Depression, Illness, Football, Snide, Snark and Erotic Aardvarks

Depression, Illness, Football, Snide, Snark and Erotic Aardvarks
May 12, 2017 Paul Tomkins

So, something a little different today – although not something completely different. (This is not, after all, an essay on the semiotics of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. There are also no aardvarks, of the erotic or non-erotic variety, but it’s such a good word and should be in at least one article headline every year.)

This is about life, illness, writing, happiness and football, in no particular order.

Today is International M.E. Awareness Day, and so I thought I’d write something for my dust-gathering blog at www.paultomkins.com – but in the end I decided I’d share it on here instead, as people actually visit this site.

As well as looking into statistics and just general football observations, I used to occasionally write more personal pieces, about how my life affected my views on football and how football affected my life in return. It was cathartic, and in part it was to answer regular accusations I’d get about not going to the games, which were designed to paint me as some kind of inferior fan who had no right writing a high-profile column on the official LFC website. (My favourite anecdote on this topic is someone on RAWK saying – like others had – that I’d never even been to a game. RAWK Mod, Jon Hall, pointed out that actually I’d sat in the seat behind him every game for several seasons.)

But over time I found a lot of stuff thrown back at me, and weirdly, while fans of my writing often commended me on sharing these thoughts (some told me they were the pieces they enjoyed the most), I’d later feel vulnerable about what I’d shared, particularly during a health crash when my energy was low, I was in physical pain, and often felt like I’d lost a couple of layers of protective skin.

Skin thickness is an issue for a writer. Too thin and you spend all day crying about a bad comment or a lousy review, and never dare type another word for the rest of your life in case you get eviscerated. Too thick and you stop feeling anything, and if you can’t feel you can’t write anything that will truly connect with people.

It’s not easy having an illness (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) that was seen as a very serious medical condition until a couple of psychotherapists hijacked that in the early 1980s, and said it was all in the mind; but an illness which is now finally detectable in blood tests (due to the discovery the same chemical signature as ‘dauer’, a state of hibernation animals go into if their environment is devastated) and exposed in hundreds of other pieces of research on various systems within the body that show problems different to the healthy controls. I’ve even been a guinea pig in some of the research.

Only yesterday I found out that Celtic’s David Provan – a generally smart co-commentator on Premier League games – had to retire at the age of 29 due to having M.E., which made him a year older than when I had to give up the sport in 1999 (I was 28, and had only been a non-league player – not a thriving midfielder at a Scottish giant).

Of course, people with M.E. get depressed after they get ill, as it’s fucking depressing. It’s not all in our heads, but it fucks with our heads; and it fucks with our heads even more when told it’s all in our heads.

I suffer with depression but it’s come about from being 95% housebound, with gradually ever-worsening health, but also, I think, exacerbated by the way society has changed in the past ten years. Great ideas in theory (and sometimes in practice), such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have instead become ways to show you that your life isn’t good enough. This, of course, applies to everyone, healthy or otherwise.

Generations ago it was about keeping up with the Joneses; essentially a catch-all term for your neighbours. Now, via Facebook and Instagram, you have to keep up with several hundred or several thousand people who mostly only share the fun and sexy parts of their lives – filtered and edited highlights – while yours feels dull by comparison. When you are unable to get out much, it seems a good way to stay connected but in truth, it often just reinforces your isolation. Twitter, on the other hand, has the added magic of anonymous trolls spouting abuse.

A decade ago there were Liverpool FC forums with threads dedicated to saying the nastiest possible things about me, but that was before social media was a part of my life. I could simply avoid those forums, and maintain a fairly healthy mental outlook, most of the time (traumatic events aside). But social media is not so easy to avoid, especially if you want people to read your work. And if you want to run a business based on your writing – because it’s the only feasible way to make a living and pay the bills – there’s the pressure to interact with your audience. And interacting with the audience on this site is great, as we have rules, and an environment of mutual respect and politeness. But with the general public it’s far more stressful.

It didn’t help that a delve into Google Analytics recently told me that the majority of this site’s traffic and new income arrives via Twitter. Some people want to be saved from that oozing swamp and to be hauled up onto the dry, pleasant land of TTT, but I have to go into the swamp to get them – or at least stare into it, to catch their attention. Just auto-posting article links seems a bit dry, and few people click on them unless I make a comment or observation about the piece.

To me, Twitter often feels like being a standup comedian going out in front of a big audience where half the people are only there to heckle you and/or throw rotten fruit. (In my case, being confused for the American comedian Paul F Tompkins doesn’t help; over the years I’ve had a few disgruntled followers telling me that I’m not as funny on Twitter as they expected, and asking why do I keep talking about soccer.) Comedians expect some heckling and develop putdowns in return, but if every gig was ruined by half the audience being douchebags, then they’d give up, whether they were any good or not. Who needs that shit?

As I said recently, when I discussed my rekindled love of the band Talk Talk on Twitter I had nothing but great replies – agreements, likes, suggestions of obscure stuff to find to listen to, a sense of camaraderie. But when talking football it’s like having the worst callers to TalkSport or 606 in your ear the whole day. For physically and mentally healthy people working for big organisations it may feel more like water off a duck’s back, but not for me; at least, some of the time.

Scarcity

The qualitative researcher and all-round badass Texan academic Brené Brown believes we are in a time of scarcity in the West. Not scarcity of food, but of time, of energy and of empathy. Her TedTalks, on shame, and on the power of vulnerability, are two of the wisest 20 minutes you can hope to experience, unless you’re a heartless psychopath.

We live in a time of shaming, of snide put-downs and shut-downs – even Presidential candidates now debate like high-school kids – where everyone dons cynical layers and acts far too cool, as if feelings are for wusses. Brown has noticed a sea-change in the last few years, with a massive rise in people feeling that they are not good enough. I’m guessing that the advent and growth of social media is the main change in that time.

Weird stuff is happening, where all the best football managers in the world get called “frauds” if their team doesn’t win. This is classic Dunning-Kruger – people who don’t even know 10% what it takes to be an elite manager calling out the genuine experts, in part because they don’t have the wisdom to see their own stupidity (it looks much easier if you don’t actually know what’s required). Everyone is a “fraud” now. Pep Guardiola is a fraud. Jürgen Klopp is a fraud. Going back through history, presumably Frank Sinatra was a fraud, Albert Einstein was a fraud, Michelangelo was a fraud. Perhaps the more frauds we think there are the better we can all feel about being failures (or made to feel like we are failures).

Brené Brown says that there’s one thing that is always, always leaping out from the data: if you shame others it’s over something you’re ashamed about in yourself. So if Piers Morgan is pathetically shouting at men to “man up” it’s because he knows, deep down, that he’s probably an insecure wretch who could never kick a football, and who got called sissy in school. (Am I shaming Morgan here over “manning up”, and therefore ashamed of not being manly enough? Maybe. It’s certainly hard to “man up” when you’re physically weaker and have less energy than your own 80-year-old mother. But am I shaming Morgan or just calling him out for being an arsehole?)

It’s like with a fart, where whomever smelt it dealt it. When Katie Hopkins – herself an almightily gross fart (am I ashamed of my farts? possibly…) – publicly shames fat people it’s probably because she is ashamed of her physical imperfections. If you’re comfortable in how you look, or who you are, you don’t shame others about it – you simply don’t give a damn. So if someone is calling a footballer a lazy wanker, or a manager a fraud, then it probably says everything about the accuser and next-to-nothing about the accused.

Mark Manson’s hysterical and equally wise book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach To Living A Good Life is about the fucks we give, as people; and how we give the wrong fucks, or more pertinently, give fucks about the wrong things. He says the word ‘fuck’ a fuck of a lot, but he’s fucking-well spot-on. Fuck yeah!

When (the nicer) people on Twitter tell me to ignore the abuse, sniping or just plain stupidity, it often feels easy for them to say, but if feeling overtired or unwell I feel compelled to click on my @ column, almost obsessively, to see the car crash that is my mentions timeline. I cannot comprehend the stupidity, which feels like an affront to my sanity. I feel like Frasier Crane looking through the two-way mirror at the focus group discussing his show, where eleven of the dozen members of the public seated in the meeting room say how great he and his show is, but the 12th “just doesn’t like him”. Frasier then ends up accidentally ruining the mans life as he follows him around, trying to find out just what it is that he doesn’t like.

So, for me, I’ve decided it’s easier to post remotely to Twitter, and not read any of the replies, good or bad; which is how I often was with football forums c.2006, once I’d discovered people wanted me dead of AIDS (or said that I was indeed dying of AIDS). With Twitter, it feels rude to not reply to decent people looking for some interaction (and some people get very angry at you if you don’t reply), but it strikes me I’m giving fucks about the wrong kind of thing. I can’t carry around the wriggling bag of fucks that is trying to please everyone.

Of course, often people with low follower counts don’t empathise with what it’s like to have swarms of angry people on your case the whole time, especially if you’re struggling with your physical and in turn, mental health; just as they can’t empathise with a rich footballer having mental health issues, as if money cures all problems.

Of course, before I even had a chance to log out, having set-up the remote posting (which I can do via my blog), I’d had a reply from someone making my very point for me by being a bit of a douche – that to not read replies makes me “elitist”. (Again, Frasier speaking to his brother Niles: “Do you think I’m elitist?” Niles: “Of course I do, you needn’t worry about that.”)

It’s not about not caring to lower myself to hear what the “plebs” have to say, as I enjoy interacting with normal, decent people, when I have the energy. It’s about not having to endure the incessant negativity, the snide and the snark, the stupidity and trolling. It’s about not having to care anymore if someone like this guy makes a comment designed to try and make me feel shitty (why else would he say it? Is it helpful to me?), although I’ll throw him in here just because his timing was so impeccable.

(Perhaps I can find his mobile phone, and get people to send him dozens of shitty texts about aspects of his life, until he turns his phone off or gets a new number. But then again, that would be giving a fuck, and it’s wrong to give fucks – about the wrong things, that is. And people who say just block and mute: as I’ve said before, you have to read all that shit before blocking and muting. And Twitter has a constant stream of people who will sap your energy. There’s a never-ending line of idiots and trolls. All the blocking and muting hasn’t stopped the tide. And that’s before getting onto the collective insanity/negativity.)

Before social media, I got used to people either liking my work or disliking my work, but bar those who went to the effort to email me, I soon learnt that it was better if I didn’t find out either way. If the official Liverpool website kept wanting to publish my column every Wednesday then I assumed I was doing okay, and that was enough. Feedback is overrated. At times it can be helpful but a lot of the time it can be destructive, either because it kills your confidence or because it makes you feel like you’re better than you really are. And the nature of the feedback in the social media age is often unpleasant. Plus, it’s also insidiously addictive: the need for another ‘like’, another ‘heart’, especially when you’re feeling a bit low to start with. That never goes well.

In this time of no empathy, people don’t look at someone like Divock Origi – a young man who has done pretty well since arriving at Liverpool (double-figures for goals in both seasons, which is pretty good when aged 20-22 in the modern era), without quite finding his next level – and think “I’ll send him some encouragement” but instead create user accounts called “Fuck Origi” where they tweet directly at him about how he must be having sex with Jürgen Klopp to get in the team ahead of Daniel Sturridge. These people have no concept of confidence and inhibition, aside from not knowing the intimate details of Sturridge’s fitness levels after injury.

You don’t need to fawn over players on Twitter (praise is nice but no one needs fawning), and you shouldn’t be abusing them if you want them to feel connected to the club and to the fanbase. You can do no good, only harm.

Criticism may make a player run a bit harder, but it’s likely to make them less creative and expressive, because creativity is damaged by criticism. This is another one of Brené Brown’s observations. Most people, when questioned as part of her extensive research into shame, said they were scarred by creative failures in their past that stopped them from trying again. Remember, this is not really about constructive criticism – which is very different to looking to humiliate someone in public.

If a player gets groans or abuse every time he gets the ball, he is less likely to beat five players and curl a shot into the top corner than he is to just play a simple five-yard pass. If you get ridiculed you go into your shell. Unless you’re just a marauding wanker who runs around kicking everyone, or a robot, criticism will affect confidence. Not everyone is Roy Keane. (Indeed, it’s a manager’s job to know who needs encouragement and who needs to be told to work a bit harder, and to drop players on the rare occasions when they are clearly not even trying. These days, most managers realise that the carrot beats the stick.)

It’s a negative feedback loop. But this is an abusive society, where everyone discharges his or her own angst and insecurity onto everyone else. There is no empathy. No one feels understood, and no one feels good enough, and so takes it out on others.

This week I read that someone largely bed-bound with M.E. was under blankets on the sofa when a delivery man came into the house and made some disparaging comment (with some kind of tutting under his breath). When her stepfather pointed out that she is ill, he said “I’m ill too, it’s called work”. (Which, of course, makes zero sense.) People may want a day or two on the sofa, or in bed, taking it easy; but once you’ve done years of it, and it’s stopping you from doing anything fun in life, and you’re in pain, and uncomfortable, and bored, and lonely, then it’s a life-sentence to hell. After a few days it gets old very quickly.

I’ve been ill for almost 20 years (from mildly ill initially, where I had to give up football but could still do other things, to more severely ill over that period), and as of this point I’ve had to give up pretty much everything normal people take for granted: what was then my career as a designer; playing sport; going out for a drink; indeed, any form of socialising and real-life friendships; being in a relationship; eating various types of food; and so on.

There is no way on earth that I’d choose to be like this, and if you can’t empathise with people who don’t have their health – but you do – then that’s rather sad. I would genuinely trade all my earthly possessions and success as a writer to have my health restored. All I’ve done is tried to use whatever energy I have had to make the best of a bad hand – and indeed, that’s all we can do in life. My limitations get me down, but other people have it even worse (although that’s not always helpful to anyone in pain or suffering – “You’ve just had your leg bitten off by a shark? Well, some guy last year had both legs bitten off. Man up. Come on, walk it off. Okay then, limp it off…”)

Even my vision is failing and making it harder to spend as long at the computer; I have taken part in three studies at the University of Leicester since 2011 that have shown people with M.E. have all kinds of visual disturbances and difficulty focusing; again, something that cannot be all our heads.

Writing is just about my only option for a hobby, and has largely been a pleasure, but even that’s getting more difficult. So if I seem a little tetchy at times it’s because I don’t have a lot of joy in my life, just a struggle to get stuff done. Luckily I’m not severely ill with M.E., but it’s difficult to run a business and write interesting articles when functioning at about 20% of what should be my normal levels. I’ve seen various metaphors about M.E., but the only one that makes full sense is an old rechargeable battery (or an electronic device) that just doesn’t hold that charge anymore, no matter how long it’s plugged in. You recharge it for 12 hours, it seems okay for 30 minutes, and then it’s gone. Some days are better than others, but if you do a bit more on those better days you then a bad day follows. (This is another complete mind-fuck.)

A lack of empathy (which is not the more pitying sympathy, I hasten to add) doesn’t help. (As Brown says, sympathy is looking down on someone in a hole saying “I’m glad I’m not in your hole, that sucks – poor you”, whereas empathy is imagining being in the hole as well, and saying you understand.)

Everyone is so busy having their own self-worth torn apart by modern life that they have little left to give anyone else. People end up wanting to see others denied things like disability benefits because their view is deeply twisted and distorted.

It’s been shown in studies that if we’re in some kind of game where everyone wins a little money, but crucially, one person has rigged it to get more than their fair share, we’d rather abandon the game, and give up our guaranteed winnings, to stop someone getting away with more than us. This is why people get so angry about fakers who claim benefits (and there will always be some) and beggars who pretend to be poor (and there will always be some), and would rather see the sick and disabled left to die, and beggars left to starve, than feel they are being in some way conned. I once knew a woman with cancer who was chased and harassed by a man because she parked in a disabled space and “wasn’t disabled” because she could walk. What kind of arsehole does that?

Mark Manson and Brené Brown point out how entire industries would grind to a halt if we felt good about ourselves. As I write this, in the background is a TV advert about how bacteria makes our feminine areas smell bad, if we have feminine areas. There is constant invention to sell us things we are made to feel that we need. Businesses can innovate to improve our lives, but they can also exist simply to make us feel terrible about ourselves (while their shareholders get rich). And they can try to kid us that pain, and suffering, and difficulties, are signs of weakness to be avoided – when that’s what life is: a struggle. The more we want things to be perfect, or easy, the more disappointed and angry we get; the more cheated we feel. The more you want something the worse you feel, as it just reinforces that you don’t have it.

Below is an excerpt from Mark Manson’s book, which could perhaps be called Foul-Mouthed Buddhism, or Fuck Positivity. (As an aside, I’m not a particularly positive person, but people accuse me of being just that because I try to keep a sense perspective over football results. My response has always been that I start from a more realistic position, and then don’t go insane when my wishes are not met. Perhaps living with chronic illness has taught me those lessons, and if there’s one thing Manson and other wise people say, it’s that we learn from our difficulties.)

I think all the psychological struggles of humanity, and modern living, can be applied to football, which is often what I do on this site – yes, we talk a lot about football, but also about how we perceive things. Hating the team means you probably just hate yourself. Having no patience for your team to succeed is a reflection of your own difficulties.

In his book, Manson talks about how he spent his youth dreaming of being a rock star, up on stage, soaking up the adulation of a huge crowd. He thought he wanted it. But he admits that when it came to the hours of practice, the working extra jobs to afford the equipment, the lugging around of that equipment, the networking and finding a group to play with, the grind to find people to turn up to gigs and care, and so on, he realised he didn’t actually want it after all. He wanted the result, but he wasn’t in love with the process.

“I wanted the reward, and not the struggle,” he says. And this reminded me of what I said about Jürgen Klopp last season; something that I’ve seen other people rehash in that great Twitter way where people just steal your stuff and crop your name out. Namely, that fans wanted Klopp’s Dortmund, not the process – the years of improvement – it took to make an upper-mid-table team champions. Already people are turning against Klopp, despite him working hard at that process, which involves improving young players and gradually upgrading the squad he inherited. Klopp is putting himself out there, like other managers, to try and make things happen. He is not a fraud (just as people with genuine medical conditions are not frauds, even if you can’t visibly see their pain.)

I’ll end with a quote that Brené Brown talks a lot about. It’s from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910. It’s easy to be a critic (and some of what I do is indeed to be a critic), but we need to empathise with those who are putting themselves out there. Hell, we just need to empathise in general.

THE MAN IN THE ARENA

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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