The Dog, the Dog, He’s Doing it Again

In which The Author is way down

In Walking the Dog I discussed my encounters with depression over the last three decades or so. Well, it’s back. Big style. My old friend the Black Dog has been barking at my door for a few months, but I’d managed to ward it off with a hosepipe until now.
It followed me through the front door last week, and shows no sign of going away any time soon. The real pain in the arse is that I’m halfway through a work placement, but I just can’t face people at the moment. Initially, I was really enjoying being back in the swim of things. I was working within easy walking distance of home, alongside a good bunch of people whom I already knew, and I was helping some of Aberdare’s many Loteks to get to grips with the Jobcentre website and other aspects of the Twenty-first Century. It was pretty much what I do anyway.
You see, back before Easter, my old schoolfriend and adviser Sonia was complaining about the increased workload caused by David Cameron’s ‘Digital by Default’ policy. This means, in a nutshell, that you can’t even claim benefits without going online first. The situation I referred to Stone, Scissors, Paper has finally become a real part of everyday life for the people of Aberdare. As a training and work provider, in partnership with the Jobcentre, Sonia’s employers were being inundated with people who’d never used a computer and/or the Internet before. I suggested that, since my time was my own anyway, I could drop in for a couple of hours a few times a week and be Tech Support at the Job Club sessions they run. Sonia thought it was a good idea, and said she’d mention it to Tony, her boss, when he came back from his holiday.
What happened was that Tony, Sonia, Teresa (my new adviser), and Kayleigh (who looks after the placements) offered me the aforementioned four-week placement. I wouldn’t get any more money, of course (that all finished ages ago), as I’d move from Jobseekers Allowance to Training Allowance. Nonetheless, I’d get an up-to-date reference and I’d be back in the loop. It seemed like a done deal.
After a week or so of mostly sitting at the reception desk, it dawned on me that it wasn’t what I’d signed up for. There was a young woman on a placement as well, and she was incredibly pushy to say the least. She has a qualification in I.T. I know this for a fact, as she mentioned it at every possible opportunity. However, when it came to setting up a very simple spreadsheet to track the petty cash payments and receipts, she decided to leave it to me. Okay, she might be able to build her own PC out of odds and ends bought online, but if you’re looking for a job in computer-based administration, I think a working knowledge of Excel probably trumps the ability to upgrade a motherboard.
There was the occasional break to do some filing or help a Lotek to get onto Universal Joke Jobmatch, which was why I’d suggested it in the first place. I did spend a couple of hours on the first morning helping four guys of various ages (including one chap I was in school with) to find their way around Universal Jobmatch. One bloke hadn’t even brought his email address or his UJ login details with him – he might as well have stayed in bed. Considering that he’d done a ‘basic computing’ course in a community centre somewhere, he had the bare minimum of PC knowledge. At one point, I had to show him how to pick up the mouse and put it down somewhere else in order to extend the cursor’s range. If he gained anything from his ‘basic computing’ course, then I’m a world-class athlete. No doubt he’s got a certificate to vouch for his prowess. I might do the course to get the certificate myself – I’m running low on toilet paper. Later in the week, though, I did spend quite a bit of time with a young lad who was really having problems. He was extremely grateful for my help and shook my hand as he left. That made the exercise feel a bit more worthwhile.
The rest of the time, I was sitting at the reception desk, reimbursing people’s bus tickets, answering phone calls, and potching with the petty cash spreadsheet. Meanwhile, Little Miss Bossyboots fussed around trying to micromanage whatever I was doing. I might as well have stayed on JSA and just popped in for a couple of ad hoc sessions during the week, as I’d suggested in the first place.
On the second Monday morning, Kayleigh had arranged a one-to-one session with an ASBO girl, well known in the town, for me to help her update her (no doubt glowing) CV and get it online. Not surprisingly, she was a no-show. It was no bad thing, as I was feeling like shit anyway. I’d had a bad chest cold the previous weekend, and didn’t go into work on the Tuesday. I went home Monday lunchtime and spent the next day and a half in bed with Lemsips instead.
It was better than calling into the Prince after work and hearing the same daily conversations, drowned out by the same dozen or so songs on the jukebox. You can always tell who’s in by the limited playlist. If it’s Candy, we can expect to hear Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs by Brian and Michael, The Carnival is Over by The Seekers, and Grandad by Clive Dunn. If Bingo Bert comes in, we can look forward to Rubber Ball by Bobby Vee, Lipstick on Your Collar by Connie Francis, and some monstrosity called Nobody’s Child. Sometime during the day we’ll hear The Great Pretender (the Platters version, of course. Freddie Mercury died in 1991, and he’s still way too contemporary for that place!), Suspicious Minds and/or The Wonder of You, and I think it’s a requirement by the owner that A Secret Love by Doris Day is selected at least three times a session. Neil is guaranteed to play at least two Celine Dion records and the unbelievably cloying If I Could See the Rhondda One More Time by David Alexander. (As I told one of the boys one afternoon, if Neil G.’s so keen to see the Rhondda one more time, I’m sure we could club together for a single bus ticket for him.) It’s the equivalent of the Doctor taking a gang of Welsh pissheads to the biggest library in the Universe, and their taking out the same three books they read in primary school. Last week, when the same cycle of turgid tunes started off, I caught Rhian’s eye and said, ‘They’re playing all the same songs – necessarily in the same order!’ I’m working on an idea for a hack for the jukebox, to be infiltrated via the pub wifi. If the same song is selected three times in a week, it’s disabled for the next calendar month. I’m provisionally calling it Three Strikes And You’re Out. Any coding advice would be greatly appreciated.
I felt much better on the Wednesday, and went to work looking forward to the rest of the placement. Gema called in during the afternoon, with a rather nice dress she’d bought for me in a charity shop. We arranged to meet up for a pint when I finished work. However, when I woke up on the Thursday I simply couldn’t face the prospect of going into the office. Gema and I had had a fun evening before going our separate ways when the pub closed. Even though we’d had a fair bit to drink, I wasn’t hungover (that doesn’t happen any more.) It seemed to me that I’d be spending another six hours dealing with the unlucky, uneducated, or unemployable expecting us to wave our collective Sonic Screwdriver and solve their problems for them. I couldn’t face them again. When the alarm clock went off, I switched it off and (eventually, with the aid of a couple of 30/500 Cocodamols) went back to sleep.
For some reason, my recent dreams have featured two recurring themes:
  • I’m working in the bookshop, and know full well that I shouldn’t be there, but I can’t convince anyone that I’ve been re-employed by mistake;
  • I’m arguing with my parents – especially my father, who died in February 2006 – often about aspects of my life which they’ve greatly exaggerated.
I’m not going to attempt to self-diagnose, as my friends in the medical and nursing professions hate it when someone does that. However, I’m going to throw a suggestion out there. I referred to it, only half-seriously, in an entry I made a few years ago. I’m going to expand on it here.
I touched briefly on the school bullying I experienced in Skirting the Issue. It went much deeper than just name-calling, and lasted right through my seven years in secondary school. There were a number of different groups (gangs?) involved, but unfortunately the main perpetrators were in the same class as me. The ringleader even managed to turn some of my best friends against me, and I felt increasingly isolated as a result. I think the turning point occurred when my coat was slashed in the cloakroom one morning. Mother played fuck with the headmaster for allowing it to happen (Dad was in work at the time), and if anything it made matters worse.
The situation deteriorated to the point where I was literally afraid to leave the house. Even the walk to the village shop would take me past the lane where the self-styled ‘Barmy Army’ would hang around in the evenings and weekends. When things really came to a head, the gang would congregate outside our house every night, chanting and throwing things. During the worst period, Dad and a few of our neighbours took to arming themselves with cricket bats and lying in wait for them to arrive. No doubt they’d have been the ones in court if they had beaten the shit out of the perpetrators. Even three decades ago, the police were of little practical use. We all knew who was responsible, but in the absence of hard evidence there was nothing they could do. Where have we heard that before?
In the event, the Barmy Army were undone by their own stupidity. At the time, Trecynon had a ‘jazz band.’ Now, please don’t go seeing mental images of Miles, ‘Trane, Cannonball, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb blowing a terrific set on the bandstand in Aberdare Park. Instead, it was the sort of US-style ‘marching band’ you glimpse in Twin Town – a bunch of (mostly) girls in vaguely military-style uniforms, variously playing drums, kazoos, or a glockenspiel, and a tall bint at the front twirling a mace. There were dozens of these groups throughout the Valleys – and one year Dad had the privilege of judging the contest at Aberdare Carnival. Understandably, he hated every minute of it. (He liked real music as well.) They seem to have dwindled in numbers over the years, but the Carnival tradition remained alive and well for a lot longer. One year, not very long ago, the organisers even had to ship in a band from somewhere like Abertillery, merely to satisfy the notional demand for such ‘entertainment.’
[A digression: In the Valleys, we always used to call that weird silver wind instrument a ‘gazoot.’ My old pal Stuart Cable was presenting his Radio Wales show one morning, and I was listening to it in the office while cashing up. He was chatting to the presenters of the upcoming show, and at one point the subject of jazz bands came up. Stu mentioned ‘gazoots.’ The woman was nonplussed, and asked him what ‘gazoots’ were. He described them as ‘those comb-and-paper things they play,’ and she said, ‘Oh – kazoos!’ Stu collapsed laughing, and I wasn’t far behind him. I don’t know what the rest of his audience thought, but anyone living in the Valleys would have known immediately what he was on about.]
Anyway, our local lot were called the Trecynon Legionnaires, and they had an old bus that they used to take on tour when they were competing in contests. ‘The Camel’ was always parked near the Social Services building at the far end of the village, and one night the Barmy Army decided to smash it up. This time, South Wales’ finest were in time to catch them in the act. In that night’s episode of Britain’s Dumbest Criminals, the gang scattered in all directions, but one of them yelled a piece of good advice to a mate: ‘Keep running, [surname]!’ Like my own surname, his was unusual to say the least. Let’s be honest – Inspector Lestrade would have been able to follow that line of enquiry without any difficulty.
The result was that everyone grassed everyone else up, and at least one of them went into youth custody for a stretch. That’s a very long time ago, of course. Over time, nearly all of them have approached me and apologised for the mental distress they caused me when I was younger. One of them, in fact, is a really good friend now, and has apologised profusely for his involvement in the Barmy Army. One has since died unexpectedly, having re-established our old friendship to our mutual delight a few years earlier. I still miss him terribly. Another was the guy I’d helped online during my first morning on placement. As Marcellus tells Butch in Pulp Fiction, we’re cool. (The exception is the guy I referred to in Down Amongst the Übermenschen, in the chip shop incident. He was the ringleader, and to this day I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.)
Also during this period, I first became aware of what I fear could be a latent psychopathic tendency. One of the gang – whose sister was in the jazz band – decided to threaten me when we were on our way to school. With no hesitation, no compunction, and without a second look back, I floored the cunt. I’d been holding a rolled-up magazine in my right hand, and as he approached I started tightening up the roll until I had a solid paper cylinder about 150 pages thick. When he got within striking distance, I struck first. I rammed the round end of my improvised weapon into his left eye, delivering a hammer blow which took him completely by surprise. He fell to the ground, screaming in pain, with his hands over his face. I could have put the boot in a couple of times, I suppose, but instead I just walked away without a word or a look back. It was ME, 1 – THEM, 0. At long fucking last… In spite of many, many offers throughout my adult life, this is why I’ve always steered clear of any drug that doesn’t come in a pint glass. Like Pete Townshend, I’m too afraid of what it might unleash.
In spite of the intervening decades, I strongly suspect that I show some of the signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A lot of the times they manifest themselves in my dreams, as I mentioned earlier. I know partly why I argue with Mother in my dreams – it’s because we’ve argued in real life (see Nothing Short of a Total War) and the situation is nowhere nearer being resolved. It’s also partly because she’s constantly sought to undermine my ideas and belittle any ambition I might have shown, ever since I was a teenager. I think I know why I argue with Dad as well, and I’ll go into this in a few months’ time (see, that’s project management again!) I know full well why I dream about the bookshop. After twenty years, it’s bound to have made a deep impression on my mind. I made some good friends and sometimes we had a lot of fun together. But the dreams also dredge up unpleasant memories and lead me down a path I’d rather avoid. Sometimes these unwanted emotions burst out into my waking life. That’s when the depression really kicks in again, as it did a week and a half ago.
I’ve suspected for some time, in fact, that I might be affected by Bipolar Disorder – what they used to call Manic Depression. The Piss-Artist Formerly Known As My Brother was diagnosed with it a while ago. Thinking back, I’m fairly sure Dad showed some of the signs of it as well. As the condition is widely believed to have a genetic component, I think it might be worth discussing the possibility with my GP when I have my next medication review. In the meantime, I need to have a chat with Teresa and Kayleigh, to explain why I didn’t turn up on the Thursday morning – or, indeed, on any subsequent day.
I’ll just have to tell them that the Black Dog came to stay again, and he’s a persistent little bastard. He has his good points, as I’ve mentioned before. I don’t need to feed him. I don’t eat very much myself when I’m on a downturn. I don’t need to walk him. I didn’t leave the house at all between Bank Holiday Monday and yesterday – in fact, I only opened the front door once, on Thursday evening, to put out the rubbish and the recycling. Instead, he’s perfectly happy to lie in bed with me all day while I try and catch up on some sleep, even though the prescribed eight hours a night is way beyond me at the moment. For the last fortnight or so I’ve stayed up until 3 a.m working my way through a very badly-typeset book of Daily Telegraph crosswords, with varying results, but refusing to give in until I’ve completed one without cheating. Time has ceased to have a lot of meaning for me recently. I hadn’t even realised until I picked it up on Friday that my current library book was due back on Thursday. I renewed it yesterday, but that’s 30p I owe them. Considering that they had to get the book in especially for me, and I’m only halfway through it, I don’t begrudge them the money.
It’s Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe, (HarperCollins, 1996) in which the author expounds a radical theory of time, space, physics, psychology, mind, body, Life, the Universe, and Everything. While I’ve been reading it, the parts about paranormal phenomena have piqued my interest, but the parts about lucid dreaming are really fascinating. As I’ve outlined in previous entries, I’ve experienced this phenomenon for a number of years. Now, it’s becoming more and more a part of my so-called ‘sleep routine.’ In fact, I don’t even need to be in REM sleep to do it any more. Almost as soon as I close my eyes, my mind goes on two parallel tracks at once, one in the ‘real world’ (whatever that means) and one in Dreamland. I can even switch from one to the other and rationalise the content of the dream as it’s going on. As I’ve said before, I’d be no use in a psychological study, as the half-life of my dreams is extremely short. Not longer after I ‘wake up’ (again, whatever that means), all but the smallest impression remains intact. I mentioned this to Gareth M. during our lecture on dreams. He said that dreams remain in short-term memory, and evaporate over time like most other things we don’t need to preserve in our neural pathways. In that case, I’m left wondering why the recurring images of my dreams are so distinct and so permanent over time.
But all this doesn’t begin to tackle the issue of my depression here and now. I have little doubt that the environment I’m in plays a major part. It’s one thing to sit in the Jokecentre once a fortnight, and tell your adviser that the reason you’re meeting again is because there are no jobs which you’re suited for – whether because you lack experience, or don’t have the relevant qualifications, or don’t speak Welsh, or don’t drive, or purely because you can’t get to the fucking place (see Nice Work If You Can Get There.) It’s quite another to sit behind the desk in a training agency, and meet ASBO fodder, the barely-literate, the unskilled and uneducated product of a ‘ state education system’ which isn’t worthy of the name, and wonder why you’re in the same boat as them. Even taking into account that I’d have had to resit to my second year, I should have been due to graduate in a couple of months from now. Instead, thanks to the miracles of Twenty-First Century bureaucracy (see Everything Changes) I’m living on the fucking breadline in Cameron’s Breadline Britain.
I might not even get any money this week. I had an oddly-worded letter from Kayleigh in yesterday’s post (too late to act on it this week, naturally) advising me that I’d have to inform the Jobcentre that I had to revert to signing on fortnightly. I should have signed on on Friday morning. The best-case scenario is that I have to wait a few days for my JSA to be processed. I can probably get a sub from a couple of friends to tide me over in the meantime.
(How’s this for a nice way to round things off? C— has just popped her head around the door and asked me why I don’t talk to her on Facebook any more! The answer can be found in C is For Cyberwoman, by the way.)
The worst-case scenario is that I get sanctioned. In that case, all bets are off. I won’t be able to afford food, electricity, or to keep a roof over my head if the sanction extends for more than a couple of weeks. The maximum sanction they can impose is 26 weeks. By that time, I’ll be selling The Big Issue in Cardiff (or, even better, Manchester) and facing the prospect of freezing to death in a shop doorway while being pissed on by late-night clubbers. My old work colleague Mike A. is the publicity guy for The Big Issue Cymru. (A mate of mine also did a sponsored sleep-out for a homeless charity in Cardiff a couple of years ago.) It’s a worthy cause. If you see me when you’re passing, please stop and buy one.