Stayin’ Alive

Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t a surprise – it’s something I’ve experienced on and off for years – but the act of naming it, of putting up my hand and saying “I need help”, was an important part of getting better. When you hold monsters up to the light, they lose their power.

And depression has a lot of power. As I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, depression isn’t about feeling a bit sad. In my case it was an inability to feel anything positive. All the things that give me pleasure – family, friends, music, movies, comedy, books, work – didn’t. Imagine eating your favourite meal but something has switched your tastebuds off, seeing your favourite band live but being unable to hear any of it.

The only emotions I still felt were negative. Fear, panic, self loathing, anger. Tiny little things would release furies, anger that would rage and burn everything it could reach. I’m the least frightening man you’ll ever meet, and yet I found myself one morning jumping out of my car to harangue a bull-necked, shaven-headed ogre of a man in a big BMW because he’d had the temerity to beep his horn at me. He could have snapped me in half easily but backed off instead, calling me – with some justification – “fucking mental”.

The feeling of being a passenger in your own body, the feeling that somebody else is driving the bus, is very frightening.

I’m writing this now because I’ve just finished reading Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig, a novelist whose The Humans I really enjoyed. This one is non fiction, and it’s about his experience of depression. It’s a good book, sad and funny and wise, and the conversations between Matt-then and Matt-now really resonated. I particularly liked the list of things Haig experienced that elicited more sympathy than his depression, a list that’s as horrible as it is hilarious.

Like Haig, I’ve come through it and I’m in a much better place. Everybody’s experience is different, but in my own case I found my wife and brother invaluable, seeing a sympathetic GP helpful, Sertraline/Zoloft useful (albeit possibly due to the placebo effect: the dose was small and I was also making big changes that I’m sure had positive effects) and counselling a complete and utter waste of fucking time. Over six weeks of three-hour gaps in my working day (there’s a clinic in my home town but I was sent to a faraway one due to an admin error; once you see your counsellor you can’t change clinics) I was given the following advice:

  • why don’t you get a wee part time job?
  • think you’ve got problems? Remember there are babies with Ebola in Africa!

I imagined my counsellor hanging around road accidents, yelling at the mangled victims: “look on the bright side! At least you don’t have AIDS!”

One of the questions you’re asked each week is whether you had made plans to kill yourself since your last session. When I said I had I was told that the question really meant was I making plans that I still intended to keep. As I clearly wasn’t trying to top myself at that specific moment, my answer was logged as a no. Presumably that was to keep the figures looking good as my six weeks were nearly over and I wasn’t getting any benefit from the sessions.

I’m not just bitching here. The point is that I got better despite such fuckwittery. Not all counsellors are hopeless. Not all drugs are ineffective. Not all lifestyle changes are pointless. X might not work, but Y just might. And talking to people about it really helps.

Like Haig, now-me could have a conversation with then-me. I’d tell myself that what I was feeling was real, but that I could make changes to deal with it. I’d tell myself that depression is an obstacle, but not a life or death sentence. And I’d tell myself that one day in the not too distant future I’d be sitting with my family, making them howl with laughter, feeling joy so much greater than the worst things depression could ever throw at me.

See ya, Saab

A friend of mine drove one of these off a cliff, and survived.

A friend of mine drove one of these off a cliff, and survived.

I’ve written before about my love of Saabs, but sadly it’s reached the end of the road: I’ve just sold my knackered old 9-5 estate to (who offered me exactly what it’s worth – I was selling it because it wasn’t viable to repair anything any more) and I very much doubt I’ll get another one.

That isn’t just because Saab went bust. My budget means I’m always in old-car territory, and there are plenty of pre-closure 9-5s out there. Certainly, if I wanted to I could drive Saabs for another decade or so.

Sadly, I don’t want to.

Saab is a great example of what can happen when a marque knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Before General Motors came along, Saab was famed for its engineering and its unconventional belief that throwing all the power in the world through a car’s front wheels was a good idea. And it was, because hot Saabs were an absolute hoot.

And then General Motors got involved.

All of my Saabs have been GM-era Saabs: a 900 hatchback, a 9-5 petrol estate and a 9-5 diesel estate. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the 900, which was the one least messed about with by GM, was my favourite. My most recent 9-5 was essentially a Vauxhall Vectra in drag with one of the worst diesel engines imaginable – a tractor engine teamed up with sports suspension and low profile tyres, a match made in hell. I think it’s safe to say brand loyalty blinded me to the hopelessness of that one.

Before GM got involved, Saab was mixing it with the BMWs and Mercedes of the world. Once GM got involved, quality plummeted and despite Saab engineers’ best efforts, the cars weren’t mixing it with BMW and Mercedes any more. If I’m honest, my wife’s 14-year-old VW Golf is a better car than either of my 9-5 estates were.

I still have enormous affection for the Saab of old, but not so much that I want to drive an old Saab. So, like many Saab owners before me, I’m going for a German car instead.

The final Fred show

Tomorrow morning, BBC Radio Scotland will broadcast the last ever MacAulay & Co programme after nearly eighteen years on air. I’m going to miss it, and the people who make it.

I was a listener long before I became a contributor. In 1997 and 1998 I had a real job, and when I was late for work – which I often was, sometimes deliberately because I didn’t want to switch off something particularly funny – I’d listen to the show, laugh like a drain and think: it must be a right laugh to be on a show like that.

I’m not quite sure when I became a contributor – 2003 sounds about right – but I can honestly say that it’s been one of the best things in my life for a very long time. Without exception the people working on the programme – not just the voices you hear on the radio but the people who put the whole thing together and make it work more or less smoothly – are among the nicest, funniest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with, and it’s been a real joy to be part of the team. I’ve met pop stars and actors, comedians and authors, done some very silly things on air and been part of all kinds of tomfoolery, and the crazy buggers paid me to do it.

Fred’s moving on to bigger and brighter things and I’m sure the team will shine elsewhere too. As for me, I’m sure I’ll keep turning up here and there but I doubt I’ll ever be part of something quite like the Fred show ever again.

If you’ve ever listened to the show and thought “it must be a right laugh to be on that show,” man, it was. It really, really was.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality”

This Ted talk by Andrew Solomon is very good.

I want to say that the treatments we have for depression are appalling. They’re not very effective.They’re extremely costly. They come with innumerable side effects. They’re a disaster. But I am so grateful that I live now and not 50 years ago, when there would have been almost nothing to be done. I hope that 50 years hence, people will hear about my treatments and be appalled that anyone endured such primitive science.

So now people say, “You take these happy pills, and do you feel happy?” And I don’t. But I don’t feel sad about having to eat lunch, and I don’t feel sad about my answering machine, and I don’t feel sad about taking a shower. I feel more, in fact, I think, because I can feel sadness without nullity.

It’s timely in a week where the Office of National Statistics reports the highest male suicide rates since 2001 (and a rise in all suicides); while women are more likely to suffer from depression, men are more likely to die from it.

Matt Haig, writing in the Guardian about his own depression:

Suicide is now – in places including the UK and US – a leading cause of death, accounting for more than one in 100 fatalities. According to figures from the World Health Organisation, it kills more people than stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most other forms of violence – warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime – put together.

…So what should we do? Talk. Listen. Encourage talking. Encourage listening. Keep adding to the conversation. Stay on the lookout for those wanting to join in the conversation. Keep reiterating, again and again, that depression is not something you “admit to”, it is not something you have to blush about, it is a human experience. It is not you. It is simply something that happens to you. And something that can often be eased by talking. Words. Comfort. Support. It took me more than a decade to be able to talk openly, properly, to everyone, about my experience. I soon discovered the act of talking is in itself a therapy. Where talk exists, so does hope.

An unhealthy obsession with smoking

Bizarre news from Scotland:

Patients and visitors will be banned from using electronic cigarettes in hospital grounds across Scotland within weeks.

NHS boards will be required to ensure that their grounds are smoke-free by April.

Electronic cigarettes don’t produce smoke – they produce water vapour – so why are they part of the ban?

According to a spokesperson for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde:

These products are currently not regulated and there are concerns over potential safety issues with the products. In addition e-cigarettes mimic the habit and look of smoking and therefore provide negative role modelling for young people.

That’s ridiculous. The argument against smoking indoors is inarguable. A ban on cigs around hospital entrances is reasonable, given that running a gauntlet of cigs isn’t very nice. A ban on cigs in the grounds strikes me as a bit much but okay, there’s still a logic to it (and mess to clean up if there wasn’t a ban). But to ban things that don’t produce smoke on the grounds that they might have some undiscovered health risk and because they look a bit like cigarettes is utterly ridiculous. The risk from e-cigarettes to other people is zero, and the risk to users is probably zero too.

I don’t smoke any more, but I remember the cravings and the way stress would ramp them up to particularly unpleasant levels. Given that we’re rarely in hospitals for happy reasons – with a few exceptions such as maternity wards we’re usually there because we or somebody we care about is having a horrible time – banning nicotine addicts from doing something completely harmless is just kicking people when they’re down.

Return of the son of ID Cards

It turns out that the national political parties don’t have a monopoly on bad ideas: ID cards, something the SNP were very much against when they were planned for the UK, may appear in Scotland as a result of a minor NHS amendment. Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group:

in Scotland, the idea is alive and well, and the idea of giving everyone a unique identifier – and placing every citizens’ name and address into a single database – has not been given up by civil servants.

There’s a detailed analysis of it here (thanks to Heather at Idea15 Web Design for the heads-up):

The intention is to transform the current NHS Central Register (“NHSCR”) so it can be accessed by more bodies, to increase the number of individuals recorded in the Register, and to use a Unique Citizen Reference Number (“UCRN”) for each citizen.

The NHSCR can then be accessed by well over 120 Scottish public authorities (including police, prison, national security, visas and immigration) and certain publically owned companies.

It’s well worth a read. There’s a public meeting about it in Glasgow next week, too.

Another victory for the ticket touts

News I’d missed: online ethical ticket exchange Scarlet Mist has shut down.

Richard, the owner, writes:

I’ve been running it more or less single-handledly for the past eleven years, as a part-time hobby whilst doing my day-job as a hospital doctor. It has been fun to run it, and it has been a useful service.

Unfortunately my wife is now disabled and I need to devote more time to caring for her and my family.

Ticket touts and the secondary ticket market is here to stay. There is very little political will to address it, money talks in this world.

He’s right. My local MP is one of very many politicians who voted against proposals to crack down on the legal-tout market. Personally I don’t think gigs should only be available to the rich.

From Scotland with love

I went to see the live version of this the other night:

It’s a collection of archive footage from Scotland with a soundtrack by King Creosote. The album’s fantastic and the film’s great too, but live it took on another dimension entirely. One of those shows where the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I think everybody who went vowed to buy the DVD for everybody they know.

All the small things: a little writing app that makes a big difference

In the old days, writing for magazines was easy: you’d write a piece, send it as a Word doc or a text file, and that was it. Now, though, everything’s online and in a CMS. Creating content for that is often a pain in the backside, especially if you use apps designed for print rather than pixels.

Hurrah, then, for Ulysses. It’s a genuinely great app that’s already saving me stacks of time – not just in terms of creating copy I don’t then need to tweak, but in terms of the massive time savings that come from the way it does things. At £31.99 it’ll pay for itself in no time.

Here’s the obligatory video.

If you need to write words of any kind, it’s a great app. There’s a free demo too.

Switch me off and on again

Last free song of 2014: this one’s called Three Fingered Salute. It’s on Soundcloud too if you prefer to listen there.