Monday, December 6, 2021

The anxiety epidemic


We all relate a little more to this picture than we did in 2019...

I had a catchup with John (not his real name) over Skype the last week. It had been a while, and I was hoping all was well with him. I soon discovered that it wasn’t.

After a few minutes of catchup and idle chit-chat, the topic of mental health came up. They weren’t doing too well. Indeed for them, it was sucking the joy from life, they didn't feel any hope left for 2022.

I wasn’t surprised. Because I’d been having this conversation a lot – in video chats, in private messages, in emails. With so many different people in my life.

Our lives have changed so much since the early months of 2020, when a deadly virus started its world tour. Covid-19 has been terrifying.

The necessary lockdowns we’ve endured have helped to contain the spread and deaths to varying degrees (it seems like going hard and early has paid off for countries who have). But they have been difficult on us all.

For myself, even though I totally agreed with them, I could still feel claustrophobic and shut-in at times.

I would do a daily doom-scroll of numbers in different countries where I had people I loved and cared about (a lot of countries, a lot of love). I felt anxious for a lot of people, scared even for myself.

And it went beyond the life-and-death fears. As companies responded to the epidemic, sadly, a lot did so by throwing employees under the bus. People who lost their jobs feared what they could do.

Those of us who still had jobs were in fear of losing them if we couldn’t be productive enough at home.

It was a tough time. And for some of us, it’s left us changed.

I’ve got so used to working from home and it just being my wife and me, I felt like I’ve become severely introverted. I find social situations and anything which requires a bit of extroversion from me to be challenging and a little terrifying.


In a talk I did for ATD online last year in 2020, I talked about how we did not give ourselves enough credit for JUST GETTING THROUGH such a tough year.

Back then, it felt like normality was just within reach. Vaccines had been trialed and were effective. Indeed, they helped to sever the connection between infection rates and deaths. But their rollout took time.

In 2021 we saw more lockdowns as Covid-19 mutated into Delta.

But we were out of the severe mortal danger.


So why was I having so many conversations like that I’d had with John?

Indeed, I’d been proactive on reaching out to many friends during the last couple of years, just to see how they were. Ironically the Covid-era has made up more comfortable and less self-conscious about doing video catch-ups, or just text chats.

But when I heard both my father and brother had been diagnosed with anxiety, I began to realise just how big this was getting. John had a history of mental health issues. But a lot of folks like my father and brother were not those I’d traditionally associate with mental health struggles.

Indeed, I’ve had patches where I’ve found it difficult. More so this year than last. Perhaps it’s a feeling of going on too long. The seaman in the submarine drama who suddenly loses his nerve while being depth charged. You can only hold yourself together for so long, and then it becomes too much.

But definitely, it’s become an epidemic. And something that needs to be acknowledged.


That doesn’t mean I’m advocating for no more lockdowns. On the scale of things, preventing Covid spread vs mental health impact, dealing with the former involves the least harm. Although the second, especially through increased suicide rates is no soft option either.

And unfortunately, I can’t offer any easy advice. Except this most important of notes – to remember that if you feel this way, you are far from alone.

Indeed, one of the most vicious illusions we can experience when dealing with mental health problems is to imagine that we’re alone. We’re not.


If you’re experiencing issues, I recommend first of all that you speak to someone. It can be a family member or close friend. A lot of workplaces have counseling services available (I’ve had to use these myself in the last year). If no one else will listen, my DMs on Twitter are always open, but my response will depend on timeline differences. And, of course, there are local helplines to talk to who are available 247.

[Of course, this time difference might be of benefit, if you’re in the UK up and fretting at 3am, it’s probably just 5pm my time]

If this goes on for a while, it’s worth talking to your doctor. There are medications that do help take the edge off things like this. My wife has to take some for her anxiety, and they have helped change her life and her world.


But most of all, like I’ve said, acknowledge that this has been a tough time. Each of our respective countries should issue us a medal for the sacrifices we've made to do this. Okay, maybe not a big medal, more a certificate of acknowledgment.

But also remember that you’re not alone. The one good thing about Covid has been how it’s brought many of us closer together through social media and the various Skype/Zoom/Hangout offerings. Video calls have become a convenient way to share time with people we love.

Support and company is just a jangly ring-tone away.

We will get through this, like we have got through to date, together.

Take care and best wishes for the holidays whether you’re going to be with family or chilling at home!

[Thanks to the folks who have likewise thought to check on me during this year - I've really appreciated it]

Friday, November 26, 2021

Remembering John French - games teacher

Yesterday I had a message from school friend Annie. She was both my classmate, and daughter to my games teacher. She announced the news that her dad had died over the weekend.

I was sad to hear this - Mr French was one of the teachers everyone loved at school, and I'd often relayed messages to him through his daughter.

I wanted to take time to write about my memories of him for Annie, and how he left a lasting influence on me...

When you think about a PE teacher in the 80s, there’s a certain image that it’s hard to shake. Brian Glover’s tyrannical, bullying games teacher in the movie Kes.

Indeed, when I went on to University, many of my peers would share similar ghastly stories about loathsome PE teachers and how much they came to hate any session with these people.

Except for me. And that in a way is a good way to start any remembrance of John French and his cohort of PE and games teachers at Abbot Beyne.

Rather than being stern authority figures, the games teacher of Abbot Beyne felt more like our peers, our older brothers. You could imagine them as kids who loved sports so much at school that they chose to never grow up, instead turning a career in sharing their passion.

To form an image of Mr French in my mind is to imagine a trim figure in a faded, well-love rugby kit that almost resembled a jester. It’s an apt image he would typically watch us assemble before a lesson with a smile on his face, and a quip never far from his lips.

Mr French introduced me to the sport of rugby, and as he did so, and he broke down the rules and the plays, there was no doubt about the huge enthusiasm she shared with us all. And his passion was contagious.

When he selected me to train as a second row, I don’t think either of us knew how this would be a position I’d play on and off until I reached my forties. He chose well.

Looking back, Mr French was that first unique individual who did not teach, he coached. Whether we were training or playing his was a constant voice of encouragement. “You can do this, Talkie.” (His nickname for me, he loved giving nicknames)

I was a science nerd, I excelled in one area, but as a clumsy, awkward teen, sports terrified me. I felt like I lacked the coordination, I lacked the physicality. I constantly told myself that I couldn’t.

But games teachers like Mr French and Mr Atkinson constantly reminded me that I could. To avoid the defeatism and to strive. Make it happen.

I got to not mind our sports and PE lessons. I really got into rugby, although I remember Mr French pulling me to one side and tell me “this isn’t American football, only tackle the person with the ball”. I guess I had a few rage issues.

Even in the much hates cross-country, he was typically with the stragglers, reminding people that they could do it. Although I came to hate his cure for stitch which was “put your hands on your head, lean back and RUN FASTER”. [IT DIDN’T WORK]

In five years of having him as a teacher, I only had him get annoyed at us once. One Wednesday he gave a group of us end-of-day detention for not getting changed after a lesson fast enough.

True to form, when we all turned up for our punishment at the end of day, he looked at us baffled, and just sent us away saying there wasn’t really any need for it, and just change quicker next time.

The teachers we experience in life stay with us.

The bullying ones who belittle us and become a voice inside us. A naysayer. An echo we hear every time we fail. When things go wrong, we hear the mocking tones of our hated foreign language teacher telling us how we’d never amount to anything. And we think they were right.

But the ones who had faith in us hold a sway over us which can be life changing.

When in my late twenties, I decided to start cross country running, I felt like an idiot. But the voice of John French that stayed with me said that I could. I just needed to keep trying and when stitch hit, run faster.

When in my early thirties I decided to take up rugby again, I felt nervous as hell, finding many of the players of my local club were much younger.

I’m still far from a physical specimen, but I have no fear of the gym. I know too many who feel intimidated before they even enter one. But when my best friend tells me that there’s a new boxing class or resistance band or even a three-hour-dance workshop on, I’m not afraid. I tell myself I can do it and enjoy it. It’s a remarkable gift and a freedom.

The voices of our teachers and our coaches who believe in us never dwindle. They become spirits which walk with us to encourage us and remind us that we can achieve, especially when we doubt it ourselves.

Such people are a gift in our lives, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we love them for it.

So, thank you for that gift, Mr French.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Farewell to a good friend in hard times...

I woke up on Saturday morning to a devestating notification. Daren Pearcy, one of my best friends at University, had died after a short illness.

His wife had written a message on his Facebook, and I left the best condolence I could, reading through other people's experiences with him. Experiences which echoed my own.

TLDR; Daren was one of the good ones.

I met Daren at University, we were both at Sheffield studying Physics and Astronomy. Something he was not just passionate about, but incredibly philosophical at times.

University is sold to you as an incredibly experience, almost like attending Disneyland but with more alcohol. I have to admit, mentally I struggled incredibly with it -there were incredible aspects, but also feelings of alienation and struggles with my mental health.

I say this because time with Daren and our circle of friends was always incredibly soothing. When I think back on him, it's impossible to think of a time when he didn't come along and make me laugh and leave me in a happier state.

Let's be absolutely blunt, Daren was a geek. 100% and unashamedly. And I think this is why we got along so well. He loved science fiction, he loved astronomy and he loved a joke - although his humour could be bleak, vulgar and sweary. But that was Darent. He was naturally obsessed with jokes from Viz especially, which he'd cut out and placed all around the kitchen where he lived.


The Hudson building in Sheffield where we studied Physics and Astronomy. Or was it the Hicks building? A joke Daren made more than once... [You need to be a geek to get it]


But to tell a story best about Daren is to tell about the Thursday we technically bunked off studing to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey...

Let's be honest, it was a bleak Thursday. We'd all turned up to our solitary lecture of the day to find that it was cancelled. It was February 1991, and an event we'd all been on edge about had happened... the US and UK were at war with Iraq, in an operation to free Kuwait after a recent invasion.

The news was uncomfortable, with a lot of footage showing bombing of targets. It was a strange time - there was a marvel at the technology of pinpoint bombing, but as a graffiti succinctly put it, 'people are dying and they show us video games'.

Indeed, this was the cause of our cancelled lectures as protests had been ongoing across the University. I will be honest, Daren didn't 100% agree with this. He couldn't get how the same people calling to 'stop the war' had been the same people with 'free Kuwait' banners just a couple of months before. He didn't like the inconsitency.

Anyway, there was a group of us who'd expected a lecture, and found the rest of the day was free. I mean, we could have gone to the lab and done some work, but nah...

Daren was our ringleader suggesting we go back to his place in Cross Lane, Crookes. One of his house had recently purchased a copy of 2001, and he'd been keen to give it a watch. He enthused on just what a groundbreaking film it was, and it'd be amazing to watch as a group.

I mean, we could always study some other time...

It might be an exaggeration to say we watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. We critiqued it. We were, after all, a group of astronomy students, and space was our passion.

Fortunately, the film doesn't really have much in the way of dialogue to interrupt. We were amazed at the visuals, how much of the science they'd got right, from the weightlessness to the lack of sound.

We talked about colonies on the Moon, of intelligent computers, of the probability of life in the Universe. This geeky passion, after all, was why we'd come here to study the subject we had.

The afternoon became night. We bought beers, we ordered curry (Daren is almost single-handedly responsible for me liking curry, with me opting for a safe chicken korma to his favoured lamb bhuna).

The conversation (now addled with alcohol) lasted long past the movie. In fact, Daren was convinced this was a good time to ring up Sheffield talk radio to talk about alien life.

He did his best to explain the likelihood of life in space, trying to describe the Drake equation. In a nutshell this theory is that given the vastness of the universe, the sheer likelihood of other planet, life could not be a singular occurrence in this one small spec. It would be a statistical anomaly.

Sadly being a little drunk at this point, he didn't do a particularly good job of explaining this. Heck, I'm not sure I have, and I'm stone-cold sober.

But then, I had to admit, I'd never heard of the Drake equation until then. Daren had, it's just his eloquence wasn't helped by several cans of Fosters. His passion here far exceeded mine.

The night descended into talk of computer games - the new Amiga ones and the ones he'd loved on the ZX Spectrum. Like I said, he was a geek, and this was the reason I loved spending time with him.

Eventually, the night descended into jokes, and his customary impression of Jimmy Saville and a little bit of Rolf Harris (can I say with hindsight, oh dear). He would love to break into terrible impressions, but we'd always find them hilarious.

He was, after all, our joker-in-chief.


I headed home having had an amazing day with kindred spirits, forgetting all the anxiety which was going on in the world right then.

Daren's home always was a welcome place to drop in. We'd share other nights like this, sometimes with Blade Runner, sometimes just at the pub, but this particular day sums up all that was best about our friendship. Eventually when we graduated, he moved out, and I moved in, deciding to do a teacher training extension. Even moving beyond University, he was a regular visitor to the place.


We dropped out of touch until the world of social media. But once connected we picked up where we left up. Exchanges between us were never deep or meaningful, they were celebrations of all things geek. Because that's what we did.

I would usually tag him in whenever I was watching either 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner. Or if there was a big astronomy/Mars/probe discovery.

Over the years he's continued to contribute to celebrations of the ZX Spectrum or the daftest jokes from Viz. He would celebrate having a 'top tip' published in Viz like I've known friends get a scientific paper get published.


His hair turned grey, but he never changed. Because he was pretty amazing the way he was.

It would be remiss to wrap up talking about Daren without mentioning Blade Runner. In 2007 I told him I was watching the Director's Cut, to which he said he'd got a special release which included about seven different cuts - including and excluding voiceovers, unicorn dreams and happy endings using stock footage from The Shining (I kid you not).

When we would watch Blade Runner, Daren was always enthused about Rutger Hauer's 'tears in the rain' speech. It is a powerhouse moment of cinema, and the actor reshaped the script to deliver a powerful and poignant ending.

In it, the replicant is shutting down, and he ponders all the things he's seen, both horrifying and wonderful. He considers how much those moments have made him who he is, and when he's gone, they'll be lost forever.

The consoling reminder is when someone you love like Daren dies, those moments aren't lost, because unlike for Rutger Hauer's replicant, someone remains to carry them. But those memories are changed.

When I use to watch 2001 or Blade Runner and tagged him in an update, it would be a callback to 'remember the time'. A shared moment of geekery. Not there's no longer someone to share, and that's part of the sadness of losing someone. 

But the memories endure.