5 November 2014

Cockles Stuck to My Hull - Tom's Season Review

Ahead of the Grand Final, I started to put some ideas together for my personal "End of Season" blog. Yet for the first time in a while I found myself with very little to say

Better qualified people than I (which is a long winded way of saying Mark) will put together a far more in depth entity than I would be able to, and you would find me lacking by comparison. I will, however, endeavour now to compose my own, more introspective review. A review of MY season. My first season as a Podcaster.

My aim being to give you some insight into the journey I went on and the role that the Super League Pod has played in my life since it's genesis in July 2013.

At the end of February 2013 I began making concrete plans to end my life. 

Whilst at the time I was undiagnosed, I was astute enough to understand that I was suffering from serious depression. I ticked every box in terms of symptoms and causes. I had a relatively important job in social care, was not looking after my physical well being in terms of diet and exercise, I had a young family and a mortgage.

Everyone operates under strain and pressure at different times in their lives and most people cope. I was not coping and, over a period of two years from 2011, I began, very gradually, to find life harder to deal with.

Typically of most who suffer from clinical depression, the disease crept up on me. Before I knew the true significance of what I was dealing with I went from suffering an occasional low mood on Sunday evenings, to imagining driving my car into motorway bridges on my daily commute to work.

Also typically of most men in my position, and despite having a loving family and close group of friends nearby, I never spoke about my feelings. I put episodes of low mood down to day to day stress, and when what I now know to be episodes of high anxiety bubbled to the surface I was able to apologise my actions away, and reassure those nearest to me (who invariably were the recipients of my teary breakdowns) that I was simply stressed out by work. Meanwhile, a disease took hold of me and I quietly did nothing about it.

In December of 2012 things became so bad, and my breakdowns so frequent that I first sought medical attention. I went to my local GP, and whilst I by now knew I was depressed, I skirted around that subject and emphasised to my doctor that I felt stressed at work and was struggling to cope with things on a professional basis. 

Based on my half truths I was prescribed medication to help with attacks of anxiety ( a common blood pressure medication called Propanolol) which shortly was followed up with a prescription for an apparently old fashioned anti depressant called Citralopam, which I was to take at night to help aid my sleep.

As the adage goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes. I continued to work for a short while before using stress to be signed off from work, but I continued to imagine (fantasise isn't the right word) ways in which I could kill myself.

Outwardly, I was able to maintain a facade of my usual personality. Inwardly I was dismayed that being away from work was not easing the grip of my depression.  I discovered that taking one of my Citralopam's helped me to sleep, but taking two of them allowed me to blank out the world on days where I had no parental duties to occupy me. Three of my little tablets coupled with a small amount of alcohol allowed me to sleep away entire days. 

When left to my own devices I would alternatively research painless ways to kill myself and take endless online tests to see if I was depressed. Once I made the decision to take my life I felt freed. I felt no guilt because in my mind I was also freeing the people I loved of what I saw to be the burden of me.

2013 was due to be a busy year for me socially and I decided to use two or three events as "last hurrahs". They would give me an opportunity to see people I cared about at their happiest and, in my mind at least, I would be able to say my goodbyes.

On June 2nd 2013, whilst sharing a rare lie in with my wife, I crept from our bedroom, making sure not to pick up my mobile, kissed my also sleeping daughter goodbye and quietly left our home, via the back door, for what I thought would be the last time. A group of actions which sicken me today.

I caught a bus into Blackpool, bought a cheap plane ticket so as to fool anyone who might try to find me into thinking that I was trying to leave the country (although I would later discuss in therapy that this plane ticket might also have been a safety net in case I backed out of my plans at the first attempt), caught a train to Manchester, checked into a hotel and began drinking strong lager with Jack Daniels chasers in the hotel bar. After six or seven repetitions I returned to my hotel room, having arranged for a early morning call (to expedite my discovery and quickly bring about an end to the worry I would have caused in my disappearance), took my remaining ten Citralopam and climbed into bed.

My next recollection, albeit a hazy one, is of the phone in my room ringing. Feeling desperately sick, I drowsily answered and was informed that there was a telephone call for me. Half asleep and drunk I allowed the call to be connected and found I was speaking to my mum. She, along with many people close to me had spent the day and night calling hotels in a gradually increasing radius after learning from the police that I had been filmed getting on a train at Blackpool and getting off at Manchester. What followed was an emotional phone call which even as I type brings tears to my eyes, where she stayed on the phone, refusing to let me hang up, until my dad arrived in the dead of night to pick me up and bring me home.

Ashamed and feeling massively guilty, I was dropped off at home to see my wife after my little girl had been dropped off at nursery. Quite understandably, a very fraught, emotional reunion quickly turned into an argument which left me foetal on my kitchen floor, crying uncontrollably. An ambulance was called, but my parents returned before it could arrive and took me to hospital themselves, where a bed was waiting for me on the psychiatric ward of Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

I stayed in hospital for almost a month. Initially this was a jarring experience. I was checked on at fifteen minute intervals for the first three days. This was gradually relaxed to the point where by my fourth week I would sleep at the hospital but spend large portions of my days with my wife and family, before I was released into community care and integrated back into the home environment. Whilst in hospital I was given care I never thought available. I was able to talk to neutral people, who were empathetic. I talked through big issues and small ones, about my life as it was and as it had been when I was younger.

I am a tremendously lucky man. I had a lovely childhood and experienced no abuse. My parents are good people and raised me well within consistent, fair boundaries, and whilst we weren't rich, I never wanted for anything. Initially this only served to add to the guilt I felt about my actions, but eventually it lead me to see that depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts are a disease like any other.

To my mind, depression is like cancer. It begins as a little abnormality and slowly grows. Unchecked and untreated it will most likely do you very serious physical harm and ultimately, it will kill you.

Viewing my depression as a disease allowed me to understand two things. Firstly, a disease can strike you regardless of social standing, life experiences and your current circumstances. Secondly, knowing you are ill means you also have the chance to fight your illness. In the same way that ignoring a lump won't make it go away, ignoring mental illness has exactly the same result. Nothing changes, it just gets worse.

But in understanding my situation, I was now imbued with a responsibility. If you have cancer, you can chose to fight it. You can undergo medical procedures, live a life that maximises your chances of recovery and make a choice to actively fight the thing that is trying to kill you. With mental illness the choice is the same. Only the treatment differs. Medication, therapy and living a healthy lifestyle (for the most part!) are my tools against my illness. I owe it to my family and myself to take an active part in my recovery, and to take responsibility for it. In speaking to my loved ones, I discovered that they weren't upset by me as a person, but by the choices I made. I was shown a lot of faith during my recovery, and part of that means I owe a debt. One which I can now repay by acting on my understanding of how I work mentally, and by not repeating the steps that lead to my hospitalisation. 

I am no longer suicidal, and haven't been for much of the time since my diagnosis and treatment in hospital. That said, I know that I am still battling to keep my depression from returning. Through making positive choices about my life I have greatly reduced the chance of my depression returning, and I also know the warning signs.

For me, it's the intangibles that have the biggest effect. When you start to live healthily you don't notice an immediate change in how you feel physically, but within a couple of weeks, you do. This payoff and sudden realisation is itself a tonic for the illness. Doing things that are creative has also helped me enormously. Music is an important part of my life that I had neglected for many years, and whilst I'm not looking (or talented enough) to be the next Mercury Prize winner, I have built for myself an arena in which I can fulfil this drive in me. And it makes me feel good. So I keep doing it. 

Sport, and almost exclusively Rugby League, has a similar positive effect on my state of mind. Again, at 32 I think it's unlikely that I will be the next big thing in our sport, so I needed to find a way that I could immerse myself in the game I love whilst also being able to actively contribute to it as a lifestyle.

It is in fact Mark who deserves credit for Super League Pod and it's role in my life for the last year or so.

Coming out of hospital I was armed with an idea. An idea that I wanted to create something. Something I could leave behind, look back on, and be proud of. I didn't want to measure success in terms of wider appeal or recognition, but I knew that I wanted to create. It was the act of DOING rather than the end product that would be most cathartic to me.

One of the first social events I attended following my time in hospital, was the christening of a friends son. Mark was there with his partner Emma, and at some point in the day, I spoke to him about how I was doing generally. It was then that I mentioned that I wanted to start podcasting. I'd had the luxury of time recently to listen to other podcasts and had been struck by how easy a market it was to crack. There are no barriers to entry. You record on a basic device, you edit if you want, and you upload it. How far you push your podcast in terms of wider recognition or exposure is up to you, but very quickly, the thing you have made is out there. For anyone on the internet to discover. Even if most of them don't.

Initially my idea was to record the conversations my close group of friends had. We would meet regularly for dinner at someones home and I had always found that the conversations were funny, often to the point of food spitting, so I suggested this to Mark. I was slightly disappointed by his less than enthusiastic response, but a few days later, whilst driving to Bradford to watch the Bulls/Dragons match, he suggested that a podcast would in fact be a good idea. His take on it, however, was to do a rugby league podcast. One where we would go to games and record ourselves talking about the match and news at the time as we went to and from each game. This idea was kicked around and modified to the point where we had the basis for the Super League Pod.

One of the things I admire most about Mark is his level of commitment to his pursuits. There is no half arse-ing with Mark (mostly). By January we had worked out how we wanted the show to look in terms of its structure. We had made social media plans and launched our twitter feed and Facebook pages. We prepared and researched ahead of our first episode. A season preview.

On a chilly night in January, I drove to Mark's house with my iPad. We were surrounded by our own handwritten notes in his back bedroom/office. Sat no more than a foot apart, our eyes met and I pressed record. The rest as they say, is history. 

Since those early days we have streamlined and refined our operation to such a degree that barring the most frustrating of technological failures, we are able to record/edit/upload a new show in a matter of about three hours from start to finish.

Through the Super League Pod, we have both enjoyed the chance to interact with (and in some cases meet) an organic and growing group of people whom we would never have encountered otherwise. People who share our passion, if not always our point of view, on rugby league. Twitter and Facebook bring us all together and give us something I believe to be quite unique in our sport. We aren't sponsored, we aren't paid, we are entirely independent of any outside influences save our own opinions. We are two blokes, talking about rugby league and having fun doing it. 

What we have "created", is a space. A space for people to dip in and out of our opinions, return fire with their own, and to get a constant stream of interaction from the guys who herd this particular group of cats around the world of a sport we all secretly feel smug for knowing about.

This entity is what "we" (Mark, me, anyone who has streamed five minutes before turning off, anyone who has tweeted the show, anyone who has liked us on Facebook, or taken time to email us) have created. It will always be there. In twenty years I will be able to play SLP S1 E1 to my daughter (who will no doubt roll her eyes at me). 

The beating heart of the Super League Pod is Mark Illingworth. He labours for large parts of his week putting together stats, reading match reports, writing blogs and organising tweets. His inadvertent gift to me, and aid in my recovery, has been to allow me to share the platform he has had a larger hand in building. A platform where I can crack bad jokes and talk shit about rugby league. He is kind enough only to correct my mistakes on a rare occasion.

The podcast was just one of many facets to my recovery, and these days the only needs it meets are the need to be silly and the need to show off, but a few months ago it was an anchor for me to tie my little boat to. Which, if I strain the metaphor a little harder, makes you a Cockle, stuck to my hull. A small part of my life, that I will find it tough to get rid of without a very long stick.

Creativity is cathartic. It isn't inherently brilliant or immediately world famous. But if something you make is discovered by one person, or a million, the satisfaction and psychological reward are the same. As listeners or tweeters/facebookers, you have rewarded my creativity with your attention, and I am tremendously grateful for it.

As a side note to anyone kind enough to read my words this far, if you recognise in yourself any of the stuff I have talked about in regards to my mental health problems, PLEASE, take half an hour for yourself and see someone about it. You won't feel good, it will be hard to look inside yourself and be honest, but it will feel better sooner if you do. 

Both Mark and I will be back in 2015, when hopefully we can all come out of hibernation together and enjoy the Super League Pod for another series.


Expectations Surpassed - Mark's Season Review

You'll probably expect lots of numbers in my review of the year. There are a few, but I found myself keener to reflect on the journey and the experience of 2014 being a Rugby League podcaster - if you want numbers, there are plenty in the season review episode!

1,500 plus Twitter followers, nearly 6,000 reads of our blogs and over 13,000 plays of our shows. Its been quite a year!

I'll be honest, I thought we'd get through a month with a handful of followers, a few listens from encouraging family and friends and a few curious others dipping in here and there. So to come as far as we have has been great.

The whole idea of staring the show for me was to broaden my experiences as a Rugby League fan. The seed was planted when I went with Tom to some Bradford games purely as a neutral in 2013. This was something relatively new to me, other than sitting around waiting for Wigan at Magic and a Northern Rail Cup Final I had cheap tickets for. It was good to hear a wider range of views, to see how much other fans cared about their team first hand, in amongst them.

From there, through a little bit of planning and a lot of just landing on what we ended up with, a podcast was born.

The result has been that this year I saw games from all three professional divisions and have had conversations (real or on social media) with club owners, RFL officials, TV pundits, journalists, professional players and fans from all over the world. I watched Rugby League in 14 different venues and saw every Super League side live at least twice. I visited some stadiums for the first time in years and others for the first time ever.

The show has given me a happy excuse to go to more Rugby League, to watch more Rugby League, to read more about Rugby League and to write more about Rugby League. And of course, to talk more about Rugby League.

You see, whilst I've been a Wigan season ticket holder since I was at school and lived in Lancashire all my life, I'm not from a Rugby League town and the sport isn't played in schools where I grew up. Few of my friends really understood Rugby League and even fewer actively follow the sport.
From conversations with my granddad and uncle, to internet forums, to Twitter and blog, my opportunities for RL conversation have grown as time has gone by. I've enjoyed that, and no more so than this years where that engagement level has gone through the roof.

My highlights of the season include Wigan's away win at Saints, the entire Magic Weekend - not just Wigan's win over Leeds - and Origin I. Though my biggest highlight was putting together Episode 40.

It was great that so many of you had taken the time to vote for our awards and it was so much fun listening to some of your voices with your season reviews. Whilst we couldn't fit everything we wanted to say in the show, it helped me remember some of the fun times we had along the way.
It's been really enjoyable getting to know a lot more rugby league people and getting to see a lot more opinions and views. That brings me to my closing thoughts really.

I want to end with a big thank you! Firstly to Tom for putting some impetus behind this idea and giving some balance to a show that becomes eminently more listenable with his input. Secondly, and crucially, to you, our listeners, readers and followers. This show would not have come so far without the involvement and support we get from you guys.

A massive thank you to every single follow, tweet, play, read, share and conversation at a game!
I hope you all come back next year and keep bringing new people into the SLP family.

Thanks again!