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I write every day about living with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. I've written and published more than 1.3 million words

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Sobriety Cost Me My Job

4 min read

This is a story about stability...

Coke bottles

In 2015, a bet with a friend, that I could stop drinking for 100 consecutive days, cost me my job. The story is a little bit more complicated than the simple summary I've given, but that's about the long and the short of it.

The brain has a tendency to rebound. That is to say, if you've been very calm, then your brain will rebound and make you anxious. If you've been very happy, then your brain will rebound and make you depressed. Well, mine does anyway.

Mind-altering substances can be destabilising - for me - but they can also be stabilising. For many productive years, I used a combination of stimulants and CNS depressants - caffeine and alcohol - to manage my mood. If I was going too high, I would drink booze to tamp things down, and if I was going too low, I could drink coffee to pep me up. It was a crude system, but it worked.

In terms of how my colleagues perceive me, they like me best when I'm hungover, because I'm quiet and I'm not argumentative. They like me least when I'm hopped up on caffeine, because I'm overly garrulous and quarrelsome. However, I've managed to get through decades of a very successful career in this manner, without any issue.

The issues have come when I've stopped using things like alcohol and caffeine to regulate my mood.

Stopping caffeine was beneficial. I sleep better and I'm more productive; more creative. Sure, if I needed to do a lot of very repetitive easy work, caffeine would help me concentrate, but most of the work I do is very difficult, requiring a lot of flexible thinking - caffeine is not the right tool for the job.

Stopping alcohol has been massively detrimental. I swing between periods of paralysis, where anxiety stops me from doing anything, and periods of irritability. If I'm hung over, I'm happy to coast along and keep quiet. With a clear head I often have little patience, when I'm particularly tired and stressed. Stopping alcohol makes me massively tired, because I don't sleep well.

Once the first couple of sober weeks have passed, I start to have too much energy, very much like when I've had too much coffee. My thoughts race and I'm irritated by dimwits who test my patience to the limit. I struggle with the glacial pace of large organisations, more than ever, when my brain is functioning particularly well, free from hangover or otherwise dulled by alcohol abuse.

It's hugely advantageous, if one must work with dimwits, to chemically lobotomise yourself using alcohol. It's too painful to drag dimwits along, or be held back all the time; it's too frustrating; too time-wasting. Without alcohol, the sheer incompetence and lack of productivity of most of the brainless idiots who bimble along in the corporate world, is unbearable.

Of course I'm somewhat plagued by an underlying mood disorder which predisposes me towards delusions of grandeur and irritability with dimwits, but alcohol really helps. Alcohol has helped me in my career for decades. Without alcohol, I would have gone of and done something interesting but far less lucrative, years ago. I'm extremely well paid, because I'm bribed to work with dimwits. I'm extremely well paid because it's excruciatingly boring waiting for the penny to drop in the hamster-wheel that serves as a brain in some of the dimwits that I work with.

In all honesty, I don't work with many dimwits. I do like my colleagues. There are just one or two who really try my patience and I have so little patience, now that I'm sober.

Sobriety sucks. Sobriety conflicts with my career; my employability; my likability. I need to take a break from drinking though, for the sake of my physical health. I'm about halfway though my month of sobriety, which I'm taking to give my body a break from the damaging onslaught of alcohol.

Hopefully I'll push through this difficult period and become a bit less irritable at work. Hopefully I won't lose my job, again.

 

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Dark Thoughts

4 min read

This is a story about storm clouds...

Rain on glass

I often assume that after a lengthy period without abusing drink, drugs, medication and other mind-altering substances, I'll reap some rewards. I tend to think that a period clean and sober will bring good health, and in turn, that life will improve. It's certainly true that drugs have brought nothing but chaos and turmoil into my life, making it completely unmanageable, as my mental health problems are exacerbated. Eliminating most psychoactive substances has certainly turned my life into something which looks - to the outside observer - to be stable, productive, functional and indeed, at times quite enviable. To all intents and purposes, I look, smell, sound and act like a normal member of mainstream society.

Internally, there's nothing to help me cope with the intrusive thoughts; the traumatic flashbacks.

In the comfort of my own home, as I've already written about, I yell out, grimace and flinch, as I'm assaulted by all kinds of post-traumatic flashbacks. I have horrible nightmares. I suffer lengthy periods of skin-crawling agonising anxiety, where the hands of the clock are barely moving; it lasts for an eternity.

There are no rewards for being clean and sober; only suffering.

It's unthinkable, lifting the lid when there's so much trauma. It's insanity to have it all hitting me like a freight train, every single second of every single day, even when I'm asleep.

I like to think that my brain is mending itself. I like to think that by reliving those traumas, my brain is kind of re-organising itself and exorcising stuff. I allow myself to yell out, flinch and grimace, because it seems better to let it out than to fight it and attempt to suppress it.

Thinking about it, there's mountains of stuff. There's an unimaginable amount of stuff.

The memories - the bad memories - come thick and fast, intruding into whatever I'm doing, unless I'm really working hard; really concentrating on something. I have so few distractions that there's plenty of time for my brain to throw a relentless torrent of terrible, dreadful, awful traumatic memories at me, which are so bad that they're physically painful and cause me to cry out in shock.

I don't think I'd have been able to cope without medication, but now I've lost that crutch, it feels like I stored up years worth of terrible stuff without dealing with it properly. Now it's all hitting me, seemingly all at once.

I'm unusual, in that I'm one of the least psychoactively altered people - I don't have any tea, coffee, coca-cola, fizzy drinks, nicotine, cannabis, alcohol or medication. I don't eat, drink, swallow, smoke, inject, snort or otherwise ingest anything mind-altering. That's very unusual. To give you an example, out of hundreds of people I work with, I'm the only one who doesn't drink tea, coffee or other caffeinated beverages, and my teetotaling makes me even more unusual.

As a friend said to me, quoting a popular Tweet: I'm raw-dogging reality.

It's really brutal. It's really awful. I don't recommend it at all. It's not nice. In fact, it's thoroughly unpleasant and intolerable. Don't do it. It's not worth it. It's not healthy, it's hell.

Why am I doing it then?

I have the unshakeable belief that I can achieve mood stability by avoiding all mind-altering substances, including the things we don't usually bother to think about, like tea and coffee. I feel a lot more stable - mentally - having given up everything. I'm trying to regulate my mood by doing other things. I'm hoping that I develop some healthy habits.

Certainly, after a couple of weeks teetotal, I have a lot more energy and enthusiasm; I'm a lot more active; I sleep better. These are not things to be sniffed at. Alcohol and depression combined to create a very sedentary lifestyle, which was horrifically damaging to my health. I was drinking myself to death, even though I appeared very functional and otherwise doing very well in life.

So, I'm suffering the dark, horrible invasive thoughts, driven to find out whether my brain will eventually rid itself of the toxins and settle down. Certainly, there are health benefits, but I am suffering a great deal.

 

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Invasive Thoughts

4 min read

This is a story about Tourette's...

Surveillance owl

I struggle with invasive thoughts. The thoughts are so traumatic that they cause me to wince and yell. I shout out in pain and shock when the thoughts hit me. It makes me appear like I have a tic.

What is a tic anyway?

Somebody who suffers with Tourette's is able to suppress their tic for a brief period, but then they have to let it out; to scratch the itch, as it were. I'm not claiming to have Tourette's of course, but I have some of the symptoms.

I live alone - except for my cat - in a big old house with thick walls, so I can shout out when I get hit by the invasive thoughts, and I'm mostly not bothering anybody. Sometimes I go out for a walk and I can't control the thoughts, so I yell out and flinch - tic - while I'm walking down the road. If anybody sees me, they must think that I'm very strange.

I can control my tic - mostly - when I'm in a work setting. Sometimes it gets the better of me and I mutter something or flinch in the company of my colleagues. They mostly don't notice or comment, but sometimes they do, occasionally.

I don't particularly try to control my tic when I'm with my girlfriend. We're usually in a relaxed private setting anyway, so I don't have to concentrate on controlling it as much as I can. The invasive thoughts, yelling, yelping, flinching, grimacing and other things too, happen all the time. It's fairly disconcerting to anybody who's not spent time in the company of somebody with the particular neurological complaint.

I won't be seeking any medical help for the problem. It seems to be exacerbated by alcohol, or rather by withdrawal from alcohol, so the solution is to either drink all the time, or not drink at all. I need to lose some weight and get healthier, so I am choosing the latter at the moment. It's not a severe and debilitating enough problem to seek medical help.

You know when you lie awake at night and you start remembering lots of embarrassing memories? Imagine that, except that it happens from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, and the memories are so traumatic they feel like they're causing you physical pain. That's what my invasive thoughts are like.

I might have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It seems likely. Given the severity of the trauma I've experienced, and the long-lasting problems I'm having as a result of it, it seems like the most probable thing. It's well beyond "embarrassing memories".

The thoughts don't particularly bother me; they're fleeting. Of course, I'd rather that I didn't yell, grimace, flinch and otherwise react to the severe traumatic flashbacks, but the damage is done and there's nothing much I can do about it. My life is - on the whole - unaffected by the invasive thoughts, given that they are short sharp shocks and not bothering me except for those unpredictable but frequent instants.

I wonder if I've got brain damage, but the question is a bit of a non-sequitur. The brain is a plastic organ, so it's continuously adapting; I definitely don't have a traumatic brain injury or any impairment to suggest any lasting permanent physical damage which my brain hasn't been able to adapt to, and doesn't continuously continue to adapt to.

There have been plenty of incidents which are bound to have damaged my organs, but my physical health seems mostly OK. Of course my kidneys and heart are a worry, and my general fitness levels have dropped to a really bad level, but I'm working on getting fitter.

In the course of writing this, I haven't been bothered by invasive thoughts at all; they only bother me when I'm bored. I like to keep busy. I like to keep my mind occupied. If my brain is active then it doesn't have time for invasive thoughts.

 

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Drinking in Moderation

3 min read

This is a story about the insidious creep of alcoholism...

Fridge

I decided that I was putting on weight, and that I didn't like that; I wanted to get fit and healthy. At the start of the lockdown I was drinking every day - 7 days a week - and I started drinking straight after I finished work each day. I was drinking far too much; it was excessive.

I went teetotal for a couple of months. My liver needed a break. In fact all of my brain and body was extremely grateful for a break from intoxicating liquor. I'd like to say that I felt great after a couple of months of non-drinking, but I didn't. However, if I had carried on drinking at the rate I was, then my health would have suffered immensely, and I would be very depressed about being overweight. As it stands now, I'm not happy with my weight, but I'm not unhappy either.

After my lengthy period of tee-totalling, I decided to try to drink in moderation. I was going to allow myself to drink 1 (one) bottle of wine per week, on a Saturday night, as a treat.

Keeping the amount of wine I have in the house to a minimum is a good idea. If I have it in the house, I'll drink it.

Soon, all my plans went out of the window. I decided I was allowed two bottles of wine per week - one on Friday and one on Saturday - but I foolishly decided to buy both bottles at once, and then ended up dipping into the second bottle on Friday night, and buying another one on Saturday.

The weekend just gone, I ended up drinking about 4 bottles of wine, although I did share some of it. I drank on Sunday too, which is against the rules.

I've paid a high price for heavy drinking. My sleep has been appalling. I've been tormented with invasive thoughts, stress and anxiety. I've had a dreadful tic - an involuntary vocalisation like Tourette's - due to the extreme change in brain chemistry. My brain is not in a good state to segue from stone cold sober, to very drunk, and back to stone cold sober - it's far too anxiety-inducing. I was stuttering and almost unable to speak at one point, due to the anxiety induced by abruptly stopping drinking. I don't get the shakes, for some reason.

But is it alcoholism?

Well, given that I am managing to minimise the harm that alcohol is doing to my health and my life, it is not alcoholism. I meet neither the medical definition, of physical dependence on alcohol, nor the other definition, which says that a person is an alcoholic if harm is being done to them by their alcoholism. Alcoholics are also not able to start and stop drinking at will, obviously.

I've definitely failed at drinking in moderation, though. Alcohol is definitely a crutch; a medication. I don't have a good relationship with alcohol, even if I am able to avoid its harm.

I need to find some other kind of [healthy] outlet.

 

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Habit

4 min read

This is a story about routine...

Laptops

Despite the chaotic - and often traumatic - backdrop to my life, during the past 5 years... I have still managed to write on a very regular basis. I've written from a hospital bed on multiple occasions. I've written from a psychiatric ward on multiple occasions. I've written when I've been dreadfully sick - both physically and mentally - and I've documented the path I've taken, from near-bankruptcy and destitution, to stability.

It might not look very healthy, but it is - my writing is a healthy habit.

I skipped writing over the weekend because I was busy. That's OK. I'm allowing myself to skip the occasional day when I'm busy. I'm not going to force myself to write every single day, without fail.

I have decided that I need to get into the habit of writing fewer than 700 words - it's a limit which forces me to be a bit more focussed on what I want to say, and discourages me from aimlessly rambling. Given that I mostly just write my stream-of-consciousness, it makes sense to create an artificial limit, because my thoughts are unending.

As I have repeated oftentimes before - ad nauseam - I am aiming to try to be more forward-looking, and to not dwell in bitterness and regret from the past; to not wallow in my life's misfortunes and my shitty childhood.

I can tell you for certain that I WILL NOT be writing any kind of "things I'm grateful for" vomit-worthy rubbish. Of course I have things I'm grateful for, and I have a great deal of perspective - I know I'm fortunate in many ways - so I don't need or want to have to write down all those things; it's pretty boring.

I'm glad that my skin isn't all peeled off and dipped in salt and acid. I'm grateful my eyes haven't been gouged out by rusty spoons. I'm grateful that my penis hasn't been cut off and stuffed in my mouth...

No.

I spend a significant proportion of my day reading the news, and whenever I see starving African children - etc - then I think "poor starving African children. We should improve the living conditions for human beings". I do not think "I'm glad I'm not a starving African child" because that's just sociopathic. Obviously it's better not to be a starving African child, but I'm afraid I'm cursed with enough empathy to think "we should improve things" as opposed to "I'm so grateful other people's lives are so shitty".

My routine consists of lying in bed reading the news, a shower, feeding the cat, reading the news, catching up on anything I missed at work, reading the news, work, meetings, reading the news, work, lunch, reading the news, work, meetings, work, reading the news, writing, dinner, reading the news, speaking to friends on the phone, watching documentaries about human suffering, social media, sleep... repeat.

As you can see, I read a lot of news.

I do not watch any TV.

I'm certain that I would be happier if I replaced some of that news reading with socialising, but my routine is predictable and somewhat in my control. The only thing I can't control is the human suffering which I see in the news, but I do care and I do what I can - from the confines of my routine - to improve the lives of humanity. Mostly, I do a lot of thinking about the suffering of humanity, but don't mistake me for somebody who doesn't care and doesn't do anything. The emotional labour is exhausting; the mental labour is exhausting. This shouldn't be underestimated.

Of course I want to change my routine. I want to exercise more. I want to socialise more. I want more excitement; variety. However, the routine gives me a great deal of stability, and the stability gives me health and wealth. Stability is very important to me, having had so many years of chaos and trauma.

My routine is important.

 

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Lockdown Improvements

5 min read

This is a story about the Coronavirus pandemic...

Lighthouse

Many people planned to come out of lockdown with new hobbies, fitter, healthier, happier and myriad other unachievable unrealistic things. I think that we have mostly come out of lockdown fatter, more unfit, poorer, more insecure, lonely, isolated, bored and generally worse off.

I started the lockdown drinking very heavily and eating McDonald's breakfast every morning. I decided that if we were going to be suffering the misery of being under house arrest, then I would treat myself. Quickly I realised that I was going to end up with clogged arteries and morbidly obese. I was eating takeaway several nights a week and not doing any exercise.

I started the lockdown physically dependent on sleeping pills to get to sleep, and using two different tranquillising sedatives to cope with unbearable anxiety. I decided it was too much hassle to try to keep stocked up with the medications I needed during the lockdown, and I calculated that I have enough left to be able to taper myself off. I didn't want to run out of medication suddenly in the middle of a pandemic.

I started the lockdown working on my sofa, fully reclined. I realised that my posture and back would be ruined by working in such a position for 8 hours a day, followed by many more hours on the sofa after finishing work.

Things had to change.

I thought the lockdown would last a month or two, but I must admit that I didn't think it would drag on beyond a quarter of the year. I tried my best to psychologically prepare myself for the lockdown lasting for months, but I was hopeful it'd be all over after 6 to 8 weeks.

I bought a desk and an office chair.

I weaned myself off the sleeping pills and tranquillisers.

I cut down my drinking, and even went teetotal for 6 or 7 weeks.

I started exercising. Not, like, exercising exercising. Just going for a 10km walk every day. Enough to keep me a little bit active, but nothing crazy.

I stopped getting takeaways. All those takeaways were costing quite a lot of money, when they were all added up. Sure, I felt like I could justify spending the money to enjoy some nice food, as compensation for the doom and gloom of the hundreds of thousands of people dying all over the world, and the restrictions to our freedom... but it wasn't healthy and it was costing a packet.

I paid off all my debt. This wasn't so much a planned thing. It was something that just happened to co-incide with the lockdown. However, it feels pretty damn good to have some savings now. I have a net worth again, which feels good. I have some financial security, even if it is pretty negligible. It had been a very long time which I'd been struggling to get my finances sorted, and it's a big relief to be back in the black.

My life is extremely austere and simple. I have my house, my job, my cat, my car; that's it. My health is probably OK. My weight is OK, although I am carrying some extra weight I'd like to shift, as a consequence of lockdown. My finances are OK. My job seems OK. My housing situation is sort of OK. My kitten is great, although my cat is lost... overall OK. My car has a big dent where an idiot crashed into it during lockdown, in a virtually empty car park, but there are more important things in life than having a shiny perfect car.

All things considered, I think I'm one of the lockdown winners - I'm emerging in far better shape than I went into lockdown. Some people have lost their job, or are about to lose their job. Some people have struggled with alcohol and food. Some people have struggled with mental health. In almost every area of my life, things have improved; I look reasonably well positioned to weather a difficult autumn and winter.

Although losing my cat was the worst thing that happened, it has forced me to connect with my neighbours and the wider community, so I have even managed to live a far less isolated and lonely existence under lockdown, than I was living before - I speak to far more people; I'm more connected and socially engaged.

I thought that if I retreated inwards, living and communicating through my blog and social media, then I would find it impossible to get through the lockdown. It looks like a reasonably good decision, to have taken a break.

It helps that it's summer - of course - which lifts my mood and generally creates a more pleasant and favourable backdrop for life, but I feel hopeful that I've got a decent position of health and financial stability to fight through the autumn and winter. I just need to book some holidays now... I've worked non-stop since early January, when I was discharged from hospital.

 

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Blogger's Digest - Day Eleven of #NaNoWriMo2019

9 min read

Blogger's Digest: a Novel

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Eleven

Tim had very kindly agreed to assist with the first leg of the passage - from Brighton to Roscoff. He would then take a ferry back to the UK. It was no more than a couple of days, but it was all the time he could spare, away from his family duties. I was very glad to at least start the lengthy journey with 3 experienced skippers aboard.

The logistics were torturously complex. I had to collect Tim from his home in Hampshire, bring him to Brighton, then he would be collected in Plymouth by his poor wife, who'd have been left home alone with the children for 3 nights. For Tim, it would hardly be much fun, given that a substantial part of our crossing would be at night and none of us could get drunk, but he seemed to enjoy offshore sailing.

I did not enjoy offshore sailing.

The English Channel has busy shipping lanes and strong tides. The currents around the Channel Islands were extremely fast and dangerous. The Channel crossing from England to France sounded like enough fun to tempt Tim, but I was dreading it. At least with experienced help aboard, I felt far less weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

As we approached the Cherbourg Peninsula - some distance offshore - we were intercepted by a French customs vessel, which loud-hailed us and instructed us in French to switch to a specific VHF radio channel, whereupon they told us to prepare to be boarded. Mercifully, my French was quite good and Ian possessed a particular International Certificate of Competence, which they were very keen to see. The UK has no regulation of who is allowed to take to the water in a sailboat or motorboat - akin to allowing people to drive on the roads without a license - so the French were particularly careful about who they allowed to cross from international water into French territory, especially if they were most probably from the UK. Incompetent UK skippers would often be ordered to get out of French waters.

Having dropped Tim off in Roscoff, Ian and I took the opportunity to have a couple of restaurant meals, drink some wine and a good night's sleep, before we set off on the next leg of the journey.

Crossing the Bay of Biscay was the part of the entire trip which I was dreading the most, because we would be further offshore than we were at any other point. To hug the coast of Western France and Northern Spain would be a huge and unnecessary detour, adding a great deal of travel time, but I was prepared to do it in order to be close to a number of ports, if we decided that we wanted to stop for rest or shelter. Ian convinced me that we would be able to manage the crossing between just the two of us, dividing each 24 hour period into 6 watches, lasting 4 hours - this would allow us to sail continuously and arrive at the tip of North-Western Spain without being too sleep deprived. "It will be a slog" Ian said, "but it will be worth it to make good progress".

The forecast predicted plenty of westerly wind, which was encouraging. I was hopeful that we would be able to make the crossing in good time.

I had not considered the rain.

Each 4-hour watch was quite punishing and unpleasant. With the wind and waves hitting the yacht at a 45 degree angle, the bow slammed quite heavily into the choppy water, and vast amounts of spray and rain were driven into the skipper's face. Facing backwards helped immensely, and was necessary to check for any large cargo vessels, cruise ships, tankers and other large ships which approached rapidly from behind. However, it was also necessary to keep looking forwards as much as possible, to keep an eye on the instruments and a look out for any large ships coming in the opposite direction.

As a pleasure-cruising yacht, designed for comfort as a 'floating caravan' she was ideal when moored up in a marina, or for short trips in fine weather, but lacked any of the equipment which she needed for offshore sailing. Without radar and an auto-helm system, which worked well when the wind and waves were unpredictable, she was entirely reliant on her skipper to be far more alert and in control, than any vessel which would ordinarily undertake such a long offshore passage.

To save the hull and rigging from the worst of the constant pounding by the waves, Ian and I steered my yacht up and down the crest and trough of every wave individually, trying to minimise the number of times when the bow would come clear out of the water, and come crashing back down, violently shaking the whole yacht.

Because of the wind direction, it was more important - more efficient - to keep the direction aligned with the wind direction, than to steer the most direct course. We could travel one or two knots - nautical miles per hour - faster if we kept the sails filled with wind from the correct direction, by constantly steering the boat, hunting for the optimal angle. Over the course of the 500 nautical mile leg, this would equate to 12 hours or maybe even a whole 24 hours saved. Perhaps it might not sound worth the saving to an ordinary person, but to competitive sailors like Ian and I, we were keen to cross the Bay of Biscay in the quickest possible time.

Taking it in turns to rest/sleep below decks, alternating as skipper at the helm, we hardly spoke for the whole journey, besides exchanging a few pleasantries. At the end of each watch, enough spray and rain had penetrated our wet-weather gear, that we were damp and cold, and desperate to peel off the soggy clothes and warm up in bed, sheltered from the wind.

It was not at all fun.

As we passed well beyond the point of no return, where it would have been completely pointless and counter-productive to turn back, I spent an entire 4 hour watch having a mild panic attack, feeling as though I had made a huge mistake and that we should turn back. Why was I putting myself through this, I asked myself. I had plenty of money to have my yacht delivered by either a professional crew, or else I could have her transported by road or sea. Why had I done this?

"Change of plan. I'm going to spend the summer in Bordeaux" I said to Ian, as soon as he arrived on deck to swap over with me.

"You've never been this far offshore have you?" he asked.

"No. It's bloody terrifying" I admitted.

"I had the exact same reaction you're having, the first time I crossed the Bay of Biscay. It's natural. It'll pass" he said, reassuringly.

"But this is miserable" I complained.

"At least we've got wind. We were becalmed for two days when I did it."

"Sure, but it's right on the nose. Close-hauled all the way" I whined.

"Call yourself a racer?" Ian joked, with a huge grin. The upwind leg of any race was always the most exciting, when every sailboat would be tacking backwards and forwards, and each time your path crossed with another competitor, you knew whether you were ahead or behind in the race. The upwind leg was where races could be won and lost, by pinching a little bit more, and squeezing a little more performance out of your sailboat than your competitors could. Ian was right: viewed as a very long race, I should have been loving the sailing.

"It would be stupid to give up at this point, wouldn't it?" I asked.

"Yes. This is the hardest part. You don't want to bail out now and spend your summer in Bordeaux. If you keep going, at least if you decided to bail out halfway you can spend your summer in the Balearics, and pay a visit to the Côte d'Azur."

He was right. I didn't want to spend my summer still stuck on the Atlantic Coast; I didn't want to spend my summer in Bordeaux. I wanted to get as far south as possible and into the sheltered warm water beyond the Gibraltar Straits.

"Thanks, Ian" I said. Below deck, I realised that I was finally now committed to an idea which had seemed so appealing in principle, and I knew would be rewarding in the end, but I had always been aware would be a huge challenge. My life had been quite easy in many ways, so I suppose I wanted to challenge myself like this; I wanted the sense of achievement. However, when faced with the enormity of the task ahead, I most definitely wanted to take the easy way out. I was glad that Ian had talked me out of abandoning the trip. I felt a little ashamed that I wasn't as dedicated and committed to sailing - and its occasional hardships - as my friends.

As I settled down to attempt a nap, I thought about how authentically my friend Tim had lived his life: pursuing his passion for sailing, instead of chasing money and sacrificing his pleasant life by the sea, for city living. He seemed happy and contented. I wondered if I had made the right choices in life, as I fell asleep in my bed, which was being fairly violently shaken as Ian steered us expertly through the waves.

 

Next chapter...

 

Blogger's Digest - Day Eight of #NaNoWriMo2019

11 min read

Blogger's Digest: a Novel

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Eight

The Round the Island Race was a fairly self-descriptive event. Each year, thousands of yachts would race around the Isle of Wight in Hampshire. Obviously, the fastest circumnavigation wins the race, but in yacht and dinghy racing, there is a handicap system, so that vessels of different class can compete - theoretically the best sailor in the worst vessel should still win the race, and an average sailor in the best vessel should have no unfair advantage conferred by the vast amount of money that they've spent on the very best racing yacht or dinghy.

Much like the London Marathon the fastest yachts would start first, and the slowest would start last, for two obvious reasons. The first reason was for safety: having extremely fast racing yachts overtaking vast numbers of slow-moving pleasure craft, would be a recipe for collisions. The second reason was to create the illusion of competition on the water: overtaking another yacht of the same class was a minor victory, and being first in your class was a victory in and of itself, even if you might not end up winning the race, after your circumnavigation time was adjusted based on your handicap.

The sport of Formula One motor racing is an opportunity for car manufacturers to demonstrate what they can achieve when money is no object, and there is a lot of attraction the general public feels towards the passtimes of the rich and famous. Yacht racing is no different, with the America's Cup yachts costing $10 million dollars or more, and the research, development, plus the cost of their professional crew, adding an exorbitant amount more to the price tag for the privilege of competing in the world's most prestigious sailing championship.

The great attraction of the Round the Island Race, was that anyone could enter. Anyone with a yacht, that is.

Imagine being able to drive your ordinary family car around a Formula One track, straight after the Formula One cars have just finished their race. It might not exactly be an everyman accessible sport, open to the masses, but it was a brilliant opportunity to be part of a flotilla of thousands of yachts - a spectacle; a tourist attraction - all racing around the Isle of Wight, attempting their circumnavigation in the fastest possible time: one single 'lap'.

I had done it once before, when I was 23, in my small racing yacht. My crew were all experienced sailors and competitive dinghy racers. We were young and foolish; we were brave and stupid. We sailed well and finished 7th in our class, which was a great achievement, because it was mostly semi-professional sailors who finished ahead of us.

This time, my crew and I were moored up Portsmouth, getting very drunk and having a delicious meal, but I was very anxious. My crew were all amateurs, and we were going to be racing my 'floating caravan' which had been my home for well over a year. It did not feel at all as though my mobile home should be subjected to a punishing race at sea. I felt my crew were woefully ill-prepared, which was my own fault for inviting them. When I had entered the race I thought it would be fun. As we drew closer to the start, I thought it was going to be hell, for all involved.

* * *

Sian was a level-headed lady and she did not enjoy sailing at all.

She enjoyed visiting me when I was moored up in the marina, and she enjoyed motoring through the dock, out of the marina, and up to the breakwater, where the sea was flat and calm. However, she hated things when even the gentlest of waves began to cause the yacht to wallow slightly, and she hated things even more when the sails were up and the yacht began to lean over - to "heel" in the yachtie parlance - and she felt sure that we were about to capsize at any moment.

Poor Sian never lost the instinctive feeling that whenever the yacht was not completely flat and level, that we were sure to sink straight to the bottom of the sea. The moment the yacht heeled over - leaning as the wind caught the sails - she would grab the nearest handrail and cling on for dear life; her knuckles literally turning white, as she gripped to tightly.

A catamaran - with its two hulls - might appear to offer more stability than a single-hulled vessel, but any yacht sailor will tell you that a capsize is much more likely in a catamaran than a regular single-hulled yacht. To capsize a catamaran yacht would be catastrophic, as the mast would be smashed to pieces and it would end up fully inverted - upside down - and the crew would require rescuing by the coastguard, or anybody responding to a mayday distress call. Sian often asked why I didn't get a catamaran, which she felt sure she would prefer, and I explained repeatedly, as many different ways as I could think of, and as patiently as I could, but she persisted in her mistaken belief that my yacht was capable of capsizing at any moment, and that a catamaran would be much safer.

We hadn't been out sailing more than a handful of times before the entry deadline for the Round the Island Race was fast approaching, and I foolishly thought that Sian would soon find her sea legs. She seemed enthusiastic about the idea of sailing around the Isle of Wight - she imagined that it would be a romantic trip, like going on a cruise. I managed her expectations very badly and was exceedingly over-optimistic about my ability to convert her into an enthusiastic sailor.

Having invited Sian to be my first crew member, and buoyed by my ambition to introduce a group of amateurs to the joys of sailing, I proceeded to invite three other people who had expressed a keen interest in crewing for me. I hadn't really done much sailing all year, given that I thought of my yacht more of a floating home than as a racing vessel which I would gain much excitement from sailing. My 'floating caravan' did not enthuse me to go sailing, but the prospect of introducing some people to the sport was something I was motivated to do.

* * *

The voyage from Brighton to Portsmouth, the day before the race, was the first time I had assembled the entire crew aboard my yacht. This was the only opportunity I'd had to attempt to train my crew to work together to complete a handful of fairly simple manoeuvres. My yacht was built for comfort, not for speed, and had a number of convenient features which meant I could sail her without crew. However, during the Round the Island Race, the helmsman - me - could never leave the wheel unattended, because of the vast number of other yachts which we might collide with. Only I had the skill and experience to steer us safely through the start of the race, and around the Needles, during the first leg, when all the yachts in our class would be tightly bunched together and vying for position. Only I knew the 'rules of the road' and therefore who had the right of way. Only I knew how to spot and avoid collisions. For the most part, my crew would simply be pulling ropes, while I barked instructions at them.

The pre-race passage was a great success for my crew - they literally learned the ropes very quickly, and their confidence soared. The sailing conditions were very kind to us and we bonded well - the crew worked very well together as a team. There were more yachts than usual, making their way westwards, but it was very relaxing and easy sailing for me, without any of the close-quarters manoeuvring of racing, where yachts and dinghies would clump together, sometimes inches apart, and sometimes colliding. It was a leisurely trip and it was great to know that my crew understood the basics, but I knew that they were hopelessly ill-prepared for the race.

Sian was sulking, because she had imagined that the trip would be a romantic getaway, but she hadn't reckoned on how different it felt to be aboard my yacht with other people. It's often said - figuratively - that a boat gets a foot shorter every day that you're on board. Sian and I had had sex on board before, in the marina, and she wasn't too bothered about being overheard by the neighbouring berth holders, but it was pretty clear that any pre-race nookie was going to be somewhat spoiled by the fellow crew members sleeping in close proximity, with only flimsy thin wooden doors in-between us.

My other crew were in fine spirits, although they didn't seem to appreciate that we would have to leave our mooring and make our way to the race start at approximately 7am, in order to arrive at our allotted time. The moorings near the start/finish line were impossible to book in advance, and were reserved entirely for serious professional racing teams. We were lucky to be as close as we were. In my younger days, I would never have entertained the idea of racing with a terrible hangover, because of sheer competitiveness, but now I didn't want a hangover because I knew that it was going to be a very long day - something I wasn't able to impress upon my well-lubricated crew, who were drinking as if we had finished the race, not about to start it early the next day.

Still, I knew I could take care of getting us most of the way to the start/finish line of the race, with minimal help, if my crew needed to sleep off their hangovers. Unfortunately, the rules of the road said that a yacht without its sails up - using its engine - has to give way to a yacht which is sailing, which I knew would mean having to weave in-between vast numbers of yachts, if my crew were not awake and doing their job, as we got closer to the start of the race.

I really wanted to be a good skipper and ensure that everybody had a thoroughly enjoyable time, but there was a certain amount of telling people what to do by shouting at them, which was unavoidable. There wasn't a skipper in existence who hadn't had to shout "pull the red rope! no the red one! no that's a green one! the red one! the other one! yes that one! pull that one!" or words to that effect, when somewhat under pressure to avoid colliding with other vessels and keeping an eye on all the other crew members, to make sure that nobody was doing anything stupid and/or dangerous.

My relationship with Sian had been thoroughly pleasant, and we had never quarrelled. I desperately wanted to avoid her ever seeing my bad side, but I knew that if there was ever a situation which was guaranteed to bring out somebody's less desirable character traits, it was when they were in charge of a yacht. I prided myself on being a patient teacher who was calm in a crisis, but I knew that the build up to the start of the race, and the first leg - down to the Needles out of the Solent and out into the English Channel - would be incredibly stressful for me, trying to avoid colliding with any other floating caravans, which were also taking part in the Round the Island Race, and were probably crewed by equally incompetent amateurs.

My anxiety about the impending race and my sulking girlfriend didn't fully dampen my spirits, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, getting drunk with my crew.

I awoke at 6:30am, dreadfully hung over, and was immediately struck with the horrifyingly embarrassing memory that Sian and I ended up having drunk sex when we had returned back to the yacht. We had been exceptionally noisy and it had lasted far longer than it should have done, because I was so inebriated. I tried to shrug off the shame and began my preparations to set sail for the start of the race.

 

Next chapter...

 

Blogger's Digest - Day Six of #NaNoWriMo2019

14 min read

Blogger's Digest: a Novel

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Six

I was completely unable to relate to people who had sensible grown-up calm and amicable break-ups, where they remained friends with their ex. It felt to me as though it was a betrayal of my whole "jump in with both feet" ethos, regarding the pursuit of love, to simply drift apart and then one day decide to separate: a simple and straightforward life decision like any other, akin to purchasing a refrigerator, or switching energy supplier. In my version of a breakup, there needed to be tears and passion, breaking up, making up, taking a break, getting back together - it needed to be messy and complex, and emotional. Where was the love if two people just decided one day to go their separate ways, and then divided their possessions and moved on with their lives?

"Falling out of love" was something I was a little familiar with, but not something I would tolerate. I'm not an idiot: I know if somebody is deliberately picking fights with me, or sulking, or otherwise acting in a way that suggests that they'd really like to end the relationship - probably because they are flirting with somebody else - but they are too spineless to do the honourable and honest thing, and take the plunge before having secured their next relationship. I'm not the kind of person who wants to have anything to do with anybody who's continuously trying to 'trade up'; lacking in any loyalty or moral fiber.

I took my relationship commitments pretty seriously. I'd never had a casual girlfriend. In fact, I'd only really had Caroline. I'd been on some dates and had a fling with a friend while Caroline and I were on a lengthy 'break' but I was quite unfamiliar with anything other than monogamy and it never occurred to me to look outside the relationship for anything extra, or better.

One of my friends had an open marriage for a few years, and another friend had a girlfriend who was very promiscuous, which he seemed to grudgingly tolerate, but on the whole, my entire circle of friends and colleagues were all married, engaged, or in serious long-term relationships: I was never aware of any infidelity, and break-ups and divorces were virtually unheard of. Of course, investment bankers often tended to be regular patrons of strip clubs, escorts and many had a mistress, which was handled extremely discreetly. None of that was my 'scene' - I wanted a plain vanilla monogamous committed lifelong relationship with somebody who I was head over heels in love with, and I knew that it would require non-stop work to keep a great relationship alive.

The death of my relationship with Caroline had begun with how she had reacted when I got sick, when I quit my job, when I wanted to be an electrician and when I wanted to move to Brighton. Each time, she had made it abundantly clear that our relationship was predicated on an unspoken agreement, which I had never signed up for: I was expected to remain healthy and earning big bucks in investment banking, supporting her in her underpaid charity job in London, and to not expect any such reciprocal arrangement. I often thought of the marriage vows "for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health" and this was the standard to which I tried to adhere. Caroline wasn't at all supportive when I quit my job or started business as an electrician - in fact, she constantly complained about the decline in our living standards, however her blanket rejection of any better paid job was something I'd had to accept. She'd flatly refused to discuss moving to Brighton.

She'd paid little or no attention to the appointments I had been attending, over the years, since the first visit to my local doctor's surgery in my adult life. At first, I hadn't wanted to worry her, but it had become increasingly apparent that she just didn't care about my health or wellbeing: she just wanted me to bring home a massive income, doing a job which was killing me. She placed the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed as the top priority, and the delivery of all of the extra anticipated things she would be getting in future - an extravagant wedding, a private school education for our children, a bigger house, trust funds for university - were non-negotiables. She wanted what she wanted, and the only route to getting that was me or somebody else, but she certainly wasn't going to compromise one little bit.

Left with no other options, I confronted Caroline with the opinions of my doctor, psychiatrist and therapist.

"Caroline, I'm not sick. I need to make lifestyle changes, because this life - London and investment banking - is making me unwell. I'm not saying I want to move to Brighton because it's a selfish dream of mine. It would have been great if I could have carried on with our old life, but it wasn't sustainable."

"What are you saying?" she asked.

"I tried all the different anti-depressants, but they didn't work. It wasn't safe. I was suicidal. I tried switching a different way of making money, but I simply couldn't earn enough money to support the lifestyle you want; I can't give you the future you want. I've found a compromise: this job in Brighton pays incredibly well and we'll be able to afford a much bigger house than in London. I can work fewer hours. I can work from home sometimes. It's so much better for my health."

"But all our friends are in London. Everything is here. What about my job?"

"You're a solicitor. You can work anywhere. There are plenty of legal firms in Brighton" I replied.

"I like my colleagues. I like my clients. I like the charity I work for. I'm not doing it. I'm not moving. I'm not discussing this. No. The answer is no."

"This isn't brinksmanship. This isn't an ultimatum. I don't like it any more than you do, but this is the situation. The only way I can earn enough money to maintain our standard of living and give you everything you want, and not kill myself, is to take a less stressful job in Brighton."

"You could take a less stressful job in London" she suggested.

"You don't understand. You can't leave before your boss. Leaving at 7:30pm is considered early. People are answering emails at all time of the day. All the banks are moving their middle office and back office functions out of London. This is the only chance I have to keep my London salary, without having to keep the London working hours and the pressure of the front office."

"Tell Human Resources that you're not well. Tell them you need to work part-time."

"You don't understand. That's career suicide. I'd be paid off. They'd offer me a hefty amount of cash to leave, but I'd never be able to work in investment banking again. I'd be blacklisted."

"They can't do that! There are employment laws!" she bristled.

"Yes. We would get a very large financial settlement, but I've done the maths and it doesn't add up: it's not enough money to support the lifestyle ambitions that you have. We won't be able to get the house in Zone 2 with a large garden, like you wanted. We won't be able to afford private school for three children. We won't be able to send three children to university, without them having to go into debt. We won't be able to buy them their first car. We won't be able to pay the deposit on their first home. We won't be able to pay for their weddings."

"I'm sure we'll manage."

I laughed at the ridiculousness of the notion.

"MANAGE! I've had to put up with nothing but complaint after complaint ever since I quit my job, about how much pain and suffering it's causing you, having to tighten our belts" I retorted, unable to keep my built-up frustrations and resentment under control.

"So how do you propose we split everything? 50:50?" she asked. The coldness of her tone - the lack of emotion - utterly enraged me. I could not have felt more used. I felt like nothing more than a walking wallet. I was completely speechless that she could segue so effortlessly into a discussion about who was going to get the crockery and who was going to get the vacuum cleaner. It was heartless. It was brutal.

* * *

Life in the marina was unusual, but it was novel. Instead of having supermarket shopping delivered, I had to drive to the supermarket, buy my shopping, drive back to the marina and load the bags into a trolley, which I would then wheel through a security gate and down to the pontoon where my yacht was moored.

I was not supposed to discharge my yacht's toilet while moored within the marina, but I was damned if I was going to walk all the way to the toilet block every time I needed to use the loo. Out of paranoia of being reported by a busybody fellow berth holder, I ran the shower every time I pumped out the contents of my toilet. A little seawater circulated every time the marina's lock was used, but the water was essentially a stagnant pond, so the discharge of raw sewerage - my untreated bladder and bowel movements - was quite an antisocial practice. I justified my actions, because very few people lived aboard their boats, and fewer still used them on any regular basis.

Caroline hadn't the money to buy me out of our shared mortgage on our London house. Her wealthy family were notoriously stingy and had refused to lend her the money, despite the huge financial gain she stood to make. I could have bought her share, but having no use for a London home anymore, I knew that she would try to manipulate me into allowing her to stay there rent-free, or at least at a hugely discounted rate: she had already made several attempts to emotionally blackmail me, saying that she had made terrible sacrifices for me, when I had quit my job and become an electrician. Essentially, she felt entitled to a vast sum of money - who knew how much she felt entitled to? It was my closest friends who begged me to be firm but fair, and to take back the hefty initial deposit which I had paid, and to split the remaining sum equally. In fact, my friends begged me to give her a share in proportion with her contribution, which was my legal entitlement, but I didn't want to face the court battle which she was threatening, and neither did I particularly begrudge her the hefty extra sum of money, if she was enough of a bad person to demand it - she could live with the guilt of knowing she picked my pocket, but I could not live with the guilt of knowing that she would struggle with the sudden drastic change in her financial circumstances, without a golden parachute, gifted to her by me... not that she was grateful, of course.

I was left with easily enough money to buy a very nice house in Brighton, with very little mortgage, if any. London property prices were so vastly over-inflated versus the rest of the country. However, I wanted to keep my options open. Perhaps I wouldn't like it in Brighton. Perhaps I would miss London. I decided to defer housebuying, and instead bought a yacht.

My new - but second-hand - yacht, was large and well appointed, but more akin to a floating caravan than anything luxurious. I bought it because of its spacious interior: enough space to sleep 6 in 3 cabins, with extra beds in the saloon too. The bathroom, galley and other aspects of the yacht were a world apart from the small yacht I had purchased when I was 22 years old. There was a fridge, a shower, an oven. With mains-voltage shore power hook-up, I could use regular household appliances without worrying about draining the batteries. There was enough headroom to accomodate my 6 feet of height, in most parts of the vessel, although I did have to duck through doorways and shower in a rather awkward position.

Life aboard the yacht lived up to my expectations mostly. There were minor inconveniences, such as having to cart anything I wanted to load onboard or take off, having to be done using a trolley. Putting out the rubbish became something which I did little and often, on my way to work, as opposed to carting heavy black bin liners all the way to the marina refuse dump. Shopping was an almost daily chore, because the fridge had such little capacity and I had no freezer.

There were problems which I had not anticipated, which were a little more difficult to deal with. My colleagues had begun to notice that I smelled of diesel fuel. The smell had entirely escaped my notice, because it lingered with me constantly. A small amount of diesel fuel inevitably ends up in the bilges of any vessel, and it's virtually impossible to eliminate the smell, which permeates all soft fabrics. Yacht owners are quite used to the smell, and no longer notice it after a while, but to my colleagues it was a topic which nobody had been brave enough to broach - it was only by chance that I overheard one colleague saying to another "you mean the guy who smells of diesel" in a context where they could only have been referring to me, that I realised there was a problem. My solution, of keeping all my work clothes at work - my suits and my shirts - required an extra locker, and I had to get up earlier than I would have done normally, in order to be able to shower and get changed at the office in the morning.

The thin, light and strong walls of the hull of my yacht were a quite ideal building material for a seagoing vessel, but provided inadequate sound insulation for a home. As the spring turned into summer, and an increasing number of people decided to have parties on their gin palaces, the noise pollution became rather problematic. I purchased an excellent pair of earplugs, but these were so effective I was often unable to hear my alarm clock in the morning, and they irritated my ear canals, causing inflammation and pain.

My new life in Brighton, despite its teething problems, was on the whole a very happy one. My commute was short, I worked far fewer hours, and the atmosphere in the office was generally less competitive and high-pressure than it was in London. The laid-back attitude of my staff rubbed off on me, and I felt that the culture was much better for my health and wellbeing. I was optimistic that I might have found the route to a sustainable and contented life. I was hopeful that I had seen the last of depression and suicidal thoughts.

 

Next chapter...

 

Blogger's Digest - Day Four of #NaNoWriMo2019

14 min read

Blogger's Digest: a Novel

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Four

Caroline and I were driving northbound on the M6 motorway. Matt & Kate, and Paul & Cath followed behind, in our convoy of three vehicles: my van and their two cars. Caroline and I were having an argument.

"I thought you said you wanted a family" she said, half pleading and half accusing me of deception.

"I did, but then circumstances changed" I replied, attempting an apologetic tone.

"So you don't want to start a family anymore?" she asked rhetorically. Her voice betrayed her frustration and she spoke her words a little aggressively.

"No, that's not it. I just don't know at the moment. Things are changing and it's a big decision" I said, evasively.

"But we had made the decision. I started taking folic acid. I stopped taking the pill. We were trying to get pregnant."

"Yes, I agree. That's what I wanted at the time. That's what we wanted. Then things changed."

"You mean you selfishly decided to quit your job and pursue this stupid hare-brained idea of yours. THAT'S what you mean" she said, gesticulating with annoyance at the van we were in.

* * *

I had quit my job.

I had quit my job because even after trying every anti-depressant that my doctor could prescribe me, I still found that my life was intolerable. I felt trapped by my career. The prospect of spending the next 20 or 30 years working a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday office job felt like a fate worse than death, quite literally: the anti-depressants had brought so little relief, and suicidal thoughts plagued me with ever-increasing frequency, such that I felt I only had two choices: resign or kill myself.

There was, of course, a third option. I could have opted to be off work sick on a long-term basis. The investment bank had a generous policy for anybody who was sick for more than 6 months, allowing them to retire early. The income would be a tiny fraction of what a successful investment banker who continued to work into their late forties or early fifties, would expect to retire with. If I chose to resign and keep my reputation intact, I knew I would be welcomed back into the investment banking world with open arms. I knew that being pensioned off early due to ill health would be a career-ending move: a reputational stain which would follow me around until my dying day.

Getting an investment banking job is paradoxical - you can't get a job in investment banking without experience, and you can't get the investment banking experience without the job: Catch 22. I had been lucky enough to get a highly sought-after summer internship, due to a distant relative being a senior executive at a City firm. Without connections, it was impossible to get a foot in the door. I knew that I was incredibly fortunate to have my career, and to have been rapidly promoted. I was liked and respected by many colleagues. I would not struggle to get my old job back, or find another investment bank which wanted to hire me. However, I could not carry on working in an office anymore.

* * *

"It's not a 'hare-brained idea', Caroline" I said, speaking her name with a condescending tone. I was annoyed and beginning to get angry. I spoke through gritted teeth. "I am a qualified electrician and the business is quite profitable. I am a skilled tradesman whose services are in demand in the local community."

"Profitable!" she snorted. "You had to sell the boat and the MG which you bought for me as a birthday present, because you said you couldn't afford the upkeep."

This made me furious. I was about to angrily reply, but she hadn't finished.

"We are going to Wales on holiday"  she said, putting particular emphasis on the word "Wales" as if we were taking a break from our pleasant lives to suffer the torments of Hell - a vacation to the underworld - or embarking on an excursion to a warzone. "Matt & Katie just got back from Florence, and Paul & Cath are going trekking in the Atlas Mountains in a few weeks."

"Yes, that's the whole FUCKING POINT" I replied; my temper was barely under control and my voice was raised. "The main reason for this trip was so that I could teach Paul & Cath some of the mountaineering skills they're going to need, and so they can test their equipment. It was YOU who has managed to turn the trip into a couples' romantic luxury getaway and insisted on us renting a gigantic converted barn with a hot tub. Paul, Cath and I were going to sleep in tents until you hijacked the trip."

"But Katie hates camping" protested Caroline.

"It's not about Katie. It's not about Matt. It's not about you. None of you were even invited. I offered to take Paul and Cath on a trip to Snowdonia to help them prepare for their expedition to Morocco."

"I needed a holiday, Gavin. I'm not going to spend my holiday, in the middle of February, freezing cold in a tent. We're not going skiing this year, which will be the first year where we've not had at least one ski trip - our friends are devastated that we're not joining them, and I'm devastated too. Skiing is the only time when I get to catch up with a lot of our friends. We haven't had a holiday since last year and we haven't booked a single holiday for this year."

"This is a holiday, isn't it? YOU wanted to make this into a holiday by renting a luxury converted barn. We went on holiday in November, which was only three months ago" I said with exasperation.

"This doesn't count. Malta doesn't count."

"MALTA DOESN'T COUNT?" I shouted.

"Yes, it was a last-minute deal and the hotel was grotty - you said so yourself. It was a short-haul flight with a naff airline and it was cloudy half the time. You ended up having to buy a jumper and a pair of trousers on the day we arrived, because you were cold, remember? Besides, a week doesn't even count - that's what I'm saying. A holiday should be at least 2 weeks or else it doesn't count."

"DOESN'T COUNT?" I sputtered with rage.

"Yes. By the time you've unpacked and settled in, it's time to start packing up your stuff and getting ready to leave. It's hardly a holiday is it? It's more of a mini-break, except we went to Malta instead of somewhere exciting like New York or Rome."

"We've been to New York and Rome."

"I was just giving examples of proper mini-breaks. You get my point" she said, folding her arms as if the matter was settled and she had won the argument.

* * *

It was true - we had been forced to dramatically change our lifestyle since I had quit my job and become a self-employed electrician. Caroline's job as a solicitor working with asylum seekers, earned her only a fraction of what she would be able to earn if she joined an international law firm - like her father's - but she wanted to make a worthy contribution to society; she wanted to help the needy and vulnerable. She refused to countenance the idea that she could become the main breadwinner if she set aside some of her lofty principles and instead took the highest paying job she could find. However, she said it would break her heart to leave the charity she worked for; she couldn't live with the guilt, knowing that she could be helping clients with gut-wrenchingly awful stories, fleeing persecution.

For such a nice, kind and charitably-minded person, Caroline's version of a "normal" life had been shaped by her privileged upbringing. The enviable lifestyle which we had hitherto enjoyed together had been a continuation of what she had experienced throughout her life, without any interruption. When I bought her a highly collectable classic British sports car for her 25th birthday, she was thrilled - having dropped hints that it was something she'd always wanted - but lavish gifts weren't particularly exceptional in Caroline's family. Some years ago, her mother had given her father a hand-built limited edition Morgan sportscar, which she'd been on a waiting list for several years to obtain, to celebrate him becoming a partner at his law firm.

My decision to become an electrician had been motivated, in no small part, by how guilty I felt about being an investment banker. Caroline was helping asylum seekers to escape torture and murder, and was comparatively poorly paid. Meanwhile, I was helping the wealthiest 1% to become richer and richer, while also becoming quite rich myself. I felt no 'warm fuzzy feeling' about the work I did. Often there were very ethically questionable things which I had to accept as part and parcel of the job. Mergers and acquisitions offered the opportunity for cost-cutting "restructuring" which inevitably meant redundancies. I was responsible for thousands of people people being sacked, while Caroline was heroically saving families from tyrannical regimes.

I had seen many colleagues squander their wealth, attempting new ventures, only to gratefully return back to their investment banking career after their startup companies and angel investments quickly gobbled up their wealth. An investment banker's entire career is spent scrutinising the accounts, forecasts and business models of their clients, to whom they are lending money or helping to float on the stock market - it's so easy to mistakenly believe that doing business is easy, when it's not your money or your company. Returning colleagues had gained nothing of any value - a very expensive lesson; a costly mistake. They all said they regretted ever leaving their comfortable investment banking careers. We used to make jokes about being kept in "golden handcuffs".

I decided that I wanted to retrain. I decided that I wanted to be qualified in something other than banking, but I felt certain that my age would count against me in law and accountancy: I should have chosen a different profession at a much younger age. I considered dentistry and medicine, which required a substantial amount of amount of time and money before I could expect to earn a high income. The living standards, which Caroline and I had enjoyed for many years, would be decimated; our plans to start a family would be delayed by 5, 6 or 7 years... or maybe more.

I chose a new trade instead of a new profession. Relatively speaking, the training to become an electrician was cheap, quick and easy. The expense of setting up my business as a sole trader - the van and the tools - didn't seem like very much money at all: less than the cost of what Caroline would count as a holiday, which met her expectations. If I did have to go back to my investment banking career, I would have lost very little money.

* * *

I sulked, bitterly, thinking Caroline was spoiled and entitled; that she was a bad person and that her expectations were unreasonable. I wanted to criticise her for wanting luxury holidays, when her asylum seeker clients were so desperately impoverished, but I knew that it would be desperately hypocritical of me - I had wanted luxury holidays just as much as she had. I had chosen to sell my soul, doing the devil's work as an investment banker. I could hardly lecture her for wanting the lifestyle to which we had both become accustomed. I wanted to tell her that it wasn't fair: she could feel smug about the good work which she was doing in the world, while I felt guilty about my own immoral profession. However, her choice to do low-paid charitable work was not to blame for my troubled conscience and depression.

The other thing I wanted to tell her, was that I wasn't sure if I wanted to carry on living. I wanted to tell her that I didn't want to become a father, and then decide to kill myself. It seemed like too much of a gamble: to hope that my depression would lift and my suicidal thoughts abate, as soon as we had children. I wanted to discuss all these things with her, but I didn't want to upset and alarm her. How do you renege on a promise to provide a wonderful life: a big wedding, children, a huge family home, private schooling, luxury family holidays, and enough trust fund money set aside to bankroll the children through university.

How can you admit that you've tried your hardest to keep going with an extremely well paid career, but the job makes you want to kill yourself, so the dream life we had imagined is over?

* * *

"Is this place we're going to be staying nice?" I asked, trying to make peace and restore a pleasant atmosphere in the van.

Caroline's face lit up. "Oh it's gorgeous. Every room has its own log burning stove. There's an Aga. The main living space is to die for - tall glass walls on both sides with panoramic views of the mountains, set in acres of private land. It's cosy AND luxurious. The barn is hundreds of years old and has its original oak beams, but the conversion was done by an award-winning architect. It's featured in lots of magazines. Did you not see the pictures I sent you?"

"Nope. So you're looking forward to it?"

"Yeah. Can't wait. Katie has brought a goose and Matt had found a butcher on the way who's got half a lamb for us to collect. We spent a small fortune on food and wine in Waitrose. This is going to be fantastic fun."

This was not what I had in mind originally. I had brought some packets of dried pasta and dehydrated sauce, which could be cooked on a camping stove, with melted snow, to prepare Paul and Cath for their trip to the Atlas Mountains.

"You should have brought the fondue set" I said, with barely concealed sarcasm.

"One step ahead of you! It's in Matt & Katie's car. I was going to surprise you - I know how much you love fondue."

"I wonder how many mountaineers carry kilos of cheese and a fondue set up a mountain in their backpacks" was the immediate reply which sprung to lips, but I managed to hold my tongue. "Oh yes, lovely surprise darling. We're going to have a lot of fun" I said instead, with the very best forced smile which I could muster.

I glanced backwards at the pile of rucksacks in the back of the van. When I had been loading everybody's rucksacks into the van it briefly reminded me of the expeditions I had been on with my university mountaineering society. I had been eagerly anticipating re-living some of those happy memories of time spent in the mountains. Now I felt as though my miniature expedition had been hijacked by Caroline and Katie's desire for a luxury jaunt into the countryside.

As we continued our journey towards Snowdonia National Park, I wondered if we would even leave the comfortable confines of the palatial barn conversion, and venture into the mountains at all.

 

Next chapter...