Who'd have thought that walking through those fairly inconspicuous doors in that little courtyard of business units in Aylesbury at the beginning of June would have such an profound impact upon my life!
I had been off work for 6 months because of depression and probably the same amount of time before that dealing with stress and anxiety, mainly at work where I was finding that tasks that I would've normally got on with without worry were becoming more and more overwhelming and stressful, which meant they were taking longer to do which in turn caused me to stress over and so the circle began. There had been quite a few days where I had been unable to go to work because I would be in such a state about not knowing what I was going to be doing, where I was doing it and whether I would be on my own, I would ring up sick or say that my daughter was unwell! This was usually on a Monday because I'd had all weekend to stew over it!
The company I worked for was for the most part a fun place to work, we got the work done but there was a lot of piss taking as you would expect in the construction industry, and I was well known to be able to take a joke and to be able to laugh at myself, but I started to feel that I was being singled out for more than my fair share.
I remember saying to my counsellor (Brenda) that there were times when I didn't want to laugh along with what was being said to me, so she said "well why are you laughing?" I explained about not wanting to hurt their feelings, she asked me to think about how I would feel if I'd said something to her which I thought was funny and she didn't laugh, how would I feel? I said I would think that I had upset or offended her, she said "not offended?" I said "of course not" well neither will your workmates, I'd not thought of it like that! I have been back recently and spoke to them about my depression and my feelings etc and they were genuinely concerned about what I'd said, there was also a bit of piss taking but I would've been surprised if there hadn't! But it's been good to catch up with them again.
It seems funny now looking back on how I was thinking at the time, I can see how my mental state was deteriorating but obviously I was not aware of this at the time!
Just before Christmas we were told that some of us were to lose our jobs, we were aware that the work was drying up, but jobs had come through before, but not this time! Now some of the lads were rightly concerned by this but I was actually happy about this because I felt that this would be an end to all the piss taking.
It was approximately 2 weeks into the New Year things took a turn for the worse, my counsellor ( Brenda) had asked me how I was feeling, I said not bad but not great either, she mentioned to me that she thought I should visit my doctor if I started to feel down, I think that perhaps she could tell I was slipping down. I admitted to my wife that I was feeling down and that I thought it would be for the best if I went back to my Doctor for a chat, I remember sitting in the waiting room feeling very anxious and silly about being there because I had no idea how I was going to explain to the Doctor how I felt, but I needn't have worried because as I sat down she asked what she could do for me, I burst into floods of tears! I wasn't expecting that!
Strangely enough once the Doctor had confirmed I was depressed all the feelings and emotions that I had kept suppressed came out, all the feelings of being overwhelmed by things that once I would've coped with, not getting any pleasure from life, feeling low and emotional and not being motivated to do anything, all started to get worse!, even my speech was affected according to how low I was feeling!
Now being unable to work since Christmas meant I'd become fairly isolated from the outside world, I'd had no interest in socialising with most of my friends because of feeling distant from them because they wouldn't understand what I was going through and that I didn't want to talk about how I was feeling anyway, also most of them I knew through work so without that what would we talk about?
There are two close friends (Colin and Andy) who I will remain eternally indebted too who once I'd told them about my being depressed, called me on the phone at least twice a week each to check on me, and after a while Colin insisted that I went to his house on a Friday evening just to get me out of mine! Andy would come over also when he could, a lot of the time I didn't always feel like going but within minutes of getting there Colin would have me laughing, sometimes so much it hurt! It was a good feeling to laugh again! So to those two a big thank you.
My family have been amazing, especially my wife and daughter who without their love and support my struggle would've been much, much harder to face. I didn't appreciate at first how worrying and upsetting it must have been for them seeing the man they looked too for security, strength and laughs to name a few.
Seeing me slide downhill like I did it must have very hard for them, having to put a brave face on things so as not to cause me any further anxiety, because it was later when I was talking to my wife and daughter one day about how my behaviour had affected them my wife said for some time they had been walking on eggshells around me because they never knew when I was going to fly into a rage over something, sometimes the most trivial of things would set me off!
Now it was never directed at them but it must have been scary because the red mist would come down and off I went, even I couldn't say when it would happen, I could just feel myself blowing up inside within seconds and I couldn't stop it! At the time I would justify it by saying to them that it was never directed at them, I was just venting, letting off steam, how fucking selfish was that?!
I must give a special mention my daughter for looking after me while I was off work, who would fuss over me making sure I was ok for drinks etc, she would crack jokes (usually at my expense!) so we would laugh, but mainly just being there for me with plenty of cuddles!
And an extra special mention to my wife who to be fair, deals with the day to day running of the house anyway but had to take up the slack and do everything. She has a quite stressful job herself what with having meet deadlines of very expensive national contracts on a regular basis for multi-national clinical diagnostic company, so to have the extra worry I was causing her I'm not sure how she held it all together!
It must have been very hard for my parents to have to deal with the fact their strapping 6ft son who was always laughing and joking and apparently without a care in the world was reduced to a shell of his former self! Added to this the generation gap came into play because depression was not something that was talked about when they were younger like it is now, so I was to my knowledge the first direct contact they'd had with mental health problems, it's bad enough when your child is ill and you can't help, but normally it's something simple that you've dealt with before but when you don't understand or have any concept of what's happening to them it left them feeling quite helpless. My Dad is the typical Dad when it comes to work, the only time he had off work was when I was very young, 4 to 5yrs old maybe when he was off for approximately 2 1/2 months with pleurisy, in fact he went back to work too early because they were a man down, had to come home and my Great Aunt found him slumped in the front seat of his car outside our home and thought he was dead!
On another occasion he fell off the back of his delivery lorry (make your own jokes if you want!) and had to have his leg in a full length brace so got a friend to drive for him so he could do still do his job! Can you imagine somebody doing that now!
They would offer advice that would come with 100% best intention but leave me thinking 'you just don't get how I'm feeling' which of course they didn't, they were 'ignorant about it' (Dads words, not mine!) but also having spoken to my Dad about this time in my life recently he said, that he and Mum didn't talk to me about it because they didn't want to make it worse!
For me at least this wouldn't have been the case, I think I would've liked to talk about it to my parents about how I was feeling because it would helped all of us understand what the other was thinking and feeling. So if you're reading this and a loved one has mental health problems don't be afraid to ask how they are, because 9/10 that may be exactly what they need.
It is also probably a symptom of depression, the feeling of isolation because people don't know how you feel inside because outwardly you appear the same! I was lucky to have an excellent counsellor (Brenda) who I don't see on a regular basis anymore but we stay in touch so I can let her know how I'm doing and it's quite reassuring to know that she's there for me should I need to see her or just to chat on the phone should I feel the need. I do pop in to see her for a coffee which is nice, plus I also get to see her Labrador dog!
I also have a good Doctor who quickly got me on the right medication, so with my counselling sessions combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (C.B.T) with which I always came away with something positive to think about and the love and support of my family eventually I came through the other side, funnily enough feeling a better and mentally stronger person than I had ever felt before!
This isn't to say that it's been plain sailing for me, I have had my peaks and troughs along the way as you do in life in general but with me I found I had a couple of instances where I felt I could take on the world and then the slightest thing could bring that feeling crashing down around you. Brenda also used a very good analogy to describe dealing with these ups and downs, she said to imagine my problems are like a bunch of skittles and depending on how big the problem is depends on how many skittles are knocked down, but also don't try to pick them all up at once, only try to stand up those skittles one at a time! Now that's not to say you will pick them all up before another ball comes down and knocks some more over, sometimes you will, sometimes you won't.
I still have the odd moment or two where I don't feel 100% but at least I feel that I have the tools picked up through many counselling sessions to deal with it before it gets too bad, one of the things Brenda had told me to do was not to look at tasks or problems as a whole issue, but to break it down into pieces and get round it that way. Now to some of you, that may sound obvious, but to me it took some doing because I think looking back over my life I had always been without realising it, a glass half empty kind of person.
Another thing Brenda got me to do was to set myself challenges, small achievable ones at first but challenges none the less. This coincided with putting post it notes up around the house and when one caught my eye stop and think about something positive in my life; It could do with how much my wife and daughter love me, to how far I had cycled that week, to reinforce a positive mental attitude towards myself. I'm sure that may sound funny to some, but believe me it works!
Brenda and my Doctor were both very keen for me to get back into exercising because the release of endorphins would aid my medication, but also it would give me that feel good factor associated with going out and doing something again, be it going to the gym or even a 30 minute walk every day.
So I started going back to the gym where I could be found at least 3 to 4 times a week before my mental health problems had started, although I enjoyed being back in familiar surroundings and regular routine of visits to the gym, I found that for some reason I wasn't finding it as enjoyable as I'd hoped, perhaps it was to do with the fact that it was all too predictable and wasn't challenging enough as it was what I was used to! I needed something new to do be enthusiastic about!
I have always had a fascination with martial arts having done Judo albeit for only a few months when I was about 10 (although I never forgot how to do a forward breakfall!) then maybe 15 to 16 years later I dabbled in Shotokan Karate then a bit of Aikido then my longest and most successful spell grade wise was Lau Gar Kung Fu, but even then I don't think I ever saw it as something that I would commit to long term.
So I was looking for a martial art that would give me a good cardio workout, I would pick up some self defence skills along the way (although at my age I hope my fighting days are behind me!) and more importantly I would enjoy going to once or twice a week. So after many hours of scouring the Internet and discounting those martial arts that involve striking like boxing, taekwondo etc because I didn't like the idea of being hit! Although I do have an interest in Bushido and Japanese Samurai, I felt 'Traditional' jujitsu would probably be a bit too regimented for me as I felt I needed something a bit more relaxed.
This brought me to the McCloud Academy, I had looked there a few years ago when I was looking before and saw that they taught Jeet Kune Do, Fillipino Martial Arts and Combat Submission Wrestling and remember noticing that there was a Brown Belt called Kev Capel who taught Brazillian Jiu Jitsu I think a couple of times a week, but when I looked this time I discovered that he'd moved on and had opened up a place of his own under the banner of Roger Gracie Academy Buckinghamshire. I had no idea who Roger Gracie was or what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was but it was still local to me and 'promoted a friendly training environment that suits serious competitors or recreational martial artists alike'.
I also noticed that there were classes every day, something which not working because of my depression I was able to make use of the lunchtime classes. So after a couple of days of 'do I or don't I', I decided that it was time to go and find out for myself what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was all about.
I had discovered that a lot of Mixed Martial Art (MMA) guys used it for their ground work but wasn't sure how effective it could be if the aim is to take your opponent to the ground, but obviously there must be something in it.
Also I wasn't sure about the different coloured gis (heavy cotton jackets and reinforced trousers with a heavy cotton belt which is coloured to signify rank) and the multitude of badges on the shoulder arms and legs that I had seen, but this was more to do with my traditionalist attitude than anything else!
So one Friday afternoon I walked through those doors to be greeted by pairs of men rolling about on the floor wearing T-shirts and shorts covered in sweat and I must admit that I was surprised just how physical it was compared to what I'd experienced in the past, then a man walked across the floor to greet me and introduced himself as Kev Capel. I was admittedly a bit apprehensive when I walked in but Kev had very soon put me at ease explaining the Fridays was no-gi and that the techniques are basically the same but if I liked I could come back another day and check out the classes with the gi. So after a chat I stepped back into the corner and let Kev carry on with his class, after a while the class stopped so they could get a drink, one of the men walked past me (who I later found out was called Bill and is now a regular sparring partner of mine) I said to him that by looking at him I could see that I would get the cardio workout I was after, he laughed and agreed that you certainly burn off calories. We had a quick chat and he went back on the mat, this time I watched Kev who had a completely different technique instead of going all out he was a lot more thoughtful and deliberate about what he was doing and showed me that there was more to this than I realised, so after a while I left saying I would come back the following week.
So on Tuesday off I went to Aylesbury, again Kev was there and smiled and gave me a thumbs up greeting which again made me feel welcome and at ease. I saw straight away that he was now a black belt, I must admit that he was not as big as I was expecting (sorry Kev) but thought they don't just give black belts away and little did I know then that he also holds black belts in judo and Jeet Kune do and had boxed since he was about 10 years old which culminated with regimental trials when he was in 32 Regiment Royal Artillery!
We had another long chat this time, I mentioned to Kev about my dealings with depression, stress and anxiety and he said to me that he has had to deal with anxiety in the past before tournaments, he said this in such a way that didn't make me think he was comparing his dealings with anxiety to mine but that he had an understanding of what I'd been through.
He also spoke about how he likes his classes to be relaxed and fun which was exactly what I wanted to hear. I very soon realised Kev was the person that I wanted to teach me because although he is very approachable and quite laid back, he speaks with an air of authority and confidence which comes across when he his teaching the various techniques, but that said all the people that have since taught there me have been very good.
I asked him if he liked people to compete because it wasn't something I was interested in and he said that it was entirely up to the individual.
So a couple of days later I bit the bullet, put on an old T-shirt and a pair of jogging bottoms and set off like a lamb to the slaughter knowing that the path I was setting out was not going to be easy but even I had no idea just how tough but also how rewarding it would be.
My first lesson (June 6th 2012) was a real eye opener, it was taken by one of Kev's assistant coach's, a very able purple belt called Tom. I was expecting to see Kev there but I didn't know that he's also a Firefighter with Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue and of course works shifts, (obviously not one for a quiet life!)
We started off jogging round the room, followed by stepping to the side, then two side steps facing in followed by two side steps facing out, a bit more jogging then some forward break falls (it had been a long time since I'd last done these). Then we did some backward break falls rolling over your shoulder then some snaking, where you roll onto your side, bring your feet up to your backside, push your arse back and out as if you are moving away from your opponent, then roll onto the other side and repeat.
The first person I trained with was a young man called Rob, I can't remember what we did but I do remember Rob being very patient with me, a trait that everybody at the club has.
It is said that with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu leave your ego at the door, and I can honestly say that there are no egos at the Roger Gracie Academy Buckinghamshire. Everybody I've trained with has been brilliant, I think it must be to do with the type of person that does BJJ because in one of the other martial arts I did, that was not the case!
In one of my early chats with Kev he told me where on occasion he has felt under pressure then thought to himself, if I can deal with people at BJJ wanting to strangle me then I can deal with this situation. I wasn't sure what he meant at the time but the more I do BJJ the more I find myself thinking about things differently, but also it is very similar to how I was told to deal with my mental health problems. To break it down into pieces, learn it in stages, then put the pieces together but also to be prepared to have a back up move that you can change to depending on the circumstances.
Also thinking back to what Kev said that if you can deal with people trying to choke you and twist your limbs into position they are not designed to go into, causing you a great deal of pain, then you can deal with picking up the phone to ring up about a job for example.
I very quickly realised that Kev is a very easy and approachable person to talk to with a very calming air about him, because I found myself opening up to him with details about me and my mental health problems that only a very few people know, certainly no one who I'd only known less than a month!
I have told a few people about my depression at RGA Bucks and they have all been brilliant, I don't tell everyone I meet because you're never really sure how they are going to deal with it, but then again it's not something I'm embarrassed about either. When I found out that people I know, be it personally or somebody famous has or has had depression it does let you know you're not alone and it gives you a special bond with that person.
So by being open about it I hope it will help other people that have been in my situation, I have also found that with BJJ it is also a great way to relax and unwind because you have to think about what you're doing A, to protect yourself, and B, to make sure you don't cause serious damage to your training partner, so it is for the duration of the lesson at least, it is the only thing on your mind.
As I mentioned earlier I was used to working out at the gym using free weights, cable machines, the rowing machine and plyometrics so I thought that my strength and fitness wouldn't be an issue, how wrong I was! Since I left school, I have always had physically demanding jobs, from a being labourer for a demolition company, to working for a couple of building companies then to being a carpenter. So with my gym work I thought I would be able to handle it, I can honestly say hand on heart I have never done anything so physically demanding!
A lot of this is of course is down to my lack of technique and trying to muscle my way out of it, then getting so tired I'm unable to defend myself, even once or twice getting into a strong position to get my partner to tap (submit) and not having the strength to see it through!
But this is what BJJ is all about, a smaller weaker opponent beating a bigger stronger one! This was something I learned first hand yesterday on my 48th birthday (August 6th 2012) during a very good lesson run by Kev's partner Yas, herself a very good purple belt (she is now a Brown Belt) who I believe is one of the country's top, if not the top female competitor when she became the first British female to qualify for the Abu Dhabi pro cup. When we came to roll I found myself being asked if I had a sparring partner by a young lady called Lizzie who is a recently promoted blue belt, we had sparred once before when I was absolutely exhausted puffing and panting and Lizzie looked as fresh as a daisy! Now I'm 6ft tall and weigh 15st 4 lbs or 182.88 cm and 97kg if you prefer, now to say that Lizzie is petite, especially compared to me is an understatement she must be about a foot (30cm) shorter than me and probably weighs half as much as me if that!
I must be honest I did feel slightly awkward as we knelt facing each other because of my size and strength compared to her but I noticed that she appeared to have no such concern, we started from the mount position (where you sit on your partners stomach) then I went for an armlock (Americana I think it's called) that Yas had gone through with us earlier. Now I admit I was not going 100% because as I mentioned earlier you don't want to hurt your partner, but there was no way I could get Lizzie with the armlock.
So I decided to go for a choke, which again I couldn't get properly but also again I felt uncomfortable because of the difference in size and strength, now while I'm doing this I realised that Lizzie had not stopped working her body into different positions while protecting her neck and her arms when I kept going back for the americana, trying to tip me off her. I did apologise to her at one point for not persevering with a choke I was attempting because I just couldn't bring myself to squeeze her neck, I hope she didn't think I was being patronising I was just being honest! So I kept the pressure on her trying to get her to submit then the next thing I knew she has trapped my arm, rolled me over and ended up sat on my stomach, game over! She very graciously told me that I had very nearly got the choke on her earlier, so we returned to our starting positions and carried on.
Once again Lizzie remained totally calm while I'm starting to puff and struggle trying to get her in a position to submit! Needless to say I didn't achieve it this time or when we sparred again next round! I think I learned more about the ideals of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from sparring with Lizzie that day than I have with anybody else so far.
This also got me thinking about any future struggles that I may find myself facing or just everyday problems that life has a habit at throwing at you now and then. Lizzie had done exactly as my counsellor Brenda had told me, keep working at and chipping away at the problem (in this case me!) and eventually you will get around it or over it! So if you ever read this Lizzie thank you, I learned a great deal from you that day.
I must say that I felt very quickly accepted into RGA Bucks, in fact when I signed the direct debit form for my membership fees, I told Kev it was my club as well now because you do feel part of a much bigger thing. I put that down to the fact that although we are from very different walks of life (one is a Pilot, another is a policeman, one studies at Oxford, some karate instructors, personal trainers, a window cleaner, that I know of and myself a carpenter) the one thing we have in common is our love for BJJ. Probably the biggest shock to me was finding out that Jamie, who is someone I've trained with quite intensely on Fridays, told me that he had taught Krav Maga (an Israeli martial art known for its effective and efficient brutal counter-attacks) to grade 3 or 4 I think. He would sometimes point out where he would've gouged my eyes or clawed at my throat! When he told me later on that he was a vicar, you could've knocked me down with a feather! He insisted that I mustn't treat him any differently than I had been, I assured him I wouldn't. I'm not sure if he's noticed I've stopped swearing in front of him, and at him on occasion when he's pinned me to the mat!
When Jamie asked what I did for a job to enable me to be free to train on fridays, I mentioned my work related stress and depression, but said that I was 'only' a carpenter, he said considering who's word he was spreading he didn't think that being a carpenter was too bad (I still smile about that comment)
The love of BJJ that we share at the club is why we all look out for each other, there is a real nurturing feel to the club, as I've said before I have been on the receiving end of a lot of help and advice since I've started, but saying that, if I've been to a lesson where we've covered a move more than once and the person I'm with hasn't, they are not too proud to accept my advice and help, this obviously refers back to leaving your ego at the door.
Perhaps that comes also from Kev and the way he promotes a nurturing atmosphere within the club, this could be the way BJJ is taught, I don't know how other instructors do it.
He has contacted me by text and we've joked with each other on Twitter, but he commented recently about my improvement in BJJ and that I was 'really starting to get it' which came completely out of the blue. I had been awarded my first white stripe nearly 4 weeks before and hadn't been aware of any improvement since then so things like this are greatly received.
For me, someone who has struggled in the past with confidence, and that I needed to gain peoples approval, I don't suppose I'm the only one he contacts like this but I do find myself looking to him as a positive role model, not only for what he's achieved with his martial arts but because there's a lot of thought behind what he says. I've never been involved in anything where people speak so eloquently, thoughtfully and passionately about what they do, BJJ practitioners are the most articulate bunch I've come across, articulate in thought, movement and speech, and I'm very proud to be part of it.
I have seen BJJ likened to Human chess because you have to be prepared to change your moves depending on your opponent, I like this analogy because it describes the intellectual side to BJJ.
I had planned to go maybe twice a week to BJJ but I find myself going at least 4-5 sometimes 6 times a week at the moment, if my body allows and I love it! I know I'm going to get choked, wrenched, battered and bruised, so what makes me want to back night after night? Apart from what I've already said, I suppose it's knowing that every night is going to be a challenge that I will overcome and on those days where I feel I'm falling short I know that there will be someone there to pick me up, dust me down and get me back on track.
Who'd have thought that a Japanese martial art refined in the back streets of Brazil would help somebody from Tring win the biggest battle of his life!