Resurgence

The past month or so has been dreadful for me. My clinical depression has had me firmly in its grip, so much so, I’ve been literally fighting powerful urges to complete my suicide. I think this stark statement may come as a surprise to many who have seen me on-line in my Twitter and Facebook personas, posting lovely photographs and typically Nick type cheery comments. This is the nature of my beast,

Resurgence

Last year during my ‘Three Peaks by Kayak’ adventure, I found myself inspired by the various experiences I encountered to make meaning of my depression and understand how I can live with it. There was one particular moment when fighting against the tide in the middle of the expansive Luce Bay off the Galloway coastline, when I came to the enduringly powerful realisation that the discomfort I was experiencing at the time was not permanent, and when the tide I was fighting against changed in a few hours, it would soon pass. In that moment, I instantly embodied this awareness because of its powerfully analogous pertinence to my depression recovery process. In this moment of enlightenment, I finally believed what the many caring professionals had been telling me for many years - “This will pass. Given time, you will become stronger and feel better.”

Making the decision to believe the impermanence of my depression did not lead me to believing I would eventually be cured of it. Instead, this allowed to me to accept I will live with depression all my life, and it’s the deep depressive moments which will come and go. Likewise, the thoughts and beliefs I have about taking my life are associated with these deep low periods and I was now able to counter these with a belief that they are impermanent. I now understood the notion of making a permanent decision based on an impermanent feeling.

However, when my clinical depression takes hold of me and I sink into a deep and dark low, my ability to cognitively function is impaired by the wide ranging self-destructive and self-hating thoughts and beliefs I find myself struggling with. I find myself literally fighting for my life, voicing out loud (when alone), reasons why I shouldn’t kill myself. This is an internal battle which rages in my head and through my body. Thoughts and feelings merge to be expressed in my language, how I think, how I feel emotionally and how I feel physically. My energy and personal resources are expended on this battle and too, in masking this fight from the world around me. I do not want the ordinary world to know of my pain. There may be hints, or I may put out a Tweet which may be more explicit, but generally, I continue post lovely photos with asinine words. (At least I think they are at the time). Likewise around and about in my lived world, people will probably not be aware of the self-destructive thoughts I have running through my mind when I meet them in the street or when chatting over a pint or a coffee.

There have been a few moments recently when I have desired hospitalisation because the struggle to overcome my thoughts of suicide have been more than I could cope with. However, there’s always been one reason or another why I didn’t explicitly seek this and I continued to fight on my own. In a way, the now embodied adage “this will pass”, enabled me to remain with my distress in the knowledge that it was likely to diminish over time. I continued to live my life in the public realm as unobtrusively as possible, hoping few people would cotton on to the mask I was wearing. Karen was totally aware of course and lovingly supportive. Likewise, my C.P.N. was happy to see me twice a week for lengthy appointments. I wasn’t totally alone.

I’m often asked what the causes are for a particular bout of depression, something I can pinpoint as the originating source. Generally there is none. The malaise takes root, deepens and insidiously manifests itself to the point where I become overwhelmed by it. I’m aware of its early presence and determine I will not allow it to take hold of me, but despite making efforts to stall the process by undertaking health enhancing activities, the depression is the stronger. My mood sinks and I am engulfed with beliefs of self-hatred, self-loathing, and uselessness. No matter how heartening the reassurances from friends and family about my worth, these messages of genuine warmth and love fail to reach my core. I find it easy to counter them with the all to predictable response - “Yes, but…”. This in turn serves to make me feel even more unhappy, because then I add the belief I’m an unnecessary burden to those who love me.

Having met with a psychiatrist, I am on a new medication regimen which he is confidently hopeful will help me raise my mood and begin to feel the joy in life again. To be truthful, I detest taking anti-depressant medication because I have found the side-effects to lead me to feeling more unhappy than the opportunity for a cure. Feeling sluggish, doped, constipated, lost libido and other minor conditions, all serve to reinforce the futility I feel about my life. For the last eighteen months I have been medication free, determined to live with my depression in an organic, self-sufficient manner. To all intents and purposes I think I managed to do this successfully until the point this year, just after Christmas and my mood slipped past my ability to self manage myself. Even then, it took some insistence on the health professionals’ part to encourage me to consider taking medication again. It’s early days still.

Despite this desperate bout of depression, I have looked forward to the future, and found within myself a desire to plan for another kayaking adventure. Not only this, I have chosen to invite a new friend to share the adventure with me thus breaking with my usual process of kayaking solo. In getting to know Jack on-line and then meeting him recently, I have discovered a friend who shares my understanding of the world and a passion for exploration by kayak on the sea. Our common ground is our connection to the R.N.L.I. and it is the charity which forms the basis of this expedition. You can read more about this here.. Sharing a kayaking expedition is going to be a renewing experience for me because it’s many years since I last headed off into the wide yonder with someone beside me. I’m really looking forward to Jack’s companionship.

Today the sun is shining and the sea is calm. It is the last day of March and early this evening we move out to our summer mooring in the bay. I’ve readied the engine, checked the electrics and filled the water tank to the brim. Propane gas bottles for cooking and heating are charged, and the inflatable dinghy we use as our tender has been spruced up with a wash and a new seat. There is something in this transhumance experience of mine, moving from our winter berth to our summer one, which excites me and reminds me of the resurgence of life. Around and about there are the signs of spring. The cormorants are gathering materials for their nests on the nearby cliffs, the trees are beginning to show signs of green and the sea is becoming translucent again. I feel my blood moving within me, a sure sign that life is returning and soon the shackles of this depression will be shaken off. With the help of my medication, I’m hopeful in a few weeks I’ll be noticing the colour of the world around me again.

2019!

A new year! I sincerely hope it is a wonderful one for us and my warmest wishes to you all.

Tobermory Sunrise, January 2019

I decided at the turn of the year not to set myself resolutions because I know full well I won’t uphold them. This doesn’t mean I’m without aspirations for the year ahead. In fact I think I have far too many ideas and plans to squeeze into the twelve months of 2019.

First things first though and I want to announce I have put on hold my plan to kayak to the rest of the R.N.L.I. Lifeboat Stations around England, Wales and Ireland. I had announced this with some flourish late last year and went as far as getting the planned adventure endorsed by the R.N.L.I. in preparation for approaching sponsors and donors. Then I wrote a book and have had this accepted for publication. This is the book about my sea kayak journey around Scotland in 2015. I was faced with the dilemma of delaying publication while I undertake the kayak journey or cancel this and focus on the book. I chose the latter. The book has taken three years to come to fruition and to delay it further would be demoralising for me. This is the first book I have written and I want it to be something I’m really proud of. Therefore I need to focus on making sure this is the case.

Additionally, there are family concerns which have recently emerged and I can’t in all honesty take myself away for a seven month adventure.

I’m disappointed not to be undertaking what would have been the largest adventurous challenge I will have ever faced and there are moments when I express a big sigh when reflecting on this. However, this is the nature of adventure. There is never a certain outcome and I’m philosophical about the decision I have made. The 3900 miles of coastline and the lifeboat stations will be there in future years.

In the meantime though, I have plenty of ideas for shorter kayaking trips and other adventures. Realising I have these opportunities before me reminds me how fortunate I am. We have the yacht to sail locally and further afield, I have my kayak and endless miles of incredible coastline on my doorstep, and there are hundreds of square miles of mountains and wild land to climb and explore.

Attending to my mental health is a high priority. Thankfully I am feeling strong at the moment and have been for a couple of months now. Writing the book has helped with this. I’m keen to build on my strengthening sense of self and to share more about my experiences with depression and suicidal desires. I have ideas of achieving this through writing, social media and public speaking. Many of you may know me through Twitter and this is where I am most vocal about my mental health experiences.

I would like 2019 to be a year of connectivity for me, where I reconnect with friends, old and new, and forge new connections. To this end then, I live on the Isle of Mull and if you find yourself in Tobermory, I’d be delighted if you looked me up for a chat and a coffee.

Thank you for reading this and for your continued interest and support in my life.

World Mental Health Day - A Sea Kayaking Parable.

I wrote this as an article which was published in Ocean Paddler magazine.

Three Peaks by Kayak

The storm is unrelenting. I have been caught within it for what seems like an interminable length of time. There seems no way out and it takes every ounce of my energy to struggle through. Every opportunity to escape seems impossible and the only solution it seems, is to give up. To resign myself to the force of nature and let go. In fact, this is really what I desire, and I begin to allow myself, battered with fatigue, to drift away from reality. Somehow, a glimmer, a spark of fortitude remains, and I grab onto this at the very last moment. I reach out, I call out and assistance is there. Safety beckons and with my last reserves of energy, I embrace life and allow myself to accept the truth. I cannot do this alone and I require professional intervention. 

Ben Nevis from Loch Linnhe

The above is not a dramatic account from one of my sea kayaking adventures. It is in fact a narrative of my battle with clinical depression last Autumn, my strong desire to complete suicide and my eventual admission into a psychiatric ward for my safety and recovery. I live with depression which from time to time is severe enough to see me admitted to in-patient psychiatric care. It’s an illness which has dogged my adult life and one I struggle to overcome.

The clinical term for my malaise is ‘treatment resistant depression’. This means that the myriad interventions I’ve received have so far been unsuccessful and future options are diminishing. In the end though, I invariably make it through the worst of the debilitating episodes and I return to healthy normality somewhat battered, but inwardly stronger for the experience. The problem though, is the danger I face when I sink into one of my suicidal phases. The desire for death is so emphatic and real, that unchecked, I may in one irreversible moment see this through.

Fast forward to 15th May this year and I’m standing on the shores of Loch Eil about to embark on another of my long sea kayaking journeys; the Three Peaks by Kayak. This was a fund-raising venture for Odyssey, a small cancer charity I have worked with and continue to be involved in. There was a back story too, linking the Outward Bound centres of Loch Eil, Eskdale and Aberdyfi by beginning at the first and finishing at the latter. I am a former Outward Bound instructor and had long wanted to undertake this challenge when working for them many years ago. There was also another reason for undertaking this journey, one of recovery. I find solace through my immersion in wild landscapes and sea kayaking offers me the purist way to connect with my world around me.

In many respects, the challenge of kayaking from Fort William to Aberdyfi in mid-Wales and climbing the mountains of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon on the way was a straight forward venture. It turned out to be a kayaking distance of eight hundred and thirty-two kilometres with some challenging windy conditions, the usual tidal gates to pass through, a few long open crossings and Liverpool Bay to traverse! I paddled this expedition solo and set myself the arbitrary timescale of a month to complete it, (which I managed to do with a few days to spare). I’m no stranger to solo expedition kayaking having visited in 2015 every one of at the time, forty-seven RNLI lifeboat stations in Scotland, an unsupported kayaking journey of 2960 kilometres. In 2017 I kayaked the route of the Scottish Islands Peaks Yacht Race and climbed the mountains of Ben More on the Isle of Mull, the Paps of Jura and Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran. Paddling solo is my preference.

Jura Sunset

An account of my Three Peaks by Kayak journey would be one of many perfect sunny days, unexpected and challenging strong easterly winds for much of my traverse of Scotland, incredibly beautiful and dramatic coastline of course, meeting fantastic people and plenty of humorous anecdotes. It was very much a typical sea kayaking adventure; packing, kayaking, decision making, some eventful seas, beautiful campsites and so on. However, it was far more than all of that. It was in fact a hugely profound experience for me.

When I worked for Outward Bound in the eighties and nineties, the seminal book about our profession at the time was; “The Conscious Use of Metaphor in Outward Bound” by Stephen Bacon. I even went to a training workshop run by him. Very simply, we were encouraged to frame the outdoor activities our students were presented with as metaphors in the hope that this would enable them to establish useful links between their Outward Bound course and their lives at work and home, thus making meaning of their outdoor experiences. Ever since then, I’ve lived my own outdoor life metaphorically, gaining insights about myself and how I relate with the world through the experiences I’ve encountered. It was no surprise then that this adventure would be the same. What I didn’t expect was how incredibly therapeutic it would be.

Lumpy Seas

Standing on the slippery rocks of the Loch Eil foreshore, about to climb into my kayak and set off, I realised how low I was feeling. I didn’t want to leave the safety of my home and the companionship of my wife. I was unsure of my ability to successfully take on the challenge before me and unusually, I felt fear. I was fearful of the seas and the potential hazards ahead. I wasn’t experiencing the excitement and the anticipation I hoped for which would see me cheerily on my way. Instead, I paddled the eight short kilometres from Loch Eil Outward Bound to Fort William conjuring excuses and reasons to abandon the expedition in its early stages. Then, I climbed Ben Nevis in the small hours of the following morning, arriving as planned at the summit as the sun rose. There followed two wonderfully calm days of kayaking southwards reaching as far as Knapdale on the Kintyre coast. My spirits were lifted and I easily settled into my familiar life of an expeditionary sea kayaker. A 4am encounter with an Otter visiting me in my tent on the Isle of Luing, while I was drinking coffee highlighted the joy of the experience. From Knapdale onwards the challenges set in and so did a resurgent struggle with my depression.

The winds and the seas picked up and I found myself struggling to make headway. The bonhomie with the world I had been enjoying over the previous couple of days dissipated, to be replaced with a familiar depressive malaise. I was shaken by how easily my depressive thinking surfaced and at one point, I was frightened to find myself considering how easy it would be to capsize my kayak in the heavy seas and to drift away down into the Irish Sea. My inevitable death would appear to be a dreadful kayaking tragedy. When this thought occurred, I was heading for Machrihanish, still about nineteen kilometres away. With waves breaking around my waist and realising that a huge swell would make any landing down there hazardous, I decided that I needed to make for the shore well before then to sit out this bout of bad weather. I shifted my thinking from self-annihilation to self-preservation. It was that simple. A rocky reef provided me with the break I needed, and I landed on the Kintyre shore with the merest of ripples to contend with. That night in my tent, I reflected on what had occurred and with a surge of powerful realisation, I recognised my innate desire to remain alive.

Ahead of me, twenty-seven kilomteres away, loomed the Mull of Kintyre and its fearsome tidal race reputation. To make the tidal gate here and get through it safely, required an extraordinary early start. This meant waking at 2am and departing at 4. The forecast was for easier weather, so I decided to make this happen. The early morning rise, breakfast and packing in the dark was not as arduous as I anticipated. In fact, it was quite the opposite with a sense of pleasure at heading out to sea while the world around slumbered peacefully. The sun rising and bring light and warmth to the day as I kayaked along the Machrihanish Beach emphasised the joy to be gained from this type of experience. All went according to plan and I rounded the Mull of Kintyre just as the tide turned against me, gently and without the roaring tide race I have yet to encounter there. I repeated this experience for my traverse of the Mull of Galloway, this time an hour earlier. Again, I was rewarded with wonderful early morning solitude as a nearly full moon slowly descended, seemingly disappearing into a mirror calm sea. In fact, pre-dawn starts became the norm for this kayak journey as I repeated them several times further along the coast.

Arriving at Ailsa Craig

What I took from these experiences was a powerful reinforcement that I have it within my ability to make positive things happen. I could easily have chosen to tackle the tidal gate later in the day, accepting I would round the Mull in the late evening and arrive at Southend almost in the dark. By motivating myself to rise early and set off into the dark, I gained a fresh perspective on my journey and found myself enjoying this. I recognised too a sense of personal pride in my determination to grasp the challenge. I learned that this translated easily for my recovery process from my depression. The opportunity for change always exists, it’s up to me to seek it and make it happen.

Landing on the iconic island of Ailsa Craig with its cacophonous gannetry was a highlight of this adventure. I had long wanted to visit the island by kayak, and achieving this after a thirty kilometre crossing from Southend on Kintyre was especially rewarding, particularly because regular squadrons of gannets flying low overhead appeared to be welcoming me in. It was here where I noticed my solitude on this trip. Descending from the 338 metre high summit of the island where I had enjoyed the most incredible sunset over the expanse of an empty Firth of Clyde, I slipped on a patch of bluebells and tumbled headfirst down the steep slope, manically attempting to protect my camera and binoculars in my hands. I ended up in a crumpled heap a good few metres downhill with an excruciatingly painful elbow. The next morning, I was greeted with the sound of a gusting force 5 and the awareness that the pain in my elbow had worsened. It was tender to touch and very painful to bend. With a sense of panic, I assumed the worst and rather stupidly posted my concerns on my Twitter feed. I then found myself reassuring concerned followers that I was safe, well provisioned and didn’t require rescuing by the RNLI, who ironically, came to my rescue on Twitter by tweeting an acknowledgement of my ability to care for myself.

What followed was an enforced day of rest, allowing me to explore my castaway surroundings. The abandoned Northern Lighthouse Board buildings were fascinating with remnants of the keepers’ lives lying in the rooms where they had been used. The wild flowers were delightful. The 16th century castle tower was incredible and appeared to have weathered the centuries better than the contemporary buildings. The bird life was spectacular and coming across a large slow worm basking in the warm sunshine, was a particularly intimate encounter. Exploring all of this on my own with the sense that I was indeed a castaway, was incredibly rewarding. Reconnoitring the ‘Temple of Doom’ like walkways along the eastern edge of the island I happened upon an obviously injured gannet perched upon a rock, its head tucked deep under its bloodied wing. At first glance I thought it may be dead but then the slightest of shivers which ruffled its glorious feathers, showed me this was not the case. I stood stock still, suddenly deeply impacted by the painful reality that for this poor bird, there was no future. It had chosen to perch on the rock to wait for its inevitable death.

The Dying Gannet

There was nothing I could do. Any means to put it out of its misery would be brutal and anyway, I didn’t want to play ‘God’ and hasten its death unbidden. I walked away back to my tent, the angry white capped sea to my left emphasising the potent force of Nature. This was a powerful moment for me, the issue of death being forced into my consciousness again. It occurred to me that unlike the poor gannet, humans are afforded the opportunity to choose the manner of our death. Faced with the inevitability of a dire diagnosis or indeed, suicidal desires, we can choose to curl up and wait for the inevitable end, even hastening it, or raise our heads and face it head on, living our lives as fully as we can before the moment arrives. We can fight too. We can medicate ourselves, undergo surgery and accept professional intervention to prolong or overcome the illness we are faced with. On Ailsa Craig, alone, almost like a shipwrecked mariner, I received the most illuminating awareness of the whole adventure. Choose life!

A few days later, after rounding the Mull of Galloway in the mid-morning after a pre-dawn start, I was faced with the twenty-seven-kilometre crossing of Luce Bay – against the tide. The weather was benign, and the sea was calm. The forecast for the following day was for force five easterlies, so I either set off there and then, or accepted I would be stuck by the Mull of Galloway for at least another day. I vacillated. I was weary and I knew that the tidal stream flowing out of the Solway Firth would be tough to contend with. However, I wanted to press on and make it at least to the Isle of Whithorn where I could sit out the strong wind next day in relative comfort. There was an hour or two of tide left in my favour, so I set off. Indeed, I made it across to the eponymously named Scares eleven kilometres off the Mull coastline in good time. However, after I had made it through the churned waters around the rocks with some nervousness, it seemed to me as if all progress was halted. The hazily indistinct coastline was sixteen kilometres away and regular glances at my GPS showed my progress was counted in metres not kilometres. While checking my GPS, I would drift backwards!

My heart was heavy. This moment seemed interminable and hopeless. I rued my decision to set out and began to consider returning to the Mull of Galloway with the tide. Somehow though, I kept going one slow, heavy paddle stroke at a time. The sun burnt down from a cloudless sky, my hydration bag now empty of water and my throat parched. It seemed as if the gannets and the cormorants swirling around the Scares still only metres away, were in fact vultures waiting for my demise. My spirits were at a low ebb. Then, because it was the nature of this adventure, I began to view my predicament in a different vein. Of course, it was tough. I was fatigued, and I was desperate for the eventual comfort of my tent. However, this moment would not last for ever. Eventually, in only a few hours, the tidal flow against me would ease and then change direction altogether. There would still be plenty of daylight to see me land at the Isle of Whithorn. If I could sit with my discomfort, then all would be well. This then, was another compelling lesson for me to embody. On the back of the insight gained on Ailsa Craig to choose life, sitting with my discomfort knowing that this will not last for ever, was powerfully enlightening. Those words, “will not last forever”, were often spoken to me by the nurses on the psychiatric ward when I was in hospital. They made sense then of course but sadly carried little weight. Now though, in the middle of Luce Bay, with a powerful tide against me, I understood them completely and laughed with joy at their enduring simplicity and truth.

Birkdale Beach

Again, a few days later I was landing further up the Solway Firth on the depressingly rocky shore of Rascarrel Bay. I had struggled for the previous couple of hours against a force six headwind and an accompanying lumpy sea. Suitable landing places were almost non-existent, let alone those with good enough spots to camp. Rascarrel had seemed the most likely option and when I arrived, the tide was way out and I was faced with hundreds of metres of large weed covered and barnacled boulders over which to carry bulging IKEA bags and my kayak. It was also pouring with tropically intense rain. I set about unpacking the boat, knowing that in these conditions there was little hope in keeping things dry, when suddenly a pair of wellies appeared in my peripheral vision and a voice asked, “Would you like a hand?”. Angels it seems, wear wellington boots! I was warmly welcomed in by the Smith family, third generation hutters of Rascarrel Bay. They invited me to camp in their garden and fed me jam and ham sandwiches!

Again, I was confronted with a convincing metaphorical awareness, that when the chips are down, there will be moments of unexpected help. By now, over two weeks into my journey, I had at last found the joy and the pleasure to be gained from the adventure. I had faced many dark moments. I had also allowed myself to accept the many nuggets of Nature’s instruction offered to me during these. As a result, I was strong again.

The subsequent days and kilometres drifted by, each with substantial challenges, but all faced with equanimity. In fact, I sought some of these challenges before they presented themselves, culminating in an eighty-six kilometre penultimate day of my journey when I kayaked the full length of the Lleyn Peninsula and then crossed Cardigan Bay to camp on Shell Island beach. The final day of the adventure was particularly fitting in that I arrived to a warm welcome from friends at Aberdyfi, the place where my professional life in the outdoors began in the mid-eighties and where a portion of my heart will forever reside. After all I have been through, it was affirming to be welcomed so warmly and to celebrate my achievement of completing the Three Peaks by Kayak, a challenge which nearly a month earlier, on the shores of Loch Eil, I doubted my ability to accomplish.

One of the tasks presented to us as Outward Bound instructors was to facilitate the transfer of learning from an Outward Bound course to the students’ home or work, so that new awareness and opportunities for change were enduring. Having presented the activities they encountered metaphorically throughout their course, this process was not too difficult to manage. Now that I’m home after this kayaking adventure, I too am confident that the self-awareness I gained from this venture will be long lasting. My recovery from my clinical depression will never be straight forward, but now, I have powerfully metaphoric memories to recall when those tough times revisit me in the future.

"if

the ocean can calm itself,

so can you.

we

are both

salt water

mixed with

air."  

~ Nayyirah Waheed

I was raising funds for Odyssey, a charity which provided transformational outdoor courses for people with or have had cancer. My fundraising page remains open - here. Thank you.


 

Talking Suicide

September 10th 2018 was World Suicide Prevention Day. To mark the day from a personal point of view, I put up a post on my Facebook page and Tweeted too. A few weeks ago I was filmed by the RNLI Film and Image Unit for a short film they are making about my voluntary role with Tobermory RNLI Lifeboat and my accompanying mental health struggles. I recently had a long and helpful appointment with ‘my’ Community Psychiatric Nurse after a long period of not seeing her. This blog entry is a description of how I live with my suicidal thoughts. I hope by sharing this incredibly intimate aspect of my self, I will help increase awareness and understanding about deep depression and suicide. This is an account of my personal experience and cannot be read as a generalisation of suicide per se. I am confident though, that there are contextual similarities with others who struggle like me which will be helpful.

Recently, despite the many good aspects of my life and my uniquely privileged lifestyle, I have been fighting familiar intrusive thoughts that my life is worthless, that I am worthless and it follows that the most natural conclusion is to take my life. These are not constant thoughts which continue to eat away at me through the day and night. They intrude at the most inopportune moments, sometimes fleetingly but generally with enough force to stick for a good while. They are private thoughts, triggered by any number of interpersonal interactions, thoughts, memories and moments. An incredibly astute observer might see for a split second, a grimace of pain cross my face when these thoughts of death reach into me. They would also hear me emit a muted cry of pain or a deep, lingering sigh.

Since I’m so used to this happening, I find myself burying these thoughts and feelings, fighting them inwards and hiding them deep within me. I used to be a psychotherapist so ‘internal dialogue’ fits comfortably as a term which describes what’s occurring. The thing is, there is no voice attached to these thoughts. I do not hear myself or anyone else, actual or imagined. They are thoughts accompanied by powerful emotional and physical feelings. Essentially they are beliefs - basically an overarching belief that my life should come to an end because of my ineptitude as a person.

Whether these thoughts are serious enough for me to become worried about my intentions and I consequently reach out for help, depend on how I grade them. Because I recognise them so clearly now, I give them levels of seriousness depending on how they arrive in my psyche, into my being and how durably they ‘stick’. First off I have the fanciful thoughts. The ones which are romantic notions of taking my life. This could be anything from the day being a lovely and sunny one, when I might think, “this would be a nice day to die”. Or, “I could head out in my kayak, capsize and drift off towards the far horizon”. The latter might be a response to recalling a moment of embarrassment when I believe I behaved badly to someone in my past. This kind of fanciful thinking serves to assuage my painful thinking in the moment by being a distraction, where I fantasize about a semi-honourable death, drifting off towards slow oblivion in a suitably restless sea.

A level up from the fanciful ideations are the ‘thought punches’ into my head and the ‘body blows’ into my being. These are powerful enough to stick and set in train semi-serious thoughts of suicide. Unchecked they might build into more enduring beliefs that the most obvious solution is to take myself off to my chosen tree and hang myself. If they occur in the dark hours of the deep night when I ping wide awake, as I often do, I might consider slipping out onto the deck of our yacht and lowering myself into the night-time sea to eventually die of hypothermia. I would be clad only in my underpants because I never want to be found naked. These thoughts and feelings of powerful desperation are promulgated by the more entrenched self-beliefs I hold about myself. Examples of these being; believing I’m a feckless father, a life failure in employment and business, a wasteful daydreamer, an untrustworthy person, a poor friend, I have nothing of worth to offer, I am a burden, and so the seemingly inexhaustive list continues. These thoughts and feelings may present themselves at any time, whether life is going well or I’m struggling with a dose of depression. Generally of course, they are stronger and more present when my mood is low. I have learned to rationalise these thoughts, to attempt to see them for what they are and realise that it’s certainly not logical to act on them. If I think I’m struggling with this process I might express to Karen (my wife), that I’m having a tough time and “I’m feeling suicidal”. This one simple sentence, spoken out loud and knowing I have been heard, is usually enough to dissipate the strength of the feelings and/or the thoughts I’m experiencing.

However, there are times when these body blow suicidal thoughts stick like a ball of mud thrown against a brick wall. With sun, the mud might set rock hard and become insoluble. (It reminds me of when I was a boy in Africa, my friends and I used to have battles with clay lakkies - hand squeezed balls of mud on the tips of whippy sticks, which when flicked like a tennis serve, sent the mud screaming through the air. Brutally powerful and accurate. Great fun as well to plaster house walls with nasty splats of mud!) What happens is, I find myself unable to now rationalise my thinking with any certainty. The thoughts metamorphose into beliefs and these then set deep within me. The primary belief being that the time has come to end my life and there is no point in lingering any longer. It could be that I might be berating myself for being a horribly curmudgeonly husband or as with 2017, a useless sea kayak guide. The belief that I am eternally useless, worthless and a burden to others, takes root and instead of distracting myself from this belief, I find myself arguing, “why not kill myself?”

This is a dangerous time for me. This is when the thought of death has become realistically pragmatic. It has shifted from being an attractive desire, to one where it is now the most reasonable solution. When I am at this depth, I begin to make my plans. I have already chosen my tree. It is local, within ten minutes walk and hidden from public view. I know the type of rope I will use and its length. Being an outdoor instructor, I know the specific knots I will tie. The only unknown is whether to leap off the branch in the hope I break my neck, or lower myself off and hang until strangulation has done its work. More recently I have been considering immersion in the sea and dying of hypothermia but here, I find myself pulling up short, because I don’t want my Tobermory RNLI colleagues to be the ones who find me. In terms of being found, I have in the past prepared letters for the local police and coastguard with GPS coordinates of my suicide location. I have also written letters to individual family members.

When this is occurring for me, I am now in the grip of deep depression with a very strong desire for suicide.

Even in this state, with every fibre of my being now craving my obliteration, I find within myself a desire to hang on to life and I make my thoughts and intentions known, not only to my wife but my community mental health support network too. This may be the psychiatrist, the community psychiatric nurse or the local GP. I will do so knowing that I may be admitted to hospital and in some respects, this is what I desire for hospital is a safe haven for me. What I fear most, is that the final decision to take my life will be made beyond my conscious awareness. I know within myself from my adventure activities, that before a risky undertaking I have a propensity to weigh up all the factors, and once done, if they are in my favour, to suddenly act without a conscious decision to do so. It’s almost as if my body moves into action before a cognitive process has taken place. I believe that if (when) I take my life, this is how it will be. I will be in the firm grip of a belief that death is the only course of action to take, I will have negated the consequences and I will act on this - suddenly. I use the word courage to describe the motivating emotion which will literally see me release myself from the tree branch I will hang from..

Equally, it is courage which drives me to struggle against the forces raging within me. The belief that I must die is real - in that it appears very real. Any amount of dissuasion by concerned others does not seem to work. I hear their words but do not take them in. In a vain act of self-aggrandisement, I argue the reasons why I believe I have the right to choose my own path and it’s far better for me to end the pain I am struggling with - for pain it is! It’s a palpable emotional, cognitive and physical pain, gripping my thinking and emotions along with a agonised chest. My mind is a continuous maelstrom of self-destructive thinking and the dreadful reasons why this should be the case.

In these moments despite my firm belief that I must die, I do find myself making agreements to keep safe and to make contact with the health professionals if I’m feeling close to acting. In this regard, I’m thankful that I’m a person of some honour because I feel duty bound to keep my word. When I’m considering taking myself off to my death, I find myself agonising with the fact that I would be breaking my word if I went through with the act. However, even then, I have moments when the desire for death is more powerful than my reasoning and this is when I will choose to be admitted to a psychiatric ward. Here, cocooned in the warmth of the ward, I believe myself to be safe.

Recovery happens. Inevitably it takes root within the process of my struggles and inexorably I begin my long climb back to normal reality. Slowly and surely the light and colour returns to my world and to my thinking. Through dialogue and peaceful ‘time out’, I readily grasp onto nuggets of hope and my beliefs of the inevitability of my death are replaced with aspirations and plans for the future. Needless to say this process of recovery is not linear and there will be times when it seems as if I slip backwards. These moments or relegation become sparser as time goes by until at long last, I’m feeling like my happier adventurous self again.

Recovery does not mean an absence of my depression. This will always be there in my life and very recently, I have come to accept that it is an illness I will have to live with, rather than constantly seek a cure. Not having acted on my suicidal desires and thoughts does not mean that I do not have them or that they are not serious. These are not prosaic cries of help which I have often heard suicide referred to in the past. They are real for me and it is only through fighting hard for myself, that I manage to keep myself from acting on my desires.

Being open about my mental health struggles is becoming increasingly helpful for me. Each time I share my struggle (as I am doing here), I gain confidence in sharing more often because of the warmth and the love I receive when I do. My online community of friends and acquaintances are instrumental in this process. Twitter for me is a power for good! I hope that by being open I may normalising the dialogue around the subject of suicide. This is my hope, that increasingly, our society will become less offended or frightened by the subject and becomes willing to really listen to those who need to talk about their suicidal thinking. It is my experience that it is not helpful when I express my suicidal desires some people either change the subject away from the issue, or attempt to make it better by telling me of all the reasons I have to live. I term the latter a sticking plaster approach. Both responses are undoubtedly well meaning and I am grateful for any time I am given by those who have a desire to see my internal pain healthily diminished.

To bring this blog entry to conclusion, I want to say, at the moment of writing this I am safe. I am currently experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings but I have these in check. There is enough firm reality in my life for me to focus on and I have exciting plans to fulfil. Additionally, there are the powerful metaphoric insights I gained from my 3 Peaks by Kayak journey earlier this year to remind me that suicide is a permanent solution to an impermanent situation. The simplest and most enduring of the metaphoric insights being “live life” when I saw a tragically injured Gannet on the island of Ailsa Craig and “this discomfort will pass” when I was struggling across the eighteen long miles of Luce Bay against a strong ebb tide.

Finally, thank you for reading what I have shared and I welcome any responses you may have. If you have been touched by what I have written and my words resonate and have a personal impact on you, please don’t dwell and find someone you are able to chat to about what you are experiencing. Please take good care of yourself.

Thank you.

Finding Focus

The summer is speeding by for me. This is probably a good thing in a way, because it means that I'm living it fully. I think this is probably true, though I have difficulty in recounting what I get up to each day. Not a huge amount to be honest. 

Anyway, I've recently returned from a journey down south where I gave a presentation in Aberdyfi about my 3 Peaks by Kayak journey, visited my parents in Herefordshire and then spent a few days camping with a group of friends in Pembrokeshire. This journey turned into a rewarding experience for me where I gained significant insights which I believe will be useful for me in my future. 

My presentation in Aberdyfi turned out to be an unqualified success. Seventy or so folks came along to the Yacht Club in the village to hear me give an illustrated talk about my 3 Peaks adventure. To be honest, I hadn't really prepared in any detail what I was going to talk about. I had chosen a number of photos to show and these would offer me prompts to recount anecdotes from the journey. I did have the intention of speaking about how profound the journey was for me and how I gained deep insights into my mental health recovery process as a result of it. As the presentation unfolded, I found myself speaking with eloquent openness about my struggle with my depression, ideations of suicide and how powerful moments of insight into these were highlighted by incredible experiences I encountered. Without preparing for this, I found my voice and it carried impact. 

The feedback I received afterwards was difficult to accept because it was so effusive in its praise. Such is my low sense of self-worth that I literally had to force the compliments into my 'memory banks'. It was when people I had never met before came up to me and spoke of the profoundness of my talk, that I realised that I had given something worthwhile. This was a good feeling for me. 

A few days later down in Pembrokeshire, the compliments continued to roll in and this time they were more thoughtful because folks had given time to thinking about the impact of my presentation. I couldn't help but glow with a sense of satisfaction that my voice had such impact. My intuition that sharing my personal struggle with depression and suicide as an adjunct to the powerful experiences I encountered during my kayaking journey had paid off. With relief, I realised that my desired future path of publicly sharing my outdoor adventures as a source of inspiration for others struggling with mental health issues and general self awareness, was a good one for me to pursue. 

Driving north to the Isle of Mull, I pondered on how I can build on this and make it happen.

Writing seems to be the most obvious pathway. I like writing but I'm not good at focussing and completing writing projects. However, recently submitting an article about my recent kayaking trip to the notable sea-kayaking publication, Ocean Paddler, and having this well received, with an invitation to submit further articles, has boosted my confidence and provided me with the incentive to approach my writing seriously. I have a number of books I would like to write and of course, many shorter pieces specifically about the transformational power of Nature, the outdoors and adventure per se. 

Public speaking is also an obvious route to embark on. I have come to accept that I'm adept at this and I can hold an audiences' attention through my voice and story. I have much to say and I do enjoy sharing my views and tales when these moments arise. However, I'm slow to grasp opportunities to speak publicly or even seek them out, instead waiting to be invited to do so. This will be a challenge for me, to publicise myself as a worthwhile speaker, worthy of hiring. 

Running workshops was another consideration of mine. I enjoy being a facilitator, managing group process and working with the 'here and now' material as it arises. Again, like my writing aspirations, I have a myriad workshop titles in my notebooks. The key here is finding a market for these and more to the point, a relevance for them. In my time, I have worked as an independent workshop provider and facilitator but I found this a stressful process for me. I'm not business minded enough to have made this a success and this dissuades me from following this path. 

Of course there is social media where I can highlight what I have to offer. My Twitter account is a healthy one with wonderfully meaningful engagement with friends, acquaintances and strangers. Here, I largely present myself as I am, not really hiding much away. It would be easy for me to build on this online persona and 'market. what I want to offer. Facebook is a little different and since the international wrangle with 'false news' and manipulation, I'm wary of this platform. I am on Instagram but I don't engage with this as best I could.

Then there is this website and developing my 'Life Afloat' brand. This is an obvious point of reference for what I want to develop and share. Like my writing, I will need to focus more on this, developing useful content and make it an interesting resource for folks to want to visit and remain connected with.

Finally, my Blog. I simply need to keep up with this and keep writing material for it.

If you have ideas and suggestions in response to what I've shared here, then please drop me a line through my contact page. I welcome any feedback you may wish to give me. Thank you.  

The Three Peaks by Kayak

I'm useless at keeping an up to date blog. My best intentions to write regularly and share my thoughts with the wider world come to nought through a mixture of reasons, ranging from low self-confidence to good old fashioned procrastination. I should realise that setting myself the goal of writing regular contributions would not really work for me. I was a poor academic student who was always late with my assignments and essays, leaving writing them to the very last minute or worse, not at all. I became more adept at providing excuses than I did at writing!

This said though, I do enjoy writing and I think that when I do produce a piece, it reads pretty well and I'm pleased with it. I'm not sure why I find it difficult to fulfil my aspirations to write more and I hope that when I do come to understand my blocks, there'll be no stopping me! 

This blog entry is by way of support for my Three Peaks by Kayak challenge which I'm undertaking this May (2018). I'm raising funds for Odyssey, a small charity who provide outdoor courses for people who have been or are being treated for cancer. I have worked for them on a number of occasions and I believe their courses to be incredibly worthwhile. It is wonderful to be writing this entry and to not be covering the theme of my depression and mental health travails. Actually, when I come to think of it, one of the reasons I haven't contributed recently, is because I was tired of only thinking of writing about my low mood, my struggles with this and the more painful truth of fighting my desire to complete suicide. I simply did not want to keep rehashing my negative thoughts and feelings and sharing these with you. It's really lovely at long last to have hope and happiness surging through my veins again. 

My last blog entry was about my New Year plans and I'm pleased to say that I'm at least on my way to undertaking a significant one of these. The Three Peaks by Kayak has been on my list of adventures for nearly twenty five years, really, ever since I began sea kayaking. I had an attempt at completing this in 2009 but was unsuccessful due to poor weather. 2018 will be the year that I put this adventure goal to bed and once I have, I'll feel more able to attempt other plans which have been mulling around in my mind. 

One question I ask myself and I have been asked this by a few other folks too, is - does undertaking these big adventures have a negative impact on the state of my mental health? Without opening up about what I struggle with when I'm in the midst of my depression, I do know that I long to be connected with wildness through some kind of outdoor adventure. Connection to wildness provides me with solace even in the darkest depths of my depression. One aspect of my adventuring lifestyle which I have come to appreciate, is how to reintegrate myself to my life at home and a more 'regular' lifestyle after long and challenging but incredibly rewarding kayaking adventure. Of course having worked as an Outward Bound Instructor and a Therapeutic Wilderness Guide for many years, I ought to understand the important process of transferring ones self from a powerful life altering outdoor experience to the normality of everyday life. I now understand how challenging this can be! The suddenness of the end of a journey can have an incredible impact and for me, and I've struggled to adapt after living a life of wild freedom and solitude. 

Given that I'm now paying attention to this, I'm excited to be undertaking the Three Peaks by Kayak and considering future adventures. It's a continually evolving process of self-awareness which doesn't end because I'm over fifty years old. In fact, I think that I'm learning more about myself now than I ever did in my earlier years. It's as if my life has been leading me to this - the path of the solo adventurer. Despite the risk of future depressive episodes, I have permission to challenge myself so that I continue to grow. 

This kayaking journey then, is as much a personal odyssey as it is a fund raising venture for Odyssey. I look forward to sharing the emerging insights I encounter on the way, as well as the everyday awe and wonder I will enjoy as I traverse the British coastline. 

Thank you for your interest and support. 

This Thing Called Depression

Yesterday I had my monthly appointment with the Psychiatrist who is responsible for my care. I like him and more importantly, I trust him. He is personable with an easy yet professional manner. He is a yacht owner too so we share yachting stories and he likes to tell me of his recent trips.  Amongst these short conversations we also speak of my clinical depression, how I'm doing with this, and checking how safe I am with myself. He is thorough in his assessment of my current situation and willingly offers suggestions for new approaches. This certainly was the case yesterday.

At the moment I'm locked in to a severe bout of depression which is not shifting in anyway shape or form. The medication I have been taking is simply not making a dent on my low mood or even imprinting any form of colour into my life. The upshot is a diagnosis that I'm struggling with 'treatment resistant' depression and if this cannot be overcome with medication alone, then other treatment courses will have to be attempted. 

My Psychiatrist has prescribed one last medication which he hopes will provide me with increased energy and thus motivation to turn my current lethargy around. However, there are risks attached to this medication (see my previous blog post) and it may not suit me. Hopefully this will not be the case and it will work the magic he thinks is possible. It's not a medication for depression per se but there is evidence that it works for people like me, who have been fighting a deeply stuck low mood. 

If this new medication does not work then I will be admitted to hospital for further assessment and possibly a referral to a specialist NHS unit for people with severe and enduring clinical depression. Apparently there are non-medication approaches which can be explored, some of these almost experimental. Thankfully it seems that I'll not be put through ECT again because this clearly did not work for me.

Bringing my session with him to a close yesterday, my Psychiatrist implored me not to give up hope, assuring me that we were nowhere near the end of the road and I was not going to be given up on. One of the struggles I'm dealing with at the moment is a strong sense of hopelessness, sometimes to the point where I believe there is no reason to continue fighting for my recovery. Associated with this, is the gnawing belief that I'm nothing but a burden to my family. I'm not sure if I was entirely mollified by his assurances that I will recover but I did leave the Health Centre with a little more hope than I had before.

I have started to take the new medication which is an adjunct to my current pill regimen. Time will tell if this will work or not. Sadly I will not be able to celebrate their success or deal with their failure with my Psychiatrist because he is moving on to new pastures. I will miss him for his professional and affable care, and the ease with which I'm able to communicate with him. 

Here's to HOPE.

Taking a Risk

I am an adventurous person and I'm used to evaluating and taking risks either in my sea kayak or in the mountains. I consider myself to be a person who seizes risk laden opportunities as they appear and I believe I'm fortunate that I do so. However, I have an opportunity before me which I consider to be risky and which I find myself feeling unusually wary of.

As many of you know I suffer from severe clinical depression. The psychiatrist responsible for my care has termed my depression as 'treatment resistant'. This is because despite many different interventions over the last year, my mood remains obstinately depressed, so much so that there are moments where I find myself staring into a dark abyss. I'm incredibly thankful for the treatment I am receiving from the medical profession here in Scotland and I do not expect them to solely work the miracle of cure for me. Rather, I view their care as a facilitative one where through my increased motivation and assistance from their prescribed medication and talking therapy, my depression lessens and my sense of well being increases.

Recently my mood has been incredibly low - worryingly so. Apart from my interactions on Twitter, I find myself paralysed with self-doubt preferring to hide here on the boat, away from my world, rarely venturing forth unless I'm certain I'll not bump into people I know. This time is not entirely wasted because I am writing and researching plans for adventures in 2018. However, I would prefer to be more outgoing and be as engaged with the Tobermory community as I used to be.

In response to this deep low and my seeming resistance to the treatment I am receiving, the psychiatrist has prescribed an additional medication for me to take alongside my existing anti-depressant. I won't say what this is because for some reason I don't want to make my medication details public. What I will say is that it is an uncommonly used intervention and is one not normally prescribed for depression cure. The hope is that this drug will shift the log jam I am experiencing in my tormented depressive thinking which leaves me inactive and paralysed by self-loathing. By all accounts, this drug when used for other people in a similarly stuck position as the one I am facing, has proved to be incredibly successful. It has been explained to me that in just about every case the patients had returned to full cognitively buoyant and rudely happy health. This for me is my Holy Grail!

Without much more persuasion I agreed to give this medication a try and this morning collected it from the pharmacist. (As an aside, we are incredibly fortunate here in Scotland to receive free prescriptions & medication.) On opening the box and reading the information my heart slumped - it was like a punch to my abdomen. I had expected there to be side effects to the drug because there always are with psychiatric medication. I had hoped that this being an 'add-on' to my current medication regime, this wouldn't be as worrisome. 

I personally find the side effects of medication difficult to cope with, especially those which affect my nervous system - increased agitation and insomnia. It's an anathema to me how these drugs actually cure the illness they are prescribed for, when it appears that the side effects exacerbate it. There have been many times in the past I have stopped taking a drug because the side effects were more difficult to cope with than my illness itself. 

Looking at the side effects for this drug I'm left wondering whether to go ahead and begin taking it or to stop right now and leave it well alone. I'm in a quandary. It has been explained to me that this may be the wonder drug to cure my depression, albeit an unconventional choice. I certainly want this to be true yet..., I see the list of side effects and I feel incredibly reluctant to take it.

In essence I'm faced with a risk of sorts, and it's a risk I'm having difficulty evaluating. It's not simply a case of giving the medication a try and maybe stopping if it's not working. It's a commitment to giving it a good long try, despite the difficulties I may find I have with it. I am genuinely fearful of the side effects. When I'm kayaking or mountaineering I face fear as a matter of course when I encounter outdoor risk after risk. Invariably I'm able to rationalise  any fear I may feel and use this to my advantage in making a decision to accept the risk. However in this instance, the sense of fear is getting the better of me and I find myself struggling to consider taking on the risk, even though it has been explained that the possible benefits far outweigh the perceived difficulties.

There are a few days yet for me to decide what path to take and I have the opportunity to meet with the psychiatrist in the coming week to discuss my choice in greater detail. This will be helpful because right now I find myself where I hate to be - paralysed by uncertainty.

Digging Deep - A Sea Kayaking Parable

A few days ago my wife took me to the beautiful wee beach at Kilmory on the Kintyre coast between Loch Sween and West Loch Tarbert. It feels like a secret idyll which involves a ten mile journey through some of the finest wooded and coastal landscape that Scotland has to offer. The lovely white sandy beach faces west with the panoply of the Islay and Jura skyline dominating the view across the breezily ruffled Sound of Jura. We had taken a picnic and we settled back to a wonderful few hours under the strengthening early summer sun. It was glorious.

Proaig Bothy

Looking across the ten miles to the Isle of Jura I was reminded of the day last year when I kayaked forty seven miles from Proaig Bothy on Islay via the lifeboat station at Port Askaig, back down the Sound of Islay into the Sound of Jura, across to the mainland and then northwards to Crinan. The day before I had kayaked forty five miles from the Mull of Kintyre to the bothy on Islay. These were to be the longest mileage days of my trip.

I had set off from the bothy at six in the morning and paddled against a gusty wind and the makings of a strong opposing tide. I hopped through the eddys along the shore delighting in the sculpted cliffs mottled with intriguing caves. At my passing, seals sloshed off the rocks into the sea and inquisitively trailed in my wake. Slipping neatly through the swirling tidal waters into Port Askaig I arrived alongside the lifeboat. After a quick scramble ashore to visit the lifeboat station I was soon afloat again keen to make the most of the eastward tide down the Sound of Islay.

With a strengthening following wind and a favourable tide it took me only an hour to paddle the eight miles to the tip of the island of Jura where I turned northwards into the Sound of Jura. Now, as I kayaked along the eastern coastline of the island the wind was on my port beam and as I emerged from the shelter of the various skerries I was almost bowled over by the gusts. The forecast was for strong winds reaching twenty five knots. What had been plain sailing now became something of a struggle, maintaining steady headway while coping with the forceful gusts. Reaching the Small Isles which guard Craighouse Bay I drew deep breaths while I rested and smiled at the antics of the Common Terns and the eponymous Oystercatchers. My plan was to kayak along the Jura coastline to the narrowest point of the Sound and find a camp spot. The next day I would hop across to the mainland and make my way along the north Kintyre coast to Crinan where our yacht, my home, was moored on the canal - and where my wife was waiting.

By the time I reached the open mouth of Lowlandman's Bay the strength of the wind was beginning to really dog me. I began to lose the will to continue and I debated with myself about pulling ashore at the earliest opportunity and calling it a day. There would be no shame in doing this especially while the conditions were like they were. From time to time fierce rain squalls would sweep down on me from the Paps on my left and make life pretty miserable. I plodded on - slow paddle stroke after another. By the time I reached Lagg four miles later, I was about done in and ready to stop.

Then, seemingly from nowhere the decision to make the six mile crossing to the mainland occurred. It was rash and possibly unwise given the strength of the wind but I went for it anyway. I had a desire to spend my night on the mainland with only a few remaining miles to complete before reaching home the next day. What followed was an exhilarating (if frightening) hour and a bit blast across the Sound of Jura to the safe haven of Keill Chapel harbour. The sea heaped up around me and surfed me along. From time to time the odd wave collapsed onto my stern deck and at times my spraydeck causing me to reach out in an urgent brace. I couldn't relax for a second wary of rogue waves which threatened to slap me over. It doesn't do to look behind when kayaking in a large following sea - it is ominously frightening! I made it safely across and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I was finally sitting in the calm waters of the harbour. I set about scanning the shore for a suitable place to camp but could only see watery bog fringing all around. I was worn out but there lay within me the desire to keep going. Looking out I saw the sea smashing itself furiously against the natural rock harbour walls. It seemed fearsome and I really didn't want to head back out into it. I sat still and pondered my situation.

I could camp here. I had camped in worse places. I could paddle further and stop at the next most suitable spot but this was likely to be five miles away. I could keep going all the way to Crinan and then I would be home. I tussled with these choices while around me the wind and the sea roared their advice - egging me onward.

Then it happened - I dug deep into my resources, executed a purposeful sweep with my left paddle blade and headed back out into the wild seas.

Within me the desire to reach home had strongly outweighed my weariness and my respect for the conditions. It was going to be a demanding few hours but I knew I had it within me to cope. I set off for Crinan, counting each mile as I completed them and realising that I was relishing this particular challenge. I was paddling along a lee shore so the conditions were incredibly rough. Despite this I made excellent progress and three hours and ten miles later I was pulling into the relative calmness of Crinan Bay, eventually landing on the slipway at nine in the evening. I unloaded the kayak and was enjoying a welcome glass of beer with my wife in the hotel bar by last orders!

I recalled all of this while sitting on the beach under the warm sun with the light glinting off the calm waters. Before me now, lies another challenge of sorts. I begin my series of ECT (Electro-convulsive Therapy) treatment for my depression and an extended stay in hospital. However I feel I have reached the end of my tether with hospital life and I am definitely ready to return home. It feels to me that I can't take much more of this - the confined space, communal living, regemented routines and being indoors instead of out. Yet the goal of recovering from my depression is extremely attractive and seems after such a long time (years in fact) to be within my reach. It's there if I can stay the course - if I will stay the course.

I'm sure you can see the link - all I have to do to achieve this is to dig deep, head onward and take my chance while I have it. The reward is plain to see.

"One Flew Over..." Life On a Psychiatric Ward

My Space                               Photo: Nick Ray

I clearly remember the first time I was admitted to a psychiatric ward. It was 1998 and I was in crisis with deep clinical depression, very thin and underweight. Then, as I walked onto the ward with the Community Psychiatric Nurse who had brought me in, I remember two emotions flooding my limbic system. The first was fear - a fear of the unknown, the fear of becoming mad, the fear of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". As the loudly alarmed door to the ward closed behind me, the second emotion then enveloped me and this was by far the most useful one. The sensation of safety and the relief of no longer being totally at the mercy of my depression.

Eighteen years later and this is my fifth psychiatric admission. I wouldn't say that I'm now an old hand but I do know what to expect and the fear of the unknown - the fear of entering a world of madness from which I may never escape, has long since disappeared. It's an odd experience for me to feel a sense of normality in an environment where 'normal' is a concept which many folks here are struggling to determine. However being here does seem familiar and comforting. This comfort is largely due to the healthily warm therapeutic atmosphere created and embodied by the staff team. The ward is a safe environment where apart from physical and verbal violence, anything goes. Expressions of human emotion in all its guises are OK here which is a psychological release for many - like myself. In our society we filter how we express our core emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger and Sadness because we may harbour shame and reticence in doing so. Here on the ward, my tears of sadness are unapologetic. My anger is not extinguished but allowed to burn out naturally. My fear is not quashed but encouraged to be faced and somewhere amidst all these, there are increasing moments of pure joy which burst through the vacated chinks in the emotional armour I have created.

We are a transient, sometimes ragged band here on the ward. Each of us carries our own wounds and we require healing in individual ways. There are unwritten and unsaid laws of existence here. We do not delve into each others lives apart from asking where we live and what family we may have. Any other information which is offered up by a person is warmly received but even then we do not unpick at any loose threads of information for fear of unravelling more than either party has bargained for. We accept each other for who we are no matter what behavioural traits we exhibit. In a way, we are a model social community where each person is met with openness and trust and where no unfair judgement is meted out. Nevertheless tensions do arise and we can choose to interact less with folks we have little in common with.

There's an awareness too of the intimacy in how we live and share our lives on the ward. Sleeping space is shared four to a room, meal times are shared, there are two television rooms and a quiet room and the seating in the entrance hall is a favourite place for folks to hang out. Many on the ward are not allowed off the premises either at all, or unaccompanied. This means that for many of us we are living together 24/7. We learn the valuable lesson of tolerance very quickly and in doing so we accept we each have our personal foibles.

Routine is key to our happy existence here. Very quickly I slipped into being governed by the times for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In between these are set times for tea and coffee breaks. I soon identified what is important for me and I established a routine to meet my needs. I rise at six for my first coffee of the day and to watch the morning news. Often I will be the only person up (apart from the night staff) and I enjoy the calm and solitude. I enjoy the time between getting up and breakfast at eight because of the relative serenity around me. Our time on the ward is very much our own - we are not compelled into any activity though we are encouraged to participate in what is on offer. I enjoy the pottery sessions on a Thursday and the art and craft sessions on a Tuesday. Other than these two I entertain myself with reading (avidly) and teaching myself watercolour painting through the university of YouTube. Very rarely I will allow myself to sleep during the day and when I do it is a delicious luxury. Even more rarely I will sit and watch daytime television knowing how alluring "Homes Under the Hammer" can become after a while. You'll pleased to hear, I hope, that I avoid watching "Jeremy Kyle" at all costs! Dinner is at five in the evening. I find the time after this drags a little where I drift in and out of the television room or sit and read. I sometimes watch a film or programme on BBC iPlayer. After the tea break at eight I then begin to count the minutes to 10pm when I get my medication and a sleeping pill. I need this fast acting sleeper (as we call them) to knock me out before the snoring commences in the room I'm in. My three erstwhile companions are pretty loud and it's impossible for me to fall asleep if they tune up before I have dropped off.

So the routine of life here marches on. Days blend into each other and the weeks slide by just as effortlessly. It's certainly not an uncomfortable existence but neither is it one that I hope to continue indefinitely. It is serving its purpose. I feel safe, I feel cared for and importantly, I feel acknowledged. There is power to be gained from living in the moment - the power of now. I am healing - there is no doubt about this.

I think that in general society is far more aware and more accepting of mental health distress than it was when I first encountered the service nineteen years ago. The view of mental health hospital provision has moved way beyond the one portrayed by Jack Nicholson and his cohorts in the renowned 1975 film. I am confident of openly sharing my mental health experiences and not hiding them away for fear of judgement or shame. However I am less confident about making an admission of my mental health history when it comes to seeking employment and I find this very sad.

I am ready to leave hospital now. The routine has begun to grind and I am missing home terribly but I have to accept that I'm going to be here for a good few weeks more. My ECT treatment is due this Friday and so begins a new phase of treatment for my depression. I can put up with my life on the ward in the knowledge that I am tackling this weight I have carried with me. However I look out of the windows at the budding plants and trees longing for the freedom of the open seas and the cry of the Gulls above. It won't be long now.

The Inner Storms

My last post was in early February. Since the middle of that month I have been a patient in the wonderful care of the psychiatric ward in the Mid-Argyll Hospital. I have severe clinical depression, an affliction that has dogged me much of my adult life. This time though, this particular bout has been unusually tortuous and I have struggled at times to make sense of the world and my place in it. Suicide is a subject many of us find challenging to openly speak about which is why depression can be such an insidiously serious illness. For me, suicide is not a simple 'get out' clause, it is the seemingly obvious resolution to my inner turmoil. The struggle I have in believing that I have value to offer and I am valuable to the important people in my life. My desire for completing suicide offers me a sense of deep and timeless peace - a peace that I often struggle to find in my life.

Thankfully, despite the emotional anguish I experience, there is within me a strong desire to continue living. This is why in mid-February I was able to seek the assistance first from my GP and then the psychiatric team of the Mid-Argyll Hospital. The sense of safety I experienced once I was admitted to the ward was an overwhelming one. At the point of admission there was the usual tussle within myself to follow or not to follow the advice of the GP and the ward staff. However once I made the decision to accept admission, I was able to relax (somewhat) and allow the pent up emotional tensions within me to be slowly expunged. This process has not been straightforward nor particularly pleasant. I have time and again slumped to the depths of my soul and faced my demons head on, believing at times that these would ultimately triumph. These demons continue to combat me and my sense of self as a worthwhile individual is far from complete. My recovery from this depression is slow and tenuous to say the least.

In a few days time I begin a course of ECT (Electro-convulsive Therapy) in the hope that this approach will knock my depression on the head - pardon the pun. It is not known how many sessions I will require but it is generally thought that six to twelve are the normal amount. From all accounts I understand this to be a safe and effective approach to curing severe clinical depression with odd renewal sessions from time to time as required. For me, the prospect of no longer feeling and experiencing the deep emotional anguish I have been is of course hugely attractive. It means quite simply that I will be able to smile with the world again.

I am not ashamed of my depression though I do feel shame when I recall some of interactions with people while deeply depressed. I am happy to speak of my condition in the hope that it helps others who may be experiencing depression or living with a loved one who is. As I have always been told - it's good to talk.