Are We on the Right Path?

Earlier this month I spoke at a poetry open mic event. I’ve attended a few in the past, so it might appear that this was merely the re-kindling of a passion that life had just got in the way of. To me though, it felt like a huge step.
In the past, finding the courage to recite poetry in front of my poetic peers resulted in an immediate buzz. I would experience a massive high as I stood up, soaking in every second of the performance, the applause, the excitement, all fuelled by the passion, heart & considerable time spent crafting the poem. This transferred into a single performance, usually lasting no more than 5 minutes leaving me exhilarated for about 24 hours.

In bitter contrast, the days that followed yielded periods of depression & self-doubt. Within a couple of weeks I would convince myself I was a fraud who didn’t deserve to share a stage with the ‘talented people.’ I told myself my poetry wasn’t good enough. I felt I was just embarrassing myself and others and that I should stop. And then the rabbit hole would open up and I’d disappear right down it.

The truth is, it’s not just poetry this has applied to in my life. Over the years I’ve battled some pretty dark thoughts, inflicted by life’s harshest critic… myself.
My abilities and effectiveness as a father, husband, son, brother, uncle, friend, writer, coach, mentor and finally, but by no means least, Technologist have all been fair game for my own critical mind. Those words, my own critical mind. To most of you who know me this may be the first time you are aware of this, I am told that I have hidden it very well, perhaps too well.
I want to tell you all that I’ve struggled with my mental health over the years. Like so many, until now, I’ve not really spoken about it, certainly not written about it in detail.
There are two reasons for that:

Firstly, I convinced myself there was nothing wrong. Surely, everyone has these kinds of feelings? The alarm goes off at 0630. I switch it off but don’t want to get out of bed. I want to crawl under the covers and remove all possibility of having to face anyone.
Thoughts of being caught out as a fraud taunt me. I hear a little part of my brain telling me that today might be the day that those who haven’t already caught on will see me for what I am. An imposter! This could be the day that my facade as the IT professional and wannabe poet /writer is exposed for what it is. A distraction from the fact that this is a man the world would be better off without.
I think about family and friends, how it might be better if my world just ends.
Yes, I thought this was normal. It is not; it may be common but it is never normal.

Secondly, talking about mental health still feels like a huge risk professionally. Nobody should feel they are putting their livelihood, promotion prospects or suitability for a particular opportunity on the line by talking about mental health.
Lots of great work is being done to raise Mental Health awareness and to promote well-being in many companies; however, a stigma is still attached to Mental Health issues, resulting in people not talking for fear of discrimination.
This needs to be addressed.

I have only now found the courage to speak out. I’ve made a few breakthroughs recently and have taken control of more aspects of my life. I made some changes last year that have helped enormously and I’ve shared my experiences with a few close friends; some of whom talked of similar problems. Taking inspiration from them has helped me open up. As a big boxing fan, hearing Tyson Fury dedicate his recent inspirational comeback to mental health sufferers was perhaps the final catalyst to highlight my plight.

Although my problems have been with me for many years, 2017 was a particularly bad year for my mental health. 2015-16 was a transformative period in my professional career, and self-doubt started to creep in around the end of 2016. By the summer of 2017 I had lost all but a grain of self-confidence. Professionally, I was convinced there were individuals actively trying to demoralise & undermine the value I added to my team. I put myself under an enormous amount of pressure to deliver change in an environment that I would soon realise was no longer in my gift to influence. In my mind, I shouldered the blame, but only a few people saw the full extent of the mental health issues I was facing. My doctor wasted no time in prescribing a course of anti- antidepressants and recommended cognitive based therapy.

My summer holiday couldn’t come quick enough & I relaxed completely whilst abroad. The doctor had also suggested meditation, something I was already keenly interested in following a trip to India in 2009. I thought making this a more routine practise on holiday could help and the added scientific credence from my doctor validated that decision. As the pressure lifted on holiday, it became very clear I had to find a new job. I wouldn’t rush it, but I knew it was time to move on.
The meditation helped me re-focus; therefore, I decided to make that practice a daily one, for as long as I could. I returned to work in August 2017 more content. After considering a number of options I negotiated my resignation by Christmas for Feb 2018.
Around the same time, a few other things happened.
I planned a long walk with a friend for May 2018. The Camino de Santiago, referred to as the Camino, or Way. It had been years in the planning but the planets had eventually aligned. I also started to study Neuroplasticity and the workings of the brain including how to re-wire it. With a meditation practise now a consistent part of my daily routine I undertook Mindfulness practitioner training. I also felt it was the time was right to stop taking the pills. I left my job and after a good period of decompression, my return to the world of Technology conveniently coincided with arriving back from the Camino.

The walk was the Portuguese variant of the Camino de Santiago. Over 9 days, my good friend and I travelled approximately 200 miles from Vila do Conde (a small town about 15 miles north of Porto) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
We documented the journey on social media and the support we received along the way, from friends, family and fellow pilgrims, kept our spirits high and motivated us to push through some of the mental and physical challenges we faced each day.
Doing my bit to help promote another friend’s fledgling clothing brand, Loft 55 (separate blog here) meant a lot to because of the shared experiences in our journeys.
The walk itself, the wonderful sights, great food & drink, wonderful people, each with their own story, and the camaraderie with my travel companion helped put everything into perspective. The full story of that is for another day.

I returned with some insights and truths about myself which had to be acted upon. I also had to work out a way of just letting some stuff go. The things I learnt about myself were by no means new, but I knew I had never completely addressed them.
I resolved to address (and see through) everything that was important to me. I also realized that it would take time, not all can be changed in one go. These were the four steps I decided to take immediately.

1) Take complete accountability for my life

We have a tendency to blame anyone or anything other than ourselves, it is human nature. Think of all your recent interactions at home, with friends and at work. Whether through virtual interaction such as social media, email etc or face to face interaction, I wager we’ve all shouldered blame on someone or something other than ourselves in the last 24 hours.
“That team are always holding us up, {insert expletive here}”
“If it wasn’t for {enter name of choice here}, everything would be great”
To take ‘complete accountability’ for our lives, then we have to stop ‘blaming others’ right?
It’s easy to blame other people, bad luck or situations but not so easy to own our own shortcomings. Conversely, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge others when we believe they are wrong and feel they should be looking inward as well. As long as we try to deal with things from a place of compassion, we can’t go too wrong. We may even be thanked, sometimes. We should, however, never look to pick the splinter from another’s eye and fail to see the plank in ours. I feel confident that I have begun the necessary process to take complete accountability for the things I am accountable for in my life.

2) Overcome adversity

As human beings, we are adequately equipped to overcome adversity. I am no different. On the Camino I faced many physical and mental challenges. Pain, like everything in life, is not permanent. The Camino experience helped me wake up & remember a number of professional and personal periods of adversity that I have overcome in my life.
Now, I’ve accepted and seen that I will overcome life’s obstacles. Some I may not be able to deal with immediately but they will not be forever ignored. Striving to move forward is the key factor. There will be more obstacles but there will also be better times. And yes, those obstacles include the thoughts that come into my head. But it is clearer to me now than ever, that I’m bigger than any of the problems I encounter, not the other way round.

3) Be easier on myself

This is the hardest step of all for me.
I am not perfect but every day I learn a little more. On the walk I heard some pretty astonishing things about myself, some from people I had only just met. One person told me they could see a big loving spirit in my eyes.
I was also told I must believe in the powerful love I spread, as it can touch people’s souls.
Pretty powerful I thought.
Believe me when I say I’m not telling you any of this for self-gratification, to be smug or to proclaim “Hey, Look at me, I’m great.”
I hope that my words may echo with you as I have found many of the people I have met in my life have the same self- doubts as I. Unfortunately, my experiences have shown me that we all find this pretty hard to accept.
I now realise that to add value to your own life and help other people, you must start by being capable of ‘loving yourself.’ I never did that through many of the scrapes I’ve had in my life. I set the standards so high for myself that the best of the best would have struggled to hit them. When I failed to achieve perfection I would metaphorically beat myself up. This was rarely in a healthy, reflective manner, rather, it was self-deprecating, negative and ultimately, damaging. I’m finally getting better at accepting who I am and being able to identify and celebrate the small wins along the journey.

4) Spend more time talking

The Camino de Santiago showed me the way of the pilgrim. It also taught me that talking about our troubles is a powerful healer. In the past I fell foul to a vicious circle of retreating into myself when times were tough. Dwelling on things my mind had conjured up would result in me hiding away from the world for long periods of time.
Part of taking accountability has meant identifying a lot of the triggers.
That has been a difficult lesson but I’m beginning to be able to spot the signs more quickly. Acknowledgement and ownership of our problems is crucial, it allows us to avoid going on a downward spiral which ultimately swallows us up into a rabbit hole. As soon as I see the signs, one of the first things I do is talk. Whether it’s picking up the phone or meeting up with people, I talk. I have found the human interaction important and hugely beneficial. It doesn’t have to be about what’s going on in my head although sometimes that helps.
For those that know me well, I must add another little jewel here. Just as important as the talking, has been listening to what others have to say. I mean really listening.
Really being present, concentrating on what they are telling you. Not thinking about where you have to be next or what you’re going to say next, but really showing them how important, what they have to say is to you.
Because that is when you learn you are never alone.

There we go. The Camino made me realise how vulnerable and imperfect we all are.
It also reinforced that we are resilient and can push ourselves further than we believe.
Working together, we can pretty much achieve anything we put our minds to.
For now, I’m confident that I’m on the right path. I might not be entirely sure where the next leg of my journey will take me, but I’ve never been more certain of a few things. As scary as it might be I will not shy away from talking about what is important. Putting this to good effective use is the next step. Being ever mindful!

As far as the poetry is concerned, I’m going to keep going.
Not too many people can say they’ve entered a poetry slam competition on foreign soil that’s not in their native tongue, and somehow finished second. I managed to achieve that a few years ago and if that’s as good as it gets, it’s good enough for me.
For now, there will definitely be new poems, I daresay some oldies reworked, more recitals and who knows what in 2019. A re-issue of my first poetry book ‘FI Blues’? A reflection of the Camino? Anything and everything is possible, really.

Keep talking people!
A very Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Great to Talk – Better to Listen

A year ago today, I decided to make my meditation practise a daily one. That may not be a huge deal to a lot of people but I’d love to share my milestone with a little article which at it’s core celebrates friendship.

I started investigating mindfulness after a visit to India in 2009. I tried guided meditation podcasts and transcendental meditation. Whilst reading the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu I stumbled onto Zazen, which although the hardest to practise (it involves keeping the eyes open, staring at a wall and thinking of nothing) seemed to reap the biggest rewards. I used it to combat feelings of anxiety amongst other demons flying about in my head. It helped. Over the years that followed, I found I was turning to it more often, although still in a reactionary manner.

In 2014 I found an App called Headspace, which suited me and for the next three years I found myself completing more consecutive periods of meditation. Over this time I found I was able to spot earlier signs of things getting on top of me. I was beginning to realise that the incremental benefits of meditation were greater than I’d imagined. And on the 18 Jun 2017 I decided, “I’m doing to commit to doing this the every day.” 

In my most recent blog posts I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve far more than in previous years. Each time before posting, I still found myself procrastinating though. Should I post this? Is it appropriate on Linked In? Who will be interested in something so personal? If I share it on Linked In, will people tell me it’s more suited to Facebook? If I share it on Facebook will it come across as attention seeking? More generally – What am I actually trying to achieve with it?

There were lots more thoughts, but you get the gist. The overwhelming feeling was of me questioning “Is what I am saying, relevant to anyone else and more specifically what is my target audience.

I was a bit stuck. So I did what I usually do when I’m stuck. I spoke to a few friends.

Then, I promptly decided to post on both Linked In and Facebook. And I’m really glad I did. Here I was, entering another period of change, talking about the importance things in life and it turns out there were quite a few in similar position.

As a result and through a combination of previously scheduled meetings, me reaching out & friends getting in touch, my diary was pretty full. 

Being a huge advocate for mindfulness, I was adamant that, to get the most out of each catch up I would try my absolute hardest to remain completely focussed in the moment. I would try very hard to just listen. Those that know me well know that I can talk, so where possible the first thing I fit in quickly was to let people know how grateful I was for their time. People are busy right. Very very very busy in some cases, so to have some of their time meant a lot to me. Very soon, I spotted a couple of themes unfolding from the conversations I was having. And this is when the magic started to happen.

Everyone was saying the same things. “We should do this more often” “It’s been too long” “When was the last time we caught up properly” you know the kind of things. 

Something else happened. With each interaction I felt happier. It became clear to me that over the last ten years I’ve been particularly guilty of being ‘busy’ to the point of not making enough time for friends. 

As some of the conversations dug below the surface of just why it was so important to have these regular catch ups, another theme emerging was the effect our interactions with friends have on our well being and mental health.

It felt a good time to open up to a number of friends about a couple of ‘wobbles’ I’d had in regards my own mental health over the last couple of years. It felt like the right time and more importantly, it was the first time I’d had the confidence to open up in this way.

Here was me feeling happier than I’d been in years, yet talking with friends openly about experiences of fear, panic, depression, anxiety and stress.

Well, am I glad I did. Many of the experiences were shared by a number of those I was talking with, who, like me had always been taught to talk about these feelings simply wasn’t ‘manly’. By the time conversations got into imposter syndrome, I was blown away by the number of people experiencing the same.

And here’s where my mind started shifting. As difficult as some of these chats were initially, they were helping. The mindfulness aspect, focussing on each moment, listening intently to what my friends had to say, helped me realise completely that I wasn’t alone. Why completely? I’ve heard the words before but my own mental state had never allowed me to consider for a moment that anyone else could be feeling exactly how I was. Really listening, watching and concentrating allowed me to see how genuinely open and honest others were being with me. It was sinking in.

Also, what I was saying to my friends was helping them too. They told me so. Watching their body language as I heard them confirmed it. Opening up wasn’t easy for some of them either.

All this might sound to some like I’ve been asleep for years. Maybe I have! Call it coincidence, circumstance or an alignment of the planets, but since those chats started, the following events have unfurled in front of my eyes and ears, all involving mental health, mindfulness and meditation to some degree or another.

The opportunity to be part of an old friends journey as he embarks on launching his own clothing range (Read the article here)

Connecting with a fellow Scot on his journey from a suicide attempt through cycling the world, now embarking with helping others through his own experiences.

Re-connecting with old colleagues to help with their journeys.

Choosing a new professional direction for myself. Landing my first contract on that journey, the day before I left the country for 10 days.

Walking the Camino Portugues (a 200 mile walk from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain) with my great pal, meeting great people and sharing the journey on social media.

I feel massively blessed to have had the time to fit all of this in and can’t thank my family enough for their support during my ‘break from work’.

I’ve been inspired, revitalised, energised, shaken, challenged and educated along the way. I’ve had time and been able to give some more thought as to what small changes will bring additional benefit into my life. I’ve questioned myself as well as other people. I’ve received some sage advice and offered some too, adding value to others lives.
That makes me happy!

Look, we’ve all heard this a million times before but you’re about to hear it one more. When you retire, nobody will ever wish they’d spent more time working. You’re going to wish you’d spent more time with the people you love. With your family & friends. One of the little nuggets I read recently, suggested that ‘friends’ you have had for more than ten years are family!

Very true then, when I think of those times in recent years when I have not been in the best of places, and closed friends off and NOT asked for help. That’s been the rabbit hole right there. A downward spiral to worse times.
What I’ve learnt is that those are the times we really need our friends. In my biggest time of need, those that matter most have been there. Truth is they’ve always been there. All I had to do was ask for help.

What I now know is that my ‘family’ is significantly bigger than I ever previously thought.
What I hope, is that anyone that counts me a friend, knows they can talk to me about anything at any time.
What I no longer fear, is being judged. I’ve become increasingly aware of how big a stigma is still attached to issues of mental health in our society. My opinion, is that needs to change.

As I move forward into whatever the next chapter holds, I do so happy in the knowledge that I’ll continue to face change positively. I’ll look for opportunities to raise awareness and reduce that stigma in society. I’ll carry on with my meditation practise and embrace the wonders each new day holds and give thanks for the friends that I have by my side.

We all need friends around us.
We might all benefit from being a little more mindful in whatever form we choose to practise it.
We could all be a little more present and listen a little more intently.
We can all help someone and we will make a difference to many people’s lives.
We are all busy… but we can all choose to stop. One minute might be all it takes!
365 consecutive days meditation…done! Here’s to the next year and beyond.
Thanks for reading friends. God bless every one of you!