Learning To Deal, Not Heal

Final Words And Flashbacks

My last words to my Mum were “Thank you.”

When I look back at the end of those five days at Papworth Hospital, past the complete darkness associated with it, I think I was lucky to have those last moments. Not happy to have them, but lucky. There are many people who don’t get the chance to have those final words and know that they are final words.

My Mum knew that I loved her, but I don’t know if she ever really knew how much I appreciated her. It felt important to say thank you to her. Thank you for the way she brought me up, brought my sister up, loved my Dad and looked after us all.

How many times do people really stop to say “Thanks Mum/Dad, you did a great job”? I don’t think it does really happen all that much. It’s almost far too easy, especially if you’re from a good home (which I was, fortunately), to take it all for granted.

Loss makes you think about what you had, what you have and what you’ll lack. Fear of loss also makes you think about what you have, and what you could lose.

This year, on January 27th, it will be four years since Mum passed away. It doesn’t feel like four years. Each year since, from the 22nd onwards, I find I suffer with flashbacks.

I remember, vividly, taking the call at work from my then partner saying I needed to call my Dad. I remember, vividly, calling Dad who was then racing home telling me Mum had fallen and my sister, Joy, had found her and paramedics were heading there. I remember speaking to my sister as she was at the house with paramedics. I remember giving first aid rationale when Dad explained the paramedics wouldn’t move her by saying “If she’s hurt her back they won’t move her because she may have broken something”. I remember being told she was going to hospital. I remember my sister knew one of the ambulance staff. I remember being at work. I remember I was doing performance reviews. I remember deciding to stay at work to do one last review. I remember I didn’t even do that review. I remember staying at home instead of driving straight across. I remember, and I know, everlasting regret.

“Regrets, I’ve Had A Few…”

The fact is, on that Thursday evening, I didn’t believe it would be anything serious. My initial thoughts were that Mum had had a fall, and my worst fear was that she’d suffered an injury to her spine. I even said so much to my duty managers at work when I left. The last thing on my mind was any thought of losing her.

So I stayed at home. The journey to Lowestoft is around 200 miles and takes around 3 and a half hours with no traffic. I’d decided that I’d wait and, if anything else happened, then I’d head over. I spent my night playing guitar sat by my phone. I remained set for work the next day. I prioritised my work, my daily life, over getting in the car and going over. I kick myself for it even now.

At around half 2, I woke up. I felt wide awake and saw a shadow moving across the room. I thought it was my then partner – we often worked different times so got up at different times – so I sat up to get up. Grabbed my phone, no calls, but saw it was half 2. Partner still in bed asleep. Confused, I lay back down. I know I saw a shadow. I know I saw something. Then the house phone rang.

I have never cried like it in my life. It was howling. It was uncontrollable. My Mum was being sent to Papworth Hospital, and all we really knew is that she may not come out of it alive. My brain was in overdrive. I felt true fear, true sadness and true helplessness.

In the car, that fear of loss grew and grew. I’ve always been a fan of night time driving because I like the time it gives you to think. This time, absolutely not. I started to think of what could happen. I cried more. I thought of my Dad and my sister. I cried more. I thought about all the phone calls I missed and never returned. The chances I could have gone back home to see her, even if only for one day. I sink in regret.

Going back to what I said earlier, regarding what loss makes you do, loss also gives. It gives perspective, it gives hindsight. It gives it, but it’s too late.

My biggest regrets in life all stem to missed time with my Mum. We both worked in retail, so weekends free became sparse. I was in a relationship whereby I felt that most free weekends were spent going anywhere but to Lowestoft (too far away), so I always felt I saw more of one side than the other – my own. I went with it. If we saw family it was a minimum of 7 hours travel to see mine, or 4 the other way. I wish I’d been more persistent and pushed to see my family more. I was too weak. I honestly regret it so much. I regret not using days off to drive down alone. Missed opportunities. Missed time.

I also regret phone calls. Mum would be off on a Thursday and Sunday most weeks and I would usually get a call on at least one of these days. It hit a stage in my relationship at the time that I would intentionally ignore calls in order to ‘spend less time on my phone’ or avoid the ‘been at work all day and now on the phone’ argument. I started making phone calls only when I was out alone walking somewhere. It meant I’d miss alot of calls, rarely managing to call back for days. It was easier at home that way. I was a complete tit and I should have been firmer. I’d have a million arguments for one more call with Mum. As it is, I can’t even remember the last phone call we had together.

Before Mum had even passed away I started to feel regret at my prioritisation and my, well, lack of strength at home. I know I could have seen Mum more had I tried. I could have spoke more with her had I tried. I could have maybe had a final more coherent conversation with her had I left work after the call. But I didn’t. And that all lies on me. Nobody else. And I find it unforgivable.

A Roller-coaster Of Emotion

On that morning of January 23rd, when the surgeon explained that Mum had suffered aortic dissection, I had no idea what it was. He gave some examples of famous people who had also had it. GĆ©rard Houllier, the football manager, had survived. His other example, a member of the UN, died. He was preparing us for the worst. 50/50 were the best odds but, realistically, those odds weren’t ever on the table.

We had it explained that it had all happened because of high blood pressure. A spike in Mum’s blood pressure, that was it. He compared it to a burst pipe after a surge in pressure and water flow. The spike would have been quick, the damage everlasting. A clot had formed in the leg, meaning survival would also come with amputation.

News just got worse. The smallest pieces of positivity felt huge, but they made the subsequent bad news feel even more devastating.

During the five days of operations, and the endless hours of waiting, we all felt emotion like never before. Trying to remain positive was needed but, ultimately, felt like a near impossible task. Me and my then partner had headed home on the Saturday so she could stay there for work and I could get clothes. I was in and out. I remember this being the first time I was affected by an anger that the whole situation and eventual grief put on me. I argued, I grabbed my stuff, I went straight back to Papworth.

What did I argue about? I’d decided I didn’t want to stop and have food. I wanted to get back to Mum and to my family.

Over the following days I suffered with my first anxiety attacks. I’d never had any before, and I wasn’t sure what these were at the time. Somehow, I managed to keep a few to myself as I shared hotel rooms with Dad and wanted to be strong for him, but you can’t hide them forever.

It felt like my rib cage was closing in on itself. Imagine intertwining and locking your fingers together and that’s what it felt like my ribs were doing. It felt like my heart was being crushed. I found breathing difficult. In my head, all I could think was that this must be what a heart attack feels like. It’s terrifying. Yet, I still felt guilt.

My Dad was losing the love of his life, his wife. My sister was losing not only her Mum, but her best friend. In my head I’d be thinking “how can my loss even compare to that?” but here’s the thing; loss makes people react in different ways. We all react differently.

My advice to anybody going through grief, anybody who has recently lost a loved one, is to ignore those that say “I know what you’re going through.” They don’t. Nobody does. What you’re going through is completely personal to you. There’s no right way, there’s no wrong way. Don’t let someone else tell you how to grieve and don’t be ashamed if you feel like you’re grieving more than you should, because you won’t be.

The only thing I would encourage is to talk to those close to you. You’re all in it together.

“Are You Right There, Father Ted?”

Saying goodbye to Mum was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Aged 55, she wasn’t old, and it came from out of nowhere. There were only those days at Papworth where we could prepare for loss but, so good were the team at Papworth, we always had hope she may get through.

My final memories of Mum are my cousin, Mark, closing her eyes, the family stood around her in tears, a kiss on the forehead and hand, and then the curtains from around her bed after I slumped to the floor by a wall outside them after.

A nurse came to me and asked if I was alright. I choked and said, “That’s my Mum” and pointed at the curtain. And that was it.

But, then, the strangest thing happened. Laughter.

My Mum was a “get on with it” type of person. She just didn’t want the fuss…to the extent that when she saw me at the hospital before going to theatre she looked at me, huffed and said “What are you doing here?” She didn’t want me going out of my way to make that journey because she won’t have wanted the fuss.

Once we’d said our goodbyes, time seemed to sit still. There’s a moment where you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go. Limbo. But our hands were forced.

Fire alarm. We had to leave. Mum wouldn’t have wanted a fuss, and I still think, somehow, that was her telling us to “sod off” in only the way she could.

It made us laugh because we all thought the same. Even in death my Mum had found a way to tell us all to “get on with it”. What a woman. Not even the end could stop her.

I don’t remember much about the drive back to Lowestoft other than driving Dad home. I was dreading walking in the house but it was fine up until I saw the picture on the wall of my Mum and my late Uncle on Mum and Dad’s wedding day. The picture is taken from behind, with them both turning their heads looking at the camera. I viewed it as they were both back together, looking back at us.

The next thing we did was pivotal to us, and I think sums us up as a family. In that moment of sadness, sat at home, it was decided we needed to laugh. Dad put on Father Ted.

I think to some the idea of “You’ve just lost your Mum/wife and now you’re watching Father Ted?!” would be a bit bizarre, but it made sense. Mum would quote Father Jack sometimes (“Feck”, “Drink”) and Father Ted was one of those things we all loved. Mum would have encouraged us that life moves on, and by sitting down and having a laugh this was life going on. This was us “getting on with it” and not causing a fuss. This is what Mum would have wanted us to do.

A Father Ted marathon. Not essential to a grieving process but not a bad place to start.

A New Normal

The best bit of advice I have ever received regarding grief came from a Papworth Hospital nurse. I’ve talked about it on this blog before. She sat with us and said “Now it’s about you. People say time is a healer, but it’s not. You don’t heal in time, you learn to deal.”

Before then, I’d always thought of time as a healer. I’d never approached it as a “dealing” mechanism. But the nurse was spot on. You don’t heal. You never get over it, but in time you learn to live with it. You enter a new normality. Things will always be different but life must go on.

I struggled more than I probably let on in the first weeks. It took four weeks for the funeral to come, I stayed in Lowestoft for the first two. I’m always in two minds on that now. There’s a huge part of me that looks back and thinks I should have stayed in Lowestoft until the funeral. It would have helped Dad, and it would have helped my sister and her other half. There’s another part that thinks, selfishly, that being alone for a while could have helped me. But then I also think being stuck at home alone caused more issue. More time to think, more time with nobody to turn to. I turned angry, snapping at the smallest things. I couldn’t deal with it. Writing this down for the first time, I now think I should have stayed in Lowestoft.

The funeral added some closure. But not as much as I had imagined. The place was heaving. There were people stood up at the back, in the corridor and entrance. Walking down behind Mum I could feel the eyes looking. I had never wanted anything to be over so quick in my life. The service was lovely, there was even a laugh in the eulogy which, I think, Mum would have liked. But it couldn’t end quick enough.

Life moves on. Two weeks later, I was back at work. I remember going in before my first day back to get schedules and say hello. I sat in the car for half an hour before I could get the courage to walk in. Work were amazing. Incredibly supportive, from normal colleague to senior management. I will never forget how they were with me, and I’ll forever be grateful.

We started doing the charity events to raise money for Papworth Hospital. My sister and her other half really leading it, and it’s something I’m massively proud of us for.

We had a holiday planned before Mum passed away and decided that we should keep it as she’d have wanted us to. It turned in to a disaster. Emotions were too high still, and it wasn’t really good for us. An argument led to a fall out, a fall out led to a letter, a letter led to another argument, another fall out and, eventually, a wake up call.

Mum’s passing taught me that life is too short and that happiness is something that we need. If you’re not happy with how things are, you need to change it. You don’t know what’s around the corner.

A year and a few months later, I ended my relationship. I moved out, and I stayed with friends before moving in with Lori. My priorities and my life had changed. Since Mum passed, I have ended a relationship, started a new one, seen my best mate arrested for murder, got engaged, had a baby son and had a baby daughter.

It’s taken time, but I finally feel comfortable with the ‘new normal’. I’m happy. Largely, that’s because of my relationship. I have everything I’ve wanted – a happy relationship and two amazing children.

Of course, it hurts to know that the kids won’t ever get to meet their Nan. It made both pregnancies, especially the first, an almost bittersweet time. I can’t escape the feeling of how much my Mum would have loved the kids and it does break my heart knowing she never got to see them. It breaks my heart thinking about how she never met Lori, never got to see me now. She’d have been a great Nan, and her and Lori would have got on so well.

Life Goes On

I loved my Mum. I wasn’t the perfect son, I know I could have done more at times and made more of an effort. I know I shouldn’t have prioritised my relationship then and my job over family. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I can’t beat myself up any more over things that I can’t change.

I learnt to deal with the loss of Mum in my own way. Much of that was learning about myself. I was a grown child aged 28 when Mum passed, and that passing made me reconsider my own choices. Reflection. It’s a shame that it usually takes something so big to happen for people to look at themselves and say “something needs to change”.

When I look back at my childhood, my upbringing, I think I was probably more of a “Daddy’s boy”, but now I actually think I had more in common with Mum than I thought. Her temperament, her understanding, her attitude, how laid back she was. She is, and was (although it was probably unknowingly to me at the time), my inspiration.

Mum never had the easiest upbringing but she made sure that me and Joy got the best she could give. She worked to make sure our lives were better. And, as a parent, that’s always the goal. She was an amazing parent and I hope I’m half as good as she was.

I will always hold regret over the stuff I’ve talked about here but I will always try to imagine Mum sat there encouraging me to just get on, keep on going. Don’t dwell on the past, it’s already happened.

I’ve learnt to deal with my grief by changing, by loving what I have in life and using a lesson I learned from losing Mum. Don’t take anything for granted.

I will always miss my Mum. That pain will never go away. But I can deal with the pain by remembering her, remembering her love and care and by knowing that, at least in my mind, she’ll always be with me.

The Trouble With Albion

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Supporting West Bromwich Albion can often feel like a real labour of love. We know that there will be little chance of reward from following the team but there’s something about it that keeps us going. Keeps us watching.

Currently sat fourth in the league, just three points off an automatic promotion spot and with one of the best attacking records in English football this season, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’d be a great atmosphere around the Hawthorns at the moment. However, a quick look at the “wba” hashtag on Twitter and a trawl through the fan pages on Facebook can paint a different picture.

Yes, there are the happy supporters, but they are interrupted with negative posts. Frustrations over games not won, frustrations over the board, frustrations with players and frustrations with the head coach, Darren Moore. Comments that the team have been lucky, even comments that the team win in spite of Darren Moore and not because of him.

Moore comes in for criticism fairly regularly. Still a novice in the role, his overall record has been superb; a fact backed up by the number of times he has been nominated, and won, manager of the month awards. However, if you speak to some supporters, there is a real concern over ability, in particular in-game management. On more than one occasion the Albion fans have watched the team play well, only to see the players start to tire but have no substitutions made. Inevitably, the opposition take advantage and through the use of subs and fresh legs, they score. By the time an Albion sub comes it is too late.

But Darren Moore isn’t the only manager to do this. He certainly won’t be the last manager to fall victim to this. On the games where there have been no changes until late on it has often been easy to understand why. The danger in leaving subs late is that if you don’t get a result it’s that decision that gets blamed but if you do get a result it’s unlikely many will mention the lack, or timing, of subs.

On the positives, however, Darren Moore and his brand of football has actually made the Hawthorns a fun, exciting place to go again. There is an unpredictability about some of the games, but it’s been refreshing to watch the team attack teams again and really go after games.

Moore was a real fan favourite as a player. A true captain, he was one of those defenders you’d see and just know that he’d do all he could to protect the team. He’s also a marvellous man, and it comes as no surprise that the Albion have started doing more in the community now than they have done for some time (the recent announcement of ‘Baggies Buddies’ a good example of this). Atmosphere around the club should be good – a favourite in charge, a club getting involved with fans more, a team doing well in the league…but still the murmurs of discontent. Still the criticism of Moore. Why?

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For me, I believe part of it is that we’ve maybe been spoiled over the years. When I think back to when I started supporting the club in the mid Nineties, during the Buckley years, I would never have imagined Albion in the Premier League, would never have imagined the club fighting promotion. I remember Albion signing Grimsby player after Grimsby player (but never the one we wanted – imagine wanting a Grimsby player today!), and looking at games against the likes of Tranmere Rovers thinking “this could be a tough game”. We were woeful. Truly, truly awful…and it took a lot of time, and perseverance, to stick it out to the better days; to Gary Megson, to Tony Mowbray, to Roy Hodgson…

Those mid Nineties days make me grateful for what we have now. To be what we were and to turn in to a pretty stable Premier League/top of the table Championship team is incredible and something that, even when aged 14, I’d have never imagined. I imagine if I was born in 2001, turning 18 this year (a real sobering thought), and I’d only really known a Premier League Albion, or a promotion fighting Albion, I’d be quicker to be dissatisfied at not winning every game in the Championship.

There is an arrogance to some of the support, a real belief that we should be winning every game and we are too good for this league and that we are really a Premier League team…and in small doses that’s fine. To have arrogance, to have belief, you need that to win. But there has to some realism in there. The belief that the arrogance carries will be matched by so many other teams and supporters that feel the same; Villa, Stoke, Leeds, Derby, Swansea…to name a few. The quality in this league, the stature of this league, is so far away from what it was in the Nineties, even to the last time we were in the Championship, that we need to expect disappointing days. The good will outweigh the bad, but it won’t be perfect.

As well as the above, there’s also an element of supporters not getting what they actually wanted in the first place, and it almost ties in with the arrogance in our beliefs. Several wanted experience. A team of our stature should be able to attract experience in charge, shouldn’t it? An experienced manager wouldn’t make the same mistakes that Moore has made on several occasions. An experienced manager would have seen us win more games.

But that’s not necessarily true. Ask Arsenal fans about Arsene Wenger and his last five to ten years at the club and the amount of times they bemoaned the fact he made the same decisions that lead to little achievement every year. From the inexperienced to the incredibly experienced, managers make mistakes. It is part of the game.

I was in the party that wanted more experience in charge. I felt Moore had done well almost in spite of the work of Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew in his few weeks in the Premier League but that we’d need more experience to get promoted again. There have even been times this season where I felt extra experience would have been better…but we’re doing well. Darren Moore is doing well. To actually get me back invested and in love with the club again following the Pulis years and Pardew, Moore has performed miracles. He clearly is still learning on the job, some of the in-game management has been ropey, but the fact is his decisions have won us more points than they’ve lost.

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So, considering the fact that Moore is mostly loved for his playing days, considering that Albion have, at times, scored goals for fun and are performing well in a very tough league, why do some still criticise Moore? Is it just because of some of his decisions? Do people genuinely believe he’s not good enough? Stats, so far, would prove otherwise.

If you go through the fan pages on Facebook and look at some Twitter accounts, it is worryingly easy to find examples of racism. Now I’m not going to say people are more critical of Moore because of his skin colour but I think it is worthwhile considering the question of whether colour is a factor. Due to the fact there are so few black managers in the game is there an unconscious bias formed that presents black managers as poorer than white managers? If Moore was white, with the record he has, would he face as much criticism?

I would hope, and I do believe, that colour of skin wouldn’t be a factor in criticising Moore. The proud history at the Albion shows us to be an inclusive club. However, there will be small minorities rumbling their voices based on either racial beliefs or even through a potential unconscious bias.

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Just over half way through the season, it’s fair to review Moore as doing well. The real discontent should be put to the board; a board that haven’t really supported Moore as they should have. We’re a team reliant on loans, meaning that come the Summer, regardless of whatever league we find ourselves in, a rebuild will be needed. Losing Barnes back to Leicester is a blow. If Gayle doesn’t stay, where do goals come from? Investment will be needed and the board will need to support Moore…but does any Albion fan truly believe this board will do the right thing?

Fourth in the table, still on course to be there or thereabouts for automatic promotion, scoring a lot of goals…it is going well, despite the murmurs of discontent. But the trouble with being Albion is that we somehow have a funny knack of making the negatives outweigh the positives and we rarely allow ourselves to enjoy the ride.

Maybe it’s time to support the team, to enjoy the ride…

…and moan when it all goes wrong in May.

Brick By Brick

I have a growing addiction. It’s not one likely to kill me, not alcohol or drugs, and not one that is likely to see people avoiding me in public. It’s an addiction that only a few people will have known about, but one that I’ll happily talk about with anybody.

What is it? It’s Lego.

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As a child, I loved Lego. It’s a great method of exerting creativity and just having a bit of fun. In my teenage years I stopped playing with it altogether…and then I turned 30. My (then new) partner, Lori, had always loved building Lego and after a while she decided to buy me a Lego Darth Vader. My first new piece of Lego in probably 16-18 years.

I was a bit dubious to how much I’d actually enjoy building it as a grown man, but one Lego model turned in to two, then three, four, five, and so on. I was hooked. I’d become determined to build as many of the Star Wars characters as I could afford to – only the characters from the Dark Side, mind…they’re just ‘cooler’, I guess – and I loved it.

Lori had gone from being the Lego addict to suddenly being the person looking on at me saying, “Even more Lego?!” How times had changed.

So what is it about Lego that has made me spend a huge amount of money on it? What is it about those small plastic bricks that make me (and Lori) feel the need to travel to Sheffield every few weeks so we can visit the Lego store and, most likely, spend more money?

For myself, it’s a mixture of things. Firstly, I love building it. I love seeing what starts as a small plastic piece turn in to a fully sized model – be it a character, a car, a building or something different altogether. But then there’s a deeper reason.

I’ve discussed in previous blogs that I have a few coping mechanisms that I use to help me through my own issues; be it anxiety or low mood…or anything else, for that matter. I’ll play guitar, I’ll write, I’ll go for a walk. These are things I do, but each one has a blocker associated to it. If it’s late at night, I can’t start playing punk rock on the guitar because I’ll wake the house up. If the weather is bad, it’s not always feasible to go on a long walk. Sometimes, you can sit at a screen all night long with the thought of wanting to write and then nothing comes. Each blocker brings it’s own frustration…if you’re stressed and you can’t do the thing that unwinds you, you won’t calm.

And why do we do these things? Why do we go for a walk when we’re stressed? Why do I play guitar? Simply, it occupies the mind. It fills the mind with something completely different, helping to switch off and unwind and think about something unrelated.

If I can’t write, I can grab one of my Lego sets. If I can’t play guitar, I can get some Lego out. If the weather is bad it doesn’t matter…I can build Lego anywhere I like from the comfort of my own home. And, as with any of those other mechanisms, Lego unwinds me. I find it therapeutic. It switches me off. Any stress I’m feeling, it goes away when I start building. And the more complex the build the better. The sense of accomplishment from finishing an ‘Expert’ set is akin to the sense of accomplishment I get from learning a new song on guitar.

I’m not alone with this feeling, either. If you Google for “Lego Therapy” you’ll find endless links talking about the benefits of using Lego, links for therapy classes for disabled and autistic children, therapy classes for people suffering with anxiety. Yes, Lego is a toy…but it’s a toy that gives back. A toy that helps. A toy that isn’t necessarily just for kids.

When I look through my own collection, I love my Star Wars sets. My BB-8, a gift from Lori, was a build that took over 6 hours and the mechanism with it, the movement of the head and the internal ‘lighter’ is just so incredibly clever and was a joy to put together. My James Bond Aston Martin is wonderful – the detail to it is sensational. The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine looks as good in Lego, if not better, than it did in the film. These are builds that remain stood on display, builds that I look at and feel proud about. Builds that took time but were worth it. Worth every penny, worth every minute.

There will be many people that probably won’t get it; won’t get past the riding impression that Lego is a toy for children…and I get that. Less than three years ago, I was on that boat. But I would encourage people to try it. Buy a mini-kit, give it fifteen minutes, see if it takes your mind off things. You may enjoy it!

I’ve had several friends talk to me about buying Lego for their kids and as the kids get bored building it or following instruction, the adult continues and they get wrapped up in it. They have to finish it. Nobody likes leaving things half done, do they? And it’s in these moments I’ve had a fair few come to me and say, “I get it now.”

Finally, Lego gives me something to look forward to with my own children. My little boy is already playing around with Duplo. As he grows and maybe starts playing with Lego, it gives us something we can do together as father and son. Something that isn’t just football or music or, even further on, drinking…something that can be ours. Projects we can start and finish together. Our own little accomplishments.

But if not, and my boy or daughter don’t get in to Lego, that’s still okay. It’ll still be there for both Lori and myself. We can still keep having our frequent trips to the Lego store in Sheffield. We’ll still keep building. Piece by piece. Brick by brick.

Songs That Changed My Life Pt.3 – Keep Your Head Up

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“All I was searching for was me…”

A fact of life is that we all change. Whether it’s due to events that have happened, people you’ve met, relationships formed, decisions made…we all change. Sometimes that can be for the better, sometimes for the worse, but all these changes go in to creating the person that you become. It’s not very often you meet anybody who, aged 30, would say “I’m still exactly the same person I was when I was 15.”

My late teens to my late twenties was a period of huge change for me. As mentioned in previous blogs, I spent most of my teenage years as a very shy, very quiet boy. When I had finished at sixth form, my next step was to go to university. This was the message that had been almost forced on to me by the school I was in; to not want Uni as a next step was to want failure. Or, at least, that’s how it felt for me.

It was completely wrong. By the end of sixth form, aged 18, I felt lost. I’d had enough of education and I didn’t feel ready for University, but I didn’t feel that there was all that much to keep me at home in Lowestoft other than family. Job wise, there wasn’t much to go for and then there was the fact that several of my friends were heading to different Universities up and down the country. Feeling forced in to university gave a feeling of hopelessness when, deep down, I knew I didn’t want to go but was being told that other paths meant a poorer life.

I contacted the uni I’d been accepted in to and asked to take a gap year. I worked three jobs, at one point all at the same time, and began to build in confidence. I almost exploited the fact I had friends in uni by going out on several fresher events even though I wasn’t a student. I was enjoying the uni life but without the lectures or the student debt and it was great. The gap year was enough to make me decide to go to uni and embrace the next change to my character.

Going to uni was an experience I will never forget and one that I absolutely loved. By the end of the third year I felt I’d developed in to a different man, a more confident person and someone that had ‘a plan’. I knew what I wanted from life, whereas three years prior I had no idea. Uni allowed me to meet some great people; some of whom became some of my closest friends.

Before uni, I’d not really had any relationships. Two weeks in, just turning 20, I was in a relationship…a relationship I stayed in for nearly 10 years. Going back to what I said at the start of this post, people change and after several turbulent years full of personal struggles and tragedy on both sides it was enough. I certainly wasn’t feeling it any more and a culmination of those tragedies – Mum passing away, for example – and a change in my own emotions towards the relationship as well as other factors just made me feel it had to end, definitely before we were married. In all honesty, I’d fallen within myself for much of the last year or so of the relationship and as bad as it sounds stayed in it for perhaps longer than I should have. It was easier that way. I stayed at work longer than needed, went for drinks with fellow colleagues and just stayed out of the house. I was unhappy but afraid to really do anything or even really face in to it.

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“I spent my time watching the spaces that have grown between us…”

When I moved to a different work place I started talking to one of the team leaders and developed a great friendship. I found a person I could confide in, a person I felt comfortable talking to about my own personal ‘demons’ and unhappiness. It opened my eyes when we talked about issues in our relationships as I realised that many of the things I felt were wrong in hers were actually wrong in mine. It was easier talking to her purely because she had no relationship with anybody in my inner circle so honesty became really easy. Neither of us really had anything to lose by being honest to each other, but we gave each other a person to talk to about things that were deeply playing on us – something that I think neither of us had beforehand.

On the day that I ended the relationship I drove to Bakewell in the Peak District and, as ridiculous as this may sound, I took a notepad and pen and just wrote out all of my reasons for wanting out. Despite knowing I needed to leave, the fact was that I’d been in a relationship for a third of my life and I knew that by actually leaving I was taking a giant leap into the unknown. It was scary, daunting and I had no idea how things would go. I’d contacted my friend, Dan, and sorted out a place to stay after.

Even though I knew I was doing the right thing for me, there’s still a hardship to ending any relationship and this was no different. I felt fortunate because I was still able to confide to the team leader at work, as well as speak to some of my other closest friends. I decided to take a step back from many of my University relationships and in time deleted much of my social media presence. This was a time for me to look in to myself, rebuild myself and develop new relationships. This was what I needed.

In that time, music continued to be a massive life saver for me. I devoted a lot of my listening to Ben Howard and, in particular, the song ‘Keep Your Head Up’. The chorus of “Keep your head up, keep your heart strong” was, and remains, motivational to the point that I would listen to the song at the start of every day to lift me up. The team leader I confided in was going through her own issues at home and we would share this song with one another. It was our mutual anthem. Our uplifting chorus. The motivational message we both needed.

Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.

How did the song change my life? It helped keep me above board during one of the most tumultuous periods of my life. Sofa hopping, staying in hotels – even contemplating quitting my job and moving back to Lowestoft with my Dad. Those eight words were what I needed.

Eventually the team leader ended her relationship, too. After a few months we decided to try as a couple. My life changed again, for the better, as it became clear that I’d met the person that would be the love of my life and, sooner than either of us would have thought, the mother of my children. The girl that was there for me when I needed to talk is now the girl I share my life with. Sometimes, life does work out.

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Swimming In Darkness

There is a lyric in “Keep Your Head Up” that goes, “I tried my best to embrace the darkness in which I swim”. It’s a lyric that I relate to on several levels.

I’ve always struggled against low mood. I find it far easier to see the negatives than I do the positives. Self doubt is always intensely high for me and I over think absolutely everything. A by product of my over thinking is anxiety. I get anxious over anything. For example, if somebody messages me with just an “OK”, I’ll think something is wrong and I’ve maybe, somehow, upset the other person. Things said to me, whether in jest or in seriousness, can stay on my mind not only for days but for months or years. It takes a lot to really fight against the emotions that come with these issues but, over time, I’ve been able to learn how to control it and be alright. The support I get from Lori, my fiancee, is a massive help, and music is another help for me – music is an energy that helps me and that is why I believe that these songs helped changed my life. It may sound OTT, maybe it is, but I don’t know who I would be without songs like ‘Keep Your Head Up’ or the music of bands and artists like Biffy Clyro, The Smiths, Jeff Buckley and Nirvana.

Once Lori and myself had settled in to a relationship (which was incredibly easy – I do believe we were made for one another), we were placed in to a situation that neither of us could have ever foreseen.

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My friend, Dan, who had put me up when I ended my previous relationship must have found himself swimming in darkness and, sadly, unable to control it. I detail the story of what happened in my post, ‘Tales Of The Unexpected‘.

From the moment the police came in to Lori’s flat, I sank deeper in to my own darkness. I always feel selfish saying that because the emotions I felt will have been nothing compared to the family of Dan’s murdered Dad, and there is no way that I would ever want to pretend my emotions would come close but I was distraught. I’d lost my best friend in one of the most horrific ways, realising I didn’t really know the guy at all, and due to that my self doubt, my insecurities…they all grew out of control. How could I not see it? How could I be so stupid, so gullible as to believe all the different stories? Why didn’t he tell me the truth? Why couldn’t I help him to get better? Could I have helped to prevent it? Will Lori leave me because, honestly, police raiding your flat because of your new boyfriend’s friend isn’t a great start…I was scared. I was confused. I was a mess.

Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.

The police found Dan on the night Lori and I saw Biffy Clyro in Birmingham. Biffy are an incredibly important band for me and I saw them perform both songs that I associate with my Mum (‘Folding Stars’ and ‘Machines’) together for the first time. My emotions were going. Over the next week, after doing police statements, a development would come that would change my life completely and forever.

Lori was pregnant. It was a surprise but the elation I felt was insane. People often talk of feeling the weight lift off their shoulders…that evening, I felt like I could float. I felt, as Ben Howard sings in ‘Keep Your Head Up’, the “comfort invested in my soul” from Lori and, importantly, in myself.

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“Because I’ll always remember you the same…”

‘Keep Your Head Up’ has remained the anthem that I’ve needed. It has also remained the anthem that myself and Lori turn to in unhappier times. It reminds us that things may be bad now, we may be “embracing the darkness”, but things can get better. You have to try to keep the positivity, you have to try to “keep your head up”.

When Lori was faced with redundancy, she shared the song on her Facebook. Several others also facing in to redundancy reacted with love. They all got it. They all understood, and, I imagine, it’s the song that they will have all listened to at that point and have helped them to feel, even if only for those few minutes, a bit better. Music is really one of the only forms of media that can do that. It’s powerful. It does change lives because it gives you an emotion that can change your outlook on the way things are going. What else can really do that?

In loss, also, ‘Keep Your Head Up’ has been a song that has kept us going.

The simplest message can sometimes be the most important and the most life saving, the most life changing. That’s why, in those dark moments, I try my best to remember this song and follow what it says.

Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.

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You can listen to ‘Keep Your Head Up’ by clicking HERE