Tuesday, 26 November 2013

..........Of Mental Health & Sledging

I know you don't like cricket. Or at least, the majority of you probably don't. It's an acquired taste, requiring a level of patience and intellect that might not be attainable if your brain has been fried by I'm A Celebrity. But anyway, Jonathan Trott's departure from the England tour to Australia has thrown the issue of mental health back into sharp focus.

I like to think I know something about this. I've never been diagnosed with a 'stress related illness' but I have had crashing lows and sought counselling at certain points. The term 'stress related illness' almost feels like something specific to cricket in any case, following similar tour departures from Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy in the recent past. Depression is a more common term, but perhaps that is rather more taboo in the macho world of competetive international sport.

Whatever you want to call it, it usually starts with a trigger. It doesn't have to be anything that might ordinarily be considered majorly traumatic. It doesn't take a death in the family or the destruction of your house to feel depressed. But there is usually something, at which point the illness takes over and magnifies the trigger by a million gazillion per cent so that whatever it is that has kicked the whole thing off seems so much more important than it might have done otherwise.

Nevertheless the suggestion that 'sledging' had anything to do with Trott's illness seems far fetched. Australian batsman David Warner told a salivating press corps that Trott's dismissals in the first Ashes test were 'weak' and 'poor', an assessment which England captain Alistair Cook believed was 'disrespectful'. But while we are on the subject, sledging should only be allowed if it is funny. Australia captain Michael Clarke has just incurred a sizeable fine for telling James Anderson to 'get ready for a fucking broken arm'. This is a base level of playground bullying lacking even the merest trace of humour, and the fine is therefore justified. Regardless of what Shane Warne thinks. Cartainly it is not up there with James Ormond who, upon being told that by Mark Waugh that he was not good enough to play for England, retorted that at least he was the best player in his own family. Or Sir Ian Botham, when being asked by Rodney Marsh 'how's the wife and my kids' answered that 'the wife's fine, the kids are retarded'. Thinking of ways to enforce this a friend of mine came up with the idea of having a panel of comedians decide on which sledges are funny and which are not. He suggested that the panel should contain Frankie Boyle, a man who to my mind has no place in public life, witless arse that he is. So instead I suggest we leave it to the crowd. Announce the sledge over the tannoy and see if the crowd laugh. If they don't then you're getting fined. Seems fair enough to me.

The truth is we don't know what Trott's trigger was. None of us have any idea what is going on in his mind or in his private life which causes him to waft erratically at Mitchell Johnson's leg-side bouncers. We're told by the England management that Trott has been managing this condition ever since he came into the England team some four or five years ago. I have been managing my bouts of despression for far longer than that, and they have only improved in the last 12 months or so since I just stopped over-thinking everything. A consequence of that, however, is that life becomes a bit of a hamster's wheel. You get on when you wake up, pedal around furiously in an attempt to just get through the day, then you stop for a sleep. Work, eat, watch tv, sleep. But the point is it's a routine which leaves you precious little time to let your mind wander around dangerously.

Perhaps that is what Trott needs, or perhaps like Trescothick he needs not only counselling but medication. Mental health is very much an individual thing, with no set symptoms or cure. No one size fits all solution for every single sufferer. But people need to be tolerant of it, which has not always been the case in the sporting world. That old machoism again. Witness John Gregory's disbelief that Stan Collymore could ever be depressed given the size of his pay-packet. It's never as simple as that. Although we should probably remember that this is the same John Gregory who, upon being told by Dwight Yorke that he wanted to leave Aston Villa to join Manchester United, later reported that if he had had a gun he would have shot the Trinidadian striker. Really John? It's just a game.

Sport pales into insignificance when you can't be certain you are going to make it through the day without suffering a nervous breakdown. It did for me. It is no coincidence that I stopped playing basketball at a very difficult time for me personally. I've been called 'mentally weak' (among other things) for my troubles. I am not, clearly. I go through things every day that many people cannot imagine and there is little doubt that my problems are inextricably linked to my disability. How are able bodied people meant to understand that? Mental health problems are not the result of weakness, but of illness. Although my disability contributed to mine, Trott's problems show that it can happen to all sorts of individuals, with all sorts of different personal circumstances. We cannot make wild assumptions and generalisations with something so complex.

I never went back to basketball, and neither Trescothick nor Yardy played for England again following their episodes. Not to say that Trott will disappear from the England picture forever, but he faces a very tough battle to get back firstly to health, and secondly to the England batting order.

He might well decide that cricket isn't worth it.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Guess Who?

I'm not famous. In no way, shape or form am I well known. I'm Not A Celebrity, So Leave Me Here. Very few people in St.Helens are famous. Probably only Johnny Vegas can say that he is well known outside of the M62 corridor. It's an injustice that some of the people who have played for Saints with such distinction down the years (and in particular Steve Prescott after his super-human achievements before his tragic death last week) are not well known in Tunbridge Wells or wherever but there you go. That's another blog.

I point out my lack of celebrity because I got recognised on Friday night. By a taxi driver. He came to my house to take me, along with Emma and her mum and dad, into the town centre. We were going to the Chinese Buffet in town. There was nobody famous in there either. Only I got recognised. By a taxi driver;

'Oh I remember you from Sindy's' he said.

There are a number of things about this. Firstly, 'Sindy's' as far as I can ascertain, has not been called 'Sindy's' since my mum and her mates went there before I was born. When I was in the building it was called 'Lowie's', but even that guise has long since suffered it's demise. It must be fully 15 years since I went to Lowie's, and even then it was probably only because they briefly reduced the price of a pint of beer to 50p in a desperate bid to get the punters back in. The world was changing beyond their control. Staying in was becoming the new going out, especially after the smoking ban came into force a few years later. Even the fiendishly brilliant marketing ploy that was changing its name to firstly, 'The Plaza' and latterly 'The Orange House' couldn't keep people in the building.

Anyway, like I say it was all a very long time ago, so how does this man know me after all these years? The awful truth is that he might know me, he might not. He's taken a blind punt that it was me because he can remember, through the fog in his small mind, picking up a very drunken disabled person from the premises. Whatever it might have been called at the time. There is every chance that it was me. I confess, I was there. But equally, there is every chance that it was my good friend Paul who sadly is no longer with us. Or it could have been any number of people who happened to frequent the premises and have the temerity to do so in a wheelchair. Either way, can any of you able bodied people really say that you have to endure people who have met you once in or outside of a nightclub 15 years ago recognsing you on your way out for a quiet meal with the in-laws? It's worse than having the fucking paparazzi hiding in the bushes in my back garden. Celebrities have to put up with that sort of thing but they are paid a gazillion bazillion pounds for their trouble. I have a grade four administration job in a University. It's not the same thing.

But it's the uncertainty that annoys me. It might not have been me, but I'm usually too polite to point this out to people. Quite often when I am recognised, it isn't me. Brilliantly, I was once recognised by my friend's brother's best mate on the way home from the pub;

'Alright, Phil? Shit result for United, wasn't it?'

I think you have spotted the flaw in all of this. I am not Phil. My friend Phil is Phil. Yes he has a wheelchair,but it is there that the similarities between us end. Ok, we are both miserable buggers but is it any wonder when we have to put up with bullshit like this? This man, who to be fair might have drunk half of Thatto Heath dry by then, continued to insist that not only was I Phil, but that I actually gave a flying fuck about Man Utd's result other than to take great joy in their misfortune. Several attempts on my behalf to deny being Phil or the much greater indignity of supporting Manchester United fell on deaf ears. Or insanely drunken ears at the very least. Can your ears get drunk?

No matter. This ambiguity can sometimes work in our favour. The inability of able bodied people to look above the wheels and identify someone could be all I need to commit the perfect murder. You could put me in a Usual Suspects-style line up with five other wheelchair users and there are able-bodied people out there who would not be able to pick me out had they witnessed the crime. Some of them couldn't narrow it down any if two of the five people in the line-up were women! Because to them there are no male and female wheelchair users, only people in wheelchairs. We are continually desexualised and dehumanised. The third gender. Whenever I go abroad I marvel at their ability to put a disabled toilet within the confines of either a gents or a ladies toilet area. Meanwhile Britain continues to be mysytifyingly unable to make this kind of scientific breakthrough. The third gender must have it's own room, and while it's about it, it must put it's hand up at the bar and ask Miss if it can have the key to get in. It's either that or wet yourself. You fucking choose.

If people aren't going to look above the wheels (and I don't think there is time to tell you about the occasion when some kids mistook me for another local man called Malcolm who not only cannot power his own wheelchair manually but can't actually verbalise due to the severity of his disability) then we might aswell just all have a great big game of Guess Who and then we'll just become whoever is on the card we end up with. Have you got glasses? Have you got blond hair? Are you wearing a hat? Are you fucking Albert or Morris or Ged?

Even I don't know now.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Falling Down (Again)

Let me tell you about my day.

Normally my life is a pretty dull affair. I get up, I go to work, I go home, I eat, I watch telly, I sleep. There are sporadic periods of neurotic angst thrown in to spice things up now and again, but for the most part I've become a rather dull version of myself now that I'm into my late 30's.

But today was different. And not in a good way. The morning was unremarkable, except for an unwelcome fire drill. Every Wednesday morning the fire alarm goes off at work and is duly ignored. Everyone knows it's a test. But today it went off for a second time. In a this-is-not-a-test sort of way. So we grabbed our coats and headed outside. For me this means waiting next to a lift which has recently been shut off and needs to be operated by a colleague with an evacuation key. All of which delays my exit long enough to ensure that when I get outside I am at the back of an army of students discussing I'm A Celebrity, TOWIE and Embarrassing Bodies. When I finally found my colleagues the freedom of being outside the office had clearly got to some of them. The level of banter was beyond banal.

An hour later I risk another foray into the outside world for my dinner. It was an ill-fated decision to say the least. As I was crossing the road three of my work colleagues walked up next to me. I asked them where they were going and they told me that they were going to Hemingways, which is a cafe just across the road from work. I go here often, but this looked like a girlie lunch and I didn't want to impose. Besides I had already half decided to take the risk of heading into the city centre. I say goodbye and we go our separate ways.

As I'm rolling down Stanley Street in Liverpool, towards the city centre, I'm thinking of just about everything except where I am going and what I am doing. Suddenly, quite inexplicably and unexpectedly, I hit a crack in the pavement. Before I even know this I am on all fours on the pavement, crawling around groping for my wheelchair. It's all very undignified but I manage to stop it before it rolls through the front window of the bloody Lobster Pot. As I do this, at least three people stop to try and help me. Everyone means well, but there are times when you wish that they didn't. It may sound harsh, but wouldn't it be better if, in this kind of embarrassing scenario, everyone just turned the other way and pretended that nothing had happened? Unless I'm mortally wounded then I don't really want help after falling out of my chair. I'm not mortally wounded, but my left wrist is very sore. You can write your own jokes about that.

The lunch-time that never ends moves on to Burger King, where another well-meaning able-bodied person gives up his seat for me. There are literally no other seats available, so it's a kind gesture. The kind of help you want if you are hungry and have just suffered the indignity of doing an Ashley Young in a busy Liverpool street. Just as I am about to leave I run into an old mate from my old basketball team. He tells me that he is not married any more (he got married about five minutes ago as far as I'm aware) and that he and another of my friends aren't really seeing much of each other. I tell him to get it sorted and promise to get in touch. I'll probably end up playing referee as the two of them try to outdo each other in the field of vodka-induced pettiness, but a good night will be had by all nonetheless I'm sure. As long as I can get the two of them in the same room.

I'm very late back for work by now and yet I run into another acquaintance. I relay my falling-out-of-chair story and he dazzles me with tales of going to Italy, Amsterdam and Sydney. This man is hardly ever in the country. Not a bad way to live your life, and it is genuinely nice to catch up with him. Same goes for the other bloke. A rare positive on a day of absurd levels of indignity.

The next of which comes at the Boots across the road from work. Not only have I hurt my wrist on my lunch break, but it also transpires that I have a searingly damaging dose of the screaming ab-dabs. The shits, not to put too fine a point on it. I need something to stop it, quickly. Again I have made a poor decision. All I asked for is a standard box of Immodium. The type you can buy over the counter almost anywhere. This isn't Breaking Bad. I'm not trying to buy Crystal Meth. I just want to stop shitting. At that point I am shitting through spaces which consider the eye of a needle to be spacious and roomy. Yet they are not going to sell me the tablets. They ask if I am on any other medication and, without thinking it through and lying blatantly, I admit that I am on medication for my kidneys and my sodium levels. If I had known that the inquisition which followed was going to take place I would have lied. I just never expected it to be a problem. It caught me off guard. Rather like the shits itself does. So anyway I am there fully 10 minutes waiting for the Boots staff to stop conferring about whether I can take Immodium without spontaneously combusting. The staff and I have a staggeringly unintelligent circular conversation about this and I'm reminded of the Monty Python sketch in which the man goes in for an argument and complains that all he is getting is contradiction. This isn't an argument. Yes it is. No it isn't. And so on.


At last, mercifully, thankfully, they agree that it is safe to sell me the Immodium. Who would have thought it? I've only been taking it for a bad stomach for pretty much my entire life. It would have served the jobsworth right if I'd have failed to hold on any longer while I was waiting and endured a Spud-From-Trainspotting soiling moment. That doesn't bear thinking about, clearly, but there might be those who would consider shitting on someone's shop floor to be a suitable form of revenge for contributing to the delay in halting my illness.

I'm feeling better now, you will be glad to know, although my left wrist is still a little bit sore. It's only ten to 5, however, and I am about to phone the chemist about my other medication which is often a challenge that Anneka Rice would baulk at.

It's just another day.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

14 Years

I always seem to start my pieces with something negative, and let it go downhill from there. It's not intentional. I suppose it is just who I am. In fact, I wasn't going to write this today at all. It's alarming and depressing to note that my blog quadruples in popularity when someone dies.

But there's a bigger picture here. Today marks the 14th anniversary of the death of Paul, a man oft-mentioned on these pages, and I want to mark the occasion. This is the best way I know how to do it. And rightly so that he should be mentioned because he was a great man in so many ways, and was taken cruelly and inexplicably from us at just 26 years of age back in 1999. So much has happened since then. Often I think about this. What would he have made of everything that has changed in the intervening years? How would he have felt about the sad loss of Jo a couple of weeks ago? As I write his team, Manchester City are 4-1 up at half-time against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League. At the time of his death they had not long since won promotion to the second tier of English football after a barely credible play-off comeback against Gillingham at Wembley. It's hard to imagine City playing against Gillingham again any time soon, cup draws notwithstanding. And he would have loved that. That and Wigan's Grand Final and Challenge Cup double this year, the first time any team has achieved that since Saints in 2006. I can assure you he would not have thought very much of that.

Which takes me back to Easter 1996, the first season of Super League summer rugby. Until then we had spent far too many an afternoon freezing our proverbials off at either Knowsley Road or Central Park as all the important fixtures took place in the winter. It's strange to think now that I actually went to Central Park with him on numerous occasions. I'd never go and watch that wretched mob now but at the time it seemed like a natural and sensible thing to do if Saints were playing away. How very old fashioned. Paul probably talked me into it. We both loved our rugby and so the opportunity to go along and cheer on our hated rivals' opponents on any given day was one we relished.

But back on that April day in 1996 we were both at Knowsley Road legitimately supporting our own teams. The only obstacle to a good day being had by all (aside from the result inevitably about to put someone's nose out of joint) is that we were rip-roaringly drunk before we got within half a mile of the ground. I remember spending more time than is reasonable before a game in the Bird I'th Hand pub on the corner of the road where the old ground used to be. I was only going to get worse. We arrived at the ground to find the very limited disabled area three deep. Paul used to joke that half the Wigan-watching disabled public spent every hour at the ground watching the grass grow, so it was no surprise to find them occupying their seats already. And it wasn't as if we were early. Nowadays I can get into the new stadium five minutes before kick-off and still be guaranteed my space. Which is how it should be in a civilised world where I have paid in advance for a ticket. But in those days it was first come, best dressed and we were stark bollock naked. Metaphorically speaking.

So I left him there. You would think that as the one on enemy territory Paul would be the one to bolt, rather than sit behind the crowded mass of people trying to squint between gaps to catch a glimpse of the action. But no, it was me. I left him there on his own and went back to the pub, a lone impostor who had only got into the ground so late because I was somewhat prolific at suggesting we go for a beverage before games at St.Helens. To be fair he rarely argued about it, if ever. Anyway, somewhere in the midst of my unbridled joy at the 41-26 Saints victory (Danny Arnold scored a hat-trick and blew a kiss rather pretentiously at the Sky camera which I loved at the time) I gazed into my pint and felt some sympathy for him. I knew he would be fuming, insisting that none of the Wigan players get their wages this week, and questioning the parentage of the referee.

I'm afraid that the post-match celebrations back at the pub are a bit of a blur. If he was here now I doubt he would remember them any better because he was busy drowning his sorrows with some enthusiasm. It wasn't until a few weeks later when we were at another game at Knowsley Road together that we happened to notice someone familiar in the match programme. They were running a 'face in the crowd' competition, the winner of which would receive a prize from the Saints club shop. To the disgust of both of us we looked a little closer to find that it was him. He had been photographed at some point during Saints derby win, looking tipsy and quite glum. I was affronted at the idea that a Wiganer had won the prize, and he was affronted by the very notion that he would ever touch, much less wear, any Saints merchandise.

But he did. It wasn't a replica shirt or even anything noticeably peppered with Saints logos. Instead it was a rather smart and almost neutral looking blue sweatshirt baring the name of our sponsors at the time, McEwans Lager. For months, maybe a couple of years afterwards he wore it regularly for basketball training, a constant reminder of the day he was the 'face in the crowd' at a ground he talked quite happily about burning to the ground most of the time. In jest, of course. He was a peaceful man at heart. All of which seems to me to be a good deal more ironic than a black fly in your Chardonnay, and above all a great memory.

'Maybe you're the same as me.....we see things they'll never see......you and I are gonna live forever.......'