I was 13 years old. It was the middle of summer and we were visiting our grandmother, as we had done every year of our young lives. A more quintessential British summertime scene would be hard to imagine.
‘Slap bang’ in the middle of the Kent countryside (Kent is known to be the garden of England) we sat upon a perfectly laid grass lawn, strewn with wild daisies and yellow buttercups, neatly bordered by horticulturally impressive arrangements of shrubs and flowers.
Coming from the repressive smoke and smog of inner city life, this was pure bliss.
Jugs of orange squash and homemade currant buns were conveniently laid out and accessible on a small table beside the lawn, ready to be eaten whenever it took our fancy (and with youth and fast metabolisms on our side, it took our fancy fairly frequently.)
At the risk of sounding remarkably like the opening chapter of an Enid Blyton novel, there was not a cloud in the sky, the birds were singing and all things were embarrassingly bright and beautiful.
If you are wondering why I am going to such syrupy lengths to describe the beauty of this day…it is the perfection of the day that makes this story worth telling at all.
Children being children, we had long discovered that perfectly laid lawns, diligently maintained by grandmothers attentive to every blade last blade of grass, made for wonderful tennis courts, especially ones that had an impossibly perfect solid stone substitute for a net in the middle.
For in the centre of our grandmothers lawn was a ramshackle stone wall, around 3 feet in height and almost 30 feet in length. (far too close to the official dimensions described by the lawn tennis association to be a ‘coincidence’…)
Our makeshift tennis games were usually signalled to end by an ominous bang on the kitchen window, followed by our mother furiously mouthing for us to stop playing before her own mother discovered her darling grandchildren were busily flattening her beloved Tulips with forehands and decapitating her Delphiniums with backhands.
On rare occasions, however, we inconceivably managed to convince the adults to take the long walk down to the local shops sans-children, leaving us unsupervised for up to an hour.
When this happened, a full blown Wimbledon commenced, complete with little sister as perennially overruled umpire, furiously disputed line calls and full trophy presentation. (empty jug of orange squash for the winner and silver serving tray for the runner up).
“Come on Daniel. They’re out, the Game’s on.” Said my brother enthusiastically.
This was a moment we waited all week, no, ALL YEAR for. The annual back yard Wimbledon championship.
An event so prestigious that even the inevitable wrath of our parents didn’t stop us from competing.
Except on this day it didn’t happen.
I looked at him blankly.
“I don’t want to today”.
Sun shining, trees in full bloom and filled with birdsong, ‘tennis court’ awaiting, responsibilities many years away, family near and dear…and yet there it was, following me into this place of youthful bliss where one would least expect to find it. Darkness.
Perhaps we had met before, but more stressful circumstances had caused me to explain it away.
Perhaps it had visited when my Grandfather had died, but I had excused it for joining me in such a sombre moment.
It had almost certainly made an introduction when I felt isolated by my peers at school, but its presence made sense when I stood alone.
But this time, in a picture of serenity, surrounded by joy and love, there was no way of explaining it.
When a cloak is tossed casually over a table lamp, you know the light is present, but is intercepted before it reaches your eyes.
You remain cognisant of the light that once shone, underneath the cloak, but its glare is not sufficient to pierce the voluminous covering. The feeling that you threw the cloak, casting your own world into darkness sits heavier than the darkness itself.
This type of darkness is overwhelming.
This darkness is not sadness, there are no emotions in this place. Just a void, where even negative emotions would be a welcome change to the landscape of pointlessness.
I’m afraid to say that pointlessness is the best and most woefully inadequate word I have for this inexplicable state of mind that defies every logical sinew in my being.
I have intermittently experienced this darkness throughout my life.
Emotional Health and exercise
Why discuss such a dark and sordid secret as this on a health blog? Motivation and positivity are the modus operandi of the fit and well, are they not?
Surely I should be telling you that I wake up in the morning, jump out of bed like a homeward bound salmon going downstream, moonwalk to the kitchen, trill a stanza of ‘we are the champions’ whilst poaching eggs and pinching myself that I have landed in the altogether wondrous reality that is today, giggling uncontrollably like an 8 year old at a Justin Bieber concert, upon rediscovering the undeniable truth of how spectacular it is to be me.
I ask myself, will you question the benefits of healthy living, if a man who openly eats healthily and exercises every day, still struggles with his own emotional health, yet I conclude that if my purpose is to perpetuate perpetual health, what is REAL is more important than what is desired.
The focus on motivation and positivity as the crutch on which we lean to succeed is obstructive to success to a degree that is entirely unparalleled. If I were to lean on motivation and positivity to succeed, I would not be healthy.
Yes, success at health has less to do with the physical than with our state of mind, but if it is a positive state of mind we seek, the direct route is blocked, of that I am certain. Therefore we must travel indirectly, through the back roads, and via the circuitous path of ‘behaviour’.
You see, the child version of me, felt the cold, clammy hand of darkness surreptitiously massaging his shoulder and left the racket, redundant, on the floor beside him, desperately searching for an intellectual reason to explain the inexplicable indifference I was experiencing. The adult version feels the same, clandestine, unwelcome touch, and with every last molecule of energy he can muster, picks up the racket and plays tennis anyway.
Because the man knows what the child didn’t. That, maybe not this time, or even next time, but at some point, if he can find the strength to stand up and play, it will herald the glorious moment he sees the sunshine, hears the birdsong and feels the purposeful love in his heart once again.
You workout. You win.
I am a positive person, but that positivity has been manufactured through brute force, effort and most importantly behaviour. It is earned, lost and rediscovered on a daily basis. I see no benefit in telling you otherwise.
I have a wife and children, I run a business, I am the oldest person on my football team by 5 years. I am proud of these things. At 18 years old I doubted I would ever be able to live even the most basic of lives, fearing my mental capacity would never provide stability enough to achieve anything beyond getting out of bed in the morning, and often not even that.
For many years I chased the dragon of happiness, simultaneously tracking anything that could bring emotional joy, whilst running away from the ceaseless pursuit of darkness in my rear view mirror. I stopped chasing when I learned that the dragon of happiness was a myth, to me at least. I stopped running away when I realised the darkness was was not always behind me. Like a well drilled army, it reigns its terror from all angles. It attacks from the flanks. It lays out ambushes ahead. It showers havoc from above.
My life changed when I accepted this was a battle I could not win. Accepting you cannot win is not the same as conceding defeat.
My emotional landscape had proven to be beyond my control. So I sought out a new ally, a strong and robust partner. With the help of this rock solid co-consipirator by my side I was able to conclude that regardless of the emotional panorama I faced, I could always have control over the things I DID, if not how I felt.
I called this new ally ACTION. I found action to be the smallholding on which I could plant my proverbial flag of principle.
I discovered that, unlike my often times spurious state of mind, action never lets me down.
I can choose to DO, even when I don’t feel like it, and nothing quite represents a personal victory over darkness like exercising through difficult times.
When exercising through darkness it feels like I am sticking my middle finger up, two inches from its objectionable, emetic face, poking my tongue out and childishly bleating ‘Na-na-na-na-na’ at its best intentions.
I can’t tell you how much I BLOODY LOVE doing that!
The one thing the emotional enemies within can never stop is me doing stuff. So, I do stuff. The most important stuff I do is exercise, eat healthy and drink water. That stuff is the best.
I exercise through the darkness and I work out through the light. I move in moments of fear and I move through moments of joy.
Your challenges may be different to mine, your darkness a different shade. It matters not, healthy behaviours help us all, always.
As the years go by, the darkness quietens.