WHEN you walk through a storm, hold your head up high…
And don’t be afraid of the dark…
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky…
Darkness brews inside your temporal walls. There’s no warning heeded, grey sky spotted, or doomsday forecast read aloud. Without time to evacuate or prepare, shelter is either scant, leaky, or non-existent. Protective drywall is torn off and swept away, exposing vulnerabilities. Storm insurance? What storm insurance? You’re stranded all alone, and under constant, sleepless siege from above, not knowing how or when or if it will all pass, or how much damage it will ultimately inflict. You shrink from the storm’s challenge. Your once golden gates are ripped down and left in a mangled pile of iron. The storm force simply blows you away. The depression moves inland.
No longer in control, thoughts spiral inwards, sucking your already meek spirit into the void created by the storm’s devastation. Survival — not prosperity or modesty or love — instantly becomes the new focus of your life. Are you really even waking up every day if the days blend together? Not that it matters — actually waking up is the last thing you want to do, because hiding through the day is the best way to get through the day.
The storm is smart, though. The longer you hide, the harder it will rain. Your body is stuck in a quandary: it’s already too risky to go outside. So what’s there to do?
Watch a fucking football match, of course. Wi-fi is free and boundless nowadays.
In the midst of this storm last January, that’s what I did. Confined to a hospital cot in a cold, sanitiser-white room, as the lurching florescent light of the hallway buzzed itself in, I found a stream on my iPhone. The phone’s glow lit up my face, and I warmed to what I saw unfold.
— Kristian Walsh (@Kristian_Walsh) February 1, 2017
Only three months into his appointment as Liverpool FC’s 21st manager, Jürgen Klopp’s title-winning hipster look, intelligence, and “heavy metal football” brand had instantaneously jarred the team and fanbase — a collective previously devoid of spirit during the final weeks of Brendan Rodgers’ promise-bin reign — with bountiful injections of kinetic and emotional intensity. And hugs. Lots, and lots, and lots of hugs.
That afternoon, I watched Klopp’s Liverpool beat Exeter City 3-0. A master motivator, Klopp fielded a young B-team that January day to vanquish lower-tier Exeter. Those 90 minutes — especially Sheyi Ojo’s floating curler — were my only moments respite, of reality tolerance, from another day of distress inside a New York City psychiatric ward.
As time separates me from that week in the ward, I’ve become increasingly comfortable talking about my experience not only then, but everything that lead up to it. Most of my friends know that I’ve been in mental hospitals twice in the past year. Through my openness, some of those friends decided to open up and seek help for their own previously untreated illnesses. Or, just to check-in on someone else they know.
Every time one person overcomes society’s mental health stigma — that the affected can’t simply ‘suck it up’, ‘think positively’ or ‘power through it’, and genuinely needs life-saving empathy and medical care — a handful more open up as well. We all support each other. Shedding your vulnerabilities is freeing. Like a world class footballer, figuring out how to control your weaknesses naturally showcases your strengths.
Opening up and expressing your true self, however, puts you right in the eye of the storm.
That’s where I found myself after watching Exeter City’s battering. When the final whistle blew, I put my phone down, took off my Luis Suarez shirt and fleece Liverpool slippers in favour of a new hospital gown and sticky-bottomed, scratchy cotton socks, and pulled the covers over. The match’s golden glow brought calm inside of the storm’s eye. Once gone, the clouds moved in, again.
Ongoing therapy sessions, medication, and distress tolerance behavioural training makes every day a battle for my own mind and self-will. This is where Liverpool provides relief and reinforcement. Every single day feels more purposeful when there’s a weekend kick-off time excitedly lodged in your brain. Instead of the days mindlessly blending, they string together with structure, the mind focused on the songs and sights ripe for living for at the weekend. Each time I’ve gone blue over the years, the proverbial, albeit temporary Golden Sky has always been the Reds’ matchday.
My psychiatrist tells me that’s natural. It’s a relief to hear that, especially when the main treatment for your diagnosis are pills with potential side effects that would, in absolution, defeat the prescribed purpose for them. Klopp and Klonopin work in tandem, as I’ve been told.
But Liverpool have always been bigger than one man. The club’s history is often told through the lens’ of particular talismen and managers, but its long and illustrious history is written by the fans. Supporter spirits lift the club to nether levels, brewing strong in The Kop’s cauldron, waiting to blow off steam. Football is mostly cathartic in that way, and no club anthem could be better for it than ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
In the ward, the song and its signature lyrics became a mantra of sorts, for me. As much as the song is about camaraderie, love, and overcoming obstacles, the song’s arc concerns a person’s depressive episode. Each couplet stares reality in its face, and then offers a dose of grounded optimism. A reminder that everything will, in fact, be OK. Hold your head up high. Don’t be afraid of the dark.
Nurses would have me play the song during art therapy groups, where I’d draw different abstract versions of the Liverbird crest. On the day I left the ward, with a nurse’s suggestion, I hung one of my drawings in the hallway. Before turning to the door, I looked at what I scribbled on the drawing’s border:
In that moment, I was reminded once again that I’m not alone in my illness. I never was. And I never will be.
I can’t see the lasting golden sky quite yet, but I know it’s waiting for me.
Samaritans: A free helpline for those in need, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Number: 116 123
Mind: A charity that can provide free counselling to those who need it, anyone can refer themselves to Mind, without having to be referred by their GP. Number: 03001233393
CALM: Campaign Against Living Miserably, a resource aimed at men with mental illness. Their helpline is open 5pm-midnight 365 days a year, and their website is full of brilliant articles and videos. Number: 0800585858
Papyrus: A charity with a mission to reduce the rate of suicide among young people in the UK. Call their HOPELine if you ever need advice or help. Number: 08000684141
7 Cups of Tea: An online chat resource for anyone who wants to talk, but would prefer not to do it on the phone.