Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Auld Lang Syne

One of the reasons I decided to move back to Scotland was because there are so many places I want to explore. There are places I regularly visited as a child, others as a student and some places I've yet to go to. When I was young I spent a large part of my holidays and weekends outdoors. I've realised with my six year old, like my parents did with me and my brother, that children are happier when they are given plenty of outdoor time; the wilder the places the better. The same is true for adults, though many of us have lost touch with this attachment to nature. It took my last (and hopefully final) episode of severe depression to realise that being outdoors, somewhere in nature was essential for my well being. Before that, it had just been something I did once in a while on a whim.

In Scotland hill walking has always been a popular activity for many with whole families venturing out whatever the weather. I remember a family picnic by a loch high in the hills when the sky turned black and we were pelted with hailstones. Life doesn't get more real than that. A taxi driver I was talking to in Glasgow told me how he first went camping with his Scout group. His Scout Master agreed to give him the key to the camp shed so after school on Friday he would raid his mum's cupboards and fridge, hitchhike to the campsite with his pals, spend the whole weekend there building fires and looking after themselves, then hitch back to the city for school on Monday. So much freedom has been lost with the changes in our society that are a result of fear. Many working class mining villages were built in the countryside miles from the cities, like the one my grandparents lived in. Imagine the feeling of climbing to the top of a mountain when you spend most of your life stifled underground.

I love the wilderness and wild places. Venturing outdoors can be so much more fun, especially with young children, when nature is adapted and maintained in a sympathetic way. A great example is the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Aberfoyle which was designated as Forest Park by the Forestry Commission in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In August 2013 the visitor centre, known as The Lodge, opened after a £1.6M revamp into a state of the art facility with nature exhibitions, live CCTV so you can watch red squirrels, ospreys and blue tits at close range, a shop and cafe. There are a number of waymarked walking routes that start and finish at the Lodge as well as a link to the National Cycle Network. We decided to try the Waterfall Trail. All along the route we discovered outdoor play facilities that kept my six year old entertained and that delighted me. It was a cloudy day with short rain showers meaning we passed only a couple of other families. I imagine on a gorgeous day it will be very popular and busy. We could have a whole industry of places like these, helping to protect wildlife, create meaningful employment as well as provide safe places for therapeutic interaction with nature. When I got to the outdoor nature hide I was expecting to be disappointed and not see a thing but there were hundreds of little birds flitting about between the numerous bird feeders and we were amazed to see two red squirrels. The photo of one of them isn't great because I don't have zoom on my camera.

It baffles me that there is so much shame and misunderstanding about mental illness. When you look at it scientifically, events in our lives are imprinted on our brains. We live in a world where, not only are we at risk of trauma and injury, we also consume the trauma and injury of others constantly with a drip, drip, drip feed of horror news reports and violent entertainment. When something is imprinted on our brain in childhood it is even harder to shift. It may be buried subconsciously so that suddenly in adulthood depression comes out of the blue, maybe at a time when everything is going well in your life. It may be that you've reached a place where you feel safe enough to do the work to heal yourself. The main problem is thinking 'this shouldn't be happening' which is probably what everyone around you, who you will need for support, will also be thinking. Medication can help to control the worst of the symptoms but if it is used to suppress the experience you will be missing out on the work you need to do to move forward and grow. In my experience doctors don't understand enough about the needs of their patients when they come to them with depression. Psychological support is inadequate, extortionate and probably out of reach of the people who need it most. I believe depression occurs when our minds become stuck in our past experiences, anxiety is being stuck with thoughts and fears of the future. While it is far too simplistic to suggest a walk in nature will cure mental distress, the process of getting out of our mind, into our bodies and being present is one of the tools of recovery. It's only when we identify with ego based ideas of individualistic achievement that we label depression or break down as a weakness and a problem. We are also missing the fact that the people in the most pain have the opportunity for the most growth. Just be and remember how far you've come for auld lang syne.


  1. Hello! Nice to meet you in the Campsie Glen at the weekend (I was photographing down at the river).

    I don't believe in panaceas, but my own experience with depression has been tremendously helped by exercise. Medication was numbing me to the world, then my car gave up the ghost and I took to cycling and walking. There's no question that getting out and getting moving lifts my mood, and my better mood makes me want to get out and get moving... hooray for a virtuous cycle!

    Anyway, just thought I'd pass by and say hi! since I'd managed to remember your blog name.

  2. Hey Martin, good to hear from you, thanks for your comment. I'm glad you've found a way to stay one step ahead of depression. As you will know getting moving at all is an achievement and dealing with symptoms of medication is a whole other issue. There are so many places I'm looking forward to exploring on foot and bike.

  3. beautifully written, heartfelt article and I couldn't agree more. I've recently noticed that even indoors exercise isn't quite good enough for me- I have to get outside- I don't even mind walking in the rain- and you feel the benefits: body and soul for a long time afterwards