Depression – Why “cheer up” is the worst thing you can say.

OK…. First of all let me just say… I’m not depressed right now. If I was, I wouldn’t be able to write this article. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced that horrible pain and darkness for some years now. As it turned out, all I needed was a bit more sunshine (literally as well as figuratively), so living here in Tenerife has pretty much “cured” me. More of that later. I did, however, suffer from depression for many years, and a chance recent encounter with a fellow sufferer has prompted me to spill my guts here in case any of my experiences can help to educate those who are lucky enough never to have experienced the condition.

Let’s get a few things clear right from the start. Depression is not just feeling a bit shitty. It’s not something you can “snap out of”, and most certainly is not something you can conquer by “cheering up”.

Depression is real pain. It is as real and as debilitating to sufferers as the pain from a broken bone or a knife wound, and can require the same professional care and rehabilitation.

When I was a child and later as a teenager, depression was treated as something very minor which could be overcome with a bit of “will power”, and the traditional British “stiff upper lip”. The fact that I couldn’t just smile sweetly and carry on like nothing was wrong marked me out as a “wuss” or worse. The stigma that could be experienced by a teenager having to visit a Child Psychologist was so great that the place where I met him had a hidden entrance (and I’m NOT kidding. The child psychology department of Nottingham General Hospital at that time was in an unmarked house with a secret back door!)

Happily, the stigma associated with mental illness is at last beginning to subside, but nevertheless there are still too many people out there who fail to recognise depression as a true illness, and think that they can “cure” their depressed friends and family members by merely telling them to “cheer up”.

We’re not idiots or educationally challenged. On the contrary, numerous studies have proved that the incidence of depression is often directly proportional to IQ. (I’m not trying to set myself up as being some kind of genius by the way. I’m just making the point that having depression doesn’t make you “thick”!) If it was possible to just “cheer up”, don’t you think that we’d have worked that out for ourselves?

It occurred to me on more than one occasion, when someone uttered those words “Cheer up, mate”, that maybe I should kick said person in the family jewels and repeat the phrase back to them, because that is the kind of pain they were trying to address with such a flippant comment. Imagine for a moment that level of pain, not just for a few minutes but often for weeks at a time; a pain that is chronic and unrelenting that cannot be treated with any known pain killer. Imagine a toothache which pounded on for weeks and was resistant to all known treatments. That is what depression can feel like. Would you tell someone with that kind of physical pain to just “cheer up”? I really hope you wouldn’t!

It turned out that my own bouts of depression were linked to something called “SADS” or “Seasonally Affective Disorder Syndrome”, a lack of certain brain chemicals caused by lack of sunlight. If anyone (including me) had bothered to correlate my visits to the psychology department with the time of year and the weather, it would have been pretty obvious that there was a link, but still, to this day, the existence of SADS as a true medical condition is doubted by some doctors.

Alongside other conditions like ADHD (of which I have anecdotal evidence that I may also have suffered as a child, but the official diagnosis didn’t exist when I was at school) and panic attacks, SADS is often viewed by those fortunate enough not to suffer from it as “an excuse for malingerers”, but I can assure the reader that they are all very real and extremely debilitating.

So…. Next time one of your friends is depressed, don’t…. and I repeat DO NOT tell them to cheer up. Doing so will just remove you from the list of people they feel they can talk to…. And the one thing that so many of us need when we’re suffering that pain is a friend we can talk to. Not someone who will try to “fix us” with platitudes or try to “solve our problems”. Just someone who will sit and listen. If you can be that person who can just lend an ear without judgement or unwanted advice, you will truly be helping. You will be a real friend.

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Poppy Field

Why I wear a poppy today

(And why you should wear a poppy too.)

I am something of a “black sheep” in my family. The first in several generations who has never joined one of the military services. First I’m going to explain what the poppy means to me in terms of my family history, then why it still has meaning to me as a “pacifist”.

My grandfather was a boy of 15 when the Great War broke out in 1914. He lied about his age in order to join an infantry regiment. When his secret was discovered he was immediately sent home of course, but , as soon as he was 16, he was back at the recruiting office. He fought in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme, from which so many men and boys never returned. He gave four years of his youth, whilst many of his friends and comrades gave their lives. The poppy we wear reminds us of their sacrifices.

My father was 21 when war again broke out. He spent the majority of his twenties in the midst of some of the worst fighting of World War II, including in the desert alongside the 8th Army, in the jungles of Asia alongside the Gurkha  regiments, and stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. He never liked to speak of it. Few that saw the true horrors of that war did. The poppy reminds us of those who gave up their youths and their lives in that most horrific of conflicts.

My mother never saw the fighting first hand, but, as a mere teenager, she was in the WAAF stationed at RAF Binbrook, an active Bomber Command, eventually rising to Sergeant. She, and many other WAAF and RAF ground crew would work sometimes round the clock, especially in bad weather, keeping the runways clear for the Lancaster bombers. In all that time, hardly a moment went by when they were not under the stress of a possible air attack. Possibly worst of all, my mother and her comrades would watch as sometimes less than half of the planes which went out carrying their friends, boyfriends and husbands would later return, and on board those that did, so many airmen horribly disfigured and mutilated by everything from stray bullets to cabin fires. She had nightmares for years afterwards about the young airmen who were carried from those planes barely recognisable as human. The poppy reminds us also of them, many of whom walked away with mental scars as bad as any of the visible scars of the frontline infantry.

For all of those reasons I wear, respect and honour the poppy of remembrance day, but also for one other reason too.

Wars are a mark of failure. Not, I hasten to add, the failure of any of those brave men and women of my previous paragraphs. War is the result of the failure of our leaders. A failure of government. A failure of communication at the highest level. It is for that reason we should all wear the poppy, no matter what our personal view of the military. We should wear it with a mixture of pride for our heroes and shame for the leaders who led them down that path, taking time on this Remembrance Day to reflect on those past failures that they should never be allowed to be repeated.

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Beards and moustaches and clones, oh my! (Back to the 80’s in a bad way.)

Now first of all, for those of you who missed the meeting… I am a gay man. Sorry if that comes as a shock. Maybe you should get your gaydar retuned!

I originally emerged onto the gay scene in 1979/80, and spent the early 80’s being something of a trollop, so it is a scene and era with which I am quite familiar. The late 70’s had seen an upsurge in “gay pride”, and a move towards a certain “fashionability” for freedom of sexuality which saw many of the iconic stars of the age coming out as gay or bisexual. Many of those same icons would recant a few years later when HIV/AIDS reared its ugly head around 1982. It was a period I remember particularly for the deafening sound of closet doors, which had been opened to trumpeting fanfares, slamming back shut shortly afterwards followed by muted apologies from within. The soundtrack of the time went something like this: “Tadaaaa… I’m out! Bang! I’m in! Sorry!”…. Anyway, I digress…

One of the horrors of the age (at least to me) was the rise of the “clone” look; possibly a backlash against the move of the sexually ambiguous, somewhat effeminate costume of the gay scene into the heterosexual mainstream, with the post-punk New Romantic fashion. As the heterosexual masses donned frilly shirts and started raiding the cosmetics counters, the gay scene started down the path towards an ultra-masculine look. Bright colours, frills and, above all, clean shaves were out. In their place came leather, denim, and facial hair… Oh so much facial hair! Gay clubs started to look like Gillette, Wilkinson Sword and Bic had all decided to liquidate on the same day. It took twenty years to gradually restore the balance and for the facial “bush” to become the minor fetish that it deserves to be, rather than the mainstream “norm”. To get there, we had to suffer through countless aberrations from pencil-thin beards to stripey sideburns.

Recently, after some years away from the gay scene, I’ve been tempted back to a couple of my local gay clubs…. Sorry… mustn’t be “un-PC”… LGBTQi[Insert rest of alphabet here] clubs. (Another rant, incidentally, for another day!)…  I’ve started to work just around the corner from those clubs and one of my best friends performs the 2am cabaret spot… My excuse and I’m sticking to it! 😉

Anyway, I’ve noticed, horror of horrors, that facial fuzz is back big-style! So many guys are once again showing off their masculine ability to produce facial hair, and we’re not talking about a little stubble here, but mounds of the stuff! Some are even proudly sporting the kind of unkempt shrubbery which wouldn’t look out of place on a Shwarmi or an Immam! Where the “clone” fashion from the 70’s and 80’s could be partially excused by the need for a distinctive “uniform”, however, the latest crop simply wreaks of laziness…. a whole generation of gay men who simply can’t be arsed to pick up a trimmer.

I’m imploring you, guys, stop it now! Invest in a razor, or at least a beard trimmer right this minute! You don’t look “masculine”, you just look “homeless”.

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Why I will be voting for the UK to stay in the EU: EU Referendum

First of all, I would like to say that I am extremely proud of my family. My grandfather fought in the trenches in WW1, my grandmother “kept the homefires burning” through both World Wars, and served in the “Land Army”. My father was a decorated combatant in WW2, in many of the most horrific theatres of war, including service with the 8th Army “Desert Rats” and on the beaches of Dunkirk. My mother served in what was then the WAAF as Stores Sergeant at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. All of them gave their youth to make the UK and Europe what it is today. Millions of others gave their lives.

Contrary to much of the xenophobic rhetoric in the tabloid press, they did not do this to “make Britain great”, they did it to counter a very real threat to democracy and to unite Europe against the very hatred which the “Out” campaign is now attempting to reignite in the UK. The emergence of the European community was the final culmination of a centuries-long fight for continental harmony which dates back at least as far as the marriage of Philip II of Spain to England’s Mary Tudor in 1554.

Secondly, I need to point out that I AM AN ECONOMIC MIGRANT! On May 16th 2003, I migrated here to the Canary Islands, an autonomous province of Spain, primarily due to the demise of the UK “club circuit” and the need to find employment. I certainly wasn’t the first or last person to do so, and migration out of the UK into the rest of Europe holds steady at some 2,000,000 per year, roughly equal to the numbers migrating into the UK from the EU. In fact, until the admission to the EU of some of the former Eastern Block countries, outward migration from the UK to the rest of Europe consistently outstripped inward migration. Any imbalance was, is (and probably always will be) migration to the UK from non-European Commonwealth states, and that is not the fault of the EU. It is a result of the UK’s own Empire-building past. Whilst EU in:out migration figures hold fast at 2,000,000 in vs 2,000,000 out per year, inward migration from the rest of the world is in excess of 5,000,000 per year. That is what is not sustainable, and will remain an issue whether the UK is in or out of the EU. The answer to that is not isolationism. It is a reworking of the welfare state, along the same lines as those here in Spain, where welfare and benefits are based on length of residency and the amount of contributions. So long as the UK insists on doleing out benefits and child support to all-comers, they can expect to receive more comers! That should be blatantly obvious to anyone with half a brain! Return to Bevan’s original plan for the welfare state where help is given according to means and contributions, and the whole “migration problem” goes away.

I am constantly amazed by the number of British people living here in Spain and its provinces who are, like me, themselves migrants, who blindly regurgitate the anti-European sentiments of the “Out” campaign and the right-wing press. Just remember that we ourselves are “European migrants”, and ask yourself if you would like Spain to treat us the way you are asking the UK to treat other Europeans. After all, there is really no difference between the British working here and the Romanians or Polish working in the UK. At the end of the day, we are all just trying to make a living, but we don’t see Spain threatening to leave the EU so they can refuse migrants from the UK!

That is why, on 23rd June, I will be voting to keep the UK in the EU, and I urge all other UK “migrants” here in Spain, and around Europe, to do likewise.

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