Just Say Yes

 

You can’t run away from depression or beat it by just saying ‘yes’.

I pick up my story in the aftermath of a failed career in teaching. I had been working on my father-in-law’s farm and although it was helpful at the time I was not cut out to be a farmer and I was making little more than pocket money.

My wife had an interest in photography and a decent Canon SLR and she set about teaching me how to use it. I took to it straight away and found (to my astonishment) that I had a natural flair for composition. In those days there was no such thing as digital photography and I had to wait for film to be developed in order to assess my successes and failures. I began to systematically catalogue each creative option – often taking the same shot time after time and adjusting, let’s say, the shutter speed, to try and understand what I could do with it.

It wasn’t long before I decided that I should give photography a go as a career. Around the same time I began to go to CBT sessions. One of the things that CBT does is to challenge negative thinking. For instance, I would say “typical, this always happens to me”. The CBT made me challenge that statement and come up with hard evidence for it: evidence that I would struggle to provide. If I had a specific anxiety, usually some sort of social anxiety, I would be told to go and do that thing deliberately and collect evidence about what happened, to see if it was really as bad as I believed it to be. Don’t say no, I was told, say yes. Fight your fears head on in order to beat them.

Armed with this mantra I plunged head first into a photography business. At the beginning I took pet portraits with the first digital cameras (that created pixelated images that looked like cartoons). I soon moved on into people portraits but found them stressful and nerve-wracking. We made a big decision to invest heavily in equipment for a career in wildlife photography. Huge lenses appeared in great boxes.

I was brought up along the North-West Norfolk coast with its famous beaches and nationally important bird reserves. I lived near the oldest wildlife reserve in the country and all around me were farmer’s fields. I discovered that a hare could see you coming three flat fields away.

This was my area. Over the years I had learned how to spot, and get close to, wildlife – it was now so natural that it felt as though I went into a trance, a zone that could somehow connect me to the creatures around me. Whether it was years of listening, studying, understanding, trial and error, I just don’t know. But when I get into the wild I have a nose for wildlife that’s almost uncanny. And I love it.

Wildlife is part of me. It’s in my soul. I treasure it and I miss it. I miss those habitats that I once lost myself in.

My career in wildlife photography was the best thing I ever did. I loved formulating a plan and pulling it off. I did some crazy things. I have a severe fear of heights. But, I found myself in a bag hide up a huge farm elevator waiting for a kestrel to come back to one of its favourite perches at the top of a particular tree. Its yellow feet had claws with blood still visible on them from the last kill.

I found myself getting up almost before I had gone to sleep; in my camouflage gear; carrying my heavy equipment; with my face full of heavy snow; trudging into the darkness and across slippery bridges; through fields of cows in the pale moonlight; to crouch silently in a specially designed wooden hide on a famous bird reserve. I got on well with the Head Warden and was allowed to set hides up and wander off the beaten track. I had some great experiences and took some pretty decent images. I think I damaged my back there, crouching and holding my breath in wet clothes in the cold with my finger hovering over the shutter release as though it were the trigger of a sniper’s gun. Somehow, though, it was…me.

The problem was selling the images. That was certainly not ‘me’. I made practically nothing. Reluctantly, I decided that I had to try something else.

So, I headed, with my long lens, to see if I could take some pictures of my favourite sport: cricket. It was a long drive to my favourite team’s ground. As I started to take some pictures the long lens attracted the attention of the professionals to my left. One of them ‘took me under his wing’, (believe me there was nothing benevolent about it), and, whilst he was off shooting more lucrative things, I became his apprentice as the official photographer at Essex County Cricket Club.

I would turn up, down two cans of Red Bull, and gain access to all the places that fans couldn’t go. I went into the dressing rooms and got to know some of the players. They got used to me being around and I documented some historic moments for the club. I loved the buzz of big games and I felt like a celebrity because the fans seemed to regard me as somehow being of importance. I was on T.V and out in the middle with some famous cricketers.

Cricket turned into football which proved to be a whole other level of difficulty and pressure. Come away from a game with nothing and your career could be over. There were no contracts, no rights, no certainty that work would continue to flow. I was ripped off again and again. I had some real tales to tell along the way but I can’t tell you them all in this post!

Football was incredibly stressful. I fed off it and suffered because of it all at the same time. I felt that I had a job that gave me self-esteem – something I had rarely had in my life. I said yes to everything. I had successes (it’s great to see your work in national newspapers) but I had some embarrassing failures also. I was an excellent sports photographer but I was so naïve. I was taken for a ride and I couldn’t play the game, I didn’t have what it took to make the real, consistent, money. I did a lot for nothing.

Just saying yes reached its zenith when I was offered work in the business world: jobs at great exhibitions and events in all sorts of places. I was in London hopping from one train to the next and having to be in the centre for a specific time. Being late could be the end of my career.

The jobs were big, high pressure ones, and I felt that I was a bit of a charlatan. I doubted my skills and tried to bluff my way through, hiding the fact that I was making it all up as I went along. I worked in some of the swankiest hotels in London and some of the most exclusive clubs. I met some of my sporting idols along the way and took pictures of celebrities and high-ranking politicians.

I distinctly remember doing a job in parliament for the first time. I had never been in there before and after the security checks I walked around open-mouthed – and nervous as hell. I had to take pictures of a parliamentary committee. They filed in like judges in the high-court and I stood before them knowing I had two shots at best before they got on with their important business. I felt as though I was small boy with his trousers down.

I took the pictures (both of them) with cold sweat dripping down the back of my neck. It was a sign that I was under a severe amount of stress.

One by one the people I worked for fell out with me – usually about the fact that I had the temerity to ask for payment. My career began to falter and money came only occasionally in dribs and drabs and then would disappear into months of famine. I had so many amazing experiences but the long and short of it was that I was desperate for a regular wage. My anxiety was still there and my depression never went away. CBT had some success but I didn’t know how to use it properly. I just said yes.

Then I did a silly thing. I saw a job being advertised at a local newspaper in Devon, in Plymouth – a big city. We loved Devon and Cornwall and decided to go for it. I expected to fail and my interview was dreadful (or so I thought). Amazingly, I got the job. It had all happened in the space of just a few years.

We knew that we were moving to the other side of the country and that it would be difficult to see our families but I was blinded by the idea that I could run away from my depression by leaving the places that had bad memories for me. It was a new start, and, hopefully, a new me.

I had to say goodbye to my goats and sheep and the farm and the countryside that I loved. I admit there were tears.

At last we would have two steady incomes and a better life.

A new chapter began in my turbulent life, one that would eclipse everything that had gone before. Just saying yes had put my foot on the accelerator before I had tested the brakes. I had no idea which pedals to press. I was a car-crash waiting to happen and I was going straight to the scene of the accident.

Still Alive: The First Eighteen Years

All schools ever said about me came in the form of whatever was written in my yearly report. I did well. My reports were good. Teachers liked me because I was bright and polite. They called me ‘quiet’ and ‘conscientious’.

However, my ‘brightness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ didn’t endear me to the rest of the children and being the teacher’s ‘pet’ singled me out as a target. I was different to most of the other kids I neither condoned nor condemned their behaviour in their hearing but by not joining in I earned their wrath. I was scared every day of my school life, at primary school and secondary school, in term time or out: scared of abuse, either physical or verbal, and scared of being mocked and humiliated. I was ostracized at times and tormented at others. This was always going to impact on me both then and in the future.

I was rarely involved in fights because I could run fast and I could make myself scarce at the right moments. I slipped in and out of school through a hedge and managed to avoid being kicked and punched on most days. There were exceptions but nothing was ever done about them. In a way it was for the best because those kids would have hated and persecuted me even more if they had been punished for attacking me. My trials slipped under the radar.

And so, I was just ‘quiet’.

As I excelled in sports (I was virtually always captain of both cricket and football teams in primary and secondary school) along with the academic side of school life teachers must have thought that I was coping with school life better than anyone. Unfortunately, the more they praised me and promoted me the more I was hated, and the more I achieved the more scared I became.

I lost my grandfather (I idolised and loved him more than my own father) when I was ten: he committed suicide on Christmas day. Now I can sympathise with what he must have been going through but I’ll never be able talk to him about it, I’ll never be able to try and help. It gave me a deep wound that has hurt for over thirty years.

My problems only seemed to get worse at secondary school. It was an achingly sad time. In fact it would be fair to say that I spent most of my days in desperate anxiety, dreading every school day and getting more and more nervous from the moment the Friday home time bell went to the moment Monday morning came and my next week of distress began.

The school bus was hell. Sometimes I was persecuted; spat upon; mercilessly and ceaselessly mocked for thirty minutes twice every day. It hurt to take it without fighting back. I kept my anger inside because of cowardice and a hatred of confrontation. My main battle was to keep from blubbering every day.

My mother asked me for permission to divorce my father. When I said yes I felt terrible. I’ll never forget watching him packing up his things in the back of a van and leaving, or the time I saw him crying and said nothing. I sided with my mother but it was still heart-breaking.

I came to live with my father because one of us children had to go with him rather than leaving him totally alone. It meant that I avoided the bus as he had moved into town. Unfortunately we had never got along, I had always lived in fear of his moods and hurt by his lack of praise for me and the atmosphere in the house quickly became poisonous.

During my A-levels my doctor first used the word ‘depression’. Nothing, however, was done about this and I didn’t bother mentioning it to my parents. I was scared of it and didn’t want to be stigmatised.

I left school with good enough qualifications to go to university but also with a lifetime’s worth of issues.

Conclusions

Was it really a surprise that I began to develop stress-related problems, depression and social anxiety? It is not a cliché to look back at these formative years and see problems in later life. There is a reason for psychiatrist’s being interested in our childhoods.

Child and young adult psychology should be made more available than it is now. If it’s not, parents and teachers at last need to be talking about mental health.

I was lonely and isolated and I was being picked on. That’s not just ‘kids being kids’. Teachers should pick up on this and have a conversation.

School time is an intense social experience for children exploring relationships for the first time: relationships with each other, with their teachers, their parents and the wider world. Those children who seem to have trouble with these relationships need to be looked after and monitored.

Is there training and funding for specialist staff in the field of child mental health? Do teachers know enough about what is happening to their pupils at home? What should they know and how should they find out? Do parents know enough about what is happening to their children at school? Does the government care about any of this?

The signs that I was having difficulties were that I had few friends; I was unusually quiet and I was moody; I wanted to run away from home and I was extremely sensitive; I never felt rested after sleep and so I felt tired and weary at school; I was always sad. If they had talked to me they would have picked up on a lack of self-esteem and problems at home.

There are no ‘loners’ in the school system that should be ignored. They need to be dealt with sensitively. If I had the opportunity to talk to someone during my time at school, someone I felt that I could trust, I would have admitted that I faced serious challenges. The long and short of it is that parents and teachers need to understand how important mental health is for kids. They need to see the signs and know where to go to get help.

Every class or year group should have access to someone they can talk to. It’s so important.

I suppose, as with most things, it comes down to money. If the government is serious about targeting mental health it needs to give schools sufficient funding. If we get it right early on we may see the benefit later. The state has had to fund care for me: maybe it could have saved itself from this burden if I had help earlier on in my life.

Every school day I make sure that I talk to my son about how he felt during the day. I give him the vocabulary to be able to answer that question; when he was younger it used to be: was your day ‘good’, ‘ok’, ‘bad’ or ‘really bad’? Sometimes we would say was it a ‘normal’ day or an ‘abnormal’ one (he liked this because he was learning about similar structures in grammar)? I always ask him if he played with the other children and if there were any tears. How is he getting on with his teacher? Is there anything worrying him? Does he want to talk to me about anything?

I try to get him to open up and tell me everything. I would thoroughly recommend this approach to all parents. One thing we know for sure about mental health is that talking works.