Where Are You On The ‘Me Me Me’ Tree?

We are all a little self obsessed. It’s human nature, that we focus on our own interests. Animal instinct, if you like. The trick is to be aware of this character defect and work against the grain, to put the needs of others before our own. Love others. You get my drift. It’s not easy though and often the old habits slip back, leaving us trampling over all and sundry in our desire to clamber to the top of the tree. The ‘me me me’ tree.

Life seems grand at the top of the ‘me me me’ tree. We can scan the world around us, pat ourselves on the back and look down disdainfully at those beneath us, who are scrambling for purchase on the slippery trunk and branches beneath. They haven’t quite made it to the top, which makes the fact we have all the more satisfying. It’s easy to forget about these folk who, not so long ago, meant the world to us.

We become immune to their pain, we don blinkers and ear protectors to protect us from their suffering. It’s all so unnecessary and, well, frankly a tad desperate. You don’t need to be sullied with their grief and anguish. It takes the sheen off your own glorious rise to the top. You tend to forget that if it wasn’t for some of those far below, you wouldn’t be lording it up at the top of the pile. Memory can be so selective at times.

Having a conscience is a double edged sword. Wouldn’t it be great if we could plough ahead without that little voice in our head popping up and whispering in our ear; correcting us, chastising is, reminding us of the difference between right and wrong. It can be a real party pooper, a wet blanket of immense proportions. The adult in the room, tidying up behind us and suggesting we turn the music down a little.

Conscience acts as a radar as well. For at the fringes of our senses, we will detect the faintest beep. A voice, a cry of desperation. We look down and far, far below we see someone clinging to a lower branch. We recognise them immediately and our heart aches. For it is a loved one, a person dear to us and who, not so long ago, was an integral part of our life. They haven’t fared so well on the ‘me me me’ tree and have been left far behind in the climb to the top.

They catch our eye, they tug at our heartstrings and, suddenly, it’s too late. We acknowledge that they are part of the reason we are where we are. Have we trampled over them in our victorious ascent? It’s hard to remember, it was all so rushed and confusing. Did we? Possibly? But it’s too late now as the gap between us seems too far to be bridged. We are filled with guilt and regret.

The good news is that it’s not too late. You might be reading this, thinking it doesn’t apply to you. Life is going pretty well right now and you’ve nothing to feel bad about. But look around and think hard. Listen. Do you hear that faint, almost indiscernible beep in the far distance? Listen. There it is again. It’s that relative, friend or colleague who you haven’t heard from in a while.

They need you. Now. Today. Reach out. Make that call, send that message, ask how they are doing. Reach down from where you are perched and haul them up beside you. All they need is that one helping hand, to know they are still cherished and not forgotten about. To show them that you are still there for them, that you still care and will never leave their side again. The ‘me me me’ tree can never destroy that bond.

Where are you on the ‘me me me’ tree?

The Enemy Within

The Olympic Flame goes out more than Fionnuala and I. It’s the joy of having three hatchlings which are a constant strain on our time and finances. Even when we do have an opportunity we are normally incapable of doing much more than slumping on the sofa and getting caught up on our favourite TV shows. Of late, it’s been ‘The Enemy Within,’ which I keep referring to as ‘The Enemy At The Gates.’ Some days, I barely know my own name.

Jennifer Carpenter stars in it. She played Dexter’s sister in er…..Dexter. For those who haven’t watched it, she plays a disgraced CIA operative imprisoned for treason who a FBI team use to track down an international terrorist mastermind. You never quite know what side her character, Erica Shepard, is on. On the surface she appears to be one of the good guys, but there is a darkness lurking beneath which occasionally surfaces.

We all have that darkness lurking within us. The part that isn’t for public consumption, that we hide from prying eyes. None of us are perfect and those who protest they are, are deluded or liars. There is a grimy past, an unsavoury secret, something which we will do everything in our power to prevent from emerging into the light of day. It’s a battle which wages unseen from the watching world. The demons within, they claw and scream for release.

Erica Shepard uses her demons to get inside the heads of her enemies. She is a chameleon, manipulating friend and foe alike to achieve her ends. She can think like a terrorist, enabling her to remain one step ahead of all around her. Overcoming and taming your demons equips you to see the warning signs, when the next wave of attacks are launched. For life is all about being attacked. It’s how we handle these is how we dictate the quality of that life.

I’m looking forward to tonight. We are only going to a friends house for a takeaway. Fionnuala may even have a cheeky glass of wine or two, as I shall be driving. Not the most exciting of evenings you might think but it’s a big deal to sofa surfers like us. Our days of being party animals are long behind us. I imagine we will still be tucked up in bed, well before midnight. There was a time when we considered that unthinkable.

I know my enemy. He eyes me every day from the corner of his cage as I pass him by. He is patient, cunning and ruthless. Waiting for the slightest chink of weakness to break free of his chains and throw my life into disarray again. I must forever be on my guard, alert to his tricks and traps. I can never afford to rest on my laurels. He licks his wounds and I eye my scars. Reminders of what he is capable of.

He hates normality, the status quo drives him to distraction. My strategy is to bore him to death. Day after day, month after month, year after year. Like tonight. Chinese food, six pack of Diet Coke. Early to bed and a 10K run in the morning. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep right on moving along. This is how it is, these days. And, oh, how he hates it. The drama, the people, the lifeblood he feeds on, all no longer there.

I keep him under lock and key. I keep the key on a chain around my neck. He wants it more than anything, for it is his only means of escape. He cannot have it. For I possess the tactics and tools to keep him at arm’s length for as long as I desire. I’m no Erica Shepard. Glamorous and ruthless. But, like her, I know how to play the game. Play the game and win. Keeping the enemy at bay. Until the end of my days.

How Is Your Garden?

I’ve been gardening this morning. It rained overnight and a faint drizzle still hung in the air as I pierced the soft, pliable soil and turned it over. The spade plunged deep and before long a reasonable sized hole was before me, in which I proceeded to bed a new addition to our array of plants. Digging is hard work and my fingers are far from green. But I was proud of what I had created over the last few weekends.

I was bringing order to the chaos that was our unkempt front garden. When I look at it now I feel calm, as opposed to anxious at the task which I’d been putting off all these months. But as well as order, the garden looked healthy and alive. It was balm to my soul as opposed to the eyesore I’d been consciously avoiding for so long. With very limited ability, and a healthy dose of hard work, this was my humble creation.

Then it hit me. This was my life, not so long ago. An overgrown mess. Thorns and weeds strangling any goodness which was struggling to reach the light. A barren wilderness of selfish need and negativity. My life was in free fall and I was tumbling helplessly into the void, oblivious to the collateral damage I was wreaking around me. I pushed away all offers of hope, for I knew best. I had all the answers.

I delighted in blaming anyone and everyone for my plight. Physically and mentally I was a wreck. I ate all the wrong foods and binge drinked at the weekend. I got out of breath climbing a flight of stairs and my waistline crept steadily upwards. The OCD I’d battled all my life ran amok through me. Inappropriate thoughts and unacceptable behaviour became the norm. My moral compass spun out of control.

That was then. Today, I tend my garden. I still have a sweet tooth but I try to watch what I eat. I run and sweat off the excess pounds when I feel them creeping back on. I don’t drink and don’t want to drink. I take my medication and talk to others when I feel the intrusive thoughts threatening to take hold again. The routines I adhere to now provide me with focus and clarity. I am in control. I am alive.

I take no personal credit for all of this. If I had my way, I’d probably still be languishing amongst the weeds. Others have dragged me kicking and screaming to where I am today, opened my eyes to the truth. My family, my friends, the list is too long to write down here for that would take a dozen blog posts. Yet I am grateful to each and every one of them and always will be. They saved me from myself.

How is your garden? Do you tend to it daily, pruning back the bushes and keeping the weeds at bay. Or has it been overrun, to the point where you are at a loss as to what needs done. Are you adrift and stranded? If so, reach out, swallow your pride and seek the help you need. And when you find it, cling on tight and milk every last drop of love from it. We need you to flourish, to live the life you were created to live.

It can be your family, your friends, a work colleague. It can be medication, counselling or therapy. It can be running, singing, dancing, whatever. It can be reading this blog every day. It doesn’t matter. Just find it and do it. Your garden is the most precious, beautiful thing you will ever have control over. If your garden is healthy, then it’s more likely so will be those of your loved ones. A community of vibrant, living hope. A community of us.

Digging

I’ve been digging in our front garden this week and now understand the meaning of the phrase ‘farmer fit.’ It’s ridiculously hard work. By the time I finished my back ached, my hands were raw, and the sweat was dripping off my nose. I staggered back into the house, doubled over and struggling for breath. ‘You’re not used to real work,’ Fionnuala remarked drily. She had a point, though.

Hard physical labour and I are not on speaking terms. When I was digging, it triggered a memory of watching my grandfather and uncle digging potatoes when I was a young boy. They must have had backs of iron for they never faltered, never flinched from the rhythmic rise and fall as they methodically worked their way through the soil, rarely stopping for rest. These were real men, unafraid of proper graft.

My father was much the same. Broad shouldered and deceptively strong, he could toil in the garden all day, a workhorse who only downed tools when my mother called him in for lunch or dinner. These were tough, unassuming Northern Irish men. They didn’t have muscle vests or gym memberships, they didn’t need them. The land was their gym, the only workout they knew or needed.

All of this reminded me of the poem ‘Digging,’ by Seamus Heaney, which I studied at school. In it, he watches his father dig and compares it to his own art with the written word – ‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’ One of the few lines of verse I remember from my school days, powerful and evocative in equal measure. Writers are diggers, and the pen is our spade.

What are we digging for? Well, I can only speak for myself. I dig to unravel the past, decipher the present and prepare for the future. It is my therapy, my release, a purging, cleansing, bleaching of the spirit. As I write, the toxicity ebbs from my body. I don’t expect fame or fortune. Writing is no means to an end. It is part of me, now. As natural as breathing. I am a writer. I write. That is is the stark, bare truth.

I feel utterly inadequate as I compare my own puny efforts with the spade to the men from my past. There is no comparison between us and, try as I might, I will never match them when it comes to working the land. All I can do is pick up a pen and pay tribute to them. I turn the top soil over and unearth hidden gems, buried deep in the recesses of my memory. Memories, both good and bad, which need to see the light of day once more.

They dug for potatoes, yet I dig more more. I dig to maintain the status quo, an equilibrium and balance so sorely lacking for most of my adult life. I dig to keep on track, eyes fixed ahead, afraid of losing my step and sliding helplessly back down into the miry murk of the past. Dig, dig, deeper and truer with each passing day. Closer, ever closer to the essence of who I am, as opposed to what I became.

‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’

The Hangover Dream

As recurring dreams go, the ‘hangover dream’ is top of the pile. I have had it on a semi regular basis since my decision to give up drinking alcohol six years ago. I would say I haven’t looked back since, except that’s not strictly accurate. The hangover dream is testimony. An unwelcome reminder of what once was but can never be again. And here I am, awake at 05:00 a.m, mulling over another night where it has got the better of me.

It’s always a variation of the same theme. I wake up, hungover, gripped by the physical symptoms and a mental unease as to what happened the night before. For I’ve blacked out at some point and can’t remember. I know I’ve messed up though. I always mess up when I’ve been drinking. It’s par for the course. Lily Allen wrote a song about it called ‘The Fear.’ Lily Allen was right.

In the dream I need to be somewhere and I’m late. I’m rushing about, trying to get back on track while battling the nausea and lethargy. I’m pretending that everything is ‘fine.’ Everything, however, is not fine, it’s far from fine. I’m teetering on the brink, wracked with guilt and regret. Never again, I think to myself. This sick cycle needs to stop. And so it does. Until the next time, that is.

When I wake up, I have the physical symptoms of a hangover. My stomach is queasy and I’m exhausted. ‘The Fear’ envelops me like a cloying blanket. The smell of cigarettes assails my nostrils and my flesh crawls with anxiety ants. I want to bury my head beneath the covers and not emerge until it’s all gone away. Yet, I must get up, dust myself down and face the waiting day. That’s what great pretenders do, right?

Six years. Why do I still dream this dream, unlocking a portal to a past life I want nothing to do with? I have no interest in alcohol now. I’m never tempted. Nowadays I run, I write, I live. These are the best days of my life and I truly believe there are even better ahead. Yet still I dream. The night before the biggest of meetings with the biggest of bosses. When I need to bounce into work fresh and raring to go. Why?

Never rest on your laurels. Complacency is a stealthy assassin, waiting to creep up behind and slit your throat from ear to ear. Just when you thought you could relax a little, lower those defences. Well, breaking news, you can’t. This is for life. One slip, one poor decision, and you end up slithering back down the slippery, steep slope into the murky mire of a past you so desperately want to leave behind.

It’s there, it always will be. A necessary evil, the umbilical cord between who you were and who you want to be. My advice for what it’s worth is to use it. That cord can be a noose or a lifeline. Use it to guide you, to remind you of the high stakes game you continue to play, must continue to play. Day in, day out for the rest of your life. When viewed within that context, the ‘hangover dream’ is a small price to pay.

I have a dream. A horrible, nightmarish dream but one I need to periodically experience so as I remain vigilant and alert to the warning signs. I must be prepared at all times to repel enemy attacks, to man the ramparts at a moments notice in order to face the coming storm. I feel rough, I feel rotten, but at least I feel something. Alive to the threats, the possibilities, the tripwires and hidden pits. Alive to life.

I’m No Hugh Jackman, But….

I write from the heart, warts and all. You get exactly what it says on the tin. A lot of people seem to like this style, others less so. I cannot pretend to be happy when I am not. This is a modern day skill I have never quite been able to get my head around. I don’t say ‘I’m fine’ and ‘I’m loving life’ when I’m clearly not. I have my ups, my downs, my peaks and troughs. I can be happy Stephen, sad Stephen, somewhere in between Stephen.

I’ve written largely positive material these last two years on the blog. It’s been a slog at times, but I’ve largely posted on a daily basis, ably supported by Fionnuala when I have needed a break or been too busy to write. Rebecca has also popped up with the occasional special guest appearance. We have always viewed Fractured Faith Blog as a platform to show others there is hope, even when all seems hopeless.

In order to adequately explain this, however, I’ve had to, on occasion, revisit the darker times. I’ve had to dip my toe back into the murky waters of despair and dismay. This has been a necessary evil. In order to represent the impact and brightness of the light, you must also depict the soul wrenching darkness from which it emerged. It is the backdrop to who we were and helps educate the reader as to how far we have come.

I call it the Abyss. There are several chapters in the book, where Meredith Starc finds herself cocooned within it, utterly disoriented and devoid of hope. I have also written about it on the blog, the darkest of places, where I once dwelt. A modern day Gollum, scurrying around in the gloom, wallowing in self pity and regret. I hated that world, I hated that life, but most of all I hated myself. I so wanted to be Sméagol again.

Life is so much better now, which I hope is reflected in the content of this blog. The good days vastly outnumber the not so good ones. This allows me to write with a freedom I once knew nothing about. I no longer have to fake it, like so many do both online and in the real world. I am finally comfortable in my own skin, allowing me to discard the mask and throw it aside. I am me and, most days, I can look myself in the mirror and accept that.

This blogger ain’t for changin’. There will, no doubt, be gloomy times ahead, such is the nature of this unpredictable beast we call life. I will continue to mix it up on here, as required. I’m hoping it’s a mostly smooth ride for you lot, but I’m guaranteeing nothing. There will be rough, there will be smooth, there will be the long, largely boring bits in between where nothing much happens.

A consistent message on this blog is to be yourself. It’s okay to feel miserable and disconsolate at times, if that is what your external circumstances are dictating at that particular moment in your life. You don’t have to put on a performance. I know this better than anyone. I’m no showman, Hugh Jackman can rest easy on that front. I am who I am, and so should you. This is me.

Happy Birthday To Me….Well Almost

It’s my birthday in five days! Where has the last year gone? Search me. No need to guess my age or enquire as to my address for cards and gifts. Well, unless you insist. Rather, I want to spend the week returning the favour. I’m very blessed and grateful for the life I have. There but for the grace of God and all that. It could all have turned out very differently. Yet, here I am. A very fortunate man.

Every day this week I’ll be offering my fellow bloggers a free service from yours truly. Unfortunately it won’t be the contents of my bank account, not that that amounts to a hill of beans, as it’s also four days to my next pay day. Today it’s the opportunity to be a guest blogger on Fractured Faith Blog. We are now nearing 10K followers so it’s a great opportunity for a fellow writer to showcase their talent.

All you have to do is comment below if you are interested, with a brief pitch as to what you want to write about on the blog. I’m open to most subjects. Sell it to me and make me an offer I simply cannot refuse. I’ll post my favourites next week. Please don’t be offended if you’re not chosen. It can be an old post you’re particularly proud of or something brand spanking new. The choice is yours.

Tomorrow I will post another gift I’m offering you wonderful people. Keep tuned to see what that is. If you’re a little shy about sharing your guest blog idea in open forum for now, then drop me an e-mail and we can take it from there. There are so many talented writers on WordPress who deserve 10K followers much more than me. It’s only fair that I use this week to share the love a little.

Drop your guest blog ideas below or e-mail me.

Man Vomits Casually Outside Bar

Catchy title, huh? But there I was, hurrying through the city centre to catch my train home when I beheld this wondrous sight. A very respectable looking middle aged man, standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette and checking his phone messages. Nothing to see here, folks. Perfectly normal. Next thing, however, he casually leans over and vomits before taking a leisurely drag of his cigarette and returning his attention once more to the phone screen.

It was a genuine double take moment, like you see in the cartoons. Initially I thought he had spilled his drink but nope, there was no pint glass, and it was the contents of his stomach that was forming a puddle on the pavement as opposed to any beverage he might have been holding. I’ll spare you the gory details but, upon closer inspection, I’m fairly confident I could have hazarded a guess as to what he had for lunch.

Nobody else was paying much attention to this startling spectacle. I mean, what else, would you be getting up to on a grey Tuesday afternoon in Belfast other than being violently ill outside a local hostelry? This is a city where the bars are always busy and an increasingly noticeable percentage of the population stumble about in broad daylight under the influence of something or other. Beer, spirits, drugs, illicit or prescription. Whatever.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Stephen? Too right for, ten years ago, this could well have been me. Except I usually made it to the bathroom on time. Usually. Have I ever been sick outside a pub? Yup. But at least I looked suitable sheepish about it and made a reasonable attempt to conceal myself down a side entry before I performed the dastardly deed. Plus, I was never a smoker.

If I was still a betting man, I’d wager top dollar that Casual Vomit Man is back in the bar now, having cleared his nausea and returned to the fray. It’s a well known trick of the drinking trade. Empty stomach means more capacity for further alcohol intake. It’s like starting all over again. Twice the fun at zero expense. Except for the poor soul expected to clean up the mess outside.

I sincerely hope he gets home in one piece, without any further mishaps. Who knows, he may well wake up in the morning feeling as fresh as daisy, with no recollection of the incident. I’m afraid I won’t though. I’m a writer and I’m always greedily scanning the horizon for material. Casual Vomit Man is already immortalised in the blog, maybe he will turn up in a future book. It’s classic Kirkwood Scott territory.

Our streets aren’t paved with gold anymore. They’re paved with vomit and blood, decorated by broken bottles and discarded needles. We are all culpable, none of us can turn our backs on a society we have contributed towards, be it consciously or unconsciously. This is now and this is us. Man vomits casually outside a bar. Teenage addict begs for loose change around the next corner.

Nobody looks twice.

Nobody thinks once.

My Little Black Book

I have a little black book….

But don’t worry, it’s not that kind of little black book. My little black book contains the details of literary agents I’m researching. Agents who, if they tick all the requisite boxes, I will query with regards the book. The book, the book, always the book. Writing it was the easy part. This is the real battle, the real war of attrition. Trying to hook that one agent. The one.

I had a nibble last week, a chink of light in the dark abyss that is attempting to secure literary representation. An agent asked to read the full manuscript. Which, I duly forwarded. Now, I wait again. The voice in my head rubs its hands, if it had hands, with glee. She will hate it, it whispers. It’s too long, too wordy, too….everything you don’t want to see in a published book.

In the meantime, I update my little black book. More agents to query, Twitter accounts to stalk, websites to devour. Query letter, book synopsis, first three chapters. Times New Roman, double spaced, no Word attachments. Bang, Bang, Bang. 6-8 weeks, if you don’t hear from us then consider it a pass. An endless not so merry go round of raised hopes, dashed dreams and interminable waiting.

Agents. What do they like, what do they hate. What do they want? Plot, characters, rinse and repeat. Their details are highlighted, circled and underlined before being savagely crossed out the moment the dreaded rejection e mail arrives. There are worse little black books to keep, much worse. Especially those we keep away from prying eyes, locked away in the deepest, darkest recesses of our hearts.

Filled with petty grudges, festering emotions and dangerous desires. We clutch them close to our chests and will fight tooth and nail to keep them from seeing the light of day. If only people knew what lay beneath the bland facade we display to the world every day. If only they could see the hate, the guilt, the devastation. If the truth of our little black books were known, then anarchy would reign. Madness would triumph.

I hope one day, and soon, to no longer need my little, black book. In my dreams, I secure an agent who, in turn, secures a publishing deal and we all live happily ever after. It lies open for anyone to see, yet it hangs around my neck like a rotting albatross. Taunting me, reminding me of imagined flaws, inadequacies and failings which wreak havoc within my already spinning head.

Do you have a little black book? What’s in it? Let me see, let me pry, just a peek, I promise not to tell anyone. Cross my heart and hope to die. What secrets do you hide? What monsters lurk? The deceit, the loathing, a Pandora’s box which would destroy your life and many others, were it to be unleashed, screaming and flailing into an unsuspecting world. A personal apocalypse.

Let’s build a funeral pyre, a bonfire or these terrible tomes. Stand with me as I light a match and toss it on the pile. We form a circle round it, holding hands, united in our desire to change, to build a better future. A future where no such books exist, where hope replaces dread and doubt. A better place, where you and I can live the lives we were born to live. Oh little black book, where are you now?

Tell me about your little black book?

Don’t Try This At Home Kids

Any distance runner knows that Vaseline is their best friend. I’ve seen and heard enough horror stories to realise that. Grown men weeping as they cross the finish line in blood soaked t shirts, their nipples red raw and on fire. And don’t get me started on the joys of inner thigh chafing. Who needs a knife wielding Anthony Perkins when you can run 15 miles without Vaseline and then create your own horrific shower scene.

I always make sure I have a tub on hand. When I run out, I steal a dollop from Hannah before I hit the roads, much to her disgust. ‘Ewwwww Daddy, I put that on my lips and you rub it on your….’ I’m always finding new ways to embarrass our teenage daughter but prancing about in public dressed in bright orange Under Armour while smothered in Vaseline is a hard one to beat.

Only an idiot would embark on a run without their bits and bobs suitably protected from the horrors of chafing. Or so you would think. Two days ago I headed out on a lunchtime spin around the Titanic Quarter of Belfast. I’m slowly upping the mileage again as I recover from the latest bout of illness to have laid me low. I thought I was well equipped and had everything I needed before setting off from home that morning.

How wrong I was. No Vaseline. I weighed up the options before shrugging my shoulders and deciding to chance it. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was tackling a 26.2 mile trek. This was a gentle training spin over a fraction of the distance. I’ll be alright. So off I sauntered, throwing caution to the wind. An hour later I hobbled back into the office, a broken man. Think John Wayne in business attire and you’re not a million miles off the mark.

It felt as though my thighs had been attacked by a sandpaper wielding maniac. I had been flayed alive. Every step was tortuous and my 15 minute walk later in the afternoon to the train station was a trail of tears. Fellow commuters shot me concerned looks as I crawled onto the platform, wincing every time trouser fabric caressed skin. Crawling home over broken glass would have been more fun. And less painful.

I won’t repeat what Fionnuala said to me when I arrived home but it was words to the effect of ‘Have you had an accident in your trousers my poor, darling husband?’ I can always rely on her to cut the chase on such matters. The remainder of the evening was an uncomfortable ordeal. I arranged myself on the sofa, smothered in Sudocrem, unwilling to budge an inch for fear of much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

48 hours later and I’m thankfully recovered. I’m out running again later today but won’t be taking a step out the door unless I’m smothered in the good stuff. I’ve learnt my lesson, and a very painful one at that. The mind is a fickle mistress. She often seeks to diminish and soften past memories. They become dim recollections, easy to brush aside as we stumble on towards similar calamities. The penny never drops.

Pain can be a good thing. Sometimes we need it. It is the red flag warning us there are dangers further up the road. The rest then is up to us. Do we blithely ignore it, hit the accelerator and hurtle round the next bend to face our fate? Or do we stop, frown and think back to the last time we faced such a dilemma. Before taking a step back and sheepishly reaching for the Vaseline?

How do you use pain as a warning system in your life?

What’s been your worst chafing experience? Do share. I promise not to breathe a word of it to anyone.

Do You Say Yes When You Mean No?

I’m not very good at saying no. In fact, I’m pretty useless at it. I’m a people pleaser, I hate the thought of others thinking bad of me. I’ll do anything I can to avoid confrontation and disagreements, even if it means placing myself in a position where I commit to something which is detrimental to my own well being. This has led to all kinds of calamity down the years. I’ll always say yes as opposed to cause offence.

Does it have its origins in my OCD? Possibly. In the bad old days, before I was properly educated and medicated about the illness, I would succumb to intrusive thoughts and the related compulsive behaviour 99 times out of 100. I was powerless to resist, or so I thought. I would cave in with disturbing frequency. The compulsion would always triumph and the beast within would be sated.

Until five minutes later, that was, when the next tranche of disturbing words and images would hit me, washing away my feeble defences. Such patterns instilled in me an ethos of worthlessness which spilled out into the real world. I was weak and needy because in my skewed mind I didn’t deserve anything more. My default setting was that people didn’t like me as I didn’t particularly like myself.

I could see it in the way they looked at me, the way they excluded me. I felt alone and excluded, unaware this was largely the figment of a damaged imagination. And in doing so I was isolating myself from the people who really mattered, those who cared and could help me. Blinded to this, I stumbled on wrapped up in my own sad little world of self pity and recrimination.

I said yes. A lot. There was no filter mechanism, no ‘off’ switch. I was a runaway train, careering down the track towards my doom. One minute everything was ticking along nicely, the next I found myself somewhere I didn’t want to be, with people I didn’t particularly want to be around. Extracting myself from said scenarios was invariably awkward and protracted. There was always a price to be paid.

Yesterday at work I said no. I could have said yes and the old Stephen would have, then fretted and worried for the next week about what lay ahead. Upon saying no, I was immediately submerged into negative and unwanted thinking. What if my bosses think badly of me? What if it leads to a confrontation? What if this impacts on my career? Am I letting people down? Acting unprofessionally?

I know in my heart that I have made the right call. I’m heading into work shortly to find out if there is any fallout to my stance. I’m hoping not. I’m also hoping this isn’t an isolated incident and it paves the way for further instances where I stand my ground both within and outside the workplace. Being a yes-man is no longer a coat I care to wear. Such people are taken for granted, to be used and abused on a whim.

Are you good at saying no? Or is it a struggle?

What Is Your Worst Habit?

Yesterday I wrote about my ongoing querying of literary agents and how researching their backgrounds prior to submitting your manuscript to them, is the acceptable face of online stalking. It was a tongue in cheek piece, as most of my writing is, but there was a serious message wrapped up inside the frivolity. That being, the obsessive behaviour which fuels the mind of a stalker.

I have OCD and an obsessive personality. I have no filter, no brake, no off switch. I can easily become fixated with activities and even people. This is exacerbated by a complete lack of self awareness when it comes to this particular character trait. I am unaware of my behaviour, in fact I rationalise that it is completely normal and those raising the alarm to me are the killjoys and bores.

This obsessive streak can be explained away as having a stubborn streak or being ultra single minded and determined. Which, in themselves, are admirable characteristics. You need these to run marathons. You need them to carve out a reasonably successful career in my chosen fiend. You need them to slave away at your novel for over a year until it is finally complete.

It’s a double sided coin, however. It’s not so admirable when you become obsessed with running, or paragliding, or base jumping. These activities are designed to be a release from the daily grind, as opposed to becoming the grind itself. They become destructive and counter productive when they drag you away from your core values and the people and pursuits who truly matter.

We become ensnared by these pastimes, they become our raison d’etre. They possess and consume us. They same can be said of online activity. I admit I spend far too much time online, trying to build the blog and related social media platforms. I know it is a necessary evil to pursue my writing dream, but I often need Fionnuala to remind me that I also have a wife and three kids who supersede all my other responsibilities.

This weakness has led me down all sorts of nasty rabbit holes in the past. I cultivated unhealthy online habits which damaged both myself and those I love. I became secretive and distant. Thankfully my current online incarnation is founded upon transparency and accountability. This affords me a safety net should I ever feel the urge to slip back into old habits. I’m learning to police myself again and, in doing so, trust myself again.

Any habit is hard to shake. I bite my nails, drink too much Diet Coke and the list goes on. I’ll never be a hand model but I do recycle all my empty cans and bottles. There are worse habits to have, I glibly inform people whenever I am challenged on these. And, indeed there are. But it’s a warning to always be on my guard. Old habits die hard. They are always lurking, waiting to pounce. The demon that is OCD is never far away.

I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. I’m a boring, middle aged husband and father. I don’t attract a second glance on my daily commute to and from work. None of us do. We are normal. Oh, but if only they knew. If only they knew the dormant madness that lies within. Just waiting for it’s opportunity to be unleashed and wreak havoc on our carefully constructed worlds. If only….

What are your bad habits?

Does madness lurk within you?

Are You Alone? Then Read This

I joined Twitter a couple of months ago to promote my (currently) non existent writing career. I used to be a bit of a whizz on Twitter back in the day. I held court on it and waxed lyrical to my army of adoring followers. My dry, yet achingly witty and intelligent, tweets won me adoration and acclaim. Usually typed when I was several sheets to the wine courtesy of my old friend, Mr. Budweiser.

But that was then, and this is now. Now I stand awkwardly in the corner of the room with my Diet Coke as all around me fellow authors, who all appear to know one another, tweet nonsense about their current work in progress and whether or not their protagonist should be written in the 1st or 3rd person. It’s a dog eat dog and me, me, me social platform. Heavens above, some of them even post selfies, an unwritten no no on WordPress.

I’ll persevere as that is where all the literary agents and publishing houses hang out. But it’s just somewhere I go to ply my trade, a 9-5 environment I’m obliged to visit on a regular basis. It’s not my home, it’s not the place I retreat to at the end of a long, tiring day. A place where I tear off the mask, slip into something more comfortable and abandon the airs and graces of social etiquette.

For that place is WordPress. It is my home and you are my people. A place where I am accepted for who I am, not who I want to be. Yes, I can be witty and intelligent if the mood takes me but I can also be honest, brutally honest if need be. Where I can bare all, safe in the knowledge I will be supported and valued. WordPress is my safe place, and you are my people. It will always be my online home.

Which brings me to the point of this rambling post. It’s great that people can be themselves on here, but it also means I see a lot of pain. I see desperation, anger, guilt, rejection, hopelessness and sorrow. I see people on the edge, one step away from toppling over the precipice and falling into a chasm of nothingness from which there is no return. But most of all, I see raw, unfiltered loneliness.

Loneliness is a silent killer. You can be in the middle of a crowded room, smiling and nodding in all the right places, but inside there is nothing but a hollow shell. Your phone rarely rings, beeps or vibrates. You have nobody to talk to, to sob and scream at. You are an island of isolation, adrift on a sea of sorrow. So you cling to the only piece of flotsam within sight, you cling to it for your very life depends on it.

You cling to WordPress. For it is the only community where you feel a semblance of self worth and acceptance. My message to you today is that you are not alone, for we are many. We need to reach out, engage and care for each other. Visit other people’s blogs, check up on the quiet ones, read between the lines and scan the skyline for rescue flares and warning beacons. They need us just as we need them.

I post every day on WordPress. I am here. Use me. Talk to me. For I’ve been there. Where you are now, as you read these words. Or talk to someone else if you think I’m the most annoying blogger on the planet. It doesn’t have to be open forum. Send an e-mail. Reach out, for there are strong hands, able and willing to pull you from the pit. Yes, you are lonely. But you need never be alone again.

Are you alone, desperate, frightened? Then reach out?

Or do you want to help others? Then reblog this post or write your own.

Let’s slay those demons.

I Have An Obsessive Personality

I have an obsessive personality.

Regular readers will know this anyway. It’s an aspect of my OCD which I have struggled with for the majority of my adult life. I don’t do things by half. When I develop a new interest or passion I must push it to the nth degree, to the point where everything else takes a back seat. When I am in this zone, my moral compass spins horribly out of control and I lose all sense of perspective.

I used to be obsessed with work, although this was often driven by a fear of failure. I would work ridiculous hours and was forever spending my weekends immersed in it, when I should have been focusing on my family. In my warped mind, this wasn’t a problem as I was doing it for them. The next promotion or pay rise. Putting bread on the table, bringing the bacon home. In reality, it was all about my ego.

When my father died, It was alcohol. I was a weekend drinker, but before long the weekends began on Thursday evening and ended on Monday morning. When our finances were tight, I always made sure there was enough for a case of beer. I drank to forget. To forget about my father’s death, to dull the intrusive thoughts and compulsive urges, to block out the mess I was making of my life.

Alcohol fuelled the Twitter years. I became obsessed with building up a legion of followers although I tweeted largely nonsense. It made me feel wanted, valued, relevant. I didn’t realise though that is was further estranging me from my loved ones, from the people who mattered. I was in the room with them, but I might as well have been a thousand miles away. I was an empty shell.

When I stopped drinking, running took over. My weekends would be spent away from my family again, at races all over the country. I became obsessed with personal bests, medals and beating the people I trained with. While my body was healthier than it had ever been, my mind was sinking further into the more. Image and appearance were everything. I was shallow and selfish.

I still run, but nowhere near the levels I used to. I now race 2-3 times a year when it used to be 2-3 times a month. I enjoy running but largely train alone now. I prefer it that way. Before I used to feel under intense pressure, both from myself and other people I ran with. I don’t want to go back to that way of living. When I run now I reap the mental as well as the physical benefits.

Passion. Drive. Ambition. Determination. These are all words which most of us would agree are positive. But there is a line and, when you cross it, you enter a whole new world. The world of the obsessive. We suck the joy out of everything like a ravenous lion sucks marrow from a bone. Except our demons feed on anxiety, fear and doubt. We lose all sense of who we are and who we want to be. It is the darkest of realms.

I don’t want to go back there, and I don’t think I will. But I must never rest on my laurels. You can’t be cured of OCD. It’s like someone saying they used to be an addict, but they’re not anymore. It is always there lurking, watching, like a dormant volcano waiting for its opportunity to unleash death upon the unsuspecting countryside. It stalks its prey, waiting to pounce and rip you apart.

Have you an obsessive personality?

Have you ever crossed the line?

How is your mental health today?

The Day My Dog Spoke To Me

Our dog, Charlie the border terrier, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Every morning I fill his bowl with fresh water, and every morning he and I enact the same routine. He pads over to the bowl, sniffs at it and then rewards me with a withering glare, before sulking in his cage for the remainder of the morning. If looks could kill then I’d be halfway to doggy heaven by now. Charlie doesn’t do tap water.

I’ve no idea why as it’s perfectly acceptable tap water. Good enough for the human members of the household. Perhaps he’s just not thirsty, I used to think. Or his sensitive canine palate will only accept Evian sparkling H20 from the purest Alpine springs. His father was a pedigree so maybe that’s where his culinary pickiness comes from. Possibly there’s a bit of corgi in his family lineage.

Given this, I was surprised the other day to find him slurping noisily from a plant pot in the back yard. It had rained heavily overnight so the saturated soil in the pot contained a good few inches of dirty rainwater. Dirty rainwater that our Charlie was gulping down at an unprecedented pace. It was as if he had just crossed the Sahara Desert and was on his last legs. Paws. Whatever.

When he was finished, he ambled past me with a smug expression on his face, his thirst quenched. Can dogs look smug? He trotted past his bowl of clean, cool tap water without a second glance. Here was a dog who knew what he liked and no dumb owner was going to stand in his way. I initially dismissed this as a one off but have since caught him a number of times lapping up muddy water from the back yard.

It doesn’t appear to have affected his health. He’s still a bouncing ball of energy and his all consuming hatred of neighbourhood cats and our amiable postman, Tony, remains undiminished. He just has a preference for al fresco dirty water. Maybe, somewhere deep within his admittedly tiny brain, it is the same primeval beast within which still makes him circle ten times before lying down.

I used to be like Charlie. I had a loving home and family, everything I needed on tap. Yet I preferred spending my nights at the bottom of a pint glass or talking online to complete strangers. I turned my nose up at the pure refreshment on offer for my soul and wallowed in self pity and shame. A physically and mentally unhealthy mess who was more interested in his Twitter followers than his wife and kids.

I’m glad that those times are behind me now. They say you should never look back but sometimes it does no harm to peek over your shoulder to see how far you have come on your journey. We often forget to reflect positively on what we have achieved, instead becoming overwhelmed by the present and what yet lies ahead of us. It is our past conquests where we attain the strength and skills to forge ahead. Our past arms us for the future.

When I get home tonight, I may sneak Charlie an extra biscuit for teaching me an important lesson today. For a dog, he has a pretty comfortable life. I’ll allow him his back yard forays to the dirty plant pot knowing that I now drink from a well of living water. Everyone has the opportunity to sip from this well, yet it remains the less traveled path to so many. I’m glad I made the right choice in the end.

Have you got a pet? What lessons do they teach you?

Have you drank dirty water in the past? Where are you now on your journey?

These Boots Were Made For….Squelching

Now that I’m a full time Rugby Dad, my son honoured me at Christmas by buying me a pair of Wellington boots to keep my tootsies dry and warm as I prowl up and down the touchline. He even included a pair of thermal socks which almost reach my knees. Combined with winter coat, gloves, hat and scarf I now resembled Scott of the Antarctic as I dropped him off for Saturday’s match.

Adam rewarded my sartorial elegance with probably the best match I have ever seen him play. He scored two tries (North American readers think touchdown) and played his heart out. His coach was suitably impressed while my heart burst with pride beneath the 17 layers of clothing I was wearing. I clapped and roared like a demented Eskimo as he hurtled around the pitch for 70 minutes.

All the other Rugby Dads, for we are many, were suitably impressed as well. And not just by what was happening on the pitch. One sidled over to me during the second half. ‘Nice boots,’ he remarked, glancing down in admiration at my new footwear. ‘Thanks’ I replied. ‘My son got them for me at Christmas. I guess I’m a real Rugby Dad now’ I added, clicking my muddy heels like Dorothy on her way to Oz.

‘You certainly look the part now’ he continued, before roaring at the referee about the other team being offside, a rule I’m still struggling to get my head around. Yes, I did look the part. I felt like I belonged there, that I fitted in, a sensation which for most of my life was an alien concept to me. Instead, I was a social chameleon who changed his behaviour and opinions like Lady GaGa changes clothes during a concert.

I was perfectly happy with Adam being the star of the show, the centre of attention. I may have looked faintly ridiculous but I was where I was meant to be, supporting him. Despite the early hour and the dreary conditions, it certainly beat lying in bed with a monstrous hangover, a pastime which, until several years ago, occupied the majority of my Saturday mornings.

I hope Saturday was the first of many such outings for my boots. There are many muddy fields to be traversed. And win, lose or draw at least I won’t lose any toes through frostbite. Safe in the knowledge that, as well as looking the part, I now feel the part as well. Part of a jigsaw which, when pieced together, is called family life. It’s where I’m meant to be, rather than the many other places I’ve tried to squeeze myself, desperate for attention and acceptance.

I used to be a square peg struggling to fit into a round hole. I’m still a square but much more comfortable in my own skin now. I’m where I needed to be all along, where I was meant to be, with the people who believe in me and what I am trying to achieve. I have cast off chains of self loathing and doubt, in order to reveal the real me, warts and all. I look the part because I am the part. The missing part.

Are you a social chameleon?

Do you look the part? Is it all just a show for the outside world?

Are you happy in your own skin?

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

I’m on a road trip today. Not that I particularly want to, what with this current lurgy still afflicting me. The only trip I want to take these days is up the wooden hill to my bed. But, needs must, the hatchlings require feeding and Fionnuala has cushions to buy. So I’m off to London today with work. I return late tomorrow night with a busy schedule in between. I can hardly contain myself. Hmmm.

Fun fact. Northern Ireland has two main airports. Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport. I’m flying out of the latter, named after one of the city’s legendary sons, the Manchester United footballer. Regarded by many as the greatest footballer of all time, including the legendary Pele no less. The Spanish media christened him ‘El Beatle’, such was his fame.

Best truly had the world at his feet, such were his silky footballing skills. But he succumbed to the glamour and the glitz and his incredible talent was stunted by alcoholism and a life of excess. He died prematurely of liver failure, the world never seeing his full potential. His burial was akin to a state funeral, with thousands lining the streets to pay homage to a sporting great.

His death was all the sadder, given this unrealised potential. A European Cup winner, he left United due to his chaotic lifestyle and followed a career path which meandered and then flatlined with a number of increasingly smaller clubs. It was a life of unfulfilled potential. He could have been so much more, he should have been so much more. His legacy was ‘what could have been.’

This is a question that intermittently haunts me as I navigate life. What could have been? Could I have done better? I know I could have? Could I have done more? Most definitely. Have I spurned countless opportunities? Absolutely. Have I fulfilled my potential? Probably not. Is there still a chance I can? YES! I may be 48 years old (but a strikingly young looking 48 years old at that) but I can.

Potential is such a subjective term. The good news is that there is plenty of it around. We all have it, by the bucketful. It’s coursing through our veins. Yet it, in itself, is not enough. It can only be realised through hard work and commitment. That is where so many of us fall away. We are beguiled by the earthly trinkets of this world which tempt and distract us from our true calling on this world.

There’s a famous story about George Best. He is in a five star hotel room, cavorting with his girlfriend, a current Miss World. He is sipping champagne and the bed is covered with banknotes. He is laughing, partying, the happiest man in the world. A hotel porter enters and looks around the room. He fixes Best with a sombre expression and asks ‘So, tell me Mr. Best. Where did it all go wrong?’

Best died a legend. They named an airport after him. His face appears on our banknotes and, yes, there is now a George Best Hotel in the city centre. But, to many, his legacy is one of failure and unfulfilled potential. He achieved so much on his God given talent, but there could have been so much more. To many, he is a hero, a role model. To me, he is a warning sign. I don’t want to be another George Best. Do you?

Are you fulfilling your potential?

What more can you do with your life?

A Sneak Peek For You All

A little book update for you all this morning. For it is morning in not so sunny Northern Ireland. Regular readers will know that I forwarded the 6th draft of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ to my editor, Laura, before Christmas. She had the audacity to take a break over the festive period (shocking, I know) but is now fully back in harness and furiously polishing the very rough manuscript that I have spent the last year toiling over.

In the meantime I haven’t been resting on my laurels. I’ve drafted a query letter for prospective literary agents in addition to a two page book synopsis. I’m quite chuffed with how well the synopsis reads but how tough is it to summarise a book into two pages. Sheesh! I’ve also ventured back into the murky world of Twitter to research/stalk prospective agents who I believe are a good fit for Kirkwood.

After looking at in excess of 500, I’ve drawn up a shortlist who I will be submitting my query letter, synopsis and sample pages to, once Laura has worked her magic. Then it’s a case of wait and see. I’m hoping an agent will pick up on it, but if not I will consider self-publishing if there is no interest. It’s a highly competitive market and there is no shame in venturing down the latter route.

So….what is ‘Skelly’s Square’ all about? I thought I’d tantalise your taste buds a little. So here’s a snippet of the synopsis:

Many books have been written about the Battle of Waterloo. Some painstakingly researched by learned historians, others penned by those who were there and survived the horrors to tell the tale. Yet, despite the millions of words, there still remains an element of mystery as to what happened amidst the mud and the smoke. There are grey areas. Some stories have never been told. This is one such story. The story of a company of men, who fought and died as one, but whose valour and courage never saw the light of day. This is the story of ‘Skelly’s Square,’ the ‘Forgotten Regiment.’ For they have returned.

Modern day Belfast, Northern Ireland. Meet Kirkwood Scott. He’s having a bad day, no make that life. He’s stuck in a dead end job, his girlfriend has just dumped him and his family have emigrated to the other side of the world. Then there are the routines, the endless routines which haunt his every waking thought. Kirkwood has OCD, a mental disorder triggered in him as a young boy following the brutal murder of his father. A murder Kirkwood feels responsible for.

Responsibility brings consequences. Ever since that day, Kirkwood has paid the price via a series of tortuous routines, ‘The 49,’ which he must perform. Failure to do can lead to all sorts of bad stuff happening. Planes crash, tower blocks collapse. And it’s all his fault. Why? Because Skelly says so. Kirkwood believes it to be nothing more than an imaginary voice, created as a child when he innocently played with his toy soldiers. But we know better, don’t we? Skelly has returned to wreak his revenge on an ungrateful world which turned its back on him.

Kirkwood is resigned to a life of quiet torment until he meets a mysterious young homeless woman, Meredith Starc. Meredith has her own problems. Traumatised by the suicide of her best friend, Emily O’Hara, indifferent parents, and callous school bullies she flees her privileged upbringing to the streets of Belfast where she survives on her wits, only interested in where the next bottle of wine is coming from. Then there’s the graffiti where Emily appears to be communicating to her from beyond the grave. Not to mention the blood drenched dreams where she is pursued by a figure very familiar to Kirkwood.

Kirkwood and Meredith join forces, slowly gaining each other’s trust and discovering that beneath the gritty reality of Belfast’s streets, a brutal battle rages between supernatural forces of good and evil, with the future of the planet at stake. Guided by a kindly tramp, Cornelius Dobson, who is not all he seems and a wheelchair bound teenager, Harley Davison, they realise they hold the key to saving mankind from a new Dark Age. But can they survive long enough to figure it out, as Skelly unleashes his army of ghost soldiers on an unsuspecting city to hunt them down?

The above is only a snippet of the story and the KSC universe. But I’d be grateful for any feedback. Feel free to comment below.

Attitude Changes Behaviour

Adam’s rugby squad were visited by a motivational speaker yesterday. Sports psychology is big industry now and with the Ulster Schools Cup starting next month, it was a very appropriate time for such a visit. So instead of charging about on a muddy pitch, thirty teenage boys sat in a classroom and heard the following message – Attitude Changes Behaviour. Three big words.

The speaker told him that if they took nothing else away from the session, to take those three words. He spoke about walking out onto the pitch, as opposed to running out. Not looking at the opposing team, but focusing on your own warm up. And how victory started in the mind, before a ball had been kicked or tackle had been made. The brain is the most important part of any professional athlete. It all starts there.

The same applies to any walk of life. It all starts in the head and, if we confront any situation in life with the wrong attitude, then we are destined for failure. If we adopt a negative attitude, then more than likely there is going to be a negative outcome. I know this better than most people. My default setting is pessimism. Where I am concerned, the glass is invariably half empty.

I struggle with self confidence issues. When you have been plagued with OCD for the majority of your life, it is hard to think otherwise. You are your own worst enemy, an ever decreasing circle of self pity and negativity. If I can’t even defeat the enemy in my head, then how can I be expected to overcome the myriad of challenges I face in the outside world.

For many years I gave up. I allowed the enemy to wash over me and waved the white flag of surrender. I ran away, I gave up on my dreams and aspirations. Alcohol became a refuge, as well as a plethora of other addictive, inappropriate behaviours. I was a mess without a message. There was no hope, no glimmer of light. Only self enforced darkness. I stood on the edge of the abyss, staring down.

The penny eventually dropped. I run marathons now, I’ve written a book. I hold down a challenging, responsible job and have a great family. I’m still wary of new situations and people but I’m trying to instil the same positive mindset in our kids. If nothing else, I want them to avoid the many pitfalls and hazards which I stumbled over. I want them to be better than me, they can be so much better. I want them to attain their full potential.

I don’t want them to be like me, charging around in my 40’s, playing catch up and trying to realise dreams I had 20 years ago. I constantly feel like I’ve wasted time, that I’m running out of time. There isn’t enough time. My every waking hour is taken up with this. I have the attitude now, but my worry is that it’s too late. No matter how hard I work now, it’s too late. This is a ripe feeding ground for my old friend; OCD. It watches. It lurks.

Attitude Changes Behaviour. A phrase I had never heard before the motivational speaker visited Adam’s squad, but one which deeply resonates with me today. I have changed and I am continuing to change. The attitude has been corrected and healthier behaviours installed. I just hope I haven’t left it too late. But at least the kids have a future now. If nothing else, i have achieved that. A legacy I can live with.

Everybody Hurts. Most of the Time

My neck hurts. This is a surefire indicator of stress. Here’s a true story. The night before I got married, I got a cramp in my neck. Since then, whenever I get stressed, I develop a dull ache in one side of my neck. Cracking it helps. A little. I have no idea if there is a physical reason for this pain, as I’ve never sought medical help. Maybe it’s all in my head. Or neck. Whatever. My neck hurts. No pain in the neck/marriage related jokes please. I’ve heard them all.

The cause of the stress? Undoubtedly the work report from hell. For there must be a hell. Otherwise, where could this report have been spawned? It is a 300 page, paper boomerang. It keeps coming back. Landing on my desk when I least expect it. Edits of edits. Ad nauseum. Maybe I’m too much of a perfectionist, maybe I should just let it go. Wash my hands of it. They know best. Did I mention that my neck hurts?

My legs hurt. Like, proper ache. At least I know the cause of this. I’ve ran the last three days and was contemplating doing likewise today. But I knew after yesterday’s 10K effort, that I needed a day off. I’m trying to run more consistently and my times have reflected that of late. Yesterday was my best 10K in many moons. It’s a great stress buster as well. My neck doesn’t hurt when I run. But now my legs do.

Swings and roundabouts. My father once said you can’t have a pain in two places at the same time. He might have had a point. So, there will be no running today. I’ll be back on it like a car bonnet tomorrow. Winter running is essential if I’m going to be anywhere near ready for my 10th marathon next year. So I grit my teeth, take the wind and rain, take the cold, take the pain, and get out there and do it.

My brain hurts. Who would have thought that the actual writing of a book was the easiest part? Now I’ve entered the murky world of seeking literary representation. I plan to query 10 of them in the New Year. That’s the shortlist. The long list I’m currently wading through nears 500 in total. From there, I’m seeking to whittle down those who I feel are best suited to my work. It’s hard work. My brain hurts.

I’m researching their likes, dislikes, blah blah blah. British, Irish, American. Male, female. Some seem lovely. Encouraging and understanding. Others less so. They portray themselves as gods and seem to delight in intimidating debut authors from their lofty literary towers. ‘If I don’t like the first line of your manuscript, then I probably won’t read anymore.’ One of them actually said that. Jaw dropping arrogance.

I’m about halfway through the long list. My short list is too long. Should I be spending more time on my query letter? Are my opening three chapters strong enough? Why am I thinking about the second book when there is still so much to do on the first? Will people get the humour? The anger? The hopelessness? I’m bracing myself for the worst, and hoping for the best. But my brain hurts.

That’s the icing on the cake. The hurt cake. Cut into it and you find all the other hurt. The worries, the frustration, the disappointment of everyday life. Family, faith, finances, friends. It goes on. Hurt is everywhere. Physical, Mental, Spiritual, it’s all there. Why bother? Why try? What’s the point? Well, here’s the point. Everybody hurts. Most of the time. But I’ll keep going. Because there is hope.

Yesterday was our daughter’s birthday. Our beautiful, brave daughter who has defied doctors and proved them all so wrong. She is worth the hurt. As are my wife and other two kids. I hurt for them. I run to keep the mental demons at bay. I work to pay the bills. I write to pave a better future for us. I hurt for them. Every day is a battle, but every day is an inch in the right direction. Proving the doubters wrong. Proving. Improving. Embrace the hurt.

Where are you hurting today?

Are you embracing the hurt?

Can You?

Northern Ireland seems to be in a state of permanent darkness at present. When I wake up it’s dark, cold, wet and windy. I go to work and sit in an office all day. With no windows. Then I come home. It’s dark, cold, wet and windy. The only time I encounter daylight is on my lunchtime run. When it’s slightly less dark but still cold, wet and windy. Has the Arctic Circle been moved south without anyone telling us?

These conditions affect us all but at least I have a warm house to go home to at night. On my walk to and from the office I feel sad for the growing number of rough sleepers who I pass. I stopped the other day and gave a few pounds to one of my homeless friends, Inesa. She was huddled outside the train station with her dog, Poppy. Poppy is in immaculate health. Shiny coat, wet nose and well fed. Inesa, not so much.

You see, Inesa puts her dog’s health before her own. She told me she has had a flu for three weeks and her boyfriend, Vladimir, was too ill to venture down into the town from the park where they sleep at night, when they don’t have the £40 needed to stay in a bed and breakfast. Inesa is too scared to stay in a hostel because of the hassle she gets from another girl, Maria.

Maria told me a different story, of course. The truth is an evasive commodity and I have to take everything I’m told with a generous pinch of salt. I’m minded to believe Inesa, though. She is always sober, polite and humble when I see her. She never asks for anything and when I do offer to help, she always accepts it reluctantly. She once told me she felt bad taking money from me, as I have children to look after.

Inesa is on a journey, as am I, and our paths have chosen to cross on the drab streets of Belfast. The aforementioned Maria is the inspiration behind the character of Meredith Starc, in the book I’m just finished, but there’s a dash of Inesa in there as well. Meredith also has that humility and pride, despite her circumstances. I told Inesa this once and she laughed with genuine delight, that she would end up in a novel.

I was running along the Lagan Towpath yesterday, accompanied by two rowers who cut a swathe through the water to my left. All three of us were working hard. I was pumping my legs while their arms strained to propel themselves along. It was a fairly even contest. At times I was ahead of them, while on other occasions they forged into the lead. But, we were all heading in the same direction.

My prayer and hope today is that Inesa, Maria, Vladimir and all the other rough sleepers in Belfast, continue on their allotted journeys, with brighter times ahead. And if this post can prick the conscience of one person today to show kindness and love to similar folk in their own town and city, then my work is done. They deserve better and I know I can do more. Much more. Can you?

It Was Too Good To Eat….So I Ate It

I was in a coffee shop the other day and was drawn to this bad boy. A raspberry and white chocolate scone. An uber scone, a scone to end all scones. Thankfully the calorific content was nowhere to be seen, as it lured me onto the rocks of decadence. I was powerless to resist and, before I knew it, the scone was on my plate and destined for my stomach. Scones like this are the reason I run 40 miles a week.

I’m happy to report it tasted just as good as it looked although, if I’m honest, it barely touched the sides going down. I was tempted to go up to the counter for a second one, but at the last minute resisted the urge to make an utter pig of myself in public. Self control and Stephen are not normally on speaking terms, but on this occasion I reined in my baser cravings and stuck to the one serving.

I’m not very good at saying ‘no.’ I’m a creature of excess. When I drank, one or two beers wasn’t enough, I had to keep going until I passed out, making a complete idiot of myself in the process. When I took up running, I wasn’t happy at reaching 5K. I kept going until I crossed the finish line in my first marathon. And then ran another eight. So far. Number 10 is planned for next year.

The good thing about running is that I can pretty much eat what I want, within reason. My thighs might ache, but it’s worth it when you can look forward to edible treats at the end of the day. In the bad old days, I would binge eat and then crash diet, surviving on toast and Diet Coke. This behaviour was all tied into my OCD, resulting in bizarre eating habits which I found incredibly hard to shake.

Many people see OCD as a controlling mental illness and, to an extent, it is. Victims are shackled to an ever decreasing circle of unwanted obsessive thinking and irrational compulsions. We also lose control, though. Control of our lives as we succumb to the routine, always the routine. It takes control of our lives as we simultaneously lose control. It tricks, it seduces, it tears us to pieces.

OCD promises release and relief from its mental anguish if we only wave the white flag and surrender to the compulsion. The thought of even momentary escape from it, is tempting beyond belief. We are dragged, kicking and screaming, into its hungry embrace. Like my raspberry and white chocolate scone, that next pint, that next whatever my obsession of the week was, I couldn’t say no.

It was too good to eat, but I still had to eat it. The texture, the taste, it lured me to the extent where, before I know it, I’m cramming it’s sugary goodness down my throat. I cross the line, I push the button, I crave the one thing that’s bad for me, but I just have to have it. Until reality sets in. The next time I wake up with a hangover, step on the scales or fall down the OCD rabbit hole without a bottom.

I manage my OCD today through a combination of medication, having the right people around me and being transparent and accountable about it. I can never rest on my laurels, for it is a slippery and cunning enemy. All it needs is one chunk in my armour, one gap in my defences and it will pour through. It will unleash hell and I will be powerless to resist. OCD is a killer, but I’m alive today and that’s all that matters.

Do you struggle with addictive behaviour? How do you control such urges?

Where are the gaps in your defences? How do you prevent them from being breached?

I Need Your Help

I’m hoping to announce some BIG news on the blog over the next few days regarding the fantasy novel I’ve been working on for the last year – ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square.’ But before then, I need some help from my fellow writers. Can you recommend any literary agents or publishers who are currently accepting submissions in the above genre? Below is a summary of the plot to help.

The book is set in modern day Belfast, Northern Ireland, and tells the story of our eponymous hero, a twenty something university graduate languishing in a dead end job, who has recently been dumped by the love of his life. He is also attempting to come to terms with a traumatic childhood experience and cope with crippling OCD which results in his life being controlled by a series of tortuous routines.

All that changes when he meets a mysterious homeless girl, Meredith Starc, who he believes holds the key to freeing him from the horrors of his past and present life. The two join forces and are hurled into an supernatural battle between ancient forces of good and evil, fighting for supremacy of the planet on the streets of Belfast. Kirkwood comes to realise that, in order to slay his own personal demons, he must first overcome an enemy whose power and cruelty the planet have never seen before….Colonel Augustus Skelly.

The book is part of a planned trilogy and is an urban fantasy primarily aimed at the young adult market, but accessible to anyone aged 13-103 and beyond. It’s a supernatural fantasy but firmly grounded in the urban setting of modern day Belfast where it tackles gritty themes of mental health, homelessness, addiction and self harm. It is largely character driven but contains dollops of action and adventure, topped with a sprinkling of Northern Irish humour.

Intrigued? Interested? Or not your cup of tea? Whatever your take on the above, any recommendations or suggestions will be gratefully received.

Choosing Grace Over The Grave

I’m going to a leaving function after work today. I usually avoid these events like the plague but it is for two members of my team, who are moving on to other positions within the organisation. It would ‘look bad’ therefore, if I didn’t ‘show my face.’ Excitement has been building in the office all week as people look forward to an evening of laughter and frivolity. Apart from one person that is….me.

I’m dreading it and as I sit here typing this, the anxiety and tension are already unfurling within me, like a lazy cobra preparing for its next meal. In my drinking days, I would have been the first one in the pub after work today and the last to leave. And by leave, I mean stagger outside, mumbling incoherently after a night of embarrassing behaviour fuelled by alcoholic excess.

All that ended about five years ago, so most of my present colleagues have never witnessed that version of Stephen. Lucky them. I wouldn’t have wished my company on anybody. I was loud and obnoxious, but by equal measure incredibly dull. I thought I was the life and soul of the party, but would always wake up the next morning horrendously hungover, gripped by dread and fear as to who I had offended in my drunken state.

I don’t drink now. I’m Mr. Clean-Cut, Stephen Tee Total, the running bore who pounds the pavements as opposed to pounding the pints back. I take part in marathon runs, as opposed to marathon drinking binges. I’m sure some of my colleagues regard me as a bit of a wet blanket, but it was a choice I had to make five years ago in order to save my marriage, my family, my own sanity.

Alcohol used to shield me from the chronic shyness and low self-confidence I display in social settings. I am incredibly awkward and shy. Alcohol released me from all such inhibitions and allowed me to say what I wanted to whoever I wanted, oblivious to the consequences. Until the next morning, that was. Then reality would rush back in like an unstoppable tide, stripping me bare; my many inadequacies exposed like slick, jagged rocks poking about the waves.

Alcohol was a crutch. Choosing to stop has cleared my head and allowed me to see I never needed it in the first place. This is the real me. Yes, I’m still a bit of a mess at times, but at least I’m a sober mess. I’m no finished product by any means, but at least I recognise my many flaws now and can work towards improving. I’m not successful every time and there are still setbacks but at least I’m trying, as opposed to my former self who buried his head in the sand.

So this evening will be awkward. I will fret all day about it. I’m running at lunchtime which will help and I also have a busy day work-wise to take my mind off what lies ahead. I intensely dislike being around drunk people, which is ironic given the amount of time I spent in my own inebriated company. But I will muddle through, engage in small talk and smile in all the right places. For that is what I do.

Tonight I will be the first to leave the bar and tomorrow I will be the freshest person in a sea of bloodshot eyes and throbbing headaches. I won’t display any smugness for that was me and could so easily be me again, were it not for the grace of God. It was the easiest choice of my life in the end, choosing grace over the grave. It was the only choice. I need to keep making it every day.

Are you socially awkward?

What are your coping mechanisms?

Do you shun social events?

Where Is The God Of My Father?

Where is the God of my Father

Who rescued the lame and the blind?

Where is the God of my Father

Who poured healing oil on my mind?

Kill the will

Take the pill

Numb the thrill

Make me still.

Synaptic relapse

Serotonin collapse

Raging impasse

Stifling morass.

So taste the drill

Run the mill

Surgeons skill

Make me still.

Where is the God of my Father

Now that I’m naked and numb?

Where is the God of my Father

Alone on a slab, splayed and shunned?

Living with an OCD Sufferer

This morning as I was working my way through my busy daily routine I got this thought in my head saying “Fionnuala you should write a blog about caring for somebody with OCD “. It was a thought that really stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking about something that I’ve never thought of before. I actually do care for somebody with OCD. I don’t look at myself as a carer even though I am. I take care of my daughter who has physical disabilities but I do that out of love and as a mummy any mother would right? But I also care for my husband who suffers from OCD.

These kind of thoughts I call my God thoughts. A few years back Stephen and I went through one of the toughest and testing periods of our marriage and thankfully we came through it and on the back of that this blog was birthed which also came from a thought I woke up with one morning.

The purpose of this blog is to help others through our own personal experiences and to date Stephen has wrote about OCD and how it affects him as a sufferer but we’ve never touched on how it affects other family members around him.

I’ve mentioned thoughts a lot so far and I am going somewhere with it. I get thoughts popping up in my head some are good but sometimes I get bad thoughts we all do but the majority of people that get a bad thought forget about it as fast as it arrived. For somebody with OCD that gets a bad or nasty thought it doesn’t go away it runs on a loop round and round in that person’s head until they either act on it or take a panic attack and break down. That is the type of OCD that my husband has and that’s the OCD my children and I live with.

Living with somebody that suffers with OCD isn’t an easy one. OCD is a horrible nasty illness. Stephen once described our youngest Rebecca as a Tsunami because you could follow her trail right round the house! OCD is the exact same when it’s been acted on and it’s always left to the loved ones around the sufferer to clean up the wreck and devastation that it leaves behind.

To live with someone with OCD you always have to try and be three steps ahead of it:

Step one – keep a look out for something or somebody new that has captured their attention.

Step two – think of what dangers they could get themselves into and the repercussions it could have

Step three – keep a look out for warning signs of said mentioned dangers.

In step three you need to be careful with what you do because if you talk to the sufferer about your concerns out love to try and nip something in the butt it can actually start a thought process that will snowball out of control and backfire on you. That has happened to me many times so now I just keep quiet, pray for guidance and step in before things get out of control.

I hate OCD for me OCD is a mistress that takes control of my husbands mind and robs my children and I of his time and attention. Sometimes the children and I would be talking to Stephen and we get no response. He is there in body right in front of us but in his head he is a thousand miles away deep in thought fighting a battle in his mind that none of us know anything about.

Some people see me not as a carer but as a control freak because I have to keep a close eye on what Stephen does. At times I think it’s because I have trust issues with him and other people think that too but I’ve realised over the last few weeks as I’ve prayed and drew closer to God that it isn’t Stephen I don’t trust it’s the control that OCD has on him that I don’t trust and I can’t trust. I have to control some of things that he does because the repercussions affect not just Stephen but the children and myself so I don’t see it as control I see it as love and protection.

On the times that Stephen has acted on his OCD thoughts and I’m standing face to face with it starring down at me I don’t see my husband anymore he’s not there. Yes it may look like him but I can see in his eyes that something else is controlling him and that’s OCD. I’m the type of person that would get hurt or crumble if somebody came against me but say anything to my family and there is nothing that will stop me from fighting to protect them no matter how scary or frightening it looks.

I watch as the panic sets in the lies start to come out and continually asks questions until the truth comes out and Stephen reappears then it’s time to clean up the devastation left behind.

It’s not easy to care for someone with OCD it is hard work but I do it out of love for my husband and my family. Family and friends have came and went throughout our lives and can’t understand why I’ve stayed with Stephen and forgiven them. They have thought that have just took the easy the route and stayed with Stephen for the kids. This is all nonsense. If somebody you loved had an illness would you throw them out on the street? If they were diagnosed with cancer would you tell them right you are on your own now I don’t want to know? In my opinion the form of OCD Stephen has plants cancerous thoughts in his head to kill everything good that he has achieved in his life and what is coming to him.

I really hope this blog helps anybody that also cares for a loved one with OCD. If you do I’d love to hear how you cope with being their light in the darkness.

Why I Need To Start Reading My Bible Again

I’m as blind as a bat. Seriously. Since I was nine, I’ve had to wear glasses. I remember the first day they were unveiled to the ahem….watching world in Mrs. Robinson’s P5 class. I broke down in tears as the entire class turned as one to gawk at my oh so stylish National Health Service jam jars with equally appalling brown plastic rims. So began a life consigned to permanent face furniture.

I’ve tried contact lenses a couple of times but they aren’t for me. I’d rather stick red hot knitting needles in my eyeballs. Come to think of it, putting in lenses was a not dissimilar experience. When finally in, the tears rolled down my cheeks and my irises resembled maps of the London Underground, criss crossed with an array of broken capillaries. I resembled a vampire in the midst of a particularly bad reaction to sunlight.

My glasses are, therefore, a necessary evil. Without them I can’t drive, read or run. The only time I take them off is when I go to bed at night. I simply cannot function without them, I could not step out the front door, without falling flat on my face. It’s a no brainer that I go nowhere without them firmly attached to my ears. The alternative is unthinkable. They are as part of me, as the nose on my face.

I cannot see without them.

We were visited by friends on Sunday. One of them left her glasses case behind. Thankfully, it was empty. Before leaving, she talked to us about her faith and plans she had for the future , plans she believes God spoke to her about. It was exciting to hear and sparked a flame within me which had been dormant for many months, if not years. A spark which reignited a very battered, fractured faith.

I picked up my Bible yesterday, inspired by the words of this friend. All day I hadn’t been able to get the image of the discarded glasses case out of my head. I thought of my Bible which had lain discarded in the bookcase in our living room for longer than I care to remember. I used to read it every day until life got in the way. The ways of the world took precedence over the ways of God. I was blinded by anger, resentment and self.

I found the verse below, and realised how spiritually blind I have been. I realised how much I need my Bible, as much as I need my glasses. Without its words of truth, I stumble around in an abyss of sinful, addictive behaviour. I allow other voices in my head to drown out the voices that matter. The voices of my loved ones, the voice of God. I realised that I need my Bible. I need it’s guidance. I need Jesus.

He is the antidote for I have become toxic, poisoned by the ways of the world and the voice which has spoken untruth after untruth, layer after layer, clogging my arteries and hardening my heart; forming milky cataracts over my eyes which have blinded me from what really matters. I need the Bible more than I need the happy pill I take every day to inhibit the serotonin levels raging uncontrollably across my synapses.

These are mere words, and are meaningless without accompanying action. But it’s a start and, at present, it’s all I have. This my Declaration of Independence, my call to arms, my battle cry. I’m determined to get back to regular Bible study and reflection. It’s time to get back in the saddle and focus on those who matter. It’s time to open my eyes to the light again, to reclaim the 20/20 vision I so desperately need.

Psalm 119:18 – ‘Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.’

How is your faith journey today?

How important is the Bible in your life?

Has it always been that way?

When God Falls Silent

It is written

Mitigation

Twisting truths

To quote verbatim

Spare the child

And spoil the rod

Worshiping

Your silent god.

Verses, Curses

Robed Subversives

Empty hearts

Yet flowing purses

Holy men with hollow souls

Break the rules, you pay the toll

Creaking bridges

Lurking trolls

Faster, Faster

Master, Master

Bend the knee

To plastic pastors.

How Can A Fractured Faith Blog Be Improved?

The blog continues to grow and, of late, has been a bit of a pot pourri with regards topics and themes. I’ve posted three poems in the last week, very unlike me I know. Yet, I’ve woken up with the words in my head and felt no option but to write and post them. I have no idea if they are any good but I’ve received some lovely comments which have cheered and encouraged me.

I also posted a Christian blog yesterday about the martyrdom of Stephen. I would describe myself as a Christian who blogs as opposed to a Christian blogger, but occasionally am led to dip my quill into more reflective, spiritual waters. The post has fared poorly which surprised me a little as the blog has a sizeable Christian following who normally support such posts.

Family life also inspires many of my posts. There are not many days that pass without some comedy gem at chez Black. As I am normally on the receiving end of these, I feel compelled to write about it. Fionnuala and Rebecca post occasionally while updates on Adam and Hannah also feature. I’m keen to stress that this blog is about more than me. Otherwise my ego runs unchecked, which nobody wants to see.

I occasionally write about my job and work colleagues. I seriously could write a book about this but, given the sensitive nature of my employment, I can only discuss it in the broadest of brush strokes. Maybe one day I will be able to open up a little more about it. I don’t mean to be secretive but I like getting a monthly pay cheque and this could be scuppered if my bosses discovered I was spilling the beans.

My struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) lies at the heart of me and, therefore, my writing. I’m passionate about educating people about this often misunderstood mental illness. It never fails to amaze me how uneducated many are concerning OCD; they regard it as the comedy cousin of mental health as opposed to the horrific, crippling disorder it really is. OCD ruins lives. OCD ends lives.

The eponymous hero of my debut novel – The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ is a victim of OCD. I post weekly updates about the progress of the book but, again, can only disclose so much, for obvious reasons. People seem interested in the book and I hope it sees the light of day in some format, even if that means serialising it on the blog. It’s a planned trilogy but we will see. No point writing three books if everybody hates the first one.

Which brings me to my running posts which sink without trace most times. I understand that us runners are interminable bores, and only fellow running geeks can be bothered hearing of our latest exploits. There will be less of them in the months to come as, after the disaster that was the Causeway Coast Marathon, I have no plans to race again until next spring. I will still keep my training runs going, but over lesser distances.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I want to know what you would like to read more of; are there topics you would like to hear more, or less, about? What do you like and what are you less keen to peruse? Are there new topics I could cover? I’m willing to consider anything, within reason. I’ll hand it over to you now and look forward to reading, and responding to, your comments. Thank you again.

Preparing Shrouds

Frenetic

Kinetic

This panic, magnetic.

It latches, attaches

Destroys the aesthetic.

I scratch til I bleed,

You feed off my need

Delicious disease

So ripe for release.

I mumble the words

Stumble with the herd

Chaotic, hypnotic

Regressing, disturbed.

Gouged

Aroused

Demons carouse

Stalking the fallen

Preparing shrouds.

I’m A Bit Broken

I’m a bit broken

Words rarely spoken

The truth

Tastes so bitter and strange, clay emotions.

Barely alive

Rotten inside

Dead to a world

Where I once loved and thrived.

Cursed with routines

Obsessive dreams

Compulsive acts

Mask stifling screams.

Speculate, ruminate

Gnaw, then regurgitate

Cyclical sickness

These images dominate.

Falling apart

An effortless art

Yet smiling serenely

As I play the part.

A role on a stage

A turn of the page

You don’t even know me

Bird trapped in a cage.

Battered and bruised

Torn and abused

This was my past

Now my present, reused.

Infected, rejected

Defective, Subjective

I yearn for release

From this pain undetected.

For I’m a bit broken

Words finally spoken

Praying they free me

Desperately hoping.

Are you a bit broken?

All feedback and comments gratefully received?

I Am Sic

I am sic

Nervous tic

Binge and purge

This endless urge.

Odd

Erroneous

Out of place

Unworthy of the human race.

Worthy of comment

Worthless, I vomit

Bird in a cage

From the rope I will plummet.

Dead to his Word

Alive to their world

Baptised in blood

Yet drowned in the flood.

No peace here, just pieces

Faceless diseases

Endless attacks

This war never ceases

For I am sick

And I am sic

Liar, fool,

And lunatic.

I don’t write much poetry but I woke with the phrase ‘I am sic’ in my head this morning. Sic, as in the adverb placed after a quoted word to highlight that it is grammatically incorrect but is quoted in its original format. The poem hopes to describe how I felt in my lowest OCD days. It does not represent how I feel today, but I hope it may speak out to others and offer assurance that recovery is possible.

I regard this as one of the most important posts I have published in some time. It felt as if the words were placed within, as opposed to created by, me. They are from me, and not of me. So, I don’t ask this often but if the poem resonates with you could you reblog and share this message within your own community. That would mean a lot to me. For we are all a little bit sic and in need of correction.

‘I Am Sic’ was partially inspired by the song ‘I’m So Sick’ by Flyleaf. Its vocalist and writer, Lacey Sturm, is featured in today’s accompanying image.

I’m Writing A Book….Still!

I’ve now reached the two third mark of my fourth edit of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square,’ my first, and possibly only, novel. Progress has been slow, but steady, this week. As ever, real life has got in the way, and I haven’t been able to devote the time I would like to the project. It has simply been a case of chipping away at it, where and when I can. I’m fighting the urge to rush ahead and lose the quality.

The beta feedback continues to be excellent; positive and constructive. I made a point of selecting as diverse a range of test readers as possible; from teenagers to pensioners, and every decade in between. They all seem to be enjoying the story and Meredith Starc is emerging as the most loved character. Do I need to rename this ‘The Meredith Starc Chronicles?’

I hope not, as Kirkwood is very loosely based on yours truly when he was a struggling office worker in his early twenties; without the world saving potential of course. Some of the lesser, but still vital characters are also being introduced – Cornelius Dobson, Martim Rodriguez, Gunther von Steinbeck to name but a few. It has been fun creating their back stories, where my love of historical research has come to the fore.

Then there’s Colonel Augustus Skelly, himself. The villain of the piece. I’ve put a lot of effort into detailing his physical appearance and mannerisms. He is truly alive when I write about him and I hope that comes across to readers. My wish is that he evolves into that most delicious of characters – the bad guy you love to hate. There may even be a crumb of sympathy as to how he turned out the way he did….but not much.

There are still a few characters to be unveiled, including one largely based on our daughter, Hannah. This has proved a major challenge. How do you do justice to such a huge personality? I’m hoping she likes Harley, her alter ego in the KS universe, otherwise my life won’t be worth living. Harley is a crucial character and crashes into the story soon, driving the plot on to its conclusion.

Much of the early sections of the book concerned character introduction, development and back stories. This has been essential as both Kirkwood and Meredith have dark and troubled pasts, which the reader must understand in order to appreciate their actions and decisions in the present. Otherwise, the story doesn’t make sense. I hope I’ve penned heroes that you can relate to and empathise with.

Then there’s the real hero of the book, the city of Belfast. I’ve enjoyed describing the streets I walk most days, capturing the grime and the beauty in equal measure. Some locations are real, others I have based on reality but allowed myself a degree of artistic license. This is the Belfast of the Kirkwood Scott universe; gritty, but scratch beneath the surface and you will reveal its supernatural underbelly.

I hope to have this edit finished by the end of the month. Then it’s a case of mulling over the beta feedback, et voila it’s finished. I’ll then turn my attention towards researching potential agents and drafting query letters. As ever, I want to thank everyone who has supported me both in the ‘real world’ and the wonderful world of WordPress. Without you, none of this would be happening.

What do you make of the Kirkwood Scott universe?

Are you writing a book? Have you written a book? Are you thinking of writing one? Where are you on your writing journey?

What Are You Hungry For?

Saturday was the start of the new rugby season, so Fionnuala and I hugged the touchline, to watch Adam play for his college against one of the big Belfast schools. Unfortunately they lost, but didn’t go down without a fight. Adam had a great game and scored his team’s only try. I thought he was our best player but then I’m his father so that’s to be expected. Afterwards, therefore, I was relieved to hear his coach agree with my assertion.

He informed me that, given his performance, Adam was being moved up to the first team for next weekend’s match. We were delighted to hear this as it has been his target all summer and he has worked hard towards attaining it. He will now be playing against boys up to two years older than him, at a much higher level. It’s a steep learning curve but one that he needs to take in order to fulfil the potential within him.

The coach also told me that he did not want Adam progressing too quickly into the first team as he wanted to ‘keep him hungry.’ If he reached his target too easily then that could impact upon his motivation and determination for the rest of the year. Adam has talent and a strong work ethic but to be the best that he possibly can requires more than that; it requires a desire or drive that cannot be taught.

Whenever I’m training for marathons, which is most of the time, I’m permanently hungry. I think about eating all day long. I don’t view myself as greedy, rather I need to eat a lot to replace the calories I burn up on training runs. This allows me to eat pretty much whatever I want. Which means ALL the ice cream. I dread the day I have to stop running as I will probably put on three stone in a week.

We normally associate the word with the physical discomfort experienced through a lack of food. But the wider definition fits better with the etymological roots of the word. Hunger derives from the Old English word ‘hungor’, meaning desire. It goes beyond growling stomachs and yo-yo diets. When we hunger after something, we desire it, we yearn for it, we crave it.

Hunger, within this context, is a double edged sword. While we identify the physical experience of hunger with negative emotions, it is construed as a positive attribute for a young rugby player like Adam, striving to progress in his given sport. To aspire to better yourself, to improve reflects a healthy mindset. We need targets in life, or at least I know I do. For otherwise, we stagnate and become bored.

Flip the coin again, however, and we can hunger after unhealthy desires. Desires that lead us down the wrong path. An unhealthy appetite, if allowed to run unchecked, can result in more than indigestion. It can bring destruction and ruin to your life and the lives of those you love the most. Collateral damage is still damage. Be hungry, but hunger after those things which are going to supplement your life, not suffocate it.

What are your thoughts on hunger and desire after reading this post?

Be a Rainbow in Somebody’s Cloud

Today is Mental Health Awareness Day and I felt its an area that needed to be addressed here. It’s no secret that Stephen suffers from mental health problems he blogs about it regularly and was actually one of the reasons for starting up this blog.

There aren’t very many households now days that don’t have or know some one that suffers from mental health problems. I have family members and friends that suffer from anxiety, depression,OCD, eating disorders to name but a few. I am no expert on mental health issues but if I can do anything I am here for anybody with a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or even a hug and a prayer.

I just told my mum today who is fighting her own battle that everybody has their own issues and problems that they are battling that are mountains to them but to me on the outside looking in they don’t seem too bothersome compared to what I’m dealing with and vice versa.

People deal with things in different ways it’s what makes us all unique. Mental health problems don’t just affect poor or working class people it can affect anybody at anytime.

I once worked with a woman that couldn’t understand why a very healthy and wealthy man that she knew had taken his own life. Her words to me were “he had all that money so he had nothing to worry about”. Money can buy you nice things and help you live a life of luxury but it can’t buy you a healthy mind.

None of us have the right to judge or put anybody down and none of us knows what goes on behind closed doors. We need to be more patient with people and always try to show love and a smile and explode their darkness with light.

Try and be a rainbow 🌈 in somebody’s cloud ☁️

The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square

Over the weekend I received a raft of feedback from beta readers regarding the first 15 chapters of my debut novel – ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles- Skelly’s Square.’ Its an urban fantasy aimed at the Young Adult/New Adult market. Set in modern day Belfast it tells the story of our eponymous hero, a twenty something underachiever ravaged by a mental illness which dominates every waking hour of his life.

All this changes over one bizarre pay day weekend when Kirkwood’s not so cosy, alcohol sodden existence is turned upside down by a chance encounter with a young homeless woman, Meredith Starc. He realises that she may hold the key to unlocking the traumatic experiences which scarred his childhood and now manifest themselves in the form of the malignant Augustus Skelly.

Skelly lives in Kirkwood’s head and controls his life via an intricate series of compulsive routines which Kirkwood must perform in order to keep at bay crushing feelings of guilt and anxiety. Put simply, bad things happen when Kirkwood fails a routine. Very bad things. The routine is everything and hangs on the roll of dice every morning.

It could be anything from a fifteen mile run to inane mental gymnastics involving question and answer sessions with a work colleague. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is completed to Skelly’s satisfaction. Meredith has her own problems. Living on the streets, since the death of her best friend, Emily, she spends her days at the bottom of a wine bottle, trying to avoid the many dangers that rough sleeping in Belfast entails.

Thrown together, Kirkwood and Meredith must become unlikely heroes in order to untangle the mystery that is Augustus Skelly. A figment of a damaged psyche or a more sinister figure preparing to unleash an ancient evil that threatens the world as we know it? They must overcome their own inner demons in order to triumph in a supernatural battle of good versus evil which has raged across the cosmos for countless millennia.

Sound interesting?

Well, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response from the beta readers. The initial feedback has been incredibly positive and helped calm this novice author’s frayed nerves. I never thought I’d hear the words ‘awesome’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ used to describe my little story. If I dropped dead tomorrow, and hopefully I won’t, then I would die a happy man. The responses have validated the last eight months of writing, no matter what happens next.

The betas have truly risen to the mark and I want to thank them publicly for the time and effort they’ve put into their responses. It hasn’t been a total gush-fest and they’ve offered constructive and valid comments which I aim to implement in order to strengthen the structure and plot; in addition to spotting a shedload of punctuation and grammatical issues. I never knew commas and quotation marks could make such fascinating correspondence topics.

I’ll be sending out the next 15 chapters of the book to the betas later today, with more confidence now. I was apprehensive about this process but now see the benefits of throwing myself to the beta wolves. Even though we still have a long way to go, Kirkwood is a step closer to seeing the light of day. I will continue to blog daily and hope you keep popping over to follow his progress. Thank you everyone for your continued support.

Would the above book synopsis catch your eye?

What do you make of the world of Kirkwood Scott?

What have been your beta reader experiences?

We Live In A World Of Purple Pens

Rebecca starts at her new school today. She is extremely excited about this and last night was a bit like Christmas Eve in our house as she bounced around, getting ready for the big day. Yesterday, Fionnuala took her out to get the last bits and pieces she needed. The school had helpfully shared a list of what pupils required on its Facebook page. A very long and expensive list. My debit card has never known such frenetic activity.

Included on the list were pens. Each pupil was required to have blue, black and purple pens. Hang on a minute. Purple? I didn’t even know such a colour of pen existed. What happened to good, old fashioned red pens? Adam explained to us that the school no longer allowed red ink as this was regarded as too ‘negative’ a colour for marking homework. Instead teachers now did so with green pens and pupils responded to their grades in purple ink.

Once my jaw had bounced back off the floor I reverted to my old friend Google for confirmation of this nonsensical practice. And, lo and behold, Adam was right. Schools viewed the use of red ink as potentially harmful to a child’s fragile psyche. The poor, little lambs. The colour red was synonymous with harm and danger whereas green and purple were deemed more calming and neutral options.

Of course, we towed the line and purchased the purple pens. Apparently they are freely available at all good retailers. But what next? Purple traffic lights? Road signs? Will bulls now take offence if wrongly coloured rags are waved in their faces? I’m all for educating our kids in a safe and positive learning environment. I was bullied at school by teachers as well as pupils and know very well how a child’s fragile confidence can be damaged by those meant to bolster it.

But is this a step too far? Do we not need the colour red in our lives? Red signifies danger and acts as a warning sign. It guides us and allows us to avoid potential harm. Without it we are left exposed and more likely to stray off the straight and narrow path? We are humans and, as such, are infinitely capable of shooting ourselves in the foot. Sometimes we need alarm bells to ring and flashing lights to go off in our heads.

I know I do. If there is wrong decision to make, I will make it. I act on instinct, I don’t think and frequently put my foot in my mouth. I have an impulsive, addictive nature which, if left unchecked, would get me into all sorts of trouble. I don’t recognise the danger before it’s too late. I need the colour red in my life. Preferably in ten foot high letters and surrounded by wailing sirens and flashing lights. Purple fire engines are of no use to me.

This is why I need the right people around me. This is why I am always wary and cautious. The slightest prompt or thought can trigger me and quickly spiral out of control until it is too late and I have entered a whole new world of pain. I need honesty, transparency and accountability. I need people who will tell me how it is. Who will scream at me until they are red (not purple) in the face. I need the truth. Every single day.

Rebecca sets off on a new adventure today with a new school uniform, a new school bag and a new pencil case full of purple pens. Such is the changing world we live in. But when I arrive at work this morning and organise my desk I will be making sure that my trusty red pen sits front and centre. Old habits die hard and I’m too long in the tooth to change now. We may now live in a world of purple pens. But, I for one, still need the colour red in my life.

What are your thoughts on the purple pen debate?

Do you need the colour red in your life?

History Is Written By The Winners

When my OCD was at its worst I was a slave to my own thoughts. They controlled me from when I opened my eyes in the morning until last thing at night. The obsessive thought would settle like a toxic dew and only lift temporarily whenever I completed the corresponding compulsive act. This normally involved tortuous mental routines which would leave me physically and mentally drained.

At the time I didn’t know I had OCD. Like many others I thought OCD was ritualistic hand washing or cleaning, neither of which I was prone to. Instead I thought I was a deviant, the only person in the world having the unwanted and deeply disturbing thoughts and images which assailed me from all sides, at all hours. These were very, very bad thoughts. Which therefore made me a very, very bad person.

When my OCD was it’s height I must have had thousands of such thoughts every day. Multiply that by the days, weeks, months and years and you get an idea of the numbers involved. The scale and complexity of the disorder is staggering. OCD is a jealous, possessive mistress that demands your total attention. It ruled my life with an iron rod; brutal, relentless and utterly forgiving.

My already fragile self-confidence plumbed new depths. I believed the OCD was part of me, as opposed to an alien mental disorder which could be managed by medication and other therapies. I was consumed by guilt and shame. I despised what I was becoming, what I had become. Every day brought fresh horrors and unspeakable scenarios. When I was lost in a routine it was as if time stopped. Nothing mattered except the routine. Nothing.

The key to my incarceration was disclosure. I finally summoned up the courage to tell Fionnuala the truth about what was going on inside my head. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t judge, she didn’t run straight to the divorce courts. Instead she researched my symptoms online, effectively diagnosed me and encouraged me to seek the medical health I required. She was there when I needed her most. Her love broke the chains.

Disclosure involved transparency, courage and honesty on my part. There was a risk involved but after I took that first step, the beast lost its hold over me. It thrives in the darkness where it wriggles and squirms, growing in guile and deception with every passing day. It whispers false truths but shirks from the light. When I saw it’s true face, the beast lost its power over me. It shrivelled and skulked, retreating into the shadows to lick its wounds.

You might be reading this today in the grip of obsessive, irrational or addictive behaviour. You know what you are doing is damaging but you cannot stop. You are alone and broken, you see no way out of your predicament. If you are, then I hope this post is of some comfort to you. You are not mad, you are not evil and you are not tainted. But you do need help. Take that first step and ignore the voice.

The voice is not you, it cannot be allowed to drown out your true identity. Rise up and fight back. Rebellion leads to freedom. Freedom to live the life you were created to live. Do not let the enemy within triumph. Fight back. Treat your self inflicted wounds as battle scars, red badges of courage and honour. History is written by the winners, by the victorious and not the vanquished. You are a winner. Start writing your story today.

Are you battling demons today? How are you coping?

Confessions Of A Recovering Catfish – Part Two

I never considered myself a catfish until it was recently pointed out to me. I mean, my profile picture was me. I told people the truth regarding where I lived, what I did for a living, the nuts and bolts of my everyday life. But it pretty much ended there. Beneath the veneer of respectability I created a version of myself who was cooler, wittier, more outrageous than the very plain person sitting tapping on their phone.

I escaped into a fantasy, online world where everybody loved me and thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. I became increasingly detached from reality and the people who really mattered. Harmless half truths snowballed to become whopping great lies. I became a master at mind games and manipulating situations to my advantage. I let my family down, I let myself down. I was spiralling out of control. Always down.

It all came to a head when I met someone online who was a bigger catfish than even I was. They, too, were who they said they were. They posted photographs and lived a life but, beneath the seemingly tranquil surface, was a twisted, unhinged mind. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. This catfish was hooked. I felt sorry for them as I was regaled with stories of how crappy their life was and how badly they had been treated by others.

I wasn’t prepared for the blizzard of emotions they blasted me with. They said I was the most incredible person they had ever met. They adored me, they worshipped me, they loved me like they had loved no other. To my eternal shame, I fell for their honey coated words. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I knew it was very wrong but I craved the attention, the adulation, the incessant accolades and adulation.

They was a she of course; and she was very clever. She plucked at my heartstrings like a concert violinist. About her terrible marriage and abusive husband; her eating disorder and self harming; her suicidal thoughts and erratic mood swings. I was the only one who could save her. And if I didn’t do so then, well maybe, bad things would happen her. Maybe one day I would message her and she wouldn’t be there.

Looking back on it all now, I shake my head at my own naivety and gullible nature. I ended up hating her and part of me still does for the damage she caused me and my family. But not as much as I hated myself. For since it ended I have battled thoughts of revulsion and loathing towards myself. I have beaten myself up day after day after day. Even though I have been forgiven by my loved ones I still struggle to forgive myself.

My catfish days have also damaged my relationship with God. I walked away from the church and largely shun organised religion now. I avoid interaction with other Christians as so many of them let me down. I am also better placed now to see beneath the superficial friendships and faux concern of church life. I don’t read my Bible, I don’t talk to God, I don’t even know if I am a Christian anymore.

Most of all I let myself down. This blog is my attempt to put things right, to use my writing skills for good and seek to warn others of the pitfalls that I plunged blindly into; I want to help others and, by doing so, help myself. To put the past behind me and forge ahead with the people who matter. To cast aside the baggage of shame, guilt and despair. To rebuild and resow. To emerge out of the darkness and back into the light.

Confessions Of A Recovering Catfish – Part One

As a teenager I was chubby, shy and extremely quiet. Girls were a foreign species to me and my exploits on the sporting field left a lot to be desired. As a result, I was singled out for my fair share of bullying by both fellow students and, I’m sad to say, teachers whose supposed job was to protect me. Those years left their mark on me. I carry them still.

I retreated into a make believe world where the bullies could not reach me. I hid in books and wreaked revenge on my tormentors in the world of role playing where I could be anyone I wanted. What chance had my psychotic physics teacher against a 12th level berserker armed with the Warhammer of Doom? It was what I needed at that time of my life in order to survive.

And that’s how it continued. Oh, I dropped the dice throwing and axe wielding along the way but I still existed in a world of make believe. Alcohol took centre stage. I discovered my drug, my refuge from social awkwardness where I could be everybody’s friend and the life and soul of the party. People liked this new me, even though I didn’t particularly think much of him.

The downside was the following morning when the inevitable hangover would lumber over the horizon and I would wallow in my self inflicted bed of self pity and recriminations. Never again, I would swear. Until the next time that was when it would be all aboard the Ego Express again. I lived the lie and loved the lie. I could be whoever I wanted to be. It cost me about £40 a night but was a small price to pay.

Then along came social media. If Dungeons & Dragons was my first tentative joint and alcohol the first acid trip, then Twitter and Instagram became my crack cocaine and heroin. I became hopelessly hooked to the extent where I effectively lived online. At its height, or depth depending on how you wished to look at it, I had over 8000 followers! My witty, wry 160 character vignettes were the talk of the town.

I also dabbled in the darker domain of direct messaging. I could tell people whatever I pleased. It’s not that I outright lied but I certainly massaged the truth to paint myself in the best possible light. I realised I had a gift with words online that I could never hope to replicate back in the real world. There was no filter, no comeback. I could be as outrageous or inappropriate as I wanted. It was here that I first became aware of the term ‘catfish’.

Catfish – ‘someone who creates a false online identity. These are commonly found on social media and online dating sites. Often the sole purpose of a catfish is to create and exist in a fantasy reality.’

I encountered people who posted fake profile pictures, people who lied about their age, their job, their relationship status. Anything seemed to go. I was initially appalled but unable to resist the lure of online life. I kept coming back for more. It began to impact upon the people who truly mattered – my wife and children. Yet I allowed myself to be dragged in too deep. And before I realised, it was too late.

Fionnuala often says that my intelligence is only matched by my gullibility and naivety. I am a terrible judge of character and online was no exception. I fell in with some very ‘strange’ people and before I knew it was behaving in a manner which appalled me when I later journaled about it in the cold light of day. It was if I checked in my morals and values whenever I logged in online. I was becoming a catfish myself.

To be continued….

What are your views on catfish?

Have you encountered a catfish online?

Have you ever painted a false picture of yourself on social media?

Do You Write Truthfully?

Coming from Northern Ireland I have an accent, just like we all have accents. It’s not the broadest of accents. While I work in Belfast, I’m a bit of a country boy having been raised in the market town of Omagh in the west of the country. So basically my accent is a bit of a hybrid. My mother claims I have a city accent whereas my work colleagues maintain I have a rural twang.

This has been a bit of a challenge for me when writing the novel. A few of the characters have strong Belfast dialects so I’m trying to reflect that in some of the slang they use; without making it impenetrable for non Irish readers. An example is the word ‘wee’. In Northern Ireland we prefix everything with ‘wee’ no matter what its shape or size.

‘Would you like a wee cup of tea?’

‘Did you see that wee cruise liner that has just docked?’

‘What about that wee direct nuclear strike the other night?’

Wee….I mean we….have our own colloquialisms just like every region or state does. Accents are slippery beasts. I have known people go to university in Scotland and come back home after a term with thick Glaswegian brogues. Adversely, other folk emigrate to the other side of the world and, thirty years later, still retain their original dialects. Accents define us, yet why then are some of us so keen to ditch them?

Some argue that retaining our accents in foreign climes evidences a strong personality. We are comfortable with who we are and, therefore, have no desire to conform to those around us. We don’t mind standing out or attracting attention. Others are less confident and, be it consciously or unconsciously, need to merge with their new environments in order to feel included and safe.

I fear I fall into the latter camp. I would be that idiot who returns from a month in Australia sounding like Crocodile Dundee. I’ve spent most of my life a needy, neurotic mess. I craved popularity and being liked to the extent that everything else was jettisoned in the process, be that accent, beliefs or ethics. I was a cultural chameleon, a master of malleability. Which got me into all sorts of trouble.

It got to the stage where even I didn’t know who I was. I would look in the mirror in the morning and shake my head in disbelief at the man I had become. My moral compass was permanently spinning out of control. I kept a private journal and it was as if I was writing about a different person most days. I disgusted myself and was my own biggest critic. I led a quadruple life as opposed to a double one.

The penny finally dropped when it was pointed out to me that my true voice was in my writing. In a perverse twist I discovered that, whereas I lived a lie, I couldn’t write anything but the truth. Even if my toes cringed in embarrassment and shame as I did so, I knew no other way. The evolution of A Fractured Faith lay within this revelation. It had been staring me in the face all along.

The Truth is in the Word.

Some bloggers express difficulty in writing about what is really going on, or has gone on, in their lives. I understand how difficult that can be. But today’s blog is all about being yourself no matter what your circumstances or surroundings. We all need an anchor when buffeted by daily storms. Let your anchor be your writing and the rest will follow. Now I’m away for a wee five mile run.

Do you read blogs in other accents?

What words or expressions are unique to your dialect?

Do you speak and write the truth?

Every Good Plan A Requires A Plan B

Over the weekend I intend to have completed the ‘beta’ draft of Chapters 1-10 of my first book and will be in a position to forward it to a number of kind souls who have expressed an interest in taking part in the beta reading process. We were bowled over by the initial response and I’d like to thank everyone in advance for the time and effort they will be expending to review my work.

Unfortunately we have had to set a limit on the number of people we can accept for the process. Otherwise it becomes an overly complicated venture that defeats the purpose of the exercise. I’m hoping, however, those who are involved are looking forward to the journey as much as I am. Although I will confess I am also filled with more than a little trepidation and nerves. I’m going for it, though.

Like Kirkwood Scott, the eponymous hero of the book, I am a master at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; at falling flat on my face with the finish line just ahead; at knocking over a tin of paint onto the canvas as I’m applying the final touches to my labour of love. I’m determined not to do that this time as I have worked too hard on this project for it not to see the light of day.

My family and friends also deserve this. They have listened to me whine and complain for almost a year. Fionnuala has endured this more than anyone to the point where she has turned around and pleaded to me ‘Just finish the thing’. The kids have been patient and understanding. There have been times when Daddy hasn’t been ‘Fun Daddy’ as he sits hunched over his laptop, hammering away at the keyboard.

The dream is that the book will get picked up by an agent and sold to a publisher. I am realistic, however, and realise how difficult it is for a first time author to secure such a deal. All I can do is try, though, and that is my favoured option. Plan A, so to speak. All good generals have a back up plan, however. So I’m also exploring several other options. Self publishing being one of them.

What I’m trying to say is that those of you who want to read the finished work will get an opportunity to do so, even if it means publishing it as a serial on WordPress. For I believe ‘Skelly’s Square’ continues a story of hope and redemption from the dark places that lies at the heart of all my writing. I believe it is a story that needs to be told as I believe there are those who desperately need such a lifeline to clutch to.

The only fly in the ointment to date is that I have had no male victims….I mean volunteers willing to take part in the beta process. I am keen to cover as many demographics as I can so come on chaps, don’t be shy and step up to the plate. Let’s show the ladies how it’s done, right? If any of you are interested then drop me a line over the weekend. It’s still not too late to get involved.

So that’s the update for now. If you never hear from me again it’s because the betas hated it and I’ve went on a sulk of epic proportions. But let’s hope that this is another small step towards revealing the finished product. And then I can start telling you about my plans for Part Two of The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles. For even the baddest of bad guys deserves a second chance, right? Thank you and stay tuned.

If you have questions or comments about my first novel: ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles : Part One – Skelly’s Square’ then please leave them below. Thank you.

Do you have a Plan B?

Waking Up Hungover When I Haven’t Been Drinking

Last night, after dinner, Adam and I went to the park to work on his rugby skills. The new season is less than three weeks away and he is pushing for a place in the first team this season where he would be playing against boys two years older than him. I say boys but these guys are huge. Adam has been working hard in our garage which he has turned into a gym to prepare for this step up to the next level.

You can be strong, fast and super fit but it means little if you can’t catch and pass the ball. So last night was all about ball handling. We performed a series of drills which he performed with ease before I sent up a series of high kicks for him to catch. These varied in terms of height and difficulty but, once again, they posed little problems for my talented son. He caught every ball with ease.

I actually think he was becoming a little bored by the end of it as I concluded the session by sending up probably the easiest kick of the evening. I could even catch that I mused as I watched the ball arc through the sky and then descend to where he awaited it, perfectly positioned as ever. It was an absolute dolly, and 99 times out of a 100 he would have caught it with his eyes closed.

Except this time he didn’t. At the last second he took his eye off the ball and it squirmed through his fingers before falling to the ground. ‘What happened there?’ I asked in astonishment. ‘Sorry it was so easy I just assumed I had it so took my eye off the ball.’ I sent up a few more testing kicks to end the session which he caught with ease. Just that one mishap. Because he took his eye off the ball.

This morning I woke up with a hungover. Which is odd because I gave up drinking alcohol more than five years ago. I felt nauseous, my throat was dry and I was gripped by fear and doubt. It took me several minutes to convince myself that I hadn’t been drinking the night before. I could even taste the stale alcohol on my breath, the smell of it filled my nostrils. I call these experiences, phantom hangovers.

Thankfully they are few and far between. I have no interest in returning to my drinking past. I am never tempted to succumb, it just isn’t an issue for me. Yet, just like Adam last night, I can never afford to take my eye off the ball. For, to quote the old adage, to ASSUME makes an ASS out of both YOU and ME. When it comes to patterns of addictive behaviour there is no such thing as an easy day.

This doesn’t just relate to my drinking. It applies to a lot of other destructive ‘bad habits’ from my past that I have worked hard at overcoming. I know that I can have 364 good days but they will mean nothing if I mess up on day 365. I need to be open, accountable and transparent. My integrity is non-negotiable just as my time on this planet has a limited shelf life. I cannot afford to stumble again, I have too much ground to cover yet.

Never underestimate your demons. They are master strategists and play the long game, lying dormant in the shadows; waiting for the slightest slip on your part whereupon they will slip between your defences and catch you napping. Always be on your guard for your enemies prowl around you like hungry lions, waiting to pounce and devour you. Never take your eye off the ball.

What strategies do you apply to your life in order to keep your eye on the ball?

Do you know where your demons are today?

How Are You Really Feeling Today?

This may come across as a bit personal but I’m asking the question anyway – how are you feeling today? Sad? Happy? Worried? Hopeful? Every day of our lives we are exposed to a diverse range of scenarios which impact upon our mood and outlook on life. These can be temporary and superficial or more serious and long standing. How we respond to them moulds our character and shapes our personality. It contributes towards who we are.

So many of us though are reluctant to show the world how we truly feel. It feels….well wrong. Especially if those feelings are not what are expected by our peers. So we wear a mask, we play a role and when asked reply cheerily that everything is fine when in fact it is anything but. We lie to our loved ones and to ourselves. It is necessary in order to fit in, to be accepted. Nobody has time for worry warts or harbingers of doom, right?

I’ve seen it in the workplace, the church and many other social settings. People running around with smiles plastered on their faces when inside they are falling apart. They are afraid to admit they are struggling for fear of what others will think of them. It is both a vicious circle and an ever decreasing one. Why wear your heart on your sleeve when you can bury it under layers of empty words and glib cliches.

I used to be like that. When my father died eight years ago I was expected by some to carry on. There was a funeral to organise and a million and one other matters to attend to. I didn’t have time to grieve. I recall going home that first night and drinking beer in the living room after everyone else had gone to bed. It was to become a ritual that religiously adhered to for the next few years. Yet to the outside world I was a rock.

Inside I was a frightened little boy. Struggling with a loss that it was impossible to rationalise. How could a sore hip that everyone thought was a gardening injury suddenly become terminal prostate cancer? How did so many doctors, consultants and other specialists miss it? How did I miss it? How did I ever think he was going to get better when the evidence that he was not was staring us all in the face?

My father was dying and I was fine. My father died and I was fine. My father was dead and I was fine. Yet I wasn’t fine. I was anything but fine. I wanted to scream at the heavens and claw at the earth like a crazed, feral animal. I wanted things to be as they were before. I wanted to say goodbye properly, I wanted to say sorry, I wanted to say all the unsaid words which instead lay festering on my conscience.

It was only when I started writing that I found the means to lance the boil. This has been a painful, ugly but ultimately cleansing and liberating process. I have allowed the mask to slip and finally looked in the mirror. I see the real me staring back, not the distorted charade I used to be. I’ve thrown away the crutches and stand tall now. What you see is what you get. I wear my scars like trophies of war.

What would you see if you allowed the mask to slip? Would it be good, bad, ugly? Or perhaps a combination of all three. It takes courage and not all of us are at that stage of our journey yet. But ultimately in order to heal we must first reveal. Reveal the truth for what it is and face it unashamed and unbowed. Give the real you a fighting chance to show the world the real reason you were placed upon it. You can only accomplish that by dropping the act.

How are you really feeling today?

How often do you put on a performance for the watching world?

Plastic Policemen

I lost my father eight years ago to prostate cancer. I lost myself the same day and it has been a long, painful journey to claw my way back from there to where I am today. Writing has played a huge part in my recovery. I have self medicated with words and blogged my way out of the depths and back to the surface. These eight years have seen unspeakable depths but also breathtaking highs. It has been quite the experience.

Last night I completed the third draft of the book I am writing. I worked my way through a chapter titled ‘Plastic Policemen’ which was one of the first I wrote when I started work on the book last November. It covers an incident in the childhood of Kirkwood Scott which deeply affected him and set in progress a series of events which would change his life and the lives of countless others forever.

The chapter is based on a real life event which I experienced when I was an eleven year old boy. It is one of four chapters which paint the picture of Kirkwood’s relationship with his father. They are deeply personal chapters and I regard them as the cornerstone of the book. Without them there is no story. Without wishing to sound arrogant I view them as some of my best written work. It was as if they wrote themselves.

I’ve never been able to put my finger on where ‘Plastic Policemen’ fitted into the running order, chapter wise. It always floated about on the fringes. Until yesterday that was. Yesterday it dawned on me. This is your opening chapter, you idiot. This paints the picture for all that follows. They say open your book with a bang, hook the reader and reel them in. I’ve been searching for that ‘bang’ for months and it was sitting in front of me the whole time.

Last week I reached out, via the blog, for test readers willing to review the book in its draft form and provide feedback. I was amazed and humbled by the response. Talented, intelligent fellow bloggers willing to give up their valuable time in order to help little old me. It has left me excited but also a little nervous. What would I send them? That question was answered last night. It will be ‘Plastic Policemen’.

It is the beginning. The beginning of a book? Definitely. The beginning of a new stage of my life? Hopefully. But if nothing else it has exorcised demons which have lay dormant in my soul for too long. Which makes it an ending as well. The end of a journey. A writing journey, yes, but also a personal one which has brought me to where I am today. On the cusp of revealing my deepest, most personal memories to the world.

Thank you to the test readers who have bravely raised their heads above the parapet to face the bombardment which is about to commence. And thank you to those who stop by here every day and provide such support and encouragement. I will never be able to repay you or express my gratitude sufficiently. I hope one day you will read this book and go ‘Oh I know the guy who wrote this. It was thingy. Fractured something.’

What do you look for in the opening chapter of a book?

What is the best opening chapter you have ever read?

Do You Want To Be In Our Tribe?

Today is the final day of the transfer window for English football clubs; a day of frenetic activity where the top teams look to improve their squads for the coming season by adding quality players to their ranks. Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent and moves will be completed right down to the wire. When the clock strikes 5pm that’s it. No more transfers until the next window opens in January 2019.

It is an exciting day for fans and clubs alike, but also a worrying and slightly desperate one. Some are forced to pay more than they intended to in order to secure the player they wanted; transfers can collapse due to contract wrangles or failed medicals. Agents connive to secure the best possible personal terms for their clients. Promises are reneged upon and skullduggery abounds in club boardrooms across the land.

There is little loyalty these days in the world of professional sport. The days of the ‘one club’ player are gone. Players have finite careers so are keen to earn as much money as they can while they can. If that means twisting the knife into the hearts of adoring fans and jumping ship for a better deal with a bitter rival then so be it. Cash overrides conscience every time. There is no room for loyalty when a £100,000 a week is sitting on the table waiting to be signed.

The individual is more important than the team. It is all about self-promotion, selling the self. The grass is greener on the other pitch and the desire to ingratiate yourself with others more befitting of your skill and ability is overwhelming. It’s an unsettling and uncomfortable time for all. Players show their true colours as opposed to the colours of your team which they used to wear with pride. But at least it ends today whereupon the dust will settle and we can all focus on the upcoming season.

It’s a pity we cannot say that about real life where I increasingly witness the same behaviour in our wider society. The transfer window is open 24/7-365. There are so many people who seem permanently dissatisfied with their lives. They are never happy with the hand God dealt them and are always seeking a better job, a faster car, cooler friends. What they have is never enough. They are forever chasing that mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Promises and hearts are broken. Best friends pass each other in the street without a word being exchanged. Lifelong business partners end up glaring at each other across the courtroom. Marriages dissolve in bitter acrimony and families are ripped apart. Irreplaceable, lifelong damage is caused and deep wounds inflicted that never properly heal. We become distrusting and defensive, a siege mentality of the soul.

The tribe used to be everything, the glue that bonded families and generations together. The tribe offered solidity and substance. It was our moral compass and the foundation upon which our lives were built. It was both a sounding board and a springboard; a stepping stone from which we launched our dreams and aspirations. Without it we were nothing. Without it we are nothing.

Are you loyal to your tribe? Do you show them the love and respect they deserve? Be it at the kitchen table, around the boardroom or on the field of play. Are you fickle or faithful? Willing to stand tall as the storm approaches or more apt to jump ship at the first sign of choppy waters ahead? For in today’s dog eat dog world we need each other more than ever. Tribe looks inwards as opposed to outwards, they cultivate depth and meaning.

Here at A Fractured Faith we seek to offer that in our own little corner of the online world. We want to build community, a safe environment where bloggers from all around the world can find support and encouragement. We want to be your sanctuary, your safe place, somewhere you can heal and thrive. This is a place where you can be you. We cannot offer heaven, but we can provide a haven. And that’s a start.

How important is tribe to you?

Have you been a victim of tribal warfare?

Do you consider yourself part of A Fractured Faith’s tribe?

Would You Sit Beside This Man On A Train?

The 17:00 express train from central Belfast to Portadown is normally packed. As in standing room only. Even sardines would find it a tad oppressive. If you have issues with personal space or spending 25 minutes with your face crammed into a stranger’s armpit then I suggest you avoid it. This is the less than perfect environment where I do a lot of my writing. I bet Tolkien didn’t have these problems.

Yesterday started like any other commute home. Having battled my way onto the carriage I was prepared for the usual torturous experience but, lo and behold, there in front of me were not one, but two, empty seats. Displaying an acceleration that Usain Bolt would have been proud of, I lurched forward in order to secure one of them. I felt like Charlie when he opened the wrapper to find the golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory..

Having hit paydirt I braced myself for the expected cavalry charge as my fellow passengers fought tooth and nail for the vacant berth beside me. The only other empty seat on the carriage, if not the entire train, for all I could tell. People would kill for this ordinarily. Old ladies and young children would be flung aside as grown men grappled like Grecian wrestlers. All for the Holy Grail that is sitting down on the 17:00 express.

Nothing.

There was no stampede, no fisticuffs, no tears or tantrums. My fellow commuters squeezed onto the carriage and stood, sweating and swaying, as the train lurched out of the station. They appeared oblivious to the empty seat, as if it had been cloaked with a shield of invisibility. I was left alone with my thoughts. Which proceeded to wreak havoc on my ever fragile self confidence. Did I smell? Nope. Exhibit an aggressive, intimidating aura? Oh please.

I was left with only one logical explanation which the voice proceeded to gleefully whisper in my ear for the remaining 24 minutes of my lonely journey. They knew. Knew what? I spluttered back indignantly. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they knew. I warily eyed a few of them and was met with blank expressions. Yet that was just a ruse, a ploy on their part. For they knew. They all knew. I had been found out as I always am.

I have spent most of my adult life feeling like a fraud, a fake, the odd one out. I’m more a fish in the Sahara, as opposed to a fish out of water. I’m socially awkward, find it hard to make friends and invariably was the one left standing on his own in the corner at the party. Which was why I drank to excess in order to acquire the necessary fortitude to interact with others like a normal member of the human race.

These thoughts of inadequacy and exclusion are never far from the surface of my mind. I battle them every day. Writing helps me lance and drain the boil. As does running. They purge and cleanse me of the unhealthy toxins which used to course through my veins. I constantly remind myself that I am as good as the next person, that I deserve to be where I am in life and that I can walk into a room with my head held high.

I hate selfies. I’ve written about my disdain for them. Yet I discreetly took one yesterday as I sat on the train home. For myself as much as anyone. To convince myself that I don’t have two heads or the word ‘loser’ tattooed on my forehead. To convince the voice that I’m just an ordinary commuter in a suit, no different from the thousands of others who shuttle in and out of the city every day. I am me and that is enough.

Tomorrow is a new day. I hope I get a seat. I hope even more that someone sits beside me. I promise to spray on extra deodorant and not initiate a creepy conversation with them as they studiously attempt to ignore me. But even more than that I hope I get the chance to show the world that I’m a better person than the one the voice tries to convince me I am. I hope, I hope, I hope. Sometimes that is all I can do.

Would you sit beside this man on a train? I promise not to read over your shoulder.

How do you combat anxiety and doubt on public transport? Or in any social setting for that matter.

Hands Up If You’re Tired?

Hands up who’s tired?

I imagine quite a few of you now are staring at your screens feeling a little awkward that you have a hand in the air at the request of some random guy from Northern Ireland. But don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to simultaneously pat your head and rub your tummy for that would be just plain weird. Plus you might drop your phone or laptop and I’m not sure the insurance would cover the circumstances.

Tiredness is everywhere and everybody is tired. Fionnuala and I are constantly telling each other we are tired. There is always something to do and not enough time to do it. The list of tasks and demands stretches far over the horizon into the days and weeks ahead. Who needs ebola or the zombie apocalypse when we have tiredness. It is highly infectious and has reached epidemic proportions.

It’s Monday morning and I don’t want to get up. I feel more tired now than when I left work on Friday. I don’t want to get out of bed and run. I don’t want to put on my work clothes and get the train to work. I just want to go back to sleep and start the weekend all over again. And I’m certain that many of you experience those exact same emotions every time the alarm goes off and Monday morning comes around again.

We are a community of tired people. It is the strand that connects us all, the common denominator in our eclectic and varied lives. It is the great leveller which brings us all, whatever our backgrounds and beliefs, together. We are Team Tired. We are tired of being tired but there is no pill or potion to cure this condition. So we soldier on and do our best because, well, that’s what we do right?

Oh you can put your arm back down by the way. I’ll be finished in a few paragraphs.

When the battery on a car runs flat it needs a jump start, a spark to reignite it’s engine and bring it back to life. We are the same. It can be an unexpected phone call or message from a friend to say they are thinking of you; an encouraging word from a colleague; or an unsolicited blog from half way across the world that you stumble across on your lunch break. Whatever it is or wherever it comes from, we need it all the same.

We are not defined by our tiredness just like we are not defined by our colour or creed. The spark we so desperately desire is just beyond the veil, tantalisingly out of our reach. All it requires is a few steps and you are there. Energy is life. Without it we may as well wave the white flag of surrender. Give in to the exhaustion and fatigue. Lie down, close our eyes and wait for the inevitable coup de grace.

I choose not to lie down. So I’m going to throw back the covers and crawl out of bed. I’m going to go to work, I’m going to force myself to run at lunchtime, endure a three hour afternoon meeting and then come home to a million and one questions from our irrepressible 11 year old daughter. I’m going to go through the motions but I’m going to do it with emotion. Knowing that victory lies on the other side.

Tiredness doesn’t have to be a life sentence. You just have to find a purpose, your reason to keep going. Put one step in front of the other. I know you can do it no matter how exhausted you might feel as you read these words. Rise above it. The world awaits you and you were born to walk this path. It is a long and hard path at times but the rewards await you. Just around the next corner.

How tired are you today?

How do you combat tiredness?

Make Every Blog Count

The deeper I immerse myself in the book I am currently writing the more concerned I become about the quality of my blogging. I worry that I’ll only be able to make so many trips to the literary well before it runs dry and I am left bereft of ideas and words to pour out onto WordPress. I want my writing to be relevant and fresh. I don’t want to be simply going through the motions. I call it sleep blogging.

We all have gears. I know that from my running and work. It is oh so easy to hit cruise control and drift along in your comfort zone. You are loathe to put the pedal to the medal as with that come inherent risks and dangers. Why confront and challenge when you can conform and collude. Breaking through and pushing on is painful. It hurts and takes a toll. You pay a price in order to progress.

Writers must have a purpose when they set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. There must be a reason for the activity, a message that they want to impart. Writing without purpose leads to lazy language as we drift from sentence to sentence, meandering from one paragraph to the next. It is padding, filling the empty expanses of the page or screen with the creative equivalent of white noise. Night of the Literary Undead.

Not all my blogs hit a nerve or strike a chord. Some result in healthy discussions which can last for months while others slip relatively unnoticed beneath the radar. The goal of the blogger is to find that bullseye, that common thread which brings people together and gets them talking. In order to promote debate a blogger must be passionate about their subject matter. If you blog solely for likes, follows or, dare I say it, financial gain then you are less likely to succeed.

This blog is on a mission. A mission which I view as eminently possible and will not involve me swinging from a treacherous precipice a la Tom Cruise while flicking the camera a cheesy grin. I am no hero but I am here. Every day. Seeking to encourage and motivate others to be the best possible version of themselves that they can be. Offering a helping hand to pull them out of the pit and back into solid ground.

I hope that this vision and these values come across in my writing. Otherwise I might as well retire my typing thumb and pull down the shutters on fracturedfaithblog. I encourage you to do the same. Every time you sit down to draft a post ask yourself why are you doing it, what message are you hoping to put out there. Really think. Because your words matter. They cannot afford to be wasted. We need to hear them.

Blog from the heart. Shoot that flare up into the night sky for it needs to be seen as opposed to spluttering like a damp squib, neglected and soon forgotten. Blogging is a privilege, we must never forget that. For others throughout the world to be able to express themselves freely is but a dream. Your words today can bring solace and healing to the battered and bleeding online tribe gathered around you.

I hope today hasn’t been too heavy for anyone. That wasn’t my intention but I woke up with these words on my heart and needed to share them. I’ll post something silly next time to restore the equilibrium. I look forward to hearing your comments on this post. I love this community and I love your words. You each have a message. One that matters. Make every blog count.

How do you seek to make your blogs relevant and impactive?

What are your thoughts on sleep blogging?

Why Are You Settling For Second Best?

There was uproar in the office yesterday when ‘Fast’ Eddie, my colleague and proprietor of our charity tuck shop, returned from his lunch break with fresh supplies for the ravenous hordes I like to call ‘the team’. Tayto Cheese & Onion Crisps? Check. Double Decker chocolate bars? Double Check. But most importantly, cans of Diet Coke? Er….no. He produced a box of Pepsi Max and, looking very pleased with himself, announced that it had been offer and was too good an opportunity to miss out on.

Now call me a prima donna (and nobody wants to see these legs in a tutu) but I was at a very delicate stage of writing a complex, sensitive report that required total focus and concentration. In order to drag it kicking and screaming over the finish line I needed Diet Coke and lots of it. What was this Pepsi Max madness? I cautiously circled the office fridge, inspecting its contents dubiously while berating ‘Fast’ Eddie for his utter lack of respect for moi, his most loyal customer.

‘Doesn’t it all taste the same?’ was his response. It was like a red rag to a bull for a Coca-Cola connoisseur such as yours truly. ‘No it most certainly does not’ I spluttered in disbelief. ‘It’s like giving a new born mother somebody else’s child and saying It’s a baby. They all look the same anyway’. An uneasy ceasefire settled across the office interrupted by occasional sarcastic exchanges and thinly veiled threats to withdraw my custom from his business empire.

I mulled my options over. While I can quite happily run ten miles on my lunch break I am much too lazy to walk the five minutes it takes to go around the corner to the nearest shop to buy my own supplies. Plus it was now a matter of principle. To back down would be a sign of weakness and my principled stance would be in tatters. I decided to tough it out for the afternoon and settled down to scale the north west face of the report from Hell sans my favourite beverage.

This resilience lasted approximately 23 minutes before I cracked, flounced to the fridge and admitted defeat. As a decidedly smug ‘Fast’ Eddie looked on I flung open the fridge door and removed a can of this ever so second rate substitute. I opened it and took a very reluctant swig before retiring sheepishly to my desk. I spent the remainder of the afternoon sulking at my work station, only occasionally raising my head to mutter ‘It doesn’t taste the same’ and ‘This had better be a one-off.’

I had settled for second best. I wasn’t prepared to go the extra mile (or 100 yards in this case) to get what I truly wanted. I caved in and opted for the easier, less demanding option. The comfort zone of a spacious, air conditioned office tool precedence over trudging through the mean streets of Belfast in order to satiate my aspartame addiction. ‘Fast’ Eddie claimed the moral ground and the office hyenas roared their approval.

I have spent most of my life settling for second best. Traveling the safer, more well worn path as opposed to taking a risk and pursuing my dreams. My family deserve better than that. Heck, I deserve better than that. We get one chance and it is only this late in the day that I’m finally realising that. It involves a lot more hard work on my part but isn’t that what makes it all so worthwhile in the end?

This morning my on call week ends and the weekend begins. Fionnuala and the kids are picking me up after work and we are going to spend the evening at the seaside before watching a blood red moon set over the horizon. The old Stephen would have turned his nose up at this in the past as it would have eaten into his precious beer drinking time. But that was then and this is now. Why settle for less when what you really want is more?

I’m off to work now. But I’m stopping en route to purchase my Diet Coke supplies for the day.

Have you been settling for second best?

What path are you traveling at the moment?

What is holding you back from seeking a better life?

Competing Priorities

These last few weeks the pressure has been on big style in my office as the powers that be have demanded the delivery of a number of long term projects within an increasingly short term deadline. I have been shackled at my desk, pounding away at my keyboard like one of those harassed detectives you always see in the movies. Without the cloud of cigarette smoke engulfing me and glass of bourbon surgically attached to my right hand.

I’m comfortable with handling such pressure as I’ve been doing it for over 17 years now. I also trust my analytical and report writing skills sufficiently to know that I will deliver a quality report on time. If they would just leave me to get on with it. What doesn’t help is hordes of stressed colleagues continually circling me like vultures over a dying animal in the desert. Leave be people in my focus bubble and the job will get done.

Everything is a priority. On Monday, Task A is the priority. Then someone else will tell you that Task B is urgent before the next knock at the door demands Task C ASAP. I might clown about a bit but I’m no juggler despite this place increasingly resembling a circus. It’s fire fighting of the highest order and the priorities pile up as the next crisis lumbers over the horizon. It’s inevitable that it will all end in tears.

Declaring everything a priority actually means that nothing is a priority. Jumping mindlessly from one test to the next without any plan or structure is a sure fire way of ensuring that nothing is seen through to its completion. When we panic or become stressed then we are more likely to rush and make mistakes. There can only be one priority at a time, otherwise we may as well pull down the shutters and all go home.

I have many competing demands. I am busy at work but desperately trying to get my head above water so that I can take some leave. I’m training for a marathon next month and have set the month after that as the deadline for finishing my book. There are bills to be paid, telephone calls to be made and jobs around the house that have been overlooked for too long. There is also the small business of blogging.

You might think these are all worthwhile pursuits and you would be correct in that assessment. All of the above are a far cry from the not so distance past when my priorities were making it to the weekend so I could get ridiculously drunk and predicting next year’s Champion Chase winner. My interests now are physically and mentally edifying whereas before they were shallow and destructive.

None of them, however, are my priority. Note the use of the singular there as opposed to that term I despise – competing priorities. There can only be one be it a Highlander, a ring to rule them all or in the busy, barmy world of Mr. Stephen Robert Black. That priority is my family; for without them I’m incapable of delivering any of the other stuff. They are the foundation upon which everything else is constructed.

The job pays the bills, the running keeps me in shape and the writing is my dream. But I would drop them all in an instance if they came between my family at myself. Choose your priority wisely. It can fuel your other dreams powerfully and blast you off on the adventure of a lifetime. Or it can bring you crashing back to the ground and reality in a ball of flames. There can only be one.

Do you struggle with competing priorities in your life at present?

What is your priority?

Do you have a middle name? The more embarrassing the better.

Do Christians And Three Legged Dogs Go To Hell?

The man over the bridge has 16 dogs. He used to have 16 3/4 dogs but the old three legged one that used to lag behind the others has gone to doggy heaven. Do three legged dogs get their other leg back when they go to heaven? I’d like to think they do. I have no idea how he lost the limb in question but I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. But now I’m assuming he’s going to heaven. What if he’s going to doggy hell?

If such a place exists that is. A lot of people don’t believe in hell. I’ll take that a step further. A lot of people who profess to be Christians don’t believe in hell. Or at least their behaviour indicates that they don’t. Others smile knowingly and tell us not to worry about such matters. Jesus loves us and we are going to heaven and anyway it’s all symbolism and allegory right? A bit like the Garden of Eden and that big boat that Noah supposedly built.

My biggest problem with hell is that I believe in it. I often wish I didn’t. Life would be so much easier if I wasn’t fretting over death all of the time. I could do and say what I wanted without having to worry about consequences and repercussions. I sometimes feel like the ‘ghost’ at the end of a Scooby Doo episode when they are unmasked to reveal that it was kindly old Curtis the Caretaker all along.

And I would have gotten away with it if wasn’t for that pesky Hell.

Thinking about hell all the time and the distinct possibility that I might end up there does have its benefits. For a start I reckon Jesus would be proud of me as he spoke about hell more than any other subject during his missionary on earth. Which is all the more startling because many church leaders rarely mention it. All that hell stuff isn’t good for morale in ‘church land’ where everything is wonderful and nobody ever has any problems.

So if it’s good enough for Jesus then it’s good enough for me. He didn’t pull any punches either, painting a vivid, graphic picture of what we could (not) look forward too if that was to be our final destination. Anyone with even the most sketchy knowledge of the Bible can’t turn around and say they weren’t warned. It is as vivid and visceral as the story of the Cross. Jesus can be a real party pooper at times.

Hell is the ultimate style cramper. How am I supposed to live the life I want to live with all these rules and restrictions holding me back? Isn’t being a Christian meant to be about freedom and not having to worry? Well I did all that yet I don’t feel particularly liberated and I fret more than ever. Hell is the ultimate life beyond life sentence. It is the dark cloud on the horizon of all my good intentions. I can hear it, taste it, almost touch it. It’s coming for me.

But there we have the nub of it. Hell exists for a reason. Hell is love. Because Jesus doesn’t want us to go there. So he laid it on thick and told us how it really was. Like one of those anti smoking campaigns where they show terminal cancer patients talking about their nicotine habits. Ignoring Hell is choosing to live your life how you want to. Accepting Hell is an opportunity to live life the way you were meant to.

I believe in Hell. I don’t know where it is or what it looks like and I sincerely hope I never find out. I want to go to the other place where there are bottomless bottles of Diet Coke and you can eat honeycomb ice cream all day long without having to run ten miles afterwards to burn it off. I want to take that three legged dog for walks and not have to worry about worrying all the time. Hell gives me that opportunity. Hell is freedom. Hell is grace. Hell is truth.

Woooaaaaah!! That was a serious one, Stephen. Bring back the running and writing posts. All is forgiven.

What are your thoughts on Hell?

I ‘Forgot’ To Take My Meds

Last week I ran out of the medication which I take for OCD. 20mg of Escitaloprem has kept me on an even keel these last six years or so. One of them a day and Stephen is content. They prevent the slavering, starving wolf that is OCD from clawing at my front door and blowing down the house of cards which constitute my always fragile mental health. I rely on these pills. They are literally my first port of call every morning, washed down with a slug of Diet Coke.

This was utterly inexcusable on my part of course. I knew well in advance that supplies were running low yet did nothing about it. Why? I don’t know. Ask me a question on sport. For I knew the consequences if I came off my medication for any length of time. The tiredness, tetchiness and tension would descend upon me like three little prescription pigs, the precursors for Mr. Wolf’s grand entrance a short time later.

I’ve done this before. I know the score and it’s a bloated, lopsided one. When it comes to going toe to toe with the big bad OCD it’s a horrendous mismatch. I rarely see beyond the second round before I’m on the ropes, being pounded and pummelled to within an inch of my life. The referee has no option but to step in to spare me from any further punishment and I slump to my knees, battered and beaten. Same old story, same old stupid Stephen.

It can’t be laziness. Ordering a repeat prescription requires a one minute phone call followed by a two minute drive to the local pharmacy in order to collect it. It also doesn’t cost me anything. So it must be arrogance, thinking that this time I’ve tamed the beast, that I’m capable of throwing aside my consistent companion and striding off into the serotonin saturated sunset, a glorious new creation no longer reliant on mass manufactured medication to keep me on the straight and narrow.

I never cease to be amazed by my own powers of self delusion. Within three days of going ‘cold turkey’ I was a twitchy, neurotic mess. It started with a dull headache above my left eyebrow which gradually descended before taking up residence behind the corresponding eyeball where it proceeded to intensify until I felt like I was being stabbed in the iris with a knitting needle. I became more irascible and intolerant. The reasonably sane front that I presented to the world on a daily basis was no more.

I was about to blow a la Vesuvius….

It all came to a head last Thursday when I had two massive arguments at work when normally I would have bitten my tongue and walked away. Middle management meltdowns in the middle of an open planned office are not a good look, career wise. They left me feeling professionally embarrassed and clutching at straws to explain my bizarre behaviour. It was akin to an out of body experience. I was hovering above, powerless to intervene and switch off the torrent of paranoid nonsense that the lunatic below was spouting. Who is that madman? Does anybody know him? Oh hang on….it’s me.

I came home that evening with my tail between my legs and sheepishly explained the events of the day to Fionnuala. She suggested (insisted) that I reorder my prescription ASAP then collected it herself after I had, once more, forgotten to do so. So here I am, back on the meds. The headache has already eased and I’m ready to face the world again with the help of my little 20mg friends. Just one a day and I’m okay. That’s just the way it has to be.

I wonder. Am I that reliant on them? Or is it, and I pardon the pun, ‘all in my head?’ Do they actually. correct the chemical imbalance in my brain to such a degree that I cannot function without them. Or are they nothing more than an emotional aide memoire to convince me that I’m one of the ‘normal’ people when most days I feel anything but; I have thoughts that only fellow OCD sufferers could even begin to understand. Incessant images that only the relief of routine can remedy.

Until they start again that is. Circles of chaos which rise and fall as they rattle round my cranium that a runaway rollercoaster. The thoughts are never fall away, they prowl around the edges of the comforting campfire biding their time. Waiting for the slightest opportunity to pounce and drag down into the darkness of the abyss. I never want to reside their again. So I take the pill. Be it Escitaloprem or M&M’s. I take it.

The Tesco check-out

The Tesco check-out

https://everythingblog333.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/the-tesco-check-out/
— Read on everythingblog333.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/the-tesco-check-out/

Today’s Flash fiction reblog is special for a number of reasons. Firstly it’s from the other side of the world, Australia. The land of kangaroos, didgeridoos and er…..boomerangoos? Secondly it inspired a blogger who hadn’t written in some time to put metaphorical pen to paper. Thirdly it’s just great writing. We have all stood in a store and compared our own less than perfect lives to the ‘beautiful people’ in the next aisle.

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?

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?

I’m Writing A Book….Part 465,589

Or to be honest I haven’t been writing a book. Or at least not very much over the last two weeks. After a creative spurt which carried me to the end of the second draft I hit a mental brick wall. It wasn’t writer’s block as I knew what I had to write. I just couldn’t find it in me to type the words, to pick myself up and head out on another lap of the literary track. Despite hour upon hour hammering away at the keyboard the finish line seemed further away than ever.

Part of it was life. There has been so much going on that it has been difficult to find the time to commit to writing. Decent chunks of quality writing time that is as opposed to a hurried half hour here and there which are as self defeating as they are unproductive. Hurried writing equates to garbage writing, at least where I am concerned. I need a month in a darkened room. Or a padded cell. Whichever comes around first.

Then there is the fear and doubt which permeate every word I type. The voice continually snipes away at me, chipping away at my fragile self confidence. Who are you kidding, Stephen? This is rubbish, another of your pathetic pipe dreams which will never come to fruition. Give it up and accept that you are never going to be a published author. You’re not good enough. You never have been and you never will be. Fraud. Failure. Fake.

The voice is persuasive but I know it well. It and I have crossed swords many times before. Over my family, my faith and my fitness. I choose to ignore it and push on. It’s tactics are tiresome and if I let it succeed then I am giving in to all those who fuel its furtive whispers and sly suggestions. Every time I open my laptop and start to write it skulks away to curl up in a ball and lick it wounds. I fear it but I will not let it reign supreme.

Next is the sheer enormity of the task. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, one hundred steps back. There is so much still to be done, despite the many hours of work I have already put in. It’s as if I’m frantically swimming towards shore but every time I stop and look up, the beach is further away than ever. My stroke grows weaker and the current stronger. Am I destined to sink to the bottom, where my corpse will lie with all the other drowned dreamers?

All I can do is limp on, or doggy paddle as the case may be. I remind myself of how far I’ve come. It might be akin to excavating the Grand Canyon with a tea spoon but every word, every sentence, every paragraph is another one nearer the culmination of the project. After talking over my concerns with Fionnuala last night I’ve set myself the target of finishing by the end of September. I need targets otherwise this will drift on forever.

At that point I’m going to allow Fionnuala to prise the manuscript from my ghostly white knuckles and forward it to those I have selected to perform the roles of critique partners and beta readers. I hope that their feedback will polish and fine tune my meandering, haphazard word dump into a polished piece of prose fit for public consumption. If you would be interested in volunteering as a literary guinea pig them feel free to hop on the wheel and drop me a line.

I’ll keep providing regular updates of course. The blog is my lifeline, my bread and butter. Yes, it is time consuming when I could be working on the book but it is how I connect and interact with fellow writers going through similar experiences. It’s much preferable to have company on this journey and I truly support those of you who take the time to read and comment upon my random ramblings. Thank you.

Where are you on your writing journey today?

Longford Marathon Update. Everybody Yawns.

The sun has been splitting the rocks for the last month. There hasn’t been a drop of rain. It’s been so barren a hosepipe ban has been imposed. Such has been the heat that I’ve been putting off the next scheduled long run in my preparations for the Longford Marathon next month – a 19 miler. I couldn’t put it off any longer though so decided that today was the day or I could forget about Longford.

I thought I was dreaming when I woke up to the sound of rain drumming against the bedroom window. But, no, upon looking outside I was amazed to see dreary, grey skies and a steady downpour that showed no sign of abating. I waited a few hours in the vain hope that it might ease but as it neared noon I was left with no option but to grit my teeth, get out there and get it done.

At least it wasn’t windy and it was still a warm day. But within two miles my glasses were in dire need of mini windscreen wipers. Has anyone not invented these yet? If we can put people on the moon then surely we can conjure up something for the visually challenged distance runner. These are the random thoughts that keep me occupied out on the roads. The Nuttiness of the Long Distance Runner.

The 19 miles consisted of two wide loops around the village with the plan being to make a brief stop at the half way point to take on board some liquids. By the time I reached the house, though, I had to change my t-shirt and shorts as they were utterly saturated. I towelled myself off, gulped down a glass of barley water and scoffed a handful of coconut mushrooms for a sugar boost. Then there was nothing for it but to head back out into the maelstrom.

I’d love to tell you that the second half of the run was an epic tale of strength, endurance and heroism. But I’d be lying. I’m all for artistic license but that would be a bridge too far. The reality is that it was a horrible, depressing slog. I kept it fairly together until Mile 17 but then a combination of tiredness, the conditions and a series of testing hills led to my pace dropping markedly.

I cut a sorry figure as I aquaplaned back into the village and made my way up the road towards the house. All I could think of was getting dry, downing an ice cold tin of Diet Coke and polishing off the rest of those coconut mushrooms. I looked like a drowned rat and felt more than a little broken. But the run was in the bag and despite slowing down over the final few miles I still finished over two minutes inside my target time.

It was a horrible run. But a necessary one. These are the runs that forge the physical and mental resilience within runners that enable them to overcome any adversity come race day itself. You have to learn to accept the pain and use it to propel you forward towards the finish line. It is inevitable that you will suffer. Best get used to it before the big day rather than it bring you to a juddering halt.

With the marathon just over a month away I will run a 21 miler in two weeks time which will hopefully have me spot on. Not the most exciting of posts today and no earth shattering message underpinning it. Just a very wet, very tired middle aged man updating you all on the torture he puts himself through. Oh and my Garmin app is broke, hence the equally underwhelming image. You’re welcome.

How are you spending your Sunday?

Are marathon runners mad? Discuss.

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.

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?

Why Do Christian Bookshops Not Sell The Books I Want To Read?

The Faith Mission Bookshop in Belfast city centre is huge. It stocks thousands upon thousands of Bibles, books, journals, DVD’s, CD’s and so on. The list is endless. You think you are at the back of the store but then see that it opens up into another massive section at the rear. You could spend days in there. And by the looks of some of the customers, it appears as if several of them have.

I have spent many an hour wandering round it but, by and large, I invariably leave it empty handed and frustrated. I only visit when I am looking for a specific title. It’s not as if I’m seeking out some obscure first edition that was printed in 1846 and there are only 12 surviving copies still in existence. The books I’m looking for are new releases by established or up and coming young authors.

Sarah Bessey, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Jamie Wright, Lacey Sturm. All powerful women who write from the heart with a wit and intelligence sadly missing in a lot of the Christian literature on the market at present. They write passionately about their faith, their flaws and their frustrations. They tackle difficult issues that a lot of Christians bury their heads in the sand about. They broach difficult truths. They write from the edge.

Homosexuality and same sex marriage. Equality and the role of women within the organised church. Religion v following Jesus. Sexism. Bigotry. Intolerance. Hypocrisy. The value and merit of short term mission trips. They swear. They complain. They have tattoos and drink too much wine. Yet they speak the truth of the Gospel more powerfully and purely than many of the preachers I have listened to in recent years.

Yet try to get a copy of one of their books in a Northern Irish Christian book store and you are likely to be disappointed. Thank God for Amazon. And I mean that literally and am not taking the Lord’s name in vain. Thank you God! I’m currently reading Sturm’s ‘The Return’ and the opening two chapters have reignited an urge within me to pick up my Bible which has been sadly lacking in me for several months now.

Wright’s ‘The Very Worst Missionary’ is a searing expose of a misspent youth that was plucked from destruction by faith. Her experiences on the missionary field are brutally honest. Bessey’s ‘Jesus Feminist’ is a must for anyone wanting to look beyond the rampant sexism within many churches to how Jesus treated the women within his inner circle. These women do not shoot from the hip and miss.

Whenever I mentioned one of these authors to other churchgoers I was normally met with blank stares and indifference. I almost felt that people switched off when they realised the author was a young women who wrote with a verve and honesty that many lifelong Christians find uncomfortable. Is it because they are unwilling to open their eyes to the possibility that their lifetime of safe, staid beliefs are not what Jesus taught and expected of us.? WWJD? Possibly the opposite of what you are currently.

So there you are. I’m putting it out there. I’m not saying I know it all for I know less than most people. I’m currently not in a church. My faith flickers like a candle in a hurricane. But it’s still there. And it’s quirky, unorthodox, left field Christian authors like the above that are keeping it alive. It might feel battered and bruised but at least I feel. Now where did I set that Bible?

What are your thoughts on this post? I’d be interested to hear them. Please comment below.

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?

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?

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?

That Time I Went Through My Neighbour’s Bin

Storm Hector hit our village the night before last which brought high winds and heavy rain. Our ten day summer was officially over. The gazebo was dismantled and put away; the paddling pool was emptied; the garden furniture was placed in the garage as we battened down the hatches and prepared for the worst could Hector could bring. He had a stupid name anyway so I wasn’t overly concerned.

I woke the next morning to the sound of cacophonous rattling outside. This was strange as I am normally awakened by the sound of our neighbour’s sixteen dogs barking. All at once. Every day. Without fail. But I digress. Had the Russians invaded? The North Koreans? Or whoever Donald Trump had posted an offensive tweet about recently? The Greenlanders? The Fijians? It’s hard to keep up these days.

I arose (staggered) from bed to investigate. A peek out the window allayed my more serious concerns regarding alien invasion but I was nonetheless dismayed by the sight revealed to me. A neighbours bin had been blown over during the night and emptied its contents all over the street. And by all over the street I meant in our front garden. Hector had left his calling card. Although I doubt if the United Nations would have been losing much sleep over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in front of me.

I bounded into action. Throwing on clothes (nobody needs their first sight in the morning to be a middle aged man chasing rubbish round the street in a pair of Peppa Pig pyjama bottoms) I ventured outside to survey the carnage. Our front garden was bedecked with every type of garbage known to man. I gingerly tiptoed through the chaos and tidied up the mess, all the while shooting daggers at the offending house from whence said detritus had emanated from.

By the end of it all I knew what they liked to drink (cider and lots of it), eat for breakfast (their own body weight in Honey Nut Loops) and even how their exceedingly grumpy teenage daughter had fared in a recent R.E. exam (not very well – sniggers). A five minute rummage through their bin and I knew more about them than in all the preceding ten years we had lived within a hundred yards of each other. I don’t know my neighbours very well I glumly concluded.

Perhaps rooting through a neighbour’s bin is a tad extreme in the getting to know you stakes (although each to their own I guess) but it’s a sad indictment as to how little we know about the people we share our lives with. And I don’t just mean the folks down the street who we exchange pleasantries with once in a blue moon. What about our colleagues, friends and family. How well do we really know each other?

It often takes one of life’s storms in order for us to open up to others. In times of crisis we are more likely to spill our garbage all over a friend or relatives immaculate front lawn. All of our secrets, faults and dramas. Yet we expect them to clean up the mess. I know I have and it wasn’t a pretty sight. All my dirty laundry and grubby skeletons made my neighbour’s bin look tame in comparison.

We need to talk more. Listen more. Take a risk and reach out more. This post is as much for myself as for anyone else. I have cut myself off from so many but when the you know what hits the fan I expect so much from them. Do it now before it’s too late. For one morning the storm will come and you will need that shoulder to cry on. Even if he is wearing Peppa Pig pyjama bottoms.

Do you talk to your neighbours?

What’s the most interesting item you’ve ever discovered on your front lawn?

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?

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.

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?

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?

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?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

It’s been a quiet week on the novel writing front due to weddings, marathons and life in general. As ever this has raised my anxiety levels but I realise there are only so many hours in the day and I need to sleep at some point. I’m currently working on the final climactic chapters of the first draft which are largely action based and which draw all the main characters for the first time to the one location.

The word count is hovering at just over 100K and I reckon another 20K should do it. I just have to cram in a satisfying conclusion for Book 1 plus enough loose ends to tease the reader into Book 2. This is no easy task let me tell you. I have major decisions to make as I know not all of my main characters are going to see Book 2. Creating and maintaining tension whilst simultaneously remaining credible and ensuring consistency and continuity is a serious feat of mental juggling.

It’s sad putting so much effort into developing characters when you suddenly realise you have reached the end of the road with them. Such sacrifices, however, are necessary for the overall plot and structure. This is dark YA fantasy literature so everyone cannot happily sail off into the sunset much as I might like them to. The main characters are continually walking the paths of the dead and, inevitably, some will not make it to the other side.

Following the first draft the serious editing process begins. My fear is that I discover chapters I wrote some months ago are utterly rubbish and have to start all over again. I’m almost afraid to dip into them again. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and am my own worst critic. I know, as an author, that constructive feedback is essential in order to develop and improve but the scared little boy inside of me is still terrified to take that step. Hopefully it will come with time and experience.

I also have a stack of research work to complete in respect of developing the back stories of several of the main characters. This will involve books on mental health, military history and a plethora of other topics. I warn you now. My characters are an eclectic bunch thrown together by circumstance from all corners of the globe and history onto the streets of modern day Belfast. There will be carnage and lots of it.

I’m currently preparing a review of a book by a well established, published author who contacted me after she read my blog and thought we had similar writing styles. I hope to post that in the next week or so but if any other published or unpublished writers would like me to review their work then please get in touch. I’m also checking out a site where unpublished writers can connect and share feedback and ideas.

As far as the blog itself, Fionnuala posted sneakily yesterday after we passed 5000 followers. I wanted to pass this milestone quietly but, as ever, she had different ideas. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who sent me such kind and thoughtful messages. I’m just me and very undeserving of them but thank you anyway. They have bolstered my confidence and motivated me to forge on with my writing and running.

As for future plans. Well you can expect posts on topics as diverse as the noble art of boiling an egg to the considerably less noble art of catfishing; more of my unique take on famous biblical stories; and news of my next marathon project which I hope to tackle during the summer months. Plus all of the usual crazy nonsense that incorporates our million mile an hour lives. Thank you again for your continued support.

Are you a published or unpublished author? Where are you at on your journey?

Would you read a dark fantasy adventure set in modern day Belfast with spiritual and historical themes as detailed above?

All feedback is much appreciated. Please post your comments below.

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?

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?

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?

I’m Running A Marathon…Still

Today I’m providing a two part update on my running and writing exploits of late. The title above may have given it away that this first instalment covers the former. Those who would rather gnaw their own foot off than read a running blog may look away now with my blessing. But more fool them for opening it in the first place given the blindingly obvious, giveaway heading.

The Belfast Marathon is a mere 34 days away. Not that I’m counting. It will be my third Belfast Marathon and eighth in total. Well get me. My PB (that’s Personal Best for us in the know) is 3:33:20 which I set at Belfast in 2016. I will be nowhere near that this year and will be happy with anything under four hours. I’m two years older now (if not wiser) and injury and illness last year have taken their toll. Plus I’m no longer part of a running group so have been plodding a lone furrow which tends to take the wind out of your sails a bit. Hey ho.

Training has been going well all the same. I’ve been injury free (touches nearest tree based object) for the guts of a year now and I’ve consistently been hitting my target times. Saturday last I completed a 20 mile training run with the minimum of fuss. I felt stiff and sore the next day but ‘no biggie’ and I completed a 10K yesterday feeling a-ok. My warm up race is the Omagh Half Marathon this Saturday which I’m looking forward to as it’s my home town. I’ll bore you all with my adventures at that in due course.

So I’m nervous, excited, a bit of everything really. But I’m as ready as I’ll ever be and the countdown is well and truly on now. I have a 21 mile training run scheduled in another 2-3 weeks and then I’ll wind down for the big day itself. You can then brace yourself for a flurry of photographs of yours truly looking sweaty and unflattering in running gear. But it’s a small price to pay for such a high quality, diverse and entertaining blogging product right? In the interim, to bide you all over, here are some equally unflattering snaps (of me I might add, not other members of the family) from previous runs.

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?

Everything You Wanted To Know About Ireland But Were Afraid To Ask

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Black Family in a wet and windy Northern Ireland. Just for a change….

Okay he was probably Welsh, didn’t know a shamrock from his elbow and never saw a snake in his life but those are just details right? Today is a big day on the island of Ireland.

Later today I’m going to write about living in Northern Ireland after a fellow blogger suggested this topic. So if you have any questions about the country then please feel free to comment below.

But be warned, I’m not your stereotypical Irishman. I hate Guinness, can’t speak Gaelic and green is most definitely not my colour. But Fionnuala and I are born and bred Irish so we will do our best to answer any questions you might have.

What questions do you have for us about growing up and living in Ireland?

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.

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?

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.

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?

For My Father

Yesterday I visited a grave with my mother. My father’s grave. We lost him eight years ago to prostate cancer, aged a very young sixty four. He had recently retired and was looking forward to traveling, gardening and voluntary work for his church and a number of charities he was involved in. He was a great man and a great loss. I only cried once, at his bedside when they turned his ventilator off. Once.

Since that day I have cried many times. But on each occasion I have been crying for myself. Selfish, shameful tears. And I wonder what my father would have made of the various messes I have made of my life. I am certain of one thing though. He would have forgiven me. Because that’s the type of man he was. It’s another reason I need to forgive myself for my past. I owe it to those people, dead and alive, who have forgiven me. They deserve better than the sight of me wallowing in self-pity.

When we left the graveyard I told my mother for the first time that I had started to write a book. I am still very shy about telling people. But she seemed genuinely interested about it or as interested as my mother is about anything these days. It was then she told me that my father had always dreamt of writing a book but never had the opportunity. It was taken away from him just like he was taken away from us. His death was senseless and it knocked me off track for many years. But now I have focus again.

Graves are full stops on lives. They are shrines to the past. Yet if you believe in an afterlife, as I do, they are meaningless; for my father was not in that grave we stood shivering beside yesterday morning. He was elsewhere. He was never in that grave for his journey continued onwards. The dead travel beyond the grave but so many of the living cannot. How many people have given up on life at the loss of a loved one? Been unable to move beyond the trauma of bereavement? Become the living dead?

We must look beyond the grave. Grief is a process and for many it is a long, hard journey but we must endeavour to push through that process to the other side. We must keep going for those who need us and rely upon us. Death can distract us from life. Many almost see grief as as a relief as it allows them to raise the white flag and collapse at gravesides never to rise again. The dead deserve better than that from us. We owe it to them to pick ourselves up, walk away from the graveside, and live. Somehow.

I’m writing this book for many reasons and for many people. But now I have another. It is the book my father never wrote. It is me telling the world that I forgive him just as I forgive myself. Just as he has risen to a better place I too have risen from the ashes of grief and shame. My sinful past is just that, the past. I am walking away from the grave of my former self. I have no need for wreaths and headstones for I have words now. Words of truth and hope. They are my dream and they will become my legacy. Because I know I can do this. And I will.

In loving memory of Andrew Charles Black 18.05.45 – 08.02.2010.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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?

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?

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