out of choice rather than out of necessity.

I hadn’t come to seek a safe haven or to escape from the unimaginable. I had come to seek an experience, a sense of independence. I didn’t have to be there. Indeed, there were many times when I felt I had made the biggest mistake of my own life by leaving behind the relatively comfortable one I had in Glasgow, to come to this vast impersonal metropolis out of choice and begin again from scratch.

As time went by and the responsibilities in my own life grew, my fear of making mistakes grew with it. You may recall from an earlier post, for example, that I lived for many years with a fear of being fired from my jobs, and then going on to lose everything else in my life. Every time I made a mistake, no matter how small, I feared the time had finally come to prematurely lower the curtains on my career.

I’d heard all the clichés about making mistakes – such as “you aren’t judged by the mistakes you make, but how you recover from them” or “making mistakes is good – we learn from our mistakes”. And possibly the most insightful view on making mistakes that I ever heard was from a successful Melburnian entrepreneur called Ryan Trainor, whom I was interviewing for a magazine article. Ryan’s view was that if we are not out there making mistakes and learning from them, we are not truly giving life a go.

So maybe London’s streets were paved with gold after all, albeit in the form of mistakes and the priceless lessons we can learn from them. But much as I recognised the wisdom and truth in all these insights and clichés, they still weren’t enough to comfort me every time I made a mistake. It was only in recent years that I figured out why.

I came to realise that all the good things in life do not provide any form of immunity from anxiety and depression. Quite the contrary – I realise now that it was my former underlying lack of self worth, together with a fear of losing all the good things I didn’t feel worthy of having in my life, that actually fed my irrationally anxious, depressed mind. It was a truly vicious growling bitch of a black dog of a circle.

My own troubled mind, as I’ve described in earlier posts, used to seek out from every nook and cranny of my very existence any reason it could find — any reason – as to why all the good things in my life be stripped away from me. While these reasons were always plausible, they were also highly unlikely, extreme outcomes – and not a single one of them ever transpired.

Yet after finding them, dreaming them up, my irrational mind used to bring them to life, blow them out of all proportion and turn the extremely unlikely into the inevitably impending within the infinite confines of my own head. This was a major theme of the story of my life for the best part of four decades. It only survived for so long by craftily hiding itself under an exterior persona of someone who was always cracking a joke, game for a laugh.

You might even go as far as to argue that one of the greatest mistakes anyone can make is to unquestionably believe even for themselves that they are their external persona. They might be completely unaware of their own lack of self-worth, whether it be through arrogance, ego, denial or something else.

I also can’t help but think that the problem with a lack of self worth is the way in which we tend to go searching for a missing sense of self worth by focusing on – even wallowing in – the mistakes, flaws or shortcomings of others. In doing so, are we only ever finding that false sense of self worth by taking our focus away from our own shortcomings, mistakes, flaws in character?

And when we are doing so in retaliation – because someone else is doing or saying something about us or is at conflict with us – is this just because we are too scared to take responsibility for what that someone else is saying about or doing to us?

Put another way, how often do we ask ourselves the crucial question “is there an element of truth in what they are saying about me?” Or put another way: “how am I contributing to this scenario?” Or to be more straight to the point: “am I so damn perfect?!”

Heck, I’m as guilty as the next person of focusing on the flaws of others in times of crisis or conflict – and it does indeed help me feel better about myself. Thoughts go through my head, and are often verbalised to others like “would you believe he said this?” and “I cannot understand why she does it that way” and “for God saaaake, will you put your foot on the damn accelerator, that light is about to turn red” and so on and so on. And for sure, it works. Self worth is born – albeit temporarily and facetiously.

Of course this is all a part of what makes most of us human, a way of releasing frustration. But I also wonder in hindsight whether left unquestioned, this false sense of self worth effectively creates a false version of ourselves that is at conflict with our true inner self. I wonder whether this could be a perfect breeding ground, a central core, a firm foundation for anxiety, depression, a longer term lack of self-worth, and a whole raft more of unpleasant internalised conditions.

Another way of looking at this is to consider that if the anxious mind will always seek out and find things to be anxious and worried about, an angry mind will always look for and find things to be angry about and to justify its anger; the same can be said for the hateful mind, the vengeful mind, the negative mind, the frustrated mind and so on.

So what can we do about it? Quite simple really – perhaps we can start by being brave enough after a bout of anxiety, anger or frustration to ask ourselves those tough questions: is there an element of truth in what they are saying about me? How am I contributing to this scenario? Am I so damn perfect?!

Or again, put another way, perhaps we can start by always trying to the good as well as the bad in others – in all others – and they just might start to do the same in return.

Talking of the shortcomings of others, it was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin, who once said “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

Well if there’s one mistake of others that I’ve learned from on my black dog demolition journey, it’s that just when you feel you don’t need to take medication any longer doesn’t mean you should stop taking them. This may just be a sign that the medication is working properly.

I know of several people who, often uncomfortable with the stigma of being on medication, have done just that – stopped taking their medication at the first sign they are working, only to find themselves right back where they started. Right back in the cave with their black dogs growling at the entrance.

In an earlier post, I likened the experience of when antidepressants start to take effect and the clouds of anxiety and depression finally lift to that of putting on a pair of reading glasses for the first time and seeing everything so clearly. Conversely, poor eyesight does not repair itself. Of course you can undergo highly successful corrective eye laser surgery nowadays, meaning people no longer need to wear their glasses. But the closest that medicine seems to have come to laser surgery for the mind is the lobotomy.

And it was Rosemary Kennedy, sister of President John F, as a classic example, who underwent a lobotomy at the tender age of 23. Rosemary did go on to live to the grand old age of 86, but in a state that was at best described as “permanently incapacitated” – ‘nuff said.

And so I can hand on heart (and on intact prefrontal cortex) say that I have not felt the need to take medication for at least eighteen months now – and yet to this day I still pop my daily paroxetine. I may well choose to try to come off them one day. But I am not going to beat myself up for continuing to take them, nor if I never decide to try to stop. For now, the time just does not feel right to even consider it.

When I think back to when I first moved to London and how misunderstood I used to be when my accent was so much thicker and my speed of speech so much faster, I can’t help but also think how misunderstood medication, depression and anxiety are.

I firmly believe that depression and anxiety are different for everyone, and everyone is different as a person. Some may well be able to stop taking their medication without their symptoms returning; they may finally feel they are “cured”. Others exhibiting the same original symptoms and reaction to medication, however, often do find they revert to suffering from the same symptoms when stopping their medication. In other words, some are never really “cured”.

So if I am again honest with myself, although I no longer feel the need to take medication nowadays, I still have to ask myself another tough question: do I still have depression and anxiety? It’s just not a mistake I am even prepared to make, a question I am ready to answer quite yet.

And when it comes to making mistakes in general nowadays, I have a new-found confidence that no matter what I do, and no matter what mistakes I make, as long as I can truly say to myself that I am acting with responsible intent, there is never any need to fear the outcome. I can only hope that same fear will not be prevalent if or when I do eventually decide to try going paroxetine-free.

I would like to close this post by taking you back down to the grimy, dusty, smoky tunnels of the London Underground. It was there that I also discovered that fortunately, even the thickest of clouds has a silver lining.

One of the more contented people whom I noticed regularly on my morning commute was none other than the guard at Victoria station, where my morning journey would end. Always laughing and joking, he appeared genuinely happy to be at his post on the busy platform every day. Over the years, he had obviously come to know several of the regular passengers who passed through his patch, greeting them with a nod and a smile, some even by name. Best of all, he was also known to provide some occasional entertainment over the PA system.

“Attention, all passengers on the platform”, he would formally announce as the door slid open. “Please allow passengers off the train first.”

“Errr, special announcement for the gentleman in blue jacket pushing onto the train”, he would continue jovially. “Yes, I’m talking to you, sir. My previous announcement was intended for everyone on the platform except yourself. Attention all passengers exiting the train: please ignore my previous announcement, and make way for the gentleman in the blue jacket.”

“Please stand clear of the doors and move right down inside the train”, he announced on another occasion. “OK then, if you insist. The paying customer is always right, after all. Please obstruct the doors, cause delay and endanger other passengers, thank you.”

Strangely enough, after making announcements like these, impatient men in blue jackets would indeed let other passengers off the train first, and the passengers on the train would smile obligingly at each other, and shuffle further into the train to make more room. In other words, they would listen.

A man who obviously looked forward to coming to work every morning, this particular station guard appeared more than happy to stand right in the middle of the dark cloud and just do what he had to do. Not only did he know how to get his job done properly, he also brightened up the mornings of the many people around him in the process. And when faced with the prospect of doing a job that not many people would want, he made minor adjustments in order to make it more enjoyable – and in order to do it more effectively.

I can’t help but wonder how much better a place the world would be, what the energy and vibe of it would be like, if it were full of people who were even just a little bit happier, less anxious, more positive, less angry, more confident, less sensitive, more understanding and tolerant of the mistakes of others, more full of self worth and more self aware. People who, if they weren’t doing what they truly wanted to do in life, were at least doing what they had to do in a way they chose to do it.

And perhaps the biggest mistake we can all make in dreaming of a world like this is that it starts with the beliefs, mindsets and actions of others.


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