#25 – Go surfing

Surfing has always seemed like the coolest sport anyone can do. It conjures up images of handsome people with lovely teeth and sun-bleached hair scoring their boards and their bodies through the water as they escape whatever it is people hide at sea to escape from. I’ve always watched from the shore and wondered, would I be as good at that as I feel I would naturally be. Before we continue, the short answer is no.

As a kid I watched Neighbours a lot. There were a lot of cool surf dudes in Neighbours at the time. There may well be still. I can’t deal with the thought of watching soaps though. My first experience of death was Todd Landers. He got hit by a van. It was 13 July 1992. Todd was really cool. I still miss him.

For my 29th birthday Charlotte and I headed down to the coast. Which coast you may ask? The coast if you want to get away from it all and have the chance to surf. Cornwall. We stayed in a gypsy caravan for a week where we would often fight over who was going to get out of bed and into the two degree winter morning to make tea (it was invariably me) and see what culinary delights it was possible to summon up on a simple red camping stove. It turns out you can bake a Camembert and grill a salmon if you really commit to it.
While we were there, our kind host Dale, who we found through my new best friend AirBnB, asked if we wanted to go surfing. Dale had lovely teeth and sun-bleached hair even though it was February and for some reason I trusted him.

On the last full day we were staying in St Ives he picked out a couple of wetsuits for us, found the biggest, thickest surfboards known to man and we followed him in his 4×4 down to the beach. The car had to be bump-started every time he took it off the farmland. It was part of the charm.
We pulled up in a residential area and walked through a number of alleyways to get down to the beach itself. Dale kept pointing out different buildings and telling us how much it would cost to move into them and move it up. For a cool surf dude he had a real eye for property development. I could hear the roar of the water, feel it rising up high enough to sit on my lips and make the experience taste salty. I wedged the board under my arm tightly and tried to make it look like I did this shit every day. I don’t do this shit every day. I process words and numbers every day for “the man” but I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing.
We got to the beach and quickly got changed into our wetsuits. There were two reasons we quickly wanted to get changed into our wetsuits, the first is that we were very exposed in the little concrete overhang beneath the stairs down to the water and the second is that it was four degrees out. If you take anything away from this, it is important to know that it is a bad idea to go surfing in February as a first-timer. It’s a bad idea to do anything in February really.

Wetsuits are a curious thing. With the way Bond slides out of them revealing a tuxedo underneath you would think they come away like the outer layer of a week old onion. They don’t. It’s like trying to fit your entire body into the rubbery insides of Ronnie Corbett via his mouth hole (especially when you’re six foot tall). I eventually wangled my way in with a lot of elbow grease and grunting and like in every other situation I’ve ever been in, started to wonder how much of a tit I looked. I looked over at Charlotte in her sea-blue wetsuit, she looked like Lara Croft in those levels where you spend a lot of time underwater watching her fabulous pixelated backside. As a boy I used to enjoy watching Lara Croft drown. Concerning and also possibly the reason I didn’t offer a lot of support when my girlfriend went under the water.

We waddled out awkwardly, trying to impress on the dog-walkers huddled up against the cold on the far reaches of the beach that we knew exactly what we were doing. I’ve seen enough people having surfing lessons to know that you’re not allowed in the water for about an hour. Instead you have to put the board down in the sand and practice lying on that, popping up and riding around like a sand god or goddess. Before we even have time to ask if you still called the front the bow and the back the stern, Dale and his girlfriend had run out into the water and disappeared. The waves breaking about a hundred metres out looked incredible. It was only as they reached them that I was able to see how large they were. Aside from the little dots climbing up the side of the walls of water everything looked fairly grey. The sky was grey. The water was grey. My skin was grey and sort of mottled. I tied my GoPro around my wrist and hoped that it a) wouldn’t come off and b) would make me look cool. It held around 50% of the bargain.

Charlotte was a couple of steps ahead of me and bravely headed out into the water.
“My shoe just filled with water,” she said of the two-pronged Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-looking shoes we were both in. “Is that supposed to happen?”
“Yeah, of course,” I said in a way that I hoped convinced us both. We walked out a little further, her slightly less stable because she doesn’t have the gangly proportions of a Beano character and can’t wrap an entire arm around a surfboard.
We soon discovered that the cold we had been expecting, that breath-shuddering induction to the water simply wasn’t there. I felt comfortable in my wetsuit. Maybe, I considered, I had found my true calling. I pushed the board out further and dipped the back of it so the front rose over the first few waves we had encountered. Charlotte was struggling. What I hadn’t considered is the differences in our history around open water. I spent a lot of summers in the sea, and I don’t mean that in the twenty-first century call to get rid of something we don’t like. We would always find a beach and my brothers and I would bodyboard our way to glory. I therefore know how to get through waves, how to ride back in and most importantly, what to do when you inevitably go under. Charlotte managed to set herself up to ride her board in a couple of times before she went down. I helpfully captured the whole thing on GoPro before she was able to splutter enough seawater out of her face to call me a bastard and call it a day.

I headed out deeper without her. Waves started to seem like daunting bullies from my secondary school days, big foamy versions of the boys who hit puberty first and didn’t like me. I bounced up and nutted them down. I wasn’t having any of it. I rode in a couple of times laying out on the board and then decided to test this standing up thing. If you’ve got to crawl before you can walk then I had put in plenty of time riding into the shores of the med as a pre-teen. The first time I “popped up”, I made it to my knees before the board tipped up and I disappeared beneath the water. I coughed up a lot of seawater and quite probably a less important internal organ. I looked up to the beach to see if Charlotte was hanging around looking cold and concerned for my safe return from sea. I couldn’t see her anywhere. I headed back out to try again.
I knew it would be just a matter of time before I found my natural rhythm and went pro. All I needed was a couple more hideous wipeouts and I would be the best damn surfer this ocean had ever seen. The next time I managed to stand I was too far forwards on the board and it nose-dived to the sea floor, sending me hurtling upside down into the water again. For a second I wondered if it looked like I could have been hanging ten, a move I only know from playing Tony Hawk, again as a teenager. Watching the footage back there’s no mistaking the fact that I simply didn’t know what I was doing. I was also very liberal with the bluest of four-letter words.
I pushed the board out again and waited. Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock. Everything went black and white. Some horses started to gallop over the lip of the next wave. I was in a Guinness advert. I lined myself up and started to paddle. The wave caught me and I bolted forward. I held the board steady, got up onto my knees and then jumped up. I was standing on a surf board. It could only have been for a few seconds, enough time to triumphantly lift my arms over my head before it all went Pete Tong but I was going to have that. I had done some actual genuine surfing.
Once I had recovered I looked up to the beach alcove and Charlotte was still not there, not watching me. I wondered if she would ever realise how truly cool her boyfriend was. It started to rain. Then it started to hail. I was reminded of the line in Forrest Gump:
“We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.”
This was the rain that seemed to come straight up from underneath. I decided to take on one more wave before having to explain to my girlfriend why I thought it would be enduring to capture her first wipeout to show to our grandkids one day.

I spotted the wave. I turned and started to paddle. It caught me. I stood, I whooped and I fell. I realised as I walked back to the shore and started to consider getting out of my new layer of Rip Curl skin that everything is like surfing or that surfing is like everything else. The things you fear about it, the being cold, the going under, the drowning. It’s very unlikely they’ll actually end you. You might fall, you might go under. You might end up in tears because you can’t feel your feet for an hour afterwards but at the end of the day, if you can just stand up for two seconds and holler it out to the world then it feels like you have got somewhere.

An excerpt from AFK.

As people started to move from their seats despite the fact we had been specifically told not to undo our seatbelts until the sign had been turned off I grabbed the US Customs form we were supposed to have filled in during the flight. I had been too engrossed in my mammoth film session to even consider the red tape and bureaucracy of it all. I managed to get the first couple right, I knew my name and date of birth, but beyond that I started to struggle. They wanted to know the specific address we were heading to and when we would leave. I thought to myself calm down mate, we just got here. Harvey gave me his form to copy so as long as I didn’t accidentally copy his passport details down I was sorted. We were due to spend our first night at a lodge in Grand Canyon National Park and that was what Harvey had put down on his form. I copied his details word-for-word before realising we didn’t have the same date of birth, he was five years younger than me and also infinitely cooler. I managed to remember that America, for reasons unknown, put all their dates in the format month, day, year and checked everything I had put down. I wanted to make sure it was right. Despite the fact we had taken off at eleven in the morning and flown for over ten hours it was only two pm local time. I struggled with the maths  of it all in my head as Harvey handed me my bag from the overhead shelf and I carefully piled everything back into it.

We arched our way out into the aisle and I slowly managed to shake off the dead feeling in the bottom half of my body. I’d only got up once in the course of the flight and felt twinges like it had gone to sleep. I felt rested but confused and disorientated, like waking with a hangover. Maybe this was the jetlag.

Nobody had anything to say to each other as we followed the row of heads through white corridors and out into a hall covered in a snake of rope to help us non-American citizens queue more effectively. Overhead were a lot of warnings about having your passport ready for inspection and not taking photographs in the hall. Every two minutes a video would flash up featuring Carrot Topp detailing how it wasn’t a good idea to decide to “have a laugh” when it came to entering these United States. I took heed of the ad, I was going to be a good boy.

As if the videos weren’t enough, a stern looking guard in uniform patrolled the front of the queue and yelled at anyone who had taken their phone out prematurely.
‘Sir, no pictures in here.’
‘You, in the sunglasses, cell phones away until you’re through security.’
‘Have your passports ready for inspection.’
This meant taking them out of protective cases. Security hate protective cases which is funny because they literally sit in one, behind glass, judging. I watched as Melanie and Harvey were asked to step forward into a queue for a particular desk. There were outlines of footprints painted on the floor to indicate exactly where they were allowed to stand while waiting to be invited up to the desk. Customs didn’t want them to stand too close together apparently in cas e that was the moment they chose to launch an attack on US soil. Behind me, Dr James and Teni were worrying about where Dr Amy had got to. They were sure she had been right behind them as they were coming off the plane but now she was nowhere to be seen. Teni was trying to count everyone through to make sure there were no stragglers.
‘Sir, you can join queue 17.’
As they had said sir, I assumed they were addressing someone else. Someone who must have somehow been ahead of me in the queue. Maybe an adult. It turned out they were talking to me.
‘Sir, number seventeen, hablo English?!’

I stepped into a queue and started to sweat. I tried to look like I hadn’t done anything wrong because I hadn’t. The bloated couples in front of me, clearly on their way to Vegas in their clichéd trilby and sunglasses, their too high heels and palm tree shirts were having their fingerprints scanned. It seemed a bit unnecessary. From what I had seen on the news, Americans had been committing crimes against fellow Americans with no mention of us non-US citizens being involved. Regardless of all the gun crime and the rape they may have committed against each other I was certainly not going to make a joke or try to be funny or give them any reason to take me to a tiny room and test the capabilities of my frame with a cavity search.

I looked up and the solemn man with the wonky moustache but straight glasses signalled to me with two fingers. I hoped he was at least going to buy me a drink first.
‘Ello’ I said, attempting to be more English than ever before and coming out somewhere along the way to Van Dyke cockney.
‘Passport please… sir.’
I put my passport down on the desk between the pair of us. Everything around him was square to the desk itself. It had a place. The pens were in a row at the side of the keyboard. The monitor was facing the back wall. His hands were poised on the edge, perfectly manicured fingers ready to judge me. In the midst of all the depraved and purposeful contours of his universe was my misaligned and grubby passport, eight years into its ten year life, stamped in Africa, South America and soon, the United States of America. He swung it around and looked hard at the picture. A young, shaggy-headed version of me looked up at him with stoned, puffy eyes.
‘Hmmmm’ he said. The sweat on my brow stopped rolling like his vision was based on movement. ‘You’ve had a haircut.’
‘That was 2008 mate, I’ve had a few.’

The hallway was windowless. I could have been anywhere. All I knew is I was alone and if I didn’t do something about it I was going to be stuck there for a long time. People walking in the opposite direction glared at me. I felt scrutinised and studied the floor. At the end of the long hallway there was a glint of light like a door had briefly been opened into another world before being shut again.
I wasn’t about to feel the long arm of the law. I had simply lost the rest of the group.

What happened after I made the terrible blunder of attempting to be funny on my way into America is the man with the wonky moustache and straight sunglasses looked me dead in the eyes before glaring hard at my passport picture.

‘Place your thumb on the panel.’ Shocked, I did so. ‘Spread the fingers of your right hand on the grid’ he added. I did as I was told, placing my four fingers across a Logan’s Run looking pad attached to the front of his desk. ‘Repeat the same with your other hand.’ I repeated the same with the other hand. ‘Look into the camera. I tried to look distant and aloof with a wry grin, like I knew I was going to be trouble. When they flashed that mug shot up in the Fox News update showing in my mind I wanted Americans sat around their television sets to declare me a nasty piece of work with adorable dimples just based on that know-it-all smugness.

‘Welcome to the United States’ he said and banged his stamp in and around my passport a bit to make it look official. I fought the law and I won. I hurried through to baggage claim and waited while everyone else in the group managed to find their bags. I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and freshen up. My mouth felt dry and gummy, again like waking with a hangover. I checked my reflection over and pulled at the sleepy black circles underneath my eyes. I tried not to think about the time back home but knew it had to be bedtime. I wanted a Horlicks. I needed to keep on trucking and assimilate the new time zone as quickly as possible to get full enjoyment from the trip. When I came back out, everyone except Dr James had gone through. He had his bag but was still waiting for Dr Amy who hadn’t come through security. She seemed to have disappeared. He was understandably concerned for her for two obvious reasons. The first is that anyone who is whisked away upon landing from a flight is either a celebrity or in trouble. The second is that he didn’t want to deal with our whining and first world problems on his own for a week, which was understandable. My bag finally came through. I was able to recognise it from the rainbow tag that remained tied to the top from the group flight to Peru a year before. Aside from that it was a non-descript black backpack. I took it down from the conveyer belt and slowly tried to wheel it through. The problem is, and always has been, that the bag is shorter than my legs. It doesn’t have an extendable handle so I’m constantly having to slouch to pull it and it is constantly having to flip over and embarrass me. We’re like C3PO and R2D2 but not in a galaxy far, far away.

‘Sir, can I see your passport?’ asked a guard at the side of the walkway. He had a gun and a walkie-talkie so I respected his request. He looked it over and I managed to hold my tongue.
‘You got anything on you?’ he asked.
‘I’m sorry.’
Oh shit, here we go again.
‘You got any on you?’
He raised his head indicating towards me. I couldn’t work out what I was supposed to do.
‘You got any coffee, like on your shirt.’
I looked down at the stupid upside-down logo on my t-shirt. I JUST WANT TO DRINK COFFEE, CREATE STUFF AND SLEEP.
‘Oh, haha, no. I don’t, sorry.’
‘There’s a lot of you coming through here for that Grand Canyon Lodge. Where are y’all going?’
Y’all, y’all, he actually said y’all. I was in America after all.
‘We, good sir, are off to trek the Canyon for charity.’ Again, the sentence was jumbled together with chimneysweep cockney thrown in for good measure.
‘Well, have a great day.
Have a great day, have a great day. He actually said have a great day. That confirmed it.
I gave a bit of a curtsy and broke on through to the other side.

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Following it up.

This week saw me having a number of frank and beautiful conversations with people about mental health. Their mental health, my mental health, what they were taking, what I was taking, who they recommend I speak to, who I recommend they speak to. It’s so nice to have kick-started something for myself and others which means this subject gets the openness and respect it deserves.

A lot of people have told me that what I did last week, what I wrote, was brave. It isn’t brave. It’s something we should be able to talk about in the same way I will tell you now that I’ve had some wicked migraines in the last couple of days which I have taken as being a foretelling of the coming of the end of my days. It shouldn’t be brave to talk about mental health. It’s like any other kind of health. The amount of time I spend listening to people complain about having man flu could instead be filled up with people just as naturally talking about their mental health.

I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read my blog, everyone who commented, everyone who spoke to me privately about their own concerns. It’s meant the stats have gone through the roof. On the day I posted Citalopramstagram my blog had more hits than on any other day in the four years I’ve been writing. We are all brave. We are all amazing. I am not defined by my mental health but it certainly is a part of me.

Citalopramstagram

Hey.
It’s okay. It’s just me. Don’t mind me.
I just wanted to let you know that you’re going to be alright. There’s a lot of bloody awful stuff going on in the world but you’re doing really well.

When I was younger I got sad. I was hella young and I was hella sad (I’m going to call that my “hella” quota for this blog post). Nobody knew what to do with me. I hadn’t seen an awful lot of hardship aside from the fact I never got Hungry, Hungry Hippos for Christmas in 1993. I had never been beaten (other than with a spatula which was all the rage at the time) and I was never molested. I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t explain it. I sat with that sadness for an awfully long time. I suppose you’ve reached a point where you are wondering why I’m telling you this. It’s for me. It’s for you too but it’s mostly for me. Whenever I tell people that I suffer from anxiety, that I suffer from depression, that sometimes I see a train pulling in and wonder how long it would hurt for, they ask how. I am outwardly happy. I’ve had to learn to be. These are perfectly normal thoughts, unless you’re being quizzed by a healthcare professional in which case they draw a sad face next to that question on their little survey and carry on. I’m writing this as someone who has been in and out of some kind of therapy for more than five years, more than fifteen if you count the sugar pill homeopathy sessions I underwent when I first got the sads. I’m currently on citalopram. I’m on the waiting list for therapy again. I just wanted to write this to let you know that it’s okay. I can’t talk for people who have undergone horrible circumstances. I can’t speak on behalf of battered spouses or soldiers returning with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have never really been victimised (beyond generic school bullying (my name came under some scrutiny for not being quite English enough)). I’ve never really had a problem that couldn’t be resolved with a box of Kleenex and a cup of tea. Take that however you wish. I just wanted to let you know that even if you haven’t experienced something horrible, if you feel you are not allowed to show any kind of emotion at Million Dollar Baby in case people realise that you’re human, that it’s okay to need help and its okay to sometimes feel like you are a bit broken. It’s alright to want to do terrible things, to destroy yourself and the world around you. I don’t think that’s something that is taught. Like I said, I can’t speak for people in a lot of circumstances. I’m trying to completely understand my own privilege as I type this. Just because I have that privilege. As a man. As a white man. As a straight white man. As a straight white man living in England. As a straight white man living in my own place in England. Even with all that going on, it’s alright to be sad. It’s alright to feel emotion. It’s alright to feel like you want to shut yourself away from the world. We are taught from the earliest ages that we aren’t allowed to do certain things because they are gendered.  We, as boys, got DIY and not being able to dance, girls got a lot of accessories and all the best colours. It was also taught women were allowed to have emotions that men weren’t. Isn’t that twee and quaint and adorable?  For the longest time I felt guilty about the way I felt about things. It didn’t matter if it was social injustice (flies on the faces of kids in Sudan) or Aslan dying and rising up like a glossy yellow Jesus. That guilt runs pretty deep and I don’t understand why. What’s the problem with showing emotion? I cried when David Bowie died and I cried at Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s nice to be able to cry. It’s also nice to be able to talk openly about depression. Why do people have such an issue with it? What’s the big problem there?

As it turns out, once you become the person who mentions it, you’re actually like some kind of soothsayer for anyone else you come into contact with. As soon as I was comfortable enough with my own mental health to start talking about it, I discovered other people had thoughts and feelings and had been waiting for someone to talk to. Why don’t we all just talk about it? Wouldn’t that be a lot healthier than sitting in the dark and rocking? When I was a kid I genuinely thought I was going to be dragged off to a padded cell in a straitjacket. If I could travel through time, one of the first things I would do,  after investing in Apple when they were working out of a garage and telling George Lucas not to put eyelids on the Ewoks, is tell my younger self it’s going to be alright, that it is okay to be sad and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s something I needed to hear at the time and as incredible as my parents were when I got that way, it didn’t help to settle the fear there was something wrong with me.

I read something recently that said “in the forties, eighteen-year-olds went off to fight and die for their country and now they just want to talk about their feelings”. I hope the source realises they are talking about a generation who returned home from that war, if they were lucky enough to return at all, and a lot of them suffered for the rest of their days. My grandfather was born in Holland. He was in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. He saw piles of bodies at roadsides. He had to hide under floorboards from the Nazis when he was a teenage boy. You don’t think he wanted someone to talk to about that? He couldn’t. He was never the same again. There wasn’t a term for it then. He, like many men in wartime, had to suffer in silence. I know someone who toured Afghanistan just a couple of years ago and the boy who came back was not the same boy we sent off. Fortunately he’s now getting the help he needs.

That’s why I’m offering this advice ultimately. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, or what you’ve got going on, just know that the thoughts that keep you up at night, the fears you have and the concerns you carry are entirely okay and you’re going to be alright. Look after yourself, get in touch with me if you are worried about anything and I will speak to you soon.

Thank you.

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