Given the target, and as a father of slightly-too-many daughters, this one was far too close to home. It's just too overwhelmingly sad.
So, sorry... but I'm just going to start writing and see where it takes me - and I doubt, once again, that it's going to be about video games. It'll pass though. It always does. Normal service will be resumed.
These days, if I ever get down I don't get down for very long. I'm fortunate in that I don't think I'm genetically predisposed towards depression. A bit of shitty work-related news, or money worries, and I can be fed up for a day or so, but it feels like a normal human response. I'm lucky, I guess. I've too many friends who suffer from mental health issues, and I feel powerless to help them.
There has been no real history of depression in my family, aside from some distant great-uncle who threw himself under a train. When I have been depressed, or when everything in my life has felt helpless or off-kilter, I can - with the benefit of hindsight - see that it's not without some root cause. Whenever I've been low in my life - even really low - I can see that it hasn't come from nowhere.
For a family that has managed to weather a number of real tragedies over the years, I think we have a noble capacity for picking ourselves up and moving forwards. At least, until the point that we can't.
I wanted to write about this subject during the recent Mental Health Awareness Week, but when it came to it... I just felt too exposed. I sort of resented myself for that - that there were so many people bravely discussing their own mental health history, including good friends of mine, and here I was... far too embarrassed or ashamed to do so.
It's that classic "Boys don't cry" thing that has been drummed into too many of us. Speaking as someone who was bullied as a kid, not making myself appear vulnerable is a coping strategy.
Well... I do cry, and yesterday - seeing the reports from Manchester - I fought those tears quite a bit. So, y'know... let's give this a go. Let's see if I can talk about this without bottling it.
I've suffered from depression at points in my life, but it took a long time for it to manifest in any way that might be considered "classic" depression. It wasn't in me the day I was born; it needed to be built, layer upon layer, until the weight of it caused my foundation to crumble in upon itself.
I think that this is kind of what I wanted to talk about a few weeks ago - that depression, being clinically fed-up, whatever you want to call it, doesn't always take a (for want of a better term) "classic" form. I rarely allowed myself the luxury of wallowing and indulging the depression. I was always taught that picking yourself up, and forcing yourself to move forward, was the way to tackle it. Unfortunately, upon reflection, I think that might've been, like, really bad advice.
Despite being pretty severely bullied from a young age, to more or less the time I left school, and amid that having had to go through the death of a 9 month-old niece (and the suicide of my grandfather a week later), parents with a fairly volatile marriage, and feeling replaced by my mother's noble (I now realise) decision to foster, I'm amazed that I reached adulthood with little more than a bunch of insecurities.
I didn't ever feel there was a black cloud inside me, that was part of me. I became a parent at 18, and though it was a shock, and - unplanned as it was - alienated a lot of my friends, it gave me the stability I had needed. I did, and still do, adore being a father.
It was many years later, when that stability was rocked by a couple of major relationship bombshells, that the cracks in this stability first appeared. It allowed a lot of stuff from my childhood to bubble up - like throwing a big rock in a river, and watching all the crap that had settled on the bottom, out of view, to float to the surface.
I'd held onto the same mantra that my parents had lived by - you stay together for the kids no matter what - but it pulled against the reality of where I found myself. For a year I had what might be called "classic" depression. Through it, I continued to work; there was a mortgage still to pay. Some days were harder than others - I remember one occasion still typing at my keyboard, while being slumped on the floor under my desk.
However, believing there no way out of the situation without disappointing my family - who made it abundantly clear that they wouldn't support my decision to walk away - I succeeded in pulling a functional version of myself back together and soldiered on... "for the sake of the kids, matter what". It was a timebomb, frankly.
My family had always done this; we'd been taught to put ourselves last, and everyone else first - particularly our children. Marriage was sacrosanct, however unhappy it might be.
What I now realise is that for the next few years I was probably still depressed. I never realised, because my symptoms - such as they were - manifested as the opposite of what I thought depression was. Rather than spend all day in bed, I became manically driven, and my work ethic went through the roof.
And then I went really mad.
If a lot of this is unspecific and lacking detail, I apologise, but it's purely to protect my kids. I'll do as much as possible to own this, and get the general gist across.
In the end, it didn't take much to tip me over the edge. Just one small comment, followed by a kidney-punch from my employers at Teletext, that they were stripping away much of what I'd loved about writing Digitiser, and cutting my salary in half to boot.
The final straw, ironically, was when I chose to leave Digitiser in March 2003. Though Teletext had reversed the decision to cull Digi's humour, by removing myself from that continuity - which had been part of my life for a decade - I'd lost my final piece of solid ground.
My relationship had crumbled away, but rather than properly end it as we should've done, we felt the pressure from family, friends, and our inner voices, to keep up appearances. We split. Somebody would say something, so we got back together and tried again. We split. Somebody would say something, so we got back together and tried again. That was the pattern.
What ensued were a few years where - looking back on it - I was manic. I can see now that I was deeply, profoundly, unhappy. I told myself that I was taking control of my life, but the steering column was broken. For longer than I care to admit, I drove through life taking out wing mirrors and clipping pedestrians.
Worst of all, the part of me that I think of as the real me looked on like some helpless bystander while this maniac did his best to wreck my life. I stopped liking myself. I hated my behaviour, I hated having hurt people, I hated that I couldn't see a way out. Was this who I really was?!
Unfortunately, I was operating in a sort of feedback loop where more manic behaviour begat more manic behaviour - even in just general day to day interactions with people. More instability led to more instability. The more unpleasant I was, the more I hated myself.
It was worse on the Internet. Of course, back then we were still all learning the rules, but on the Board of Biffo - a forum attached to the blog I'd created as an attempt to hang onto some of the continuity I'd lost when I'd stopped writing Digitiser - things went from bad to worse.
I hit rock bottom when the Board of Biffo imploded, when being "Mr Biffo" made me vulnerable to people using me as a target, or to settle scores... when my own dickishness invited more dickishness. I had my privacy violated, I had my children contacted online and their safety threatened. People posed as me on message boards, or spread weird rumours about me. Attempts were made to blackmail me, and I was stalked.
I felt that I'd brought it all upon myself, and upon my family, and to a considerable degree I had. "Mad Mr Biffo", as I was occasionally referred to, wasn't all that far from the truth. It was too much.
Yet it's because of my kids that I didn't throw in the towel. I mean, there were plenty of times when I wanted to. When following in the family tradition of throwing myself under a train felt like the only way to stop it, and I screamed and raged at my life, but I knew I had to change it. It was an untenable situation. It was change or stop. I was very, very, very low.... I knew I couldn't go on with things the way they had been; sooner or later it would become impossible to live with. I had to try.
It was a gradual process. First, I went to the police about some of the above. Second, I had to take myself apart, and examine how I'd ended up here, how my life had become such an utter mess. I had to learn to stop blaming myself for everything - or, at least, take responsibility for my own actions, but also try to understand them.
I took myself out of the public eye, and though I couldn't quit my job as a screenwriter entirely - I still had bills to pay, and I still enjoyed it - I stopped focusing on grown-up telly, and put my energies into the less high-profile world of kids TV. Being Mr Biffo brought its own dramas, and I couldn't deal with them on top of everything else. I returned to being Paul Rose.
I worked towards moving out of writing altogether. That's how much I wanted to disappear. I toyed with becoming a teacher - but could find no way to train that would also leave me without a home - and then settled on psychotherapy as a potential career change.
I'd dabbled with therapy, to limited success; one therapist told me I sounded lonely, which was the first time I'd ever considered that, yes, I was deeply lonely. However, it wasn't until I signed onto the Foundation Degree course that the real big life changes came about.
Through that, I realised that the "stability" I kept trying to return to, with little success - my marriage - was nothing but an illusion of safety, and that I was there because "Staying together for the kids" was a condition of my own self-worth. That had been drummed into me from birth.
By trying to make it work - when the foundations of what a relationship should be built on had been destroyed many years before - I was trying not to harm my children, and had been hanging onto what I believed was a shred of security.
By trying to make it work I'd been hurting my kids and slowly killing myself.
I eventually dropped out of my training; a burning cauldron of self-examination designed to make therapists and counsellors as secure as possible. I've written before about the reasons why I quit, but it reached a point where it had done me all the good it could, and going over the same ground again and again was keeping me trapped in the past.
However, I'd also met and fallen in love with my current partner.
Through her, I learned to like - and then love - myself again. Her acceptance of me, warts and all, was one of the key rebuilding blocks. She saw in me the good that I no longer could. The other thing this gave me was finding a stability again. It took a while, of course. There were still changes in my life to go through - aside from a new relationship, there were a couple of house moves, my kids moving out and growing up - and such key events always require some adjustment.
Ultimately, though, removing myself from a situation that had made me unhappy, and finding myself somewhere happy, somewhere that gave me the continuity and acceptance I'd lacked, was the final element I needed to change my life. It helped me find myself again, and through that I was able to enjoy life and accept myself.
That makes it sound simple, but of course it wasn't. It took time. It took effort and willpower, and support.
It's hard to have regrets about a life I now love, but if I do have them, my biggest is that I know there are people out there who most likely hate me, because at one point in my life I wasn't who I've always wanted to be. There are people out there who have known only a version of me that I existed as for a few wretched years. I can only apologise for the collateral damage, and hope they've moved on from the arsehole I was. I'm truly sorry.
So there you go. That's my own mental health story. I don't know if any of it will be helpful. I don't know how it'll be received. I hope that some of you will be able to take at least something from it which might be useful.
Feeling vulnerable, I hope you don't all laugh at my misfortune, or read any of this as self-pity; I've simply tried to tell the story as honestly and openly as I'm able. I'm not bulletproof - none of us are - I still get hurt, I still get scared, I still feel insecure from time to time. But it feels like its within acceptable, "normal", tolerable, parameters.
I can't guarantee that what worked for me will work for everyone. We're all wired our own way. The only thing I implore is that we all just be kind and accepting of one another.
People with depression or other mental health people can be an energy drain, but they can't get beyond it if we don't offer them unconditional acceptance. That isn't to mean you have to indulge them - sometimes people do need tough-love, because depression can come to be a way of life, like wearing a pair of old slippers that are worn through (you can always buy new slippers). It can be used to exploit the better nature of others.
Nevertheless, empathy - in big and small ways - is the key to making the world a better, happier place, and improving the lives of those around you. Surely, we all want that don't we? Surely, we don't want to be the person who makes somebody's day worse? You never know what else they might be dealing with.
I dunno if this'll be useful, but in conclusion - before we (hopefully) get back to talking about video games and bums - I'll offer you some bullet points on what I take away from my experience. Just remember, I'm not an expert.
- If you don't like yourself, ask what it is you don't like. Wouldn't you rather be the person you want to be?
- If you don't like yourself, and how you're living your life, then it's probably a sign that something isn't right. It might take a lot of effort and willpower, but you can change it.
- If you don't like your life, ask what it is that you don't like. Are you making people around you unhappy because of it? If so, something is wrong that needs fixing.
- Take responsibility for your actions, but don't be too hard on yourself. For a while, when I was in the grip of beating myself up, I carried around a photo of myself as a kid. Every time I started giving myself a hard time I'd pull out the picture and ask whether I'd say the same things to that little boy.
- Change is scary, but it's like ripping off a plaster. Sometimes you just have to do it. The pain doesn't have to last forever.
- It's a cliche, but make sure your oxygen mask is fitted before you try to help others.
- Try to recognise when you're doing stuff because you've internalised the values of others - "Boys don't cry"... "People have to stay together for the kids" etc. - and do what is right for you. Those aren't necessarily your values.
- Try to remember that everyone has got their own stuff going on too. How they see you is as much down to them seeing the world through this lens as it is you.
- Be aware that you also see others through your own frame of reference; chances are, they're nothing like what you think they are.
- Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of. Don't suffer alone. If your friends or family can't help, or are part of the problem, seek professional help. Anti-depressants can help.
- There's also no shame in admitting that you're depressed; it's part of being human.
- But check when you're legitimately depressed and can't function, and recognise when you're just doing it because it's convenient; we're all capable of wallowing.
- Nothing is more important than your happiness. If you're happy, you'll make other people happy. Be who you want to be.
- You're stronger than you realise.