385 Yards To Go

I wrote the other day about the comparisons between marathon running and writing a novel. Both are wars of attrition and many drop by the wayside, battered and beaten. Both culminate in glory and accolades but the path to the finish line is strewn with the collateral damage of the occupation; for every war has its casualties. Sacrifice and discipline are paramount. Without them you will fail, then fall and the dream will remain just that; discarded and shrivelled away.

I described where I am currently with my novel as like being at the 26 mile point of a marathon. The point where you feel you have created your personal Everest only to realise that you still have another .2 miles to go. Or 385 yards to be exact but, hey, who’s counting? Well I am to be honest. Every torrid step of the way. For after almost four hours of constant running you feel every stride and obsess over every step. It is one nearer the glory or the ignominy of stopping. Whichever comes first.

I’ve attempted to describe the agony and beauty of that moment but sometimes a picture speaks the volumes that my muted meanderings can never accomplish. Which is why I’ve dug out this photo. It’s me in the finishing straight at this year’s Belfast Marathon. No smiling, no soaking up the atmosphere and acknowledging the crowds. Just a world of pain as I contemplate nothing but the finish line, just ahead of me.

I could have posted photos of me smiling with my medal to describe the marathon experience but I feel this one captures its essence so much more accurately. It’s not pretty but it is real. Much like my writing style. I’ll post an equally unflattering image of my writing experience later today but, until then, never give up. Knuckle down and buckle up. For the finish line is within touching distance. Only 385 yards to go.

How close are you to your finish line?

Is the pain worth it?

Welcome to Mulberry Square

Just thought I’d share some images of Bank Street, off Belfast City Centre, I took yesterday. This is my inspiration for the fictional location of Mulberry Square which is the backdrop for several of the key scenes in the novel I am currently working on – tentatively titled ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Part One – Skelly’s Square.’ I walk through this part of the city most days on my way to and from work.

It is a vibrant, thriving part of the city full of colour and laughter. It is steeped in history and includes an eclectic range of businesses and buildings – chapels next to bookmakers, traditional Irish pubs next to modern wine bars; fish and chip shops beside gourmet restaurants. It has a little bit of everything, including a darker side that features heavily in the novel.

Such locations continue to inspire me on this insane writing journey I have embarked upon. As do the people who inhabit them. I only hope my writing can do justice to the beautiful, brutal Belfast that is my second home. I’ll blog again later. A ‘flash fiction’ writing challenge for you all no less but, for now, apologies for the dodgy photography. Let’s hope the writing that follows isn’t quite so dodgy.

What parts of your local town or city inspire you to write?

Where is your ‘second home’?

What do you think ‘goes down’ in Mulberry Square?

Only Mad People Start To Write A Novel? Discuss….

Whenever I tell people in the ‘real world’ *dabs fingers patronisingly* that I am writing a novel they invariably look vaguely uncomfortable before changing the subject at the first available opportunity. Some of them stare at me as if I have finally taken leave of my senses while others nod in bemused sympathy, say ‘that’s nice’ or ‘good for you’ as if I am a five year old child tugging at their trousers having told them I have just seen The Gruffalo arm wrestling The BFG at the bottom of the garden.

The few that do clamber over this initial hurdle of disbelief normally come to a jarring halt when the inevitable next question is asked – ‘What’s it about Stephen?’ Their faces drop as I begin to wax lyrical about the world of Kirkwood Scott. Supernatural beings amongst the homeless community in Belfast? Forces of good and evil battling for control of the known universe in that pub we always go to on pay day because it sells cheap beer? He’s finally lost it.

It is disheartening but thankfully there are those that keep me going. A friend visited us last night who I haven’t spoken to in forever. When Fionnuala brought up the fact that her deranged husband was writing a book she was genuinely interested and said she would like to read it. And you know what, I believed her. These are the tiny crumbs of support and encouragement that I cling on to as I plough through the third draft.

Because these tiny crumbs are the oxygen that the fledgling author so desperately needs in order to force him or her to flip open their laptop, stare at the blank screen and then start to hesitantly tap those first few words out on the keyboard. It’s all about belief. And it’s so much easier to believe in yourself when others believe in you first. Especially in the final stages when your literary lungs are bursting and the finish line seems farther away than ever.

I run marathons. Have I mentioned that before? They are 26.2 miles long. People always tend to forget the .2 but let me tell you that is the part of the race when the crowd are at their most inspiring and you need them more than ever before. It is their cheers and hollering that drag your aching, exhausted body over the line. They make the previous 26 miles worthwhile, they are the reason you run at all. They are the fuel that powers you through those lonely training runs in the pouring rain.

I feel like I am nearing the 26 mile stage of the book. Fionnuala has…. er ‘focused my thinking’ by informing me if I haven’t finished it by the end of September then she is initiating divorce proceedings against me. I think she’s joking. I think. But it’s certainly a kick up the creative backside when I need it the most. I need her support at a time like this. I need to finish this project even if it never sells a copy and wins literary equivalents of those awards they hand out at Oscar time for the worst movie of the year.

This book will prove a lot of people wrong. But more importantly it will prove a few people right. Those who cared. Those who believed rather than looked at me as if I had two heads. Those who encouraged me rather than those who offered smirks, sighs or, worst of all, silence. I’m excited about the end of September. Incredibly nervous but excited nonetheless. To be able to let the trusted few see what I have been hammering away at with furrowed brow for the last nine months.

It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m about to clamber out of bed and haul myself into the rat race for another day. I will sit on the train and fret over still gaping holes in the plot. I will daydream through meetings about the colour of Meredith’s hair, still undecided, and whether or not Harley’s character should be introduced at an earlier stage of the story. I will spend my lunchtime run plodding around the city as my frazzled brain works overtime on such thoughts.

But I’m getting there. Only .2 miles to go.

How do you deal with the doubters and doomsayers when it comes to your dream?

What advice would you offer to me with .2 miles to go?

Should We Meet Our Heroes?

During the recent World Cup I have heard the word ‘hero’ casually bandied about to describe the exploits of young men who get paid millions of pounds every year to kick a ball around a field. The same applies to our favourite actors, musicians and authors. I’m as susceptible to this idolatry as any of us. If Eric Cantona walked into the room now I’d probably turn into a gibbering wreck. And when I bumped into Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones in Belfast a few years back I was a gibbering wreck.

Did I say bumped into? That might be a slight manipulation of the truth and by that I mean an outright lie. I actually stalked them through the city centre before cornering them in a jewellery store where I refused to let them leave until I had my photograph taken with them. Thankfully they were both lovely about it. There were no diva outbursts or exaggerated eye rolling. I floated off on my little cloud nine and all was well with the world.

They, for it is always they, say never meet your heroes for they will invariably prove a disappointment. We find out that they are not the perfect creations we had imagined them to be. They are as flawed and tarnished as the rest of us. Just because you are skilled at kicking a ball or strumming a guitar doesn’t mean you are a wonderful human being. When they step down from the pedestal we have placed them upon and face us eye to eye we see beyond the carefully crafted image. We see them for who they really are as opposed to who we so desperately want them to be.

Hero worship is idolatry and the latter reflects an inadequacy within us that we seek to fill with fickle fantasies. There is a hole within us, something is missing so we grasp at the first thing we can find to plug the gap. It can be a pop star, a baseball player or a Kardashian. Worse still it can be an addiction. Why worship a person when you can worship food, alcohol or drugs? They are so much more accessible. We pump our bodies and minds with images and substances; anything to stop us from looking in the mirror.

Mirrors tend not to lie. Our minds eye does. Mirrors strip away the facade and reveal the present in all its not so glorious glory. I personally tend to avoid them for I don’t particularly like what I see looking back at me. The Stephen Black I want to be, I need to be, is not there. I’m not handsome enough, I’m not clever enough, I’m not popular enough. I’m not a sub 3:30 marathon runner. I’m not a published author. I’m not the world’s best father or husband. I’m not anything really.

But then I look beyond my personal pity party, beyond the vain, selfish thoughts that warp and corrupt my perception. I see my wife and kids. I see the people in my life who accept and love me for who I am, warts and all. I see the people who turn up every day for me, who support and encourage me in whatever hare brained scheme I am chasing at any given time. These are the people who you get out of bed for and trudge into work for, day after monotonous day.

Why? Because they are our real heroes. They are the people we are learning from, they are the kindred souls who we smooth our rough edges against, who help to mould us into the people that God created us to be; despite our kicking and screaming every step of the way. They keep us on the path and prevent us from wandering off and along more treacherous routes that lead to dead ends and deadlier drops. They are our signposts, our beacons in the darkness. They are our very lives, our reasons for being.

Never meet your heroes? I disagree. I say meet them. Open your eyes and look around for they are there, right beside you, as you muddle through life. They are our family, our friends, our daily dose of inspiration. See them for who they really are and, in doing so, be grateful that they have been placed in our lives for a reason. They are an oasis of hope, grace and love in this barren desert we trudge across. If we appreciate the everyday heroes around us we are a step closer to becoming reluctant heroes ourselves. For they need us just as much as we need them.

Have you ever met a celebrity and been disappointed by them?

Who are the everyday heroes in your life?

Why Do Good Blogs Go Bad?

Have you ever poured your heart and soul into a blog only for it to sink without trace amidst the plethora of competing posts that flood your timeline? It’s disheartening isn’t it? You stare at your pride and joy and try to process how 99% of your followers haven’t the slightest interest in this latest literary gem. Then the voice in your head pipes up – ‘Well if they won’t read a 500 word blog then what makes you think they will want to read that 120,000 word book you have been droning on about for the last six months?’

It’s little surprise then that many bloggers raise the white flag and go AWOL. Fellow writers who you corresponded with every day suddenly vanish without explanation and you think ‘I wonder what happened to so and so?’ Blogging can be a brutal business. Don’t expect to become an internet success overnight. Building a base of followers is time consuming, tiring work. That’s right, I used the ‘w’ word. Work? Isn’t this supposed to be fun, a release and relief from the daily grind where we can freely express ourselves in a manner we are reluctant to do in the real world?

This battle rages every day in my head. When I lived on Twitter and Instagram I was obsessed with likes, retweets and followers. I wasn’t one of the beautiful people who were guaranteed 2000 likes simply for posting a selfie of themselves pouting at the camera before a night on the tiles. I didn’t have the looks but I did possess a certain sarcastic wit and, dare I say it, charm that ensured people read my offerings. It worked and the followers er….followed.

When I dipped my toe into the WordPress waters last year I adopted a different philosophy. Fionnuala and I spoke long and hard about the purpose of the blog and agreed it was created in order to be a beacon of hope to others floundering with their faith and a raft of other problems that assail our daily lives and buzz around our skulls like irksome wasps, waiting to sting us in the eye if we dare question their presence. We wanted to offer hope where there was none and light the way ahead for weary walkers on the road less traveled.

That is still why I write. Yes it is pleasing and reassuring to have people post compliments about the blog. Yes it is encouraging to watch the follower base rise steadily day after day. But that is the icing on the cake, the cherry on top. The meat and potatoes is the central message I have alluded to above which I attempt to hammer home every time I write. There is hope amidst the brokenness. There is a way out of the mire. No pit is too deep and no problem too insurmountable. Believe and become the person you were created to be.

My message remains the same every morning. There are some brilliant bloggers out there. People who don’t realise how good they are. They inspire me on a daily basis to pick up my metaphorical pen and keep plugging away at our craft. Not all posts will hit the nail on the head or catch the mood of your readers. Some will sink without trace while others will bob back to the surface again and reassure you that maybe you aren’t the worst wordsmith since time immemorial.

Don’t give up. Keep persevering and writing. If you show up every day then the positives will eventually outweigh the negatives. If you want to become an overnight internet sensation or ‘Instafamous’ then stick to other social media platforms. WordPress won’t make you a millionaire overnight but it will immerse you in an environment with like minded individuals who care about their craft. Interact with them, get to know them. They are your peers, your audience, your critical but compassionate eye.

They are the reason I show up here every day. I practice my writing every day on the blog and then transfer what I have honed and developed into the world I am creating in my novel. The blog is my training ground. Every day I swing wildly with my eyes clenched shut and hope for the best. Most times I miss and strike out. But once in a while there is that sweetest of connections and I watch in awe as the ball sails out of the park.

I just hope the coach is watching on those occasions.

What makes a good blog?

What are your experiences of the highs and lows of blogging?

What bloggers do you want to encourage today?

What Do You Wish You Had Written About Today?

People often compliment me on my honest writing style. They ask me how do I do it as they could never be that open and upfront about their lives. They use words like ‘refreshing’ which I like as honesty is a refreshing attribute in today’s world. I’m not talking about liars here but, rather, people who don’t speak the truth as it might damage the persona they portray to the world. They would rather hide behind a facade than be that rarest of creatures…..their true selves.

I’ve already written at length about this epidemic of evasiveness in previous posts. It is insidious and permeates all aspects of life. We simply refuse to be honest as to who we are. We flinch from the truth as it’s ugliness scares us. But ugliness, much like beauty, is only skin deep. Cut away the scar tissue and expose the miracle within. The real you. With a voice begging be heard, with words and songs and images bursting to be released into this arid wasteland we inhabit.

I fled to WordPress a year ago to practice talking the truth. I had been suffocated by the real world, too ashamed to explore the many flaws and failings I had kept bottled up for way too long. A gangrenous genie that, when released, threatened to turn my fairytale ‘perfect’ life into a living nightmare. Yet, it had to breathe, it had to be. I had no church or friends to turn to so, encouraged by Fionnuala, I turned to blogging. It saved my life as I knew it then.

It was a revelation, a revolution within my soul which had the old Stephen reaching for the white flag while simultaneously throwing the towel into the ring. I write prodigiously and truthfully. I wielded words and practice every day until they surged from my keyboard at will. I needed to write. I had so much to say and the clock keeps ticking. I constantly feel as if I am running out of time. Words can be weapons of mass destruction. They are more valuable than precious stones, than the very air we breathe.

Words are life. They strip away the veneer, the plastic and the false. They are white hot, they cleanse and purge like no other potion or pill known to man. Then why do we shy away from them? Increasingly on WordPress I see fellow bloggers testify that they are unable to write about what they want to. Some are worried about what others might think, some believe they are not eloquent enough to accurately express themselves, others say it would be too painful a process.

More painful than keeping the words unspoken or unwritten? Meandering along a river of regret until they become stuck in the shallows never to be emerge again. So we fall into the same old trap. We say what we think others want to hear, we dilute our diction and side step the stories that are our legacy and our right to tell. They fester and ferment within us, dripping poison into our veins and clogging our arteries, blocking the hopes and dreams that will never see the light of day.

What have you written about today? What are you thinking of writing today? Reflect upon it. Is it really what you want to say, what you need to say? Or is there something else, curled in a ball, buried deep within, that craves to be unfurled like a battlefield banner. A banner which announces to your enemies and antagonists that enough is enough and you are making a stand. Look up and read the words on that banner as it flaps and flutters in the breeze.

Commit those words to memory. For that is your anthem and they are your story. Share them and feel that cloak of secrecy and shame slip from your shoulders. They are words forged in the depths of your being, unspeakably strong. They cannot be broken for they were written with the ink of your blood and your tears. They are your rebirth from the banality and boredom of what you once were. You are whole again. Now tell your story and live to tell many more.

Do you want to write about certain subjects and experiences but hold back? Why?

Is your writing as honest as you would like it to be?

What has this post inspired you to write about?

The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Part One – Skelly’s Square (An Update)

The second edit is complete, weighing in at a whopping 113K words. Since then I’ve done very little on it partly due to other commitments and partly because, well, the writing well was fairly empty. I had a very productive 3-4 weeks where I rattled through the draft tweaking and amending it to my hearts content. Then when I got to the end I just needed to put it away and mull over what the next phase was going to be.

That phase started last night when I began a more detailed plot synopsis. I’m hoping that it will allow me to get a better overview of the book as a whole and identify the no doubt many inconsistencies and gaps that require urgent attention. I’ve already decided to drop my original introduction and completely rewrite it from an entirely different perspective. I’m hoping that this will land a more impactive punch and lure the reader into the bizarre life and world of Kirkwood Scott.

It was a big deal for me disclosing the book’s title the other week. I was humbled by the interest fellow bloggers showed in it and the constructive feedback I received. This was a nerve wracking but necessary process. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and don’t have the thickest of skins so realise I need to toughen up in this regard. When the plot synopsis is complete I hope to dive straight into the third chapter which will be largely a matter of connecting all the various dots I have created to date.

After that I will be letting go of my precious project and releasing it to a carefully selected band of beta readers and critique partners. The latter group will be 2-3 fellow writers. I hope we will be able to grow and learn from each other during this important phase. I’m also leaning towards the self publishing route but again it’s very early days. The blog will remain my bread and butter and I’m hoping that from within it will come my core readership base.

So what do you need to do now? Well, nothing really. Just keep being you. Thank you as ever for your endless support and patience. I drone on about this book every week but not one of you yet has told me to shut up. For that I will always be grateful. This blog has grown beyond our wildest dreams and has restored my faith in humanity and the entire online experience. Kirkwood Scott would never have been born if it hadn’t been for you lot.

Would You Write A Letter To A Fellow Blogger?

Yesterday I posted about emojis and the death of the written word. It generated quite a dialogue and one of the themes that emerged was how much people miss receiving, and sending, letters. You know, in the post. Stamps? Envelopes? Am I ringing any bells here people? It brought back to me the excitement and anticipation of receiving mail from penpals. There is something in the care and attention of writing and posting a letter that cannot be replicated into today’s ‘junk food’ society of e-mail, text and social media messaging.

So today’s post is a challenge to you all. Whether or not you choose my metaphorical gauntlet throwing is entirely up to you. It’s a challenge to write a letter and post it to a fellow blogger. Or bloggers if you are feeling particularly inspired. It can be anything. A few lines or your life story. It can include art, poetry, photographs, whatever rocks your boat. The central message here is reaching out across the online abyss and physically connecting with a fellow human being.

There are a few rules. The letter has to be handwritten. No typing you lazy, lazy people. The other person has to have agreed to co-operate. Although, otherwise how would you have obtained their address. Duh Stephen! And although I hate to even have to say this but I’m afraid I must – please refrain from any abusive and offensive material. That would make me cross. And nobody wants to see that.

If you are up for the challenge then simply comment below, telling us who you are hoping to write to and why. Feel free to share this blog and let’s spread this message throughout the blogging community. Or maybe you want to blog yourself about your letter writing process? Include photos of your lavishly decorated envelopes, journey to the mail box or exquisite handwriting. Let’s get writing

Are you willing to accept the letter writing challenge?

Who would you like to write to and why?

What are you going to include in your letter?

Feel free to reblog if you think this is a good idea.

Thank You

This is not intended as a self indulgent or ‘look at me’ post. But we reached 6000 followers yesterday on the blog and wanted to say thank you to everyone who has contributed towards us reaching this milestone. Fionnuala and I are very grateful for the continued support, encouragement and love that you send our way on a daily basis. We just hope that we make half of the impact upon you all as you continue to do upon our lives. Thank you.

Ghosts From The Past

When I was aged around 12 I developed a facial twitch. The severity and frequency of this twitch would depend upon my anxiety levels at any given moment. I was a painfully shy and insecure young boy so it will come as no surprise that I was bullied at school about this by my peers. It was not the most intense or vindictive bullying I have ever witnessed but it had a massive impact upon me which I still carry to this day.

All I wanted at school was to be accepted and to fit in. My twitch, combined with my shy nature and chubby, unsportsmanlike physique, ensured that I did not. I was a geek, an outcast, not one of the ‘in crowd.’ I firmly believe that this is the reason I grew up with such a brittle, malleable personality. I have always been a people pleaser even if this has meant sacrificing my own beliefs and values in the process. I would always say yes even when every fibre in my body was screaming no.

This led to me getting into a lot of hot water in later life; hot water that almost scalded me alive until I was plucked from it at the eleventh hour. I kept bad company which led to bad behaviour. This has been a constant and recurring theme throughout my adult life. It is only now, many years and many wounds later, that I am learning to be more cautious when I approach new situations and people. I no longer dive in with both feet, wanting to be everyone’s new best friend.

I have to be constantly on my guard. The next disaster could be just around the corner. Fionnuala is a massive help in keeping my feet firmly rooted to the ground. She sees the warning signs long before I do and warns me accordingly. It is so easy to effortlessly slip back into old habits. The transition can be almost imperceptible, an osmosis that creeps up on you and before you know it – BANG – you are right back at the bottom of that slippery slope it took you so long to scale in the first place.

Here’s an example. Today I took my seat on the train for the daily commute into Belfast. Sitting opposite me was a middle aged lady. I paid little heed to her and started to read my book whereupon I noticed her head jerk ever so slightly. Then again a few seconds later. And again. I realised that the poor woman had a similar nervous tic to the one I had eventually grown out of all those years ago.

Within a few heartbeats I was transported back to my childhood self and gripped by an overwhelming urge to replicate the lady’s actions. It was as if my head was in a vice and the only solution to the compulsive thought was to succumb to it, to surrender to the urge. I was gripped in a panic and tempted to run out of the carriage, anything to escape the ghosts from my past.

I didn’t of course. I sat where I was, gritted my teeth and waited until the urge passed. And when it came to my stop I got off the train and carried on with my life. My exciting, vibrant, present life a million miles detached from those unhappy childhood memories. The incident left a lasting impression upon me and an itch that could only be scratched by writing about it. A lesson was learned on that train this morning.

I can never become too comfortable. I can never rest on my laurels and think that I’m invincible to my former flaws and weaknesses. All it takes is one slip, one stumble and I’ll be back to square one. I am still weak, still impressionable, still oh so easily influenced. If I can almost relapse following a brief encounter with a stranger on a train what hope would I have when confronted by larger, more vicious demons from years gone by.

I can never relax. I will never relax.

Do you still fear the ghosts from your past?

How do you fight them?

Unreality Television

A reality TV show called ‘Love Island’ has taken over U.K. television this summer. A dozen muscle bound hunks and bikini clad models are lumped together in a villa on a Mediterranean island where their every move is filmed for our viewing entertainment. Romance blossoms and hearts are broken. Everyone has perfect bodies, perfect tans and perfect teeth. There are villains, heroes and catfights galore.

Reality TV is a sure fire ratings winner. It’s relatively cheap to make and the viewing public can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s because the sight of the often intellectually challenged contestants make us feel a little bit better about ourselves; or maybe it’s just some lightweight escapism from our own dreary lives at the end of another gruelling day at the coalface. Either way, reality TV is here to stay.

The irony of it is that there is nothing remotely real about reality TV. The contestants are carefully chosen and moulded to play the roles that the producers want them to perform. Conversations are scripted and emotions exploited and exaggerated. The footage is carefully edited in order to ensure that every last drop of drama is squeezed from what is essentially a dozen bored twenty somethings lounging around a pool.

We lap it up all the same. Will Jack and Dani stay together despite the former’s ex girlfriend arriving at the villa with her sights set on winning him back? Will nice guy Alex ever get a girl after a string of doomed dates? And is man eater Meghan really the most horrible woman in Britain? Tune in after the break and all will be revealed. Or possibly not depending on what evil tricks the producers have up their sleeves for our hapless heroes.

We love reality TV for its sheer lack of reality. It is fantasy fluff. It is unreality TV. We mock the contestants but it begs the question – how real are we as we go about living our own lives? How genuine are we in our interactions with the people who matter in our lives? And how much of it is inane, meaningless small talk? Do we tell them we love them or is it all bottled up and glossed over because that’s ‘not our thing’?

I used to live my life in a bubble. I drifted along in a world of my own, refusing to deal with my own grief, addictive behaviour and deteriorating mental health. I refused to acknowledge the damage it was causing both myself and my family. Reality took a back seat to selfish, immature behaviour and an inability to face up to the responsibilities screaming at me to be dealt with. I chose to turn my back on reality and live a lie. It was car crash television.

Does any of this ring a bell? Does your life at present currently resemble an unreality TV show? Are you burying your head in the sand and burying your hopes and plans in the process? As in six foot under. Here’s a suggestion. Stop digging. Look up and take what life has to offer you on the chin. It might not be pretty but it’s your life and only you can turn it into a thing of beauty. You only have one chance.

Unreality television is harmless fun. Unreality living is not. It’s a killer. Living a superficial life might give the appearance that all is rosy in the garden but those roses have thorns that will pierce your skin and bleed you dry. Unreality living leads to dissatisfaction, dead ends and disaster. Be real and learn to feel. With those who matter and need the real you in their lives. Who deserve better than a gameshow contestant.

What are your views on reality TV?

Are you living a real or unreal life?

Adrift

Fionnuala and I went to the cinema last night. Without kids! We get to do this about once a decade. The movie was called ‘Adrift’ based on a true story of a couple whose dream of sailing across the Pacific turns to tragedy when their yacht is badly damaged in a storm leaving them thousands of mile from safety with insufficient food and water supplies. I won’t say anymore in case some of you are planning on going to see it yourselves.

There were only 14 people in the cinema (yes I counted them. I do have OCD you know) so we were able to sit back and relax without any distractions. I don’t like people sitting beside me in cinemas. Elbows touching, poor eating habits, annoying laughs and plot giveaways. The list is endless. Thankfully this lot were well behaved so I didn’t have to adopt my school headmaster routine.

Fionnuala frowns upon me smuggling food and drinks into movies. The shame of being caught doing so and forever exposed as ‘tight’ I’m afraid would be too much for her to bear. So we treated ourselves to drinks and snacks in the foyer beforehand which ended up costing more than the movie tickets themselves. But at least there was no having to wait until a noisy part of the film in order to slyly open contraband tins of Diet Coke.

Before any 90 minute movie nowadays one must sit through 100 minutes of adverts and trailers. The trailers elicited the standard ‘Ooooooh that looks good’ comments from both of us. But then trailers invariably look good as they are all the best bits of the movie cobbled together. If a movie has a dull trailer then you know it must be seriously bad. Trailers are designed to deceive and trick you into parting with your hard earned cash.

Imagine you had to make a trailer of your life so far. What would you include in it? What would you leave out? In order to impress someone and convince them that they needed to find out more about you and your life? A new boyfriend for example? Or an employer? Those neighbours or that church community? I imagine any highlights reel you chose would only feature scenes which portrayed you in the most favourable of lights.

I used to be like that on social media and towards the world in general. People only saw my best bits, the parts that I wanted them to see. I was desperate to be a box office hit so hid much of the truth of who I actually was from them. I was a facade, a fraud, a front. Lying was second nature to me. I became a slimy, selfish salesman desperate to impress and promote myself to the world while neglecting those who loved the real me. Warts and all.

The net result was that I, just like the movie we watched last night, ended up adrift. Buffeted by life’s storms and hopelessly off course. I was in danger of sinking without trace; a walking, talking shipwreck lying at the bottom of the ocean with all hands lost. I didn’t need any iceberg to breach my hull for I was more than capable of doing that myself. I was the architect of my own demise. Standing at the helm as I silently slipped beneath the unforgiving waves.

Thankfully I somehow survived. I cannot claim any personal credit. My wife and kids kept my head above water. It was they who hauled me out of the water and into the life raft. They reached out their hands and I clung on for all I was worth. If you are adrift today please pay heed. There are those who want to help. Who want to be allowed to save you and be a part of your life. For all good movies deserve an even better sequel.

What was the last movie you watched? Was it any good?

What are your pet hates at the movies?

Have you ever felt adrift?

Book Title Reveal – Part 3

I’ve been posting some photos of Belfast which feature as locations in the book I am presently writing. It’s the first in a planned trilogy with the working title of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Khronicles’ although quite a few of you have suggested I drop the ‘K’ and go with ‘Chronicles’. It’s all great feedback which I’m very grateful for. Keep it coming! I won’t be offended by any of your suggestions.

Today’s location is The Monaco Bar, located in the city centre, just off High Street. I spent a lot of my late twenties and early thirties in this bar. Fionnuala and I had one of our first dates here. Wasn’t she a lucky girl? Winecellar Entry leads to an enclosed square bordered by The Monaco, and another bar, White’s Tavern, which claims to be the oldest pub in Belfast. I always preferred The Monaco though as the beer was cheaper and they screened the horse racing.

Separating the two bars is a bookmakers where I frittered away many an afternoon. And many a pay cheque. Thankfully my drinking and gambling days are behind me but several chapters of the book are based in a bar and bookmakers which are hybrids of several I used to frequent ‘back in the day’. Kirkwood Scott is a cooler, wittier, smarter, braver version of 25 year old Stephen Black.

I have several questions for you today as I’m fed up with having to do all the work on this blog. I’d be grateful for any advice you can provide. So here goes….

Khronicles or Chronicles? The debate rages on. Which do you prefer?

Should a trilogy be divided into parts, books,volumes? Something else?

‘Part One’ has a working sub title of ‘The Square’ or ‘Skelly’s Square’. Skelly is one of the bad guys in the story. Which do you prefer?

Book Title Reveal – Part 2

Earlier today I shared the title of the book I have been working on since last August. I’ve almost completed the second draft of it. It’s weighing in at a whopping 120K words at present. I also said I would share some of the Belfast locations which have inspired me and which feature in the story. This post focuses on the Grand Opera House on Great Victoria Street. It’s quite an impressive building isn’t it?

I walk past it every morning on my way from the train station to my office and the covered entrance to it often provides shelter for homeless people who are normally emerging from their sleeping bags as I pass. I’ve come to befriend a few of them this last year and we are now on first name terms. I have been amazed by their dignity, humility and politeness on every occasion I talk to them.

These conversations gave me the idea of a troubled office worker who meets and befriends a young, homeless woman. One of their first tentative, nervous conversations takes place outside the Opera House and that meeting throws them together in an unlikely alliance against a series of natural and supernatural foes who most definitely do not have their best interests at heart.

I’ll post the next location later this evening. Until then thanks for your continued support for The Kirkwood Scott Khronicles.

Book Title Reveal – Part 1

Good Morning. It’s the hottest day of the year so far in Northern Ireland with temperatures pushing 30 degrees celsius. How our pasty bodies are going to cope I have no idea but I thought I’d make the most of the beautiful weather to showcase some of the city scenes that have inspired me for the novel I’m writing at present. It’s an urban fantasy largely set in Belfast that I’ve been working on since last August.

I’ve decided that I can’t keep calling it the ‘novel’ or the ‘book’ any longer. It’s starting to drive me insane so goodness only knows what it is doing to you all. So…..drumroll please….I can exclusively reveal that the books (for I hope the story will cover several) will run under the banner of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Khronicles’. Gasp. I know. Stay tuned to the blog for further details as the day progresses and the opportunity to be a beta reader (guinea pig).

To kick off I thought I’d share some street art that I discovered in an alleyway off the city centre some months ago. This art gave me the idea for one of the book’s central characters and this particular piece of art and the alley where I found it are the backdrop for two of the pivotal chapters in the book. She has a name of course but I’ll keep that under wraps for now. Or maybe you can come up with a better one for her? I’m open to suggestion.

What would you name ‘graffiti girl’?

What do you think of the Kirkwood Scott Khronicles’ as a book title?

All constructive feedback welcome?

Lunchtime In Belfast

So it’s Monday lunchtime and I’m sitting outside the office in the square basking in the warm sunshine. They are predicting a heatwave this week and word has it that Thursday could be the hottest day on record in Northern Ireland. Like ever! All around me office workers are sitting eating their lunches while tourists amble in and out of the imposing St. Anne’s Cathedral just across the street.

I’ve spent the morning within the arctic confines of our open plan office researching the role of the British Army when first deployed in 1969 at the start of the Northern Ireland troubles. It was a brutal period marked by senseless sectarian murders, street riots, explosions and hijackings. It was a time of confusion and carnage. Belfast was the Beirut of Western Europe. The British Government referred to it as an internal security situation.

Who were they trying to kid, it was a war. I grew up in that world although I lived in a relatively quiet rural area and my parents did everything in their power to shelter me from the reality of what was going on in Belfast and other hot spots. Even then I was tainted by the hatred and violence that flooded into our living room every night on the television news. It was everywhere, you could not escape it.

I’m so glad our country is at peace now. Our children will not grow up in that environment. Belfast is a modern, cosmopolitan city now with a thriving tourist industry. Security barriers and bombed out buildings have been replaced by trendy bars and restaurants. You can freely stroll around the city without fear of being caught in the crossfire of a terrorist attack. Another innocent victim. Collateral damage. Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.

Belfast is a better place. I sit back and stare upwards at the clear blue skies. When I look back down three rough sleepers pass me by. One of them has no legs and is propelling himself along on a wooden skateboard that looks like it was built in the 1950’s. The last time I saw a disabled person use such a mode of transport was when I visited Eastern Africa several years ago. I had never seen such poverty and thought I never would again.

Yet here it is in 2018 on my own doorstep. I look away in dismay to see half a dozen young people at the other side of the square clearly involved in a drug deal. In broad daylight as the tour coaches pull up outside the cathedral and the camera toting hordes disembark. All in the square outside my comfortable office. All in front of my comfortable life. The same square where two teenage girls brawled viciously the other week, fuelled by copious amounts of cheap cider.

The same square where a young man was viciously raped on his way home from a nearby club. Beneath the shiny veneer this city still stinks. You only have to dig a little and it’s there, the nasty underbelly. How civilised are we really? When we can live in a world that is still overflowing with greed and violence; with poverty and despair. It would be unimaginable if it were not for the fact that it is happening right in front of us.

I want to contribute, I want to make a difference, I want to make this wretched world a better place. I see progress and I see potential. But some days you set eyes on sights that bring all your dreams and plans crashing to the ground. Some days you just want to turn your back on it all as you can’t stomach it anymore. Today was one of those days. And all it took was a lunch break in the dazzling sunshine.

The Secret Of My Excess

When it comes to weaknesses, ice cream has to feature fairly high on my list. My favourite is Maude’s Pooh Bear honeycomb flavour. Plonk a large bowl of that good stuff down in front of me and I’m one happy camper. I could eat it until the cows come home and probably keep going until they have to head out to the fields the next morning again. Brain freeze frightens me not. It requires a brain to freeze for a start.

The down side about downing industrial vats of icy heaven is it’s high calorific content. I reckon if I didn’t exercise the local Fire Service would be required at some point to winch me from the sofa and out of the house through a Stephen sized hole. I’m not greedy but I do have a big appetite. My addictive nature doesn’t help either. Me and the word ‘moderation’ are not on first name terms. I am creature of excess.

I was watching Man v Food tonight where the presenter tried, and heroically failed, to eat a restaurant’s signature ice cream dish which was roughly the size of a small barn. I remarked to Fionnuala that I would have given the challenge a serious rattle. That’s how much I love ice cream. Ploughing through buckets of the stuff would be my idea of bliss. Even if it meant me ending up in the emergency room having my stomach pumped.

Thank goodness I discovered running then. I am pretty much in permanent marathon training this year which means my ice cream fetish can be fuelled with only minimal pangs of guilt. I consume a lot of calories but I also burn off a lot of them. On average a marathon will burn off 3500 of those bad boys. And, believe me, that’s a lot of honeycomb ice cream. Which is a great comforter for aching limbs and blistered feet.

I’ve been known to think of nothing else but ice cream from the 20 mile point onwards in a marathon. It makes the pain worthwhile. The old Stephen would have wanted nothing but an ice cold pint of beer at the finish line. The new me heads straight to the freezer in search of frozen dairy products. The endless miles lead to endless smiles at that point. It’s a temptation that I’m happy to succumb to. It’s harmless and I’ve worked hard for it.

The running and the ice cream balance each other out. The key word in that last sentence is balance. For many years I had no concept of the word. I lived a selfish life where all the cards had to be stacked in my favour. I gorged myself on alcohol, junk food and social media. There were no restraints, no curbs, no brakes applied. It was all or nothing. I wanted it all and pushed and pushed until I was left with nothing.

All of us have weaknesses. We are all flawed, imperfect creations. Some of us have Achilles heels whereas for others this vulnerability occupies their entire body. When it comes to addictive behaviour it is vital that we have checks and balances in place to control our baser instincts. We cannot afford to allow our runaway trains to hurtle uncontrollably down the mountain side. It will only end in carnage.

So I’ll continue my love affair with honeycomb ice cream. But I’ll also keep pounding the roads in order to offset the extra calories. We all deserve a treat or two but it’s important we temper our permitted excesses with discipline, transparency and accountability. Failure to do so can only lead to tears and recrimination. Excess kills success. Control your cravings. Before they control you.

What is your Achilles Heel?

Do you struggle with excess and temptation?

Why I Gave National Selfie Day A Miss

Some of you may have been wondering why I haven’t been posting about my running exploits of late. Although many of you are undoubtedly not. I’m not injured or anything and have been plodding along the highways and byways around our village as ever. My Garmin has been playing up, however, which means I haven’t been able to sync runs to the corresponding app.

A screenshot of the app is how I evidence the run. As I can’t do this at present then I’m loathe to write about runs that I can’t prove I ran. I could be making the whole thing up. Us runners have an unwritten rule – if it’s not on Garmin/Strava/Forerunner then it didn’t happen. Call me weird but that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t been blogging about my running. It’s not the only one though.

I also reckon it’s not the most exciting subject matter unless you’re a fellow runner. I’m ever conscious of the fine line between informing you all about my life and bragging about it. I desperately don’t want anyone thinking the latter so am always very careful when I write updates on the book I am writing or upcoming races. I used to be that big head on Twitter/Instagram. It’s a role I don’t want to reprise.

I wrote a blog yesterday about the book that received a fairly lukewarm response. I’m fine about that but it was a timely reminder that everyone’s life does not revolve around me and my running and writing. I took a day off yesterday from the book as I had other priorities to attend to. The break will have done me no harm as my obsessive nature is never far away.

I noticed during the week that it was National Selfie Day. I cringed when I read that as it brought back some horrible memories of my previous incarnations on the aforementioned social media platforms. I now tend to avoid cameras where I can. I don’t do any social media bar WordPress and fret about future marketing of the book if it ever sees the light of day. Thankfully I think I saw two selfies the entire day on WordPress from a couple of serial offenders who seem to do little else.

I think that says a lot about the calibre of the bloggers on WordPress. I hope I never go back to being that vain, self centred person. Thankfully I have a very sensible wife who helps keep me on the straight and narrow. And three fantastic kids who regularly bring me down to earth and remind me that I’m an embarrassing, middle aged man who cannot dance, rap or do anything remotely cool.

I’ll keep blogging but there will be periods when I won’t talk about the projects I am working on. Now you know the reasons why. I want this blog to inspire, encourage and motivate others. In order to do that I attempt to set a positive example. This blog is not about me, it is about others. I cannot and will not go back to the way things were. I’m better than that and you all deserve better than that. That is all.

What are your thoughts on the selfie culture?

What have your experiences been like on other social media platforms?

120,000 Words Of Stephen

Writing a book is a great leveller. Take this for example. Buried beneath the tonnes of insecurities and doubts that accompany setting out on such a venture I have always clung desperately to one tiny crumb of comfort – that I was an above average wordsmith and could express my thoughts and emotions eloquently in a manner that would entertain and enthral you – the people who read my daily ramblings with such patience and understanding.

Wrong.

Turns out that I’m not the next William Shakespeare after all. Although his endless toilet jokes and use of the phrase ‘Hey nonny nonny’ are not what I aspire to anyway. You see writing is hard work. Sometimes the words flow effortlessly and it’s as if my fingers are alive with passion and creativity as I merrily transmit the ideas and themes from my brain onto the screen of my laptop. Other times I stare at the screen with all the enthusiasm of a constipated caveman.

There are days I write garbage. There are days I write nonsense. There are days I write nothing at all so devoid am I of energy and inspiration. I write lazily, I write without structure or focus. I ramble, I prevaricate, I repeat myself over and over. I use the same infuriating words and despite repeatedly banging my head off the the wall saying I will not. Lazy, pointless words. Like ‘really’ and ‘though’ and ‘however’. Especially the last one. It has become the bane of my editing life.

However….

I still cling to the flickering hope that one day this shambolic story will see the light of day. That hope is fuelled by this blog. Every day you lot loyally read my rants and post encouraging comments which never fail to bolster my flagging confidence. You push me forward on the days when all I want to do is throw the laptop in the river and pretend that I had never started the whole sorry process. You are my cheerleaders.

Without the short skirts, inane grins and pom poms you will be glad to hear.

My fear is this though. Gah! There I go again. Focus, Stephen. Focus! My average blog post is 500 words a day. I deliberately restrict myself to that as there is nothing more disheartening than beginning an interesting post only to discover that it is in fact ‘War and Peace’ for the twenty first century. I tend to drift off and rarely finish them. So I keep them short, snappy, succinct. Quality over quantity. That’s the plan anyway.

500 words. Anyone can endure 500 words of Stephen right? Plus it’s mostly life affirming content aimed at motivating and comforting people going through tough times. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Everyone’s a winner. And they all lived happily ever after. Etc Etc. But what about 120,000 words of Stephen as opposed to 500? 120,000 words of urban fantasy set on the reasonably mean streets of Belfast? How far can I test the resilience of you good, good people?

It’s the joy of the fledgling writer who aspires to be an author. Who will read this drivel? Did Lewis, Tolkien and King feel like this? Please: no J.K. Rowling anecdotes at this point. I’m not a Potter fan. A number of you have already kindly offered to be test readers for some chapters I will be releasing throughout the summer. I may never hear from them again. And if I do will their ‘constructive’ feedback send me screaming from the halls of WordPress never to darken it’s doors again?

At the end of the day there’s only one way to find out. Like the first time I stood on the start line of a marathon with knocking knees and churning stomach. 3 hours and 56 minutes later it was done. I was a marathon runner. This process is taking ever so slightly longer than that. It’s a marathon of marathons. But I’m getting there. One anxious step at a time. And I’ll always be grateful for the support and kindness you guys provided along the way.

Can you handle 120,000 words of Stephen?

Rowling v Tolkien? You decide.

Isn’t It Time You Moved On?

I wasn’t really in the mood to work on the book last night. It had been a long day and I was tired. I forced myself, however, to open my laptop and start editing. The chapter in question was one of the first I had written, some six months ago. I knew it would need a bit of renovation as I feel my writing has improved since I started this journey. The early chapters, I find, require more scrutiny with regards continuity, structure and plot development.

As I read it my heart sank. The words just didn’t flow. The plot was full of holes and as for the quality of the writing? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t one of my finest literary sessions. I began to despair as I read over one particularly clunky segment. How on earth was I going to turn this pigs ear into a silk purse? Surgical intervention was urgently required in order prevent my literary aspirations from flatlining beyond resuscitation.

Then it hit me. Or rather I hit it. The delete button that was. Rather than spend hours attempting to save the poorly paragraph I just pulled the plug. I removed it in its entirety and started writing afresh, but this time from the stronger position that six months additional writing afforded me. This meant I had a much clearer idea of who my characters were and where the story was going. The result was a much improved passage which I knew fitted into the overall story arc.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that in real life? Hit the delete button on the less glorious parts of our lives? The seasons we would rather forget about, which leave us squirming with embarrassment? The cruel words spoken that we cannot take back. The selfish actions that we cannot undo. The memories that we would much rather see discarded on the cutting room floor as opposed to playing on an endless loop inside our heads.

Unfortunately we can’t. Or even if we could, should we? Those bloopers and own goals might not make our personal highlights reel but they have contributed towards who we are today. I have realised that becoming a good writer involves a lot of bad writing. Believe me I know for I’ve churned out some shocking stuff that will never see the light of day. But I’ve learnt from it and improved as a result. Any worthwhile process requires a little pain.

We can’t rewrite our pasts but we also shouldn’t beat ourselves up over them. Stuff happened. Stuff that we need to deal with and move on from. If we are continually looking over our shoulders at what is behind us we are more likely to stumble and fall over what lies ahead. Learn from your past, yes, but use the negative as a positive, and then let those sleeping dogs lie. Some bridges are meant to be burnt. Applying a scorched earth policy to the past has its merits.

I seriously need to practice what I preach with regards this topic for I am a master of wallowing in self pity, navel gazing and doom mongering. So this post is written for myself as much as for anyone else. The ghosts of the past will haunt your present and poison your future if you allow them to. It’s time to pack away those toxic toys for you were born for better than that. You were born to live and to thrive. That time is today so cast those chains aside and choose to do so.

Freedom comes at a price. You have paid it. Cut the cord and unshackle those chains. How can you remain a prisoner to your past when you hold the key to the cell door in your hand. You are your own self imposed jailer. Isn’t it about time you handed in your resignation letter and chose a new career path? One more fitting of your many talents. It’s your time. It’s time to move on. All you have to do is take that first step.

Do you dwell too much on your past?

How do you propose to move on?

What Are You Afraid To Blog About Today?

Whenever I scan my WordPress timeline I see a lot of courage. I see broken people talking honestly about their experiences. I see them being open about their flaws and weaknesses. I see a community supporting and encouraging one another through the healing process, one faltering step at at time. I see second, third and forty fifth chances being grasped and held onto for dear life. I see hope, grace and love.

I don’t see much egotism or honesty. There are very few shameless selfies and desperate appeals for likes or followers. I see no trolls or online bullies other than fellow bloggers sharing their past experiences of them. I see no drama but I see trauma. The trauma of life which has caused us to flee to this platform, pulling down the drawbridge behind us. We are besieged but we are together. We are strong.

It is unique and humbling to realise that through mutual brokenness we can unite, heal and rise stronger than ever before. These are the themes I am weaving throughout the book I am working on where a group of outcasts are drawn together to save a world that has turned its back on them. On their own they are nothing but united they become an entirely different proposition.

If you are staring at a blank screen today, wondering what to write about I want to encourage you to start typing. Write from the heart. Speak the truth, loud and clear. Exorcise the demons of shame and pain which are holding you back from who you were created to be. We want to hear your story and celebrate your achievements. In order to do that though you must overcome the fears that continue to drag you down.

Fear is a weed, a toxin, an alien lifeform that poisons our thoughts and actions. It restricts and it contorts. It is a master of disguise and it thrives upon its lies. Whispering them in your ear and your dreams day after day, night after night. It is an occupying force, an aggressor which will consume and subsume you to its treacherous will. It fights dirty. It will kick and scratch and bite. It knows no limits nor depths.

Fear cannot kill you but it can stop you from living. It can stifle and stymie potential and ambition, preventing you from becoming the person you were created to be. But do you want to know a secret? Fear has a weakness, an Achilles heel, that when exposed and exploited will bring it crashing to its knees. That weakness is YOU. Which is why it hates you so much and devotes so much energy towards destroying you.

You can conquer fear, overcome it and send it scurrying back to where it first crawled from. Fear is a bully. It hates to be confronted and exposed for the despicable coward it truly is. Stop running from it. Turn and face it. Raise your sword and strike it down dead in its tracks. Your sword is your story, your weapon the words within you that fear so wants you not to write. Your salvation is staring you in the face every time you stare in the mirror.

You are the superhero you’ve been waiting for all this time. We are a tribe that fear cannot breach. Today I encourage you to embrace the freedom that is fearlessness. Throw off the shackles and stride out of your cell. Live your life and not a life sentence. Expose your fears for what they are. Write about them. For you are not alone anymore. Fear can be conquered. The resistance starts today.

What are you afraid to write about?

Are you brave enough to write about your fears today?

On The Cusp

For years I was a closed book, lying on a shelf gathering dust and regret. My pages were tinged with poison; dare to leaf through them and you would have been contaminated with my anger and grief. So I hid my pain, burying it deep down a well wherein I dwelled. For I was unwell, enduring a daily hell where I was suckled by demons dispatched from my past to distort my present. I was off kilter, adrift, unhinged.

The hinges are back are the door now. I was healed by a man from ancient times who worked with wood. He would have known a bit about making doors. Wood was his life and his Word became my life. A wooden construction killed him in the end. Yet wood could not destroy him just as Roman steel and Palestinian rock could not contain him. He walked free just as I also would from intrusive thinking and addictive behaviour. I am free to be be.

I am an open book now. I pour myself out onto the pages of this blog. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I see, I believe, I breathe. By helping myself I seek to help others who are stumbling along similar paths. I am purged from the urge to hit the self destruct button as I did in days gone by. Days of shame and sin, self loathing and pain: where I lashed out at those who loved me most and deserved it least.

I have been saved from an early grave. Therefore why do I still doubt? I sought and found the truth, the door is unlocked and open. Yet why do I hesitate from walking through it, why do I find myself turning my back on it and walking away? Have people damaged me that much? That I have succumbed to the humdrum numbness of hypocrisy and indifference. The inane laughter and empty words of so called pillars of society.

Why do I care that they do not care? I stand on the edge of the forest now. I can see the wood for the trees. I see them for what they are and for what they were turning me into. I walked away from them but I do not want to walk away from Him. I lurched from church to church but He was waiting patiently beside me all along. I only need take that step. Not towards their doors but through His door. Silently and without fanfare. For this is a private performance on my part.

Thoughts become words and words become actions. Actions write my story. Just as I lift my foot to take that step He lifts a pen to write my story. It is not one of glory for it has been gory, a story of fear and failure. Yet still I stand poised to take that step. Not through the doors of a church for I desire not the false smiles and fake bon homie of people I barely know. People who have no desire to know me beyond ninety minutes on a Sunday. Routine. Rota. Religion. Ruin.

They are Christians. He was not. They are not the way. He was and is. I do not need them yet I need Him. And all the more incredible, he still desires to know me. Broken, discarded me. When everyone else walked away and shut their doors he flung his wide open and welcomed me inside. I stand on the other side. Hesitant, suspicious. When I walk now I do so with a limp. I leave in my wake a trail of tears. My wisdom has been won at a price.

I am an open book and this is today’s page. I sweat these words out of me like a runner sweats as he churns out the miles. It is a painful purity yet I know no other way. To run is to suffer as is to write. Yet I still do both. For I know no other way anymore nor do I wish to. This is the path I have chosen today. Will I choose it tomorrow? I do not know. For all I know is here and now. Staring at a page. Standing at a door. On the cusp.

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 7)

Yes it’s your favourite time of the week when I update you on how the novel//project/bane of my life (depending upon my mood at any given moment) is coming along. Well, this week has seen significant progress and the word count on the second draft currently sits at just over 78K. I was off work quite a bit last week so had a couple of days when I could get well and truly stuck into edits and rewrites.

It’s becoming more and more noticeable to me how my story telling skills have improved as the writing process has continued. The early chapters read like short stories in isolation while there is much more of a flow and continuity to the second half of the story. I’m also pretty pleased as to how a couple of big set piece action scenes have panned out. Much better than I had originally thought.

I’m starting to warm to this editing lark as a) the first draft was not quite as horrific as I had anticipated b) it is helping me to spot gaps in the plot and character development and c) by chipping away at each line, paragraph and page I know I am edging towards an end product that I can be proud of. It’s slow, tedious work but I know it will be worthwhile in the end.

Equally slow and tedious has been the background historical research I have been carrying out relevant to the back story of several characters. At times I have been tempted to bin the research and just ‘wing’ the scene I have been working on it for. But when I sat down to write it earlier today the benefits of the donkey work was apparent. The scene really flowed and I was confident that, whilst fictional, the historical backdrop was accurate.

The life of an unpublished writer is a lonely and deeply paranoid one. I’m still highly reluctant to share my work with anyone and I rarely discuss it in the ‘real world’ due to the largely indifferent response I have got from most people I have mentioned it to; I have made a few tentative advances to potential test readers but then instantly regretted it and pretend the conversation never took place.

I have also been avoiding other fiction like the plague as I invariably compare the work of published and established authors to my own offerings and feel wholly inadequate. I know that is silliness personified but this huge slice of uncertainty still lodges in my gullet. I’m not going to be the next Tolkien or King overnight so why beat myself up over it. Small steps, Stephen. Small steps.

And don’t get me started on agents, publishers and marketing or I will run screaming from this post and jump into the nearest river. It seems like writing the blasted book is the easy part compared to what follows afterwards. If I can compare this to a marathon I feel like I’ve barely run a mile and have an awfully long way to go yet. But like when I race, I just have to break down the process into bite sized chunks.

On a more positive note the blog continues to prosper and the feedback and support from you lot has been fantastic as ever. You are the base, the foundation, the cornerstone of this project. Without the blog it would be little more than a middle aged pipe dream. It edges closer every day and, improbable though it may seem, I’m determined to give this everything I’ve got in order to make it a reality. For that I can only thank you all.

Would you like to be a test reader for ‘the project’? Or assist in promoting/marketing it?

What are your views on publishing vs self publishing?

Have you any tips on securing a literary agent or publisher?

How Was Your Life Before WordPress?

I used to be a closed book. I would bottle emotions up inside me and share nothing with nobody. I prided myself on keeping a stiff upper lip. When I lost my father to prostate cancer I cried just the once, at his bedside during those last eerie moments before he slipped away from us. After that, nothing. I had a funeral to organise. A family to console. And alcohol to drink.

This routine continued for years. I lived in the shadows; secrets and half truths were my constant companions. I hid from the truth for it was a mirror that I did not wish to stare into, a reflection of the man I was becoming, the man I had become. And it was not a pretty sight. I did not like this person and did not want to confront the demons he was battling. So I did what all cowards do when confronted with the truth. I ran away.

A caged beast is an angry beast. Anger is unpredictable, it lashes out where it pleases. It is indiscriminate, there is no rhyme or reason to it. I was very angry. But I hid. I refused the help which was being offered to me and turned my back on those who loved and cared for me. I retreated into a world where I constructed false versions of myself, layers upon layers of deceit and negativity. Nobody knew me for I did not know myself anymore.

I lived online. Twitter, Instagram, whatever. Everything is rosy in those gardens. Roses have thorns though and these thorns drew blood. The wounds I inflicted on myself and others cut deep, leaving scars that remain to this day. Signposts to a past I never intend to return to. I devoured myself, a keyboard cannibal who cared more about likes and retweets than I did about my own flesh and blood. I was a living, breathing, walking crime scene. A detached witness to my own prolonged murder.

I wrote back then. 160 characters of meaningless nonsense at a time. Portraying a life I was not leading. Craving attention in order to fill the aching void within me while neglecting those who needed my love the most. The words meant nothing, there was no substance or passion underpinning them. They were empty words from an empty shell of a man. Distress flares from the sinking ship of my soul which was slipping beneath the black, unforgiving waves with all hands lost.

Then stuff happened. My deluded bubble burst and all around me life crashed in. A necessary pain which purged and cleansed me. I was both branded and scourged clean. The truth revealed itself with a clarity I had never experienced before. I was lucid and thinking straight whereas before I had been deluded and wandering in an impenetrable mental fog. I never thought I would write again online. I had nothing to say. Life had broken me and squeezed me dry of any creative juices I might have once had.

That was before WordPress. An online community when the selfie did not reign; where prose and poetry meant more than pouts and preening. Where damaged souls like myself congregated to heal and lick their wounds; some self inflicted but not all. I write on here most days now. It is my release, my therapy. The words flow where before there was nothing but arid ash. I speak the truth now for myself and for others without a voice.

That’s where I am today. I am a writer. I blog. I’m writing a novel. All thanks to the gentle promptings of a loving wife who believed in me and believed in my talent. Who encouraged me to start this blog some thirteen months ago. Life before WordPress seems a distant memory now. How I managed without writing I’ll never know. But I know this much. It saved me then and it’s saving me now.

How was your life before WordPress?

What difference has blogging made in your life?

What Are You Going To Blog About Today?

It has come to my attention (well I do investigate for a living after all) that I follow a lot of fantastic bloggers. I try to keep up with as many of them as I can and, where possible, offer encouragement and support. I can’t do that with them all, though, as otherwise I would never be off WordPress but even if it means just liking a post, I do it. Just to let people know that I care and appreciate their written efforts. It’s the least I can do given the tremendous support we receive on a daily basis.

The flip side of that is that a lot of bloggers don’t blog or, if they do, it is very infrequently. You see it all the time. The ‘Sorry I haven’t blogged in ages but I’ve been soooooo busy/life got in the way/haven’t had anything to say’ type introductions. Delete as appropriate. Whenever I see those words at the start of a blog I tend to keep on scrolling. But no more. I want to address those bloggers today. So here goes. Ahem….

Firstly no need to apologise. If you don’t want to blog then that’s entirely up to you and the rest of us will muddle on regardless. But ask yourself this question – why did you go to all the bother of creating a blog in the first place for it to lie unattended gathering dust? Didn’t you want to communicate, express yourself, stretch your literary muscles and slobber those creative juices all over your keyboard. There must have been some reason that started the ball rolling before it ground to a shuddering halt.

Now people often ask me ‘Where do you find the time to blog given all your other interests and commitments?’ Initially this made me a little uncomfortable. Guilty even. Was I neglecting Fionnuala and the kids? But when I reassessed all this I came to the conclusion that Fionnuala and the kids were one of the main reasons I started blogging. It benefits my mental health and allows me to express a message of hope and redemption to all those who have been or are going through similar struggles.

Yes, I blog most days. It takes around 45 minutes to write, edit and post. Often I do it on my daily commute to and from work. So it’s hardly eating into ‘family time’ as some like to call it. If you are really serious about blogging then surely you can find the time to do so. Nobody’s life is that consistently busy. And if it is, what could you sacrifice in order to find the time? The benefits of regularly blogging far outweigh the time and effort required to do so.

The community vibe on WordPress is incomparable. You won’t find it on any other social media platform. Twitter is too poisonous, Instagram too artificial, Facebook too close to home. And don’t even get me started about Snapchat. People care, they listen, they reach out to others in times of need. No matter what your problem there is someone on here who can help. There is no more loving tribe.

Have nothing to say? I also struggle to get my head around that one. We are writers. We write. Life too busy to write? Then all the more reason to find a few moments to tell us all about it. Talk, listen and interact. Don’t just scroll aimlessly. Get involved. Say something. Anything! You won’t regret it. So rant over and I’ll leave you with a challenge. And don’t worry. It involves no cardio vascular activity whatsoever.

1. Post a blog today. Tell the world about your day, your thoughts and your dreams. And if anyone complains then blame me.

2. I don’t ask for much but I’m asking you to reblog this post if you agree with my message. Let’s spread the word and get people writing.

3. Post a comment. Let’s get a debate going. Why have you not been blogging? Do you want to write more? Speak to other bloggers? Make new friends? Well be brave. We are waiting for you.

4. Post a link to your blog. Your words have value. Share them. Who knows, they could make a massive difference in someone’s life today.

Take a chance. Blog today. What could possibly go wrong?

The Familiar

I woke before five this morning. It has been a long, hard week of on call duties so you would have thought the weekend would be a time to relax and unwind; to catch up on those lost hours of sleep. Not a bit of it. So here I am writing this post before I get up shortly to take Adam to rugby training. An hour to myself before the chaos of another full weekend cranks into gear and whisks us away.

I am wide awake yet so weary that I can barely keep my eyes open to type these words. It has been a warm night so the fan in our room provides a comforting aural background. It hums like the engine of an aeroplane. I can close my eyes and imagine that I am 40,000 feet in the air on my way to faraway lands on breath taking adventures. Yet when I open them I haven’t moved an inch and am surrounded by familiar sights.

The familiar is my foundation, my bedrock, my cornerstone. It anchors and steadies me. Without it I would be swept away on currents of naivety and insecurity. Some regard the familiar as frustrating and stifling but it is my lifeblood. My familiar keeps me rooted to the truth. This stability feeds my ability without which I would wither into a ball of self pity and apathy. The tree of life never moved so why should I?

This is the golden hour when my head is clear and the words flow effortlessly. The arrows I draw from my quiver fly straight and true, striking their targets with unfailing accuracy. Words are my weapons just like silence is my enemy. When I write I aim to shock and awe the darkness which previously mocked and gnawed at my self belief. When you allow the light to enter your life you can never truly be alone again.

The gentle humming of the fan offers a calmness that allows me to flex my creative joints. It is a benign noise unlike the killer bee swarms of intrusive thoughts and compulsive actions which used to reverberate around my mind morning, noon and night. The familiar is my ally. The thoughts remain but then so do I. Intact and secure. For now? For ever? I cannot say but the familiar is a strong, impenetrable door which keeps the creatures of the night at bay. They snarl and they prowl outside, sniffing and scratching. But they cannot enter.

I am tired but I am sober and alert. Five years plus since I jerked awake to cruel hangovers and crueller memories of the night before and the damage done. I awaken now and look forward with hope and anticipation as opposed to over my shoulder with fear and trepidation. The familiar is crisp and clear and comforting. It is my now and it allows me to reflect upon the wreckage of my past from a safe distance. Those demons have taught me well. I have the scars to prove it.

The familiar is life and there is nothing dull or boring about that. It is ripe with opportunity. It saddens me that it took years of stumbling around in the dark to reach where I am today. Have I left it too late? How I wish I had those wasted years back. But without that waste I would be unable to taste the dazzling potential that lies just out of reach. The familiar is my bridge to what would have been impossible back then. The familiar is a weaver of dreams.

The familiar allows me each day to sift through the gilt and shame of the past to uncover nuggets of wisdom and knowledge. My past was a battleground but I emerged from it victorious and intact. I had to endure the horrors of war in order to enjoy the peace of the familiar. It was my reward and I cling to it every day with pride and faith. It will carry me forward to where I need to be. I need the familiar like an addict needs the needle.

I will get up soon. This hour has been well spent. I hope you think so too and awaken in your own bed surrounded by those you love. They say the truth will set you free but you can only recognise the former and appreciate the latter if you have first been exposed to the lies and served time as their prisoner. The familiar is the key that will unlock your cell door. It is your golden ticket. It is your next breath. Seize it. Cherish it. Protect it. It is you.

How do you spend the first hour of your day?

Have you discovered the power of the familiar?

Where are you at today on your journey?

I’m A Christian Blogger But I’ve Stopped Writing Christian Blogs

When we started this blog in May 2017 the large majority of my posts were overtly Christian. They were quite popular and the blog grew quickly with a predominantly Christian following. A lot of those folk still support the blog and this post is primarily written for them. I feel I owe them an explanation for I’ve pretty much stopped posting Christian blogs. There are reasons for that which I hope will make sense to you.

I still see myself as a Christian. I haven’t set foot in a church, however, in over six months and it’s been quite a while since I picked up my Bible. To be honest, I’ve been quite angry with God for a number of reasons that I won’t bore you with here. My prayer life is somewhat hit and miss as well. So, for me, to keep up the pretence of running a Christian blog would be disingenuous and hypocritical on my part.

I could quite easily have maintained the charade. I know the Bible well and could have carried on knocking out daily studies and devotionals. But that would be wrong. Many people have commented on the honesty of my writing and I want to maintain that honesty. My relationship with you guys is very important to my continued recovery from a chequered online past. I want to be as transparent and accountable online as I am to my family in the ‘real world.’

I want to reassure you that I am not backsliding or slipping back into my own ways. I believe I retain higher standards and morals now than I did when I was within a church environment and ‘pretending’ to lead a perfect life. I also saw a lot within the church that made me question if it was the right place for myself and my family to be. Following Jesus is essentially about freedom, forgiveness and redemption. I believe that can be achieved without regular church attendance.

This post is not intended as an exercise in Christian bashing. I could rant and rave but that would be counter productive. Yes, a number of supposed Christians who I would have regarded as friends or acquaintances have disappointed and, on occasion, shocked me as to their behaviour since I made the decision to walk away from the church. But this post is not about them. They are my past and to dwell on such grievances is both draining and toxic.

I am alright. I am okay. In fact I’m better than ok. My marriage is strong and I am loved and supported by a wonderful woman. I truly believe we are raising our kids the best we can. We have taught them manners and the difference between right and wrong. I am excited as to their futures for I believe they are on the cusp of amazing lives. We are a happy family. A happy, functioning unit.

I have my running and writing. Fionnuala has her crafts business. We are content. My book is not a ‘Christian’ book although it does lean strongly on Christian themes of love, hope and redemption. I still believe in God but I don’t believe in a lot of the people who claim to speak in his name. I follow Jesus but I’m not so keen on many of his followers. There are many wolves out there in sheep’s clothing. I have felt their claws and teeth. Once bitten, twice shy.

I hope this post has not come across as negative. That was not my intention. I just wanted to explain my current thinking as I’ve become aware that a number of Christians who regularly commented on my posts no longer do so. I am sorry if my content is no longer to your liking and hope you find other bloggers who meet your needs. I’m not saying that I won’t revert to more overt Christian posts on an occasional or regular basis in the future. I am saying that it’s not for me at present.

I hope the above has made some sort of sense as it has largely been written off the cuff. If I want to fulfil my dream of blogging and writing for a living then this post had to be written. I’d rather take one honest step back than two not so honest steps forward. I hope also that my writing continues to encourage and entertain those of you who still drop by, be that on a regular or occasional basis. Thank you for your continued support.

Sometimes You’ve Just Go To Get Back On The Bike

After a nightmare run on Saturday where I had to walk after 3 miles it was with some trepidation that I started a 10 mile run this lunchtime with a work colleague. I made the decision not to run yesterday and was glad that I did as I’ve had a very busy weekend work wise. This morning was no different with my office line, work mobile and personal mobile ringing incessantly. It was challenging but a blessing in disguise as it took my mind off the forthcoming run.

Yesterday also allowed me to do some much needed work on the second draft of the book. Which is a marathon in itself. I also remembered to bring my Garmin along on this run as I went out without it on Saturday and think I may have messed up my pacing by setting out too quickly over the first two miles. I was determined to make the same mistake today. Preparation is half the battle.

We set off at a very steady pace. Like Saturday it was a warm, muggy day but the route was much flatter; through the city centre and onto the Lagan Embankment which eventually leads us past the Cutters Wharf Bar and onto the old towpath which leads to Lisburn. We turn at The Lock keepers Cafe and then head back into the city. The pace was steady and we were able to hold a conversation over the first 3 miles.

I kept expecting the jelly limbs to hit me but felt relatively comfortable and before I knew it we were at our turning point. After stopping for a quick glass of water we headed back. I have been troubled with blisters on both feet since the Belfast Marathon and experienced some discomfort in my left foot but it was minor and didn’t stop me from maintaining the pace. With each passing mile I grew more confident that there was to be no repeat performance of Saturday’s shambles.

I forged on over the last mile and finished the run soaked in sweat but satisfied, just under 3 minutes inside my 4 hour marathon pace. It may have been ‘just another training run’ but it felt special. I had overcome the doubts and worries of the previous 48 hours and proved to myself that Saturday was nothing more than a blip. Bad days come and bad days go. As do bad runs. I was back in the game.

Not the most earth shattering post today but a small landmark. If you feel you’ve messed up at something, no matter what, don’t hesitate to get back on the bike and try again. The longer you put it off the harder it is going to be in the long run. There is nothing to fear. Don’t let that molehill become a mountain. Make it happen and prove the doubters wrong. Now I’m off to soak my blisters.

Have you fallen off the bike in recent days?

Are you willing to jump back on it?

On Call 24/7/365

I go on on call this morning for the next seven days. On a meh scale of 1-10 this scores a 47.757 in my book but unfortunately it’s part of the job and, to be fair, I do get paid well for it. That doesn’t make it any less of a pain, however. Extra pressure, phone calls in the dead of night, tricky decisions to make and always the fear of making a mistake and falling foul of they who must be obeyed on the top floor.

I’ve been performing on call duties for almost 18 years now and like to think that I’ve always done so to a high standard. I am professional, efficient and effective. I make best use of the resources I have and manage in them in a way that ensures a quality end product. Basically I do the best I can with what I have. And what I don’t know I have the gumption to hold my hands up, admit it, and source an expert opinion from someone who does.

That won’t stop me counting the hours until next Friday morning though. Back in the not so good old days the end of an on call week would have been celebrated with copious amounts of alcohol after a week of work enforced abstinence. Nowadays I just breathe a sigh of relief and crack open a tin of Diet Coke. Being on call sucks. But it’s only one week in seven so I just have to grin and bear it.

As a husband and father I need to be permanently on call for my family. Fionnuala sets the gold standard where this is concerned. She always puts the kids and me before herself and has made many sacrifices for us. Without her our lives would be even more chaotic than they already are. She regularly drops everything for other people and never expects anything in return.

My default setting is a selfish one. I spent many years putting my own needs before those of others. It was all about Stephen and it inevitably ended badly for everyone concerned. I learnt some hard but important lessons. Today I try to be more like my wife. Little things. Like this morning I went to the shop and put diesel in the car as I knew Fionnuala was driving into Belfast later. I did this without being asked to do so. Every long journey begins with a small step.

I am trying to apply these small steps to all areas of my life. Putting others first. My family, my friends, work colleagues. Even total strangers I encounter on my daily commute to and from work. Some days I fare better than others but at least I recognise it is an area I need to address. Being consciously selfish is an improvement on being unconsciously selfish. I’m striving to improve and evolve into a better person.

This is a lifetime process. When it comes to selflessness you need to be on call 24/7/365. 366 if it’s a leap year. You won’t get paid for it; in fact some of the time you don’t even get a thank you. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I want to help other people – those I like and those I’m maybe not so keen on. It doesn’t really matter. Where I can help, I will. If that person accepts my offer, then great; if not, well not so great, but at least I tried.

The same applies to this blog. Fionnuala and I want to help YOU. We have been through a lot together and hope others can benefit from us sharing our experiences. The good, the bad and the downright ugly. This blog is 24/7/365 or as close as we can get to it. If you are struggling with one of the issues I write about then all you have to do is reach out and we are there for you. There won’t even be a charge.

Do you work on call? What’s it like for you?

On a meh scale of 1-10 how is your day going?

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 5)

I finished the first draft of the novel at the tail end of last week and have now started the laborious, but crucial, editing process. The first draft weighed in at a whopping 120K words and I’m presently around 18K words through the first edit. This has been useful in identifying plot gaps and clunky dialogue. I’m also working on greater detail regarding character development and scene setting. It’s a massive undertaking but I’m determined to see it through to its conclusion.

On top of all this I’m trying to conduct some background research which will prove necessary in order to add credibility to several of the characters. Also as I wander around Belfast city centre I am constantly seeing little details which I know will end up in the book. I’ve taken the plunge and booked a week off work later in the month where I will work exclusively on editing and rewriting.

I’ve allowed Fionnuala and Adam to read a chapter which was nerve wracking. Imagine what it will be like when I reluctantly hand over the full manuscript to a chosen few for constructive feedback, proof reading and general dismemberment. All this and I haven’t even broached the thorny subject of whether to go down the traditional publishing or increasingly self-publishing route. Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.

it’s slow but steady progress. Family and work commitments take priority and I’m not a night owl (I need my beauty sleep) so I work at the book where and when I can. I am fortunate to have a very patient and understanding wife. Hopefully one day it will all prove worthwhile and the finished product will see the light of day. I’ll continue to post regular updates throughout the summer. Thanks for your continued support.

Don’t Press That Button

There is a scene in The Simpsons where Homer finds himself facing a big red button with a large ‘Do Not Touch’ sign above it. You can see his tiny brain wrestling with temptation before he finally cracks and presses the button. Predictably enough, all hell breaks loose. DOH! Homer once again proves himself to be the bungling buffoon that we all love to laugh at. Because none of us would ever do anything so stupid, right?

Er….wrong. I can only speak for myself but I have lost count of the number of times I have faced the same button and succumbed. I know what I am doing is wrong and I know that it will all end in tears. Yet, I do it anyway. And guess what? All hell breaks loose. A decision that takes less than a second to make can lead to a lifetime of repercussions. The ripple effect of your actions can also spill over in the lives of countless others. People we love and care for.

So then why do we do it? What causes the Homer gene to kick in and allow logical, rational thought to fly out the window? When the chips are down why is our integrity and moral fibre nowhere to be seen? There is a saying – the grass is greener on the other side. We are never content with what we have, we always want more. And we are arrogant enough to believe that we can attain it without having to pay a price. A heavy price.

Take King David, a man after God’s own heart. That’s quite the title to live up to – one would imagine that he would be beyond reproach, as pure as the driven snow. He had everything; wealth, fame, more camels than you could shake a stick at. But it wasn’t enough. He became bored and lazy. Rather than leading his men in battle he preferred to lounge about his palace, partying the night away and then rising late the next day.

That’s when he saw Bathsheba. The rest, as they say, is history. His weakness and lack of control led to the death of his son. He paid the heaviest of prices. The Bible is riddled with such weak characters. Men who made bad decisions which ended up backfiring horribly. All because they weren’t satisfied with what they had. They always wanted more – more money, more women, more land. More, More, More. Well, sometimes less is more.

Fionnuala has a favourite saying – if the grass looks greener on the other side then you need to get watering your own side. They are wise words. Focus on what you have around you. You are on that side of the river for a reason. It is where you belong. Over reach and you will either drown in the crossing or realise when you get there that all is not what it seems. All that glitters is not gold. Paths of gold turn out to be the paths of the dead. From where there is no return.

We all have a self-destruct button, an Achilles heel, a chink in our armour. The trick is to be aware of it and put in place processes and people that allow you to overcome the urge to press the button when it is at its strongest. For urges pass. Temptation is not a permanent state of mind. And if you can tough it out you will emerge unscathed on the other side. Do it once and the next time it will be easier. Exposure leads to resilience and resilience culminates in victory.

I did it and so can you. Get watering. Look around. Be grateful for what you have. The other side is a mirage, a lie. Remember these words the next time you are tempted to eat, drink, snort, cheat, lie, whatever. Tell the button to butt out. Say don’t as opposed to doh. Look closely and you will see the other side for what it truly is. A graveyard of weeds. Just waiting to choke the life out of you.

Have you pressed the button before? How did that work out for you?

Are you tempted by the button today? What are you going to do about it?

Are You Lonely?

We purchased a gazebo and some new garden furniture over the weekend. I am useless at all things practical (I just do the words) so largely left it to Fionnuala and Adam to assemble all the tricky bits. I provided unskilled labour where required. When completed it looked a fine sight. We are hoping we can have a decent summer and spend as much time as possible outside under its canopy. We were outside until almost 10 p.m. last night enjoying the warm evening. In the end we reluctantly packed up and went inside.

It is not often the six of us (Charlie the border terrier included) are all in the one room. This is a rare event in our busy lives as usually one or more of us is off doing something. We also have two teenagers who spend a lot of time in their rooms as teenagers do. The sunshine and novelty of the gazebo lured them out last night, however. We hope it is not a one-off occurrence. I happily tapped away at my laptop surrounded by loved ones. I felt safe and loved.

It hasn’t always been this way. When my OCD and binge drinking were at their worst I felt quite the opposite; haunted by loneliness, depression and shame. My family loved me just as much as they do today and I loved them. It was just that I was incapable of expressing that love back. I was emotionally stunted and too wrapped up in my own fears and insecurities to notice that those around me were struggling as well.

I cut myself off from the real world and retreated into a twilight existence of alcohol and social media. Even when I kicked the former and replaced it with running I still struggled massively with the latter. It is only really through starting this blog that I have found a healthy way of expressing myself and maintaining an online presence. WordPress has been a blessing. It offers reality and truth whereas other platforms deceived me with fantasy and lies.

Loneliness is a silent killer. It is a creeping death. I have been watching the images of the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and the deadly lava inching down the mountain side destroying all in its path while local residents have looked on, powerless to do anything about it. That is loneliness. It shows no mercy and is indiscriminate as it destroys all in its path. Once it has you in its clutches it is nigh on impossible to escape. It owns you, it takes residence in your soul and you become its plaything.

I have experienced extreme loneliness. A lot of this has been a self imposed exile. Occasionally it has been necessary for me to be alone, an act of self preservation from unhealthy and toxic friendships. I have also, through my actions, inflicted great loneliness on loved ones. I recognise this now and spend every day seeking to make amends. Some days are more successful than others. But every day I try.

The novel I am currently writing touches upon the theme of loneliness. My principal characters all experience it to various degrees before fate and circumstances throw them together. Today I choose not to be lonely. I am fortunate to have that choice as I know not everyone does. I choose to spend time with my family in the gazebo rather than prisoner in my own mind. I choose to run, but not to drink. I choose to take my medication and stifle the voices of condemnation in my head.

Are you lonely today? Is there anything you can do about it? Spend time with your family? Talk to a friend? If nothing else, leave a comment below and talk to us. We are a community and need to reach out to each other more. Life is hard enough without having to live it on your own. Where we can, we need to take a stand and confront it. Loneliness can be overcome. One step at at time. Let’s start today?

Are you lonely? How does it affect you?

Is your loneliness a self imposed exile? Or has it been thrust upon you?

Have you overcome loneliness in the past? How did you go about that?

What Conversations Have You Had With Yourself Today?

Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of people who seem to be talking to themselves in public places? They always cause me to take a double look before I realise, with some relief, that they are actually in the middle of a conversation via an earpiece attached to their mobile phone. Well, thank goodness for that. I was just about to notify the men in white coats to come and whisk them away.

My mobile phone rarely rings these days. And I kind of like it that way. I prefer to communicate via the written word now. Around eighteen months ago I had a massive cull of my contacts list that brought my social diary to a juddering halt. I changed my ringtone a few months ago and then realised what a waste of money it had been as I rarely ever hear it. It’s ‘Easy Street’ by The Collapsible Heart Club by the way for anyone who’s interested. Walking Dead fans will get the reference.

So my phone rarely rings. But like the earpiece aficionados I observe on public transport I often hold conversations with myself. We all do. Mine used to be pretty brutal. An unceasing barrage of criticism and abuse. Past indiscretions and mistakes played on a never ending loop in my head. Welcome folks to the wacky world of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depressive thinking. It’s a veritable hoot.

The thoughts are still there but are less extreme now. I wouldn’t say life with myself is a constant lovefest but at least we tolerate one another now. It’s an uneasy stand off, a shaky truce at best. But my wife and kids keep me grounded. My running and writing also help to purge me of the feelings of self loathing, guilt and shame which are lurking beneath the surface of my psyche just biding their time and waiting for the right moment to renew hostilities.

It’s important that we take better care of ourselves mentally. And that means trying to cut down on the internal conversations where we end up battered and bruised on the ropes. I find it incredibly hard to take compliments from people. I usually brush them off with a sarcastic aside while thinking to myself ‘Well you wouldn’t be saying that if you knew what I was really like.’

This is part of the reason I’m so honest in my writing both on the blog and in the novel I’m currently editing. I address some unpleasant topics and make no apologies for that. I’m talking to you, my audience, but I’m also speaking to myself. Constantly trying to remind myself that beneath all the negativity is a decent person trying to break out, trying to move on and leave his past behind.

It’s an uphill struggle at times but a necessary one. If we can’t live with ourselves then what hope do we have of a harmonious life with those around us? Being involved in a constant battle with me, myself and I leaves little time for others. We leave ourselves exhausted and dead to the lives that we were born to live. We need to climb out of the trenches and raise the white flag. The war is over.

Unless we find peace of mind then we will find our minds in pieces. There is truth in this truce. Surrender is the the first step towards victory and not defeat. There is power in compromise and understanding. Take a moment today and have a quiet word with yourself. Hold out the hand of friendship and then grasp it as hard as you can. You have just made the best friend you will ever have.

What conversations have you had with yourself today?

Morior Invictus

The paths of the dead

Are where we must tread

To vanquish the demons

Who reign in our head

Death itches and twitches

Denying us riches

Our God given right

Morior Invictus

Yet I fear it not

For X marks the spot

New treasures revealed

And an end to the rot.

It Isn’t In Our Blood

Help me

It feels like the walls are caving in

No medicine is strong enough

Someone help me

Feel like I’m crawling in my skin

Sometimes I feel like giving up

But I just can’t

It isn’t in my blood.

Not the words of Stephen Black, average blogger and wannabe author. No, they were written by Shawn Mendes, multi million selling singer/songwriter and teenage heartthrob. Although to be fair we do look very alike. How do I know this you ask? Because Mr. Mendes has stolen the heart of our eldest daughter, Hannah. And his music has been a constant auditory backdrop at Chez Black for the last three months or so. As in incessant. Think Guantanamo Bay interrogation techniques incessant.

We have been exposed to the entire Mendes experience in recent weeks. There has been tension as he has drip fed new songs online to his adoring army who, I am reliably informed, are known as the Mendes Army. In my day you went to a ‘record store’ (ask your parents) and purchased the cassette tape (ask your grandparents) of your favourite artiste on its release date. Money was exchanged. You interacted with another human being. Strange times, I know.

Two weeks ago his world tour dates were released. He was coming to Dublin! Hannah almost passed out. But that was nothing compared to last week when Fionnuala purchased tickets for Hannah and herself to the concert. I think you could have heard Hannah’s screams of delight in Dublin, if not Canada itself, the home of young Mendes. Well, there goes my overtime for last month. But at least I have a very happy daughter.

Despite my best efforts ‘In My Blood’ has wormed its way into my brain like one of those wriggling alien lifeforms always does in science fiction movies. I have found myself involuntarily humming it. Feet have been tapped and rumours of dad rapping to it are not entirely unfounded. I only knew the words to the chorus though and, whenever it came round, would burst into song much to the embarrassment of my mortified teenage daughter.

At dinner the other evening the topic of Mr. Mendes came up. It eventually does in any conversation with Hannah. She was asked what ‘In My Blood’ was about to which she very eloquently explained that it was about Shawn’s own mental health battles with loneliness and anxiety. I was intrigued so googled the lyrics which are partially listed above. I was slightly shocked and more than pleasantly surprised. It was if the song was written about me.

On the surface Shawn Mendes is a hugely successful, talented, confident young man with the world at his feet. Money is no object, he’s on the A list of every party and he could have any girl he wanted. Except our Hannah’s, he’s too old for her! Yet even someone like him can be struck down by the demons of the mind. It is further evidence that nobody is immune to mental health issues in society today. It is reaching epidemic proportions.

It is encouraging that role models like Mendes can come out and discuss their struggles in the media. That takes courage. I will no longer look upon him as just another pretty boy pop star adorning the bedroom walls of my daughter. And I feel slightly less bad now about the dent our bank account has taken over those ticket prices. I’m already undergoing counselling in advance of when she hits his tour merchandising stall in Dublin next April with my debit card.

If you are struggling with your mental health then today is the day to do something about it. Talk to someone about it. It is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Get the help you need in order to live the life you were born to live. Do not allow it to rule your life for you are not defined by it. You can get better because you are better than it. Speak up and break free. Don’t be a slave to it.

It isn’t in your blood….

Please feel free to share any comments or thoughts you have on this post. It’s good to talk.

Happy Birthday To Us

Fractured Faith is a year old today and what a year it has been. Fionnuala and I would like to thank you again, our fellow bloggers, for the support and encouragement you have provided along the way. Here’s to the next year.

How To UnSubscribe From A Toxic Relationship

I am notoriously bad at keeping on top of my e-mails. Yesterday I checked my personal account and discovered, to my horror, that I had over 3000 unopened e-mails. Of these I would estimate that 2985 of them were junk that, if I never ever read, I would still die a happy man. My account still looked a giant mess, however. So I decided to have a clear out for fear that buried deep within those 2985 is the one from an international publisher offering me a six figure advance for my as yet unfinished novel.

Because stuff like that happens, right?

As I began to wade through the electronic debris I realised that I was subscribed to numerous mailing accounts who regularly bombard me with communications that frankly I have little or no interest in. I must have been interested at some stage of my life, otherwise I would never have subscribed to them. Although I have no recollection of subscribing to a lot of them. Perhaps I was drunk at the time? Had my account been hacked? Companies selling my e-mail address to other companies?

In order to unsubscribe from these you have to open the e-mail, scroll down to the very bottom of it and hunt around for the minuscule ‘unsubscribe’ link which you then click. You then have to complete a questionnaire explaining to the company why you no longer wish to avail of their service before they graciously announce that your request will be processed within the next 7-10 days.

In the interim I will no doubt continue to receive more garbage from them. Just in case I have a Road To Damascus moment and decide to resubscribe again because life has proven unbearable without them. The entire procedure left me exhausted and a tad dejected. I felt as if I had let the team down. I could see the disappointment and disapproval etched on their faces. I had been made to feel guilty by an anonymous, automated mailing account.

You can only imagine then the problems I’ve had in recent years ‘unsubscribing’ from a number of relationships which I realised had become toxic and unhealthy for me. These were tortuous, complicated extractions where all manner of tactics were deployed in order to shackle and oppress me. Bullying, guilt and emotional blackmail were all utilised and I admit I fell hook, line and sinker for them on numerous occasions. Breaking free took a momentous effort.

These relationships were poisoning my perception and knocking my moral compass out of the ball park. They were incredibly bad for me yet I hung onto them for grim life. I was miserable and unhappy but it took me a long time to realise that they were the primary reason I felt so. I only realised this when I finally cut the cord. The scales dropped from my eyes and I saw the damage and pain that these relationships had been causing myself and the people who truly cared for me.

If you find yourself in a toxic relationship and what I have written strikes a chord then my simple message to you is this – GET OUT! It can be a relationship with of a person; it can be a relationship with food, pornography, alcohol, drugs, anything. Make the cut. Make it quick and make it clean. Because it is a one way relationship of take and no give. The other party is sucking your soul dry. You do not have to justify your self worth and value through them or it. You are better than that.

It won’t be easy. Dragging yourself from quicksand never is. But if you look around you will see others willing to reach out and pull you free. They might be people you have known your entire life. They could be complete strangers. But they are there and they are waiting. The rest is up to you. Either sink back into in the sands of narcissistic abuse and scramble back into the life you were born to live. Choose well. Choose wisely.

Have you escaped a toxic relationship? Or are you currently ensnared in one? We would love if you could share your thoughts and experiences with our online community. Just comment below and get involved.

I’m So Close My Brain Hurts

These last few days I’ve been diligently chipping away at the final chapters of my novel. I finished the ‘big finale’ chapter yesterday and now I’m penning the fallout from that. This includes the impact that recent revelations have had on my central characters in addition to tying up bothersome loose ends plot wise and setting the scene for the next book in the series. For this is just the beginning of a long journey for our heroes.

I’m taking tomorrow off work to finish it. Aspiring authors never seem to have enough annual leave! I hope that this will leave me with a first draft. It will have a creaky plot and even creakier grammar and punctuation but it is what it is – a first draft of a first novel that began last summer when a seed of an idea took root in my head and refused to budge. I started writing it in earnest last November and, 120K words later, here we are.

Where do I go from here? I’m not quite sure but I know I cannot afford to rest on my laurels. There is serious writing and editing ahead, along with a ton of supplementary reading and research to flesh out the back stories of several of the characters. There will be second edits, third edits, twenty seventh edits. Baring my soul to feedback and hopefully constructive criticism. Making decisions as to whether I go down the publishing or self-publishing path. Wondering if it will ever, ever see the light of day.

Whatever happens I will keep you lot updated whether you want me to or not! I’m bursting to tell you more but I’ve been advised to play my cards close to my chest at this stage regarding plot and character details. All I can hope is that my writing style and the themes I am passionate about will resonate with you and tempt you into wanting to dip into the weird and hopefully wonderful world of my skewed imagination.

That is all – Stephen 👍🏻

Is your brain hurting today?

What are you expecting from my first novel?

My Summer 2018 Target

I haven’t done a lot of running since completing the Belfast Marathon on 07 May but I have been looking ahead and planning my next race target. I’ve considered and discounted a number of options but can now reveal (cue drum roll) that my ninth 26.2 mile challenge will be the Longford Marathon on 19 August 2018. Yikes! That’s only three months away.

I ran Longford in 2015 and really enjoyed it. It’s a small, mostly rural race which advertises itself as the flattest marathon in Ireland. Now you’re talking. It also promotes itself as the ‘Friendly Marathon’ and I can vouch for that. The goodie bag I received in 2015 could have fed a small family for a week. It helps that their primary sponsor is one of the largest bakeries in the country.

Longford is about a 90 minute drive from where we live which means I can avoid the hassle of an overnight stay. I can leave home early, run the race and still be home at a reasonable hour. It also follows at a perfect time between the Belfast and Dublin Marathons. Now all I have to do is haul my lazy backside back into a training schedule and hit the roads again.

I will of course keep you all updated as to my progress but hopefully not bore all our non running followers too much. As ever this isn’t about me. It’s about promoting the physical and mental benefits of physical exercise and evidencing how it helped turn around the life of a formerly depressed, overweight, binge drinking couch potato. It’s not about running, it’s about finding an activity that can transform your life.

If I can do it, then anyone can. And that includes YOU.

What is your summer target?

We Lost A Friend Today

This was meant to be a weekend of celebrations. The Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan and, more importantly for the men in the Black household, the small matter of the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley between the mighty Manchester United and the not so mighty Chelsea. Harry and William normally attend the final so poor planning on the part of the ginger prince. I wonder if he will have it on at the reception?

The blog also celebrated its first birthday. Yes a year ago this weekend I posted my first rambling thoughts and it’s been downhill ever since. I wanted to thank everyone again for their support and encouragement over these last crazy 12 months. This blog has helped restore my faith in both myself and in my fellow man (and woman). It has breathed new life into old bones and a tired heart. It has been part of my regeneration.

I have proven some people wrong and I hope others right. Those who believed in me and showed faith in me. I also hope I have begun to repay some of that faith back but I know I still have a long road ahead of me. Today I also wanted to share exciting updates on my writing and running projects. Important milestones reached and fresh challenges ahead. All that was placed on hold, however, when we received the news late last night of the death of an old boss of mine.

He had recently retired after a successful policing career where he held senior positions in England, Northern Ireland and Canada. He was a mere 57 years old but as fit as a fiddle. He once cycled the perimeter of Northern Ireland in four days to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. He died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes. The suddenness and close proximity of death once again crashes into our lives scattering our grand plans and schemes in all directions. It cares not. It goes where it wants, when it wants. That is the way of death.

He was a hard taskmaster with high standards but he was also fair. He pushed me when I didn’t want to be pushed and didn’t think I could achieve anymore. He helped mould me into the investigator I am today. He was good to me, had a wicked sense of humour but also a kind heart beneath his stern and imposing work demeanour. He was equally generous towards Fionnuala and the kids. He became a friend to us all with his infectious laugh and cocky swagger.

Blogging is a selfish vocation so I’m naturally going to turn this around to myself. How do I feel? Well, very sad that he is gone and more than a little angry that he is. Angry with myself for not keeping in closer contact with him and angry with God for once again allowing bad stuff to happen to people we care about. I want to know why. But I know my prayers will be met with silence. They always are.

I also feel strengthened. More determined to forge ahead and attain the goals I have set myself in the years I have left. I refuse to take my foot off the accelerator or let the doubters and the mockers drag me down. I refuse to let my many flaws and weaknesses derail me from the path I am currently on. I want my family to be proud of me. There is still so much to do, so much to achieve.

So rest in peace John wherever you are today. I imagine you are cycling hard on some long, straight road with the sun beating down on your back. You lived a short life but you lived it with vigour and purpose. You squeezed every last drop out of it. Thank you for teaching me to look beyond the comfort zone where life is tougher, but ultimately, so much more rewarding and satisfying. I have many reasons for carrying on. You are now another one.

How Is Your Mental Health Today?

The sun is splitting the rocks in Belfast today. That’s if there were any rocks to split. The thermometer has hit 20 degrees celsius no less and pale, podgy people who should really know better are publicly displaying waaaaay too much pale, podgy flesh. Others are sticking rigidly to their philosophy of ‘This is Belfast. It could be snowing in five minutes’ and are refusing to discard their scarves and overcoats. There is an uneasy standoff between the two factions as they exchange disapproving looks at each other in passing.

I wore a suit to work today as I had an important meeting to attend. Jacket, shirt, trousers, even a tie! I normally just wear trousers and an open necked shirt. Smart but not overly formal. My appearance in the office this morning therefore led to all kinds of ‘hilarious’ comments from my colleagues. Ranging from ‘Has somebody died?’ to ‘Is your case up in court today?’Side splitting stuff I’m sure you’ll (not) agree.

People were judging me by my appearance. I looked different from how I usually do and they commented on it accordingly. Just like if I had turned up sporting a Mohican or a neck tattoo they would have noticed. I was a different Stephen from the Stephen they interact with every other day of the week. And they were right. I was a very different Stephen. I was worried sick.

While the peculiar big yellow ball in the sky, also known as the sun, blazed down upon the rest of the city I was walking around with an invisible, but nonetheless, very real cloud of anxiety hanging over me. I had scraped the side of the car on the journey to work and fretted all day about the damage I had caused. It wasn’t much but I was annoyed with myself for trying to drive through a gap that simply wasn’t there.

I was also worried that Fionnuala would be disappointed in my poor decision making and manoeuvring skills. She hurt her legs this morning and the last thing she needed was another tale of woe from a flustered husband. I attempted to explain the damage to the car via text and phone call but in the end she told me to send a photo. I nervously did as instructed and waited for judgement to be passed. The axe swung over my head as her reply arrived…..

And I paraphrase….ahem…’Is that it? I’ve seen bigger dents in your head’.

I had fretted all day and turned a molehill into a mountain. So that when I bared my soul and confessed all I discovered that the outcome was nowhere near as bad as I had initially anticipated. Fear feeds on doubt and indecision. Guilt thrives in the dark. It is only when you step forward into the light that your self inflicted wounds can be identified and treated as opposed to left festering in the shadows.

I got caught telling a tiny white lie the other day, something I saw as irrelevant and inconsequential. But the most devastating of landslides begin with the tiniest trickle of loose earth. I was annoyed at myself and resolved to nip that particular unhealthy practice in the bud when it next occurred; which is did in the case of the scratched car. I was honest and reaped the benefits of telling the truth as opposed to digging an even bigger hole for myself.

Is there a cloud of anxiety following you around today? Are you feeling guilty and need to get something off your chest? My advice? Seize that bothersome bull by the horns and speak to whoever you need to in order to dispel it from your mind. There are too many of us suffering in silence. Our mental health is precious. Speak out today. Before it is too late. You are greater than your fears. Let the sunshine in.

How is your mental health today?

Do you need to get something off your chest?

Travelling Sober

I’m on a works trip to London today and, as I write this, I’m sitting in the lounge at Belfast City Airport awaiting my flight. Everywhere is packed not least the airport bar. In fact no matter what time you are at an airport the bar is packed to the gills. People seem to throw acceptable etiquette concerning alcohol consumption to the kerb when they get airside. No matter what the hour, they can be found downing over priced drinks to their hearts content.

In my drinking days I would have been in the midst of them. It was never too early and some of my most memorable (what I can remember that is) trips to sporting events began at some ungodly hour seeing how many pints of Stella Artois I could get down my neck in the bar before the flight was called. There then followed an Olympian sprint to the departure gate which normally sobered me up sufficiently in order to board the plane. Where I would promptly start drinking again.

And so on. Once checked into the hotel there would be a quick turnaround before the imbibing started again. Food was reluctantly eaten but the primary concern was more alcohol. At some point the evening would become a blur and I would vaguely recall stumbling back to my room following last orders where I would lie comatose for a few hours before the dreaded morning came around. At which point hell would be unleashed.

Waking up in a hotel room in a strange city with a horrific hangover is no laughing matter. Especially if you need to bring your ‘A game’ to an important business meeting in less than two hours time. The fear strikes hard. Did I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues last night? Where did I leave my wallet? Will Fionnuala still be speaking to me when I phone her later? Waves of paranoia and self loathing would sweep over me as I struggled to work out how the shower worked and recovered my crumpled clothes from the floor.

Breakfast was a continuation of the torture. Pushing greasy food around my plate and pretending I wasn’t ‘that rough’ to my invariably chipper colleague who had wisely retired at an early hour to leave me talking to some random stranger about football and the meaning of life. You would always meet the same guy in the lift the following morning and exchange embarrassed small talk before we shuffled off to our respective tables to die the death of a thousand fried eggs while trying to avoid projectile vomiting over the waitress.

There then followed the meeting itself which was always held in a hot, stuffy room. You tried to nod and smile in all the right places while inside your stomach performed somersaults and your inner voice condemned you as the most useless, worthless human being ever to have cast a shadow on God’s earth. Your colleague would make excuses for you and you would thank them profusely during the nightmarish tube journey back to the airport.

Today the strongest liquid I will be partaking of is Diet Coke. I’m giving the bar the widest of berths and muttered about having to fork out £1.15 for a bag of crisps. I’m dragging my colleague out for a run later as opposed to dragging her to a pub. And I fully intend to be tucked up in bed with my book by ten pm at the very latest. Breakfast tomorrow will be a totally angst (and vomit free experience). My wife will be speaking to me and all will be well in the world.

I’m not perfect but I’m feeling perfectly fine today. Progress to becoming a better human being is measured by how you behave when faced with situations that you previously failed miserably at. I’m taking small steps but I’m taking them in the right direction. Sobriety is a choice and I choose it today. Then when I wake up hangover free in my hotel room tomorrow morning I’ll have to make the same decision all over again. It applies to any vice, struggle or temptation you face.

What do you choose today?

What’s been your most horrific airport or hotel experience?

At Least You Know Where You Stand With A Zombie

When it comes to scary movies I’ve never been one for vampires and werewolves. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve dipped my toe into the Twilight series. The werewolves do share our surname after all. But Bella did need a good shake by the end of it all and I was kind of hoping that the oh so perfect Cullen clan would have been wiped out in the final battle. Oh that the entire lot of them had been wiped out by a rampaging zombie horde.

Yes, I’ve always been a zombies man. The most terrified I’ve ever been in a cinema was when, aged seventeen, I went to watch George A. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Partially terrified by the content of the movie but more so that I would be flung out for being under age. You see, zombies are the most misunderstood of creatures. Which is why I’ve always had a soft spot for them. Note to self – never reveal to a zombie you have a soft spot. It will probably end in tears.

Zombies are not evil per se. You will never find a zombie plotting world domination while stroking a cat on its knee. Or constructing a death ray machine capable of reducing us all to dust. That’s all a bit above their pay grade. No, zombies are quite content just shuffling about and eating any humans that are stupid enough to stray within arms’s reach. It doesn’t take much to please a zombie. Just feed them. Regularly.

It’s the people who created the zombies who are the bad guys in all this. And that would be er….us. This is excellently captured in ‘The Walking Dead’ where the undead have effectively become a backdrop to the main story where our heroes battle the real monsters – their fellow man. Zombies don’t lie and steal and betray. There’s no need for them to as the survivors are doing a perfectly good job of it themselves.

Our natural instinct is to fear such apocalyptic scenarios. That classic icebreaker – ‘What would you do in the event of a zombie apocalypse?’ has us all breaking out into a cold sweat. Personally I don’t think I would last five minutes. Unless Fionnuala was there to hold my hand. My survival skills are minuscule at best and I’ve even less common sense; although my marathon running might give me a fighting chance of at least outpacing them for 26 miles or so. Following that I would most likely expire quickly afterwards. Ho hum.

The bonus of a zombie rampage is at least you know where the real monsters are: clue – they’re the shuffling, stinking undead wanting to gnaw on your neck. In the real world we have no idea where the monsters lurk, but oh they lurk. The difficulty is they look no different than you or I. It can be that handsome, respectable guy you meet at the bar; or the unassuming woman you strike up a friendship with at work. It can be anyone, anywhere and at anytime.

They don’t even have to be part of your real world. Don’t believe me? Go online and prepare to enter a whole new world of pain. Catfishing, ghosting, bullying, blackmail, it’s all there. People who you think you know and can open up to turn out to be figments of warped imaginations. They get a kick out of inflicting venom and bile from behind the comparative safety of their keyboards and phone screens.

Fear is fear and pain is pain whether it’s le being chased from your home in the dead of night by the armies of dead or realising that the real monster is the person you thought you could trust and rely upon. At least you know where you stand with you local, neighbourhood zombie. He may not have your best interests at heart but he’s consistent if nothing else. He might munch on your heart for a bit. But he’ll never break it.

What are your views on this post. Please comment below. Let’s talk!

I’m A Christian But I Still Worry

I am a natural born worrier. Ever since I can remember I have fretted and frowned my way through life. I can turn the slightest molehill into Mount Everest and the most innocuous issue into the mother of all dramas. Every week I look at my diary and am appalled by the appointments and commitments I have to navigate in order to make it through to the following weekend. If I wasn’t worrying about something then I’d be worried that I wasn’t worrying.

I worry about areas of my life that I suppose it is socially acceptable to worry about. My family, my work, paying the bills, all the normal stresses and strains of everyday life. But I also worry about upcoming events where I should be feeling a sense of anticipation and excitement as opposed to anxiety and edginess. I worry about my next run, my next writing session, my next day off.

Why am I worrying about events which should be reducing my stress levels as opposed to increasing them? Why do I place myself under this intense pressure? A lot of it comes down to my sense of worth and value. I beat myself up a lot about my past. I don’t like myself a lot of the time and I feel I have let a lot of people down, not least myself. So I try to be a better husband, a better father, a better person. Then worry myself sick when I sense I’m not quite at the level I believe I should be at.

I’m also trying to prove people wrong. Again myself included. That I’m not a failure, that I’m not a waste of time and space. That they were wrong to judge me and conclude I was a walking disaster. That I can succeed. So I set the bar so very high then worry as to how I am going to attain all the targets and goals I have set. And every time I reach one the sense of satisfaction is fleeting as I immediately focus on the next one.

As a Christian the Bible tells me not to worry. It’s chock full of verses to that effect. If you google ‘Bible verses worry’ you will be inundated. Jesus devotes a good chunk of Matthew 6 to the subject. Which, of course, makes me even worse when I worry. I’m worrying because Jesus told me not to worry. I’m not following his teaching, therefore I’m being disobedient, therefore I’m sinning. Oh woe is me.

But hang on a minute. Isn’t the Bible full of worriers? Great men of God who instead of glibly trusting the Almighty hummed and haahed with the best of them. Wouldn’t Noah have fretted when he sent the dove from the ark and then sat all those days waiting? What about David when Nathan told him God knew all about his little dalliance with Bathsheba? Or Paul (The Artist Formerly Known As Saul) when he was struck blind on his way to Damascus?

I reckon they all worked themselves into a right lather. Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Peter the list goes on. Jesus was without sin but he also experienced the same emotions as you and I. When he had his ‘moment’ in Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion did he experience dread and uncertainty? Was he worried about what was to come? He was God but he was also human and susceptible to human frailties. He got tired, he got hungry, he got angry. He worried?

The lesson I believe is how he and the others dealt with it. Yes, they worried but instead of succumbing to it they forged on ahead and overcame their fears in order to accomplish what God wanted them to. Paul became the greatest missionary ever known, Peter founded the Church we know today, Jesus went to the Cross and saved mankind. Their worries were temporary states of mind yet their achievements when they pressed on through are permanent and can never be taken away from them.

I’m a worrier. I was born one and I’ll probably die one. It’s the way I am. I can’t change that. But I can change how I handle my anxiety. Instead of crumbling under the strain and giving up I can persevere and get through it. I can pray for God not to remove the worry but to get me through it to the other side. Having faith means trusting God to guide you along the rocky paths, not removing them altogether. For the journey equips you with the attributes you require for when you get to where you are meant to be. And that’s where the real work starts.

What do you worry about?

How do you cope with worry?

Is it a sin to be a Christian and worry?

Why Do You Write?

Why do I bother?

Why do I write?

Why do I struggle with words every night?

To convince all the wronged

The despised and forlorn

That they’re not alone and can survive the scorn.

So I’m penning a story

Of hope and redemption

I’m screaming it loud so I’ll get your attention.

You click and you like and you comment and follow

But have you considered why you feel so hollow?

So empty inside, so frayed at the seams.

Consumed by dark nightmares which once were bright dreams.

Your plight has been sanctioned

Left bitter and vanquished

And try as you might you’re all out of lost chances.

Friendships, romances all of them dead

You made this mess so best lie in your bed.

Your soul is in tatters

You’ve lost all that matters.

Dragged down rabbit holes, you’re the maddest of hatters.

But I’ve been where you are

I will show you my scars

I was dead in the gutter

But could still taste the stars.

Stripped bare but He cared

He reached down to me there

Grace cloaked my disgrace

From the whispers and stares.

So that’s why I write

I’ve recovered my sight

Scales fallen from eyes

To reveal truth and might.

Better times lie ahead

For the damned and the dead

Turn your back to the lies and embrace truth instead.

Why do you write?

The Vultures Are Circling

Life can seem pretty perfect at times. Everything is trundling along just as it should be and we are enveloped in the comforting glow of permanent sunshine. We are in love and loved. We are healthy and bursting with positivity for the future. We have big plans and bigger dreams. Our family form a protective circle around us. Nobody is missing. Everything is as it should be.

Our friends are genuine, loyal and ever present. They are there for us, just as we are for them. They are selfless and attentive, responding to our needs and concerns as we do theirs. They are relationships based on trust and equality. There is no Judas in the room, no silent assassin the shadows waiting to lunge forward and slide a dagger of deceit between our ribs. Piercing organs, tasting death.

We are physically and mentally strong. We fear nothing. The demons within us are silent for they have been conquered and vanquished. Where once they were sovereign and many they are now scattered and few. They skulk in the shadows of our psyche, licking their wounds and dreaming of times when they wreaked havoc and rampaged through our consciousness, hellbent on destroying everything we held sacred.

We are confident and comfortable as we stand on the ramparts and look out across the plain. We see no dangers on the horizon, no dust clouds to indicate an approaching enemy. Our defences are high and strong. We raise our faces to the blue skies above and let the sun caress our skin. Yes, life is perfect. For we have made it that way through our blood, sweat and tears. We have built this sanctuary with our own hands. We deserve no less.

But suddenly something catches our attention high above. The tiniest of specks. Just the one…no wait…two….three. Silently circling our citadel of calm. Circling. Waiting. For the inevitable storm is coming. It could arrive in the dead of night when the phone rings unexpectedly. Or it may be more subtle and innocuous. An innocent text message, a conversation, a glance. That is when they will swoop from above.

When they do it will be sudden and brutal. They will take no prisoners and they will show no mercy. Their goal is a simple one – your complete and utter destruction. They will butcher everything and everyone you once held precious until the streets are awash with blood and the cries of the desperate are silenced. Then they will turn and laugh in your face. For you knew nothing after all. You are broken and beaten, your fortress lying in ruins around you.

Rain or shine, they are always there. Our hovering harbingers. Their eyes miss nothing, they are ever vigilant. Their patience is immeasurable. Waiting, always waiting. For the slightest chink in your armour, the tiniest gap in your defences. And when that first breach is made they will flood through with an unprecedented fury, slaying all those foolish enough to stand in their path.

So use these days wisely. When all around you seems serene never let your guard down. Never become complacent, never relax. For that is all they require. One lapse, one slip, one moment of madness. Then you will look to the skies above and watch helplessly as your carefully constructed world implodes around you. Their joy is your devastation. The vultures are coming….

How are your defences today? Do they require bolstering?

Are you aware of vultures circling above in your life?

Belfast Marathon 2018 – Recap

You’re probably all bored silly by my marathon exploits so I promise this will be the last one….for a while anyway. Fionnuala did a great job providing updates yesterday but that was nothing compared to the support that her and the kids offered at various points along the route. They must have covered a fair few miles themselves getting about and it was a logistical masterclass traversing Belfast on marathon day with three kids, one of whom was wreaking havoc in her motorised wheelchair.

Thankfully the day wasn’t as hot as predicted and running conditions were perfect. It was dry and mild with hardly any wind – I couldn’t have asked for much better. My original plan had been to set out with the 3:45 pacers and I started roughly 30 seconds after them thinking I could reel them in over the first few miles. Unfortunately I’m not sure what instructions they were given but they certainly weren’t running at 3:45 pace. I never got within touching distance as they steadily disappeared over the horizon.

Experience kicked in and I didn’t panic. I let them go, knowing that pursuing them would have been suicidal. I knew I was running well within my sub 4 hour target. As long as I stayed ahead of the 4 hour pacers I was fine. At Mile 7 I saw Fionnuala and the kids for the first time. Adam ran alongside me to hand over a tub of Vaseline as I had stupidly left mine in the car. Vaseline is a marathon runner’s best friend when it comes to chafing issues. I won’t horrify you with the gory details but it’s not a pretty sight let me tell you.

There then followed a number of hilly miles up into West Belfast and over into the north of the city. I hit a little blip at around Mile 10 when I saw ahead a hill I had completely forgotten existed. Two miles later I hit the Antrim Road, a three mile gradual ascent out of the city. This is a section of the race traditionally feared by runners but I was surprised at how strong I felt going up it. At halfway I checked my watch and knew I was well ahead of my target time.

At the top of the Antrim Road there follows a steep descent. I clicked my fastest mile of the race here – 7:59 no less. I made sure I took on fluids and gels at every opportunity as the number of walking wounded I passed increased with every mile. At Mile 17 you hit a towpath which takes you back along the side of Belfast Lough into the city. It’s a lonely section with no crowd support but I just kept telling myself to plod along as close to 9 minute mile pace as I could. I was still well ahead of schedule.

Miles 20 and 21 are through the Belfast Harbour Estate which again is a rather soulless experience. But then I was back in the city again and running through big crowds, along roads that I regularly cover during lunchtime training sessions. The towpath along the River Lagan is an old friend and I tried to convince myself that this was just another 7 mile training run. I was counting down the miles now as I swung onto the Ormeau Road where some of the largest crowds are gathered.

At Mile 23 I saw Team Black again. Adam appeared from nowhere to run alongside me with a handful of jelly beans. Rebecca then joined us and I could hear Fionnuala and Hannah cheering from the sidelines. It spurred me on as the next mile was a horrible ascent where I really started to struggle. It was my slowest mile of the race (9:42) but again I knew, barring an utter disaster, I was going to clock under 4 hours. I kept putting one foot ahead of the other and eventually reached the top of the road which then swung left and thankfully flattened out.

I was starting to relax and take in the atmosphere. The crowd support was fantastic. People at the roadside kept offering sweets, chocolates and drinks but I no longer needed them as I passed Mile 25. One final slight ascent and I turned left onto the Annadale Embankment. I could now see the finishing line to my left in Ormeau Park. At Mile 26 I saw the final turn into the park. Then it was just a matter of the finishing straight. People were calling my name but I had no idea who they were.

I crossed the line in 3:51:10, well within my 4 hour target. Fionnuala and the kids were waiting for me at the finish line where I collected my finishers medal and t-shirt. I was stiff and sore and had some impressive blisters but other than that felt fine. Saying that, the walk back to the car took more out of me than the marathon itself. The rest of the day consisted of a hot bath, lots of liquids and even more ice cream and cake. I want to again thank all my fellow bloggers for the support and encouragement they have given me along the way.

So that was Marathon number 8. Plans for number 9 are already underway *collective groan*.

I’m Stephen. I’m Sober And Socially Awkward

My anxiety levels were fairly high yesterday morning as we set off to attend the wedding of Fionnuala’s brother, Gearard, to his fiancée, Emma. Ever since I gave up drinking five years ago I have struggled at social events, especially those where I have to interact with people I don’t know. Alcohol was my crutch to get through these occasions. I was always the first person to get drunk and usually ended up sleeping in the corner just as the party was getting going.

My strategy yesterday was to keep busy and ensure Fionnuala and the kids had a great day. Hannah had to be a bridesmaid and the other three all had roles during the church service. All I had to do was turn up in a suit and not embarrass my daughters with my ‘dad dancing.’ I had been well warned beforehand. The second I started busting out my moves was the second I would be forcibly evicted from the venue.

I spent the morning performing taxi duties ferrying Fionnuala, the girls and my beloved mother in law to and from various hair and beauty salons. I also paid a visit to the florists to collect button holes as well as ferrying the worryingly relaxed groom from his house to where the car would be coming to convey him to the chapel. Some of the men had a beer beforehand but I stuck to the Diet Coke.

The service ran smoothly. The bride turned up five minutes early. Hannah looked amazing and performed her role perfectly while a bird flew around the rafters of the chapel for the entire service leading the priest to comment that the Holy Spirit was well and truly in the building. The weather was mild and dry which is basically all you can ask for in the land of driving rain and bitter cold.

When we arrived at the reception venue there was iced beer and sparkling wine on the patio overlooking the lawns. This would have been the beginning of the end for the old Stephen as I would have enthusiastically launched myself into the complimentary alcohol. I would have been drunk well before the meal and speeches and no doubt making a total fool of myself in the process. Weddings were always a disaster for me in that respect.

I had no internal shut-off mechanism when I drank. I was a binge drinker and would consume as much beer as I could as quickly as I could. My sole objective was to get inebriated as this killed my innate shyness and social awkwardness. I thought I was the life and soul of the party when in reality I was the talk of the party. And for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Even worse was the sight of me the next day. Horribly hungover and gripped by self pity and a fear as to what I had said or done the previous day.

Today, however, I woke with a clear head. Tired, yes, but still able to run 10K, my final training run before the Belfast Marathon. I was out of my comfort zone yesterday. I’m not very good at small talk and feel uncomfortable around people drinking alcohol. The temptation is no longer there but it brings back a lot of bad memories. I did my best, however, to get into the party mood and, most of all, ensure that Fionnuala and the kids had a great day.

In the end they did. And so did I. The meal was great and the speeches entertaining. I even got a mention in the groom’s speech. Afterwards there was cake, a magician and Star Wars figures. Well it was May the Fourth after all. Hannah even allowed me on the dance floor to shake my thang towards the end of the night. There is video evidence of my shape throwing somewhere on Facebook apparently. We didn’t get home until almost two in the morning. A great day.

Who needs alcohol?

Are you socially awkward? How do you deal with it?

I’m Broken. Are You?

I’m broken.

There I’ve said it. I’m in bits. And you know what. I’ve never felt so good. Why you may ask? Have you finally lost the plot, Stephen, and floated off to the land of fairies and pixie dust? Possibly but let me explain. Then if you still think I’ve lost my senses I’ll quite happily wait for the men in white coats to come and cart me off the nearest secure facility. Deal? Great. Then I’ll proceed.

For many years I thought I was the Big ‘I am’. I knew best and anyone who thought otherwise was a clueless fool who didn’t deserve my attention. I knew best when it came to my work/life balance. I knew best when it came to my mental health. I knew best when it came to my alcohol consumption. I knew best when it came to my addictive and inappropriate behaviour. I knew best.

Then one day I realised that I didn’t, that in fact I knew nothing. I knew nothing about the needs of my loved ones. I knew nothing of the hurt I had caused them. I knew nothing of the long term damage I was causing myself and others. I knew nothing of the depths I had sank to in my endless pursuit of the next high, the next thrill, the next rush. Anything to fill the ragged, gaping hole inside of me that, try as I might, I could not breach.

Realising that you are in fact clueless as to how you have been leading your life is a sobering thought. Some refer to it as the end of the road, others rock bottom. Either way, most regard it as a dark place from which there is no return. Where you lie shattered and twisted, beyond redemption. Brokenness is seen as the end, a failure that irrevocably defines you. It is the end. I disagree. I view brokenness as the beginning.

The best thing about hitting rock bottom is that you can’t go any lower. Impact is preferable to continued free fall. It is liberating as it instigates a change that you must accept. Brokenness makes us face the reality of who we are. We can no longer hide in a world of fantasy and lies. We have no option but to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the cold light of day. We might not like what we see but it is the truth. And the truth is the key that will set us free.

When you are broken you are forced to choose a path. You can lie there in a mangled heap at the bottom of your pit of pity or you can rebuild. Brokenness offers hope, a new start and a new way. Less than two years ago I lay broken. Mentally and spiritually. I chose to rebuild. I started to glue the pieces back together again. A slow, painful process for all concerned but a process all the same.

The glue can be whatever you need it to be. For me it was my family and fractured faith. They were my therapy. They led me to this blog where I chose to bare my soul on a regular basis. A risk I know but one I was prepared to take, one I needed to take. A safe place where I could lick my wounds and breathe again. A place where I discovered a community of equally broken souls. Trying to find their way back to the light.

There is beauty in our brokenness. The cracks expose our old, toxic selves and allow the bitter bile of our past lives to seep away, drop by drop. Brokenness purges and cleanses us. It allows the light to flood in and reveal who we really are. And if we choose not to flinch and look away we can see our real selves waiting to be reborn and rise from the mess that was. Ready to start again. Broken yet yearning to be whole again.

I was broken but I strive to be whole again. This blog is part of that journey. It will be a year old in a couple of weeks and is just one of the steps on the ladder I have climbed to emerge from the dark abyss where I once lay bruised and bleeding. If you are lying in that same abyss today facing a similar fate know this – it is an opportunity to rebuild. You can go no lower. Seize that first rung and start to haul yourself back to the life you were born to live.

Brokenness is a gift. Take it. Unwrap it. Use it. Today.

I’m broken. Are you?

I’m A Christian But I Don’t Do Hugs

Every night before the girls go to bed we perform the same routine where they kiss us and tell Fionnuala and myself ‘Night Night. Love you. See you in the morning’. We hug them and repeat the same words back to them. It’s a nightly tradition that I hope never ends. We are lucky if we get a grunt out of Adam but he’s a fifteen year old boy who doesn’t ‘do’ emotion. Unless it involves a rugby ball.

Fionnuala and I are not a touchy feely couple. You know the cringeworthy types who invoke eye rolling and ‘get a room’ asides from us as they stick their tongues down each other’s throats at the first available opportunity in public displays of their undying love for one another. Until they split up three months later in the messiest manner possible on Facebook allowing the rest of us to feel very smug and shoot one another ‘I told you so’ looks.

We love each other and are secure in the knowledge of that. We don’t need to ram it down other people’s throats (pardon the pun) every time we step out the front door. Neither of us come from ‘hugging’ backgrounds. Unless hugging our siblings by the throat counts. Our families just don’t do open displays of affection. It doesn’t mean we love each other any less than families that do. It’s just not us.

Imagine our horror then when we became Christians and realised that many of said community loved nothing more than hugging it out at the drop of a hat. It didn’t matter if they had known you for thirty seconds or thirty years you were enveloped in a totally unreciprocated bear hug that always seemed to last an eternity. I would stand there awkwardly, both arms the same length, saying my first, heartfelt prayer of the day.

Please God. Make it stop. Now.

I have been known to enter churches by the side entrance to avoid roaming welcome teams hellbent on refusing you admission unless you get your hug on. I’ve felt like a NFL running back trying to jink through a gap in their defensive line and high step it down the aisle to the end zone that is our regular seat. The service itself offers a blessed reprieve but the mayhem commences again afterwards over tea and coffee. They are everywhere and they will stop at nothing. Nothing I tell you.

Only to be outdone by high fiving, guitar wielding youth leaders the hugging mafia know nothing of social boundaries or awkwardness. Because God loves hugging. The Old Testament is full of it right? My anxiety levels rise. If (and it’s a big if) I get to heaven and stand before Jesus will he be offended if I offer him a firm handshake as opposed to a WWE stylee rib crusher that will have me tapping out within seconds.

I break out in a cold sweat when I think of an eternity of unnecessary physical contact and really average worship music. Will there be a separate heaven for Flyleaf and Nirvana fans where we can all nod at each other and avoid eye contact where possible? Where it’s okay to feel a bit fed up now and again and not have to walk around with a permanently plastered on rictus grin a la The Joker.

I hope Jesus can accommodate me. I love him and I want nothing more than to learn his ways and become more like him. But I’m me and that unfortunately involves sarcasm, grumpiness and the very occasional expletive. I blame him. He made me like this but I’m certain he did so for a perfectly valid reason. Im not sure why but hope one day he will sit me down and explain it all in words of three syllables or less.

So that when he does and the recognition finally dawns on my face I can smile and realise that he was right all along. Who knows….I might even give him a hug 😉

Are you a hugger? Or do you squirm from their grasps and run screaming for the exit?

Will Heaven be a hug free zone for you?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

The irony is not lost on me that if this series continues for much longer I will have effectively written a book about writing a book. That aside, I made further steady process this week. Around 5000 words to be precise. This involved a series of dialogues between several of the main characters which sets the scene for the final chapters which will be primarily action based.

I enjoy writing dialogue and watching the characters bounce off one another and develop accordingly. I’ve blogged before that many of my narrative ideas come to me during the physical act of writing so my fingers often find it hard to keep up with the plot as it comes tumbling out of my mind. These are my best moments when the book feels as if it is writing itself and I’m just frantically fighting to cling on to this particular literary runaway train.

The main characters continue to come to life before my very eyes. They are broken underdogs struggling to come to terms with the frightening responsibility which has been heaped upon their shoulders. A week ago in the story arc they were just struggling to get by in their drab, dreary worlds. Now those struggles are the least of the worries as they interact with creatures and conflicts far beyond their craziest dreams.

They do so with a healthy dollop of cynicism, sarcasm and dark humour. So much so that I often forget that I have a story to drive forward when often I find the dialogue meandering off script into tributaries of obscure pop culture reference and ‘in jokes’. I also have to constantly remind myself that I’m writing for a universal audience so therefore have to cut back on the Northern Irish colloquialisms. Bout ye. Dead on. Stick it out. Etc. Ad nauseum.

I’ve been circling the final chapters for some weeks now but feel I have reached the point where I can finally swoop and feast upon them. I’m also at the stage where I’m ready to send a sample chapter out to some trusted people for review and feedback. This is one of the most nerve wracking parts of the process. I need honesty but have I a thick enough skin to deal with that. There is only one way to find out I suppose.

As ever time is an issue. In an ideal world I would lock myself away for a month and just blast it out. Unfortunately I live in the real world so I’ve been writing where I can and when I can. This has been a disjointed and largely unsatisfactory process but it’s all I’ve got at present until that first six figure advance drops into my bank account. Yeah right, Stephen. Meanwhile back in the real world.

As ever I want to thank my family for their support. Fionnuala is not a ‘book’ person (she’s far too busy with life for that) but patiently listens to my writing gripes and complaints while providing IT emergency response every time I forget to save three hours of writing and go into full blown meltdown. She really is the brains (and looks) behind the operation. She also administers well placed kicks in the backside every time I wallow in self pity.

I want to thank our WordPress readers as well for the constant stream of support and encouragement. Your advice and willingness to share your own writing experiences, good and bad, continue to comfort, inspire and motivate me. Without your support of the blog I would never have had the belief or confidence to step out on this journey in the first place. For that I will always be grateful irrespective of whether or not this book ever sees light of day.

Please add your comments and feedback below. My skin needs toughening!

A Tree On The Line

I write this today from the train to Dublin where I’m travelling for a business meeting. In the past trips to Dublin normally meant one thing only – let’s see how much alcohol I can consume between getting there and my return. How times have changed. Nothing but Diet Coke will be passing my lips between now and my return later today. A sober Irishman in Dublin! Whatever next?!

When Fionnuala dropped me off at the local station this morning to get my connecting train to Belfast I had a brief moment of panic when I heard a garbled tannoy message announcing that there was a tree on the line and and trains to Belfast and Bangor had been cancelled. But I had to get to Belfast in order to get the Dublin Express. I could not miss this meeting. Two of the big bosses were going! I was even wearing a tie!!

Thankfully it was all much ado about nothing. I tracked down a passing conductor and established that I had misheard the announcement that there was indeed a tree on the line but it was affecting all trains between Belfast and Bangor. I breathed a sigh of relief and resolved to get my ears cleaned out at the next available opportunity. The tie was going to Dublin after all.

For those few moments of uncertainty, however, all sorts of scenarios raced through my mind. Was I going to have to sheepishly phone my boss and say I couldn’t make the meeting? Or call Fionnuala, who was by then in the middle of the school run, and ask her to somehow get me to another station further down the line before the Dublin Express passed through. I dallied and dithered. Prevarication reigned supreme.

The truth of the matter was that I didn’t have a Plan B. I just turned up at the station assuming that everything would run according to plan. I could sleepwalk through the journey and serenely arrive at my destination on schedule without a hair out of place. Cos that’s how I roll and that’s how life is. Nothing ever goes wrong and all our dreams and plans drift smoothly along without the slightest hiccup. Right?

Oh if only. Unfortunately life has a nasty habit of slapping you in the face with a proverbial wet fish whenever you least expect it. Life is cluttered with trees on the line so it makes sense to always have a Plan B up your sleeve. And a Plan C through to Z for that matter. That’s Zed for me and Zeeeeeeee for our North American readers. Which I can never really get my head around but hey ho.

I used to live with my head in the clouds. I drifted through life with little thought to future commitments and present responsibilities. Words like ‘consequences’ and ‘repercussions’ did not register on my radar. I was selfish and thoughtless. It was only when the wheels came off (or the tree crashed onto the line) that I realised I didn’t have a Plan B. My works came crashing down around me in no uncertain fashion.

Thankfully my loved ones rallied around and became my Plan B. When I was floundering they provided stability. They helped me find myself when I thought I had blown it all. My faith, family and witness saved me. I wobble in respect of all three from time to time but they are my safety net. And I need that for otherwise it is a long, long way down. Never assume. Always have a Plan B.

When was the last time a tree crashed down on your line?

What’s your Plan B? Or C or D for that matter?

How do you North Americans differentiate between C and Z? My mind is blown.

If Love Is A Mist….

If love is a mist

Then I must persist

For cords of affliction

And wisps of addiction

Are flogging my faith on a rack of derision.

The demons are screaming

Stop me from believing

Oozing lies, succubi

Leave me battered and bleeding.

Their hunger is fed

On the paths of the dead

As my starved, broken soul craves the wine and the bread

Cutting ties, crushing lives

We can all sympathise

But the blame lies with me

Wrapped in guilt, when once free

Destruction their function

Impaled at this junction

Slicing my soul without fear or compunction.

Yet I will resist

I’ll repent and desist

And walk through the mist

Towards fresh joy and bliss.

For this kingdom of sighs

Will give way to new life

And I will be vanquished

A thorn in their side.

Embracing Anxiety

Today is the day of my last long run before the Belfast Marathon in just over two weeks time. I’ve worked out my route and hydration strategy; I’ve decided what gear I’m going to wear; the weather is dry and mild. Now it is just a matter of going out and doing it. I know I’m capable of it as I’ve completed such distances many times before. Yet as I type these words I feel nervous and worried.

Why? I have no idea. It’s just me. I am a natural born worrier. If I didn’t have something to worry about then I would be worried. The only way to overcome the anxiety is to confront the problem and dive headlong into it. I know that once I get a few miles into the run I will be fine. All feelings of self doubt will disappear and my confidence will soar. I will actually start to enjoy the experience and wonder why I got so worked up in the first place.

It is the same with every aspect of my life be it family or work matters. Before every important event or meeting my worry levels rise to a crescendo before melting away the minute said event or meeting commence. You would think that decades of experience would teach me that worrying was counterproductive and pointless but every time the old routine kicks in and my own personal Groundhog Day is repeated.

Our bodies and minds are constantly battling chains and shackles that delight in tying us up in knots and denying us from becoming the people that we were created to be. We are at A but we are destined to be at Z. How do we get there? By overcoming the hurdles and barriers that ourselves and others place in our paths to deny us our destinies. It can be a person, an event or situation, an illness or addiction.

Whatever it is, it is strong and relentless. And if you allow it to it will suffocate your dreams and snuff out your potential. It will win if you allow it to. Somehow, and from somewhere, you have to find the courage and conviction to overcome it. You need to stand tall, look it in the eye and tell it NO! No, you won’t let it win. No, you are not going to give up this time. And no, the cycle of submission is not going to be repeated.

I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It will not be easy. After 21 miles today my body will be tired and aching. But the feeling of achievement and satisfaction will far outweigh any temporary physical or mental discomfort. The worry and anxiety will have been left far behind on the road along with the negative thoughts and doubts. You will have broken free. And breaking free is a form of rebirth. You have become a stronger, braver version of you.

If you are reading this today and experiencing the doubt and fears I have described I would encourage you to lace up your metaphorical running shoes and run straight at that problem or situation that is weighing so heavily upon you. We can’t run away from our problems but we can run towards them and through them. Eventually you will emerge on the other side. Where you are meant to be. Battered and bruised possibly. But alive. And free.

Change is painful. Change is frightening. But in order to improve we need to embrace it. In order to become better people we need to become better at dealing with change. Anxiety and worry magnify the fear of change to the extent where we cower away from it. Today is the day to stop cowering. Face it. Embrace it. I’m away for my run and I’ll see you on the other side. Who’s with me?

Are you shackled by worry and anxiety? How do you deal with it?

What aspects of your life would you like to change?

Don’t Be A Parachute Pal

I am writing staff performance reviews at present where I assess whether or not the members of the team I manage have met their objectives for the previous year. Thankfully as I am such a fantastic manager and they are such a fantastic team I can hand on heart write that they all have. No need for bribes, inducements or back handers. It’s the truth!

One of the key performance areas are strong communication skills; with other members of the team, the wider organisation and external stakeholders. This relates to both verbal and written communications. Active listening skills are always essential as effective communication is a two way street. Ha! You would almost think I was copying this out of a leadership manual. Which of course I’m not.

Solid communication skills also form the base of any successful relationship. Let me give you an example. Fionnuala shouts at me when I do something wrong. I listen (actively), apologise (profusely) and make amends (hurriedly). Sorted! Everyone’s a winner. Twenty two years together and the old methods are still the best methods. She’s right. I’m wrong. The end.

But seriously….

Every relationship or friendship requires give and take on both sides. The best friendships should be equal and centred upon mutual respect and selflessness. The best friends are those who would drop everything for you at the most inconvenient moment. They are there for you no matter what. They are a consistent and immovable part of your life. They stick around.

Over the last few years Fionnuala and I have come to realise this. Real friends are there no matter how stormy the waters are. They put your needs before their own. They hang around after the party is over and it’s time to clean up the mess. We have realised another thing as well – there are not many of these people in today’s self centred world.

We have lost countless fair weather friends over the last couple of years. We have been snubbed, rejected and ignored. The last kind is particularly hard to stomach. Calls aren’t returned, WhatsApp messages are read (two blue ticks! two blue ticks!!) but not replied to and efforts to resurrect relationships fall on deaf ears and dry ground.

Then there are those who want the friendship to continue but on their terms. So they will ignore you for six months and then parachute into your life like visiting nobility, honouring you with their presence. There is always an ulterior motive for these unannounced arrivals. You may never discover what that agenda is but you can be certain that your interests are not at its heart.

Be grateful for the real friends, the true friends. They are more precious than rubies. Identify them and cherish them. Work hard at protecting and nourishing them. For one day they might be all you have. You will cling to them for all you are worth. Just like they might cling to you. Reflect that mirror of love and trust right back at them.

They need you just as much as you need them. So don’t be a fair weather friend, a parachute pal. Stand up and be counted. On the rainy days as well as the sunny ones. Such friendships are few and far between and when they are gone they are gone forever. I realise that with a heavy heart. Loneliness is a constant threat. Don’t fall prey to its icy embrace.

Have you ever been frozen out of a friendship?

What are your experiences of fair weather friends and parachute pals?

We Are Team Stupid!

Have you ever done something so stupid that you were left stunned or amazed at your own….for want of a better word….stupidity? Well that’s ok because you are not alone. We all have those moments. And if you haven’t then maybe you’re being a teeny-weeny bit economical with the truth. Or just plain lying. Which is a bit….er….stupid.

It’s that moment you want the earth to open up and swallow you; you cringe and pray that nobody has noticed when you know they all have; it can be harmless, innocent and of little consequence; or it can have earth shattering repercussions that change lives forever. We all have the capacity to be idiots and mess up. It’s ingrained in our DNA, part of our genetic make up.

None of us are perfect. Life is all about decision making and sooner or later we will come to a crossroads where we take the wrong turn. We will say or do the wrong thing and all our carefully concocted plans will come crashing down around us like a house of cards. We find ourselves scrambling around in the rubble trying to pick up the pieces and repair the damage.

People are not perfect. Those who claim to be perfect are liars. And stupid. In no particular order. The good news is that us fully paid up members of Team Stupid are in good company. We are many and will never be alone. But just because you commit a stupid act doesn’t mean you are a stupid person; often it is the most intelligent folk who commit the most jaw dropping, idiotic acts.

Stupidity has no respect for social or cultural distinctions. It embraces us all equally and holds open the door cheerfully inviting us to step over the threshold. I like to think I am a reasonably intelligent member of the human race; yet I have the capacity to raise the stupid bar to unprecedented levels when the urge takes me. It’s a gift I guess.

I referred to the words ‘stunned’ and ‘amazed’ in the first sentence for a reason. That’s because the word’s etymological roots hail back to the Latin word ‘stupere’ meaning stunned or amazed. Our gobs are smacked and our flabbers are ghasted. We cannot comprehend our inability to mess up and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We are our own worst enemies in that respect.

The good news is that the only way we can grow in wisdom and discretion is by stepping boldly through that stupid shower in order to emerge on the other side. That can be an excruciatingly painful, but necessary, process. The only way we grow and mature is through learning from our mistakes. They are unavoidable and although we can minimise them we can never completely eradicate them from our lives.

So next time you inadvertently swallow a stupid pill don’t beat yourself up too much about it. Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take two forward. Stupid is not evil. It’s contagious but it’s not terminal. Bridges can be rebuilt and damage can be undone. Stupidity is part of your life but it doesn’t have to define your life. Accept it for what it is. An opportunity to learn and move on.

It works be stupid of you not to.

Hands up if you’ve ever been stupid?

Care to share your dumbest moments?

Fun Friday Continues….Even Though It’s Saturday

Today’s question is for all you bookworms out there. What was the last book you read and what did you make of it? To get the ball rolling here are the last few I’ve read. I read a lot much to Fionnuala’s dismay but I know that in order to succeed as an author you need to soak up as many other styles and genres as you can. Read, Read and then Read some more. I think Stephen King said that. And he’s done alright I suppose.

  • Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs
  • The Very Worst Missionary – Jamie Wright
  • Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions – Russell Brand
  • Sylvia Plath: A Biography – Linda Wagner-Martin

Happy Reading!

Stephen 🙂

What Bloggers Would You Invite To Dinner And Why?

I’ve posted some heavy duty stuff in recent days so thought I would lighten matters up somewhat. The weekend is just around the corner and sometimes us bloggers take life just a little too seriously. I know I’m the worst offender. So to kick off ‘Fun Friday’ *cringe* I thought I’d pose you a few questions.

I’ll probably be Mr. Miserable again by Monday so make the most of it 😂

If you were to host a dinner party what three bloggers would you invite and why?

Feel free to post the links to their blogs in the comments section below.

Binge

Sometimes a word settles in my mind and refuses to budge. I suppose that’s the joy of writing. We get obsessed with words. They are our tools, the vehicles or medium through which we communicate our thoughts to the outside world. It’s my birthday at the end of the month (please no need for presents) and if you asked me what I truly needed at the moment (as opposed to wanted) then I’d probably plump for a thesaurus.

Rock & Roll I most certainly am not….

Todays word? Well the clue is in the title. Well the clue is the title. It’s binge. So I googled it as I don’t have a thesaurus….yet; and discovered that it originates from a 19th Century English practice where wooden vessels were immersed or soaked in water in order to allow the wood to swell and seal up any cracks so as to prevent leaking. Mind. Blown. It was a positive, practical activity in order to stop boats sinking when launched.

Of course all good things come to an end and the word soon became slang for excessive drinking; people would literally immerse or soak themselves in alcohol. And today the term has been expanded to include any excessive activity. We binge. Be it alcohol, drugs, food, Netflix or whatever. It is when we consume something or someone to excess. The positive, practical meaning of the word has largely disappeared. It has been replaced by more negative connotations.

I have binged throughout my adult life. I am impulsive and display obsessive, compulsive traits that verge on addictive. I do not know the meaning of the word ‘moderation’. With me it is a million miles per hour or not at all. I have binged on food, alcohol, social media and people. My foot was permanently on the accelerator and before I knew it, too late, I had caused another car wreck. I need and I want but I rarely think. Think of the damage I am causing myself and others through the act of binging.

When we binge the object of our excess becomes an idol. It becomes an all consuming sun that blinds us from reality and obscures us from the people and activities around us that really matter. We have no internal alarm system that tells us to slow down or stop. We fly too close to the sun and, like Icarus in the famous fable, our wings are burnt and we plummet to our doom. We are destroyed by that which we loved. Our act of love towards the idol becomes an act of hatred towards ourselves.

The people that used to matter no longer seem to matter. We binged. Our wings singed. And we fell. To our hell. Our idols made us idle. To the truth. We become disoriented and end up lost and confused. To binge is to run in an ever decreasing circle. A maddening maze from which there is no escape. It is as infuriating as it is illogical. When you binge it is like running a race wearing blinkers. You are oblivious to your external environment and can focus on nothing but the object of your desires. The object of your destruction.

I’m not quite sure how the original positive meaning of the word ‘binge’ was contorted into the largely negative associations it has now. Why can’t we binge on the good stuff? Family, friends, exercise, art, literature? Why can’t we binge on loyalty, love and life? I guess we can and do except we use different words to describe those actions and emotions. The difference as I see it is a loss of control. When we binge we lose control. And loss of control will invariably end in heartache and despair.

It’s time to take control again and bin our binging proclivities. I still am vulnerable to binging tendencies but the good days now far outweigh the bad. If you are currently in a binging cycle I want you to know that it can be broken and you can emerge on the other side. You might not be unscathed but you will be alive. Freedom is a possibility. I can’t wave a magic wand and make it all disappear but I can offer hope. There is always hope. Cling to it. You are better than the binge.

Do you binge? Or have you in the past? Our community would love to hear your stories. We are non judgmental and supportive. Please comment below if you would like to get involved.

Alternatively if you would feel more comfortable communicating in private we can be contacted via the blog’ ‘contact’ tab.

Swallow Your Pride. Swallow The Pill.

I have felt my mood spiralling steadily downwards throughout the week. This has trickled into my writing which has been largely negative and downbeat. I don’t apologise for this as I have always said I would write honestly on this blog. Those who choose to read it see the good, the bad and the frequently ugly. Warts and all. I spent too long living a lie on social media so this latest incarnation is, if nothing else, a truthful one.

The reason for this? Quite simple really. I never bothered to order my repeat prescription for Escitaloprem which I take on a daily basis to combat OCD, Anxiety and Depression. It’s one little, white pill a day but they make all the difference to my mood and outlook on life. Without them I start to feel irritable, edgy and miserable within a few days. Negative thinking takes over and the familiar voice in my head starts to whisper those familiar words.

You’re useless. You’re a failure. You’re a laughing stock. You’re hopeless. You’re a terrible husband, father and son. You are an utter nobody. You are a sad, little man going through yet another mid life crisis. You can’t write and you will never make a second career from it. You have no friends and there is a very good reason for that. They all saw through you, saw you for the fool you were. Nobody wants anything to do with you. You are nothing.

I could go on but I’m sure you get my drift. When I’m at home with Fionnuala and the kids I feel safe and loved. But the moment I step out of the front door it sets in. This overwhelming fear. I compare myself to others and every time fall painfully short. Former friends snub me. Others would cross the road if they saw me. Messages are not returned and phone calls are not picked up. Outside of my family I am lonely and unwanted. This came to a head last Saturday when I ran a half marathon along with 3500 other people and didn’t speak to another person the entire time I was there.

I avoided people I used to run with. I hid in my car before the race and left the moment I crossed the finishing line instead of hanging around to mingle and chat like everybody else. It is a dark cloud, a black dog and it envelops everything in its path. This continued into my working week. I have been largely disinterested and demotivated, plodding through the motions. I have to get up and go to work for my family. Today I forced myself to pick up the phone and re-order the prescription. I will get it tomorrow and know I will be back on an even keel by the weekend.

It annoys me that despite my wonderful wife and children I still need that pill. Despite holding down an important and respected job I still need that pill. Despite my running and writing which are incredible stress busters I still need that pill. Despite all the many positives I have going for me I have still found it difficult to look in the mirror this week. I still feel an outsider, a loser, a nobody. All because I chose not to swallow a little, white pill. The crutch that I fear I will have to lean upon for the rest of my days.

I’m a husband and I struggle with my mental health. Im a father and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a son and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a blogger and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a marathon runner and I struggle with my mental health. I’m an aspiring author and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a Christian and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a well paid manager and I struggle with my mental health. I struggle when I don’t take the pill.

I need to swallow my pride and swallow the pill. It restores me to who I want to be. The pill and nothing else. Not work, not church, not anything. The pill. We need to accept sometimes that we are powerless to depression and need to accept all the help we can get. If you’re in a similar situation tonight I would implore you to swallow your pride and swallow the pill. If it’s what you need to function and face the world. Don’t be an idiot like me. Order you prescription. Collect your prescription. Take your prescription. Please.

Please feel free to share your own experiences of prescription medication below. This blog was written to support and encourage within our community.

For It Was Written Long Before You

I wear my heart upon my sleeve. Pick at the stitches, watch it bleed. I thought it contained all my needs. Yet I was wrong, so wrong and now. I watch the scarlet droplets one by one. Communion wine upon my tongue. The acrid fumes they fill my lungs. And I am done.

I’m done with all the hollow words. I’m done with following the herd. The vacuous nothingness I yearned. The chances spurned, the bridges burned. Scorched earth and ashes fill my urn. Fresh lashes tear my skin and burn. Hard lessons learned.

I spurned fresh opportunities galore. So I could gorge myself on more. The score was settled long ago. But on I forged, ablaze with sin. Oblivious to the deafening din. Of voices old and voices new. Imploring me to start afresh. To step out of my stinking mess.

I wore my heart upon my sleeve. You watched me grieve in silence though. I started high yet finished low. The perfect storm, I can’t conform. I am the eye, the sickening still. Imploring you to heed my will. You watched me from that bloody hill.

I was a sick man, not a slick man. A blinded patient with no patience. Demented by fermented juices, hanging over, dry and useless. Dreaming of those silken nooses. Choking on my wordless mucus. Intervention, not attention saved me; days too dark to mention.

The light it came, I sought it not. I’m standing at a desolate plot. You can be proud of me again. I kicked my habits to the flames. They burn and squirm and beg for mercy. Silently I take their curses. Turn my eyes to ancient verses. Holy words from empty churches.

I tear my heart from off my sleeve. I empty it of fear and greed. And fill it with these words of glory. Dripping from that Cross so gory. Wisdom etched in ancient stories. For it was written long before you. Words of love sent to restore you.

My Big Fat Irish Black Toenail

Half Marathons are great fun. You pay the organisers £27 for the privilege of running for nearly two hours whereupon you end up a big, aching, sweaty mess. At the end you queue ten minutes with hundreds of other aching, sweaty messes for a banana, chocolate bar and bottle of orange juice. I’m off chocolate at the minute so I took that home for Fionnuala. You also get an (admittedly) pretty cool medal and T-Shirt. That fits like a Small even though I ordered a Large.

I woke up the following morning to discover that I had obtained another race memento. A black toenail. The big toe on my left foot to be precise. Don’t worry. I’m not going to post a photo of said toe as I fear that would be a bridge too far for many of you. Suffice to say it’s not a pretty sight. Just one of the many perks of being a decidedly average distance runner. Along with blisters, stress fractures and plantar fasciitis. Don’t know what the last one is? Google it. Or look it up in the dictionary under ‘Agony’.

It’s not painful but strangely fascinating in a hypnotic kind of way. It has a mesmeric quality that enthrals and repulses in equal measure. I reckon I could have snagged a role as an extra in ‘The Greatest Showman’ along with Wolverine, Troy Bolton and that lady with the beard. Apart from the fact that I can’t sing. Or act. Trifling details I know but anyway. Had I sustained this injury around Halloween I reckon I would have been a massive hit with the local trick and treating community. Yup, I would have been pulling them in from miles around. Roll up! Roll up! See the man with the blackest toenail in Ireland. Vomit inducing guaranteed or your money back.

Bruises are par for the course when it comes to running, or any physical activity. We pick them up as we traipse through life and wear them like an external purple badge of honour before they go that horrible yellowy-green colour and then fade away. Some are bigger than others, some last longer than others but even the most gruesome one should eventually disappear. They are a temporary phenomenon and if we are just patient enough the body will do what it does best – heal itself.

It’s a shame the same can’t be said for bruised hearts and souls. We accumulate them just as easily as we travel through life. They aren’t as visible though and we hide them away rather than admit we are hurting and in need of help. We hope they will fade away in time and some do. But others are so deep that we carry them around for life, damaged and broken, unable to cope with what has happened and unwilling to reach out for aid. These invisible bruises are uglier than any busted toenail and the ripples of repercussion emanating from them can echo through lives and generations.

Every day I read about fellow bloggers who are nursing these invisible bruises. WordPress is the one safe place where they can reveal their wounds to the world. Many choose anonymity as they are still too raw and painful to publicise. We are all damaged goods. Damaged by others. Damaged by ourselves. Damaged by the random awfulness of life. Addiction, Depression, Anxiety, Physical Disability and Illness, Bereavement, the list is endless. Suicidal thoughts and images of self harm. They haunt my timeline and scar my thoughts. They impact me deeply.

Fionnuala and I want to remind you that you are not alone. We started this blog in order to reach out and help others. We are all broken but we are not beyond repair. Healing is possible. If you feel the need the talk then please do – we have a private e-mail which you can access via the ‘contact’ or ‘prayer request’ tabs on the blog site. Please use it. Some of my posts have been quite negative of late. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I want you to see my bruises as I know no other way to write. So I rant and I rave but it’s only because I care.

I’m going to post a poem later *collective groan* titled ‘Bruises’ but until then know that you are not alone. Not as long as this blog exists.

The Day I Woke Up

Fionnuala here sorry I’ve been very quiet lately I have been really busy with a new business venture I’ve started doing.

As most of you know I am a stay at home mum I spend my days making sure washing is done, clothes are ironed, tummy’s are full, cupboards, fridges and freezers are fully stocked for my hungry husband and children and everyday has it’s new drama for me to resolve.

The last few months have been very tough for me for different reasons and I could feel myself falling deeper and deeper into a darkness of depression. I knew there was two things I could do either sit on the sofa and let the darkness take over or fight get up off my butt and do something about it. I had a good talk with Stephen and a good cry (which always helps me) and I felt a little brighter.

Then about 6 weeks ago I woke up early on the Sunday and had this amazing idea to start making craft items and sell them at Craft Fairs I love making things so this made so much sense I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before. When Stephen came downstairs I was buzzing with excitement and told him my plans only for him to pipe up “I’ve been telling you to do this for years” – I must not have been listening! That afternoon I headed up to Belfast with the girls and we bought lots of stuff to get me started. Stephen came up with my business name Rehanna Crafts which is a mix of our two daughters names Rebecca and Hannah’s.

That morning as I woke up from my sleep I felt as if a light switch was turned on flooding the darkness in my head with light and I could think and see things more clearer. In life it’s so easy to let things take over and distract you from what you could be doing. For me it was letting other people’s behaviour and problems overshadow me and my family’s needs.

If you feel like you are surrounded by darkness like there is no way out then please go and talk to someone, do something, anything that will get you outside of your head.

What did you use to love to do that you haven’t done in a long time?

Today is a new day a new beginning.

Today you are going to let your light shine.

This blog post has went off in a different direction I hadn’t planned to share that with you I had planned to post some of my Crafts with you all but looks like someone else is controlling my thoughts this morning 😊

Below are some of my Crafts I have made if you would like to see some more have a look at my Facebook page Rehanna Crafts

What Is Your Worst Habit?

Fionnuala often affectionately tells me (at least I hope it is affectionate. Can you be affectionate and annoyed at the same time?) that if there is an awkward way to do something then I will find it. Take Lent for example. My sincere intention to refrain from biscuits, chocolate and crisps lasted all of…oh….let me see now….around 4 minutes. I displayed all the willpower of an anaemic gnat before I went snuffling off to the cupboard in search of sugary sustenance.

My ‘problem’ reached new heights (or depths depending on your perspective) over Easter itself when I devoured anything remotely unhealthy within arms reach. My eating Everest was a huge (as in HUGE) Cadbury’s chocolate Fruit & Nut egg which Fionnuala bought me as otherwise I would probably have sulked when the kids got their eggs. Or stolen them. So it’s my wife’s fault really. She forced me to cram every last chunk of it into my greedy gullet. I’m the innocent party in all of this don’t you see? Don’t you??

A chocolate egg. With raisins in it! And nuts!! What evil genius created this delicious delight. I was powerless in its grasp. Fast forward to the following morning and I woke up with a momentous food hangover. I felt nauseous, sluggish and very, very guilty. I’m a binge eater and with my running I can largely get away with it. I don’t put on much weight and if I do I tend to lose it fairly quickly again. Yet that morning I felt rubbish and resolved I was going to eat healthily between now and the marathon in just over a months time.

That’s right. I’m giving up chocolate…..after Lent!

It’s back to front thinking of the highest order but that’s the beauty of life. You can make a decision to change at any time and contrary to popular belief it doesn’t just have to be on 1st January. I’ve had more than my fair share of bad habits down the years. I’ve successfully knocked some on the head while others have proven more difficult to shake off. I would include a chronic Diet Coke problem, nail biting (just fingers, not toes) and binge eating in the latter category. Fionnuala has also mentioned my talking and breathing at times but I’m pretty certain this was in the heat of the moment and she didn’t really mean it.

I am proud that these bad habits are relatively minor in the greater scheme of things and that the bigger demons I have slain have far outweighed them in terms of significance. I also contend that my good habits now outnumber the not so good ones. It’s all part of the process of trying to become a better human being as you battle through life. You mess up, you learn from it and you resolve to do better the next time. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. The day you stop doing that is the day you might as well throw them towel in.

So I have a challenge for you all. I’m off all the aforementioned junk food until 7th May. I want YOU to join me. What bad habit are you willing to kick into touch for the next month and possibly beyond? Comment below and we can create an online accountability network. If it is a sensitive or private issue then feel free to send an e-mail. You are greater than your worst habit. Give it up rather than simply giving up. You will be shocked and surprised with the levels of willpower and discipline you can dredge up.

What is your worst habit?

What habit are you prepared to give up for the next month and possibly beyond?

Isn’t It Time You Stepped Out Of Your Tomb?

We all get buried alive at some point in our lives. It can be of our own doing or we may have been the unwitting victims of other people or circumstances beyond our control. Either way we come to our senses covered in dust and fumbling around in the darkness for some way out. The air is stifling and we can feel the panic rising in our throats. Our natural inclination is to scream. But who would hear us if we did?

You see that’s one of the annoying things about tombs. You don’t get many people hanging around them apart from the occasional loved one paying their respects. Or possibly a rogue gravedigger or gardener squeezing in a bit of overtime before the Easter break. Normally though tombs are pretty deserted places. Just you and your thoughts. So there’s no point really in screaming. Looks like you are going to have to figure your own way out of this predicament.

Which brings me to Awkward Issue Number Two. Tombs are kind of designed so as occupants have no problem getting into them but when it comes to leaving again, well that’s a whole different ball game. Once you’re in there nobody really expects you to have a change of heart and leave again. There are no fire exits, no secret compartments and no skylights. It’s one way traffic so sit back and make yourself comfortable. You’re not going anywhere in a hurry. That big, old boulder isn’t going to budge an inch no matter how hard you huff and puff at it.

Hmmmm. This isn’t going so well is it? Looks like we’re well and truly stumped here. If only we had Jesus to exert some of that supernatural power of his and roll away that pesky boulder as if it was a tiny pebble. Oh hang on a minute, we can. Or if Jesus isn’t your thing why don’t you hang your hat on whatever your understanding of a ‘Higher Power’ is. It can be Brahman or Buddha or any other spiritual life force you choose but choose quick cos you’re not getting out of here on your own.

It’s time to realise you’ve messed up and you don’t know how to make things better. Once you’ve handed that over it’s half the battle. You’re buried alive under tonnes of guilt, shame, lies, sin, whatever. It can be an addiction, a toxic relationship, a mental health or eating disorder, anything. But whatever it is you are six feet under and the rest. You’re running out of air and there’s no sign of the cavalry coming over the horizon. You are sunk without a trace.

Now nice and slowly. Hand it over.

Pray. Scream. Throw some stuff around if it makes you feel better. Hey, you can even curse if you want. This isn’t church and I won’t be telling. But when you’re done I can guarantee that you’ll feel better. For you’ve taken that first step. Accepting that your situation is out of control and that you need help. Acknowledging that things can be better and you want to keep walking in that direction. Having faith that whatever it is you have chosen to cling to will somehow get you back to a life worth living.

What’s that? A slight rumble at first but slowly it increases in volume. Dust starts to cascade from the ceiling, the ground beneath your feet begins to shake. Thin shafts of light permeate the gloom as the supposedly immovable object rotates ever so slowly away to reveal daylight outside. Fresh air seeps into your starved lungs and you rub your eyes in disbelief. Can this be real? You’re free? Or at least starting out on the road to freedom. Armed with faith, hope and the love of others who have been through what you are going through and survived to tell the tale.

Three steps and you’re there. Accepting the problem is out of your control. Handing it over to a power higher than yourself. And then accepting the help of wiser, experienced people who have walked the same road. My hope today for you is that if you are reading this, entombed and lost that you realise that all is not lost. All tombs can be breached and no stone is too heavy not to be rolled away. Light will always extinguish darkness and love and faith will always overcome anguish and despair. Just believe and step out into the garden.

Are you in a tomb? Have you extricated yourself from one in the past? Please share you experiences below.

What’s So Good About Friday?

What’s so good about Friday?

What’s so good about life?

What’s so good about lying, hatred, violence and strife?

What’s so good about suffering?

What’s so good about greed?

Never learning our lessons

Never realising our needs

What’s so good about trying?

What’s so good about loss?

What’s so good about Jesus?

Beaten and nailed to a Cross?

Well he’s the reason I’m still here

Trying my best to survive

He’s the reason my family

Every day flourish and thrive

That’s what’s good about Friday

That’s why he took the pain

That’s why he endured nails and a sword

Piercing his skin like a flame

So next time you moan on a Friday

Or mutter or mumble or mope

Think back to that darkest of all days

And thank Him for giving us hope.

Scraps

Meet Charlie the Border Terrier. He’s the sixth member of the Black Clan. I thought he deserved a post written about him because 1. I’ve written about everyone else and didn’t want him feeling left out. Dogs have feelings too y’know and 2. He can’t write for himself like the others can. Dogs can’t write y’know. Or at least none of the dogs I hang about with.

So what can I tell you about Charlie. Well. He’s six years old and we’ve had him since he was a puppy. He is the world’s friendliest dog. He is also the world’s most untrainable dog and believe me we have tried. In the end we just gave up. He’s either too stupid or too intelligent to obey even the most basic of commands. I’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt and plumped for the latter. Although there are days I have my doubts.

Charlie loves sleeping, barking, eating and having his belly scratched. In no particular order. He hates baths, cats and being told to get off the sofa. He is in love with Fergie, the little white Shih Tzu who lives next door. And she is in love with him. They are the Romeo and Juliet of the canine world. But alas their love will never be consummated. For their nasty human owners do not want to be ankle deep in Border/Shih Tzu puppies anytime soon. Shame on us.

Every morning I pour Charlie fresh water and set a bowl of dog food in front of him. Expensive, nutritious dog food, no cheap nonsense for our Charles. And every morning he looks at me with an expression that says ‘What you expect me to eat this muck? before sulking off to his cage for the remainder of the morning. Eventually he will reluctantly eat it if there is nothing else on offer all the while shooting me daggers and muttering under his breath about canine rights. We are cruel, unreasonable human beings and he lets us know this in no uncertain terms.

There is a pecking order in our house and I know where I stand in it. Somewhere roughly between Charlie and the front door. As in ‘Well if you don’t like it, then there’s the front door.’ Charlie has me wrapped around his little finger, I mean paw, and every night when we sit down for dinner positions himself beneath me where he bombards me with his most long suffering, hang dog expressions. Mug that I am I always cave in and end up feeding him scraps from my plate. He will happily gorge himself on these while his bowl of dog food sits untouched in the corner of the kitchen.

We can all be a bit like Charlie. Begging for scraps from a table while our perfectly acceptable meal lies discarded and untouched. Why we do have this insatiable need to crave more and not just be content with what we have? For it is more than enough if we would only open our eyes and inhale the truth. Scraps cannot fill us. They just leave us hungry for more, never satisfied, never full. Hunger leads to bad choices and poor judgement. It is a path that can only lead downwards.

Scraps are unhealthy and unedifying. You are better than that. Look in the mirror and see the person you are. You were created to sit at a table with those that love you and respect you. To dine on love, compassion and respect. Not scurry around on the floor barely existing on the occasional morsel thrown your way. One more like on social media, one more empty compliment, one more night out with people who have little time for you when sober. Is that really what you want? Really?

The people who matter are right before your eyes. Every day. They hang around because they see something in you that you cannot see for yourself. That you are special. That you are enough for them. They accept you for who you are. You do not need to change for them, you can drop the exhausting charade. All they ask is that you sit with them, spend time with them and believe. Believe in what they believe. That you are a good person, that you are complete and that, by acknowledging and accepting this, you complete them as well. They are your grass and it shines a brilliant green. You need never cross to the other side again.

Have you a pet? Who wears the trousers in that relationship?

What are your experiences of feeding on scraps?

Achilles Heel

Achilles heel. Scabbed. Won’t heal. Pick at it. Secrets revealed. Itching. Twisting. Tired of bitching. Peel it off and start again. Take the pain but what remains? Scarlet blood flows free and proud. Love and grace replace disgrace. Grit your teeth to save your face. Love again to run your race.

Achilles heel. Tensed and taut. Athletes crouch and pistols pop. Off they hurtle down the track. Forward. Onwards. Don’t look back. Sinews straining. Years of training. And for what? A crowning glory? Crowds are roaring. But if it snaps a different story.

Achilles heel. Ancient tales. Heroes turning in their graves. Arrows piercing exposed skin. Unsheathed swords sliding within. Scraping bone and piercing organs. Writhing hydras. Towering gorgons. Monsters unleashed. Ravenous beasts. Havoc wreaked. An end to peace.

Achilles heel. Guard it well. For heels are gateways to a hell of such dimensions that it will melt away all your pretensions. And leave you bony, broken, baffled. All hope snaffled. Life’s a raffle and you have lost. What’s the cost? Pay the ferryman and come across.

Achilles heel. Doesn’t matter if you run or walk, limp or crawl. He’ll welcome you all. With open arms and boundless charm. No need for pyrotechnics or alarm. But once you’re in the doors are locked. The clocks are stopped. The lights go out. You learn your plight. Eternal night.

Achilles heel. Painfully real. We all have two and here’s the deal. Slice open one you’ve still a chance. To get away, still save the day. But lose the second and you’re down. A helpless mess upon the ground. Vultures circle high above. Hyenas feast upon your blood. All for what for you gained naught.

Achilles heel. So now you’re dead. Scavengers fed and long since fled. And what of you? A pile of bones, stripped of your pride and left alone. No wifi here or mobile phones. But never fear. You won’t be bored. For we have so much to explore. New depths of pain you’ll not ignore.

Achilles heel. And here it ends. The train wreck just around the bend. You knew it all yet you knew nothing. The years of lies, deceit and plotting. It brought you here where you’ll remain. Eternal pain, forever stained. Alone and shackled in your chains. And there is only you to blame.

Who Are Your Favourite Bloggers?

I’m always delighted and slightly surprised when someone compliments me on my writing. It’s that inbuilt inferiority complex that I have dragged around behind me for most of my life. A nasty case of you’re-not-good-enough-itis. For many years I was so disenchanted with myself that I hid behind different characters that I created in order to gain attention and cover up the many glaring flaws that I perceived as having.

It took me to the brink in more ways than one. I almost lost everything. But over the last year or so I have come to the conclusion that maybe I’m not such a bad person after all. Maybe there is hope for me and a purpose for my life. And that is why the majority of my writing focuses on my faith, family and fitness. For they are the three constants in my life that I have clung on to when the rest of my world has been crumbling apart. Likewise they have been the foundations on which I have started to rebuild.

This blog has been part of the rebuilding process. The more I have written and revealed myself to the blogging community the more you have supported and encouraged me. It has been refreshing and invigorating to discover a social media platform where people put others first and talk openly and honestly about their lives and struggles. Where vanity and ego play second fiddle to compassion and selflessness. If only Facebook, Instagram et al could follow that example.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Personally I’ll take the thousand words any day of the week. The rampant selfie culture holds no interest for me anymore. Beauty fades, prose and poetry do not. They are timeless and irreversible. New words lead to new worlds. Worlds overflowing with possibilities and opportunities. Words bring people together and create caring communities where before there was separation and isolation.

WordPress typifies this bringing together of like minded souls. So the purpose of this post today is to further promote and spread our community. If you would like to I would encourage you to either reblog or post a link to your favourite blog or blogs below. This will create a list of new sites for people to check out and follow. It is about putting others before ourselves and encouraging fellow bloggers to write and read more.

Belfast Marathon Update

Ten miles this morning. The sun was shining, there was zero wind and I ran a loop of my village which took in a spectacular stretch along the shore of Lough Neagh. It was so warm that I had to remove my woolly hat after three miles which has been surgically attached to my head these last few months. I won’t tempt fate and say winter is finally over as I’ve heard there is snow forecast for Easter.

The Belfast Marathon is just over six weeks away now and I’m planning a 20 mile training run over the Easter break. Today went so well that I’ve decided to run this loop twice next weekend. I’m pretty sure the second circuit won’t be as enjoyable as the first but embracing and accepting the physical and mental pain is all part of the training process. Better to come to terms with it during a training run than be totally unprepared come the day itself.

I’ll post a book update later on. Busy, Busy, Busy!

What training targets have you set yourself?

Are you still wearing your winter clothing?

Why Are We Ashamed Of Our Mental Health?

I have had full blown man flu (aka a slight cold) this week and have made a point of ensuring that the entire world has known about it. Bar putting a two page advert in the local newspaper I have done everything humanly possible to squeeze the last drop of sympathy from my cynical family and largely unsympathetic work colleagues. And now I’m shouting it from the rooftops on WordPress – I HAVEN’T BEEN WELL!!!

You see if us men don’t let you ladies know when we are ill then you largely ignore us. Well maybe that’s a tad unfair. You don’t totally ignore us. Not if you include such loving observations as ‘Oh man up’, ‘Grow a pair’ and ‘You think that’s bad. Try childbirth’. These are just a selection of the loving comments that I have received down the years from my adoring wife. Other more creative and colourful offerings are, alas, largely unprintable.

This time around I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ve sucked it up, grown a pair and soldiered on despite my croaky throat and phlegmy chest. I’ve trudged into work, trudged around work and then trudged back out of work again. I’ve went to meetings, driven hatchlings to and from school, washed the occasional dish and emptied the occasional bin. It has been an exhausting and heroic effort on my part. Thankfully I’m not the type to brag about such exploits and I merely mention it in passing. As I said. Just in passing….

However….

If you were to have asked me this week how I was I would have considered it ‘open season’ and proceeded to enthral (bore) you with my recent medical history. It’s the least you would have deserved for enquiring. No stone would have been left unturned and you would have walked off with an intimate knowledge of my week of coughs, sneezes and other unmentionable noises. We love to talk about our aches and pains don’t we? If it wasn’t for them then a lot of us would have nothing to discuss.

I’m no different from the next hypochondriac. Within ten minutes of walking into work the other morning feeling lousy the entire office knew about it and were taking draconian preventative steps to avoid infection; that time I hurt my foot running last summer I was blogging about it within hours; yet since being diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) a number of years ago how many people have I informed? You could probably count them on the fingers of one hand.

The reason? Well I’m embarrassed. I worry that I will be judged, that people will look upon me differently and think less of me. I know, this is crazy thinking. A person with a recognised mental illness has as much right to discuss it openly and without fear than a person who has stubbed their toe or sprained their wrist. Yet we don’t. We skirt around the issues, we conceal the truth and we bury our heads in the sands hoping it will all just go away. Alternatively we come onto WordPress and converse about it within a safe, caring environment.

It should be easy but it isn’t. Try explaining your OCD to the average person on the street. It’s like trying to explain quantum physics to a caveman. No, I’m not a ‘clean freak’. Fionnuala often wishes I was. No I’m not constantly in the shower or washing my hands. For some people that is OCD. For me it is not. For me it is dark, repulsive thoughts that relentlessly assault my senses and literally batter me to my knees. The only means of obtaining temporary relief is to perform intricate, exhausting mental routines. Until the next thought arrives. And then the one after that.

Thanks to medication and talking to Fionnuala I am largely on top of it now. The bad days are less often. But it’s still there, lurking in the recesses of my mind, waiting to pounce if afforded the slightest encouragement or opportunity. It never has a day off. Given half a chance it will break you beyond repair. That’s why we need to be as vocal about our mental health as we are about our physical well being. We need to talk about it and not brush it under the carpet. We need to seek help rather than suffer in silence.

I follow a lot of bloggers who do just that. They are true advocates and are getting the message out there that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of; they are letting others know that they are not alone. They are a community and together we are strong. They are educating and combating ignorance and misinformation. They are the true heroes and have inspired me to write more about my own battles. If you would like to learn more about OCD then can I recommend the following books in no particular order of preference:

‘Because We Are Bad’ – Lily Bailey

‘Mad Girl’ – Bryony Gordon

‘Pure O’ – Rose Bretecher

What is your knowledge of OCD?

Are you vocal about your mental health?

How has WordPress helped you in finding others like yourself?

My Name Is Stephen and I Am A Snorer

I’m feeling a little under the weather. I awoke yesterday with a cold that one of my daughters thoughtfully passed on to me. One of the perks of sharing a house with little people. I felt lousy yesterday and a little less lousy today. All I want to do is sleep. All Fionnuala wants to do is sleep as well. But she has been unable to. Why you ask? Well I’m glad you did. For I have a confession to make.

For my name is Stephen Black and I am a snorer….

I know this may come as a shock to you and for that I apologise from the bottom of my phlegmy heart. There was you thinking all this time that I was the perfect man without a flaw. If you want to unfollow the blog now I fully understand and we can both just move on from this unfortunate incident and pretend it never happened. It’s for the best. It’s not you, it’s me. And so on.

I don’t think I snore all the time. But when my head is congested and my lungs are tight I guess I do. I woke up this morning to discover that my wife was not in bed with me. Had she finally seen sense and left me? Or possibly been abducted by little green men? If the latter then they don’t know what they have let themselves in for. Those Farrell woman are tough and don’t take kindly to being poked and prodded.

But no. I checked my phone to see that I had a WhatsApp message. From Fionnuala. At 4:53 am. Stating that she was downstairs and could still hear my snoring over the sound of the television. Surely she was mistaken. We live about twenty miles from Belfast International Airport so perhaps it was a plane passing overhead. Or our neighbour’s rooster having a particularly croaky start to the day.

Unfortunately I have to hold my hand up and take this one on the chin. My super snorey saliva stained chin. I am a secret (or not so secret) snorer. I checked the overnight news but thankfully there were no zombie related incidents for I feared I had wakened the dead. Just my wife. So now I feel lousy for two reasons. But I’m off work today so she has the pleasure of my company which is surely a silver lining. Er….right? Hello…..?

We all have annoying characteristics. Many people attempt to portray themselves and the lives they lead as perfect and wonderful. Don’t believe me? Just scroll down your Facebook timeline for two minutes. What we get is a heavily edited, airbrushed version of their realities. We don’t see the arguments and the tears and what they look like first thing in the morning. They seek to deceive us but really they are deceiving nobody but themselves.

Ever done that yourself? Show of hands? Don’t be shy now. Well I’m raising mine. I used to be like that. I had convinced myself that I had to portray a perfect image in order to be liked. Until I realised. The people who truly matter see beyond the mirage. They see the truth. They want the real you, warts and all. For that is the person they love. Our flaws are what make us so unique and fascinating. We should embrace them, not try to hide them in the closet with all our other skeletons.

So my name is Stephen Black and I’m a snorer. And I bite my nails, have a terrible memory and a million other bad habits that drive my wife nuts. I once asked her did I annoy her when I breathed? Her response? ….Yes. 😳 But I am me. And I know that buried deep down (waaaaay deep down) are other qualities that balance out the equation and make sharing a life with me worthwhile. Don’t be embarrassed by your imperfections. For it is they that make you perfect.

Are you a secret snorer? Or do you live with one?

What is your worst habit? I promise I won’t tell.

What are your experiences of the false Facebook culture?

I Wonder

I wonder. If there was a rapture would I be taken or left forsaken, alone on my throne in a world of broken bones and bleeding souls. Tortured by thoughts of what if and maybe. Come back and save me. My loved ones gone in an angelic throng while I wriggle and squirm, a pitiful worm.

I wonder. If there was a rapture who would God capture. That nice couple next door or the man down the road. Would churches be emptied or would they be full of embarrassed Christians and blustering pastors. Stripped to the bone by their all seeing master.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would we even notice who was gone for they’d be so few. One in a thousand or possibly two. We’ll list them as missing and contact the police. We’ll worry and cry and we’ll pray with our priest. Then we’ll quietly move on hand in hand with the beast.

I wonder. If there was a rapture who would we blame. For blaming and shaming is part of the game which we’ve played all our lives. We’ve schemed and we’ve skived, we’ve cheated and lied. We’ve bleated and nurtured this will to survive. To kill all that’s good in us, let darkness thrive.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would there be a panic. A manic breakdown of societal norms. Or would shoulders be shrugged and the experts wheeled out. To fill our dead minds with theories and doubts. It’s the Russians, the Chinese, some alien disease. God forbid that the truth would bring us to our knees.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would anything change. Would we rant, spit and scream, so incensed and inflamed. Then after a while just dust ourselves down, return to our phones with a shrug and a frown. For God’s overrated and Satan’s a riot. If there’s wifi in Hell I might as well try it.

I wonder a lot. These unwelcome thoughts. That I have to get out before my brain clots. This dirge is a purge of a tangled up mind. I’m writing it blind but I urge you to think. If the heavens swung open and angels descended. Would you still remain when the trumpets relented?

Death By Blogging

Today was largely spent chained to the laptop, revisiting and editing a number of chapters for the book. It was a graft and once again, as if I needed reminding, I realised what hard work writing can be. Some days the words just refuse to flow and you have to drag them kicking and screaming out of your imagination and onto the computer screen. Every sentence is a battle and every chapter a war.

I managed to get to where I needed to be and, before I closed the laptop down for the day, decided to carry out a word count. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the first draft is now sitting at 68,000 words. That’s over 200 pages. For the first time I felt as if I could actually do this. There is still a world of pain ahead and many long hours of rewriting and editing. But I’ve overcome a very awkward second quarter of the book and feel I’m roughly where I need to be now.

I’m literally bursting to share the plot and characters with you all but know I can’t do that yet for obvious reasons. All I can divulge is that it’s set in modern day Belfast and genre wise would be young adult fiction with very gritty themes and a sprinkling of the supernatural. In my head it is a trilogy and this first instalment largely sets the scene for a bigger and bolder story arc in the second and third books. This book largely concentrates on the inner struggles of the main characters before they turn their attention to the outside world.

I’m fairly word blind as I type this so apologies if my thinking is a bit skewed this evening. My neck aches which is a tell tale symptom that my brain is shot for the day. But I feel it’s important I blog about the book in order to hold myself accountable to you guys who support me on a daily basis in my writing and running ventures. The blog keeps me honest and underpins everything I do. Without it there would be no book and there would be no marathons.

Blogging helps keep me sane. It keeps my feet on the ground as the majority of my writing here explores my very flawed and fractured character. I’m my own biggest critic and I use my past failings to hopefully ensure that others do not make the same mistakes. My faith and my family feature heavily in my blogging and I make no apologies for that. They are the reason I am where I am today. All of the above ensure I remain grounded and keep my dreaded ego in check.

So I’ll go to bed tonight and probably dream of words and letters. We have come a long way since the blog launched last May. But there is still a long way to go. I wrote some months ago about how I regarded 2018 as ‘The Year Of Death.’ Death of the old ways, death of the old me, death of the demons who ensnared and almost destroyed me. I encourage you to join me in burying your past as well. Here’s to life and love and light. Here’s to words and miles. Here’s to you people.

What are you seeking to bury this year?

What does FracturedFaithBlog mean to you?

I’m Out On My Feet

I’m out on my feet. Ideas replete. Shackled and stymied by lies and deceit. I’ve tried and I’ve failed. My dreams are derailed. My hopes on a ship that has long ago sailed. I’m struggling to think. Do I need a drink? Cowering from demons I thought long extinct. Their malice so plain as before them I shrink. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet. So tired I can’t sleep. Lucid yet broken, beyond counting sheep. I’m bored of addiction, four decades of fiction. The tales of a fool who was ruled by restrictions. Possessing my thoughts, this brain full of rot. Delaying, decaying, amounting to naught. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet, no respite or relief. So burdened by thoughts, my head like concrete. Cracked lips, yellowed teeth stained by years of deceit. Entombed in a realm where I’m king of the thieves. Believing the lies, ignoring the signs. Condemned to a life of frustration and sighs. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet I heard myself bleat. Obsessing, regressing, wrapped in my own grief. I was digging my own grave, refusing to be saved, reliving the guilt and the sin being replayed. My head in the clouds and my foot in my mouth, the bottle I’d throttle to drown out the noise. The noise of my past, dreams shattered like glass. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet, so battered and bruised. Shattered, in tatters, soiled and abused. Rejecting the poison that sickens my soul, running amok as it swallows me whole. Placed my head in the noose to discover the truth. Choking to death on this facade of health. Would rather die poor than inherit your wealth. I’m out on my feet.

I was out on my feet but I’m not going down. Determined to fight and recover lost ground. So burn your white flags for I’m turning the tide, increasing my pace and regaining my stride. A glimmer, a shimmer, a hope oft denied igniting our dream that has somehow survived. For I’m back on my feet.

Our Next Blog – You Decide

It’s a wet, grey day in Belfast and my brain cells feel equally overcast. Maybe it’s because I’m diverting all my creative juices into the novel at the minute but the ‘ideas well’ is well and truly dry on the blogging front. Which got me thinking. Why do I have to do all the hard work when our wonderful WordPress family can get their thinking caps on as well.

So as a one off I’m opening it up to the floor and asking the question – What would you like us to write about? It can be as obscure or bizarre as you want. But please keep it clean. We will pick the best two suggestions and then post on the topic over the next few weeks. Current affairs, Fiction, Biography. You suggest it and I’ll give it a rattle if it rocks my boat. Extra bonus points for the most innovative and imaginative comments.

For All Demons Bleed….

It’s all about me. I’m selfish you see. So vain and conceited, it’s all about me. I fight the urge, this endless dirge, the need to purge myself of me. My needs. They feed my brain. They inflict pain. I smother others with my greed. It sows the seeds which grow the roots which, when afoot, choke and constrict. Restrict the man I want to be. Beautifully and wonderfully formed. Yet I conform to shallow sins, the endless din of voices fuelled by evil whims.

Yes, it’s all about me. For I’m selfish you see. You want an example? I’m so glad you asked. For I’ll put down my glass and trample the dreams of my loved ones aghast. I just want the best but it ends up a mess as the baby obsessions emerge from their nest. They’re as blessed as I’m cursed, they wish only the worst, driven forward by demons for actions rehearsed a million, a billion, a trillion of times. I’ll tell you I’m fine, I’m feeling sublime, yet inside their fingers are gouging my mind.

For it’s all about me. I’m selfish you see. The world keeps revolving round my gravity. I’m clever and witty and everyone’s friend. I’ll bend to your blend at the drop of a hat. I crave the attention and, oh did I mention, I run and I blog and I’m writing a book. So have a good look, gather round young and old. Click follow and swallow the lies that you’re sold. A slippery slope, a dope on a rope, I hope beyond hope that the demons are choked. By a force beyond words. A force beyond me. A life giving spirit, at last I’m set free.

It was all about me. I was selfish you see. But little by little I’m trying to change. They had me deranged but I’m prying away. They bite and they pull but I’m stronger each day. I’ve escaped from the filth and the guilt and the silt of my past which has clogged up my laughs and sliced through my life like a knife through warm butter. From gutter to author. I’m better than this and I’m better than you. I’ll run and I’ll write and I’ll love and I’ll smile. For with every mile you’re a mile down the road. That odious toad that I must offload, the demons they’re screaming as I grow more bold.

Now it’s all about them. I’ve discarded my past like the rags that they were. So dirty and soiled, they were drenched in the oil of earthly transgressions and shallow desires. Now I stack the dry bonfire and strike up a match. To raze to the ground those demonic clowns who clung to my soul like a leech fat and round. So bloated and soaked in the filth that they found. Now I’m watching them burn and then turning and walking away. To start a new day, a new week a new life. With the people that matter, free from relentless chatter.

Yes it’s all about us. That’s the thrust of these words. And I trust you see through them, the prose and the verse. To the truth of a man who was saved from disgrace. By a grace with no depths and a love with no bounds. I was lost, now I’m found. And I hope you see hope in the words that I write. That they open your eyes and offer fresh sight, a glimmer of light. To vanquish the darkness that’s raging inside. You’re better than that and you will succeed. For all demons bleed when faced with the truth. Your power over them is about to take root.

The Library Fine Police

Yesterday I paid a visit to Belfast City Library. There were a number of reasons for this lunchtime jaunt. Firstly I had just emerged from the three hour ‘meeting from hell’ so needed to get out of the office to shower my head. I also needed to get a book as part of my research for the novel I am currently writing. Have I mentioned I’m writing a novel? And finally I wanted to pay a visit to the library cafe which features in a scene of said novel.

My head had been spinning from the meeting but went into overdrive when I realised that the cafe no longer existed but had been replaced by a couple of soulless vending machines and a sorry collection of plastic tables and chairs. Where was the little old lady behind the counter and her collection of delicious, homemade sandwiches? Where were all the scholarly types brushing crumbs from their copies of the Irish Times? And most importantly where were all the caramel squares and German biscuits??

I turned on my heels in total (but very silent) outrage and sulked up the stairway to the next floor where the History section was housed. I was amazed to find the research book I required within minutes and even more amazed to discover that there were no outstanding fines on my library card which I hadn’t used in about 479 years. I had built myself up into a complete tizzy that I had a £1 fine from 2012 that had accumulated unbeknownst to me into a six figure payment. Cue visions of alarms screeching, metal shutters clattering down and men in dark suits and sunglasses dragging me off into the bowels of the building. ‘We have the target contained and neutralised. Go Go Go’.

Thankfully this was not to be. The librarian scanned the book, handed it back to me and asked that I return it within three books. Which I will. On pain of death. Must not forget about book….must not forget about book….must not forget about the book. As I gratefully scuttled back down the stairs I was struck by how much the floor had stank of stale cigarette smoke which did nothing to make me want to linger. Yet when I stepped outside onto the street again I saw no smoking area or huddle of patrons sucking on their Marlboro lights and sharing critiques on Hemingway and Steinbeck.

Where were all the smokers? Had I imagined the smell? I sometimes wake up with phantom smells in my nostrils. Cigarettes and alcohol mostly. Even though I have never smoked and gave up drinking almost five years ago. Had my library visit been a journey into a parallel universe? Was there a secret library cafe where smokers rubbed shoulders and consumed ‘Rocky Roads’ and ‘Fifteens’ at an alarming rate? Was this next to the cells where the men in black housed those who had failed to pay their overdue book fines? Dragged off to a dank dungeon never to be seen again.

My library visit had mixed results then. I’m going to have to use my imagination and recollection to write the library cafe scene. And I returned to work mildly nauseated with the odour of stale tobacco. Eurrghhh. I can actually smell it now as I write this. But I did get the book I wanted and avoided the evil clutches of the Library Fine Police. And I did come up with several ideas if I ever feel the literary urge to further explore the dark underbelly and hidden recesses of Belfast City Library further. I might save that for the second novel. That’s if I ever get around to finishing the first one.

When did you last visit your local library?

What’s the largest fine you’ve ever paid?

Do you ever experience phantom smells or tastes?

There Are Times I Don’t Think

There are times I don’t think. And when I don’t think I’m back on the brink. I huff and I puff and I blow my house down. Left standing in rubble, the boy in the bubble. A bubble of trouble, a mess and a muddle. A puddle of pain, the stress and the strain. I know I’m to blame and I’m stricken with shame.

There are times I don’t think. Can’t say it’s the drink for that’s over. I’m sober. Five years on the wagon, I’ve slain that old dragon. But the habits are older, they’re the worst of hangovers. I hang over the edge but I’ve taken a pledge. I’ve changed and I’m trying. The past can stop prying for I’m done with dying a death of regret.

There are times I don’t think. There’s no rhyme or reason for this is our season. Our future is bursting with promise and hope. Yet I’m such a dope. My synapses relapse, my defences collapse. I regress to type, I believe all the hype. I’ve nothing to hide yet the demons inside seek to thwart and deny the man I’ve become.

There are times I don’t think. Old habits die hard. I need to reprogram and live for the moment, not worry and scurry and dither and frown. Excuses like nooses which rob me of life. My kids and my wife are the air that I crave, my escape from the grave. The loves of my life, the reason I write. These words are for them, my last requiem.

There are times I don’t think. The impact of actions, my flustered reactions. Looking guilty and sly when inside I’m buzzing with passion and life. Planning birthdays and dinners and trying to change. My reasons sound lame but i promise I’ve tamed this beast from my past. Let this be the last. I’m discarding my mask.

There are times I don’t think. Those times need to end. So today is the day when I break all the trends. I’ve crafted these words like you’ve crafted your gifts. Your beauty and patience are the reason I live. I promised to change and I promise I have. Today I’ll start thinking, leave behind all the hurt. For better or worse. We’re blessed more than cursed.

Who Am I? Who Are You?

It was St. Davids Day on Thursday. He’s the patron saint of Wales so my two Welsh colleagues pulled out all the stops and laid on a Welsh breakfast for the entire office. We had Welsh cake, Welsh waffles, Welsh fruit cake and er…..German chocolate spread. They wore daffodils (their national flower) and brought a Welsh map into the office to educate us more about their country.

For example who knew that the population of Belfast was larger than the population of Cardiff? That there were more sheep than people in Wales? Or that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was in fact originally a Welsh man who got kidnapped by pirates and hauled back across the Irish Sea? This was all the more remarkable given we had spent most of the week mercilessly mocking them about Ireland having beaten Wales the Saturday before in the Six Nations Rugby Championship.

I was very impressed by their patriotism and sense of national identity. They are proud to be Welsh and even taught me a few Welsh words. Lechyd Da (pronounced Yakky Da) which is a traditional Welsh greeting meaning ‘good health’. Apparently. It also saddened me slightly though. In Northern Ireland we can’t agree on anything when it comes to our national identity. Language, flags, anthems you name it our communities and politicians fall out over it. To the extent that our local legislation has collapsed and we are facing direct rule from London again. Which nobody really wants but seems inevitable at the moment.

I’m as bad as anyone. Ask me my nationality and it depends on what day of the week it is and how I’m feeling. At home I’m Northern Irish; I have a British passport but when I’m abroad and people ask me where I’m from I often say I’m Irish. Because everybody loves the Irish and I can’t be bothered explaining the whole ‘well actually I live in the United Kingdom but on the island of Ireland’ thing. And now that we (as in 51.9% of the British population) have voted to leave the European Union we face the prospect of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Even though nobody wants that and 56% of Northern Irish people voted to remain.

That’s why I like rugby so much as a game. Religion or nationality don’t enter the equation. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic or Protestant. If you are good enough you are good enough. There is one national side containing the best players from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They have even created a unique rugby anthem, ‘Ireland’s Call’, which everyone can sing together before the start of the match. It is a unifying and emotional experience. It’s no wonder the team plays with such passion and is currently ranked 3rd in the world.

Fionnuala and I have experienced first hand the difficulties of living in a world where people judge you and attach labels based upon your background and upbringing. Labels conceal the real person struggling to be heard beneath. What’s the first thing you do when you buy a new pair of jeans or a sweater and bring them home to excitedly try them on? Why, you remove the labels of course. We don’t want our kids growing up in the same bigoted, jaundiced society that we did. We want them to live their lives free from prejudice and hatred. We want the best for them. And that means ripping off the labels.

I am me and I refuse to be labelled and stuck in a box. I want to cut loose from stereotypes and preconceptions. Writing is my key to unlocking the prison cell I have inhabited for most of life. A life sentence of conforming and adapting my personality in order to fit in with the values of others. I made myself permanently uncomfortable in order that others whose company I was in could feel temporarily comfortable. I was a cowardly chameleon, a miserable master of disguise. Blogging has removed my need for that. Hence the honesty of my writing. It is like breathing fresh air for the very first time after a lifetime in stifling captivity.

My hope for you today is that you are comfortable in your own skin. And if not, then why not, and what are you going to do about it? Strike out on a journey of a lifetime in order to find the real you. It will be a rocky and winding road for sure and you may stumble from time to time. But don’t despair and don’t give up. It is a journey of discovery which, in turn, will lead to recovery. Recovery from a past of false labels. Recovery of your true identity. Finding the person that stares at you every morning, trapped behind a mirror of lies. Breaking through and finding the real you.

So……who are you?

What Are You Up To This Weekend?

Storm Emma has now arrived in Northern Ireland and we woke up to strong winds and drifting snow. The road out of the village is impassable and the police have been telling motorists to turn round and go back home. There was no chance of me making it into work today and the schools are shut again. So the five of us (six of you include Charlie the border terrier) are holed up in the house for another day. Given the weekend forecast I don’t think we will be going very far this weekend.

I doubt if I’ll stray very far from the sofa. We will just focus on keeping warm and look out at the chilly conditions from the comfort of our home. I’ll be making the most of this unexpected down time and will spend some time working on the book which is flowing quite easily at present. I have a plentiful supply of Diet Coke and various nibbles. And later on Fionnuala and I will no doubt get caught up with our shows on Netflix and Showbox. I’m also working my way through ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath. Not the cheeriest reading material I know but beautifully written.

So an abbreviated blog today. We are stranded so want to know what your plans are for the weekend. Where are you going and who with? What will you be up to? Are you looking forward to it? Or a little anxious? What are you reading? Watching? Eating and drinking? Let us know by commenting below.

Blogging. Doubting. Hoping.

Blogging can be an entirely selfish experience. A lot of what we write relates to our own lives and the inevitable ups and downs we face along the way. Much as I try to focus on helping others I too often find myself writing about myself – my family, my faith, my running, my writing. I don’t like writing about myself as that way lies arrogance, vanity and a loss of self control. I’ve fallen victim to these vices in the past and I really don’t want to revisit them.

Yes, the blog is my bread and butter and I really am grateful for how it has reignited my love of writing. It is the platform from which I’m hoping to launch my writing career. There are days when I am filled with hope and confidence that it will happen whereas other days, like today, it seems a remote pipe dream. Doubt nags at my positivity like a dog gnawing on a bone. I look in the mirror and see a foolish, middle aged man dining out on daydreams and chasing a pot of gold at the end of an unattainable rainbow.

The beauty of novel writing is that I can escape reality and escape myself. The words I write are about fictional characters and settings. I can sit unnoticed on the sideline and watch their stories unfold. I’m not the centre of attention which suits me just fine. I don’t like being in the spotlight anymore whereas I used to crave it. I’ve flown too close to the sun, like the mythical Icarus, and had my wings singed causing me to come crashing to the ground. So it’s a daily battle as my desire to write and express myself goes toe to toe with my need to keep a lower profile and stay out of the limelight.

I have a dream but does it sit comfortably with the progress I have made to date? Sometimes I’m not so sure and worry that I’m pursuing targets which are neither healthy nor attainable. Maybe I should just settle for mediocrity. Maybe running marathons at my age is too much? Writing a book is a one in a million potshot. Am I even good enough? The only person to have read anything to date is Fionnuala. I’m scared to let anyone look at it for fear that I will be mocked and ridiculed.

So I’ll continue to wrestle with the conflicting forces inside of me. I have so much to be grateful for and sometimes I think I should draw a line in the sand and focus on what I have. We have a good life yet I’m striving to improve it. Haven’t I watched enough of my half baked plans self destruct in the past to know better? Or am I wiser now and more discerning? Who knows? Well God does but he’s not telling me just yet. Until then I’ll just continue to tentatively nudge along this tightrope of creativity in the hope that I make it to the other side without falling.

I’m blogging blind folded and I hope with all my heart that it takes us where we need to be. Doubt is healthy in a way I suppose. It tethers us to reality when, otherwise, we would drift off up into the wide, blue yonder never to return; swept away on a flight of fancy that can only end in regret and disillusionment. Yes doubt can be an unpalatable, but necessary, medicine. It is alright to doubt as long as you don’t feed the doubt to the extent that it paralyses talent and ambition. Doubt can destroy dreams like a warm knife through butter. Cutting through all the promise and potential until there is nothing left.

I hope. And I doubt. They are not comfortable bedfellows but they are who I am. They are two sides of the same coin. A coin that seems to spin forever as I flick it in the air and watch to see what side it comes down on. I watch with bated breath and dry lips. It’s a game of chance and my chance may be small but a small chance is better than no chance at all. So I’ll keep writing and hope my ideas and images gel into the book I know I have inside me. I need doubts. They keep me grounded. They keep me humble. They keep me real and honest.

And so this post draws to a close and I find myself writing about that taboo subject again – me. But whereas before I would have been oblivious to that delicious irony today it stares me down as clear as day. Self awareness is a hard earned skill and I have the scars to prove it. Scars I am proud of. They are part of who I am. They are signposts. Warning of the excesses of the past and pointing towards better times and places in our futures. A promised land of milk and honey. I’m feeling my way along the tightrope and I dare not look downwards and backwards. Only forwards and onwards. Hoping. Doubting. A step at a time.

Are you paralysed by doubt? Or do you see it as a healthy dollop of realism?

Where do yuh want your writing to take you?

Persecute & Perish

The third in my series of ‘Peter Posts’ focuses on the persecution of the early Christian Church in the Book of Acts. Being a Christian back then was a high risk occupation. Jesus had been crucified and then his body had ‘disappeared’ from the tomb. Crazy rumours were spreading like wildfire around Palestine that he had risen from the dead and would return to overthrow the Roman occupation. Jerusalem was a tinder box of emotions and it would only have taken the slightest spark to throw the city into open rebellion.

The local religious leaders needed to reaffirm their authority. The crucifixion of the rabbi who claimed he was the son of God had backfired spectacularly. Thousands were flocking to the teachings of Jesus under the leadership of Peter (the Galilean fisherman formerly known as Simon) and his rag bag collection of disciples. Someone had to be made an example of and that someone was my namesake Stephen who was brutally stoned to death after eloquently and passionately professing his faith before the religious leaders of the Sanhedrin.

Before this Peter had also experienced a taste of the ruthless persecution of the early church which was to follow. In Acts 4 John and him were brought before the Sandhedrin and warned to keep their mouths shut and desist from preaching in Jerusalem. In the following chapter they were again warned about their conduct whereupon Peter replied:

We must obey our God rather than human beings. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. (Acts 5 29-30)

Blimey! How to win friends and influence people. Probably not the wisest thing to come out with to a group of religious zealots looking for an excuse to kill you. It was only the intervention of a Pharisee named Gamiel which saved his neck. Peter, the same Peter who denied he knew Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion and then skulked off weeping bitterly, was now putting his life on the line to publicly declare that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Son of God as prophesied throughout the Old Testament. This was incredible, revolutionary talk. Delivered with style and passion by a man who spent most of the Gospels with his foot well and truly wedged in his mouth.

Here was a man who had been transformed, who was on fire. The Holy Spirit was roaring through his veins and he could not be silenced, no matter what persecution he faced. And do you know why? Because he was no longer afraid. In his darkest days between the death of Jesus and the resurrection he must have beaten himself up, his weaknesses and flaws horribly exposed for all to see. He was a coward, a failure and a fraud. Would we have been surprised if he had fled to the hills never to be seen again? Or chosen a more permanent exit like Judas after his ultimate betrayal?

Yet he didn’t. He came back a changed man, a better man. Yes he was forgiven by Jesus but he also chose to forgive himself and make amends. He faced decades of persecution by choosing not to persecute himself over his past. He chose to move on, to move forwards and become one of the most influential figures in the history of civilisation. The Bible is full of such stories; of people who messed up but were used by God for great things. Because they chose to suck it up and make a fresh start.

Have you messed up? Do you beat yourself up day after, month after month, year after year over it? I would encourage you to take a leaf out of Peter’s book. Forgive yourself. It’s not easy (believe me I know) but it is possible. Peter faced enough external persecution in his life without having to deal with the internal variety as well. Don’t listen to the internal voice trying to drown out your hopes and dreams. Fight for your future because nobody else will for you.

In order to conquer your world you must first conquer your fears. Peter did. And so can you. Today. Now.

Have you persecuted yourself in the past? Are you still your own worst enemy? Pleas comment below and share your experiences with our community.

A Few Lines

Just a few lines today you will all be glad to hear. It is my last day off work before going on call for a week so today I’m going to focus on the novel I am supposedly writing. Life has got in the way of late as it tends to do and other stuff has taken priority. If there is a secret to novel writing whilst juggling family and work commitments then I would be delighted to learn your secrets.

Hopefully normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Or as normal as this blog will ever be. I’ll be continuing the study of Peter with posts about community and persecution. Again Fionnuala and I would like to thank you all for your continued support of the blog. We are nearing 4000 followers so must be doing something right. Feel free to comment below even if it’s just to say hello. Talk soon.

All Fogs Are Temporary

My plans are in ruins!

Now I’m not one to exaggerate but I had planned to go on my long run this morning only to awaken to a blanket of fog outside. A real pea souper even though that description never rang true with me as wouldn’t pea soup be green? And I’ve never seen green fog even in that Stephen King movie about the fog. Or was that mist? Can you get green mist? And what’s the difference between mist and fog anyway?Aaaaarrrrghhh! My brain hurts!

So here I am blogging instead of running. The weather man says it should clear later in the morning but that’s no good to me as there is lots of other stuff going on today. Plus the longer I wait the less likely I am to go out and run. I always get very nervous before a long run as self doubt and negativity creep in. My next target is the Belfast Marathon on 7th May so I have plenty of time but try telling that to the grouchy gremlins who reside within my head. They are already rubbing their hands with glee at the sight of fog and telling me my training schedule is in tatters now and I’m doomed to fail.

Fog has only a temporary grip on reality.

I know this fog will clear like all fog clears. It is a transient phenomenon. And when it clears everything will be exactly as it was before. The houses in our street will not have moved. Dinosaurs will not be roaming the earth. The Washington Redskins will still suck. Nothing will have changed. And I will go out for my run and all will be well. I might have to curtail the distance I planned to run but it can be made up another time. I will not lose four years of fitness and confidence in the space of four hours. The world will keep turning and Stephen will keep running. Fact.

The same applies to the mental fogs that sometimes descend upon us. When the fog closes in we feel disoriented and confused. We lose our bearings and panic sets in. We don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we are going. We become afraid as who knows what monsters lurk out there in the shadows. The fear of the unknown is magnified as our mind starts to play tricks upon us. Depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and self loathing set in. Our defences crumble as the armies of despair and paranoia overwhelm us. We turn on ourselves. And our fog filled minds can be our most bitter enemy as it knows every weakness to play upon and every button to push. We succumb to it.

Fog conceals the truth.

It plays tricks. It is a liar. It distorts and twists. It may seem impenetrable but the truth is that the light is still there. And the fog in our heads has only temporary power over it. The light and the truth are constant. They are set in stone. The sun and the moon will always be there when the fog lifts. Clear skies will return to show you that nothing has changed. Mental illness is not who you are. You are who you are. And that will never change. Your soul will continue to shine brightly just as the stars will continue to shine at night. No fog can steal that from you.

How do I know this? Because I too have stood in the fog unable to see past my own hand. I have fallen to my knees and given up all hope of ever finding a way out. But I did. And when I did emerge I discovered that nothing had changed. My loved ones still loved me. I was still the same me. The mental fog I had struggled with had merely distorted my vision and muddied the waters. It had polluted my perception of who I was and what I stood for. It had created an altered state where I could not flourish and thrive. A state where subjective, pessimistic thinking reigned and hopelessness took root.

And if I can do it then so can you as well. The sun will always burn away the fog. It’s rays of faith, hope and love will break through and will light the way for you. It can set you back on the right path, the road to recovery and well being. The light will always emerge victorious over the darkness. The fog will always dissipate and no matter what you addiction or obsession it is temporary. All chains can be broken. Freedom is a choice. All you have to do is believe and make that choice. Make the right decision. Today. Now. Walk out of the fog and welcome to the rest of your life.

Have you experienced the fog? Are you currently there? Or have you overcome it? We would be interested in hearing your thoughts. Please comment below.

Here’s To Being Average

Adam and I spent yesterday morning painting the kitchen ceiling. Fionnuala has been asking me to do this for around two years now but I have been waiting until our son was tall enough to help me out. Some might call that laziness and indifference. Not I. I regard it more as excellent forward planning and best use of resources. Well yesterday that day came. I decided it was time to paint the ceiling. Or rather I was told if it wasn’t done this weekend my life wouldn’t be worth living. Yes it’s sad but it’s true. Our son, aged 15, is now taller than me.

I am 5′ 11” tall. This pains me. When people ask me how I tall I am I sometimes reply ‘Almost six foot’. Does this make me feel any better about myself? Well, not really. I so wanted to be six foot tall but sadly it was not to be. I’m not short but I’m not tall. I’m kind of somewhere in between. I’m average. Adam on the other hand is going to be a giant. He’s hit six foot and is still growing. This became obvious yesterday as we tackled the ceiling. He didn’t need to use the stepladder once. I, on the other hand, was up and down it more often than a forgetful firefighter.

Our son now looks down upon me. I’m his little old man. And now that he has started serious weight training as part of his rugby training regime he’s just going to get bigger and bigger. Fionnuala is already giving him the talk about girls because the way his rugby career and physique are developing he is going to be attracting a lot more female attention in the years to come. He has an exceptional talent that, even now, has the rugby coaches and scouts sitting up and taking note. I think he will one day play rugby professionally, he’s that good. I know I’m his father so am naturally bias but that’s what I think. Time will tell.

I was never that good at rugby. Or football, or any other sport for that reason. I was average at best and never stood out on the playing fields. The same went for my height and many other areas of achievement (or lack of) in my life. I viewed my average abilities as inadequate when, looking back, they were entirely adequate. To compensate I always craved attention and popularity. That needy nature still lurks inside me and raises it’s not very pretty head from time to time. Thankfully I have a wise and wonderful wife who can knock this particular demon back down whenever it surfaces.

As I grow older, but not taller, I’m learning that you can’t be a superstar at everything you try. If you were brilliant at everything then life would be pretty boring. You would have no standout talents or abilities, you would just be equally amazing at everything. Nothing would stand out. Even superheroes have flaws or weaknesses. Perfection is well….average. And being average at most stuff you tackle in life is alright actually. You get by, you manage. And the ninety nine average traits in your life allow your talent or gift to shine all the more brightly, like a beacon of hope on a dark, featureless hillside.

Our average characteristics contribute towards our unique nature. They help in shaping us into the complex, incredible creations that we are. They define us and complete us. Every genius had a generous dollop of average as well thrown into the mix. God insisted. Otherwise our egos would run amok and our ability to express humility and modesty would be swallowed whole. YOU are exceptional and were placed on this earth at this time to do exceptional things. And being average at this or that is all part of the exceptional person you are.

You are who you are for a reason. Never forget that. It’s time to start feeling comfortable in your own skin. For it’s the only one you will ever have….unless you happen to be some some kind of weird snake-human hybrid. Which would be far from average. So here’s to being average. It’s the new awesome.

What height are you?

Are you comfortable in your own skin?

What’s so awesome about celebrating the average?

Ask Me A Question….

How many times have you opened your mouth to say something to a loved one but have been unable to force the words from your lips? You’ve felt too awkward or embarrassed to make public what may have been sitting on your heart for what seems like an eternity. So the unspoken thought or emotion lies dormant within you never to see the light of day. It’s a frustrating, infuriating feeling right? You are bursting at the seams but unable to seize the moment. And another opportunity meanders by. Another day is lost and important words go unspoken.

I have often bottled up my emotions and allowed them to fester and spoil within me. They eat away at you from within, like acid working on your stomach lining. Why is it so hard to speak the truth when lies seem to drip so effortlessly from our lips? Why do we stumble over proclamations of love when words of hate and ill feeling fly from our mouths like flocks of crazed crows? We cannot practice what we preach unless we first practice how to speak lovingly, truthfully and without fear.

So today I’m going to suggest an exercise. I want you to ask me up to three questions. It can be anything. Something that you’ve always wanted to ask but have held back. It might be trivial, it might be silly, it might be deep and spiritual. Whatever it is I will answer you truthfully. But it will be a special kind of truth because it will cross the ether and unlock your own truth reservoir. When I have answered I want you to speak to a loved one later today and tell them how much they mean to you; how much you appreciate what they do for you. You can even mention the dreaded ‘L’ word if you want. That’s love by the way not laundry.

You do not have to participate if you don’t want to but I hope that you do. It could be the safest of steps for you or it could be a gargantuan leap into the unknown. Either way I hope releasing words of love and kindness from within you will start a tiny tsunami of positivity that spreads throughout your community. It could fizzle out or it could start a chain reaction that results in permanent, concrete change within damaged relationships and brittle friendships. Call me naive but I hope and pray that this is so.

So it’s over to you. Are you up to the challenge?

Start asking….

Ode To OCD #2

If silence cuts like a knife

Then I have died the death of a thousand cuts at your hands

Your scars have scarred me

You have sliced me with your lies

Strangled by our soul ties

More lies

You’ve broke me in two

But I’ve broken me too

Now I’m breaking on through

To what?

Nothing that’s what

For I am everything that you have allowed me to become.

Lacey Sturm – Mercy Tree

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrgl9z3grKU&feature=share

Fionnuala and Hannah are the musical maestros in the family but I thought I would crash the party and post a song by one of my favourite singers and authors, Lacey Sturm. She was formerly the lead vocalist of a band called Flyleaf who some of you may have heard of. Her words and music have had a huge impact on my faith journey. This is one of her more mainstream songs (she’s usually more grunge rock). Hope you enjoy it and let me know what you think.

You Are A Warrior

Adam and I went to the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast last night to watch Ulster Rugby play the Southern Kings in a Guinness Pro 14 match. We had a great night; Ulster won 59-10 and we got complimentary burgers from my brother-in-law who is in charge of the catering and hospitality at the stadium. It made the frozen toes and long walk back to the car afterwards worthwhile. Note to self – wear thicker socks next time you got to a rugby match in February!

It is the start of a big rugby weekend. The Six Nations Championship has started and Ireland play Italy later today in Dublin. That, however, is not the main event for the Black family. Adam has been selected to play for his school’s senior team today for the first time. He will be playing against boys three years older than him but the coaches recognise his talent and potential and are throwing him in at the deep end. They have confidence in him and believe he has the ability to cope with this step up in class.

Fionnuala and I will be nervously cheering him on from the touchline. Win, lose or draw we are very proud of him as we are of all our kids. Adam has the skill and work ethic to develop into a top rugby player and hopefully play professionally one day. My dream is to watch him play one day at the Kingspan for Ulster Rugby. And even if he doesn’t watching him play has brought us closer together this last year. It has become our thing. I’m passionate about his rugby. I know I get a bit carried away at times but he has been blessed with a gift and I want him to run with it as far as he possibly can.

It is a dream at the minute but dreams can become reality if you are prepared to roll up your sleeves and work at them. They are reality waiting to happen. You just have to reach out and take what is rightfully yours. It might not happen overnight but it will do eventually if you just keep your eye on the prize and keep moving forward. Fear and doubt will do their best to scupper your ambitions but they have to be ignored and kicked to the kerb. You are better than that. Of that I am certain.

Do you have a dream that remains unfulfilled? Have you given up after a lifetime of having been knocked down and pushed back? I encourage you to dust yourself down, take a deep breath and stand tall again. You are better than the demons who oppose you. They are more frightened of you than you are of them. That is why they fight so viciously. Because they see the light within you and it terrifies them. They see what you do not see. They see the real you and in that they see their ultimate demise.

You are a warrior standing on the battlefield of your own destiny. You wear the armour of a good and righteous person. Your enemies stand amassed before you and you have a choice. Do you cower before them and allow your life to meander aimlessly and without purpose? Or do you fill your lungs with air and roar a battle cry of defiance? Do you charge towards them in the knowledge that you are better than them? You can conquer depression, addiction, guilt and worthlessness? You are a hero. You are my hero and you will stand victorious over all you survey. I know you can do it. Do you?

What enemies are you facing on the battlefield today?

How do you propose to conquer them?

What Are You Going To Stop Doing Today?

Stop it.

There is something you are doing today that you should not be doing. I don’t know what it is and I don’t particularly want to. The point is you do and you know that it is wrong. Wrong to yourself and wrong to others. Damaging and destructive. You know you need to stop and that thought nags away at you constantly. Well that’s good for that’s your conscience talking. If you care enough to know it’s wrong then you can find the strength to stop doing it.

Think of all the times you have tried to stop before and failed. How did you feel when you relapsed into your old ways? Beaten, despairing, self loathing. Not a great way to live is it? Now imagine a world without that ‘thing’. Imagine the freedom, knowing that it no longer had a grip on you. Write a list if you need to outlining how you currently feel and how you would feel if you stopped. I wager that the pros far outweigh the cons. Which is why you need to stop in order to kickstart your life again.

You are better than this. You know that deep down. It needs you more than you need it. You were created for better but life has just temporarily derailed you. It’s time to dust yourself down and get back on track. It’s time to cross over to the other side. I know you can do it. Why? Because I did. I stopped and it turned my life around. And if useless old me can stop then so can you. What’s more I’m by your side and you can be accountable to me. For as long as you need me. Here’s what we are going to do.

Small bites. Commit to stopping for 24 hours. Don’t look beyond that. But for those 24 hours give it everything you’ve got. You will be tempted but that’s ok, that’s normal. The key is that you don’t give in to that temptation. Fill the void in your day that the ‘thing’ consumes with something else. Anything else. Stay busy and push on through. I am here if you need to talk. I will be thinking of you and praying for you. Just get through that first 24 hours. Then we can think about the next 24.

Will you join me in stopping today?

What Are Your Three Best Qualities?

I make a point of reading as many other blogs as I can when I can. Sometimes I comment, other times I only have time to hit the like button but I do value the work of my fellow bloggers. There is a sense of community here that I have never experienced on other social media platforms before. People seem to genuinely care about others as opposed to seeking the spotlight themselves. WordPress is a selfless as opposed to a selfie zone.

A lot of people who write on this platform are struggling with a myriad of demons. There is an honesty and vulnerability expressed here that is refreshing compared to the fakeness of other platforms. It is raw and it is painful but it is real. Reality can be a tough pill to swallow but it is only when we recognise our weaknesses and accept our fears that true healing can begin. The best medicine is often the most bitter tasting.

The nature of this process, however, is that people are often very hard on themselves. Sometimes unfairly so. You are all wonderful people who deserve peace, love and happiness. Fionnuala and I are often deeply saddened by some of the stories we read. The negativity is often heartbreaking. Today I want to flip the coin. Life is about love. We were placed on this planet to love others. But before we can do that we must learn to love ourselves. That can be hard and I know I am my own worst critic.

So today I want you to comment below, listing your three best qualities. When you have written them down take a moment to reflect on them and think back to times when you have displayed them for the benefit of yourself and others. When you are in that good place, realise how special you are and how needed you are on this broken world we live in today. Look in the mirror and realise you are amazing. Do it now.

I insist….

What are your three best qualities? Comment below.

Medals Or Memories?

I have a drawer full of race medals. When I first started running four years ago I treasured them like precious jewels. The guys I ran with had the motto ‘It’s all about the bling’. We would travel the length and breadth of the country in search of additions to our collections. The bigger and more colourful the better. I remember once running a ten mile race and being handed a commemorative mug, as opposed to a medal, at the finish line. I was devastated.

In my first full year of running I competed in around 25 races. That’s 25 weekends away from my family. Fionnuala was very understanding and supported my healthier lifestyle but looking back I was selfish. As the weight fell off me and my medal collection grew I became increasingly cocky. As my times tumbled so my arrogance increased. Family life revolved around my racing calendar. It was only a matter of time before the wheels came off and indeed they did.

When the chips were down the majority of my running friends were nowhere to be seen. In my hour of need the medal haul meant nothing. My marathon personal best was irrelevant. And it was the people who I had largely neglected that stood by me – my family. They didn’t give a hoot about my running heroics. They just wanted their husband and father back. The real me and not the fake persona I adopted on race day or on social media. They loved me for who I was, not who I wanted to become.

I’m planning to run six races this year and I hope to have Fionnuala and the kids cheering me on at a couple of them. It will mean another six medals but they are not the reason I am doing it. My mental and physical health benefit massively from running and I also raise money for a charity close to my heart. I will be setting conservative targets with regards finishing times instead of busting a gut to get a personal best. And I won’t be going on Facebook or Instagram the second I cross the line to brag about my exploits.

All that glitters is not gold. I can take or leave the medals now. They can go in the drawer with all the others. The medals I will cherish the most are the less visible ones. The memories that will be created with my family, the smiles on their faces as I cross the finishing line and the fun travelling to and from the events. These are the rewards that you will always carry on your heart as opposed to around your neck for a few, fleeting hours. They are the reason I am where I am today.

What do you have in your trophy cabinet?

How do you intend to make memories this year?

Ode To OCD #1

You let me binge

And now I’m singed

Unhinged.

Swinging from the gallows that I constructed for

You.

As you look on

The idle god of all you survey.

You smile

As I decay

Dismayed and flayed.

Splayed in my grave

Of rotating routine.

I’m Writing A Book….I Think

Some of you may know that I am currently working on my first novel. It’s fiction and is largely set in the city of Belfast but that’s all you’re getting out of me! I’m actually very reluctant to talk about it and I’ve deliberated all day about writing this post. But as I get asked about it occasionally I thought I would provide a little update. It’s as much for myself as for anyone else if I’m honest as I need you guys to hold me accountable and keep me honest.

After an initial flurry of words and ideas (40,000 words blasted out during a week off work) progress has slowed down considerably due to a variety of reasons. Fionnuala and I have little enough time as it is due to the pressures and demands of everyday life. Days merge into weeks and I realise that I’ve barely thought about the book let alone open up the laptop to write. Life is good but there is always a guilty sensation at the back of my head that I am allowing my lifelong dream to write a novel pass me by.

Anxiety often gnaws away at my ambition. Doubt and low self esteem are always waiting in the wings only too willing to throw a spanner in the works. It happens in all areas of my life and writing is no exception. The voice keeps telling me that I am delusional; that I lack the talent and discipline to write a novel. That it will never amount to anything. Because of that I have been almost glad to have excuses not to write. It is the elephant in my room.

The success of the blog has also caught me somewhat unawares. I’ve been amazed that people want to read my posts and even more amazed that they seem to enjoy them. I’ve committed to daily posts and, as such, have taken my eye of the ball when it comes to the book. If I could compare myself to an ostrich sticking its head in a sandbank then the blog is the sandbank. I’ve tried to convince myself that I need to establish myself as a writer first, via blogging, before I turn my thoughts to completing and seeking to publish a novel. But who am I kidding, it’s just another excuse.

It’s time though to forge on again. Yes I could be writing unpublishable garbage but there’s only way to find out. This novel is a nagging, niggling weight on my mind. It’s fluid and always changing and I just need to get it out of me and onto the screen of my laptop. I’m worried that it will be terrible but I’m more worried that I will never finish it. Something I know I will always regret. I want to do this. I need to do this. I will do this.

So from today I’m recommitting to the book. 500 words a day or more ideally. I’ve found that I’m not a storyboarder. I need to be involved in the physical act of writing for the ideas and concepts to flow. I need to vomit the words out and then worry about structure and format later. My drafts will be rougher than rough but that’s how I seem to operate. The fine tuning and sandblasting will follow that. If that means skipping a blog post in order to maintain my word count then so be it. I’m sure you can all cope without me for a day or so and Fionnuala, Hannah and Rebecca are more than able blogging deputies.

Thank you all for your unerring support these last few months. This blog has changed my life beyond words and you have been part of that. The book will be the next stage of the journey. Whatever happens I can lie on my deathbed and say the following. I married a wonderful woman, was blessed with three kids, ran at least seven marathons and wrote a book. Four childhood dreams which became reality. Not bad for a weirdo geek boy.

Thank you WordPress.

I Hear Voices In My Head

I hear voices in my head. They wish me dead. I thought they’d fled. They’d bled me dry and left the scene; my life in tatters but never matter. You knew the score and we abhor the peace you crave. We’ll hunt you to the grave and never stop until you drop this holier than thou charade. We know you seek the shade of sin, that urge within, that surge to purge the better man. Yes that’s our plan. We’ll drive you onwards, downwards to our special place where there depraved you’ll see the folly of your honest ways.

I hear voices in my head. Some days little more than the quietest of whispers, dormant but deadly. Just watching, waiting for the moment when they can pounce and scream, my darkest dreams alive and well. A personal hell. A broken shell. Oh well. They outwit me, outthink me, outflank me. I’d raise the white flag but they’d toss it aside, an unstoppable tide of niggles and nudges which they sit astride. They circle my brain, a runaway train which hurtles off tracks worn down by the strain. I reckon the wreckage will haunt me for days. Just round the next bend, I brace for defeat that familiar old friend.

I hear voices in my head. They say do this, say that and more. I am so bored, a whore to every fickle feint they lob my way. A ten tonne weight sits on my chest. It’s for the best if I succumb and let them have their fun. Too numb and terrified of thoughts which ought to mean naught but instead rot and scoff. They laugh at me, a broken puppet held aloft on strings of O and C and D. The fabled three. They dance with glee as once again I hop and prance to their obsessive dance. It never ends, just changes day by day to my dismay. The voices reign and I’m to blame for all this pain. My punishment for all the lives I’ve wrecked, an endless debt I’ll pay each day until I’m spent and bent. They’ll not relent.

I hear voices in my head. There is no substance to their abuse. They have no faces, shape or form. Just shadows flickering to and from, one minute there the next they’re gone. My loaded gun, they’ll say whatever needs to be done. To plant the seed and watch the need wrap round my soul and squeeze the logic and the strength from me. I fight and fight with all my might. But they delight in that. The more I struggle the more hopeless my cause. Lost in an ocean of routine, I’m raw and exposed to their babbling dreams, adrift and exposed to their prompting unseen. Alone and broken, their malice unspoken.

I hear voices in my head. They must be fed, their stomachs never full until I’m cruelly plunged again into their plane of pain. My pit is drained. Obsessions lead to compulsion which to my revulsion I obey with dismay. It’s comply or die for if I deny the anxiety spirals and thickens. I’m sickened and nauseous, detached from reality and overwhelmed at the helm of my realm. My actions condemn me. Blessed and blissful the relief is but brief as another wave peaks. Then crashes down upon me sending me tumbling and fumbling onto the shore. My very core sore to their malignant caress. They couldn’t care less. Guess it’s all for the best.

I hear voices in my head. On good days I can keep them mute, there’s no dispute or need to crumble to their will. I take my pill, I know the drill. Some say I’m mentally ill. But I say I’m mentally skilled as rafts of routines require talents unseen. If only you knew the cumulative glue I apply every day to let sanity stay; while I count and remember all year to December. No rhyme or reason when it’s OCD season. Three letters but a million billion variations coming at you from every angle possible at a million billion trillion miles an hour. One thing I’ve learnt is that you cannot exaggerate mental disorder. It is everywhere at once, a blizzard of slithered suggestions and questions. Too many to mention, unspeakable tension demanding attention.

I hear voices in my head. They shift and dip, they lift and drift as unpredictable as a flimsy kite careering across a storm stained sky. It’s quicker than the human eye and mind; one minute hovering like a watchful hawk above its oblivious prey before swooping silently to sink its talons into your soft, plump brain. An endless loop, my senses droop. I’m in the room with you, our silence magnified by the screaming knowledge that there is so much to say, to explain. But I bite my tongue for where do I start? Confess and they’ll cart me away to a hospital bed. My reputation in shreds. It’s best left unsaid.

I heard voices in my head. Then one day I talked and you’ll never guess what, the OCD hordes so often ignored and but always deplored; well they backed away and just for a day my head was clear and blue sky called my name out loud and proud. I stretched my arms, now free at last, my wretched past a distant dream, a silent scream. Today the voices are muffled, my present untroubled by a past made of glass which I broke through at last. Now the future awaits and I stand at its gates. The voices are gone. I’m alone but I’m strong. The past is their prison, my future a prism.

New Blog Features

FracturedFaithBlog is a bit like an elegant swan. I cruise serenely above the surface taking all the plaudits while, below the waters, Fionnuala paddles furiously to keep us afloat. She does the majority of the unseen work necessary in order to keep the blog going. I just ramble on about stuff.

This week has been no exception. In addition to running a busy household she has redesigned the blog site interface to include ‘comments’ and ‘prayer’ tabs. We also now have our own domain which means the blog can expand in lots more interesting directions. And she has been upgrading our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Venturing into any of those areas would have me breaking out in a nasty rash.

We have set up a dedicated prayer team so if you have any specific prayer requests then please utilise the ‘prayer’ tab to communicate them to us. We will treat them with the ultimate respect and sensitivity. Your prayer will be anonymised before it is circulated to the prayer team. Likewise if there is something that you would like to discuss with either of us privately and in greater depth then please avail of the ‘comments’ tab. Sometimes it is difficult to have a meaningful conversation via timeline and there may be issues that you do not want to air publicly.

We are here to help. Don’t suffer in silence.

Repackage Your Heart

First World Problems have once more raised their ugly head at chez Black this last week or so. Having struggled through various sicknesses and other crises during the month of January we thought we were due a turn of fortunes. A reprieve from the trials and tribulations of modern life. But oh no for much, much worse was to befall us. The final nail in the coffin. The coup de grace to end all coup de graces. Whatever that means. It sounds a bit like cut the grass but I think I might be wrong on that one.

Yes the unthinkable happened. The village shop ran out of Diet Coke! Yes you read that right. The village shop ran out of Diet Coke. Well alright I’m exaggerating slightly when I say that. Blame it on my withdrawal symptoms. The shop didn’t exactly run out of Diet Coke, rather it ran out of the 1.75 litre twin packs (£2:50 = bargain) which I largely survive on in lieu of healthier drinks such as say lighter fluid or cod liver oil.

I drove to the next shop. They had none either. And then the next. Not a drop. I drove back home to break the sad news to Fionnuala. She took it reasonably well but I think she was just putting on a brave face for me. I’m pretty certain I saw her lower lip trembling at one point. As the Alpha Male and hunter/gatherer of the household I felt I was left with no option but to venture out again in search of sustenance. I returned to the scene of the original crime determined to use my finely tuned investigative skills to find an answer.

Alan the shopkeeper listened patiently to my impassioned pleas as I gesticulated frantically at the empty shelves where the elixir of life used to reside in plentiful supply. He nodded and smiled as the grown man in front of him whimpered and whined at the injustice of it all. He was empathetic and his active listening skills and positive body language were beyond reproach. I’m sure he has been on a ‘Challenging Customers’ course although I’m not sure there was a module on ‘Hysterical Aspartame Addicts’. If there had been he would have passed with flying colours no doubt.

‘Coca Cola have recalled the product’ he explained calmly when afforded the opportunity to respond to my tiresome tirade. ‘The packaging is being redesigned. It should be back in the shops soon enough.’ And with that he was off down the canned food aisle leaving me with a sliver of hope. We could tough this out. It wasn’t the end of the world. The United Nations would not be required to send a peace keeping force in and Donald Trump would not be tweeting about it in the morning.

We would survive and life would go on. I clutched at the lifeline that was 18 tins for £5 (even though Fionnuala complains it doesn’t taste the same) and trudged out of the shop; muttering about Coca Cola and their amateur marketing strategies. Redesigning the packaging indeed. What nonsense. The packaging wasn’t the reason I bought it in bulk. It was what was inside the bottle that mattered. That taste, that kick, the fizzy bubbles exploding on my fuzzy tongue. How vain and shallow these faceless marketing clowns were.

The second the above thought settled on my mind I was also bowled over by the hypocrisy of my thinking. For years I was obsessed with my appearance. At school I was the tubby, spotty kid. I was bullied and as for girls?! Well I don’t think I spoke to one until I was nineteen. Thankfully Fionnuala took pity on me and turned a walking, talking social pariah into an almost functioning member of the human race. Otherwise I’d still be a single Pringle failing abysmally to impress the opposite sex.

To combat this I have always sought to repackage my geeky, awkward inner psyche with all manner of disguises. Diets, gyms, tattoos (three and counting), personal trainers, Twitter wannabe z-lister, Instagram embarrassment, designer clothes, church youth leader, marathon running, terrible Taekwondo student, and now fledgling author and blogger. The list is endless. Everything aimed at covering up the fraud and failure I have always, rightly or wrongly, regarded myself as.

I was a chaotic chameleon for many years. Living a lie beneath various disguises and personas. But deep down I knew it was all a facade. You cannot repackage your heart. No matter how desperately we try we are still the same person beneath the various layers of deception we clothe ourselves in. I am still the same shy, insecure boy I was all those years ago. Clever with written words but a gibbering wreck when asked to socially interact in a room full of strangers.

I’m slowly learning to consistently be myself and live comfortably in my own skin. I want people to like me for who I am not who I think they want me to be. This has cost me a lot of friendships over the last year or so but it has also brought me closer to the people who matter. It has bolstered my flagging faith and brought me nearer to God. He knows me inside out and upside down; he created me and you like this for a reason, warts and all. We don’t need to be recalled from the shelves. No amount of redesigning ourselves can take away from who we really are.

We are spiritual beings. Our souls are ethereal and eternal. They are our very essence and when we break it down no amount of earthly transition can change that. We are who we are. There’s no need to change for anyone no matter how tempting that might be. Don’t repackage yourself for anyone or anything. For it is what’s inside that counts. Look beyond the packaged lies. Believe in who you are. You can never be taken off the shelves of life for that.

Have you repackaged your heart in the past?

How do you intend to live a life consistent with the real you?

What’s So Super About Heroes?

Everybody needs a hero, right? Someone to look up to. They inspire us to aspire to become more than what we are. They move us to improve. And their very nature makes them super. Heroes cannot be anything but super. They perform at a level beyond our wildest dreams. They operate on a different plane from us mere mortals. They are faster than us, stronger than us and smarter than us. They are flawless and their reflected glory casts a little more light on our drab and dreary everyday existences. We follow their exploits on the silver screen and in glossy magazines. They are everything we dream of being but are not. They are perfection and that perfection exposes and magnifies every fault and failing we spend most of our lives trying to hide from the world.

I disagree with pretty much all of the above paragraph. I’m sorry if that has burst a few bubbles out there. Maybe you want to skip this post and we can hook up again next time. You see, I don’t really want my heroes to be super. To me, a perfect hero isn’t really a hero at all. If everything you do is effortless then it’s not really super. It kind of becomes mediocre. Bland, mundane, run of the mill. I saved the world again today. It was easy…..yawn. Where’s the blood, sweat and tears in that? Where are the demons they have slain to become who they are today? Where are the staggering odds they have somehow overcome along the way? Er….we kind of skipped that part because we’re perfect and cut straight to the super, heroic bits.

I don’t want perfect heroes. Anodyne and featureless, every scrap of personality scrubbed clean from them. Now before I continue I know there will be many Christians reading this so, before you start, let’s set Jesus to one side for the purposes of this blog. Yes I know he was without sin and, therefore, perfect. He was the ‘Godman’ however and I’m talking about human beings here. Ordinary men and woman who commit extraordinary acts. I’m also not talking about superheroes like Wonder Woman or Captain America. I am talking about real people. I’m not really a DC or Marvel hero anyway. Give me orcs and dragons any day of the week. Or possibly Jessica Jones at a stretch.

I’m not really talking about celebrities either. Yes there are role models out there who inspire and motivate us but we risk straying into dangerous territory here. When we start to worship our heroes it can become idolatry. Which is largely unhealthy and counter productive. They are human beings and human beings have a nasty habit of letting you down. Never meet your hero they say as they have a habit of disappointing you in the flesh. They are not what you created them to be in your imagination. They are a pale imitation. That’s because they are flesh and bone. They can never possibly live up to what we have created them to be in our fevered imaginations. They will always fall short.

They are a concept, an ideal, an unattainable image. Striving, and failing, to be more like them will only end in frustration and resentment. I’m not saying unfollow Taylor Swift on Twitter and take your football and baseball posters down but just be wary they don’t take over. Obsession is a companion I know all too well. Filling your head with such individuals are a distraction. Distracting you from the people around you who truly matter. You will never become them and aspiring to do so is a futile exercise. Focus on becoming a better you not a better them.

Having real life heroes can be problematic as well. It’s all very well and good but once more they will eventually let you down. The higher you build them up the further they will inevitably fall. They cannot live up to your lofty expectations of them. And when they don’t it often ends in recrimination and broken relationships. There is resentment on either side and irreparable collateral damage is caused to trust and respect. Seeds of anger are planted on such fertile ground. From these grow weeds and thorns that will choke and entangle us. We will grow to despise those we once loved. And they will despise us back just as hard. Friends become enemies and allies become foes. I’ve lost so many friends so I know this all too well. My days of setting others on pedestals are over.

So what is the point of this post? I’ve dismissed just about every hero in the book. From Batman to Tom Brady. And everyone in between. Comic book heroes, action movie heroes, everyday heroes. Firefighters, brain surgeons, megachurch pastors and your big brother or sister. They are not heroes. They are just people like you or I. Respect them, admire them and love them. But don’t set them on a plinth and get all gooey eyed over them. For they deserve better than that and so do you. Plinths and pedestals are barriers to true relationships and mutual growth. Let’s all get on a level playing field.

Death to heroes.

What are your thoughts of hero worship and heroes in society today? Do you regard it as healthy or a hindrance? Please comment below.

Creeping Glory

For the seven of you out there who enjoy reading my running posts, I completed my online challenge yesterday to run 150 miles in the month of January. A day early no less but nobody likes a show off so I won’t brag about that. Oh hang on I just have. Anyways. It was an online challenge so all I have to do now is e-mail the organisers a screen shot from my Garmin app confirming the mileage and they will post me out a medal and compression top. To the victor the spoils. I had to pay £14.99 for this privilege (plus postage and packaging) but let’s not deflect from my glorious achievement here.

I’ll post a photo of them when they arrive. A photo minus me because I’m not a big fan of having my photograph taken. Plus those of a sensitive nature, with medical conditions, or eating might struggle with the sight of your truly in a compression top. It’s not a pretty sight let me assure you. I have battled low self esteem all my life and a desperate need for attention and acceptance. This, in turn, has gotten me into all sorts of trouble. I am a terrible judge of character and throughout my life have effortlessly fallen into the wrong company at the drop of a hat. In fact forget the hat, I’ll just do it anyway.

Running and writing used to be just two more tools I used to grasp the spotlight. It was all about me. The problem with being in the spotlight, though, is that you are exposed and blinded. Disoriented and unaware of what is going on around you. And in my case, inside of me. I was becoming a vain, selfish and thoroughly unlikeable person. Others could see it but not me. Or when I did during a rare moment of lucidity I didn’t care. I just shrugged my shoulders and carried on regardless. I was hopelessly hooked on the attention and forever chasing my next fix.

It was all about the next race or the next personal best. I joined a running club and had no shortage of running partners both at work and at home. I was Mr. Popularity or so I thought. My phone never stopped. My weekends were spent travelling around the country to race events instead of with Fionnuala and the kids. Then one day all that stopped. I run alone now. My phone can sit all day without anyone messaging me. And you know what? I’ve learnt to be okay with that. Because it’s no longer about me. It’s about others. It’s about YOU.

Running is now a means to an ends. I don’t run for the glory, I run because I need to. It cleanses and detoxifies me mentally. When I run I can dispose of all the negativity and unwanted junk rattling around my brain. I get most of my writing ideas when I run. Anxiety and dark, unwanted thoughts seep out of me along with the sweat from my pores. I used to use running to lose weight physically. Now I do it to unload excess mental and spiritual baggage. Running empties me and leaves me with a focus and clarity of vision which is laser sharp.

Running has taught me how to embrace and overcome pain. It has taught me patience. I prefer long distance running. My favourite race is the marathon. 26.2 miles is a daunting challenge but one thing I am not is a quitter. When I start a race or a challenge I will not stop until I have completed it. One of the few positive attributes of my obsessive nature. If I have to crawl to the finish line then I will. Defeat is simply not an option. I hate looking at myself in the mirror at the best of times but it would be doubly galling if i was looking at the face of a loser. I choose to overcome no matter what it takes.

So I will never stop. And I will never give up. And nor must you. No matter what. When I run I break every mile down into twenty sections. I run to the next bench, the next hedge, the next pothole in the road. I break a seemingly unassailable distance down into manageable bite sized chunks then count them off on my Garmin. Every 1/20th is a battle won and a step towards winning the war. I break it down in order to build myself up. I make the impossible possible. And so must YOU. I’ve written before about finding your grind. Become a pain sponge and suck it all up. Because, like me, YOU are not a quitter either.

Don’t look at the summit. Just focus on the next stretch, the next bend, the next step. Break it down and you will see the barriers fall and the milestones pass behind you. YOU are better than this. Never mind creeping death. Yours shall be a creeping glory. The enemy never feels threatened by an opponent who barely appears to be moving. He is oblivious to slow, almost imperceptible progress. His defences will fall and he will idle. And before he knows it YOU are past him and it’s game over. YOU are astride your Everest and the pain has been replaced by glory. The glory that is your story. Creeping Glory.

Take my hand and run with me ok? Together we will overcome.

What are your thoughts on this post. We would love to hear them. Please comment below and let’s get talking.

The Atheist Angel

Going waaaaay back some of you might remember a post I wrote called ‘Maggie’s Story’ (not her real name) about a young, homeless girl I befriended in Belfast last year. If not, you might want to check it out before reading on as it provides context for today’s post https://afracturedfaithblog.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/maggies-story/

I hadn’t spoken to ‘Maggie’ in some weeks but wasn’t particularly concerned. As is the nature of life on the streets she lived an unpredictable and chaotic existence. Some weeks she would be everywhere I looked whereas at other times she would literally vanish into thin air. I would never ask her where she had been. That was none of my business. She told me what she wanted to tell me.

I was always relieved, however, to see her after such absences. Yesterday was no exception. I was walking across the city centre from the office to the train station. My normal route involves cutting through a shopping centre (mall) which brings you out onto the most eclectic of squares where modern cocktail bars and restaurants sit alongside centuries old chapels and more traditional watering holes.

The square itself is approached from all sides by a series of cobbled, twisted alleyways where you often find city street dwellers. And it was here that I discovered Maggie sitting shivering beneath a worryingly thin blanket. She was as pale as an anaemic ghost, entombed in her regulation street uniform of hoodie and tracksuit bottoms. She looked cold and miserable but her blue eyes were startlingly clear. I knew immediately that she wasn’t using. I can always tell by her eyes.

When she saw me, those eyes lit up and her face broke out into a smile. A smile which made my day. ‘Where have you been?’ she enquired, totally oblivious to the fact that I walked this route every day and she was the one who had been missing in action. We engaged in conversation for a few moments, the details of which are irrelevant to this post. Needless to say her January had been a tough one. But she was alive and clean for which I was grateful.

As I crouched beside her I became aware of a young woman kneeling beside me. It was her flaming, red hair that first caught my eye. She started to talk to ‘Maggie’, her face etched with concern and worry. She told us that she had only recently moved to Northern Ireland from the United States and had lived on the streets in Los Angeles as a teenager. She then did the most remarkable of things, removing her coat and handing it to ‘Maggie’. ‘You’re freezing and you need this more than me’ she explained.

I don’t know who was more shocked, ‘Maggie’ or myself but there then followed a bizarre reverse tug of war between the two girls. ‘Maggie’ is fiercely proud when lucid and very reluctant to accept charity. She will never say no to a hot cup of tea and I have also persuaded her, after much effort on my part, to allow me to buy her food and cigarettes. ‘But only the cheapest brand. You do enough for me as it is’ she would holler after me as I entered the shop.

In all the time I have known her, however, I have never once considered giving her an item of my clothing. I was instantly shamed and humbled by this staggering act of kindness. The American girl, let’s call her ‘Abby’, looked cold herself and I could almost count the goosebumps popping up on her pale arms as she struggled to get ‘Maggie’ to accept her coat. Belfast is hardly Sunset Boulevard in deepest January I reflected, cosy in my heavy coat, cap, scarf and gloves. Yet here she was offering up her coat to a complete stranger who she knew needed it more than her.

The tug of war continued and I assisted where I could in translating West Belfast slang with Southern California drawl as best I could. They were both speaking English but struggling to understand each other. In the end ‘Maggie’ triumphed (she normally does) although she allowed ‘Abby’ to buy a cup of tea for her. I thanked the American girl afterwards and we talked a little as I filled her in as to what I knew about ‘Maggie’.

She screamed ‘Young Christian’ in her language, actions and dare I say it appearance. She looked as if she had just walked off the set of a Bethel worship music video. I’m not sure how but our brief conversation led to her asking what place of worship I attended. ‘I’m kind of between churches’ I mumbled, a bit embarrassed to admit as much to such a paragon of virtue. ‘What about you?’ I replied, bracing myself for a Christian CV as long as your arm. No doubt the daughter of a pastor, worship leader aged ten and veteran of countless global missions and city soup kitchens.

‘Oh I’m an atheist’ she cheerfully replied before saying her farewells and veering off into a nearby cafe in search of ‘Maggie’s’ tea. I stood there, my jaw scraping off the ground, in stunned silence. Here was a non-Christian performing perhaps the most ‘Christian’ act I had ever witnessed. A modern day Good Samaritan. In the space of five minutes she had shown more love and compassion than I had seen many devoted church goers display in five years.

Christianity is just a word, a tag, a label. It means nothing really. It is actions that make the person, not memorising Bible verses or rolling up to church every Sunday. The word ‘Christian’ was nothing more than a nickname given to the first followers of Jesus by the Romans. It was intended as derogatory, mocking term. The early followers referred to themselves as ‘The Way’. The three year ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus paved the way for the early church to explode onto the global scene and bring the mightiest civilisation known to man to its knees within a few centuries.

Atheist, Agnostic, Christian at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. They are nothing but labels. What defines us is love. Do we love those around us? Not just our family or friends but also those on the fringes of society? We need to radically rethink the ingrained stereotypes and prejudices which colour our view of the world. We need to stop judging others and shoving them into neat little compartments which tally with our outlook life. We need to value and include the ‘Maggie’s’ and ‘Abby’s’ of our lives. We need to love the homeless and the atheists (but we also need to love like the homeless and the atheists. Actually love as opposed to just talking about it.

Who are you going to love today?

Lists

I love lists. I am a listophiliac. I’m sure this is not the correct terminology for a lover of lists; no doubt one of you good WordPress people will forward me the correct word. Or even better a list of such words. My love of lists is born out of fear; a fear of forgetting important information and appointments due to my appalling memory. It keeps letting me down and I keep letting people down. Which I hate. So I compile lists, which I love.

Lists of things to do. Lists of places to be. Lists of people to talk to. My lust for lists knows no bounds. I maintain a list of all my son’s rugby results. I keep lists of all my training runs. Including pace, elevation and calories burnt no less. And I have started a list of Netflix shows that Fionnuala and I intend to watch this year. We’ve just finished Manhunt:Unabomber by the way which was excellent. Just thought I’d share that with you all. You’re welcome.

I’ve started reminding Fionnuala of upcoming events, a previously unheard of phenomenon. This pleases me no end but probably just adds to her (ahem) list of annoying features about her husband. There is nothing more satisfying than scoring a completed task off a list. My future is scheduled and organised. I know what I have to do every day both inside and outside of work. I have become a more effective and efficient member of society as a result. I hope it has made me a better husband and father. God loves a trier and I am trying. Very trying at times.

None of us know what the future holds but at least with lists we can be better prepared. It’s akin to a gladiator entering the arena without his shield or his net. I’ve never quite worked out the whole gladiator net thing. If I was about to face my almost certain horrific death in front of a baying, bloodthirsty crowd my ‘go to’ weapon would in all likelihood not be a net. Nets are for fishing. Swords and axes are for fighting. Or at the very least a decent spear. But anyway what do I know. Stevius Blackius I am most certainly not.

On my command unleash lists. Did you see what I did there movie fans? My problem is I also keep lists of past events as well as future ones. Lists of people who have offended me, lists of past transgressions, lists of events which remind me of what an abject human being I am. Lists of shame and blame. Lists about lists. Lists which bog me down and tangle me up as opposed to bring structure and focus. Lists are like ladders. They can carry you to the summit of where you need to be but miss a rung and you come clattering back to earth with an almighty thump.

My lists from the past are like that rickety old ladder. They cannot be trusted and often leave me battered and bruised, sitting on my backside staring up at the sky. They are negative and self-defeating. They needed crumpled up and chucked in the garbage heap. They chain me down from where I need to be. The present. For it is the passport to our better futures. Unless we deal with what is around us now we will never unlock the doorway to tomorrow. It’s not called the present for nothing. It is a gift, a blessing. Just sitting patiently in front of us waiting to be unwrapped.

We need to maintain a presence in our present. We need to look up from our personal organisers and diaries and take stock of the here and now. Just for one second resist the lure of the list. Desist and consider your immediate surroundings. Now what do you see? A friend or work colleague who is struggling and in need of a helping hand. A relative out on their feet through sickness or exhaustion who needs you to be with them. Instead of sitting with your nose buried in a list, plotting your future or ruminating over the past.

Yes, lists can be a saving grace but you really should be saving your grace for today. Right now. Lists are a double edged sword that can inflict paper cuts to our current relationships. They can suck you out of your present where you are needed into a past where you no longer belong. You are prolonging unwanted and unnecessary pain. A past that needs to be buried once and for all. Not exhumed and picked over like the rotting, decaying corpse that it is. There is a reason the past is the past. In fact there are many. We need to remember that. Write them down if necessary. Even if that involves starting another list.

Are you a list maker? Are they a help or a hindrance to you?

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The Past Is In Tatters

When I wonder I blunder. My dreams are ripped asunder and I’m dragged six feet under. Kicking and screaming, no longer dreaming. I was a dope to have hoped but now I am choked by the lies and the guilt and the shame. You see, I’m to blame. For the pain and the words flung at me today. The shrapnel of my past still torments me as it chafes and it grates underneath the old scar tissue. Remnants of my past exploding in my present.

Should I wilt beneath the guilt? Raise the white flag? Throw in the towel? Be defined and refined by emotions and oceans of glaring despair. I’m adrift and I’m sick of this shift in my thinking. It’s stinking so unblinking I face down my fears and I ignore the sneers. For I’m better than this. I will not allow this to happen. I will not become a casualty of my own doing. A living, walking, breathing suicide. My life does not end here. There is hope beneath the veneer. Death to death. I’ll reinvent.

Jesus arose from the depths of hell for a reason. He cast aside the shroud and the angels sang aloud ‘Hallelujah. Sin is no more.’ He settled my score. And yours and yours and yours as well. It is finished. Beyond diminished. Over and done. My disgrace obliterated by His face. His face. Beaten beyond recognition by Roman thugs not fit to kiss his feet. He took it all. For me. Broken, useless, abject me. I deserve nothing and yet here I am with everything. Yet still I wallow.

No more. It’s time to transcend the pain. I will not allow myself to become a casualty of unseen wars. I was everything that you had allowed me to become. Well, not today. Not now, not never. Like Moses and David, like Peter and Paul. I’ll not be choked by the gall of those days of deceit and despair. I was dazed by the glare of false idols who sidled alongside me. Promising me the world yet delivering nothing but fire and death. Well no more. I’ve been reborn and reformed. Transformed.

The fiercest enemy I ever fought was myself. He left me bereft. Your closest friend can become the deadliest of foes. I was that foe for I knew every chink, every weakness in my armour. I knew when to parry, when to counter and when to lunge. To plunge the blade deep and true, striking home and drawing blood. Sucking the hope from my very marrow. Watching the life ebb away as I looked down upon my own corpse and dropped the now redundant blade into a pool of my own bloody doing.

Well no more. I’ll rise from the depths which have swept me away like a shipwrecked wretch. I’ll stretch and reach and teach myself new ways. Better ways. I’ll pluck out the shrapnel and no longer grapple with screaming demons who without reason defile this new season. Intrusive thoughts can rot and burn for I have turned and now I spurn that way. I’ll learn a new way. A way that quashes the affliction of addiction. I’ll leer at fear and grope for the hope that the Cross offered up. The dirtiest and vilest of deaths. The backdrop to the most glorious of days.

So I’ll wonder no more. Wash away the filth and the blood of your past. Wash away the filth and the blood of Golgotha. The place of skulls. That most beautiful of graveyards. For my past was nailed to the wood as sure as his flesh and bones were. I’m walking down the hill away from the carnage of Cavalry. Never forgetting but never looking back. Striding forwards towards the city. A new creation fuelled by elation. You will not win, you cannot win. I will survive and I will thrive. My past is in tatters, it’s the present that matters.

Bite Your Lip

Sometimes you need to bite your lip. For the greater good. Today is one of those days. I’ve been worrying about today all week. Anxiety has been tapping on my chest like the first drops of rain tapping against a window, harbingers of the coming storm. For me that storm is avoidable today. But I will need to bite my lip. A lot.

Fionnuala won’t be with me today as she is away visiting her aunt and uncle in Dublin. I will be on my own. I feel exposed and inadequate but this is something I need to do, something I have to get through. Somehow. There is a bigger picture here, a longer game to be played. Today is only a skirmish. There are many more important battles after today. So I have to bite my lip.

I am passionate. I shoot my mouth off at times because I care. The old me didn’t really care about anything other than himself. I would trample over the needs of my nearest and dearest on a regular basis. Caring too little was my downfall. Today it could be because I care too much. Is that a sign of progress? Of a deepening maturity? Or is it merely a different side of the same coin?

I need to bite my lip until it hurts. Until I draw blood if necessary. Taste it, savour it, lick it from my dry lips but not a word, Stephen, not a word. Surround your thoughts and impulses with wisdom and patience today. I hate it, I hate it. I want to say it as I see it. I want to rant and rave at the injustice of it all. I want to kick and punch and scream until I’m blue in the face. But to do so would be selfish. And that boat has sailed. I’m different now.

So I’ll bite my lip. I will embrace the pain for the pain is my anchor. It will steady and focus me as events unfold. I’ll be the eye of the storm. I will smile and nod in all the right places and keep my thoughts to myself. I will not let the side down for if I do I might not be in the side come next time. It will hurt but that is nothing compared to the hurt and repercussions of speaking out today.

The truth will not be heard today. I will tuck it away for another time. It can wait. The weight of waiting increases my anxiety. The pitter patter on my window increases. And before you know it these isolated drops of anxiety have transformed into dark, unrelenting sheets of depression. I know the signs. I’ve been battered by this storm many times before. But not today. For today I’ll bite my lip.

The truth will set you free I’m told. Well that is true but today freeing the truth would be akin to unleashing a brontosaurus in a fine china boutique. So the truth must remain unspoken and in shackles. The truth is a double edged sword. It can be liberating but you have to pick your moment. Timing is everything. Today is not the time. So I’ll bite my lip and grimace through what needs to be grimaced through. That is what I must do.

Biting ones lip is often regarded as a seductive act. But today I cannot be seduced by the satisfaction of revenge and retribution. That would be too easy. I need to rise above it and survey the battlefield below. I want to be on that battlefield. I want to charge headlong into the enemy; screaming and slashing. Killing in the name of. Until they are no more and I am breathless and sated. Exhausted but exhilarated.

Revenge is so satisfying, it slides down your throat as smoothly as ice cream on a scorching summers day. But today I will feel as if I am swallowing razor blades as each pointless platitude is proffered. It will be the smallest of small talk but needs must and I need to muster the strength to get through this ordeal. Or deal with the consequences at my leisure. Today will be a hard day. My eyes will blaze and my heart will burn with white hot fury. But I’ll bite my lip. Because I’m better than them.

Have you ever had to bite your lip and say nothing for the greater good?

How did it feel? Was it worth it? Please comment below and share your experiences.

I Want To Read Your Blog

A shorter blog today you will all be glad to hear. They say that in order to improve as a writer you should read, read and then read some more. So today I’m going to follow that advice. I want to read your posts. I want to find out more about you and, in doing so, learn from you. I’m putting my feet up and taking the day off.

So……

If you have any current or archived posts that you would like me to read and/or comment upon then let me know and I will. Have you had a good day? A rubbish day? Has one of our posts reminded you of something we wrote about once in the past? Do you need feedback? Advice? Prayers? Or just a little golden star to brighten up your timeline. If so, then comment below.

Yours

Lazy Stephen 🙂

I’m Messed Up And Proud. Who’s With Me?

Many moons ago Fionnuala and I got married. One morning shortly before the big day I woke up with a crick in my neck. I thought little of it, assuming I had slept in an awkward position. But it continued to ache and niggle in the coming days despite how much I stretched and manipulated it. I swallowed paracetamol but might as well have been taking M&M’s for all the good they did. Come our wedding day the crick was still there.

And so it was. Fionnuala married a pain in the neck….with a pain in the neck.

Have you ever cracked your neck? There are few more satisfying sensations in the known universe. Over the coming weeks and months I developed my neck cracking technique down to a fine art but to no avail. The pain persisted and months became years. I learned to cope with the pain. It was rarely agony, more annoying. It just became part of the ‘Being Stephen’ experience. OCD? Check. Binge drinking? Check. Always complaining about his sore neck but never doing anything about it? Yup that’s me.

On the grand scale of all things pain it was fairly low down the scale. It wasn’t chronic, debilitating or life changing. But it was my pain and therefore it was important to me. I lived with it, I knew it inside out and I bored anyone stupid enough to ask me about it to within an inch of their lives. You’ve heard of Becky with the good hair. I became Stephen with the sore neck. It defined me. Until it wasn’t there any more. One day it was gone just like that. Without any explanation. Those of you thinking it was all in my head are free to stop reading any time now.

Until this week. The pain is back. In exactly the same place. I’m popping and cracking like cray cray again. Fionnuala is delighted. I made that last sentence up. Go and see a doctor? Don’t be so ridiculous. What would I write about then. I have a sore neck and you are all just going to have to get used to that. Until it decides to go away again. Anybody with a sore neck feel free to enter into lengthy correspondence with me. For I get what you’re going through. We can set up an online support group. Perhaps get some counselling. For I know your pain.

I know your pain.

We hear that phrase a lot. It’s misleading of course. Everybody’s pain is individual and unique to them. I cannot fully understand your pain just like I cannot fully understand what it is like to be a pterodactyl. Although I’m fairly certain that would be a pretty cool experience swooping from cliff tops and all that. But anyway I digress. Back to the pain thang. I cannot fully relate to another person’s neck pain but I’m probably more qualified to do so than most. I don’t know what you are going through but I can empathise. Which is part of the reason this blog was started. I want to be your pain killer. Or at the very least your pain partner.

I’m a screw up, a walking disaster, a deeply flawed and feeble individual. I’ve spent most of my life making poor choices and inflicting pain on myself and others. But no more. This blog arose like a phoenix from the ashes of my messed up life. It was forged in my pain. I know that sounds a bit dramatic there but bear with me. I know what it’s like to mess up. Repeatedly. It has been largely self inflicted and I’ve learnt the hard way but I’m confident it was a reason. It was part of my apprenticeship, my on the job training. I was being prepared for this. I see that now. There was hope in my hopelessness.

The world needs more messed up people. People honest enough to stand up and be counted. People who are willing to expose their own inadequacies in order to help others in similar situations. People who don’t hide behind fake smiles and ‘I’m fine’ platitudes. I’m not fine but I’m fine with that. And I’m fine with helping others in any way that I can even if it’s just to let them know that they’re not alone. Pain can be restricting. Just watch me try to turn my head 45 degrees if you want proof of that. But it can also be liberating.

Pain can lead to freedom. It creates character, self awareness and fortitude. It opens doors to new experiences and new relationships. It strips back the layers of pride and selfishness and allows you to excavate your true personality. It allows you to discover who you are meant to be. It is revelatory and revolutionary. If it wasn’t for the pain of my past I wouldn’t be writing these words today. And you wouldn’t be reading them. We would never have known each other existed. And connecting with you is worth all the pain in the world.

I’m messed up and proud. Who’s with me?

We Dare You To Comment On This

I got asked the other day by a fellow blogger how AFracturedFaith had grown so much in such a comparatively short period of time. The blog was only launched in May 2017 and we have been heartened by its growth since. We don’t define success by the number of followers or likes we receive but it is a not unpleasant by product of the blog getting its message across. People seem to like what we do and for that we are very grateful.

We would love to see this growth continue into 2018. We want to grow bigger but also deeper. We want to connect with fellow bloggers in a meaningful, substantive way. We view you all as real people and not just numbers. You have real lives, real problems, real hopes and dreams. We want to help you achieve everything you were put on this planet to accomplish. We are all on a journey. Some of you are flying at present, others are limping along or at a complete standstill. Wherever you are we are with you.

We have ideas for developing and expanding the blog and its associated social media platforms. At present these are just ideas that Fionnuala and I are discussing but we hope that at least some of these will come to fruition as the year progresses. I want to grow as a writer and hope that one day it will provide an income that will, at the very least, allow me to scale down the 9-5 slog. It is a dream at present but dreams have a habit of becoming reality if properly nurtured. We cannot do this without your input, however. We need your prayers, well wishes, positive vibes whatever you want to call them. But we also need your feedback.

What do you like about the blog in respect of content and format? What would you like to read more about? Or what do you want me to stop droning on about? Am I too angry, silly, serious? Is there anything regarding the blog’s layout or structure that can be tweaked or improved upon? Do we engage enough with you? Would you like to collaborate with us on projects? Where else would you like to see our product? Would you like to engage in deeper, one to one discussions regarding thoughts and projects. Prayer or study groups? Hear more from other family members? Can we pray for you more, talk to you more, help you more?

A lot of questions there and normal blogging service will be resumed with the next post. But for now it’s over to you. The ball is in your court. Don’t hold back. Don’t be shy. If you have never commented before then please do now. I promise not to cry.

Please comment below. Thank you.

The Grind

Yesterday epitomised Northern Ireland winter time at its finest. It was wet, cold, windy and grey. Come to think of it that fairly accurately epitomises Northern Ireland spring time as well. And summer. And autumn. Anyway it was miserable. I stared forlornly out of the window with a hangdog expression, willing the clouds to clear and the sun to emerge. But to no avail. This caused a problem for me. As yesterday was my scheduled weekly long run.

Fionnuala had suggested I do it the day before but why listen to a woman who is right 99.99% of the time and is obsessed with all things meteorological. That would be waaaaaay too sensible. Instead I clung to the hope that that the weather forecasters were all wrong and I would awake to blue skies and perfect running conditions. Instead I awoke to the sound of rain battering relentlessly against our bedroom window.

I hate running in the rain. Besides the whole unavoidable ‘getting wet’ business I also wear glasses; to run without them would be verging on suicidal. I would either end up face down in a ditch or careering blindly into oncoming traffic. Contact lenses are no good either. The slightest speck of dust blown into them and we are referring back to the aforementioned ditch or oncoming traffic scenarios. Either way I end up as fluorescent orange roadkill….in Nike running shoes.

I have yet to come across glasses equipped with windscreen wipers. I just know that one of you good WordPress people will now prove me wrong and inform us all that Archimedes or Galileo actually had blueprints for these many centuries ago. Show offs that they were. If they did then this invention has yet to reach my optometrist. Which is a shame as I would have been the first in the bespectacled queue to purchase such an innovation. In my mind this would be up there with man discovering fire or designing the first wheel. Were cavemen not short sighted like the rest of us?

By early afternoon I had no option but to put my running gear on and brave the stormy conditions. Within half a mile I was drenched and simultaneously attempting to dry my glasses in order to see where I was going. I was virtually brought to a standstill by a wind that seemed to blow in my face no matter what direction I was heading. Parts of the route resembled a steeplechase course as I navigated gargantuan puddles and hurdled fallen branches. I reckon that I spent at least 0.683 of the 12 mile route in mid air like a startled gazelle in lycra. Not a pretty sight let me assure you.

Normally at some point during a long run you find your rhythm and the endorphins kick in. You start to enjoy the running experience and the worries of your world are left far behind. You think good thoughts and make grand plans. This was not the case yesterday. I spent most of the run having imaginary mental arguments with various people and plotting their downfall. I prayed, as ever, but not for world peace and harmony. Instead I pleaded with God to remove the dull ache in my thighs and forget about the squelchy, swampy sensation in my Nikes. But I’m a stubborn soul and refused to admit defeat despite every fibre of my being screaming at me to stop.

And you know what? I did it. One mile became two, became seven. And before you knew it I was gritting my teeth and ploughing through the final mile. 12 miles in total. Bringing my total for the month to 110. Only 40 more to go to reach my January challenge target. Which is again just a small part of my overall winter training programme. The overall target? More marathons later in the year all being well. Somebody once said that the marathon itself is just the victory lap of the process. The real hard work is the months of thankless, grinding training runs at ungodly hours and in horrendous weather. That’s where you win the medal.

You might be experiencing the grind today. At work, at home, in the supermarket, on the school run. The grind is chafing and tedious. But it is here where we are transformed. Everest was scaled one step at a time. We all have dreams and goals but we only attain them via knuckling down and getting on with it. It is uncomfortable and uncompromising; but while it drains our resolve it also builds our character. And one day it will all be worthwhile. Be it crossing a finish line, watching your child graduate or celebrating that 50th wedding anniversary.

Find the grind. For there you find yourself.

What is your grind?

Where do you hope your grind will eventually lead you?

OCD And Me

You never fully conquer OCD. It is a wily and resourceful enemy. It will choose not to face you on the open battlefield where the massed ranks of your respective armies can clash in combat in an honourable fight to the death. OCD is not interested in such forms of conflict. It will not look you in the eye and engage you in this manner. Such finite battles mean little to it for it is focused on the long game. It fights a war of attrition, a guerilla war. A war without end.

You can bombard it with medication and therapy and it will simply vanish into the shadows like the last wisps of mist on a crisp summer morning. You can unleash your finest cavalry regiments to hunt it down but to no avail; it will be as futile as trying to sweep up leaves on a blustery autumnal morning. OCD is the Scarlet Pimpernel of mental illness. It can lie dormant for a seeming eternity lulling you into a false sense of security before swooping to strike when you least expect it. It has a calculated cunning.

OCD is a slim rapier blade as opposed to a broadsword. It does not hack and bludgeon you into submission yet it is just as deadly at its murderous craft. It probes and pokes at your defences, infinitely patient, waiting for the moment when it spies a chink in your armour. Then, and only then, will it will lunge forward forcing its blade beyond the gap in your armour and striking home. Piercing skin and muscle, driving deep inside; causing untold internal damage which is invisible to all but it’s victim. When it withdraws its blade again the damage is done and it stands back to admire its handiwork. It’s blade slick with your dark, sticky blood.

OCD is the skilled sniper who penetrates your present from a mile away with a single bullet to the head. OCD is the silent assassin who sneaks unseen into your bedroom at night to hammer a dagger through your heart while it covers your mouth with its other hand so no one can hear your dying scream. OCD is the enemy who plants the land mine unbeknownst to you on the path you are travelling. One moment all is well and you are striding ahead with purpose. The next you hear the eerie click a micro second before your life is blown sky high.

OCD is the shrapnel that remains with you many years after you believe the war is over. It is the wound that aches and chafes, a constant reminder of its potential and its presence. For days, weeks, months it is nothing more than a dull ache, a nagging inconvenience that you somehow manage to live with. You cope, you manage, you survive. There is nothing else to do. But when it rears its head like a dormant dragon and breathes fire you are blown away by its power and penetration. It sears you to the bone with its white hot malice.

OCD is not interested in occupation. It will retreat and allow you the higher ground. It is the master strategist and its patience is boundless. It’s armies never tire but will launch wave after wave of assaults on your ravaged defences. It will grind you down into the dirt, it will crush your spirit as it will crush your bones. It will never stop, it will never give up. It is immovable, irresistible, unstoppable. It thrives on the counter attack. It’s fury is unrivalled. And when it comes it takes no prisoners. For war is hell and it is the devil come to take you for its own.

OCD is not interested in truces or white flags. It sneers at diplomacy and tact. It engages in total war and will not be satisfied until it has razed your world to the ground. It desires your total destruction and nothing less. There will be no prisoners, no negotiations and no backing down. It is a fight to the death. Your death. Olive branches will be tossed into the flames of what once was to burn with everything else you once held dear. It is a brutal, uncompromising siege that will never be lifted until your world lies all around you, broken and in ruins.

It can not be beaten. At best it can be driven back beyond your borders. And even then you must never lower your guard because it will prowl your perimeters like a ravenous lion waiting, watching. All it takes is one seemingly innocuous thought to drift lazily over your towering walls and settle at your feet. It can be anything and it can be nothing. But in that split second you realise it is too late. You raise your shield and dive for cover but it is too late. For the thought has exploded into a million fragments which riddle you from head to toe with intrusive thoughts and the irrational, destructive cycle of compulsive carnage begins again. A merry go round of mayhem, your life on hold again.

Trapped beneath the ice, your screams unheard and frozen in time. OCD is all of this and more. I am OCD and OCD is me. I must never lower my defences. Never. And so I write and I pray and I hope. This foe is forever.

What is your knowledge of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Are you a sufferer or have you never heard of it before?

Please comment below and let us know your thoughts on this post?

Straight Outta Aghalee

I am many things. I am a father, a husband, a son and a brother. I tackle all of these responsibilities with varying degrees of success. I am an exceedingly average distance runner and wannabe blogger and author. I like so see myself as a good friend but all the good and not so good friends I have lost down the years may beg to differ. I am good at a few things but not so good at a lot more things.

I’m a mass of contradictions, a warren of dead ends, a mansion house full of locked doors and dusty attics. We all are really. We excel at some pursuits and are repelled by others. I am many things. But there is one thing I am not. I am not a rapper. I am a 47 year old, married father of three living in rural Northern Ireland with a reasonably important job and an equally reasonable mortgage. On the surface I am the epitomy of respectability. But I wanna be a rapper….

This drives Fionnuala insane of course. When it comes to pet hates of mine, she has many. She could probably write several dozen blogs on the subject but, thankfully, chooses not to. I break out into an embarrassing mish mash of shape throwing and guttural grunts at the slightest opportunity. I drop the mic (usually on my big toe) and spit out lyrics so toe curlingly bad that Tupac must be turning in his grave.

South Central Aghalee is my crib. This consists of quiet residential housing and sleepy farmland. The nearest we get to excitement is when a passing tractor backfires. There was once an attempted robbery at the village shop but the wannabe gang banger ran off empty handed when the owner hurdled the counter and threw a charity collection box at him. We prefer hot tea to Ice-T and M&M’s to Eminem.

The kids are mortified when I break out a la NWA. They want me straight outta the room as opposed to Straight Outta Compton. I have three stock phrases that I periodically repeat over any backing track I care to follow. These are ‘Yeh’ ‘C’mon’ and ‘Awhhh’; all delivered in the poorest of American rapper accents. I gesticulate wildly while doing so, flailing my arms like an out of control windmill in a hurricane. My audience don’t know where to look. You could hear a penny drop. I live in Awkwardsville – Population Me.

I know I’m an embarrassment to my wife and kids but I hope that I’m an entertaining embarrassment. Amidst the eye rolling and pleas to stop there is also the occasional poorly concealed smirk. I have a propensity for melancholy so it’s important that I allow my silly side to emerge now and again. I’ve been the architect of many bad memories down the years so I am relieved when I can lay down funnier foundations. I am using my comedic wrecking ball to smash through the walls of pain and disappointment that have hemmed me in for most of my life.

Silliness is an escape valve that releases the pressures of everyday life which constantly build up inside of us. I was once told I have a dry wit but often that is not enough. You need to throw yourself off the cliffs of conformity and immerse yourself fully beneath the waters of humour and irreverence. There is freedom in fun and farce. I don’t do it enough. They say writers thrive on anguish and despair but if it’s that all I have to feed on then I fear my art will be starved and ultimately snuffed out.

So I will continue to hip and hop and annoy….a lot. I will revel in my rhyming and off beat timing. My raps will be crap and I ain’t all that. But at least our hatchlings will grow up and look back fondly on years of daft antics. I might only be papering over the cracks but at least I’m trying. It’s never too late to start afresh and do your best to make amends. Bad memories can never be erased but if the good ones outnumber them then they lose some of their sting.

I’m trying. My rapping is very trying. But God loves a trier. For now that’s all I can do.

What are your embarrassing ‘talents’?

Melancholy v Mirth? How do you balance them?

I’m An Angry Christian…. I’d be an Angrier Atheist

I get angry with God sometimes. Quite a lot if I’m honest. I sometimes try and convince myself that there is no God. Because then life would be a whole less complicated. And I would be a whole less angry. Which would declutter my mind and leave space for other emotions to take root. More positive emotions. Happiness for example. Or at least less unhappy. Is less unhappy even an emotion?

I have struggled with OCD for a large part of my life. It seeps into many areas of my existence but one it has never trespassed upon is my belief in a God. Sometimes I wish it would. That the voice in my head would tell me there is no God like it used to tell me all other sorts of nonsense on a daily basis. And instead of wrestling with this intrusive thought for days on end I would just shrug my shoulders and say ‘You know what OCD? I’m going to give you this one. You’re right. There is no God.’

It never did though. That’s the thing about OCD. It doesn’t exist to make your life easier. Shame that. Atheism leaves even more unanswered questions than believing does. And if I’m an angry Christian I dread to think what sort of atheist I would be. The Hulk? So I’m left with God and his all-powerful, all-knowing existence. And all the parts of the Bible that frustrate me and I don’t understand. I like to understand. I suppose it’s the OCD again. I need certainty and fact. Doubt is a killer for me. I will ask the same question over and over again until I get a rock solid, definitive answer. All this faith and ‘handing it over to God’ malarkey drives me nuts.

Trust God and he will protect you. Okaaaaay. But when? And where? And how? And a million other questions. Why does he have to be so mysterious and shadowy when going about his business. Why can’t I have a road to Damascus experience like Paul? All these people that boldly stand up in church and proclaim that ‘God spoke to me clearly this morning’. Why can’t that be me? Do you think they might be making stuff up? People lying in church???! Whatever next!

I know all the theological arguments. I read. A lot. So no comments please about free will or original sin or final judgement because I understand all that. But that doesn’t stop me feeling less cranky now. Because bad things are happening to good people at a lickety split rate. Our countries are still governed by imbeciles, babies are still dying from cancer and planes are still going down in the oceans. Why? Why? Why?

I pray and I pray and I pray yet my son still gets bullied at school. I pray and I pray and I pray yet my daughter still can’t walk. I pray and I pray and I pray and evil people still get away with murder and openly gloat in my face. Then I go to church and lots of happy, smiley faces tell me that life is wonderful and God is good. Something doesn’t add up here. Am I the odd one out here? Am I even a Christian? Do I want to be a Christian if this is what it boils down to? Turning the other cheek. Smiling through the insanity of life.

I wish I had their faith. I’ve tried to be that smiling, robotic face on a Sunday morning. But I can’t do it and nor can Fionnuala. She is many things but most certainly not a Stepford Church Wife. We always feel the odd ones out, the outsiders, the black sheep of the church family. I know our surname is Black but that’s just plain ridiculous. What are we missing out on? What part of the Christian life is not clicking with me? Why am I angry with God? Why do I ask so many question? Oh hang on that’s another question! Gahhhhhhh!

For all it’s infuriating sections the Bible has given me what I have needed of late to placate my frustration and anger – rubbish role models and hopeless heroes. Some of the angriest and most useless men in the history of the world. Job, Moses, David, Gideon, Samson, Peter, Paul. I could go on. And when I read their stories (I’m ploughing through the laugh-a-minute-a-thon that is Job presently) I see a glimmer of hope. Washed up nobodies at various points of their lives that God used to rewrite history. The world we live in today was shaped by anger and disillusionment just as much as it was shaped by Bethel music videos and stadium mega churches.

They were driven by anger and despair. All their lives. David lost a son. Job lost ten children. Moses lost the privilege and power of Egypt. Paul lost everything, including his head in the end. Some of the angriest, most bitter men you could hope to meet. The common denominator? God allowed them to be angry. He allowed them to rant and sulk and shake their fists at the heavens. He allowed them to bombard him with questions and let off steam. He could have struck them down mid tirade with fire from heaven but he didn’t.

He allowed them to get it out of their system. Without that many of the Psalms wouldn’t have been written. Job? Ecclesiastes? Lamentations? Forget about it. The Bible would have been a much slimmer read. God allowed anger because it’s part of the communication process. Anger can be healthy. It’s when you bottle it all up that it starts to fester and pollute your thoughts and actions. God doesn’t expect us to be happy, smiley drones 24/7 and pretend life is wonderful. Because *newsflash* it’s not.

So I’m heartened and somewhat reassured. I’ll never work God out. But I need him because otherwise what’s the point? I get angry and fed up with life whilst accepting that there is a God. Think how much more bleak and desolate the world would look if I didn’t believe. I’m an angry Christian. I’d be a much angrier atheist. He’s all I’ve got so I’ll rant and I’ll sulk but above all else I’ll hope. That when I get it all out of my system there are better times ahead. I’ll hope and I’ll pray. It’s all I’ve got.

Do you get angry with God? Or are you an angry atheist?

Can anger be healthy and productive?

There Are People I Avoid On The Train

There are people I avoid on the train. I always see them before they see me. I turn the other way. I pull my cap down over my face. I hurry along and hold my breath dreading my name being called out or a hand on my shoulder. Pulling me back to a place I don’t want to recall, to a place I have battled to escape and have no intention of returning to.

There are people I avoid on the train. Note I say people as opposed to person. Plural as opposed to singular. For when you add them up there are quite a few. In fact they seem to be everywhere. My daily commute is a minefield of potentially awkward and embarrassing encounters that I have no desire to resurrect. So I skulk and scurry. I dodge and duke. Catch me if you can cos I’m too quick and I’m too clever for you all. Aren’t I?

There are people I avoid on the train. I sometimes wonder what they would say to me if we spoke. Would it be inane small talk about the kids or the weather? Or would they cut to the chase and go straight for the jugular. Why? How? Where? When? Would there be polite chit chat or raised voices and recriminations? Would they offer a hand of reconciliation? Would it be a hot tongue or a cold shoulder? Good job I’m the Scarlet Pimpernel of public transport, right?

There are people I avoid on the train. But I can’t avoid them in my dreams. They visit them occasionally where I am forced to face the inevitable. You can’t run away in your dreams. Well you can and I’ve tried but you never seem to get very far. They always seem to catch up or be waiting for you just around the corner. Like Freddy Krueger. And their accusations cut just as deep as old Freddy’s claws. Last night they accused me of jealousy. But on another night it could be something else. Either way I can never get back to sleep. Wide awake. Thinking.

There are people I avoid on the train. I’m getting rather good at it. And then it hits me. Are they avoiding me? Are they seeing me a split second before I see them? Are they the one taking evasive action and diving for cover? I always thought they would want to talk, to engage, to build bridges and tear down barriers. Because it’s all about me and the hurt they have caused me. It’s all their fault and I’m the victim. I’ve done nothing wrong and I should be standing tall and proud beyond reproach. And yet I skulk through the carriages like a thief in the night.

There are people I avoid on the train. Or am I avoiding myself? Am I avoiding the inevitable? Is this a cowardly act or a necessary one of self preservation? I mean no offence with this self defence. I need to hide away in my fortress and pull up the drawbridge. It’s either that or be utterly exposed to the searing truth. The truth that burns away all the excuses and lies, that reveals me for who I really am. A broken man picking up the pieces the best way that he can. Broken yet functioning. Clinging on thanks to the grace of a God I don’t deserve.

There are people I avoid on the train. I’ll keep avoiding them. It’s best that way, But I can’t avoid God no matter how hard I try. He can be annoyingly persistent. He even bugs atheists and agnostics. He will nag and niggle with that small, still voice of his. A message here and a sign there. Chipping away at my scorched, scarred heart to reveal fresh, living tissue beneath. A new heart for a new man. Pumping with passion and purpose. Soaked in the blood of another. Beating to the rhythm of heavenly drums.

There are people I avoid on the train. But I can’t avoid myself. Every day I have to look in the mirror. I don’t like what I see but I see it anyway. For seeing is believing. And I believe again. I believe I’ve been given this twenty second chance for a reason. For this is my season and I’m grabbing it with both hands this time. This is my destiny, this is what I was called to do. One day there will be no more train and no more need to hide. For my story will be told bright and bold. You can’t avoid the void forever. One day you have to stop running and stare deep into the darkness.

For that is where you will find the light.

Are there people you avoid?

What are you running from?

Winter Is Coming

A couple of inches of snow fell across Northern Ireland yesterday evening. Despite having had in excess of 24 hours prior notice the country responded in time honoured fashion….by grinding to a standstill. The lightest sprinkling of the white stuff on our fair land and chaos reigns. In scenes reminiscent of ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ the Black family battled home from school and work respectively.

The roads had not been gritted. Fionnuala ended up off the road on her way to pick me up from the train station. Thankfully a Good Samaritan stopped to help get her back on the road but when she phoned to let me know I told her to stay put due to the treacherous conditions. There then followed *cue stirring music* the heroic sight of yours truly battling through a blizzard to get to them.

I slipped and slid the mile to where they were stranded. I felt like Scott of the Antarctic although I more resembled Olaf from Frozen but I made it and was able to gingerly drive us back to the house. We then received a text from Adam that his school bus was stranded two miles from our village and not going anywhere. He had started walking home so I set off again to pick him up. As I headed out of the village I was greeted by the heartening sight of a car abandoned in a ditch. It had flattened a road sign in the process. Yikes!

I eventually located Adam trudging along the roadside along with around thirty other school kids. Meanwhile the road was gridlock with cars, vans and lorries. All we were missing was Godzilla in the background; or perhaps King Kong swatting at helicopters. I managed to collect Adan and a couple of his mates before somehow turning the car and crawling back home. It was with some relief that we closed the front door and settled down in our cosy living room to watch the snow continue to fall.

Any North Americans or Scandinavians reading this are probably shaking their heads in disbelief. Us Irish just cannot cope with snow. Every winter it happens and every winter we are caught out. We just don’t seem to have the organisation or infrastructure to handle any form of inclement weather. Planning and preparation? More like panic and prevarication? We go to pieces. Winter is coming. We know! We know!! But we continue to stick our heads in the sand (or snowdrift) and hope it will all go away and leave us alone.

We can’t cope when weather conditions slightly outside of the norm befall us. We cease to function. The wheels come off. We are left stranded high and dry because we are not prepared for such an eventuality. And the same applies to the storms of life we have to face. We cannot say when, where or what but we know they are inevitable at some juncture. They will hit and they will hit hard. Instead of being swept away or sucked up into the sky we can be a little more prepared. We can dig in and hang on for grim death. We might lose a few fingernails in the process but we will survive.

Look around. What are your coping mechanisms? Is it your family, your friends or your faith? Where are your snow shovels, the people who can dig you out of a hole when you most need it? We are not islands and we need support mechanisms. I know I need to practice what I preach as during 2017 I walked away from the church and a number of friendships which were harmful to me. I know I need to work on that and be in a better place for when the next life storm hits.

Today’s post is a call for action. A reminder to dig out your disaster or evacuation plan, dust it down and examine it in detail. Who are your ‘go to’ people? The people who will be there for you when the day from hell descends? The inner circle you can rely on when its ‘4th and inches’ and the game is on the line. Blizzards are confusing and disorientating phenomena. When they hit we need a safe place to retreat to, we need people who we can rely upon. They are our signposts, our landmarks and our way out of the crisis.

We need them. For winter is coming….

What is the worst snowstorm you have ever been in?

How do you cope when a life storm hits?

Who are your ‘4th and inches’ people?

2018 – The Year Of Death

I got a phrase in my head the other day. This happens from time to time. It’s hard to explain but it’s as if the phrase was not of me. I didn’t think it into existence, it came from elsewhere, as if someone or something else planted it in my mind. I’m not sure if it is a promise, a warning or just my admittedly overworked brain playing tricks on me. Whatever the reason the phrase was there and I had to deal with it. What was the phrase? Why, I’m so glad you asked.

It was this. 2018 is the Year Of Death.

On the face of it, not the most cheery or reassuring message. It’s hardly up there with ‘2018 is the Year of Winning the Lottery’ or ‘2018 is the Year of Manchester United Winning the Champions League.’ Was there going to be a death in the family? It was enough to send a serial worrier like me into a full blown panic. Yet I didn’t feel frightened by the message. Something told me that it had been sent to reassure and comfort me as opposed to dismay and alarm.

I began to see the flip side of the message and realised it was a message of hope and intention. It was a positive proclamation. Death should not be feared especially within this context. Death is just part of the journey. I have walked a long and winding road in recent years. I have been carrying a lot of baggage from my past which has weighed me down and distracted me at times. It has made the journey a longer and more cumbersome one than it needed to be.

I saw it as an old fashioned leather rucksack filled with stones. It’s straps were cutting into my shoulders and my back was aching from the weight of its contents. It was literally killing me. My past was playing havoc with my present and preventing me from reaching my future. The rucksack was overflowing with guilt, shame, embarrassment and a host of other negative emotions that needed flushed out of my system; a toxic stew that had to be purged from my contaminated soul.

This blog is part of that purging process. It has grown beyond our wildest dreams and we have big plans for it in the year ahead. It has reignited my love of writing and I have received amazing feedback and support which has spurred me on. I want to write, I need to write and I hope I’m reasonably good at it. The written word is my weapon against the past. I will use it to slay my demons. I will use it to cut the rucksack free from my weary shoulders and let it fall by the wayside.

With it no longer holding me back I can stride on with fresh vigour and purpose towards my destiny. So I say death to the past. Death to guilt and shame. Death to regret and remorse. Death to addictive behaviour. Death to obsessive, intrusive thinking. Death to fear and worry. Death to negativity. Death to jealousy and hate. Death to the self. Death to relationships and friendships which drag you down. Death to lies. Death to anything which prevents you from becoming the person you were born to be. Death to Death.

You were born to live. You were born to make an impact, to make a difference. You are a pebble thrown into a vast, still lake. The ripples you create spread out across its surface from shore to shore. You are an agent of change. You are an electrical current surging through the grid of creation. You are unstoppable. You are irresistible. You light up your environment like a firework on the 4th of July. You are precious and unique. You are loved. You are love.

2018 holds no fear for me for it is the Year of Death. I embrace it.

What are you ‘Death to’ in 2018?

I’m Hangry

I am permanently hungry. I wake up hungry, I go to work hungry, I come home hungry, I go to bed hungry. I am the Hunger Games. Although I haven’t had to resort to using a bow & arrow or killing any teenagers. Yet. Catniss Everdeen watch out. If it comes down to it I will fight you to the death if it involves a sausage sandwich or multi pack of Double Decker chocolate bars.

This, of course, is as a result of my marathon training. Big mileage equates to big appetite. As I’m burning a lot of calories during the course of the week I need to replace them at more regular intervals. And by regular I mean all the time. In many ways I resemble a hobbit in my love of around nineteen meals a day. Although I’m considerably taller with slightly less hairy feet. Plus I’ve a soft spot for orcs.

I read somewhere that during a marathon training programme some runners actually put on weight, such are the constant hunger pangs that envelop them. I can relate to that. Thankfully I haven’t piled on the pounds but I can see how that can happen. I’ve witnessed fellow runners gorge themselves after long runs. It was akin to a zombie feeding frenzy. I can’t comment on their table manners because these guys didn’t even wait for the food to be placed on a table. Truly nasty.

I don’t like being hungry. Of course I have no concept of what real hunger is and don’t wish to devalue that but bear with me. When I am hungry I become tetchy and irritable. Or, as Fionnuala might suggest, more tetchy and irritable than normal. There is a word for this that has entered the English vocabulary in recent years. It’s right up there with ‘selfie’ and ‘Brexit’. That word is…. hangry.

Hungry + Angry = Hangry. Alternatively I have heard ‘rungry’ used but that’s just the 26.2 mile brigade trying to over complicate matters. Let’s stick with ‘hangry’ for now. When I need to eat nothing else matters bar the search for sustenance. I can’t focus on anything else until my stomach is full. And God help anyone who gets in my way. It becomes my Number One priority; everything else takes a back seat until my face is being fed. End of.

We all need to eat. Some of us have bigger appetites than others. My mother could live off a slice of toast and twenty four cups of tea a day. People like me need more. I’m fortunate in that I can pretty much eat what I want. Others, like Fionnuala, need to be more careful given her diabetes. Others again choose not to eat and to restrict their calorie intake. This can be voluntarily through a healthy diet plan or a result of an eating disorder which, sadly, seem to be increasingly prevalent in society today.

Hunger takes many forms. Some crave the control and power it brings. Others fear it as they never know where the next meal is coming from for them and their family. Hunger can be a dark, relentless foe. My own pangs pale into insignificance when compared against true, raw hunger where lives are on the line. Again I don’t mean to belittle a subject that still traumatises large swathes of our planet. We take so much for granted and that includes not having to worry about where our next mouthful is coming from.

Hunger can be a life or death matter. Or it can be a trivial gripe of a spoilt, middle aged Northern Irish runner. It affects all of us, however. Everybody gets hungry at some stage. And I’m not just talking about our stomachs here. We all have dreams, goals, ambitions. We all hunger after something. It can be a new physique, a new job or that ‘must have’ accessory. We want as oppose to need. We never seem to be satisfied with what we have. We hunger for more, more, more.

Hunger is a dangerous beast to tame. It can wreak havoc when that need relates to addictive patterns and destructive behaviours. Alcohol, drugs, sex, and power are but a few of the glittering gems we desire. We ache for them, the insatiable urge to fill the void within us. Yes, be hungry. Have dreams and hopes. But hunger after what is noble. Use you hunger to change your street, town or country. Hunger for love. Hunger for justice. Hunger for all that is good.

Make your hunger known.

What do you hunger for?

CSI: You

Crime scenes can be fascinating but grisly locations. My work occasionally involves me attending them and experiencing the other side of the cordon. I’ve even had to wear those silly forensic oversuits, masks and gloves on occasion. It wasn’t my best fashion moment let me tell you. I resembled a giant, white Teletubby. My Tinky Winky was decidedly un rinky dinky! Here’s a tip as well should you ever find yourself in one (well you never know). If you bend over make sure you are wearing an undergarment. They tend to rip quite easily. You’re very welcome.

Crime scenes are frenetic, highly pressurised environments. Scientists, photographers, mappers and scenes of crime officers buzz around carrying out their various duties. They have to be painstakingly meticulous. The tiniest oversight can result in crucial evidence being overlooked. A hair, a speck of blood, a fingerprint. Attention to detail is paramount. Clues can be concealed anywhere and only the most highly trained mind can identify and decipher them. I tend to find myself at the eye of this storm. I direct, advise and consult. But when it comes to the technical, scientific stuff I take a step back and leave it to the boffins and geeks. For I am neither. Cos I am the coolest of albino Teletubbies.

You might pore over a crime scene for hours and see nothing. A highly qualified specialist can spend just a few moments working the scene and report back with observations and findings which will leave you standing slack jawed in astonishment. Piecing together what happened at any scene is a team effort. It requires a cast of many. I cannot be expected to do it on my own. I don’t have the necessary knowledge, experience and skills. I rely on others to paint a picture for me. I delegate and I listen. Failure to do so can be career suicide.

When all the pieces of the jigsaw are presented to me I can then begin to slot them together. This is where my analytical and interpretive skills come to the fore. I provide a strategic overview like a general surveying a battlefield far below him. I’m nowhere near as important as a general but you get my drift. Jigsaws can be frustrating and time consuming. But there is no better feeling than fixing those last few pieces into place and the picture finally merging into focus. It makes all the hard work beforehand worthwhile.

Life can be a bit like working a crime scene. Baffling and bloody in equal measure. Attempt to decipher it alone and you will soon find yourself in hot water. You will quickly become swamped and end up hopelessly out of your depth. You need others around you, people who you can rely upon. Experts who will guide you through the pitfalls and lead you to the truth which is often staring you right in the face. You cannot rush life’s trials just like you cannot rush a crime scene. It takes time and it requires teamwork.

I spent a good chunk of my life trying to do it on my own. Attempting to unlock the riddle locked inside a conundrum wrapped inside an enigma that was me. I never got very far and invariably blundered past the subtle signposts and discreet directions set out along the path I travelled. I have been clueless to the clues and oblivious to the obvious. Unable to make any sense of the evidence spread out before my weary eyes. Blinded by my own selfish and sinful needs. Unable to see the wood for the trees. Bogged down in a quagmire of self pity and negativity. Going nowhere fast. When the answers were staring me right in the face all along. My faith and my family. They were my solution. They were the magnifying glass that this Sherlock Holmes needed.

Crime scenes cannot be held forever. Eventually the cordon will be taken down and the various agencies will pack up their bags and head home. The cleaning agencies will scrub the streets clean and it will be as if nothing ever happened. Nothing to see here folks. Move along now people. You only get one chance at at crime scene. Time is precious. You need to process it as a team before the opportunity is lost forever. They call it the golden hour. One chance, don’t mess it up. No pressure. Just like life really. You get one chance.

Your life is like a crime scene. It is a living, breathing, messy puzzle and you are the detective called to unravel its secrets and decode its mysteries. You only get one shot at it so tread carefully. Examine every inch of it and from every possible angle. In minute, fine grain detail. Every crime scene examination is a search for the truth. The truth you have been searching for your entire life. Your purpose. Your meaning. Your calling. The tiniest grain of information could unlock the door to worlds and universes that you never knew existed before. The key to your life.

But don’t do it alone. Use the resources available to you. Those who know you better than you know yourself. I can’t tell you who these people are. They are your tribe, your inner circle. Allow them underneath the cordon tape and into your confidence. Show them the beautiful mess that you are. Allow them to sift through the debris and help you piece together the jigsaw that reveals your purpose and destiny. Let them help you for you cannot do it alone. You must not do it alone. For before you know it the scene will be lost and the secret treasures of your being will be blown away into the night never to return. You will be unable to find the message in your mess.

Standing alone and confused on a dark, damp street. In an ill fitting Teletubby costume. Not knowing who you are nor why you are here. Now that would be a crime.

How are you getting on at working your crime scene?

Who are your tribe? Do you allow them under the cordon?

Is there a message hidden in your mess?

January 150 Mile Challenge Update

After three days on the sidelines due to illness I started running again yesterday. 8.1 miles yesterday and 7.2 miles today bring me up to 60 miles in total for the month so far. Which has me back on schedule to attain my target of 150 miles in January. Running to me is mentally beneficial as much as physical. It does wonders for my high stress levels and low self esteem. A running Stephen is certainly a happier Stephen.

I will post occasional running stories throughout the year. I don’t want to become a running bore (which I am prone to do) but running is part of me and part of my story. So it would feel odd if I didn’t write about it now and again. In a previous blogging existence I wrote about nothing else. But that blog was all about my ego and craving attention for all the wrong reasons. When I write about running now I do so in order to promote the benefits of healthy exercise to those struggling with addiction, depression or other mental health issues.

It costs nothing and it’s given me renewed life and freedom. Four years ago I weighed over 15 stone in weight and could barely run the length of myself. I’m now three stone lighter and ran my seventh marathon last November. I plan to run more this year. If I can do it then so can anyone. All you need is a little bit of ability and a whole lot of determination. Dreams can become reality. All you need to do is wake up and take that first step.

Keep running your race. Wherever it takes you,

The Ugly Truth

I used to lie all the time. In fact I became rather good at it. I lied to my wife. I lied to my kids. I lied to my mother and sister. I lied to my friends and work colleagues. I lied to anyone who I was engaged in conversation with for any length of time. I lied face to face. I lied on the phone. I lied via text message. I lied online. I liked to lie. I was a walking, talking lie-ability.

I even lied to myself. And I was such an accomplished liar that even I began to believe myself. I still continued to believe that I was a more or less honest, upstanding husband, father, son, brother and so on. Like any addict I was delusional. I thought I could stop lying at any time and return to the real world. Every lie, however, took me a step further away from where I needed to be. My lies accumulated and created a sticky, tangled web from which there was no escape.

Why do we lie? Why are some of us seemingly allergic to telling the truth. Well at the heart of it is self preservation. Lying is fundamentally a selfish act. The liar seeks to preserve their reputation and prevent others from seeing what lurks beneath the lies – the ugly, sinful truth. Why confront that when you can be mesmerised by beautiful, glittering lies. Lies are fluffy, soft and shiny. The truth, on the other hand, is all sharp edges and hard surfaces. Lies are beautiful. The truth is no oil painting.

The truth regarding me was not a pretty sight. And eventually it was exposed for all to marvel at it in its malignant magnificence. They say the truth will set you free but it didn’t feel like that every time it happened to me. And it always did. I wasn’t as good a liar as I thought I was for I was always found out. That moment when you realised you were exposed and cornered; when your blood turned to ice and your heart lurched into the pit of your stomach. There is no more sickening feeling.

It was then and only then that I saw the lies for that they really were. I saw the pain and distress I caused my loved ones. I saw that beneath the cocky, swaggering exterior I was nothing but a lilywhite coward. My legs turned to jelly and I struggled to breathe. I was overcome with nausea and self pity. I became nothing. Without my protective cloak of lies the cruel, ugly truth burned me to a crisp. It left me naked and bleeding, ashamed to look at myself in a mirror. I still struggle with that even to this day.

Learning to tell the truth again is hard work. When your default setting is to lie it takes a conscious act to do anything but that. The truth is clunky and cumbersome. It trips you up and slows you down. The truth is sitting in a huge traffic tailback as Liar Airlines zooms past overhead. Learning to tell the truth again is like learning to walk again; one painful, uncertain step at a time. It is so tempting to fall back into old habits and tell a little, white one just to oil the wheel the oils of life.

But one lie is never enough just like one drink is never enough for an alcoholic. Every landslide starts with one tiny stone rolling. And I must never be swallowed up again by an avalanche of my own creation. My lies are the smokescreen I create in order to hide sinful secrets. Secrets that have broken me time and time again. I cannot and will not allow that to happen again. I must fight the urge to lie and avoid the liars who have led me down dark paths before.

Every addict is an accomplished liar. Strip away the lies and you see the addiction for what it truly is. The truth to an addict is like kryptonite to Superman. It brings the strongest miscreant to their knees. It obliterates them and it is only then that they can start to rebuild. From scratch. The truth is a wrecking ball in the cosy life of a liar. It is radical and violent. There is nothing cuddly about it. Every avenging angel comes with fire and fury, not fluffy clouds and heavenly choirs.

I cling to the truth. It burns and cuts me. I slip and stumble but I cling on for dear life. An ugly truth for a battered, dirty soul.

Do you struggle with telling the truth?

How have lies impacted on your life?

Sick Of Being Sick

Chez Black has been struck with all kinds of sickness and illness over the last few weeks. Fionnuala has been particularly unfortunate and has been struggling with all sorts of ailments. Once she overcomes one bug another one has appeared over the horizon to blight her. It has been a very exhausting and debilitating period for her.

Hannah and Rebecca have both been off school this week with various sniffles and coughs. Hannah also had a nasty stomach bug after Christmas. Even our eldest, ‘IronMan’ Adam, came home from school today feeling under the weather. And as for yours truly? Well I’ve been manfully battling manflu these last three days. But I’m not one to complain right?

We’ve had to miss various trips and appointments. We haven’t been to church in over a month and have effectively quarantined ourselves off from the rest of civilisation bar essential journeys. We are well and truly sick of being sick. It seems that we have picked up every lurgy going. You name it, we have it. I know we have been hit by nothing really serious but it’s still been a frustrating start to 2018.

If only everything was so infectious. Why can’t I be struck down with excessive kindness, tolerance or generosity? Wouldn’t it be great if you woke up one morning and couldn’t stop smiling? Or caught a nasty dose of neighbourly love? Nope. These characteristics seem to come much harder to most of us. They are not an automatic action like sneezing or coughing. They require an actual effort on our part. An effort that is often lacking on the part of many.

Fionnuala and I watch the regional, national and international news but see nothing but hatred and bigotry. We turn on mainstream television and see traditional values and morals being relentlessly attacked by the ‘politically correct’ police. You are scared to open your mouth today for fear of offending someone. Our skins are becoming thinner as our hearts become harder.

The same applies to all aspects of society. People don’t seem to care any more about nobody but numero uno. Indifference and apathy are reaching epidemic proportions. If you dare to have an opinion contrary to the accepted norm you are ostracised and ridiculed. It’s a mad, mad world. Or rather it’s a sad, sad world.

I’m embarrassed by our elected representatives. I’m appalled by many of our so called celebrities. I’m disappointed by supposed role models. I’m let down by family and supposed friends. It’s little wonder we often as a family do not want to mix and mingle. Be it attending the workplace, church or social events. Everywhere we look we see shallowness and hypocrisy.

We will soldier on through this period of illness just as we will soldier on through life. We will love where we can and hold our heads high. We are proud of our home and our kids even though our throats are sore and our noses are blocked. We care and because we care we won’t give up. We remain optimistic even though the world doesn’t offer much in the way of optimism.

We are sick. But the world is sicker.

The Day I Laughed

The other evening my brother-in-law sent me the link to a very silly song that he had written. I have a very juvenile sense of humour. My favourite comedy shows are the likes of The Fast Show, Alan Partridge and Larry David. The sillier the better as far as I’m concerned. I tend to take life very seriously and am a born worrier so I’m not quite sure why this is. Fionnuala thinks I stopped maturing mentally at around fifteen. Some women would say this happens to all men.

Despite my love of immature, childish comedy shows my default setting is one of natural pessimism. To me the glass is always half empty as opposed to half full. In fact the glass is more than likely empty, cracked and in need of a wash. I am always prepared for the worst possible case scenario and then I’ll take it from there. I am prone to self pity and melancholic moods. I can be a right miserable git at times. Fun Time Stephen I am most definitely not.

There was one line of the song that set me off. I laughed. And I laughed. And then I laughed some more. I rolled around. I clutched my sides. The tears rolled down my face. I couldn’t breathe. I was literally in stitches. This started Fionnuala and the kids. They started laughing at my reaction to the song. We were all in hysterics. It was infectious and uncontrollable. They didn’t even know why I was laughing so hard.

When we had all eventually calmed down Adam and Hannah, aged fifteen and fourteen respectively, told me that they had never seen me laugh like that before. That quickly sobered me up. Surely they were mistaken? Was I that much of a sourpuss? Did I walk about with a cloud permanently hanging over me? Fionnuala agreed. She said I no longer laughed like I used to years ago. I had changed given the additional responsibilities and worries that life had piled on my shoulders.

This surprised and saddened me. I didn’t want to believe them but realised they were right. I couldn’t remember myself when I had last laughed like that. It had felt cleansing and liberating, like the exhilarating feeling after a long run. It’s true what they say. Laughter is the best form of medicine. I resolved then that I would strive to laugh more and worry less. I don’t want my kids growing up with memories of a stern, Victorian father.

Life today can be demanding and stressful. There is so much that can cause us to frown. I’m a realist. The world can be a very dark place. Only a fool living in a bubble would think otherwise. But if you sift through the debris of despair there are nuggets of joy and laughter to be found. Seek them out and embrace them for they are more precious than any ruby or diamond. They are like manna from Heaven. We need to laugh more. Sometimes it is the only thing standing between ourselves and madness.

Laughter is healing to both ourselves and others. It can cut through any barriers. It is universal and requires no translation. We need to find something, anything, to laugh about. Lifting our heads in laughter is essential and edifying. We were created to laugh as well as cry. Even a simple smile can change lives. It costs nothing but it can be priceless to those around us. It promotes love and well being. It unlocks doors, hearts and souls.

Find something to laugh about today. Laugh with others, not at others. Laugh joyfully and lovingly not spitefully or maliciously. Just laugh.

When did you last laugh until you cried?

Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full kind of person?

How Good Is Your Memory?

I have a great memory. I have a terrible memory. Confused? Let me explain. Ask me to name the Manchester United Premiership winning team of 1992-1993. No problem. Schmeichel, Irwin, Pallister…..Ok Ok you’re not interested, I get it. Back to the main message.

Ask me however what I did yesterday and I struggle. This drives Fionnuala nuts and rightly so. She will ask me to pick up some groceries on the way home. I’ll walk in the door empty handed. She will bring up a discussion we had the previous day. I will look at her blankly. She will remind me about an appointment that we have. I will have no recollection of this.

It drives me nuts as well. I don’t do it deliberately and I can’t understand why I’m like this. When it comes to my job I have an encyclopaedic memory. Dates, names, locations i’m like a walking computer spitting out the details. Ask me what I had for my dinner the previous evening, however, or the route I took for my last long run and I am in trouble.

Maybe it’s hereditary. I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s which really worries me but when I think about it logically I honestly don’t think that’s the reason. We lead hectic lives so maybe it’s just total information overload and my tiny brain can only retain so much. Is it because I use up so much of my time fighting off the intrusive OCD thoughts which threaten to swamp my consciousness? Who knows. It’s not as if I do it deliberately and it’s not as if I don’t care. It’s embarrassing and when I look in Fionnuala’s eyes after I’ve forgotten another mundane detail I see hurt and disappointment.

I don’t want to hurt and disappoint my wife. This hurts and disappoints me. I want to be reliable, trustworthy and bang on my A-game when it comes to my family commitments and responsibilities. So, in order tocounter my shocking memory lapses, I have started to religiously note everything down in a diary. If it ain’t written down then it ain’t happening. It’s always within arms reach. It is my go to new best friend.

I’ve realised I need to write stuff down in order to get it into my head. I need lists and schedules. It’s how my brain works. Without them it turns to mush. I’m already reaping the benefits and believe I have impressed Fionnuala of late with my recollection of a few upcoming events. She will never admit to this but I thought I should record it in the blog for the purposes of posterity anyway.

Isn’t memory a bewildering topic? I can’t remember what I did yesterday but can recall events from thirty years ago with laser accuracy. Down to the fine grain detail. And why is it that so often it’s the traumatic, distressing memories that we retain? Replaying them over and over like a broken cinematic reel. If only we could break the cycle and drain the memory banks of these poisonous thoughts.

I’ve been the victim of some of these thoughts but I’ve also been the originator. Either way they continue to haunt me. I can’t undo what happened and I can’t erase them from my memory. All I can do is focus on the here and now. Focus on working on my memory in order to support my wife and kids today. And by doing so ensure that their memories thirty years from now are happy ones.

We can’t tear down the bad memories but we can be the architects of better ones. Start building today. Even if you have to write it down.

What is your memory like? Do you rely on a diary?

How do you deal with toxic memories from the past?

Shatter The Silence

Silence is golden they say. In today’s hectic world it is almost impossible to escape the constant hustle and bustle of everyday life. With technological advances we are rarely totally alone nowadays. We crave anonymity and inaccessibility. We just want five minutes of peace and quiet. We need a break, a time out, a little ‘me time.’ The ‘must have’ holiday invariably involves a deserted beach with no internet.

Some people choose to drop out of society. They become hermits and recluses. They turn their backs on human interaction. There can be a plethora of reasons for this. Some say it is the only way they can sustain a meaningful relationship with God. The noise of the world creates too many barriers between them and their Creator. They argue that by turning their back on modern life they are discovering the true meaning of life.

Others are hounded into silence. They have given up. Life has knocked them to the canvas once too often and they cannot pick themselves up again. They have been abused, betrayed and hurt beyond repair. The pain of a lonely life is preferable to the horrors they have experienced. They retreat into their self made fortresses. They become ghosts, drifting through life like wraiths on the wind.

All of the above scenarios involve choice. Although all three originate from differing needs they all entail a decision being made in order to improve an individual’s set of circumstances. Be it for physical, mental, emotional or spiritual requirements the quest for silence is all-consuming. It may be for self preservation or self improvement but it is dictated by free will. We decide. We crave the silence. It is more precious than anything. It is the gold at the end of our rainbow.

What if we don’t have that choice however? What if the silence is forced upon us. I see so many relationships today that are empty shells containing nothing but silence. So many friendships derailed by miscommunication and misunderstanding. For some silence is a weapon in their armoury that they wield to devastating effect. It can cut deeper than the most refined steel, piercing dreams and shattering lives. Silence can be a killer.

The victims are left bewildered and broken. Their is no closure, no explanation for how things have turned out the way they have. Questions are unanswered, apologies are snubbed, olive branches are thrown into the fires of recrimination. They are left hanging in limbo, twisting in the wind, clutching at the noose which squeezes the last breath of hope from their screaming lungs.

Many say Hell is a place of eternal silence and darkness. I can think of nothing more horrific. Silence is golden they say. It can also be toxic, sickening and leave its victims broken and bleeding. A cold shoulder can burn as deeply as a white hot poker. It can brand people for life, scar them beyond recognition. There is much to be said for reconciliation and restoration. No relationship is beyond salvage if embraced with love and hope.

Swallow the bile and the pride. Find it in your heart to forgive. Expose yourself to the healing glow of forgiveness. It’s not easy but it can be done. Put down that stone you are about to throw. Look around and then look deep into your very being. Are you really any better? Taking the high moral ground means you only have farther to fall when the tables are turned and you find yourself in a similar situation.

For that time will come. As certain as night follows day. Shatter the silence. Let your voice be heard. It could save a life of today.

Have you been a victim of silence?

Have you used silence as a weapon before?

Can you forgive someone today and shatter the silence?

Excess All Areas – Part One

I am a creature of excess. When I get involved in an activity that I am passionate about I have to take it to the nth degree. If there is a nth post graduate qualification, or possibly a masters option, then sign me up. I always take it to the limit, to the extreme, to 100% and beyond. Is that even possible? To give over 100%. Answers on a postcard please. I am Mr. Excess All Areas.

In my days of copious alcohol consumption one drink was never enough. Social drinking has always baffled me. Having one beer was pointless as far as I was concerned. I drank to get drunk. Doesn’t everyone? No??! Well who knew. I didn’t even like the taste of it. It was an ends to a means; a way of getting from Point A to Point B as swiftly as possible. Point B was where it was at. I had no problems or worries there. The downside was that the following morning I awoke with a horrific hangover to find I was right back at Point A again. I binged. Then cringed….and winged.

Some years ago I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Order (OCD). This explained a lot. I was largely driven by it. At times I fled it but on other occasions it urged me onwards to new heights. Or depths depending on your perspective. When I run, my default setting is to run long distances. When I have the bit between my teeth at work, I clock up long hours. When I became a Christian in the early days I lived, ate and breathed it. I have an addictive personality. Which is why I avoid PlayStations, scratch cards, heroin and daytime soap operas like the plague.

When I took up a new activity or interest I had to become the best I possibly could at it. There were no half measures. I could never be a lukewarm participant. With me it was either freezing cold or scalding hot. And as we all know exposing yourself to extremes of temperature is a dangerous business. I bolstered what little talent I had in any given field with bucketloads of OCD fuelled determination and stubbornness. It was all or nothing. The secret of my success was excess. It is a fine line between passion and obsession. I still walk that tightrope every day.

I can, and have, become obsessed with just about anything. In order to ensure the integrity and impartiality of this post (he typed pretentiously) I asked Fionnuala to compile a list of 10 things I have become obsessed with down the years. Her initial response was ‘only 10?’ She’s a laugh a minute my wife. Anyway here is her list….

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook (before I discovered Twitter and Instagram), alcohol, work, running, Diet Coke, Tomb Raider (the games and Jolie movies), football, calories, the Game of Thrones cast (primarily all things Stark) Katy Perry (not so keen on the new haircut) the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival (which is held in March but I started preparing for it the previous November), selfies (hangs head in shame), lying (hangs head even further in shame), being liked by others and being somebody who I am not. In the end I had to tell her to stop. She’s probably still typing.

I see a lot of similar people on WordPress. Their demons drive them to excess. They are damaged souls. Life has gouged great holes in them, gaping wounds. They seek to fill these voids with anything that will allow them to feel again. They are beyond numb for at least numbness is something. They are nothing. They need something, anything to cling onto. Excess is their oxygen. It is what propels them gasping and spluttering above the raging waters of depression and despair. It is life.

It can be anything. Drugs, alcohol, money, power, sex. It can be a person. It can be a possession. Anything. But it must be ramped up to excess. Excess is the common denominator that underpins every story I read. Addiction, Depression, OCD, Anxiety, Anorexia, Bulimia, the list go on. We crave escape, release, freedom. But the demons are clever. They seduce us with their soothing words. They promise the above but in reality they are urging us deeper into the mire of captivity. They lie. The shiny baubles they dangle so tantalisingly in front of us are worthless. It is all superficial. We need to look beyond the bright lights to find the truth.

They are masters of deceit. Yet we fall for it time and time again. One more glass, one more hit, one more purge and all our problems will be gone. Or at least eased. Anything to get away from our drab, dreary realities. There must be more to life than this. We see excess as the swipe card which will allow us access this magical kingdom, this nirvana which we have been so desperately seeking. It is only when we stand on the other side and the veil falls back that we realise we have been duped.

We crave the grave. Not literally (although tragically some are driven down that dark path) but we seek an end to who we have become. I am currently reading ‘How To Murder Your Life’ by Cat Marnell. If you ever read one story of recovery from addiction and mental illness read hers. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. Brutal, visceral honesty. Searing passion and written in such a frantic, beautiful style.

Sorry I’m obsessing again. Do you see a pattern developing here? But the title says it all. Excess is our weapon of choice. When we survey the crime scenes of our lives we will see it glistening in a pool of our own blood. We are murderers and the victims are our lives. We flee the scene but, despite what we think, we cannot flee ourselves. We wake up and are right back where we started. Excess is a prison not a get out of jail free card. It doesn’t open doors, it builds walls. Between yourself and your loved ones. Between who you are and who you have the potential to be.

It is a double edged sword. A sword that can be wielded for good or harm. My next post will focus on the latter and explore how we can use our excessive, obsessive natures to overcome our demons. We can turn the tables and slay them with their own weapons. And as they lie bleeding at our feet we can finally taste true freedom. A new world where we can live without fear and shame. Just believe. You are within touching distance.

Can you relate to this post?

What are your experiences and thoughts regarding excessive and obsessive behaviour?

Who Do You Trust?

Last year I made an unusual New Years Resolution. I decided to give up having friends. That’s right. I was going solo. All I needed were Fionnuala and the kids. The reason? Well largely it was forced upon me. I had self destructed in such spectacular fashion that some people no longer wanted anything to do with me. Others did but only if I adhered to a number of pre-conditions. After some consideration I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t. And others again I had to cut adrift myself as they simply were not good for me.

Within a relatively short period of time I went from having a reasonably busy social life to well….nothing. We left the church we had been actively involved in and are still struggling to find a new spiritual home. I cut off all my ties with various running groups I had been linked to. I left all formats of social media and deleted a swathe of contact numbers from my mobile phone. I don’t have a big family. I have one sister who I don’t see very often and I lost my father in 2010 to prostate cancer. Since then my mother has become something of a recluse and, although we talk every day on the phone, I maybe see her once every couple of months.

It was Fionnuala and the kids. I got up, went to work and came home. I run on my own. I go and watch my son play rugby but don’t really mix with all the other parents. I keep my head down wherever I go and usually wear a cap. People walk past as if I don’t exist and that’s just fine by me. I used to seek out the limelight whereas now I shun it. Plus I can no longer fall back on alcohol to combat my social awkwardness. I’m a weirdo, a geek, an oddball. As long as I have my Kindle Fire and Netflix then I’m as happy as a pig in you know what.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m anti-social. I’m shy and awkward but I would love to have friends. The written medium is my strongest communication format. I feel very at home when I am writing. Put me in a room full of strangers, however, and ask me to engage in small talk and I would crumple in an embarrassed heap. I’d be like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. ‘I’m mellllllttttiiiiiiinnngggggg!!!!’ Flying monkeys optional. They really freak me out by the way.

I want to have friends but I just can’t get my thang together on this front. I’m just me and not a lot of people get thar. I like hobbits and zombies and running 26.2 miles for ‘fun’. These icebreakers tend to be greeted by a lot of blank stares whenever I drop them into the conversation. I’ve been trying to explain my rationale regarding this situation for five paragraphs now but I guess the ever so eloquent Taylor Swift sums it up best.

I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me….

The Social Media Wannabe Formerly Known as Stephen Black has inflicted and sustained considerable damage over the last few years. Thank God I’m now back on the straight and narrow. I have massive trust issues, however. I trust very few people. I’ll take that a step further. I don’t even trust myself most of the time. It can take years to establish trust but you can destroy it in a few seconds. Fionnuala dragged me very reluctantly back onto social media via this blog and I am slowly starting to find my feet again. I am learning to trust others and myself again. I hope others are learning to trust me as well.

It’s a constant battle though. I want to help people through this blog but I’m ever alert and wary. Am I coming across as too arrogant? Pretentious? Am I disclosing too much about myself? Too little? How do I come across? Am I doing enough? The questions keep coming. And it all boils down to one little word – trust. Trust rusts. It needs constant attention like one of those massive road bridges that are constantly being painted to combat corrosion. Once the painters get to the far end of the bridge they have to start all over because the near end has started to rust again.

I want to thank WordPress. For allowing me to be myself. For allowing me to lower my defences and display my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For allowing me to trust people again. For allowing others to trust me. For allowing me to learn to trust myself again.

I am everything you are allowing me to become. I trust this community, this tribe. I think I’ve finally found my people. Thank you.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Where do you stand on the issue of trust?

The Blame Game

How many times this year already have you grumbled to yourself about a situation you have found yourself in? Bemoaned your circumstances and muttered ‘why me?’ under your breath? Shook your fist at the heavens and cursed your bad luck?

When it comes to feeling sorry for yourself I have it down to a fine art. Where there’s a pity party going down I’m invariably the first one there with a bottle and a tray of sandwiches. It’s as if I take a perverse pleasure out of any misfortune that befalls me. Because then I can focus totally on my favourite topic – myself.

There’s a problem at work. I invariably place it at the door of my senior management. I never blame a member of my team because I’m such a nice guy remember? But anyone a pay grade or more above me is fair game because that’s why they’re paid the big bucks right?

Or something goes wrong in the house. I’ll blame Fionnuala, the kids, Charlie the border terrier, the postman even; anyone but myself. I feel like Captain America at times as I must have the world’s most awesome shield to deflect all the blame heading in my direction. I must think I’m made of Teflon because as far as I’m concerned – nothing sticks.

Shifting the blame and shirking your responsibilities is no walk in the park let me tell you. It’s hard work. It involves lying and conniving and all other sorts of other disreputable behaviour. Your brain is constantly working in overdrive trying to keep ahead in the blame game. By the end of the day I’m invariably exhausted. Being this perfect and faultless doesn’t just happen.

And why do I slave so tirelessly at the blame game? Well let’s consider the alternative. Facing the uncomfortable truth. Looking in the mirror and realising, heaven forbid, that some of the messes I regularly find myself in might just be of my own doing. Some of the wounds I sustain might be self inflicted? Somebody call the Reality Police! There’s a man down over here.

If we are brutally honest (and that’s what this blogging business is all about after all) and take a good, long look at our circumstances we will find that, more often or not, we are least partially at fault for what has happened. Did we really have nothing to do with the latest office crisis? Are you 100% without fault for that argument you had with your friend last night? Is it really the kids fault that you lost your cool with them at the weekend?

Acknowledging and taking responsibility for your own failings and shortcomings takes guts. We tend to gloss over them and focus on our more positive characteristics when we are taking stock of our actions. It’s so easy to point the finger at others when, in fact, there are four more pointing back at ourselves. Oh alright then, three fingers and a thumb but you get my drift.

Take a moment and replay the last ‘disaster’ that took place in your life. Now conduct a mental inventory. What could you have done to have avoided or minimised what happened? Were your actions totally without blemish? And if so what can you do now to rectify the situation. That’s the great thing about the blame game. No matter how late in the day it might seem there is usually always time to make amends. Throw that Hail Mary pass. Score that injury time penalty kick.

Take the blame and ease the pain. In the long run everyone’s a winner that way.

What are your thoughts on The Blame Game? Are you a player?

Beardy McBeardFace – Part Two

Due to unprecedented popular demand (well, three of you) I’ve decided to post a photo of my attempts to grow a beard. This was taken earlier today. It’s been twelve days now since my chin last saw a razor blade and what a journey it has been. I’ve pouted, I’ve preened and I’ve scratched but I can finally score this enterprise off my bucket list.

I’m back to work on Friday after the Christmas break so I’ve decided to bid farewell to the face furniture and return to the clean shaven look safe in the knowledge that I am a proper man’s man. No patchy spots and not a ginger hair to be seen. What’s not to like about that? As tomorrow is my final day of follicular freedom I might experiment. Perhaps with a goatee? Or by rocking the Mexican gringo look?

I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Fionnuala and the kids who have had to endure this abomination over the last two weeks. Fionnuala has been wisely keeping me at arms length but I’ve saved us a small fortune in razor blades and shaving foam. If any of you hear distant screams later tonight, fear not. It will probably just be me hacking at my face while trying to avoid my jugular.

Yours in beardiness

Stephen

We Need You

I read a lot of blogs on here and try as much as I can to interact with, and encourage, you the good people of WordPress. Some posts are penned from places of hope and restoration by writers who have been through horrendous experiences but have emerged (battered yet triumphant) from the other side. Others are darker stories from people who are walking similar paths but are at different stages of their journeys. Their rawness and honesty is to be applauded as they stumble through the eye of the storm.

If AFracturedFaith has a mission statement it is to act as a beacon of light to those who are walking the same path as me but not quite as far along. I don’t see myself as a role model but if my words can help even one person then my work is done. Every day I read inspirational stories of courage and resilience. I see tales of tragedy and trauma. But through it all another theme emerges. I see talent amongst the trauma. Pain exposes potential. It unearths an energy and creativity that, otherwise, might never have seen the light of day.

It is akin to the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Where there was once decay and destruction I can now see the first shoots of recovery emerging from the ruins. Your words are rising upwards and creating a latticework upon which you can construct new life. Not only for yourself but for the others who follow your blog. Every positive message is a step forward not just for you as an individual but also the wider recovery community. Your words move us; they turn us into a movement.

I see some of you question the value and validity of your posts. You wonder if anyone even reads them, what’s the point? My message to you is to keep writing and posting. Your words are both therapeutic and educational. They reveal as well as heal. They help others cut through chains of addictive behaviour and find a way through the mist of mental illness. They provide clarity and focus. Your mind may once have been in pieces but you now offer peace of mind. You are both a peacemaker and a pathfinder.

We need you. I need you. And I hope that some of you need me as well. I have spent too much of my life as a needy, attention seeking man. I now want to draw attention to your needs and your talent. Together we are strong and can change lives and worlds. Our former brokenness can lead to breakthrough in the lives of others. Our scars act as signposts for others travelling further down the road behind us. If we sow enough seeds some of them will fall on fertile ground and flourish. From tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow.

So keep sharing your story. The rough with the smooth. We want to hear your voice loud and clear. You are special as is your story. We can learn so much from you. There will be tears and there will be heartbreak. That is all part of the process. It is a necessary evil which will ultimately lead to a greater, sustainable good. You may feel worthless, useless and hopeless but you are not. You are not. Your perceived ‘lessness’ offers us more than you will ever realise. Don’t ever stop.

Where are you on your journey?

What does the blogging community mean to you?

Make Today Count

I was in the shop today when I was forced to do an actual Scooby-Doo double take. Yikes! Shaaaaaagy! There before my very eyes was an Easter Egg display. On 2nd January. I don’t think the shop in question had even taken down its Christmas decorations yet. I’ve eaten enough chocolate this last week to merit a serious intervention of Willy Wonka-esque proportions so walked on by without making a purchase. Besides we still have 485 boxes of Celebrations and Miniature Heroes to plough through.

The thing is though other people obviously were making purchases. Otherwise why would the shop have Easter Eggs out on sale? It’s a demand driven market. Need and supply. Santa has barely landed back at the North Pole and the Easter Bunny is already dusting down his basket. These seasonal workers have a time of it. I feel sorry for the Tooth Fairy. She never gets a day off. Where’s the justice in that? People are already planning for Easter. No time to hang about. It’s less than four months away!

I shouldn’t have been surprised really. We live in a world that operates at a million miles an hour these days if not faster. After Easter it will be the summer holidays, then Halloween, Thanksgiving and, before you know it, Christmas is just around the corner again. We are so taken up in our planning and preparations that we forget the here and now. Never satisfied with our present and always looking forward to the next big event. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. It’s full speed ahead.

We are wishing our lives away when we should be living our lives today.

Instead of pining for these special days we need to recognise that every time we open our eyes and breathe is a special day. Every day has the same number of seconds, minutes and hours in it. Every day is an opportunity to love and be loved. Those big days down the road overshadow the big days we are living through every twenty four hours. By wishing our lives away we are devaluing ourselves and others. We are capable of so much more, there is so much more that we could and should be doing.

It is good that we look forward to, and celebrate, these special occasions. But life is so much more than that. It is about looking around as well as looking forward. Sorry to come across as the harbinger of doom but who is to say that you will even see Easter, Thanksgiving or next Christmas? None of us know when, or how, our circumstances might change. There but for the grace of God and all that. Who knows? We could all be speaking North Korean and have silly haircuts this time next year. Is North Korean even a language?

Let’s celebrate the ordinary days and make them extraordinary. You can make a difference today. Throw a pebble into your pool of influence and see where the ripples take you. Develop a presence in your present rather than sleepwalking to the next big day. Because when you get there it’s invariably an anti-climax anyway. And you find out the people you share these occasions with are virtual strangers as you have been ignoring them for the last six months anyway.

Don’t count the days. Make the days count. Starting today.

Have you seen your first Easter Egg yet?

How are you going to make today count?

Detox Day

Fionnuala suggested the other evening that I undertake an endurance challenge for January 2018. It involves running 150 miles during the month and logging them on my Garmin watch. At the end of the month I e-mail the challenge organisers a screen shot of my mileage and, in return, I get a medal and compression top. Not bad for £14. Plus, as ever, I will be running to raise funds for SHINE Charity, a cause very close to my heart.

I like challenges. No, let me rephrase that, I need challenges. Even in work I may moan about it at the time but I work well under pressure and to a deadline. A certain amount of pressure can be healthy. You need to be tested in order to examine your outer boundaries and then go beyond them. So I am grateful to Fionnuala for discovering this fresh challenge for me. She is always thinking of new ways of stretching me. Either that or this is her polite way of getting me out of the house more over the next four weeks.

I’m setting out on a ten mile run this morning as my first leg of the challenge. No time like the present right? The challenge is perfect training preparation for the marathons and half marathons I plan to run throughout the year. I used to experience a different type of alcohol related pain on New Years Day so it will be invigorating and liberating to start the year off in this fashion. I feel as if I will be on the front foot and ahead of the game.

I am also going to use the ‘me’ time alone on the road to think and pray. It is important that we all get this downtime whatever our belief systems. As ever I hope to leave a few of my demons out on the road and return home a more focused and decluttered individual. Running for me is like my writing. I use it to detoxify my soul and spirit, to unburden my heart of worries and fears. It is an act of cleansing and purification; a precious purging.

However you spend the first day of this new year I hope you find a little ‘me’ time to tend to your own mental and spiritual needs. I’ll see you on the road.

How did you spend the first day of 2018?

How do you intend to detoxify this year?

Unhappy New Year

I hate New Year! There I’ve said it.

No, hang on, hate is too strong a word. But I really don’t like it. For all sorts of reasons. The overpriced taxi fares, the fake bonhomie, the soul withering hangover the following morning. All these memories from my past cause me to break out into a cold sweat. This post, however, is about New Year much as I dislike it so I’m not going to focus on the past. Call it one of my New Year Resolutions ha!

Everywhere I look people are making resolutions. They’re going to eat less, exercise more, save the planet, yadda yadda yadda. I’m sure all these declarations are well intentioned and heartfelt at the time but, let’s face it, how many of them last beyond January 7th. By then most of us, myself included, have fallen off the wagon in spectacular fashion, and can only sit on our bruised backsides and egos, watching it roll on into 2018 without us.

This makes us more unhappy than when we started out. For in order to make a resolution you have to be unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your current situation. You are resolving to make a change, to improve your circumstances, to move forward. Yet when the resolution invariably crashes and burns you find yourself more unhappy than when you started. You consider yourself as weak and a failure. Your resolve has dissolved and you haven’t evolved.

You’re back to square one. Make yourself comfortable and take in your surroundings as this is where we spend a good part of our lives. Maybe eat another mince pie while you reflect on what a useless human being you are. Except you’re not. It’s the New Year Resolutions which are useless. You build yourself up all December for this chance, this hope to turn your life around in 2018 only to fall flat on your face at the first hurdle. New Year Resolutions well and truly suck.

This propensity to fail sets us off on entirely the wrong mental footing. New Year and I’ve already flunked out. Just like last year and the year before. By striving to change and move forward we find ourselves ruminating on the imperfections of our past. Which kind of defeats the whole point of the exercise. You sit there with your head in your hands thinking you have to wait another twelve months before you can try again to get a foot on the bottom rung of whatever ladder you are hoping to scale. Right?

Wrong. Why wait a year or a month or a minute for that matter? If I ruled the world (a disturbing thought I know) I would do away with New Year. Who says you can only make resolutions on 1st January. Why not 2nd January, 3rd January or 18th October for that matter. Any day, hour or minute that you choose. Change is a constant process, a state of mind that should run through your veins 24/7/365 not just once a year. So what if you screw up on 2nd January. Dust yourself down and try the next day and the day after that.

Change requires determination. Old habits need broken and new ones formed. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Transformation is a life long process. Do not allow yourself to be defined or confined by your perceived failings on a set, pre-determined day of the year. Every defeat is actually a victory. You learn more about yourself, where you learn from what went wrong the time before and then tweak and tailor your tactics in order to make sure you don’t repeat the same mistake the next time you try. For there will be a next time.

And a next time, and a next time, until it sticks and you nail it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or New York, Paris or Belfast for that matter. They are living, breathing cities which continue to grow to this very second. They are works in progress, as are you. Beautiful creations with a plan and a purpose greater than the sum of all your broken resolutions put together. Make your life one of constant resolution.

For within every resolution lies the solution. To unlock the person you were born to be.

Unhappy New Year everyone! Happy New Rest of your Life!!

Have you a track record of broken resolutions?

What are your 2018 goals and targets?

Beardy McBeardFace – Part One

I don’t have a bucket list but if I ever compiled one I reckon that growing a beard would have been on it. I’ve never had a beard, stubble yes, but never a full one. I’ve always wondered what it would look and feel like. Would I resemble a mighty warrior from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? Or a sad, middle aged man who should really know better.

Fionnuala hates all things face furniture and has always been strongly against the idea of me growing one; anything beyond a two day stubble and she looks at me disapprovingly. She thinks they are dirty but finally relented a week ago and said I could grow one over the Christmas holidays. So it was with much excitement that I banished my razor and shaving foam to the back of the bathroom cabinet. Operation Beardy McBeardyFace was go go go!

There was little to report over the first few days but, as we now reach the week mark, I have become fixated by my facial hair. I have been caught examining it in the mirror. This is bizarre as I normally hate looking at my own reflection and avoid doing so whenever I can. Yet the beard has an eerily hypnotic pull and keeps drawing me back. I find myself stroking it without realising that I am. I even shampooed it the other evening. If this were to continue beard oils and combing may enter the equation. I am like a child with a new plaything.

There are pros and cons to growing a beard. I considered working out how much I would save in toiletries over the course of a year but then decided this was a step in sadness too far. The same goes for the 3.475 days a year I now have to spend on other activities. Like staring in the mirror at myself. Or shopping for beard oils and other related products. The beard is saving me time and money. All I have to do is sit back and do nothing. What’s not to love about that?

The experiment has also reassured me that I do not possess a ginger gene. Being Irish this has always been a concern of mine. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against redheads. Belinda Carlisle was the first love of my life. I used to stalk Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones around Belfast city centre. And Ed Sheerin and Prince Harry have made it cool to be ginger again; no, this all comes from the darkest recesses of my school days when to be a ginger was akin to having social leprosy; you were a pariah, an outcast to be mercilessly mocked for all the days of your life. Duracell Head, Carrot Top, Ginger Ninja and so on and so forth.

I was tubby, shy and wore glasses but at least I wasn’t ginger. Or was I? Thankfully the beard has allayed any concerns I might have had. Not even a hint of copper. It has sprouted up reassuringly dark apart from a grey section around my chin which I think makes me look most distinguished. George Clooney eat your heart out. Why didn’t I think of this years ago. I could have been modelling for Armani. Not only does the beard turn me into a Holywood sensation but it also covers the many parts of my face that I am not so enamoured with. Everyone’s a winner.

Yes a week in and everything is going swimmingly. When I started writing this post I never envisaged it developing into a two parter. Yet it has. You see the beard is taking over. It has developed a life of its own. It is like an alien life form that has attached itself to my face and taken over my mind. And for all the advantages I have listed above there are as many, if not more, disadvantages. The beard is most definitely not beardier on the other side. Part Two will cover all that so try to contain yourselves.

And no before you ask I’m not posting a photo of my bearded self. Some of you may be of a nervous disposition and I don’t want to scare you.

Men – do you have a beard? What have been your experiences with facial hair?

Women – are you a fan of face furniture? Beards? Moustaches? Hipster goatees?

Stinking Thinking – Part Two

Follow me He said. So I did and it led me to them. I was hungry and needed fed, my starving soul craved sustenance like an addict craves the needle and the relief of release. I gorged on their manna but the more I think back, it wasn’t from heaven. This desire to please was like a disease. So I smiled and I nodded as they queried and prodded. I listened and learned but the sin it still burned. I yearned to be better and free and unfettered. Love me, like me, tolerate me, anything me. Mesmerised and traumatised. I stumbled on regardless, deaf to your screams as I destroyed our dreams.

Sober as a judge but as drunk as a skunk as I slithered and slid back down into the pit. And this time it’s worse so I curse the day I blamed the drink. No excuses this time, no rhyme or reason for this new season of shame and pain. I stand oblique to your clique and it reeks of the world not the word. Judge, jury and executioner. They strike the gavel as I unravel.

We’d travelled so far but I’m sliding back and there’s no slack as I scrabble, babble, fall back into the rabble. Hands digging in the rubble. A muddle of troubled thoughts and all for naught. The same old mistakes as still I rake over the ashes of my past. I’m second class and second best. Small groups for small thoughts. I talk the talk and walk the walk but my path is down, down, down. There is no crown where I go, just dirt and grime and endless time. Sleepwalking all the way to the grave. Going six feet under to be torn asunder.

I found God or rather he found me. And what a sorry acquisition I was. Preaching and teaching my way to Hell. Oh well. There goes the bell. Handshakes and smiles all round. Another sermon and yet I’m left squirming at the staggering hypocrisy of it all. Practice what you preach you leach. I grit my teeth and spit the grief in their faces, telling them exactly what they want to hear. And not a second over twenty minutes mind because that wouldn’t do as there are biscuits to eat. The sheep bleat and I beat my retreat to my fantasy world. My life is absurd as I vomit the Word. I gag on my sin, the demons within. They feed me, they need me unlike those on the outside. I see through the facade. I tear down the veil and behind it there is nothing.

Going through the motions. Drink the magic potion. For then everything will be well and this Hell where I dwell will dispel. Ain’t life swell? He’s a leader in making if it weren’t for the faking. My life is just fine so where do I sign? You want sweat, blood and tears? Here’s the sum of my fears. I want freedom yet I’m bleeding and everyone’s leaving. My blood turns to ice and I’m back where I started, my loved ones departed. The truth set me free but now I’m adrift and the rift I’ve created cannot be broached. I’m a roach needing squished. I wish.

Blinded by the lies that mesmerised, now watch me die. These soul ties I despise are the death of me. Please rescue me from myself. My muddy, befuddled soul has seen better days and all I want is a friend to lend me hope; but nope – they smile and nod as I scream in their faces, then scurry home to their 2.4. They want nothing more of me and my sordid world. Until next Sunday anyway. When normal service will be resumed. Big hugs and how they’ve missed us. Not as much as I missed you on the darkest of nights when I poured out the festering, rancid slops of my soul. Still waiting for that reply. Might wait till I die. Sure we’ll all meet in glory. Run along now. Don’t bore me.

So I lurch to the next church and it’s more of the same. It’s all a holy game.We want you, we need you. No time for your ranting cos we’re too busy planting. The biggest in Ireland we’ll be, you’ll see. So holy and pure yet they offer no cure. With their beards and their beanies, those skinny jeaned meanies. They’re safe in their huddle as I struggle to cope. I’m flat broke. Out of hope. Just you tithe and stay alive. That’s all we ask. For we are perfect and you are not.

If this is love then keep your drug. I read the seeds and want to sow but how can I grow when all I see is hypocrisy over cups of tea. The devil wears many masks. You find him in the most unlikely of places. He is a beautiful creation, whispering words of sedation that soothe me and move me. My eyes see their lies and I learn to despise those Sunday mornings. Mourning what could have been, what should have been. The funniest part is that you didn’t even notice. And even if you had would you have cared, wrapped up in your own world of point scoring your way to eternal glory. Tick that box and move on. Those happy, clappy Christians with their perfect lives and their perfect wives. They could be in for a big surprise. I stay at home and stare at my phone. Tapping my way to death.

Sanity Scissors

On Christmas Eve I said enough was enough and decided to get a haircut. I was starting to resemble a cross between Boris Johnson and Wurzel Gummidge (I suggest a quick Google search if you don’t know who either of them are). When I woke up in the mornings I looked like I had been electrocuted. Whenever I entered the office and took off my cap my colleagues shot me the strangest of looks. I’m not a pretty sight at the best of times first thing in the morning but this was a bridge too far.

As I settled into the barbers chair the young Polish barber asked me what I would like. ‘A number four all over please’ I confidently declared trying to avoid looking at my myself in the full length mirror. ‘Are you sure? That’s very short’ he dubiously replied before spending the next five minutes attempting to talk me out of it. But to no avail. The bit was well and truly between my teeth. It had to go. Hair today, gone tomorrow.

I now know what a sheep feels like when it is being sheared. Locks of dark hair tumbled past my shoulders on their way to the shop floor. It was raining hair, my hair! As I’d had to take my glasses off before he started I hadn’t a clue what my head looked like but at one point I was pretty convinced that I had a Mohican. Then it was gone as well. Thanks to a generous gene pool I will never go bald but this was the nearest comparable experience. When he had finished I put my glasses back on and marvelled at the transformation. I resembled a fuzzy pool ball.

When I got home the girls were fascinated. ‘It’s so soft Daddy’ they whispered in awe as I lowered my chrome dome for them to stroke my head stubble. Fionnuala observed it was a vast improvement and even Adam, who isn’t impressed by anything, looked marginally impressed. I was a new man. I felt revived, reinvigorated….anything really that you can put the letters ‘re’ in front of. It literally was a massive weight off my mind.

Wouldn’t it be great if a trip to the barbers could rid us of all the worries and concerns that rattle round our heads? If a snip here and a clip here could send them floating to the shop floor never to bother us again? We wouldn’t have a care in the world? Unfortunately I don’t know of a hairdresser who provides such a service. We are left with a head full of anxiety and stress which, if left untended, will grow and grow until it consumes us. It grows and grows until nothing else matters. It becomes us.

Don’t let that happen. Don’t become another victim or statistic. If you had a broken arm you would go the hospital right? There would be no shame in that. Well the same applies to a broken heart or mind. You can’t do it alone. Seek help. Talk to someone, be it a friend, your doctor or a counsellor. Suffering in silence is insufferable. You need to seek out voices in the real world in order to dispel the voices in your head for they will not stop on their own.

They want to destroy you. They will not go away. They will haunt you and taunt you until you lie shattered in a million pieces. Only then will their work be done. Don’t let that happen. You are better than that. You deserve better than that. It worked for me. I sought the help I needed for my OCD and life is so much better now. Not perfect but better. You can’t cure OCD but you can control it. I needed a brain barber to work their magic with the sanity scissors. The intrusive thoughts and overwhelming compulsions are less frequent now. I am in control now.

I’m not a big fan of New Year resolutions but if you do make one this year make one that will count and that you can keep. Get the help you need and become the person you were born to be. Get ahead by sorting out your head. You were only given one brain so look after it. We devote inordinate time to the rest of our bodies with visits to the gym and beauty salon. Let’s start to take care of our most vital organ. For without it, nothing else really matters.

What’s the most daring haircut you have ever got? Did you love it or live to regret it?

Is your mind weighed down today? What are you going to do about it?

I Haven’t Been Through Hell

You hear it all the time. On public transport, in your workplace, on the television news your social media timelines. You may even have uttered the immortal words yourself.

I’ve been through hell….

Hell. The Underworld. Hades. Sheol. Whatever people call it, for those who believe in it, it is a place of unimaginable, unremitting torment. But what is hell? Where is hell? There are various theories. Some view it as the traditional lake of fire populated by grinning ghouls with pitchforks. Others picture it as a lonely, desolate chasm of darkness where tortured souls suffer the ultimate horror of eternal separation from God. To these people it is an actual, physical location. It exists. Somewhere.

Whatever their interpretation, all these folk are agreed on one thing. It’s not the sort of place where you would want to spend your summer holidays. Or any holiday for that matter. It is a place of perpetual punishment and pain. A place of no return. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200. Or dollars or euros. There is no glowing ‘exit’ sign to guide you out the other side after your visit is complete. Hell is the end of the road. And it’s not a yellow brick one with a fairytale ending.

I’ve been through hell….

As a Christian I believe in an afterlife which contains a heaven and a hell. I haven’t quite got my head around what the latter looks like but I’m pretty certain I don’t want to end up there. Many people view Jesus as some loved up hippy who wandered around 1st Century Palestine waffling vaguely about peace and forgiveness. Yes he did talk about these topics but the one he talked about most was hell. He was pretty blunt on the subject as well. This was one pill that wasn’t sugar coated. Hell was real and hell was permanent. He came to warn us. Hell was….well….hell.

I’ve been through hell.

You don’t go through hell in the theological sense. You remain there. It’s a one way ticket. The big, red guy with the pitchfork kind of expects you to hang around. Permanently. Life can be hellish. Excruciatingly painful. But it’s not hell. Because life eventually ends. The curtain comes down and, whatever your circumstances, they end. No more need to worry about debt, despair or death itself. You don’t have that sense finality in hell. You don’t die in hell as you’re already dead when you get there. You don’t get the relief and release of death.

Real life is hellish. But it’s not hell.

Real life can be horrific. It’s crushing. Nothing I can write here can do justice to what you have been through or are presently experiencing. An individual’s pain is personal and unique. It is often indescribable. It is many things. But it’s not hell. Because hell is a place without hope. And as long as we have breath in our bodies, then we still have hope, no matter how tiny a scrap that is. Hope that we will overcome our private and public struggles. Hope that we will lurch out of the darkness and into the light.

I’m not devaluing anybody’s pain here. I see devastation and anguish on my timeline and in the real world every single day. Broken people surveying the debris of their broken lives. They deserve so much better, so much more. I want to tell you that there is more, and that that more is hope. No matter how dire your circumstances are there is a way out. There is a way through. All storms can be navigated. There is safe passage and harbour.

Your hellish state might be addiction. It could be alcohol, cocaine, heroin, prescription drugs. It might be physical. Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis or any other number of debilitating and agonising illnesses. It might be mental. Depression, Anxiety, Anorexia, Bulimia or, my own personal bugbear, OCD. It can be financial, sexual or relationship based. It can be bereavement. It can be anything really, a billion and one different situations or experiences. Everyone’s ‘hell’ is unique to them.

There is a way out, a way through. If you have hope, you have a lifeline; one that you have to grab with all your strength and cling to with all your might. Hope is life itself. It is the oxygen that fills your lungs and allows you to scream your defiance. It is the blood that pumps through your veins and drives you onwards, forwards, upwards. It is the oil that lubricates our dreams and prayers.

Hope won’t get you through Hell. It will be too late then. But it will get you through everything else.

Do you believe in an actual Hell?

Do you feel hopeful or hopeless today?

Hell v Hellish? What are your thoughts on this post?

The Outsiders

I’ve felt an outsider for most of my life. At school I was bullied, mostly by fellow pupils but also some teachers, because I was chubby, quiet and shy. I was no good at sport, despite trying hard, which meant I was never part of the ‘in crowd.’ I didn’t go to our school formal and don’t think I spoke to a girl until I was eighteen. I had few friends and didn’t go out much. I was a loner; happy sitting in my room reading Stephen King novels and listening to heavy metal music.

My university years did not fare much better. These swayed between alcoholic excess in my first year to hermit like abstinence in my final one when I finally realised I needed to knuckle down and study in order to get a decent degree. It was during this final year that I began to exercise excessively and then secretly binge eat during all night study marathons. An unstable home life at the time also left me permanently anxious and worried. Looking back it was a deeply unhappy and lonely year of my life.

When I left university I gained a place on a post management graduate course where alcohol reared its ugly head again. I was now living in rented accommodation in Belfast. It was the social crutch that I leaned on heavily for the next twenty years or so. I secured a good job and worked my way up the corporate ladder. When I tell people what I do for a living now they look genuinely impressed. I met a wonderful woman who has stuck with me through thick and thin. I don’t deserve her but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for her.

We have three amazing kids and live in a lovely house in a quiet village. We are financially comfortable and on the face of it I epitomise what ‘fitting in’ to society should look like. Then why do I still feel such an outsider at times? Why am I still plagued by feelings of insecurity and low esteem? Why do I still periodically battle with OCD and the demons from my past? Why do I struggle to make friends and sabotage the few genuine friendships I have formed in my life? Why am I still so socially awkward? Why do I feel such a failure at times?

While people might look at it and think I’ve got it made, I still feel as if I am fighting a losing battle where time is not on my side. I desperately want to please people; the problem was that I always set out to please the wrong people, not the ones who mattered. I donned various personalities in order to curry favour but these all ended in disaster. I disliked myself so intensely that I would do whatever I could to be someone else. I still do at times but the purpose of this post is not to indulge in a pity party.

The purpose of this post is rather to celebrate where we have come as a family in 2017. It has been a long and often very rocky road. There have been slips and stumbles along the way. I am learning to live in my own skin. I am me. Glorious, imperfect, messed up, wonderful me. I am proud to be an outsider as I have finally realised that most of my problems in life have been when I have tried to be somebody I’m not in order to fit in.

I’m a square peg. I’ll never fit into that round hole. I’m learning not to look through the window and focus on what might have been but instead concentrate on what I have. On the outside. There is safety on the outside. There is safety in numbers. For we are many. This last year has taught me that in order to heal I need the clear, crisp air of the outside. I need to breathe in the truth and purge myself of the lies from the past. I need to take a step back in order to move forward.

Detoxification can be intoxicating on the outside. I want to be drunk on life. I want to run and write and love. I want to laugh more. People say I don’t laugh enough. Yes I’m a weirdo, an oddball and the most infuriating man in the world at times. But at least I am me, at least I can look at myself in the mirror and not have to avert my gaze in disgust.

And I have finally found my social media home with you – my fellow outsiders.

Viva la difference!

Do you feel like an outsider?

How have your efforts to fit in damaged others and yourself?

Slam

Happy Christmas Eve everyone!

I hope you are all looking forward to spending the holiday period with family and friends. AFracturedFaithBlog will be taking Christmas Day off as there is much present unwrapping and food consumption ahead of us. I’m particularly excited about that little pest Elfie the Elf returning to the North Pole. I’ll be writing Santa a strongly worded e-mail about his antics in our house these last few weeks.

Fionnuala, the kids and myself will also be thinking about those less fortunate than ourselves this Christmas. It can be a sad and lonely time for many and our thoughts and prayers will be with those who need them most. Amidst the excitement and merriment we will also be remembering the first Christmas over 2000 years ago when a scared, heavily pregnant teenage girl and a tired, penniless young man trudged into Bethlehem desperate for a roof over their heads for the night.

The village was packed to the seams, however, given the upcoming census. The scene must have been chaotic with people and animals scurrying through the packed streets. Joseph had many doors slammed in his face that night and eventually had to desperately accept a smelly, dirty stable. Beggars can’t be choosers right? At least it was dry and Mary had somewhere to rest and recover from the arduous journey they had undertaken from Nazareth. No such luck. There followed a painful and uncomfortable night which culminated in the birth of their first son.

They called him Jesus. He would grow up to change the world.

He had every right to grow up with a chip on his shoulder. Born into squalor and poverty his formative years were lived as an immigrant on the run from a bloodthirsty Herod before the family could return from Egypt to Nazareth. He worked hard learning his trade as a carpenter but when he launched his ministry around the age of thirty he faced three years of verbal and physical abuse, betrayal, rejection and endless mocking. All the way to the Cross. He knew a bit about doors being slammed in his face. Not to mention hearts and minds.

His response to a lifetime of this was as follows:

John 14:2-3: ‘My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am.’

Jesus and his family deserved better that night in Bethlehem. SLAM.

He deserved better than the life he led culminating in a brutal, humiliating death on the Cross. SLAM.

We lie. We cheat. We covet. We mock. We steal. We sin again and again and again. We laugh in his face. We don’t deserve better.

He opens his door and welcomes us with open arms.

Matthew 11:28-30 – ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

He turned his back on nobody, even though this was all he knew his entire life. A turned back is a lost opportunity. A slammed door is a full stop on relationships and friendships that do not have to end. If he can do it then so can you. So can I.

My hope and prayer this Christmas is that you fling open your doors, hearts and minds to the world. To a broken world that sorely needs you.

Happy Christmas from Stephen, Fionnuala and the kids.

Spin Class Stories

I’m a runner. I like to run. Preferably in a straight line at around 8:30 minute mile pace. I don’t like sprinting or being pressurised into running faster than I have to. I like long, steady paced runs. My favourite distance is the marathon. I don’t particularly enjoy hills but put one in front of me and I will run up it. I will not stop. Call me determined or call me stupid but I will not stop. I’ve ran seven marathons and I hope to run more in 2018. It’s what I do.

When I decided to get fit and lose some weight three and a half years ago I dabbled with all sorts of other physical activities before I plumped for distance running. It was all part of the mid life crisis. My fourth that particular year. I took up Taekwondo and pranced around the village hall in a pair of oversized white pyjamas. I reckon I could have been a black belt by now if it wasn’t for my startling lack of hand/eye coordination and flexibility.

I had a go at weight training but was intimidated by all the muscle bound hulks at the gym. I have quite strong leg muscles from running but as for my upper body, forget about it. I looked like a jerk at the clean and jerk. My kettle bell technique was the talk of the place. For all the wrong reasons. My arm curls were toe curlingly embarrassing and my squats were sqawful. I’m pretty sure that’s a real word.

Finally I tried spin class. I skulked at the back of the class and hoped that the instructor didn’t notice that I was pedalling at a lower resistance than the rest of the class. Everyone pumping furiously around me seemed so much leaner and younger. I was up and down out of the saddle but never seemed to be getting anywhere. Quite literally. Spin class depressed me. I didn’t like being shouted at and being told what to do. My heart wasn’t ‘spin’ it.

Spin class was like my grief. It hit me in waves but I never seemed to get anywhere with it. I worked harder and harder but there was never an inch of progress. All that pain for nothing. A day or a week or a month later and it would hit me anew as if for the first time. Grief is a thief. It slips up on you when you least expect it and brings your world to a jagged, juddering halt.

Spin class was like my drinking. Binge followed by hangover. Over and over again. Ad nauseum. I drank to forget but at some point forgot why I was drinking. It became a sickly cycle and the wheels had to come off eventually. They did so in spectacular fashion. Alcohol is no longer my favoured form of transport. Drinking and cycling are a definite no no. When I run my body and mind are cleansed. Alcohol poisoned me. I’m still detoxing I suppose. I always will be.

Spin class was like my OCD. An endless circle of obsessive, intrusive thoughts followed by baffling, heart breaking routines. It’s the most orderly of disorders. It will grind you into a pulp. As your routines become slicker so the thoughts become sicker. Always one step ahead of you. Pedalling furiously to keep up but never quite getting there. Hurtling through the fog not knowing what mental pothole lies just ahead waiting to throw you headlong over the handlebars.

Spin class was like my addiction to social media. Never learning. This time I would get it right. A new account, a new Stephen. A new creation doomed to slide into familiar patterns of behaviour. Ever so gradually until I was trapped again. Watching myself as if in a dream, an out of body experience. Wanting to stop but unable to. Always cracking, always relapsing. My soul spiralling downwards as my follower count spiralled upwards. A thousand likes as I despised myself.

Are you trapped in or on a cycle? Are you pedalling at breakneck speed but getting nowhere? Are you tired of the the same, endless, pointless routines? Take a health check. Are you physically, mentally, emotionally running on empty? Then step off the bike. Stop what you are doing and look around you. Breathe. Observe. Live. You are better than this. You deserve better.

Do it today. Now. Stop spinning. Start winning.

Is your life spinning out of control?

Are you trapped in an endless cycle?

What are you going to do about it?

Wake Up Dead

As I get older I find it harder to leap out of bed in the morning, full of the joys of spring. Or summer. Or autumn or winter for that matter. Especially winter. It’s cold and dark. And invariably wet. Why on earth would anyone throw back the duvet to embrace that? All I want to do is remain under the covers and hope that the world doesn’t notice my absence for the next 24 hours or so. I’m sure you could all cope.

Unfortunately I am expected to get up and do adult stuff. Like go to work. Communicate with other equally grumpy grown ups. Smile when I don’t particularly feel like smiling. There is so much to do. Kids to shout at, bills to pay. Elves to put on shelves or place in other equally ‘hilarious’ scenarios. Yes life is a veritable hoot I’m sure you will all agree.

Sooooooo. I crawl out of bed. Take a slug of Diet Coke. Wash. Shave (most days). Dress (every day). Eat toast. Get train to work. Arrive at work. Take many more slugs of Diet Coke. And so on and so forth. I commute to and from work on a train full of miserable looking people all trying their hardest not to look at each other. Noses stuck to their phones, glaring at the screens.

The other day I found myself on the train sitting beside two young woman who were facing each other across a table. One of them was reading a Bible and frenetically taking notes. She had a glint in her eye and was totally immersed in her studies. I had to admire her passion and energy. You don’t see many young people openly reading a Bible these days. Or anyone for that matter.

The other woman was lying slumped across the table with her head resting on her arms. She was out for the count. All I could make out was a mess of long hair. She must have had a heavy night I thought to myself. One (or ten) too many beverages I suspected. I was at my judgemental best and frowned at her. If only she could have been like the diligent, devoted girl sitting opposite her. Tut! Tut!

The train pulled in and passengers began to disembark. ‘Diligent Girl’ (for that’s what I had christened her) closed her Bible and began to pack away her notes. ‘Drunk Girl’ (boo hiss!) arose from her stupor and groggily looked around, uncertain as to her whereabouts. Belfast? Baltimore? Beirut? Who knew. She yawned and began to sleepily gather up her belongings.

It was then that the two girls started to talk. They obviously knew one another. Then I noticed that they were both wearing name badges indicating that they were members of a church organisation. Whatever your thoughts on their beliefs here were two young women who were about to venture out onto the mean streets of Belfast to do what they thought was the right thing to do. Sharing the love of God with others.

Yet I had already trialled and convicted one of them as being a useless waste of space. I felt guilty and shuffled off the train and onto the platform with the hundreds of other commuters. My fellow runners in this rat race we call life. All shuffling along, heads down and eyes fixed firmly on the ground. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year.

We are the Walking Dead. We wake up dead. We go about our daily routines dead. We go to sleep dead.

Those two young woman had a purpose, a passion, a mission. For all I knew ‘Drunk Girl’ could have been exhausted because she was up all night praying for someone in need or helping a broken person find their way through the night. Or maybe not. Whatever her tiredness it was not for me to judge her. If only I had an ounce of her faith and conviction. If only we all did what a better place the world would be to live in.

Why do we get out of bed in the morning? Beyond the mundane, dreary necessities of life why do we do it? Are you driven and passionate? Are you pursuing your dream, the reason you were placed on this planet? Or are you just aimlessly drifting along from one day to the next with no real goals or ambitions?

We are nearing a New Year and with it come the traditional resolutions that rarely last a week. Why wait that long? Why not start today. I’ve spent most of my life in zombie mode, going through the motions. From one self inflicted disaster to the next. Trying to fill the gaping hole in my soul with trifling distractions. I’ve achieved a lot. I have Fionnuala and the kids. But there is so much more to do, so much more to achieve. And the clock is ticking.

I cannot waste a second. I need to push on. Forwards. Alway forwards. I might not leap out of bed but I get up now with vision and focus. It makes it all worthwhile.

I wake up tired. But alive.

Do you wake up dead every morning? Are you shuffling through your day like a zombie?

Or have you a plan? A target? A dream worth getting up for?

Poker Face

I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This is a mental illness whereby distressing, intrusive thoughts enter my head and refuse to leave. These are known as obsessions. The only temporary reprieve is to perform a physical or mental routine, the compulsion, in an attempt to force the intrusive thought from my mind. It invariably returns, however, often stronger than before. The compulsive act reinforces the impulsive thought. It is an ever decreasing circle, a cycle of despair.

One of my earliest OCD memories as a young boy revolved around the fireplace in our family home. It was a coal fire and my mother kept a metal poker on the fireplace in order to rake the ashes. It was nothing. Just an insignificant piece of metal, an inanimate object which served little purpose other than as I have described above.

It was to become the centre of my universe.

I don’t know how or when it started. But unless the poker was in a certain position on the fireplace I would be overcome by wave upon wave of anxiety and worry. Like a boulder sitting on my chest. I was consumed by it. I could think of nothing else and would wait until the living room was empty before scurrying over to the fireplace and setting the poker in exactly the position I needed it to be in. This would alleviate my distress.

Until the next time.

I was embarrassed at having to do this so did everything in my power to ensure that nobody became aware of my fixation. Because it was insane right? But my mother had been watching and one day asked me why I was doing it. I was mortified and had no real answer. Why was I doing it? I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the feelings of guilt and shame that followed.

I didn’t know what OCD was back then. I felt like I was a freak, a weirdo, an outsider. Something inside me was not right. I was broken and could not be fixed. My obsessions and the resulting compulsions dominated my life. They became my idols and I was brought to my knees time and time again at their altars. I was powerless to resist.

They made me the man I am today. The man I have been working so hard to change. This blog is part of that transformation. I am a work in progress but there has been progress. My OCD is largely under control now thanks to a combination of medication, education and a supportive and loving family. I still display OCD traits and have bad days but the good days outnumber them.

I have slain my idols.

Is your life being controlled by a false idol? It could be a toxic relationship, an addictive behaviour or a mental illness. It is the centre of your universe and try as you might you cannot kick it. To do so would cause your world to shatter into a million pieces. You are paralysed by fear, alone and confused. I see hundreds of posts a day about these false idols. Good people consumed by despair and depression.

You are not alone. I might not comment on your posts because sometimes I don’t know what to say. But I pray for you. There are thousands of us like you. Open your eyes. Be brave. Reach out and ask for help. Do not let your situation dictate the direction of your life. Grab the steering wheel now. Get off that road you are on. You can do this. If I can then so can you.

I believe in a God. You may or may not. But even if you do not share my beliefs do not allow false gods to ruin your life. Drugs, alcohol, sex, money, people. They do not control your destiny. You do. Turn your back on their altars of anarchy. Walk away. I am walking with you. For we are many and this path is well travelled.

Walk away. I know you can.

Have you allowed false idols to enter your life?

How are you coping with this?

Uncommon Sense

You haven’t the sense you were born with!

This critique of my decision making and problem solving skills has dogged me throughout most of my adult life. I am told that I am intelligent and I hold down a reasonably important job where I (shock horror) manage other adults and ‘do the grown up stuff’ without blinking an eyelid. I can deliver presentations to large audiences, brief senior management and function effectively within a high pressure working environment.

Fionnuala says there are two Stephens. ‘Work Stephen’ who is confident, assertive and strong; and ‘Home Stephen’ who can barely change a light bulb and who dithers over whether he wants pizza or Chinese from the takeaway.

I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure….

I cannot make a decision to save myself. My self esteem is low so my default setting is to please people. I want to be liked. It’s different in the working environment. I am representing an organisation and making decisions on their behalf. It’s not personal and if people don’t like the decision then they can blame the organisation and not me.

It’s different outside of work. The buck stops with me. When I am asked a question I’m immediately second guessing what the person who asked the question wants me to say in response. My brain goes into overdrive. If I say pizza will they be annoyed because they really wanted Chinese food. Or vice versa? I hmmmm and I haaaaa and then end up saying ‘Oh I’ll have whatever you’re having’. This drives Fionnuala nuts. ‘I wish you would make a decision’ she sighs.

This people pleasing disposition has got me in all sorts of bother down the years. I can’t say no. I hate confrontation and disagreements. I will agree with someone’s opinion or point of view even when every molecule in my body is screaming that they are wrong. This has led me down many wrong paths and before I know it I’m up to my neck in a whole world of pain.

I have worked hard this year on many aspects of my personality. This includes making decisions based on what sits best with my conscience as opposed to what the other person wants to hear. It also involves saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘no’ and veering clear of people and situations which I know are not healthy for me. This has drastically wiped out a large chunk of my social calendar but I view it as a small price to pay.

Fionnuala has asked me in recent weeks what I want for Christmas and as usual I wasn’t able to give her a straight answer. Until now.

All I want for Christmas is wisdom and discretion.

I don’t want common sense. I want more. I want uncommon sense. I want the wisdom of Solomon. I want my yes to mean yes and my no to mean know. I want to make healthy, well informed decisions which I know are right for me and my family. I want to walk along the paths I was born to walk along. I want that piece of my mind that has always reneged at this to know true peace of mind.

Is that too much to ask Santa?

Would you say you have common sense?

What bad decisions in your past have influenced your present?

Steps Lead To Shelter

Last night I woke up at 04:00 am and the following words hit me like a bolt between the eyes.

Steps lead to shelter….

We are all on a journey. And every journey requires forward motion. Change is daunting and many of us fear and avoid it. But it is necessary in order for us to evolve into who we are meant to be. We need to embrace new situations, relationships and experiences as opposed to recoiling from them.

Change involves transition. Transitions require decisions.

Are you at a crossroads in your life? Have you a significant decision to make that will change your life irrevocably? If you have it’s a frightening time. You may feel that you are exposed and vulnerable; that the next step may only take a second but could lead you into a life of regrets; that you are leaving your safe, comfortable existence behind and are entering a dangerous, new world.

My advice?

Take the step.

Be honest with yourself. The decision was taken days, months, years ago even. All that is required now is the actual transition. You need to turn that thought into a concrete action. Take the step. And then another one. And then another one. Don’t look back in anger the song goes. I say don’t look back at all. When you have made your decision stick by it.

Your comfort zone is a war zone. You might feel safe there but you are in fact engaged in a fight to the death. The death of your dreams and hopes. The death of your future. The death of who you were created to be. Suffocated by the smog of your present circumstances. The comfort zone is a dank, dark, cold environment.

I see little comfort in that.

The future might seem frightening but throw back the veil and you will see for the first time that it is in fact quite the opposite. It is a place of opportunity; of revelation and restoration. Where you are going is a place of construction. Where you are coming from is a place of obstruction and destruction.

What are you constructing? A new world. A world you deserve and are entitled to live in. It is your birthright; it is your inheritance. It is also a place of sanctuary. You have moved forward in order to find your retreat. You can build strong, thick walls behind which yourself and others can heal and flourish. It is a place of genuine comfort.

A storm is coming. You can see it on the horizon. It is hypnotic and you can’t take your eyes off it as it edges ever closer. It is time to move on. It is time to take that first, faltering step in the opposite direction. You may take it alone or you may take it with others. That is their decision but do not be tied by it for you have already made yours.

Take the step.

Steps lead to shelter.

Burn The Masks

Somebody said something today about me which I felt was unfair and uncalled for. I won’t go into the details and it wasn’t a massive issue but for an instance I was tempted to give said person a piece of my mind. But only a small piece as I don’t have much to go round in the first place. How dare they speak to me like that. It wasn’t funny and as for the hypocrisy. Well don’t get me started.

It reminded me of a saying that my father used to quote when he recalled such scenarios.

So I said nothing and left him….lying there.

I’ve never thrown a punch in my life but if ever I was tempted to wipe the smug look of someone’s face today was an opportunity. But I said nothing, made my excuses and walked off.

I left him….standing there.

Much of our lives are spent hiding our true feelings. For many it is a full time occupation. We wear so many masks that sometimes it’s hard to remember who the real us is. We have more faces than Big Ben! Sometimes, like today, it was necessary to conceal what I really thought and zip my mouth shut when I wanted to let rip. Masks can act as shields, protecting us from the many arrows fired at us during this journey called life.

But what about the masks we wear online? I got into whole heaps of trouble online in a former life creating a misleading persona. I played a role and lived a fantasy life, with my head stuck in the sand like an ostrich as to what was going on in the real world. I hid online as opposed to facing up to my responsibilities. I let a lot of people down, including myself.

When this blog launched I made a promise that I would be myself. I would be brutally honest in my posts. Warts and all. No airbrushing. No sugar coated pills. When I assess the blog six months in I realise I have covered a lot of dark topics. I appreciate that these will not have been everybody’s cup of tea but I have kept to my word.

You have seen the real Stephen. The Good, The Bad and The Frequently Ugly. I have written about my faith and my issues regarding the organised church and some of its practices. I have written about my OCD and years of binge drinking. I have bored you all silly about my marathon training. And I have written about my family who, I am ashamed to say, didn’t really exist when I was on Twitter and Instagram.

I am me. This blog is a mask free zone. I have found WordPress an encouraging and supportive community where I can express myself and feel safe. I can breathe and walk, or rather type, with my head held high. No shame and no regrets. Sober words from a scarred, but honest, heart. WordPress has been an essential part in my recovery and renaissance. I have you all to thank for that.

Let’s build a funeral pyre and burn the many masks we wear. Let’s be ourselves and blog in freedom and in truth. Let our words shine like a beacon through the online darkness.

Do we see the real you online?

Have You Been Naughty Or Nice This Year?

At this time of the year children all around the world unite and traditionally engage in the damage limitation exercise known as ‘The Naughty Or Nice List’. Wherein they attempt to rectify eleven months of misbehaviour and disobedience by falling over themselves to perform household chores, which they had blissfully ignored for the rest of the year, and suck up to their parents in any way possible in the hope that, come Christmas morning, they won’t be waking up to a whole lot of nothing.

‘Santa has been watching and knows if you have been naughty or nice’ we proclaim sternly in the vain hope that it will spur them on to tidy their pits (I mean bedrooms), bring down their dirty washing (before it walks down the stairs itself) and solve the age old conundrum of where have all the cups gone (I believe Rebecca hold the current record of having five on her bedside table at the same time).

All I can say is that Father Christmas must be the most naive magical being alive as he falls for it every year. 360 days of utter chaos in the Black household are wiped off the slate by a few half hearted attempts to wash the dishes and put the bins out. Getting them to dry and put away the dishes or bring said bins back into the yard is a whole different blog. Despite all this gullible old Santa falls hook, line and sinker for this pre-pubescent ‘hearts and minds’ offensive every year and duly delivers the goods on Christmas Eve.

If only real life was like that. If only we could wave a magic wand and undo all the mistakes and bad choices we have made this year. If only we could turn back the clock and undo those harsh words we spoke, erase those impure thoughts we had or reverse the many selfish actions we undertook . If only we could be ‘nice’ for the next few days and forget about the many other ‘naughty’ days we have clocked up throughout our lives.

I intensely dislike the word nice. It’s a nothing word. My old English teacher said it was the laziest word in the English language. Naughty isn’t much better. But I suppose it’s only kids after all so doesn’t really apply to us larger humans who supposedly do the ‘adulting’ stuff. Why be naughty when you can be nasty, cruel, spiteful or just plain old mean. That’s more up our street isn’t it. And when you develop a mindset which regards these as second nature then it’s a long road back.

Unfortunately we don’t have Santa Claus to turn a blind eye to our faults and failings. Which placed me on a sticky wicket when I hit rock bottom a few years ago. He was nowhere to be seen. Not a reindeer or an elf in sight. I had no other option but to rely on my fractured faith which I had neglected for many years. I started reading my Bible and trying to practically follow the teachings of Jesus on a daily basis. I know not everyone who reads this blog believes in Jesus any more that they believe in Santa Claus; all I can say is that it worked for me.

I’m far from perfect. There have been many hiccups along the way. I screw up on a regular basis. I can do SO much better. But I hope that I’m getting there a step at a time. No disrespect to the Big Man with the red suit and beard but Jesus is the main event at Christmas for me this year. And no matter how ‘naughty’ you have been he can wipe the slate clean and offers you the same opportunity to start again on the ‘nice’ list. All you have to do in return?

Believe. Trust. Follow. The choice is yours.

Isaiah 9:6 – ‘For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

Have you been naughty or nice this year?

Do you follow Jesus? Are you curious? Or do you think it’s just a festive myth? I’d be keen to hear your views. Comment below.

Love Is….Hard Work

Everybody wants to fall in love right? We all crave that ‘high as a kite’ feeling where our heart performs somersaults every time we see the object of our desire and they occupy our every waking thought. For many it is the single most important objective in their lives and they devote an inordinate amount of time, energy (and invariably money) towards achieving their goal.

But why do we fall in love? Why don’t we soar in love or, at the very least, hover? Falling suggests a loss of control. Which is correct because when a person falls in love they do, to an extent, lose a degree of objectivity. Often nobody or nothing else matters outside of the object of their affection. When it’s good it’s very good. But it can lead to harm, hurt and potential heartbreak. When we stampede blindly down the road to romance others can get trampled in the process.

Falling in love is both a selfless and a selfish act. Selfless in that you put the needs of the other person before yours and will often park your own ambitions, values and ethics to one side in order to conform to theirs and thus be accepted. Selfish in that, as they are now the centre of your universe, others previously in that position, are now shunted out into the outer cosmos. Somewhere between Neptune and Uranus I suspect.

Yes falling in love is a fantastic experience. Your stomach does somersaults and your head is at 49,000 feet. A fantastic experience but a temporary one. Every fall must come to an end. Often with a shuddering halt. And it is what you do then that truly matters. Falling in love is the easy part. It is a fickle, transient state of being. It requires little effort. It is a feeling, an emotion, an altered reality. But remaining in love? Well that’s an entirely different ball game.

Loving someone on a 24/7/365 basis is hard work. It is a wilful act as opposed to a fleeting fancy. It requires bottomless amounts of forgiveness and patience. Especially when it involves someone who doesn’t display particularly lovable traits; someone who doesn’t appear to reciprocate the love; or someone who you want to scream at and punch in the face rather than buy chocolates and roses. I know. For I have been loved at my most unlovable.

Loving someone likes this often involves telling them what they don’t want to hear. Delivering hard and unpleasant information otherwise known as ‘the truth’. Some of you may have heard of this term. To others it remains an alien concept. Falling in love is like standing under a tropical waterfall. Remaining in love often involves throwing ice cold buckets of water over your sleep walking, day dreaming partner. In order to smell the coffee you must first be woke up. That can be an unpleasant, but necessary, experience.

Loving someone like this is entirely selfless. You have to be entirely selfless in order to destroy the selfishness in the other person. In order to prick their conscience you have to first burst their bubble. And that can be a messy process. True love involves bursting that bubble but also remaining around afterwards to mop up the mess. Sacrifice is a dirty, disgusting business. In order to be truly purged we often have to be submerged in blood, sweat and tears.

Fall in love, yes. Enjoy the rush, the thrill, allow yourself to be swept off your feet. But when you return to terra firma be prepared to roll up your sleeves and knuckle down for a hard slog. Love is a war where many enemies, both internal and external, will attempt to grind you into the ground. True love will prevail but it will be a war of attrition. One day at a time. With its casualties but also with its heroes who are often unsung. For they understand the true meaning of love.

This post is dedicated to my wife, Fionnuala. ❤️

How do you define love?< strong>What are your experiences of falling, and remaining, in love?

How Is Your Writing Coming Along?

Yesterday lunchtime I had a walk around areas of Belfast city centre where scenes of my first novel are to be set. The plan was to capture details that have evaded my memory to date so that when I am writing I can refer to them there and then. Ideally I would like to write the relevant scene while sitting at the location but it was minus 4 yesterday. I’m a wannabe author but I’m not that crazy!

Progress has been slow of late. What with work and family life it is hard to find the quiet time necessary to write. I also don’t want to neglect my blogging which is at the heart of my writing. It is my meat and potatoes. The book is just the dessert. Honeycomb ice cream or strawberry cheesecake I hope.

I’ve written about 40,000 words but I literally vomited them out during a week off work about a month ago. It’s as if they had been lying on my stomach for years and I just had to get them out of my system. I purged myself. What have I learnt? That I can write, yes, but also that I need a structure to form my words around.

I’m therefore spending more time on outlining and storyboarding as opposed to just writing blindly. The latter has surprised me in that I’ve realised that I am at my most creative when in the actual act of writing. That is when the ideas come to me, when I am actually sitting at the keyboard. It has resulted in characters leading me off in totally different directions from what I had first anticipated.

It has also dragged me down a few dead ends, however. A happy medium needs to be struck between spontaneity and preparation. I need a solid foundation upon which to lay these creative bursts. This is slowly coming. I have been using a technique called ‘The Snowflake Method’ where you start with the premise for your novel in one sentence and gradually build it from there. A paragraph, a page, four pages and so on.

The above technique is teaching me discipline and patience. Writing a novel is hard work. Yes, you have your days when the words flow from you like water from a fountain. But at other times it involves monotony and frustration. Taking five steps back in order to move one step forwards. Chipping away at a block of stone in order to reveal the sculpture beneath.

I also haven’t decided on my favourite writing device. At times I favour sitting at my desk writing on the laptop but I also jot down ideas and notes on my I-Phone and Kindle Fire. I also have a notebook which I write in. With this ancient writing tool known as a pen. Some of you may have heard of this. If haven’t just google it.

So that’s my update. I’m getting there but slower than I first expected.

How is your writing coming along?

Stinking Thinking -Part 1

Look at me and what do you see? A husband, a father, a runner, a blogger. I hope that I am all these things and more. But not so long ago I saw myself differently.

I saw a failure, a fraud, I worshipped false gods who gnawed at my flaws. Fixated on the din of sin, no quiet, still voice for me within. Rather, the insanity of vanity ravished me, ravaged me until I lay feeding on the bloated carcass of my future. I was deflated, my appetite for life abated. A vain, conceited man, whose veins ran red with others pain. Oh what a brain but no common sense. Dense with demons who would not relent. My world could not revolve until I evolved. Evolved from the mire and shed my desires. Not easy for a spineless liar who flinched at the fire. The fire of truth which lay at the root of everything I refused to stand for anymore.

On my knees for all the wrong reasons….

The truth stung like sea salt on a fresh cut. Like an open handed slap to the face on a bitter cold morning. I was someone too big for their boots. These boots were made for walking. I wanted to walk the paths of the righteous….you’re never right so shush…. but too often I strayed off the beaten path. Until I was beaten to a pulp. I could not travel but instead unraveled before an unseen God who looked on waiting. No shortage of trouble when you have your own shovel.

I had been diverted. Diversions leading to fresh perversions. I averted my shameful gaze from the sordid secrets on the screen to my journal where I wrote words of life day after day after desperate day. Yet day after day I lived a life of lies. A double life of double standards. Standing at my own gallows with the good book in my hand. They say I saw the light but they didn’t see my frostbitten heart. Black and dead like a gull on an oil slick. My words were slick yet I was sick, vomiting up my own hypocrisy to be gobbled back down time and time again by an adoring audience.

A dog always returns to its own vomit.

Losing weight yet so full of hate. Hating myself for what I had become. Numb. Personal bests on the road. Personal worsts off it. Home alone and on I droned on my twirly throne. With that hateful phone. Tweet Tweet I bleat, no end to my conceit. Empty words. I was running on empty. As the fat fell off me my soul became clotted with the cholesterol of a chaotic existence. A requiem for everything I once was now turned to dust and rust for I was broken. My lungs were choking. Suffocated on stuff I hated. Gasping for breath but there’s nothing left. Drunk on retweets and punch drunk on deceit.

Flatlining on my timeline. But every heart attack requires a heart. So life went on. Prolonged….

The sins of the father. Well my father sinned but even he would have shook his head and looked away from what I had become. Thank God they sealed the coffin lid. The dead mourned the living that February day. He had to leave yet I couldn’t grieve. Disbelief as I bluffed my way through his wake. Wide asleep. The emotional thief high on death. An endorphin rush from the grave. The big man holding the family together I was, yet falling apart inside. The tears wouldn’t come, frozen inside me and encasing my essence. Holding me together yet tearing them apart. This stinking thinking which was my inheritance. Was cancer the answer God? Really?

I had no will to kill the thoughts. They would not stop. You go on to bed. I’ll be right up. The fridge opens. Another drink. Don’t want to think. Just sink. Clink Clink.

Weakened every weekend they went to sleep leaving me downstairs to mourn the death of my former self. I dreamt drunken dreams where I was strong and not the mess causing so much stress. But I digress. Another beer. To kill the fear. The fear of what I had become. For even when the beer had run its course I still was hoarse; from the lies that lined my sandpaper throat. Saliva like acid burns as I slide back, backslide to where I came from and where I was going.

Alcohol was my crutch. It wasn’t much but was enough to snuff out what was left. I was bereft. I lost two parents that day and gained a child I did not want. You’ve lost your father? Doesn’t matter. You’ve still got your mother. Yet I smothered another, my lover, the mother of my children. I am ashamed and I was to blame. She deserved better and I hope these letters and these words are an end for her and a beginning for us. An end to sin. New life within.

Four years ago. Sober at last. But a sober drunk is a dangerous creature. For we still thirst. Which leads to worse.

To be continued…..

The above piece is part of a trilogy that I hope to post over the next week. Thank you for taking the time to read it. If you have any comments or questions then please leave them below – Stephen.

Decrease The Creases

We live near the shores of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. It is home to a rich variety of wildlife including elegant geese who regularly fly over our house in a perfect arrowhead formation. It’s a wondrous sight but not quite as jaw dropping as the herd of pigs which flew over chez Black around lunchtime yesterday.

Okay. Okay. I made that last line up.

But there was an equally miraculous visage for Fionnuala and the kids to behold. Yours truly standing at the ironing board. As in actually ironing! With an iron!!

Fionnuala hasn’t been feeling that well this weekend and even I couldn’t avoid to see the mountain of ironing accumulating in the corner of our kitchen. Now my housekeeping skills leave a lot to be desired. I can burn water. But surely even I could manage a few shirts and school uniforms in order to take the pressure off my long suffering better half. Wee buns as we say in Northern Ireland.

Over the course of the next couple of hours I fine tuned my technique until a sizeable amount of freshly pressed clothes were folded up on the kitchen table. It was hard to imagine that they had previously been a crumpled heap in the wash basket. I must admit I felt quite pleased with my efforts. I can’t swim and I don’t own a bike so it will be the nearest I’ll ever come to being an Iron Man.

Sorry couldn’t resist….

How many of you feel like a crumpled shirt or pair of trousers? Dishevelled and unwanted. Covered in creases and wrinkles. The wrinkles can be literal, the result of unremitting pressure and stress. Wrinkles are bumps on the highways and byways of our lives. They need to be overcome and the iron creates the searing heat needed to eradicate them. A white hot heat that regenerates and purges. I needed a hot iron in order to remove the creases from the pile of clothes I tackled today.

Sometimes in order to remove the problems in our lives an external heat needs to be applied. It can be a concerned friend or a caring relative. We stumble around in a maze of mistakes and cannot see the bigger picture. We lose our perspective and become subjective. We require a blunt appraisal of our situation from an outside source. Warts and all. We might not like it but the best medicine never goes down easily.

We become blinded by bias and a friendly iron can be be a painful necessity in order to smooth out our predicament. Heat hurts but it also heals. It can lead to wide, flat plateaus of peace devoid of the cobbles of confusion and flagstones of fear. Why sidle on the sidewalk or ponder on the pavement when you can surge ahead on the straightest, narrowest road imaginable.

Chase your dreams on open highways. We all accumulate wrinkles and creases on our life journeys. Don’t allow them to force you down dark alleys that lead to dead ends and delay. Swallow your pride and share your problems with someone who you can be truly accountable to; allow them to bring the heat and drag you out of the trough you find yourself in.

You need never be alone. De-crease your problems and increase your hopes of a brighter future. Just reach out. We are here for you.

Are you an ironing geek? Or do you dread this chore?

Do you need help with a problem today?

Are there people out there who can iron out your creases?

What Do You Love Most About WordPress?

Fionnuala and the kids have been trying in recent weeks to drag me kicking and screaming into the 21st Century by adding me to the family’s Snapchat group. This appears to involve sending each other photos and/or videos of yourself with animal ears or speaking in squeaky voice. Or both! At the same time!!

It’s all a bit beyond me. Firstly the app couldn’t acknowledge my facial features when I tried to take a photograph. Now I realise I’m no Brad Pitt or George Clooney but at the same time this was a bit of a blow to my already fragile self-esteem as Fionnuala says I’m no Quasimodo either.

I’d never seem a photograph of him before today but I have to say the face rings a bell….

*tumbleweed drifts across screen*

Anyhoooooo….another app they’ve introduced me to is Bitmoji. You know the one where you can create a cartoon character of yourself which can then reflect your every mood. Say happy….

Or sad…..

Or I feel like rocking the Christmas elf look.

In hindsight I don’t think I have the legs for those tights….

That aside I’ve taken to Bitmoji like a duck to water. Fionnuala is already bitterly regretting showing me how it works as I now bombard her and other friends with Bitmoji images as opposed to texting them ‘words’ or, heaven forbid, having an actual conversation. With words, eye contact and adulting stuff like that.

Isn’t it amazing how lazy we have become at communicating with each other. Why bother expending all that energy expressing yourself when a 😊 or a 👍🏻 will suffice. We love creating layers and barriers in order to hide our true selves. Being honest and open is almost regarded as a sign of weakness in this day and age.

We have become an emoji culture.

We are in fact an emotionless culture.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all the same. So many people offering up entirely inaccurate and misleading caricatures of who they really are. We are the happy selfie generation while inside there is despair and selfishness. Nobody sees the real person anymore. They are buried beneath fake smiles and glazed eyes.

That’s what I love about you guys. The WordPress community. Realism. Warts and all. So real it cuts me to the bone at times. You wear your hearts on your sleeves every day. You inspire and motivate me. You tell stories of brokenness. You speak the truth even if it is a painful truth. You desire healing and growth. You want to move forward, to leave behind the zombie generation.

You want to help others but realise, before that, you have to help yourself.

We are the refugees of social media. The online outcasts. We have fled the coming storm and sought sanctuary within WordPress. It is our fortress, our stronghold. We have pulled up the drawbridge and now sit around the fire telling stories of struggle and recovery. We are a family, a community. We are one.

We don’t need selfies. We don’t pout or preen for the camera. We are what we are. Fragile, weak, yet real. Words are our weapons and tools. Together we are strong. There are multiple beliefs and faiths on the blogs I read here every day. But they are bound together by love, empathy and wisdom.

Physician heal thyself. But you are. One day at a time. One blog post at a time.

Why do you love most about WordPress?

Human Remains

As I walked through the city centre this morning I gingerly sidestep the discarded debris from the night before. The greasy pizza boxes frozen to the pavement and broken beer bottles glistening in the half light. Empty like the drunken revellers who had gorged upon them. Signs of lives that sparkled, then spluttered, across the Belfast horizon not ten hours ago. Grime scenes of pointless brawls and even more pointless declarations of undying love. The dying embers of the best or worst night of their lives.

The street cleaners are already hard at work, their trucks shattering the silence as they trundle by, removing all incriminating evidence that the night before ever existed. No more blemishes on the landscape. A return to the status quo, order restored. Setting the stage for the same tired melodramas to be played out later that evening; penning another tawdry chapter in the sorry storybook of their lives. New opportunities, high hopes, dazzling dreams. Waiting to be shattered.

Human remains. Washed down the drain.

The actors awake in their beds. Or possibly somebody else’s. Some recall every second of the previous night, for others it is a dim memory that evades their grasp long into the daylight hours. Some smile and others shudder as they replay the sordid scenes that unfold before their bloodshot, hungover eyes. Phones are checked, messages are cherished or hastily deleted. Some can’t wait til the next time, others swear never again. Alcohol enthrals them as it once enthralled me. But now I stand appalled. At who I once was.

Love affairs (and death affairs) blossomed here. Life long friendships were cemented or derailed. I see it all with jaded eyes as I’ve been there, done that, bought the ill fitting t-shirt. I stand on the outside now looking in. My nights of revelry are a distant memory. I avoid bars now. I recoil around the drunken revellers. I feel isolated, intimidated, afraid? I fear them but not as much as I fear myself. What I am capable of. The side of me I want to bury. I didn’t come through hell. I was hell. My victims are legion. Their lesions are my living testimony.

I had a choice. The high life or a real life. I chose the latter. I chose my wife and kids. I chose nine to five and staying alive. For one pint was never enough. I drank to get drunk. The quicker the better. Pint upon pint. Bad decision upon bad decision like stacked dominoes. I scarred the hearts of my loved ones like alcohol scars the liver of the lonely lush. It numbed me to the truth. It deafened the words of wisdom I needed to hear. Because who wants to hear when there’s another beer. She was my mistress. She was my mistake.

I turned my back on those human remains in order to remain human. I now see a life beyond the next weekend, the next party, the next crushing hangover. I run long and I think longer. I want my remains to outlive the street cleaners. I want my legacy to be generations of flesh and bone; fond memories; happy times. I want my existence to matter. No matter what. So I sacrifice to accumulate. A small price to pay given the rewards I see ahead. My faith is as blind as it is lucid.

I am a broken man, but a resurrected man. I wear my scars like battle honours. No longer reeling, rather feeling and healing. Liquid healing under a cascading waterfall of love, grace and hope. I heal so I can be real. I cling to the present like a new born child cling to it’s mothers breast. I am thirsty but not for beer. I desire to be restored by living water from fountains of knowledge and wisdom. This knowledge opens the door to worlds where dreams can become reality. Knowledge leads to truth. And truth leads to freedom.

No more human remains for me. No more. Yet I am human. And I remain.

What sights do you see when you take an early morning walk through your town or city?

What remains from your past are you struggling to scrub from your present life?

How are you dealing with healing?

Bad Head Day

Today was a Bad Hair Day. A very Bad Hair Day. I would post a photo but I don’t want to scare any of you good, good people. You all deserve better than that. I’m not sure if it was my now infamous cap, the windy conditions or that I’m in desperate need of a haircut but I resembled a 5′ 11′ Northern Irish troll when I finally reached the office this morning. Which is not a good look.

My arrival was greeted by a chorus of guffaws from my rarely sympathetic colleagues causing me to beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom to inspect the damage. I looked like I’d seen a ghost. It would have been a truly hair raising experience if it wasn’t for the fact that my hair was already raised. There followed a frenzied few minutes of wetting it down and trying to restore some semblance of sanity to my appearance. I looked like Albert Einstein after he stuck his finger in a power socket.

Makeover complete I returned to the office looking every inch the suave, sophisticated middle manager everyone knows and loves. Note to self – always keep a tube of hair gel in the office to avoid a repeat performance in the future. Or stop being so lazy and pay a visit to the barber’s to get it all whacked off. Hair today, gone tomorrow. I apologise. That was possibly the worst pun in the history of WordPress.

That’s the good thing about Bad Hair Days. They can easily be rectified, no matter how dire the reflection that greets you in the mirror. But what about those Bad Head Days? When no matter how hard you try and no matter what you do you can’t shift the smog of sadness which silently settles on your mind like volcanic ash. As it settles you become more unsettled. For you know what is about to follow.

Unsettled by depression and despair. Depression like a giant raven which sinks its talons into the meat of your mind and refuses to let go. It is relentless and seeps into every recess, polluting and contaminating your every waking thought and every restless dream. Dreams that make you scream. Screams that nobody hears because you are entombed in the solitary prison that is your consciousness.

Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Money. They offer only temporary release, a momentary relapse in the onslaught which rains down on you like meteor showers hitting the atmosphere of your soul. Souls full of holes which can never be mended. Irreparable damage to irreplaceable hopes and aspirations. You feel utterly alone and are utterly defeated. You fly the white flag of surrender against a backdrop of nightmarish proportions.

Bad Head Days have a habit of becoming Bad Head Weeks. Then months, then years and before you know it your life is slipping through your fingers and you are left staring at nothing. Why wash? Why eat? Why answer the phone? Why get out of bed? Why breathe another breath? Options decrease as the anguish increases. You are broken. And choking. Choking on the bitterness of empty promises and seductive lies.

Lies. Soul ties. Time flies and before you know it they are gone. The loved ones, the loyal ones, the people you felt would always be there to catch you when you fell. Fell into hell. You’re in freefall. But it’s not free. It has cost you everything you’ve ever held dear. Suicide is painless they say. Not for those you leave behind. They will die every day reliving the day of your death. There is no hope at the end of a rope. Hope is living. Even if living is little more than survival.

In order to thrive you first must survive. A minute at a time. A breath at at time. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat ad nauseum. Until you are sick. Until you vomit up the poison. Until you see that first chink of light on the horizon. That first hazy sunset which cuts through the smog and warms your frozen heart. Scream. Scream until your lungs burst. Scream until you are heard, until you get the help you need to visit tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that.

Are you having a Bad Head Day? Or know someone who is? Please don’t suffer in silence. Get help. Today. Now.

Raise your voice. Kill the noise.

❤️🙏🏻❤️🙏🏻

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