Tag Archives: love

The world is a big and scary place

A remarkable friend wrote some words of advice to me while I was having a pretty rotten time of things some years ago.

At times the best of friends tell you things you need to know, but you don’t want to hear; much as a parent tries to impart wisdom to their child with an unintended harshness, that belies the deep love with which it is given.

It is a touchstone in my life now, both in times of sadness and times of joy.

“Today’s lesson:

The world is a big and scary place.

The good guys don’t always win and there are people out there who won’t think twice about anything that doesn’t directly benefit themselves.

This is how things are, how they always were and how they will be for the rest of this forever.

There are people who give and give and give,  until there is nothing left of themselves and they disintegrate into bitterness and regret.

There are people who take and take and take because they think they are entitled to love and happiness without giving anything in return.

In the midst of all the hurt, loneliness and confusion, all we have are the links we forge betwixt our shared hopes, fears & loves.

That, however, is no small thing. It is, in fact, the greatest thing of all.

You are never alone.

Please don’t forget that.”

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Life Lessons From Cats

I’ve been fortunate to provide a temporary home to two beautiful cats. Anyone who knows cats will know what a delightful mixed blessing that is.

They’ve provided as much love as they have disdain. They’ve also taught me some very valuable lessons for life.

Here are my Top Ten:

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
2. Persistence usually pays off.
3. You can get away with a lot more if people aren’t watching.
4. If you do get caught, don’t explain, just look endearing; you’ll be quickly forgiven.
5. Spend some time each day looking out of the window.
6. Keep your shit where it belongs.
7. If you learn how to open doors life is much more fun.
8. Take a nap if you feel like it.
9. Getting to the top sometimes requires ingenuity.
10. Simple things will often provide the most joy.

THE SILENT KILLER

What’s the Western world’s biggest killer of men aged under fifty?

It may come as a shock to know that it’s suicide; the most taboo of subjects and a guaranteed conversation-killer at any dinner party.

My closer friends will know I’ve struggled this past year with chronic depression. What they don’t know is how close I have come to being another ‘Under 50’ statistic on the Home Office chalkboards.

I cannot tell you what actual suicide is like, though I can share what it is like to stand on the edge of reason: a soul-shattering mix of pain, anger, fear, and helplessness.

This I know from experience: I’ve stood at the end of Brighton Pier with bricks in my pockets, propelled to end it all and escape from a relationship littered with infidelity and at times extreme violence towards me. I can still smell the sea and feel the wind in my face as I stared in to the black water all those years ago.

It’s a thought and feeling that has haunted me many times, perhaps an imprint of when I was very young and a family member contemplated the same sad way to end things. They, however, also showed me courage and how to live and love life, despite all of their own troubles, of which there many. For that I am truly thankful.

I have come very close at times to putting my feelings in to action. But I have been blessed by a mixture of luck, the Samaritans and some very good friends that I’ve been able to talk to openly and saved myself from losing my will to live.

We all live on a knife-edge more than we might like to admit. Loves, marriages, hopes and dreams fail us and it’s a miracle that any of us struggle through, usually feeling alone, no matter how much love we actually have around us. This, sadly, is the cursed blessing of life. A life where our doubts can too easily crowd us and block the view of the sunlit path we are meant to tread.

To quote from a well-known song, “the sword of time will pierce our skin, it doesn’t hurt when it begins, but as it works its way in the pain begins and it grins…”

One myth I can dispel immediately is that suicide is a coward’s way out. In my own experiences it takes a strange sort of extraordinary courage to contemplate and plan. As much strength is required to end one’s life as it is to live in this beautiful, troubled life.

Nor is suicide painless, or at least as I can tell from researching all the popular methods. There are not many deaths that are pain free. There’s no free ride in ending it all.

To plan a suicide takes preparation, a strange coldness and calm. It’s not something to be rushed and likely botched.

After my research on the subject, you don’t want to get it wrong. Remarkably, even a gunshot point blank to the head is only ninety percent effective; poisoning by overdose is a distant runner in the league tables with the odds of 42:1 against you actually meeting your maker.  Drowning is meant to be the least painful way to go, though is equally as unreliable statistically. Jumping is popular, but far from guaranteed. If you do jump, make sure it’s from a very great height and you hit the ground head-first. The results otherwise will lead to a very messy clean up and you still being alive…

Failure leads to all sorts of horrific and life-debilitating conditions. Even the best-planned suicide has odds one would be silly to take. And yet, in the dark nights and days that follow we can still be drawn to making the ultimate gesture of failure, as though in a silent movie where our mouths move, but no words are heard.

There are many factors that will bring one to the edge of life. It’s a horrifically horrible place to be, on that point I will be frank. There is no quick suicide. The feelings that lead one to that dark place are like a slow torturous death in itself.

One’s spirit, our sense of living, slowly fades and it’s a death of a thousand cuts. Each tiny cut of hurt, pain, anger, hopelessness and the wrongs done to one in one’s life bite viciously over and over. Each one igniting neurons in the brain that curse one with only the one door marked exit from our anguish.

At this point I must say if you are considering suicide, then get help. Ring the Samaritans, a friend or even talk to a stranger. Any kind of help.  The subject is such a taboo that it’s hard to know how many of us have ever considered taking our lives. I suspect many more than we might expect. If you have considered ending it all, then take all my praise and love that you are still here with us. You have my deepest heartfelt admiration for making it through.

Until recently, even in psychiatric circles the word ‘suicide’ was never used. Even now the doctors will refer to it as ‘self-harm’ or how to ‘keep oneself safe’.  This blanket refusal to mutter the word feels like superstition, as though not mentioning the act will somehow prevent it.

Centuries of our Christian roots has counted suicide as a mortal sin, grieving God’s heart and spurning the blessing of life that we have been given. The contradiction of this and how appallingly humans treat each other is not lost on me.

Whatever one’s religious beliefs, I am torn with accepting on one part that if I killed myself I would be discarding the great blessing of being alive. And my life is filled with very many great blessings. On the other I have seen how thin the veil is between life and death.

My spiritual insights and beliefs perversely can urge me onwards to the hope of stopping the ride and reconnecting with the universe, free of my own human pain.

Not being afraid of death, indeed welcoming it in, changes how one experiences the life that comes from knowing one can walk away from life’s troubles: everything feels more immediate. I now value each moment, each blessing, no matter how insignificant it might once have seemed.

Through my facing suicide square on and staring it out, sometimes so close to death I can feel its breath, comes my escape from the torments, and a chance to be able choose live on.

Significantly and unexpectedly, at the moment when I am about to accept death’s sweet kiss, is when love has come to me: an overwhelming and searing love for my family, my friends and those who have touched my life in some, any, small way.

Yes, love: a deep and powerful sense of immediate connectedness to everything and everyone whilst feeling utterly alone; a moment when the universe stands still and silent; on the edge of everything with wavering feet and unable to jump in to the unknown.

Whilst I must admit to not having the courage at times to carry on living for myself, I have found a remarkable courage to care enough for others to remain here with you. Though I cannot always love myself, I have huge love for my family and friends. This has been my saviour on more than a few occasions.

I count my experiences as a blessing beyond measure. I am still here and if in my darkest moments I can feel even the slightest breeze of love upon my face, then there is hope.

Perhaps with more discussion about our fears, our closeness to death we will all feel a little more love, a little more connected, less alone and suicide will no longer be the silent killer.

For myself I cannot tell what the future will bring; I suspect I will be haunted by the closeness of death for some time yet. But where there is life there is hope and where there is hope there is faith in the future.

And that is a very marvellous feeling indeed.

Footnote: some data references from http://lostallhope.com/suicide-statistics – conservatively over 20 million people worldwide attempt suicide each year.

TEARS IN HEAVEN

My heart goes out to the families and friends of those killed in Paris a few days ago.

Headlines around the world (and my Facebook feed) are filled with the horror of the atrocity. Quite right too: it was a barbaric and ruthless slaying of gentle fellow men who dared to bring a little humour to dark parts of our world.

Whilst their families grieve, it feels that everyone is crying out also in their anguish.

These are cries of anger, outrage. People feel sick at the thought of terror striking deep in the beautiful city of Paris. This is a perfectly human response.

The media and nearly all the people I know are writing and talking of the horrors of Islam; some say that such atrocities done in the name of such a religion (or any religion at all) are a thing to be reviled.

I can see why.

Yet, in the daily news grind we all too easily forget yesterday’s headlines over our morning coffee. Or stop to think what might have seeded the murdering intent of the horrors in Paris this week.

In our outrage today, how many of us care to remember the hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq, at the hands of our countrymen and on the orders of the politicians we allow to lead us?

Our troops may be home, but our weapons are still being used. The killing goes on. Civilians in Iraq are being killed at the rate of four Paris massacres a day – over 350 in the first week of January this year alone.

One in five Iraqis has lost at least one close family member since the Coalition invasion into their country to ‘liberate’ them.

Where are our tears for the mothers and fathers who have lost their children? For the children who have lost their parents?

That’s 3 million children whose lives have been shattered and thousands of others who have died in bombing, shelling or caught in the crossfire of our own weapons of mass destruction used in the name of freedom.

We were not defending ourselves. We started it. And on paper-thin lies in the name of our society’s religion of shopping centres, money and the oil we use to power our everyday lives.

We’ve lost thousands of our own in this inferno of violence. But remember: for every soldier killed on our side, one thousand civilians have died in Iraq. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons…

And we cry out now that Islam is a violent religion? That these people are a threat against us? That we are freeing them from an evil ideology?

Can we really say our way of doing things is better, having wrecked such slaughter in a country that posed no threat to us at all?

For a death toll of so many on the orders of politicians who illegally kidnap, torture and then lie about it? On the orders of our leaders who try to cover up child abuse amongst their own?

We spend billions killing those so far away to make their lives better (we are told) while not having care enough for the poverty and injustice we see in our own streets.

Is this the better way of doing things that we are bringing with our better ideology, our democracy, as we call it? I often struggle to see that we are, let alone that it is worth killing so many to enforce it on others.

I cried last night for the families of those killed in Paris. I then cried for those killed in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The tears seemed unending as is their ongoing slaughter. And children are still being killed by US air strikes in a fight against terror that we created in the first place.

Who is the real terrorist here?

I cast my mind to how I would feel if I had lost my mother, or brother or even my daughter in an airstrike on my home. My thoughts were certainly not of peace, not that her death as collateral damage would be the unfortunate cost of my freedom.

In such a dreadful situation, I think all of us would unleash our darkest and deepest anger at such a thing. Some might well swear to avenge the death of their child. Or others would. If you doubt me, perhaps remind yourself about how this country reacts to news stories of paedophiles. It’s not pleasant.

We don’t like to admit it, but we might feel violent rage to those who had done such a thing. We might strike back in any way we could, under any banner, under any excuse to avenge the killing of our children so callously. We might well want to create as much havoc and chaos as possible. We might see all on the other side as valid targets for our vengeance.

Whilst I have a deep faith that love, not white phosphorous, conquers all, it would be sorely tested if my loved ones were killed in such a way.

What if we dare to look away from the tragedy of what has happened in Paris, even briefly, through the eyes of those upon whom we have rained down such terror ourselves?

Might we get a sense of what drives the murderers to such ruthless atrocity?

More open eyes might start to see that it is not at its core about religion, it is not about ideology, it is probably not about cartoons.

It is about anger and about revenge. By any means possible.

To repay the hatred they feel for what we have done and continue to do in the name of a deathly, hollow freedom our violence has bestowed.

In many ways it’s a miracle we can live so peacefully and have not suffered more such attacks in our cities. The fact that so very many have not taken to avenge the deaths of their children, their wives, and their brothers is quite extraordinary.

Maybe we should look at things differently?  Maybe we should look at what hate we created in the almost-religious zeal to secure the oil we all use so freely?  And secured at such human cost to us all.

Sometimes love stands too quietly while evil seemingly triumphs. But love has a twin, in compassion. The ability we have for our hearts to reach out to others we do not know and have never met.

This is the divine in us. Let us leave aside our ideology, our religion (and those of others). Let us quieten our shouts of what is right and wrong for just one moment; and let our hearts go out to all have lost loved ones at the hands of terror in any form, anywhere.

Perhaps, then, the killing might stop.

Until that time, let us freely mourn our fellow man, woman or child. Let us shed tears for them: for those in Paris; for those in Iraq; for those killed around the world, every single day.

Each one is a tragedy. Each is one too many.

THAT NEW YORK MOMENT (AND A SAUSAGE ROLL)

It was one April, striding through Manhattan’s buzzing SoHo streets when I noticed it for the first time: the perfect ice-clear separation from people and the vibrant activity of life as I had known it but hours before.

I was with the editor of a luxury life-style magazine, a PR magnate and a super model. We were being led on an adventure in to the unknown by an ex-Vietnam veteran called Batman, on and in to the streets of New York to discover ourselves and what being homeless really felt like. To bear witness to the experience.

We were to live as hobos, sleeping rough for a week. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs and our wandering, fearful, minds to sustain us as we set out in to the complete unknown amongst unfamiliar damp streets.

The glass wall between us and the rest of life came down suddenly and imperceptibly.  Reality had shifted with the merest of silent flickers.

Now on the outside looking in.  Like CGI characters overlaid on a film, unseen to the human actors who were clinking glasses in bars and chattering; busy and alive with their own evenings.

We walked, unnoticed, with our heads often down looking for treasures of half-smoked fags and silvery change dropped on the sidewalks, in a cloak of invisibility, quite alone and distant from the cinematic projection of the world going on around us.

So it is with my depression.

One moment I am with the throng of life, feeling alive, wonderful and blessed. Then a stumble…

To others, this may look as though this is caused by a trip on one of life’s many obstacles: an unpaid bill, an argument, perhaps the loss of a job or worse.

The imperfect truth is that I cannot say what triggers my own fall from reality.  It is a whispered thought within me, whose words I do not catch fully. In an instant I feel as I did back then in New York: separate and unseen.

These times, however, I am alone.

There is no laughter, no thin bravado of companions and shared treasures of dimes and butt-ends within this place.

It is a total separation from the rest of life. I get up, sometimes can get dressed, and occasionally eat. I see life go on all around me but it does not touch me. I cannot touch it. I am caged without bars but drawn to drink, to find solace in something tangible that will match my contradicting feelings of wanting to numb myself and yet feel alive.

Perhaps this is why depressed people can turn to alcohol, drugs, eating and self-harm disorders: to find some way of both numbing and feeling at the same time. Anything that helps escape the open prison of thoughts and feelings.

I count myself lucky that the worse I do in such periods is to make a large gin at possibly an inappropriate time and  a tendency towards my favourite pyjamas. I also put clean sheets on my bed and exile myself within them.  So I rest, resist the gin (at least until after the sun is past the yard arm), take a bath and wait for life to flicker back again.

More recently, I’ve started recognising these dark episodes as a part of me and embracing them with real love, as a parent would embrace a child who had run away from home and returns fearful and shaken.

Accepting myself more wholly, with kindness equally for my twin brothers of light and dark that drive me, has brought me greater peace and happiness. This easier friendship of my different feelings also means less tangled arguments inside my head over which gets to play with the Action Man tank of life next.

Now these periods of self-imprisonment are far less and at most last a couple of days. I have learned that taking simple care of myself and letting my feelings (or often lack of feelings) flow their course, helps.

But the stumble in to this last period of depression seemed to deepen, no matter my kindness to myself through it.  This fall from grace felt far more serious.

After a full five days, I found myself still falling, freely and with arms outstretched. My stumble has been far worse this time. I had not slipped off that proverbial sidewalk to the gutter, but off a cliff and into a bottomless chasm.

Despite, or rather because of, my fear of heights I have of course taken a free-fall parachute jump. Doing this, I learned that the jolt in the stomach, the feeling of falling that binds us to that fear, lasts but seconds. After that one feels free and as though one is flying, not hurtling downwards.

So too this period: the falling feeling stopped and I felt static, silently free within; I felt neither happy nor sad; everything seemed utterly perfect and yet nothing was real. A dangerous place if one has no rip-cord to pull.

There was only the dull thud of me hitting a bottom lower than I had been before.  Only a few things remained tangible from my life left so far above.

In particular was my obsession with not letting food go to waste: so some rather special Chorizo sausages (semi-cured from pedigree Welsh pigs) that needed to be cooked were made into a pasta sauce that I didn’t have the appetite to eat.

I also had an overwhelming desire to conquer my mountain of laundry, having used the last set of clean sheets a few days before.

It was then my brother rang, urging me to stay with him, after he read my cry for help in an email I forgotten I had written. He even promised to pay for the fuel to get there. It was not the petrol which made me go, though it helped. Rather, I had to do something, anything, to change what was happening to me and where I was.

Or perhaps it was my pile of laundry and knowing he had a washing machine that got me packing and moving from my bed. I am not really sure.

So in the early evening darkness I packed an odd combination of one clean shirt but three types of shoes, my steam iron, a cocktail shaker, some pear liqueur and a sausage roll.

My special sausage sauce was left behind in my sole courageous aim to get myself to where help lay (with my ironing) or at least away from where things were not getting any better.

Tired to the core and my body aching  painfully during the drive, I was not sure whether to check myself in to A&E or the nearest mental ward. I dismissed the latter, if only that I thought they would not quite appreciate the greater importance of my special iron as I did.

Back on those New York streets we took great joy in the smallest of things: a whole unsmoked cigarette, a dollar bill, a bunch of grapes or a toothbrush given to me by someone who had even less than me.

I remember then a simple kindness I gave a huge and frightening chap who was in great pain and anger: a half-smoked cigarette. It was unexpectedly repaid a few days later in a food line with a smile and a nod of thanks to me. We then chatted a little, a hug was exchanged and tears flowed from both our faces. In the first time in over a year he had human touch, my heart was blessed in return by a simple connection. In that small moment both our lives were improved. Mine forever.

So at my brother’s house I unknowingly hoped some small detail of life would act likewise, as a touchstone: perhaps a tear; perhaps a moment of laughter; perhaps just a walk with his dog.

Reality is a delicate perception. Like a dew-kissed spider’s web it can be beautiful, strong and flexible through the worst of life’s winds and storms.

Yet, if a supporting strand is broken the whole web collapses in on itself.

We marvel at the spider’s resolve to rebuild its web, seemingly so perfect and so essential to its survival. It will make the web over and over in the same place. The spider knows instinctively which gap between two walls is just the right size, the right position. It has the patience to wait.

I like to think that eventually the spider will move on from a place where the web is broken daily by human activity, such as a door way or window opening. Or does it stay, with no awareness of its futile actions, until it starves to its own destruction?

As much as we admire the spider’s work, most do not like to see its form: dark, silent, moving too quickly to corners and hidden places for us to love it.

This is how I felt about myself now. In truth, it’s also often my first instinctive reaction to those I have seen go through their own agonising periods of depression.

We shy away from what we do not like to acknowledge within ourselves. It’s a natural feeling. As much as we wish to free the spider in the bath, we do not wish to touch it.

I am not sure what spiders think or feel, but for us, who are both blessed and cursed by consciousness and self, there is always love, always hope.

However, these were two treasures I’d buried and forgotten where they lay; I now scrambled half-blind trying to uncover them.

I could see my friends fervently exhorting where I should look, but I only saw silent words from my bubble below.

They had not seen me slip and sink to where I now lay, but they immediately reached out desperately to help me. I saw their friendship and their care: the deep passionate love they had for me.

But I could not feel it.  Their life rafts of help floated uselessly above.

As much as most serious accidents are caused by a moment of inattention and a little bad luck, my rescue came from the good luck of noticing something at just the right time.

It happened at the kitchen table with my niece and her friend next door. Lunch was a selection of Bath cheeses and expensive farm-shop accessories bought by my brother to cheer me up.

I had brought a lonely sausage roll as well as my laundry from home; so my meagre meat ration was added to the fare.

We tucked in and I offered some of the ‘Shropshire Blue’ sausage roll to both girls. They suspiciously agreed to try a bit.

Now, I am not sure how many sausage rolls girls eat before they reach their fourth birthday, so cannot reliably ascertain the accuracy of their critique.  However, to see unrestrained joy in young eyes as mouths both munched in unison, “This is the best sausage roll in the whole wide world!” did something magical.

It was a simple, innocent, beautiful moment and I smiled.  It was just enough to make me feel again.

There were other moments that came after that. Each giving me help I was now able to receive, pulling me up word by kind word, or just their quiet love that I could now sense.

I am blessed by truly exceptional friends. Everyone, but everyone has reached out to me. We are never alone, as much as we might feel like it or, in my case, wish it.

It is a struggle and I am still some way from the surface, but I am heading upwards to somewhere brighter. Sometimes one really does need to move towards the light.

So through all this, I have borne witness to a week on desolate streets within myself: damp, often dark, cold and self-isolated as I experienced then, in that New York April.

I’ve had to see my reality collapse. I feel I’ve survived only by letting go of my own web, beautiful as it has been, of what I had built before.

I have had to go to a place where nothing is possible, to learn that anything is possible.

I moved to Hay-on-Wye earlier this summer, driven with no plan and no idea what was in store, but a trust that it was absolutely what I must do. My unthinking actions still feel the right choice. This is my home and others see the joy living here has brought me.

What I must trust now is my friends and my heart. To catch the silvery threads of love that float around us but we are too busy to see. It is time to build another beautiful web, this time in a window with a new light shining through it.

This will not be easy. It feels it could be the biggest challenge yet.

For me now, it is not about giving up; it is about giving in. Surrendering to life.

To mirror what a dear friend often says to me: “I’m all in.”