I’m keeping a record of the books I read in my retirement and blogging about them. This is the second one, you can read about the first one here. You can find me on Goodreads (click the link), and see all my 2020 books here.
I can’t remember how this excellent book by Matt Haig came to be on my reading list, but I’m really glad it was. Reasons to Stay Alive is a genre-straddling book; partly an overview of depression and anxiety, partly a self-help resource, but (uniquely) a deeply personal memoir that is totally open and honest. It describes how Matt Haig came through crisis, triumphed over a mental illness that almost destroyed him and learned to live again (back cover).
This is a book for everyone, it overflows with the joys of living and making the most of your time on earth. It oozes humanity from every page and adds impetus to the current trend for removing the societal stigma attached to mental illness. In Matt’s willing vulnerability comes his strength.
Note: Matt shares lots of valuable insights on Twitter and you can follow him here. Other books by Matt Haig are available.
There’s a lot of anxiety and other mental health concerns around at the moment related to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and so anything that can help us is welcome.
Steady is an Android app that I’ve started using on my smartphone. I recently came across this recommended app in a magazine and expected to have to pay for it, but it’s free with no adverts.
Breathing exercises are a really helpful way of relieving anxiety and stress, and this app helps you tackle your anxiety. It also provides daily reminders and encouragement for hitting monthly goals and the like.
Note: I’ve discovered there’s also a free app (Insomnia) to help you sleep, this can be accessed via the above app.
Update January 2021: Although I’d been using this app regularly, it failed to work after an Android OS update, so now I’m using the equally excellent Breathly app.
Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually.3 John 2
‘How are you?’ we ask. And ‘fine’ comes the reply. But what are we really asking? And do we actually want to know, anyway?
Some years ago, I said ‘How are you?’ to a mentally disturbed man in church. With rare honesty, he responded, ‘You don’t want to know’. ‘But I do’ I protested (perhaps less honestly). ‘Well, look at your feet’, he replied, and I realised that I was walking past him even as I mouthed my automatic question.
Many languages have formulae for greeting, with questions about one’s neighbour’s family, animals, work, travel, sleep, eliciting standard responses. They oil the wheels of everyday life in society.
But what kind of interest in others might we convey in those short exchanges while travelling, on arrival at work, at the school gate, in the check-out queue or (when we get back) in church?
The apostle John, writing to his ‘dear friend Gaius‘, expressed three heartfelt wishes. First, that his friend should have good health. Second, that everything in his life should go well. Third, that his spiritual life should continue to thrive. Three wishes on the physical, circumstantial and spiritual planes.
We appear to think almost entirely about people’s health when we ask ‘how are you?’ Sometimes we scarcely wait for the expected answer, but that little answer ‘fine’ may veil a newly diagnosed cancer or a marriage on the rocks. ‘Fine’ may veil a lost faith or a broken heart.
If we genuinely care for others, we must be interested in their whole lives, in the issues they are facing in their families and in their work. Do we also have courage, with our Christian friends, to ask ‘How is your relationship with God?’
We need to pray for people on all these three planes like John, and when we write to people we need to ask after all these aspects of their lives. But in our everyday greetings, too, may we try to find ways of encouraging others by expressing a genuine concern for things that are going on in the deeper recesses of their hearts and minds.
Forty years ago (18 May 1980) Joy Division lyricist and singer Ian Curtis took his own life, a tortured star whose influence both at the time and since has been immense. Actor Sam Riley brilliantly portrays Curtis in Control, Anton Corbijn‘s 2007 film of the Joy Division singer’s life and suicide.
Although there have been those who have sought to glamorise his death as a rock and roll suicide, in reality it was a consequence of his lack of control over many aspects of his personal life. The debilitating effects of epilepsy, the deception of having an affair, the almost inevitable breakdown of his marriage, and the prospect of separation from his year-old baby daughter. As he sang, “All the failures of the modern man”.
The classic and influential album Unknown Pleasures (released in 1979) revealed a profoundly dark poet and a starkly grim realist, a very different voice in music at the time, one who added deep insight and intelligence to the post-punk movement. It’s one of my influential albums.
The clues were there though. In the track Shadowplay, Ian Curtis sings, “In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more…” and in New Dawn Fades, there’s one in the very title as well as the words, “The strain is too much, can’t take much more”.
Once the truly shocking news broke that Ian Curtis had taken his own life, there came the full realisation that his writhing and twisted dancing on stage wasn’t simply performance art, he was genuinely wrestling with his emotional and physical demons, as well as reflecting how hopeless, meaningless and inhuman he felt our world had become.
Tragic as any death is, we’re often drawn to those in public life who take their own lives, and there are many examples. Listening to the album Closer (released soon after his death) was uncanny and slightly unnerving, a feeling that persists even now.
So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride What once was innocence turned on it’s side A cloud hangs over me, marks every move Deep in the memory of what once was love
Oh, how I realized I wanted time Put into perspective, tried so hard to find Just for one moment I thought I’d got my way Destiny unfolded, watched it slip away
Excessive flash points beyond all reach Solitary demands for all I’d like to keep Let’s take a ride out, see what we can find Valueless collection of hopes and past desires
I never realized the lengths I’d have to go All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know Just for one moment, hearing someone call Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all
Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong Got to find some therapy, treatment takes too long Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway Got to find my destiny before it gets too late
I remember a survey from a few years back revealing that more people take their own lives in May than in any other month. Apparently, “the juxtaposition between a literally blooming world and the barren inner life of the clinically depressed is often too much for them to bear”.
We remember Ian Curtis because of his musical influence and legacy, but there’s also many thousands of young men who take their own lives each year, and I particularly remember one whose funeral I conducted a few years ago. A reminder to do all we can to reduce the stigma of mental illness in society, and to support those who are suffering. On this tragic anniversary, a fitting way to remember Ian Curtis.
There are times when you need an uplifting song to raise your mood, at other times a sad song can emotionally connect with particular feelings and be more meaningful. Indeed, many people consider sad songs better and deeper than happy songs, as they speak profoundly to the human condition.
Just sometimes though, we need to rage and let our feelings out, as this can be very cathartic. Here’s a Radiohead song does just that, it’s a song of rage from their album Kid A released in 2000.
Everyone around here
Everyone is so near
It’s holding on
It’s holding on
Everyone is so near
Everyone has got the fear
It’s holding on
It’s holding on
It’s holding on
It’s holding on
It’s holding on
Thom Yorke sings short, ambiguous lyrics, using voice distortion and a feedback echo that creates a sense of isolation and fear. The looping heavy bass line that leads the song was composed by Yorke when he was 16 years old. The early electronic instrument called ondes Martenot, played by Jonny Greenwood, was inspired by Olivier Messiaen. The free jazz-style brass section was inspired by the work of Charles Mingus. Added to that are some interlaced sound effects and mysterious samples creating quite a unique track.
Whilst acknowledging the need to tread carefully and sensitively in any comparisons between the Second World War and the current coronavirus pandemic, I believe there are some useful ones we can make to help us in our thought processes and thereby benefit our collective mental health.
VE Day in 1945 reflected a victory over a visible enemy, although also an invisible enemy of evil thoughts and ideas. The enemy we face now is totally invisible and does not care one iota for those it harms. Fake news is not new, they faced it back then; had they had social media, that would simply have been another front on which the war would have been fought. Today, not only in the coronavirus pandemic, we face a war against those who would deceive us. We need to guard our way of life against those who would lie to us, who seek to destroy the freedoms won for us then.
The Second World War was marked by terrible suffering, the like of which is hard to process, along with the inhumanity of it all. Today, many have been devastated by an invisible enemy, and we pause to remember the lives lost and the families and friends grieving.
Back then the world faced life-treatening jeopardy and, for many today, this is the first time we have faced real jeopardy. Yes, I remember the Cold War, but that’s the only threat that comes anywhere near what we face today. There’s fear and anxiety everywhere, and so we need to affirm, encourage and support each like never before. It’s the same for everyone, yet we all have unique circumstances and all react individually.
Back then, not everyone was celebrating, and for those who were it was only a brief celebration. The world faced an uncertain future and there was much rebuilding to be done, it was many years until food rationing was eased for example. In our own time, we might celebrate relaxations to the lockdown, but we still face the reality of an uncertain future and the prospect of rebuilding society. Then it was a collective experience, so it is today and will be for us. I’m neither being optimistic nor pessimistic; just realistically reflecting that there’ll be much to do in the coming weeks, months and years.
Today we celebrate the heroes of yesterday’s battles, but we also celebrate the new heroes in the NHS and all the key workers fighting a very different battle today. Come to think about it, the creation of the NHS was one of the great rebuilding efforts after WWII, and we are reaping its benefits today.
Who are you celebrating today? What can you do to help and support someone today and in the uncertain future?
Postscript: Today is ‘Victory IN Europe Day’, not ‘Victory OVER Europe Day’ as some history revisionists are suggesting for their own agendas.
Note: I chose the photo for this post because it reminds me of my two youngest girls, Pollyanna (2) and Matilda (3).
Sadness is not competitive. Just because there are ‘others worse off’ doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel down. You don’t need to look on the bright side or be glass half full. It’s OK to want to throw the glass against the wall. You go right ahead and feel what you feel. Your feelings are real and valid. It’s OK.
Today’s family afternoon excursion into beautiful nature wasn’t just daily exercise, but emergency treatment from the Natural Health Service.
We’re all in the same situation in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, but everyone has their own personal challenges to face. For us, it’s having three young children, me trying to work from home, and preparing for my imminent retirement in July and moving house.
We’ve had a few bad days, and were both physically, mentally and emotionally drained. So, not only did the therapy walk do us the world of good, spending quality time with Naomi and our children really helped, but also observing and photographing nature.
Note: All the photos were taken with my smartphone, I just got in close, or low, or used unusual angles. See all the original here. Why not have a go for yourself?
Looking after our mental health is always important, but especially so during the lockdown associated with the coronavirus pandemic. As this BBC web page says: Coronavirus has plunged the world into uncertainty and the constant news about the pandemic can feel relentless. All of this is taking its toll on people’s mental health, particularly those already living with conditions like anxiety and OCD.
How has the lockdown affected your mental health? I asked this question on Facebook and the following are some of the responses I received. They have been sensitively edited and permission for sharing given.
Karen: I’ve been struggling big time with not being able to talk to people properly and my depression has hit an all-time low, but I feel it’s not fair to speak to my doctor about it because they’re so busy with everything else. We have a houseful, so it’s not caused by loneliness, simply not having breathing space and time to think. I’m finding I sometimes just have to walk around the garden alone and talk myself out of the way. I feel we’re all grieving as well as my nana died recently, so keeping busy is my only way of getting through it apart from my 10 minutes out time. Not sure how helpful this is, but helps to share how I feel and not feel like a failure as a person and mother.
Joy: For a couple of weeks leading up to lockdown I was really anxious about going into lockdown. I stood and cried in the chemist queue. I knew I was getting very low and feared what lockdown would do to my mental health. To be honest I envied two people I knew who had passed away before this. I was becoming forgetful, forgetting things like bringing the washing down in the morning which i do I every morning, and forgetting to take my daily medication which included anti-depressants which also didn’t help my mental health! Once I realised this was an issue I gave hubby permission to remind me every morning. First week of lockdown I woke up feeling quite panicky, but got better as the day went on. I’ve had to learn not to put myself under pressure to achieve anything great. Getting through the day is in itself and achievement. I always use my one allowed walk each day. Three weeks into lockdown and I’m doing better than I thought I would. I can now get my head round cooking proper meals, but still can’t keep on top of housework. Initially, I was more anxious about lockdown, now I’m probably more anxious about the virus. Sorry it’s a long one but it’s done me good to share.
Paula: I’ve found it hard, but have found incorporating daily exercise and limiting the wine has helped! I’m still working, and so is my husband, so that has helped keep some sense of normality!
David: I’ve not struggled as much as some, partly because I’ve been working from home for three years now. I have my own business, so actually having work to do every day has filled my day. So, in a sense, I didn’t expect to struggle, but there have been a few for me, just the unsettledness of the situation has had an effect on my concentration levels. I’ve been used to my daughter being out at school every day and my wife in and out all the time. Now there are three of us rattling around this modest 3-bed semi, it’s really strange and has taken some adjustment for me.
Kate: I’ve been up and down through this so far. Trying to keep busy, but there’s only so much to do. It’s the isolation that’s the hardest. I’ve been exercising a lot, which helps, and playing lots of music. And also allowing myself to feel a bit rubbish, because it’s a rubbish time. It’s ok to struggle a bit, it’s really hard.
Kevin: It hasn’t really affected me, I’ve spent a lifetime social distancing anyway. I think though if you are suffering, it probably helps to keep busy. Writing a blog or an online diary documenting your feelings and day-to-day experience is a good idea. Something you can share that might help others, who in turn can help you. There’s always cooking, gardening and a myriad other hobbies that needn’t cost a lot.
Kerrie: I’m an introvert and enjoy time at home anyway. I’m never bored and could often go a weekend without speaking to or seeing anyone, but having a two and a half-year-old on my own, and as a key worker also trying to work from home I’ve found it very hard. I don’t have time to do all of the things I can see others doing, such as reading and other hobbies. My mum can’t come and help at all as she’s on the vulnerable list. Getting shopping is difficult. I don’t drive and I’m a single parent now, my daughter also has a heart condition, so don’t want to risk taking her into shops so I rely on friends to get what I need and just muddle through. I feel huge guilt that I’m not doing enough with my daughter and also huge guilt that I’m not doing enough with my work. I’m a Domestic Abuse Practitioner and I know this is increasing at this time, but there’s little I can do with no childcare and a toddler on my own. My mum doesn’t have any facility to video call and we both don’t drive so are cut off. But I think of Anne Frank, Terry Waite and others who had to endure far worse and know we have to keep on keeping on.
Heather: For me physical exercise truly helps. As a nurse I encourage grounding techniques, there are many suggested. I also recommend: Headspace. Helpful techniques.
Finally, Sarah helpfully suggested some advice being given out to students:
Reach out before you freak out! Call a friend, a family member, pastor (teacher in our setting) or a hotline – it’s better to talk before it’s too overwhelming.
Be gentle with yourself. If all you managed to do today in this pandemic was make it out of bed to go to the bathroom or grab a glass of water or something to eat, well done – your survival brain is working hard enough for you so take the time to rest.
We are all in this together – no one has it all together right now no matter what Facebook or Instagram says, this is an unprecedented time we are all trying to figure it out.
Stand outside and ground yourself for at least 5 minutes (15 is better). Feel the sun/wind on your face. Touch the plants. Take your shoes off and let your feet feel the earth below you. This is a scientifically proven technique to assist mental health, grounding is vital.
Finally, just know that you are not alone. Reach out before you Freak out!
Thank you everyone for your contributions, feel free to add any more thoughts in the comments. Be affirmed, John.
Photography (a smartphone is all you need by the way) and writing, whether personal or for work, are two of the things that are currently helping me maintain my mental health and sanity in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
Partly by accident, but also by design, I’ve developed a way of posting them on social media and here. I take four square photos and then stitch them together with an Instagram app to make a four by four photo which I share then to Instagram (and automatically to Facebook and Twitter). I repeat this three more times, and then stitch the four stitched photos together into a four by sixteen photo. The above stitched photo is today’s offering from my afternoon walk in Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend.
I then add all the individual photos to a Google Photos album, and you can see the ones from today here. I’m particularly pleased how the dandelion shot turned out, I spotted it in a ray of sunshine that didn’t extend to the background, making it stand out dramatically.
I also took four photos of some fungi on a tree stump that I’ve stitched into a standalone four by four one. Again, you can see all the individual ones here.
Oh, and even though I concentrated on nature, I was with my family. Here’s the one shot I did take of them (Naomi was taking photos of the children), and I immediately loved it.