Dark Night of the Soul

It’s February 2008 and I’m crashing while the economy crashes around me. These days they say, “He’s got mental health”. My wife is away and, unbeknown to her, the doctor has just told me I’ve got pneumonia in one lung. Clutching the remote control I lay on my good side watching capitalism fall on TV, courtesy of the BBC.

“No, don’t come back yet, you’ve earned your retreat, I’m getting better”, I lie, answering a crackly call from India.

Work wise I HAVE been hammering it a bit. Instant Teamwork, our company, has gone from strength to strength but the client emails are coming thick and fast now. “All team building cancelled. We can’t be seen to be having any fun”.

I’ve spent a decade on the road but suddenly I’ve stopped. And anyway I can’t stand the sound of traffic any more. The streets terrify me, I’m covering my ears when I make the short trip to the corner shop.

Luckily we have money.

Dawn returns, sees the state I’m in and takes immediate evasive action.

Lamu is beautiful.

It’s an island off the Kenyan coast with a unique mix of Swahili and Muslim cultures. And no traffic. People walk or travel by cart. No combustion engines, just the sounds of nature. 
Flying over it in this tiny plane, Dawn reports it hasn’t changed since she was here a decade ago. This will sort me out. A small coastal town peppered with palaces, yes palaces. And we’re booked to stay in one of them. We land and, like someone opening an oven door the heat hits me like an industrial breeze block as we stumble down the folding stairs of the plane and I see young men running off with our luggage. “To the boat! Quickly, the tide is turning!”

I can’t stay here, my anxiety rockets up alongside the mercury in the thermometer. This is hell, chaos, and the heat is unbearable.

We stay. We’re booked into the pink palace. Not painted pink, this is pink coral, for the Prince to impress his guests back in the day. They had rituals then, elegant courtship rituals.

Depression is a lens. My doctor doesn’t tell me this when prescribing anti-depressants. Nor do my friends who suggest “jogging might help’”. It’s not their fault, they’ve never been here, to this perfectly sculpted palace where, to my anxious mind, every pink step represents the destruction of the local reef. Beautiful angel fish gasping in the courtyard, drowning in the air and, in my imagination, it’s all my fault.

I can’t stay here anyway because I can’t sleep. Donkeys. Far worse than any traffic, they call to each other all night. I repeat, depression is a lens. They sound anguished, like they’re being tortured because of me and my tourist needs for quiet.

The one temporary relief I get back in London is to swim thirty lengths of my local pool. Flat out.

So swimming may be the key here too, to easing this equatorial purgatory. We go to the beach. “No, no. Not in the water. Later, later!” say the locals. It’s tidal and the raw sewerage will soon be coming down from the village a few miles up.

I’m wrapped in white gauze, like a shroud. I’m over-anxious about getting sunstroke. Just my locks, like the top of a coconut, are visible. They’re tied on top of my head. “Hey Natty! Yes Rasta. Positive vibration!” shout the local children. We’ve just heard a three month contract has been cancelled, not postponed. The guy who booked us has left the company.

Back home our government are bailing out the banks while in Iceland they’re bailing out the people.

Standing like a pillar of salt on the beach, while Dawn checks the map, we’re approached by a European woman. “You two look interesting. That’s my palace over there. We’re having some people over tonight, would you like to join us? I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Madame Peugeot.” Yes, THE Madame Peugeot.

Before Dawn can speak I blurt out, “I’m so sorry, I’m depressed, another time… normally I’d…”

“Oh, I know all about depression” she says, “Do come, I’ve got every pill you’ll ever need. Cabinets full. My husband is in Paris but the children are here. Seven o’clock for drinks on the terrace?”

It’s a cross between a Vogue photo shoot and heaven but I can concentrate on nothing but the pool and my abandoned thirty lengths. “I never use it,” says our host, “Come anytime, day or night, I’ll speak to the boys on the gate. They’ll let you in. Come on, let’s eat”.

She’s fascinated by our storytelling and drum work. “We did so many boring conferences at Peugeot” she says, “I have nothing to do with the company now but what a shame we didn’t meet ten years ago”. Yes, through the lens of depression this almost throwaway comment sends me further down my mental lift shaft. The following day Dawn leaves me, safely under our overhead fan, to go down as deeply as I can drop. To the very bottom. Yes, it’s possible to lose absolutely everything. I hear one word echoing there. Just one. It’s “Harmony”.

So there’s hope. The next day I go alone to swim in Madame Peugeot’s pool. It’s triangular so I can’t do my thirty lengths, unless three widths are equal to a length. I reckon I have to do ninety. Depression does this, it delivers solutions you can’t use. All. The. Time. Turning on the forty seventh width I kick the side sharply. My foot is bleeding and I have to stop. The palace looms above me, as silent as the grave. I limp to the gate and the Maasai warrior ‘boy’, in full Maasai regalia, lets me out. I feel like a shivering mouse being gazed at curiously by a glorious lion.

I can’t stay here.

We stay.

The plumbing in the pink palace seems to be only here for show. Like a stage set, were a fellow actor to ask, “Is it practical?” the answer would have to be, “No”. We move to the ‘Yoga Palace’ run by a wonderful ex-miltary man who takes me on as a challenge. He’s determined to shift my mood by assisted stretching, and boy is he strong. I’m in two minds about this but I let him do his thing.

Dawn and I have two copies of Stephen Fry’s ‘Ode Less Travelled’ which we use to write poems daily. We read them to each other in the sandy courtyard yard or on the palace roof terrace, which is there to catch the slight ocean breezes. 

The grace of going through depression with a loved one who doesn’t judge you is that sometimes you can laugh. Her laughter rings out like birdsong. Mine has the clang of T.S.Eliot but let’s not knock The Wasteland. We need all the help we can get.

Then, one afternoon, it lifts. Not just a bit. The depression is gone. I whisper to Dawn, “It’s gone. This place is beautiful, I’m going to get my camera to try to capture this mood and hang on to it”.

“Do whatever you need to do” she says, almost in tears.

It would be a happy ending wouldn’t it, to say that was it?

In fact it returns in full force an hour later but that blissful ‘window’ shows me my depression is something internal. A glitch in the system rather than permanent damage.

 It’s a massive relief.

I ascend gradually over the next month and I remain vigilant even now. More than vigilant, I make sure I stay in the groove of gratitude, balancing myself at the crossroads of discipline surrender and mischief.

On return from Lamu, back at the coal face in The Heathrow Marriott Hotel, leading a corporate group into an experiences of tribal harmony, my client says, “Your work has changed Tom, you somehow took us deeper than some proper experts we’ve hired. Have you ever thought of promoting yourself as more than just a drummer?”

Posted in