Opening Up is Alex Miller’s legacy to cricket. What always spurs me on is that in years to come, when memories of his efforts on the pitch have started to fade, his energy will still inspire. The project operates with the cliche of “if it helps one person we’ve done our job” and as each week and month passes the chances of that being exceeded increases. One of the saddest ironies around Al’s death is that if he was still with us and someone else had passed there is no doubt he’d be the driving force. He’d be wanting to get out there, visiting clubs, pestering people to put up posters and getting conversations started.
He died in December 2012. I can’t work out if that is a short or long time ago. When I think about him beyond a few seconds I can’t escape sadness. It may be a moment smiling at a flashback of one of his funny moments to start with but I always end up with what feels like a crack in my heart. Why? That is always the question that emerges. Why did he do it? He was loved, loved others and had a rare set of qualities to be proud of.
There were many positives features to remark upon but it was his sincerity and authenticity that I still admire. If he did something, he gave it the whole lot. If he thought something, believed in anything he was ardent in supporting it.
Alex took friendship seriously. He didn’t form bonds for him, he did it for you. We can all think of people that seem to do everything for their own benefit, they need you around for their purposes and give nothing back. For every person of that type I’ve encountered they are offset by a man as generous as Al was. I think now of conversations that started with me trying to lend an ear, whatever help I could give to aid him through mental ill health, but finished with him busily searching to provide a solution to my problems or those of friends.
I wrote last year, in the programme for the 6-a-side tournament played in his honour, that he is the greatest influence on my life. This remains true. His character is perpetual inspiration but one more tragically formed reason is even more motivation. I didn’t do enough to save his life. His example rescued mine.
The ‘Mind & Body’ sessions the project offers have been the cornerstone of our outreach and expansion of the message. Since the first one the content has developed, with a couple of sections becoming more and more prominent.
In the initial stages of Opening Up there was no entanglement with my own experiences. The extent to which I was engaged with that was as a friend of Alex, someone who had lost a friend to suicide- someone who wanted to do something to stop this happening to others. As time has gone on I’ve been more honest, more like my mate was.
I gelled with Al over a few common interests but also a common illness. Depression. In our time of knowing each other we experienced it differently. It is the case, of course, that I knew him when it was at its destructive worse whilst my episodes were both in the past and still to come. We didn’t necessarily share ideas on how to cope but did see some benefit in sharing experiences of how intrusive, tiring and relentless ‘the black cloud’ could be.
My first spell was in my final year of university. Where it came from I’m not sure. There can be a whole mixture of reasons for encountering clinical depression. For me it was likely to be the experience of an impending death in the family, far too little sleep and poor lifestyle choices. The impact was heavy. I remember the peak of it as if it happened to someone else, in a film or described in a book. I simply couldn’t function without the darkest, constantly probing bleak thoughts dominating. My self esteem was rock bottom, I hated nothing in the world more than myself. People around me must feel the same, I told myself. I was angry but tired. Absolutely knackered but couldn’t sleep. Instead the small hours were me and the never departing company of misery. Eating was pointless. Seeing others a horrible chore. This developed to a feeling of being trapped in a wall, emptiness surrounding me. Behind it, ever present, was the one bit of clarity. I wanted to die. I didn’t want another minute of this, either the vacuum of emotion or, especially, when it tipped towards the violent thoughts of self loathing.
Somehow I recovered. Finally I slept. For a long, long time. The morbid and nasty thinking became less regular until it went entirely. I told myself it was a one off, a blip, just a breakdown, I’m fine now. For a long time, as I can reflect on now, I continued with low level symptoms of depression. I was never comfortable in myself, paranoid that I wasn’t wanted or liked. Prone to dealing with problems by isolating myself.
Then, building up more slowly than the first time, it came again years later. The type of interference was different. It was characterised by irritation and anger with those around me, frustration at the world but culminating in the same slump towards feeling nothing. This time I cried more. Two, three and sometimes more times a day. For no apparent reason. The difference at this point in my life was Alex’s death had given me resolve that no-one else should go the way he did. I took my own advice and saw the doctor. Once I stopped crying and shaking she started the process of me getting better. The medication prescribed, at the time, felt like I’d admitted defeat to the illness. As the weeks passed it felt like a welcome support, aligned with exercise and talking to others. As I got better my mind felt open, airy and bright. In contrast to the closed darkness of before.
I delayed in writing this for a long while but now I’ve got past the stage of caring if people judge me for an illness I, like many others, have had. They can think I’m weak, that I’m feeling sorry for myself or whatever other misconception they may harbour. I don’t allow the stigma around mental illness to be my problem, it’s that of those who maintain it.
My recovery is as close to complete as i can envisage. I know when to recognise symptoms and how to look after my health. To some extent, through feelings that are fleeting, I worry about it coming back. I can slip into an anxious state considering how bad it was.
It’s been tough writing this. The purpose is as much for me to ‘open up’ as it is for anyone to read and be reminded that mental illness does not discriminate, Don’t wait until it gets so bad it takes over your entire existence. Speak and if someone else does, listen.