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Soup of This Day #353: It Seems Like Years Since It’s Been Clear

January 16, 2014

At the right of this image, located on the floor of a deep and narrow valley, is the Norwegian town of Rjukan. Such are the heights and positions of the surrounding slopes that from September to March Rjukan is stuck in shadow. This long dark has health implications for the more than 3,000 inhabitants and so earlier this year, large mirrors were positioned on 1 of the overlooking peaks so as to direct a patch of sunlight into the town square – Photo: Alexander Mayrhofer, 2004. Alexander Mayrhofer is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

The other day I read a tweet by the writer Judy Blume:

Why am I not tweeting? Because I’m writing. Tweeting is more fun and less anxiety producing. But I’m determined.

I can sympathise with that. Not because I’m a writer in the class of Ms Blume – I’m not – My most noted published work is a 1994 conference paper entitled ‘Pluto: The Ninth Planet’.

Thanks to a 2006 decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to relegate Pluto from being a planet to a ‘dwarf planet’, that’s not dated well at all then.

By contrast Judy’s seminal works are as relevant today as they were back when they were written. They deal with the kinds of topics that mostly we pretend don’t exist for teenagers – Stuff like menstruation and masturbation. This is the kind of writing so necessary to teenagers that it invariably gets banned by small-minded idiots, some of whom have been erroneously put in charge of anything.

None of my work to my knowledge has ever got banned. Not even the post I wrote for this blog containing a trailer for a documentary on F1 legend Graham Hill. In that short stretch of footage Hill is asked if he can share something personal that he does, something unknown to the public at large. The reply is a study in devilish nonchalance:

‘Wanking you mean or something like that?’

To be fair, even the most conservative of small-minded idiots watching this interview, conducted seemingly not long before Hill’s untimely death in 1975, would be so inspired by Hill’s irrepressible smile that they’d probably conclude that it’s ok to have a wank instead of attempting a ban on my blog.

So I’m not really Judy Blume. I do empathise though with how she describes Twitter as opposed to a longer form of writing. Tweeting is more fun, at least immediately, and there is far less anxiety generated by 140 characters of thought. Which is not to put down Twitter – It’s a great resource and a fantastic way to communicate. It’s just that it’s not the easiest forum in which to shine a light. Take a conversation I got to have via a dozen or so tweets late last year.

It originated with Phil McNulty. Phil is the chief football writer for the BBC Sport website. He does also comment on other sport occasionally and on the day in question was tweeting some thoughts around the 2013/14 Ashes series in Australia, specifically around England’s Jonathan Trott and the behaviour of Australia’s David Warner (via @philmcnulty).

RT: @BBCSport Batsman Jonathan Trott to return home from England’s #Ashes tour of Australia because of a stress-related illness.

Boycott on David Warner: “I think he’s a bit gobby for someone who’s only made a few centuries. You’d have thought he was Don Bradman”

Some context is required: Jonathan Trott is a 32-year old No.3 batsman for England. He made his debut in the Test arena in 2009 and over the course of a subsequent 48-Test stretch, has amassed a very credible 3744 runs at 47.39. He has 9 centuries to his name, including 3 against Australia, 2 of which came during the previous Ashes series to be played down here in this great southern land.

He’s not a rookie.

He is however part of an evermore stressful circus – The seemingly endless 3-ring spectacle that is international cricket. Like any good circus, it involves much touring – The English squad arrived for the recent Ashes contest in November of 2013 and some of them, those who are part of the limited overs setup, are still here in mid-January.

It can’t be easy, being far from home, and especially not for those suffering from a mental illness. Jonathan Trott is 1 of the latter group – He’s not unique, 1 in 5 Australians will join him this year, and Marcus Trescothick and Freddie Flintoff are 2 recent examples from the same England cricketing sphere as Trott. Trescothick in particular left the 2006/07 Ashes tour of Australia in much the same way that Jonathan Trott departed from the 2013/14 visit.

Phil’s 2nd tweet, which followed immediately after the Trott reference, relates to criticism of Australian batsman David Warner, and in a wider sense the general behaviour of his team-mates as well.

They sledge a lot.

The standard way to refer to it is to say that they attempt to inflict ‘mental disintegration’ on opponents. To ‘get inside their heads’, creating doubt and exposing frailties. For the Australian cricket team of the 90’s and until just after the turn of the century, this approach was seen as a required component for success.

David Warner took it upon himself to widen the attack, declaring publicly:

It does look like they’ve got scared eyes at the moment. The way that ‘Trotty’ got out today was pretty poor and pretty weak. Obviously there is a weakness there and we’re probably on top of it at the moment.

Phil McNulty was clearly not impressed by that and so had tweeted a condemnation by Geoff Boycott, an English cricketing great who’s never short of an opinion.

This struck me as wrong. Not that Phil had retweeted Geoff’s thought and nor that the thought was a fair put-down of Warner. My problem was that by timing those 2 tweets together there was an implication that Warner’s behaviour had somehow contributed to Trott’s mental struggles – That Warner had ‘got inside Trott’s head.’

For me and a lot of my fellow sufferers it doesn’t work like that.

Depression (and the oft-associated anxiety) are medical conditions, wrought by a physical mechanism within the body not working how it should.

David Warner is not up to that level of impact. He can’t be the cause for that kind of problem.

For sure he can trigger an incident. He can do that though by just offering a ‘hello’. Say for instance I’m having an ok time but that I’m tired, a bit like I’ve been of late. In that state my mind is fuzzy, less able to discern nuance. I might for instance misread that ‘hello’ as being sarcastic and suddenly I’d be a bit unhappy, blue even.

That’s not necessarily me being depressed. Everybody gets blue and if you perceive someone as being not nice to you then that’s pretty reasonable. The trouble though is that with depression you get tired a lot and so you misread, mishear, misperceive even, a lot.

For sure, David Warner’s comment re Jonathan Trott was not meant to be nice – It’s highly unlikely though that it was provocatively aimed at triggering depression.

So maybe it was a trigger, maybe it wasn’t – Perhaps Trott, with his 9 Test centuries was able to ignore Warner, with his 2 Test centuries. My problem with Phil linking the 2 events is that any trigger is insignificant when compared to the underlying mental illness.

There will always be a trigger.

Here’s the thing though, and I’ll get some help from Ernest Hemingway to get this next bit out:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

The folk I know who have battled depression are strong in those broken places afterward. They have faced down the slavish black dog and they have learned how to hold it off. Some have even sent it cowering off into the distance and they then remain ever-more capable of never letting it get close enough to do more than howl forlornly.

None of that is easy – It is a tremendous war, requiring courage and strength and oft-times, some assistance from those who care.

Those who don’t care simply don’t figure, at least not once you’ve got the real enemy in sight.

Jonathan Trott seems to have that last bit down pat – He’s done something incredibly brave and strong – He’s walked away from an Ashes dream, the very pinnacle of an Australian or England cricketer’s career – And he’s done so because cricket is just a circus side-show for him right now – The main event is within him and his supporters are clustered around him at home.

1 of my final tweets to Phil reflected this

@philmcnulty And last – I’m an Aussie who enjoyed the win. Trott just made my hero’s list. Warner ain’t on that list.

I get the sense that Phil and I agreed by the end of our conversation. We probably did at the start, except I’m not very good at interpreting tweets – I’m tired you see and the nuances are lost on me.

Had I been thinking a bit clearer then maybe I’d have seen early on what Phil was communicating: That Jonathan Trott was bravely fighting a war and that what David Warner said was worth nothing to anybody.

And it was worth nothing – Did Warner’s misplaced braggadocio help Australia to win the Ashes? Nope (and this brilliant article by Ed Smith breaks down why sledging isn’t a cause of winning: Because Roger Federer basically.).

What did win the Ashes was having the ball delivered at rude velocity, not so much threatening mayhem as promising it. From 22 yards, Mitch the Merciless Johnson fired in short, sharp lifters that fizzed off the deck and cracked into bodies. They cannoned into stumps as well, and caught edges and fingers. So many of those that across 5 Ashes Tests Mitch Johnson took 37 wickets at a staggering 13.97.

Of course you’d have ‘scared eyes’ in the face of that pace onslaught. And scared bones (They’d not be long yawning faced with that barrage). But that’s nothing though compared with the fear that depression delivers at you. Jonathan Trott is fighting the latter – David Warner talking about the former is just a load of wank.

Ban away you small-minded bastards – And thanks again for the chat Phil.

It Seems Like Years Since It’s Been Clear

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