How losing a brother to cancer inspired an album: My Story. Pt 4 ~ My Blue Kangoo.
In our early twenties, Dan and I both found jobs as youth workers and purchased two vehicles. Our first joint vehicular purchase was a navy blue 2001 Renault Kangoo 4x4 (yes I said 4x4). If you’ve never heard of the legendary Kangoo 4x4, what you need to know is it’s a small van, with extra seats — on stilts. The Kangoo lent itself to quite a few adventures over it’s time with us. It was also classed as a high-sided vehicle, meaning you should be careful not to drive it over windy bridges.
A term that shaped much of that early twenties period of my life is ‘self reflection’. I have anxiety, or at least, I have anxious reactions to things. Let’s not define it too much. It creeped up on me in high school and it’s something I battle with daily. To say it’s always a bad thing is perhaps a little naive though. I’ll explain.
Prior to understanding ‘myself’ a little better, anxiety was an enemy. Causing me to cave in, make rash decisions, fight, shout, hide and runaway. Anxiety can do that, because anxiety likes to be in control. And when it wants to be in control, it usually gets to be.
Self reflection was the tipping point. It takes all of the anxious thoughts and looks at them objectively. It zooms out and thinks bigger picture. It makes things that feel like a big deal, less of a big deal. It doesn’t ignore them or brush them aside, it just puts them into perspective.
Here’s the two sides of anxiety ~ control/connection. If you’re an anxious person, you’ll probably understand what I mean when I say anxiety makes you more observant. It connects you to your thoughts in a way that, perhaps, others can’t. Take, for example, social situations. Out of a need to ‘self-defend’, anxiety teaches you to be more discerning, self aware and empathetic. It means you see things that ‘normal’ people might not. It’s a classic anti-hero super-power. The Han Solo of mental health struggles.
Learning to harness the good side of anxiety, has allowed me to become the songwriter and creative I am today. I’m connected to what I’m experiencing and it makes me need to express it in a positive form. Why do you think so many of the great artists and songwriters have struggled with their mental health? Probably because they know the only way to survive is to get it out somehow. If you can’t talk about it — sing about it, paint about it, dance about it. Whatever works for you.
I find that when I have a real reason to do something, a real meaning behind my actions, then my anxiety fades into the residual background. I use the excitement of conquering something awesome to overcome the usual things that stand in my way. It’s these times, when I feel I’m doing what I was made to do, that anxiety can’t get a foothold — it’s bigger picture thinking. I call this ‘Courage Mode’. They say excitement and nervousness are the same sensation processed differently by your brain. So if your brain is the battleground, do whatever you can to take charge of it.
Unfortunately, sometimes anxiety has the ability to launch a full scale siege of your mind. It’s need to control and know everything, means it won’t let things go until they’re sorted or fixed. It will attempt to corner situations that scare it and run from situations it can’t. It will tell you lies about yourself, so you work and work, until you think you’ve silenced it, only to find it was hiding in plain sight all along.
One time, our band was booked to play a little gig in the middle of Norfolk. So we loaded up the Kangoo, our little Renault Clio runaround and our drummer Dicky’s Fiesta. Our soundy Fred tagged along for the ride too. The gig was fun and I remember thinking this is what it’s all about, making music for audiences of all sizes.
It was dark by the time we were finished. We loaded back up and hit the road. I drove the Kangoo with Fred in the passenger seat and Dan led the way in the Clio. We all headed back towards Norwich and Dicky split off from us to go back to his house. About a mile later we turned onto a b-road and were getting up to speed, when I remember seeing shards of blue scattering themselves across the road, illuminated by the Kangoo’s headlights. I turned to Fred and exclaimed; ‘What’s that?’.
He looked back at me and said; ‘I think Dan’s hit something.’
Dan slammed his brakes on and I swerved around the Clio, narrowly missing him. I pulled in about 30 yards ahead of where Dan’s clio was and jumped out of the Kangoo in a hurry. All I could see through the mist-filled darkness was the glaring headlights of the Clio.
Like something out of an action movie, I yelled through the dark; ‘Dan!’. Moments later, Dan called back, quite calmly and without too much fuss; ‘I’m alright.’ I ran over to find the front passenger side of the Clio smashed in, the headlamp was shattered and the blue shards we’d seen earlier were from the plastic bumper, now in pieces. Dan had hit a deer, or perhaps more correctly, unfortunately a deer had hit him.
We spent the next hour or so huddled in the cab of the Kangoo, trying to stay warm, while we waited for a tow truck. And you know what, I wasn’t anxious. In fact, in the moment I was courageous and strong. I embraced the challenge. That was, until we got home and the reality of the situation hit me. Then the anxiety manifested itself, and I spent the next few hours quietly trying to remedy myself.
The Clio was a right-off. The Kangoo gained another story and I was beginning to realise how easily anxiety could gain a hold on my mind.
So, Dan died in November 2016. From the moment he was diagnosed, I had partitioned off this part of my brain to be strong for him — Courage Mode on. To say I didn’t have anxious moments in that time is a lie, I had lots, but my brain was determined to be brave. It didn’t have space to leave the door open to full blown anxiety. But after Dan died, Courage Mode switched off.
Less than a year later, I experienced what I can only describe as a breakdown. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, moments of complete delusion and confusion. I stopped making music, stopped being courageous. I didn’t really feel like doing anything at all. During that time, my wife carried me. She is a spectacularly strong, kind and beautiful woman, with a lot of patience for me.
I had spent the nine months prior, running at full speed towards anything that would take my mind off the grief. Piling myself into work, projects and moving house. I didn’t deal with what I needed to. I put it to one side. I used Courage Mode all wrong and forgot that sometimes self reflection means sitting in the pain of loss, learning to engage with the things that scare you.
The breakdown taught me how easily good mental health intentions can get clouded by a lack of self awareness. How attempting to put on a brave face, can actually just harm you more. It’s not okay that we allow ourselves to be so convinced we need to carry on, that we forget we’re still back there, back in the grief. It’s okay to sit in sadness sometimes, as long as we know how to get ourselves back out again.
So, I’m still an anxious person. But I’m sure that this flaw is part of me for a reason, and perhaps with the right outlook, it can have good repercussions.
Pt. 5~ Coming on November 18th 2021.
I’ve recently released an acoustic version of my song ‘Moving’. A song about learning to move on, whilst reflecting on the past. Watch below.
I’m currently crowdfunding to make my debut album ‘O Wide World’ ~ my story of finding hope after losing my brother to cancer. This album is full of big indie folk rock songs that will speak to your soul.
Follow this link to help make it happen!
Keep on moving.