I guess it’s been a rather extraordinary week. And one that’s brought back both good and bad memories.
I’m currently in South Africa, at the observatory at Sutherland, collecting data for one of my white dwarf projects.
I first came here in January 1994, three months into my PhD and, of course, at a momentous time in South Africa’s history, just before the first free election. I flew out with my supervisor, Martin Barstow, amid some trepidation as there was a fair amount of violence in the country ahead of the elections. For a young man who had vehemently opposed the apartheid regime in the 1980s (and the right wing support for it in the UK), this was an adventure into the unknown. I needn’t have worried. I fell in love with Cape Town, and I made new friends and colleagues that I work with to this day. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many times since, and the South African Astronomical Observatory have been very generous over the years in allocating me a lot of time with their facilities. So, if you like, this is my “20th anniversary observing run”, and it’s rather apt that local astronomer Francois van Wyk, who was our telescope operator in 1994, is working on the telescope next to mine tonight.
This last week has also seen the First Ashes Test Match from Brisbane. After a good start, England were thrashed by a resurgent Australia, accompanied by some of the usual histrionics, bragging and bravado from sections of their media and players. And again, for me, there was some poignancy.
Three years ago I was in Australia following the latter half of England’s triumphant Ashes tour. I arrived in time to watch the 3rd Test in Perth, followed by Christmas and the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, and New Year’s Eve and the final triumphant match in Sydney. At the end of the series, I swore that I would return for the 2013/14 Ashes, and in particular I would try and attend the matches at Brisbane and Adelaide, that I missed in 2010/11. Sadly, the Australian dollar remains very strong against the pound, I’m still paying my debts from 2010/11, and my teaching commitments at Leicester prevent me taking the time off work. I’ve really missed the thrill and excitement of watching cricket in the vast Australian grounds, the songs of the Barmy Army, the heat, and that brilliant light that somehow uniquely distinguishes Australia. I’ve also missed the after-play beers with fellow England fans, often complete strangers travelling alone or with a few friends, like myself, and seeking companionship. That, of course, is one of the reasons the Barmy Army is so successful. I even got to open the batting for them at St Kilda in Melbourne against the Aussie Fanatics, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play a game of cricket in Australia.
And then this morning came the news that Jonathon Trott has returned home with a “stress related illness”. It transpires he’s been suffering with and managing depression throughout his entire international career, but sadly he felt he could no longer cope at this time. My heart goes out to him, and not just because he’s a fine player who I want back in the side as soon as, if that is ever possible.
You see, the reason I was in Australia in 2010/11 was because I was enduring, and trying to escape, my own battle with depression. At the end of August 2010 I had a nervous breakdown. The reasons are complex and remain extremely difficult for me to discuss, not least because others were involved in the events that led to my breakdown. Suffice to say a combination and accumulation of unaddressed pressures, stresses, incidents and disappointments over a long period led to increasingly erratic behaviour on my part, until finally my mind could no longer cope, and I collapsed.
I owe my wonderful parents a huge debt for caring for me over the following three months. I couldn’t face work; I could barely face getting out of bed. But with their help and support, and that of a psychologist who took me through a course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, plus, of course, medication, I gradually climbed a little out of the pit I found myself in. Indeed, I travelled to South Africa for an observing run with my then PhD student Katherine Lawrie, who was extremely kind, supportive and patient. After that we agreed that it might be beneficial to spend a few weeks doing something that might bring me immense pleasure, following the Ashes down under.
As it happened, a friend from my cricket club, David Fleckney, and his now wife Lisa were undertaking a 6 month round the world trip and planning to take in the Ashes matches. So I had company when I arrived in Singapore and then Perth. To be honest, I have no idea how black or otherwise my moods were during this time, but they always appeared happy to see me, for which I was hugely grateful. And there were plenty of other friends to meet, old and new, Barmy and local, as we travelled around Australia. The whole trip was incredibly therapeutic, and going down under at that moment was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Unfortunately, when I returned to England and work, I was dealt a hammer blow almost immediately on the research front, which tore apart what remained of my self confidence in my research. And the fact is that, three years down the line, I still struggle with depression. Some days, weeks and months are better than others, some periods are relatively free from anxiety, some tasks I can undertake without stress and with pleasure (for example, lecturing, which some may consider nerve-wracking, I find rewarding and cathartic). But other times are utterly black, often, I’m afraid, coinciding with extremes of pressure and stress at work or in life. It is, I know, difficult for friends and colleagues to contemplate, but there are tasks I sometimes cannot cope with or face. I can have anxiety and panic attacks that prevent me undertaking a job, not just say writer’s block, but a complete inability to face a certain task. I am convinced this is a hang up from events that led to my original breakdown, events which also cause me to suffer periods of paranoia, when my behaviour may seem somewhat irrational, though it might make perfect sense to me! Then there are simply the random “black dog” days of inexplicable bad moods, anger, and resentment, that even with the knowledge provided by CBT I struggle to lift myself from.
Sadly, I have also learnt that many people, even close friends and family, sometimes do not know how to deal with, approach or understand these moods and behaviours. Consequently it can feel very lonely, trying and failing to articulate how I’m feeling. Or not even trying, because actually it’s too much effort and I don’t have the energy, sorry. I can understand why some people just give up.
Next week I’ll be back in Leicester, with a very heavy workload before the end of term. I’ll be doing my best to achieve all my tasks, but there are only so many hours in a day. My priority will be my undergraduate students, who will only have two weeks left to complete projects etc.
Already tonight I’ve felt compelled to cancel a research seminar I was scheduled to give at another university, because something has to give and I am trying to avoid an overload that might lead to a black episode. So if I fail to complete a task to your deadline, please forgive me.
Sometimes I just can’t cope.