Nearly ten years ago, when I was teaching my son to ride his bike, I coined the phrase ‘see and be seen’ to encourage him in safe habits. The point I was trying to make was – make sure people can see you when you are on your bike.
Visibility while weaving through the traffic, or in the dark, is key for cyclists in the tussle to claim our place on the road alongside the traffic. Rear ends of buses sport messages warning cyclists not to pass on the driver’s blind side. I can regularly be seen wearing what I call my ‘banana skin’ whether I’m cycling in the dark, or pedalling through the countryside. The point is to catch the eye of motorists – to draw attention to myself.
This is the complete opposite of how I feel when I am depressed. The last thing I want to do when I feel low is to attract attention to myself. I remember wearing my raincoat with the hood up when I ventured out of the house on a sunny day the summer I was first depressed. I just wanted to hide. There were days when I couldn’t face leaving the house. A friend would regularly take my children to school when Mrs Lovely was away on business.
Depression is sometimes identified with colours; ‘feeling blue’, or Churchill’s ‘black dog’ are two phrases that cover the spectrum of the malaise. But yellow? This bright, sunny colour is surely the antithesis of the grey blur that so often characterises depression. But I think it says something about my own attitudes to depression. Anyone who knows me knows that I am open about my mental health, and am generally not shy about talking about it, hopefully debunking a few misconceptions along the way. I take this very seriously, because, as I will write about at length in a future edition of this blog, not talking about depression has disastrous consequences. I am not saying that I am proud of having Bi Polar Disorder, or that this is part of my identity, any more than being right-handed is part of who I am. What I mean is that I am committed to reducing the stigma that afflicts people whose lives are blighted by mental illness. While there are good grounds for recognising the role that genetics play in mental illness in families, Depression, Bi Polar Disorder, and Schizophrenia are not infectious diseases. Furthermore, people diagnosed with these diseases can lead fulfilling lives, managing their symptoms successfully with a mixture of medication and counselling alongside the love and support of family, fiends and colleagues. Not to mention the pleasures a bicycle can bring.
But yellow has other connotations, too. Cowardice, or fear can be amongst the most debilitating aspects of depression. Fear can apply to virtually every aspect of life. It stripped me of self-confidence and self-esteem when I was at my lowest ebb.
This poem reminds me that cowardice and fear can undermine our best selves whoever we are.
One pearly day of early May
I strolled upon the sand,
And saw, say half-a-mile away
A man with gun in hand;
A dog was cowering to his will,
As slow he sought to creep
Upon a dozen ducks so still
They seemed to be asleep,
When like a streak the dog dashed out,
The ducks flashed up in flight;
The fellow gave a savage shout
And cursed with all his might.
Then I stood somewhat amazed
And gazed with eyes agog,
With bitter rage his gun he raised
And blazed and shot the dog.
You know how dogs can yelp with pain;
Its blood soaked in the sand,
And yet it crawled to him again
And tried to lick his hand.
“Forgive me, Lord, for what I’ve done,”
It seemed as if it said,
But once again he raised his gun:
This time he shot it – dead.
What could I do? What could I say?
‘Twas such a lonely place.
Tongue-tied I saw him stride away,
I never saw his face.
I should have bawled the bastard out:
A yellow dog he slew;
But worse, he proved beyond a doubt
That – I was yellow too.
Robert William Service (1874-1958)