So I posted this photo a little while ago – kicking back in a hammock on Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. In the comments, a good friend of mine rhetorically asks “how is this helping depressed people?” he adds “all you are doing is making people who are not there depressed!!!”. Well, Mr Silva, if that photo has made you a little envious then mission accomplished.
There have been a number of times when I have asked myself the same thing or felt guilty for taking time out from the ride to self indulge. Considering the very sobering and contemporarily relevant charitable cause to which the ride is linked it feels wrong at times to be doing anything other than putting the head down and stoicly pushing on for Scotland through thick and thin. But then…that notion of stoicly trudging on is the exact social norm I am encouraging people to push against. That notion is, in my mind, largely responsible for the plague of depression which seems to be running rampant – that old protestant, one-tracked mindset that happiness is best pursued through a good day’s work ploughing the fields, a freshly painted picket fence and an ice cold beer at the end of the day. The ‘Australian Dream’? But that doesn’t represent happiness for all. For some there has always been more out there and the internal daily struggle against the two competing voices starts to do some damage after a little while; one voice calling overwhelmingly for a solid job and a mortgage, drowning out the other; an irresistible urge to break free and follow your own path. This photo to light a little fire under the latter – this photo to inspire the pursuit of happyness.
The ride is not supposed to encourage people to throw in their job, hand the keys back to the bank and take a motorbike around the world – far from it, that’s not for everyone. In fact, for more than a few, the orthodoxy embodied above and the smell of fresh cut grass on a Sunday morning sounds pretty darn good. But for those others, those dreamers, those with unfinished (or unstarted) business, this ride, and in turn this photo, is supposed to stir the loins a little. It is supposed to invoke a little envy. It is supposed to make you long for whatever it is that you day-dream about when idly flittering away the hours at work, wishing you were somewhere else – be it a secluded tropical beach in Thailand, laid flat on a worn-through swag in the outback looking at the night sky or huffing the sweet stench of fermented malt barley from a freshly brewed batch after taking the long, agonising and generally unpopular decision to make a life-changing switch from a very stable career to the world of brewing beer (too specific?).
That spattering of guilt for taking a moment to myself is soon reconciled when I remember the base message behind the ride because that’s precisely what this has all been about: encouraging people to take a little time for themselves – inspiring people to follow their dreams rather than letting tedium and fear (NB. depression) dictate. Now that might sound horrifically cliché but let’s just draw on the saying for a second – “follow your dreams”? How trite and banal. We’ve heard it before, we hear it all the time but no one really pays attention to it, it’s lip-service – the very definition of a cliché. I mean for fuck’s sake, who can say that their dream was to work in ‘accounts receivable’? Who can say they haven’t left some burning desire sitting up on the shelf? That time hasn’t passed them by faster than expected? That they don’t have regrets? Who can say that they have always truly followed their dreams? Big or small, it doesn’t matter – world travel, new career or learning how to knit. In answering another rhetorical question, my guess is no one. That’s depressing. In fact, I’m calling it the leading factor in depression. At least it was for me.
So, maybe then the message behind the ride should be: “Just Do It”. Go out there and have a go, fight depression, tedium and anxiety by blocking out all the noise and ‘just doing’ what it is that you’ve long put off. (Actually, I tried to coin the “Just Do It” slogan however Legal flagged that it was already in use by someone…) We now have another cliché that sounds good – inspiring, relevant, yet infinitely more complex in reality. “Just doing it” involves hours (maybe weeks, months and years) of research, invariably involves some sort of financial and maybe social opportunity cost – a reduction in income (maybe no income for a period), more than a few odd (if scornful looks) from friends and family and a brain-melting level of overthought. “Just doing it” can be downright frightening – and to “just do it” without too much thought or concern is downright irrational and destined to fail (maybe further cementing that sense of anxiety, insecurity and depression). No – to “Just do it”, similarly with “follow your dreams”, is much harder in reality than it is on paper and so we find ourselves at an impasse, paralysed by indecision and fear. Damn, that’s depressing.
This is where, with a touch of arrogance, I hold myself, and this ride, as a totem upon which to be judged. A light of inspiration for some and a beacon of scepticism and pity for others. ‘Either/or’ – I don’t mind – have endured both and it remains a service I am happy to provide. This ride to be a gesture of such magnitude that to those who are comfortable and genuinely happy with a phlegmatic prole life of 9 – 5 they can seek further comfort looking down, knowingly, from afar on the dishevelled life and antics of that bloody idiot who quit his good job and wasted all his money on an experience he could have just as easily traded out for a deposit on a house, new lawn mower and cold beers on a Friday night. “He’ll never make it – what a fool. Hah! God, I’m lucky to be the person I am”. And to this crowd I applaud, I cheer and yes – sometimes I do truly wish I was part of that club. Blissfully…content. To the others, this ride provides the confidence, belief, encouragement and opportunity to proof another cliché: “you can do anything you put your mind to”. If I can ride a motorbike around the world, then you too can pay more than just lip service to those long-held desires – finding the confidence, belief (and a touch of envy) to encourage but a few to take the leap of faith and start down their own path.
With any luck, 2 out of the 7 people who read this will draw on the stories I’ve had to tell – beautiful people, amazing food, hammocks and sunsets – to turn a dream into a reality. They will also consider the times I thought the dream was over – when a bolt was sucked into the engine and it exploded on the day I was riding out, when the bike was rejected by Indonesian customs, when I broke my knee foot and ribs, being dropped by a sponsor, breaking down in the Javanese mountains (and again in Malaysia), crashing in Thailand and where the bike was all but written off by a virtuous, yet entirely incompetent welder in India. And that’s after the hard part, that’s after overcoming the pressures from before the race could even start; the dream held since stumbling across “Long Way Round” at age 16, the two years of clandestine planning away from the critical and probing eyes of work and family, the 12 months after coming clean about the plan, selling more or less everything I owned and leaving a role as director of a law firm. Chasing dreams isn’t beer and skittles – it’s hard. I can feel another cliché coming, one expanded on by Theodore Rooseveldt when he said “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty”. Seems a little pessimistic (and a little like that bullshit protestant American Dream above), but bugger me, can I tell you he’s right. That true sense of achievement and fulfillment is found wanting for some when the pleasure is based merely on the satisfaction derived from a well considered tax return paid in a timely manner or a newly renovated bathroom. We’re taught that this is the pinnacle of personal achievement, but for me that was never going to be enough no matter how crisp the shade of white on the new feature wall. This current challenge has gone beyond ‘rewarding’ and has become almost cathartic, so much so that somewhere along the road there was a crispy realisation: I was depressed no more. The wonders of satisfying a true a sense of achievement and the opportunity to genuinely pursue happiness – not someone else’s happiness – my happiness.
I’d be lying if I said a little bit of me doesn’t miss home, “a soft, easy life” to continue quoting Teddy. None of me, however, misses the life from before this – morning commute, shuffling to the train, ‘hours spent wishing the hours would disappear’, days lying in bed – a good bottle, eternal nightcap within arm’s reach. Sounds ‘depressing’, and it’s reality. It was a reality formed by doing everything I was told to do – everything I thought was right, rather than what I really wanted. Take cooking as an example – ‘but Ben you’re going to pass up a successful legal career for 70 hour weeks in the kitchen on apprentice wages?’ Dream on; dream shelved. Stuck on the super highway because you’re told that it’s correct, stoicly trudging on. Pulling off that path is no simple task – however there can be a far simpler plan. Were there thoughts of ending it? Yep, at least once a day every day for about 3 or 4 years. Reality of doing it? Not at all. Not a sliver of a chance, I’m not going to pretend for a moment that it was ever a real possibility. But the thought was there. Every single day. It still is, but no longer every day and more so in a philosophical sense now. I don’t suspect that it will ever go away. A true control on your life, I guess necessitates having true control over your death.
We have now slipped into the next part of this letter – first, the pursuit of happiness, and now the reality of depression. This here is the second and more obvious reason why I am happy that Ray asked his question about my photo in a hammock (ah, you thought I had forgotten). Most people would understand the link between the ride and charity – it is the same as all charitable causes which are linked to some physical or symbolic feat (shaving hair, wearing pink cricket shirts or sporting a red nose) – it provides an opportunity to create a discussion:
“Why did you paint your nail?” they inquire.
“Violence against children” he replies.
“….but…nail polish can’t stop that?” they retort.
“No, it can’t, however did you know that…[insert eye opening statistic]” he replies.
It creates an opportunity to start a conversation and in the context of depression and suicide prevention there is nothing more important than conversation. Posting a photo of myself in a hammock on a beach in Thailand has provided the opportunity to write this blog post, contributing to the conversation and hopefully encouraging others to do the same. Carrying Winston, the mascot of the Black Dog Ride, provides the cute and fluffy segway from petting an adorable plush toy to explaining how “suicide claims 3 times more lives than road deaths each year” and that “75% of those suicides are male”. It signals open arms and welcomes questions. By simply starting conversations of mental well being, happiness and depression I know for certain that this ride has saved at least one particular person. They know it, too (no, I’m not being meta – it wasn’t me, it was a very real person who very really stepped away from dying). Forget the pills, pharmaceuticals and other assorted poisons – along with a cleaner diet, exercise and fresh air, there can be no better treatment for the mind than conversation. I wholeheartedly believe that – and strike me down, but doctors play second fiddle here.
Since becoming a little bit public about having demons I have been approached by I would say about 20 or more friends of mine. Some I knew were taking medication however that was the extent of the conversations we’d had about their depression – some I knew were depressed, however we’d never discussed it. For some I had no idea. As for myself, the only person I’d ever talked to about my own situation was the aforementioned brewmaster. You see the connection here? The common thread? No discussion – no conversation, just guess work. And how can you blame anybody? It’s called a “mental illness”. Word association invokes thoughts of straight jackets, pills, dead eyes and Jack Nicholson. A good friend of mine was rejected from the army because he disclosed his depression at an interview. If he’d lied it would have all been okay, if he’d kept silent – “don’t talk, don’t tell” – he’d have been handed a rifle and paid by the government to travel to far off lands and kill people, but my lord, don’t you dare to ever be sad! No fucking wonder no one will discuss it, even among their friends. Conversation is one of the best prophylactics available and it’s been neutralised – we need an excuse to force the conversation.
Since beginning the ride plan 2 years ago there has admittedly been a shift to the social attitude towards ‘depression’ and mental health. People are starting to feel more comfortable discussing it broadly with one another however there is a long way to go – particularly for men. See, Bazza faces an additional barrier to the general social stigma of mental illness in that it is not okay for him to talk candidly about his feelings in any scenario. It’s feminine and emasculating. We’re taught it from a young age – “stop crying, be a big boy. Boys don’t cry”. There is merit in male strength and resilience – emotionally and otherwise however it is too ‘absolute’. There is not middle ground. That is why I love the work by groups such as the Black Dog Ride – some of the biggest blokes with the baddest beer-guts and billowing beards coming forward to talk about their mental health. It was a shock at first and it’s still a little uncomfortable even for me, but the only way that’s going to change is to keep talking about it until it becomes normal – when “hey man, how’d that broken leg heal up?” becomes just as easy to ask and answer as “hey man, how’s the noggin? Feeling any better since we last spoke?” I won’t dwell on this point too much, because as I’ve said the place we are at as a society 2 years on is now so much better. I will however just say this as it seems an appropriate time to add a pragmatic, practical suggestion to the philosophy:
There are many well-meaning people who express how open they are and that those in need should “please talk to me, come to me, I’m always here” etc. etc. That’s great and it helps, but this also puts the onus on a person who feels like utter rat shit to break the personal shackles, shrug off the social stigma and come forth to talk. That’s a mighty burden. Really, that onus should fall a little heavier on the friends and family to initiate the conversation. It’s always going to be hard and it’s likely that your friend will be reluctant to discuss, but it’s a hell of a lot more likely you’ll engage them than waiting for them to come out.
Anyway, let’s leave on a high point. Encouragement, confidence and cliché…er, conversation. That’s what this ride is about, and that’s what the photo was for. Instagram limited my response to Ray to less than 160 characters, not quite enough to engage fully with him and…oh dear, that’s another topic in this minefield that I’ll leave for another day. Instead, here’s some deeply meaningful, well thought-out inspirational words that you’re likely to find on an instagram page under a sepia picture of a blonde girl in a white beanie clutching a pumpkin spice late on an empty country road littered by the leaves of Fall:
Go forward, follow your dreams, just do it – the pain of failure will never hurts as badly as the pain of regret, you only live once. Carpe diem.