Step Away From The Ice Cream

It is finished….

Yesterday afternoon I consumed the last of the gallon tub of honeycomb ice cream which has taken up residence in our garage freezer. Taunting me, tempting me, luring me onto the rocks of overindulgence like the most seductive of sirens. I have battled the urges, wrestled with the need, but finally succumbed to its delicious, sugary, ice cold charms. I write this a broken, but satiated, man.

The Omagh Half Marathon is now less than three weeks away so I have slapped a self imposed ice cream ban on myself. The Black household has gone into training lockdown, meaning Maud’s Pooh Bear is now a banned substance. Random freezer inspections will be taking place to ensure this ruling is adhered to; any infractions will be frowned upon and dealt with sternly. I have been warned….by myself.

My addictive nature of course snorts in derision at these feeble attempts to lay down the law. He’ll crack, it tuts knowingly. Pay day is less than a week away and he always likes to treat himself at the end of the month. A new book for the Kindle? Stylish running attire? His own body weight in honeycomb ice cream? Yes, it’s only a matter of time, you wait and see. He’ll fold like a deck of cards, just like he always does.

Well, maybe so. And, as I write this, I already feel anxious at the thought of life without ice cream. I’m entering (ice) cold turkey and don’t fancy my chances. But if I’m to have any hope of running 13.1 miles at Omagh without stopping, then Winnie has to go. No more sitting on the sofa, digging into its sugary goodness with my trusty spoon. Nay, nay and thrice nay. I say.

I still have my beloved Diet Coke. To deprive myself of it would be a bridge too far and I fear my body would enter some form of anaphylactic shock. My central nervous system would shut down and I’d take to my bed, turning my back on society like a 21st Century Miss Haversham. Without the creepy wedding dress, of course. Creepy wedding dresses are not my best look.

The running has been going quite well. I’ve been steadily upping the mileage and, while my times haven’t been spectacular, they’ve been respectable enough. But there’s little point slogging ten miles in the wind and rain, to undo all your good work in a feeding frenzy last witnessed when Roy Schneider hollered ‘Get out of the water’ in ‘Jaws’ all those years. I’m no Great White and I don’t want to turn into a Great Black either.

Fionnuala and I are going to take a potential new car for a test drive this morning. Afterwards I’ll head out on a training run, weather permitting. Both of which should distract me from all things ice cream. Crisps, biscuits and chocolate are also to be consumed in moderation from this date onwards as I work towards a lean, mean running machine turning up on the start line at Omagh.

I expect the blogging community to fully support me in this venture. If you detect even the slightest whiff of backsliding on my part, then I fully endorse a ‘naming and shaming’ WordPress intervention on your part. This is no time for pandering to my doe eyed, whimpering, needy self. Tough love is required and I know you’ve got my back on this one. I thank you all.

Are you willing to drop everything and intervene?

Have you ever wrestled a fully grown man to the floor over a tub of ice cream?

What are you willing to give up to support me in the coming weeks?

Chasing Your Losses

This week the Cheltenham Festival takes place, the biggest horse racing festival of the year in the United Kingdom. Four days of top racing as the very best horses, jockeys and trainers from Britain and Ireland compete for the glory and prestige of a Festival winner. It’s the World Cup of equine sport, think Kentucky Derby and Melbourne Cup rolled into one and then spread out over 28 races.

I used to be obsessed with Cheltenham. It was my Christmas Day. I didn’t bet excessively throughout the year, but from January onwards would start to study the racing form in forensic detail, trying to pick out Cheltenham winners. The house would become cluttered with racing papers and I would spend my lunch breaks scuttling round the city’s bookmakers looking for the best prices.

Come Cheltenham week itself, I was a nervous wreck. I would always take the week off work and watch every race, a case of beer at my feet. My stomach would be in knots as I jumped every hurdle and willed my horse to be first across the finishing line. Sometimes they were, but invariably they were not and my racing funds would steadily become more depleted. The initial excitement would turn to despair and self recrimination.

The buzz would dissipate and the ‘poor me’ mentality descend upon my shoulders like a robe of disgrace. Why had I been so stupid to fritter away the little money I had on a useless nag who was still toiling several minutes after the rest of the field were home and hosed? I would wake up every morning, hungover and miserable. A wise man would have got out while he could. Instead, I chased my losses.

For the uninitiated this means placing increasingly large bets in the hope of recouping the money you have already lost. Speculating to accumulate. Punters call it ‘getting out.’ Sometimes it works, and that 33-1 long shot romps home, amidst scenes of wild hysteria. Grown men hug each other and backs are slapped as we smugly collect our winnings. These moments, however, are few and far between.

Normally you lose, and dig an even bigger financial hole for yourself. You fail to see the warning signs and instead hurtle down the track towards oblivion. You are that train wreck. I would wake up the morning after the festival with a bruised liver and even more bruised ego. Vowing to never again indulge in such reckless abandon. Until the next time. For it was only 364 days until the next Cheltenham.

I don’t bet on the horses anymore but it was another manifestation of the addictive behaviour which ruled my life with an iron rod for many years. Horses, alcohol, people, I was easy prey to them all. There was no filter, no panic button, no emergency brake. I chased my losses, until I stood teetering on the brink, staring down into the abyss below. Just one more step. One more step. Chase your losses to the bitter end.

You might be chasing your losses today. It could be anything. Alcohol, drugs, relationships, the list in endless. My advice? Get out. By whatever means you can. Break the cycle and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. While you still can. For the abyss will swallow you whole if you take that final step. Only the blind chase their losses. Open your eyes before it’s too late. Chase the things in life that matter.

Are you chasing your losses today?

Have you chased your losses in the past?

How did you break the cycle?

The Morning I Regretted Making Breakfast

As it was Fionnuala’s birthday the other day, I bounced down the stairs and grandly announced I was going to make breakfast for everyone. I zoomed off to the village shop, returning with bacon, sausages and fresh bread. Throwing them onto the grille, I began to probe the Black clan for orders as they blearily emerged from under duvet covers. Everything was going swimmingly. Or so I thought.

Fionnuala queried what type of bread I had purchased. If it was a pan loaf, she wanted it toasted, but untoasted if a plain loaf. Lightly buttered, bacon and sausage. Sorted. Hannah wanted sausage, not bacon, while Rebecca wanted bacon as opposed to sausage. Even though the former likes bacon on her burgers and the latter sausages in her hot dog. Er….right.

My head was already starting to spin and the anxiety levels rising as Adam emerged from his lair. He wanted bacon on plain bread. Or was it sausage on toast? I looked despairingly at Charlie the border terrier who sat patiently at my feet awaiting his sausage. Bacon? Either way, his dog food would sit uneaten while there were tastier treats on offer from his human masters.

Had there been vegetarians or vegans in the house, I fear my brain would have imploded. I slaved over the breakfast counter, sweat lashing from my brow, muttering under my breath, while simultaneously ensuring all and sundry that everything was under control and I was ‘just fine.’ There was nothing could tip me over the edge. I was on the brink of a culinary conquest of epic proportions.

Until I asked Fionnuala if she wanted a cup of tea. Why, yes she did. Not too weak and not too strong. With milk. No sugar. Oh and when it’s made, can you top it up with cold water? Which necessitated making the tea, then pouring half of it down the sink again. My mind was well and truly boggled. I eventually slumped into an armchair, mission accomplished but utterly exhausted.

I eat most things. Apart from Brussel Sprouts, don’t get me started on them. And beetroot. But I now understood how frustrated Fionnuala would get when she compared making dinner in our house to working in a hotel, cooking five different dishes at a time. Why couldn’t we all eat the same thing? Spoilt rotten we were. I can only now nod in agreement at the varied palates of the Black household.

We are all very different people, with eclectic tastes and preferences when it comes to most matters. Yet, we are all part of the one family and somehow, despite all said differences, we somehow make it work. We are one. A largely functioning one, despite all the hiccups and glitches along the way. We can’t choose our family, unlike our friends. So we have to make it work, knuckle down, and get on with it.

It’s all about compromise. Compromise and a generous topping of patience. We adapt, we agree to disagree, we give and take. Yet the central core remains intact, the bond that holds it all together. Love is the glue. A love which forms the cornerstone of this crazy, chaotic household. Although it might be a while before I volunteer to cook breakfast again. I think I need a lie down after all that.

Sausage? Bacon? Veggie? How divided is your household when it comes to breakfast?

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?

Are You A Confident Person?

Fionnuala and I are attending Hannah’s annual school review this lunchtime. This does exactly what it says on the tin. We sit around a table and listen as her teacher, classroom assistant, physio and occupational therapist update us as to her progress so far this school year. I know we will have nothing to fear as Hannah is a model student, popular, polite and hard working. We always leave such meetings with smiles on our faces.

It’s also fast approaching the time of year where I am subject to my own annual review at work. This time, the shoe is on the other foot. I sit quivering before my boss as he gives me his thoughts on my performance over the past 12 months. Thankfully, I have a very understanding and accommodating manager and I don’t think I’ve screwed up (too much) during the reporting period.

This year is a little different as there is a promotion opportunity looming on the horizon that I have been encouraged to apply for. On the face of it, this might seem a no brainer. I’m one of the few people within the organisation trained to do the job. It’s a considerable pay hike and people have been telling me for years I am capable of performing the role. And yet, I hold back, reluctant to throw my name in the hat.

There’s the little issue of my lack of self confidence to begin with. I’m my own worst critic and constantly tell myself the promotion boat has sailed. My face doesn’t fit, senior management don’t rate me, I wouldn’t be able to cope with the added pressures and demands of the job. I’m the king of excuses when it comes to such matters, my own worst critic. I don’t just knock myself down. I then check the rear view mirror and then reverse over my inert body, just to be sure.

I’ve been dreading this past week where I’ve held the on call phone. I’m not good enough, I won’t be able to cope, I’m going to make a total mess of a call and be found out. I’m always worried about being found out, shown up for the fraud and charlatan hiding behind the professional and competent front I present to the ever watching world. The same applies to the other hats I wear.

Husband, Father, Christian, Runner, Writer. I’m a big, fat imposter and today is the day I’m going to be found out. Today is the day I’m going to sit in front of those who matter and be told I’ve fluffed my lines and my services are no longer required. Pack up your belongings and hand in your ID card on the way out. Stephen has left the building with his tail well and truly between his legs. Game, set and match to the nagging voice inside my head.

Do you ever feel that way? Where your confidence pours through your fingers like water from a gushing tap. You watch as it trickles down the drain, unwilling and unable to take that step out of your comfort zone. It could be the step that changes your life, one way or the other. There’s only one way to find out and yet you hesitate, you hold back. The self survival mechanism within tells you to stop.

You’re at a crossroads. Which way do you turn? You’re sitting in front of an interview panel. What do you say? Decisions need to be made, yet you sit there floundering, barely able to draw breath, let alone formulate an eloquent answer to the question you have been asked. It’s at times like this you need to draw deep from the well within. Hoping you find deep, refreshing waters of inspiration as opposed to a few inches of stagnant, murky despair.

Are you a confident person?

Have you a big decision looming on the horizon?

How do you combat the nagging voice of doubt?

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?

Why Do You Read Fractured Faith Blog?

I’m on a course this morning. It has a very grand title – Interview Panel Skills Refresher Training. One of the many hats I wear at work is that I interview prospective employees. You know, when you apply for a new job. You nervously enter the room in your best suit to find a stony faced interviewer or three sitting across the room from you. Your heart sinks and your stomach performs a cartwheel.

Well, worry not, for that stony faced suit is me. And one of the first things we are taught is not to be stony faced. Quite the opposite actually. We are to be welcoming, friendly and do everything within our powers to make the applicant feel at ease. We smile, offer them glasses of water, encourage them to relax and make themselves feel comfortable. For the next 45 minutes or so, I’m their new best friend.

The reason for this? We want the interviewee to do well, to perform to the best of their ability and blow us away with their awesomeness. We want to give them the job, not intimidate them to the point they are a gibbering wreck unable to string two sentences together. If we do that, then we risk losing high quality applicants and never filling the vacancy. Our job is to guide you through the interview and bring out the best in you.

To do so, we ask lots of open questions. We allow the candidate ample time to answer. We nod, we smile, we maintain eye contact. We take notes and, where required, offer helpful prompts to ensure they don’t veer off track. We mark fairly and consistently to give the applicant the best possible chance to pass the interview. And at the end we afford them the opportunity to ask any questions they might have about the job or the organisation.

Before they know it the interview is over and it’s warm smiles and handshakes all round. We thank them for coming, show them out the door and tell them we will inform them as to whether they have been successful or not at the earliest possible opportunity. We want them to leave the room on a cloud as opposed to under one. So that when their friends ask them how the interview went they will reply ‘Yeah, it was tough. But it was fair.’

I want this blog to be a similar experience. When you dip into it, I want it to be a welcoming and positive encounter. I want to encourage, facilitate and accommodate. There’s nothing worse than an awkward, one way conversation where you are made to feel on the back foot from the word go. I want this to be a safe place, a place where you can be yourself and leave your worries and problems at the door.

I want to get you thinking and talking. I want you to engage, leave comments and interact with both myself and the wider blogging community. I want you to leave this blog in a better frame of mind than when you entered it. I want you to come back, day after day, and become a regular visitor. To share your knowledge and wisdom with us all. For isn’t that what blogging, and writing in general, is all about? To share, to learn, to grow?

As Fractured Faith nears 9000 followers, I’m proud to watch our little community grow. I’m constantly seeking feedback as to how we can improve, how we can develop into a blog that you always look out for on your cluttered timeline. So I’m throwing it out there. Why do you visit the blog? What are we good at? And where can we improve? Please leave your comments below and let’s get talking.

I’m Having A Bad Hair Month

I’m overdue a haircut. This, I might add, is not a deliberate act on my part, for those of you thinking I have opted to grow my locks in an effort to imitate a bohemian writer. No, I’ve just been too disorganised and lazy to walk the five minutes from my office to the barber shop I usually grace with my patronage. Plus, there’s my illogical fear of stilted, awkward conversations with barbers which I have written about in the past.

My hair is therefore at that annoying ‘just too long’ phase. I find myself absentmindedly playing with my fringe as it threatens to submerge my eyebrows, edging evermore towards them. I have now taken to maintaining a ridiculous side parting in a futile attempt to tame a barnet which is threatening to rebel against all known forms of acceptable follicular etiquette. I look ridiculous.

The back is faring no better. My hair is starting to curl as it brushes my neck, reminding me of the disastrous ‘grunge years’ when I thought I was Kurt Cobain and tried to grow my hair accordingly. The few photographs that remain from that dubious period of my life show me scrunching my shoulders in a vain effort to make my hair look longer than it actually was. In a checked shirt, Metallica t shirt and DM boots. Not my best look.

Then there’s my sideburns. When closely cropped and well maintained, I keep a pair as a desperate throwback to my trendier youth. Quite frankly, I’d feel naked without them. But now, I resemble an extra from a Dickens movie. I’m Stephen Whizzlemarch or something like that. All I’m missing is the top hat and surly demeanour towards orphaned children. If I extend them with my fingers I may take flight such is their length.

My morning routine now involves a losing battle with my hair, as I battle to mould it into some presentable shape which won’t scare babies and pensioners. It’s worse on the colder days when I wear a hat to work. I stride into the office and remove it, to be greeted with hoots of derision from my co-workers. I look like a deranged clown and may as well have been atop a miniature tricycle, juggling oranges.

The horror continues, now that I have resumed running again. It’s a sweaty, hot mess. I’m amazed I didn’t cause a crash yesterday as I lumbered through the village, looking like Christopher Lloyd in his Back to the Future days. Thankfully the police did not receive any calls regarding a wacky scientist running amok donned in high visibility running gear. The shame, I fear, would have been too much for me.

So, I need a hair cut. I dream of sitting in the barbers chair and telling him to get rid of it, all of it. A number four all over, the joy of watching my troublesome lockstumbling to the shop floor. It would be a huge weight off my mind. Literally. And well worth enduring ten excruciating minutes of small talk about the weather, local politics or what sort of a season Paul Pogba is having.

I shouldn’t complain. I’m a 48 year old man and have a full head of hair. As well as most of my own teeth. It’s starting to take on that ‘salt and pepper’ look that Mrs Black loves so much. I like to think I’ll turn into a silver fox a la Clooney, looking all mean and moody on the sleeve of my debut best seller. Only time will tell. But I’m the meantime, I need to get to the barber shop. And pronto.

What’s been your worst hairstyle down the years?

Have you destroyed all photographic evidence of it?

The Shameless Plug

Kirkwood Scott is looking for a home! As I continue to query literary agents with my first book – ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square’ – I’m also on the outlook for any small, independent publishing houses who publish urban fantasy literature. Would they be interested in running with my tale of Kirkwood Scott, Meredith Starc and Harley Davidson as they battle an ancient supernatural evil on the back streets of Belfast?

The book is a fantasy adventure but addresses the very real issues of mental illness, addiction, disability and self harm as our three heroes battle their own internal demons while facing the external threat of Colonel Augustus Skelly and his Company, a ragtag ensemble of Waterloo dead who have returned to wreak havoc on the city and beyond. Only Kirkwood and his newfound allies stand in their way, aided by a wine sodden tramp, Cornelius Dobson, and Emily O’Hara, a tragic ghost girl from Meredith’s past.

At present the book is a 120K manuscript which has been through a beta reading exercise and is now being revised by a professional editor. It is anticipated that this will be complete within the next few weeks, whereupon I would be in a position to submit the completed manuscript to interested parties. The book leans heavily on my own experiences with mental illness and knowledge of the Belfast homeless community.

It tackles these issues head on, interlaced with a healthy dash of Belfast wit and humour. If you know of an agent or publisher who might be interested in my writing then please pass this post on to them. In the meantime I will keep blogging and working on book two in the series along with a number of standalone projects I am currently plotting. The writing never stops. Thank you!

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?

I’m The Acceptable Face Of Stalking

Now that I’ve finished my first novel and it’s been through the beta critique and editing phases, the next step is to query literary agents. This, unfortunately, is a bit more than e-mailing them the manuscript, sitting back and crossing my fingers and toes. Instead I have to draft and forward them a bespoke letter of introduction, known as the query letter. My entire submission hangs on the quality of this.

A good query letter should be concise, but informative. It should entice the agent, telling them enough about you and their project, to leave them wanting more. The agent wants to connect, to feel intrigued. You need to hook them, snare them, make your manuscript stand out from the hundreds of others which hit their ‘slush piles’ every week. You need to be unique, different, you need to be ‘the one.’

To do so, you need to find out everything you can about the agent. This shows them you have put the work in, that you care, that you want them above anyone else to champion your literary gem. You research them. Which is a polite way of saying you embark on an online stalking crusade of epic proportions. You binge on their Twitter accounts, pore over their website biographies, eking out every last nugget of information.

You find out their favourite genres, authors and who they already represent. You uncover their pet hates, what they love and what they loathe in a submission. You want to know everything. Their favourite pizza topping, shoe size, the name of their dog. Anything that will give you an edge over the opposition. It’s needy, sycophantic and cringe worthy work on the part of the querying hopeful. But it’s all part of the game.

Fionnuala and I have been watching a Netflix show called ‘You’ where a mild mannered bookshop employee becomes obsessed with a beautiful aspiring author in New York. He stalks her, both online and in real life, worming his way into her life, until he eventually wins her heart. Nothing will stand in his way and he stops at nothing to win the object of his affection. It is a creepy, psychological, seat of your pants show.

I’m beginning to feel like Joe, the star of the show. Beneath the mild mannered, affable exterior he’s a sociopathic monster. I don’t think I’ve quite strayed into the latter territory when it comes to my querying, but my obsessive personality certainly means I am well suited to the task. Down the years I’ve been fixated with authors, musicians, sports stars and authors.

Someone with an obsessive personality has no ‘off’ switch when it comes to such behaviour. We are runaway trains, hurtling down the tracks towards the buffers. We have no filter mechanisms, there is no emergency brake. When I’m in this zone, I’m oblivious to the various screaming sirens and flashing lights telling me I’ve overstepped the mark. It’s like opening a tub of honeycomb ice cream. I don’t know when to stop.

The first mouthful is heavenly, the second better, and before you know it you are halfway through the tub. You want to stop, you know you have to stop, but you continue to gorge on the sticky, sweet goodness until there is nothing left. Just an empty tub, a guilty conscience and the beginnings of a food hangover churning in the depths of your stomach. Yes, your stomach is full, but your soul is empty.

That is the nature of obsessive behaviour.

Part 2 later today….

Are you guilty of obsessive behaviour?

Do you know when to stop?

Sticking Your Head Above The Parapets

I was raised on fantasy novels and this has largely continued into my supposed adult years. It began with a fascination for Middle Earth and all things Tolkien. My mind was filled with adventures accompanied by hobbits and elves, battling orcs and armies of darkness at the foot of Mount Mordor. As a teenager I was a massive Dungeons & Dragons player.

D&D was much more preferable to the realities of surviving a grammar school where bespectacled nerds were fair game for class bullies and psychotic teachers alike. I returned to my love of reading and fantasy in the last decade or so. Once again, it was a means of escape from the harsh realities of life. Except now my wounds were self inflicted ones. I was the sole architect of my demise.

Hiding between the covers of a book allowed me to regroup and lick my wounds. I binged on the sprawling, epic trilogies of Robin Hobb and Raymond E. Feist. I recall reading Feist’s ‘Magician’ at my lowest ebb. The thicker the book, the better, for such tomes were my sanctuary from what lay beyond. Eventually, however, the final words were greedily consumed and I was forced to re-emerge, squinting and blinking into the 21st Century again.

Many fantasy novels involve castles. And where there is a castle, a siege is never far away. Sieges where the beleaguered heroes are surrounded by a brutal enemy; where they face insurmountable odds and all seems lost. Our ragtag armies man the ramparts, pummelled by arrows, boulders, and anything else the opposition can hurl their way. Defeat seems inevitable. There is no way out.

Except there usually is. Reinforcements appear on the horizon at the eleventh hour, a friendly dragon swoops from above to barbecue the enemy, or an unlikely hero leads a handful of brave troops in a last ditch counter attack which sweeps all before them. Usually aided by a wizard or two. The storm clouds lift, the sun peeks through and the forces of good prevail. For good always overcomes evil, right?

Such heroics require a decision. Followed by an act of will. Someone has to take a risk, a chance. They need to raise their head and look over the castle parapets to see what is going on outside. This is a dangerous business. Lifting your head above the parapet turns you into an immediate target for eagle eyed sharp shooters on the other side. Before you know it, you’re being peppered with missiles of various shapes and sizes.

Yet, it has to be done. To invoke change, to lift the status quo, to turn the tide. It could backfire horribly and end up with you toppling over the castle walls, an arrow between your eyes, dead before you hit the ground. But what’s the alternative? Skulking, shaking, waiting for the inevitable when the enemy swarm over the ramparts unopposed and butcher every last man, woman or child? What’s it to be?

I’m at a stage of my life where I’ve made the decision to poke my head above the parapet and face the enemy squarely in the eye. And guess what? They don’t like it. Hell has been unleashed in all its many guises. I’ll continue this theme in a later post but, until then, keep your wits about you if you dare lift your head above the parapet. And more importantly, keep your head on your shoulders.

Who are your favourite fantasy authors?

What role do you think you would play in a castle siege?

I Didn’t Want To Write Today

I didn’t want to write today.

Yet here I am, tentatively tapping at the keyboard. Feeling my way into the next sentence, fumbling through another paragraph. The words come, they always do. A hesitant trickle at first, before I relax and they flow freely. And when they flow freely, then I am free as well. From the past, from the voices that claw at my ever fragile mind. I didn’t want to write today. I had to write today.

I lost my father nine years ago today. To prostate cancer. I remember sitting in a waiting room at the hospital, as a brutish consultant dispassionately informed us there was no hope. I’ll never forget that man. He might as well have been telling us the weather forecast for the week ahead. The words meant nothing to him, yet their impact shattered us. Nothing would ever be the same again.

I rose that day. There was a funeral to arrange and I was the only son, the eldest child, the one of whom strength and courage were expected. So I donned the mask and played the role to a packed auditorium. I was the centre of attention and, sick though it may sound, part of me revelled in it. Though surrounded by death, this was my lifeline. I clung to it for all I was worth.

I revelled, but then unraveled. The bottom of a pint glass became my harbour from the storm. A temporary respite, however, for when I lifted my groggy head above the parapet, the wind and rain lashed more furiously than ever. I was adrift, askew, a mess. I struck out for shore, my compass spinning, floundering, sinking. Constant drinking. Until the day, I said no more. Until the day I stopped.

I’m battered today. Battered by sickness which has reared its ugly head again when I thought I’d shrugged it aside. Fretting over immaterial matters. Matters that don’t really matter. Marathons that aren’t being run. Books that aren’t being written. Six years ago they would have buzzed and niggled until I cracked open a beer and shooed them from my mind. But now, I write.

Battered but blessed. Looking ahead, clear headed and driven. The glass is half full these days, the wallowing no more. I want to make my father proud of me and, more than that, I want to make those still here proud. My wife and children, my friends and anyone else whose life I touch. I’ll visit my past and learn from it, grow, but no longer be held prisoner by it.

No longer consumed, obsessed, possessed. Still stressed. That is me. But blessed. Blessed that these words pour from my pen, from my soul. There’s hope, always hope. If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you take hope. Hope that there are better times ahead, times you deserve, times which will reveal the real you, the true you, for all the world to see. Is that so hard to believe? For belief costs nothing?

Why do you write?

What do words mean to you?

Are you battered, blessed or both?

An Apology To My Family

Last night my adoring wife posted a blog about our new coffee table. A very lovely addition to our house, which was positioned slap bang in the middle of the living room, patiently awaiting my return from work last night. As the kids returned from school, it was the first thing they noticed and the centre of conversation. The family waited with bated return for my entrance. And, whether or not, I would notice.

My family delight in such cruel taunting of dumb creatures such as I. New photographs are strategically placed around the house. Curtain drapes change colour overnight, furniture is repositioned at a whim. And the first thing I’m asked is ‘Do you notice anything new?’ At these dreaded words, I break into a clammy sweat and descend into panic, desperately attempting to detect the offending article.

I’m no good at this. I live in a bubble. It’s no excuse, but my OCD means I am often wrestling with unwanted thoughts and urges which, while nowhere near as bad as they used to be, still lurk at the edges of my consciousness, threatening to consume me. Last night it was food related, as I fretted and worried over calorific intake, my weight and current lack of exercise due to a head cold aka ‘manflu.’

After dinner I plonked myself on our sofa, within inches of the coffee table. I sensed something different in the room but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The fact I had, minutes before, taken the cardboard packaging the table arrived in to our outside recycling bin failed to register with me. I attempted to strike up conversation with Fionnuala but she simply looked at me, a knowing smirk on her face.

Hannah then swept into the room, enquiring ‘Has he noticed yet?’ It was then I realised there was something afoot. By day, I’m a supposedly highly trained investigator who shifts through masses of material in forensic detail so as to progress complex enquiries. When I leave the office, however, I’m an idiot. Were Godzilla to lumber through Belfast city centre, I doubt if it would evoke a flicker of recognition.

After several tortuous moments and frantic scanning of the room, I finally noticed the gleaming table, a foot in front of my nose. This sparked scenes of great hilarity amongst the other members of the Black household. Once more, I was the clown of the piece, and the butt of their jokes. Yes, I am your idiotic, non observant husband and father. Guilty as charged. Sent to amuse and entertain you as I stumble through life as awkwardly as possible.

I do my best, I truly do. But there are times I feel I’m not cut out for this whole husband and father carry on. I feel I’m continually letting the side down, neglecting my duties, struggling in a role I’m entirely unsuited to perform. I’m selfish and needy, wrapped up in my own mental maze. I blow the tiniest disagreement out of all proportion. I should be the rock of the family whereas I’m usually drowning in quicksand.

I guess we all feel like that at times. Utterly inadequate. We do the right thing 99% of the time but that one failing can bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Life. It’s a baffling puzzle we will never master. Until then, all we can do is our very best. I’ll soldier on. Fighting my demons, internal and external. Peering ahead for the next coffee table on the horizon. I can do better. I must do better.

Are you oblivious to much of what goes around you? Do you live in a bubble of your own making?

Or are you eagle eyed? On time for every appointment? On top of every aspect of your life?

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.

The Blind Leading The Blind

The other day I encountered an elderly blind man in the city centre. He was experiencing some difficulties as double decker buses roared past, mere feet away. I instinctively wanted to go to his aid but the introverted, socially awkward voice in my head held me back. ‘You don’t talk to strangers, Stephen. What if he spurns your offer of help, becomes offended, tells you to clear off and leave him alone?’

I stood there, watching the man, as this internal monologue raged within me. In the end, my guilty conscience outweighed the reticence. In some ways, it was a selfish as opposed to selfless act. Imagine if I turned on the news later to discover the man had been mown down in the rush hour traffic. Never mind the poor man’s family, would I ever be able to live with myself?

I took the plunge, approached the man, and politely asked did he require assistance, half expecting to be told to bugger off and mind my own business. Before the words had departed my lips, however, he gratefully grabbed hold of my forearm and thanked me, explaining where he was going. His knowledge of Belfast street names far outweighed mine, and he knew exactly where he was going.

The problem was, he had strayed a few yards off his predetermined route and lost his bearings. I carefully guided him across the street as he chatted cheerfully, before thanking me and continuing his journey with renewed confidence and purpose. He wasn’t too proud not to accept help when he found himself in a bit of bother. I headed in the opposite direction, impressed by his positive attitude and refusal to let his disability get the better of him.

I know our blog has several followers who are blind or partially sighted. Others have a range of other physical disabilities or chronic illnesses. Many have mental health problems. Blogging is our shared passion, the medium whereby we tell our stories and encourage one another. WordPress is a sanctuary of sorts to us, where we take temporary shelter from the worries of the outside world. It is our safe place, a place where we can be us.

Despite his disability, this man was not afraid to step out across a chilly Belfast on a busy weekday morning and do what he had to do. He wasn’t going to allow his disability to dictate his life for him. He refused to succumb to it and hide at home, wallowing in self pity, as I would have been tempted to do. He rose above it and, even though it was a difficult journey, he persevered. I know he reached his final destination.

He taught me a lesson. He teaches us all a lesson. We are all on a journey and, at times, we will stray off course or encounter unexpected challenges. We cannot allow those to put us off and must keep our eyes fixed on the prize. Where we falter, we should not be afraid to accept the arm of a well meaning stranger. For, while blind, the vision and passion of this man put me to shame.

I moan, I complain, I sulk and I pout. We all do. But that can only be temporary, we cannot allow transitional emotions to define who we are and deflect us from the path we were born to travel. There was a light within this man’s soul which lit up the path ahead for him, a light I have been struggling to ignite for some years now. It truly was a case of the blind leading the blind. On a freezing Belfast morning I was the one being led.

Have you ever helped a person in need on the streets?

Are you in need of spiritual direction?

What Hogwarts House Are You In?

You people know me, right?

Well then you know I’m a knowledge free zone when it comes to Harry Potter. I’ve blogged about this before and almost worn this ignorance like a badge of honour. Well, no more. My chickens have well and truly come home to roost. Serving of humble pie for Mr. Black? Er, that’ll be me. And you might want to bring a bigger spoon as this could take a while.

I’ve been researching literary agents for some time now, drawing up a shortlist who I’m about to query with my first novel. Today was to be the day I forwarded my first submission. My literary baby was about to leave the nest and venture out into the big bad world of rejection letters and less than flattering critiques of my writing style and plot development. But I’m a big boy and was ready for it.

What I wasn’t ready for was the submission criteria. Five page sample? Check. Query letter? Check? Book synopsis? Most definitely. E-mail address, contact telephone number, full name and address. Yes, Yes, Yes! Then I saw it, near the bottom of the screen. What is your Hogwarts house? What is my Dumble what? Turns out this agent is a huge HP fan and dropped that question in there to flummox smug wannabe authors like moi.

So I need your help. I need you PotterHeads to look me up and down and tell me what you think I am. Isn’t there a hat or something I need to put on? I think there’s a hat. While you’re at it, let me know why I belong to that house so I can lie to the agent if she has follow up questions. Leave your comments below. I’m off to the library to beg, steal or borrow a copy of The Philosphers Stone. Whatever that is. Sighs.

What Hogwarts House Do You Think I Belong To?

The Day The World Went Mad….Again

Happy 7th January everyone! The day the world went mad….again. Well it is in this little corner of the planet anyway. The day, all the schools return after the Christmas break and offices and businesses crank into gear once more after the limbo of last week. The trains will be packed, the roads will be gridlocked and stress levels will begin to creep up again after the festive lull.

Many New Year resolutions will already be in tatters, others teetering on the brink. We kid ourselves that this year will be different, special but 7th January suggests otherwise. We find ourselves back exactly where we started, two weeks ago when tinsel and shiny baubles blinded us from the grim reality of the 9-5 grind. It’s back to normal. Or as normal as many of us will ever be.

Grim isn’t it? Enough to make you want to pull the covers over your head and give the crazy carousel of life a miss for another day. I know that’s how I felt when the alarm clock went off this morning. Outside, it was depressingly dark and dank. I have a doctors appointment first thing, then the dreaded commute into Belfast to be greeted by an office of in boxes and in fighting. The joy, the joy.

it’s a churning sea of insanity where the waters rise, covering the last craggy outposts of what we truly want to do with our lives. So easy to be swept away, never to be reunited with our hopes and aspirations again. We cough and splutter, desperate to keep our heads above the waves, gasping for one last breath of the life we crave so badly. Sucking the oxygen of our futures into starved, raw lungs.

It is all we have, so cling on tight. Kick and thrash if you must but survive. Get through today, that’s all that matters. Reach out and cling to something, anything as long as it gets you through the tempest. It can be a person, an event, a target, a place. Reach out and pray for strong hands to pull you above the waves and onto the slippery rocks. Safe, for now, from the numbing nausea of normalcy.

The world has gone mad….again. We are the sane. The dreamers, the idealists, the head in the clouders. They mock us as naive and misguided, but we know better. We see beyond the next bend in the road, we raise our eyes and see blue skies ahead. We strive, we survive, we feel alive. Death can wait, for seasons change and the air suddenly feels fresher. We are the sane, we are the few. We choose a different path.

How mad is your world today?

What are you doing to keep your head above the waves?

And So It Begins….

The grind, that is. Back on the 07:53 express train to Belfast. The platform bathed in a sickly glow, casting up the faces of my fellow commuters to me for scrutiny. The same faces as before, some new clothes and accessories, but the same faces. Wearing the same expressions. Mostly frowns, mostly down. The occasional smile, but they are few and far between. I stare at my reflection in the cracked carriage glass. I fit in effortlessly.

I wonder how many New Year Resolutions have been broken already, now we are almost 40 hours into 2019. Or, are they clinging on for dear life as the train rattles through the darkness towards the city lights? Clinging on to hopes and dreams that seemed so attainable, but two nights ago. But now, they squirm and slither through steepled fingers, for another year.

I stand my ground amongst the frowns. Wrapped in layers of woollen hope. Slick with sick but still I see the magic. I see it, eyes wide open. I pray my resolve does not dissolve, does not corrode a hole within my soul. A soul I’ve fought so hard to fill, with iron will. We go again I spoke, I wrote. I’ll practice what I preach this year. They drive me on. The doubters, mockers. I know them well.

The grind is hell to those who dwell within a world of broken dreams. I am the glue, for you, the means and the ends. I am your friend. If you will allow me. Rise up, for we know not where we are going until we take that first faltering step. Watch barriers melt and hurdle fears, go through the gears. To find the grind is but a temporal state. Berate this date. For you and I are more.

How are coping with your grind today?

Only People In The Movies Slip On Banana Skins

Have you ever watched an old black and white movie where one of the characters slips on a banana skin and then launches into mid air before coming crashing back to earth again. Cue howls of laughter. Oh stop, my aching sides. I always thought such scenes were confined to the silver screen. Surely such idiots didn’t exist in the real world. Until two days ago, that was.

I was walking through the city centre, on my way to the train station, minding my own business, when suddenly I was propelled skywards. In a scene more befitting of a slapstick version of ‘The Matrix’ I found myself experiencing a weird, out of body sensation. I realised I was in mid air and hung there, awaiting gravity to do ‘its thang’ and return me to terra firma. I didn’t have to wait long.

My right hip collided painfully with the pavement and I lay there, dazed and confused, staring at the offending article. A banana skin. I was more embarrassed than hurt. It was a busy street and I cringed, expecting howls of laughter or, at the very least, a stifled snigger. Nothing. I waited some more. Life continued on around me, as if I was invisible. Had I imagined the entire episode?

Hauling myself gingerly to my feet, I checked all was in order, desperately avoiding eye contact with any of the pedestrians hurrying past in either direction. Too late. An old man caught my eye. Oh well, at least he had the compassion to show an interest in my well being. I braced myself for an embarrassing conversation about how I was fine really, no harm done, thanks for asking anyway, etc etc.

‘You slipped on a banana skin,’ he cheerily announced, before continuing on his way, a broad smile on his face. ‘Er yes, I was aware of that,’ I sourly replied, not sure if he was extracting the urine or somehow thought I was unaware as to what had happened. An old lady then distracted me, by asking was I alright. In the the meantime, 8,473 other people had scurried past, unconcerned as to my plight.

I thanked the lady, muttering I was fine, before fleeing the scene as quickly as I could, given my aching hip and bruised pride. In hindsight, I should have disposed of the banana skin, to save somebody else a similar plight, but at that moment in time, all I wanted was for the ground to open and swallow me up. Later though, I thought about it more. Are people really that uncaring in today’s society?

Okay, I wasn’t badly hurt, but I could have been. Bar Olly Obvious and the old lady, it was as it my aerial antics had been invisible. Are city folk that conditioned nowadays to avoid interacting with other people, for fear of being stabbed, mugged or otherwise harmed? Where have all the Good Samaritans gone? Would I have ran to someone’s aid if I witnessed a similar scenario? I’d like to think I would have. Does that make me a minority of one?

Life is full of banana skins, scattered along the road we travel, just waiting to trip us up along the way. It’s inevitable we will all come a cropper one day and find ourselves flat on our backs, staring up at the sky. It’s then that we need people around who love us and will help us back onto our feet. People who will always love us, no matter what the circumstances. People who hang around, when the going gets tough.

We need those people. We also need to be those people.

Have you ever slipped on a banana skin? Or witnessed someone else? How did you feel? What did you do?

Have you the people around you, who will step up to the mark, when you need help in your life?

Help Required

Now that the manuscript for ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ is with my editor, you would think I could slow down and take a break. Er….no. I’ve decided to give the traditional publishing route a shot and see what all those lovely literary agents think of my work. In order to do that, I have to submit query letters, a book synopsis, stuff like that. Does this madness never end?

I need YOUR help, good people of WordPress. So, pay attention please.

Do you know any reputable literary agents currently accepting submissions for Urban Fantasy novels?

If you don’t, I’d be grateful if you could reblog this to your community as maybe someone out there might be able to help.

Thank you in advance

Stephen

Homeless Jesus

Soooooo…..

I was out for my lunchtime run today, when I was literally stopped in my tracks by a new addition to the Belfast landscape. Outside a homeless centre I regularly run past, was a statue. At first glance, it appears fairly unremarkable. It’s a bronze sculpture of a man lying beneath a blanket on a park bench. What caught my eye, however, was the name of the sculpture – ‘Homeless Jesus.’

Behind the statue was a inscribed description of the piece. It was created by a Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, and depicts Jesus as a homeless person. His face and hands are obscured by the blanket, but the crucifixion wounds on his feet reveal his true identity. The sculpture is intended as a visual translation of the words Jesus gave to his followers in Matthew 25:45.

‘As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.’

Over the last couple of years I have built tentative relationships with a number of rough sleepers who I regularly pass in my travels around the city centre. I’ve blogged about them in the past and one of the main characters in the book I’m currently writing is homeless. I try to help these folk the best I can, by conversing with them, helping them where I can financially, and basically treating them as human beings.

I could do so much better though. When it’s been near the end of the month and the bank account is running low, I’ve been known to actively avoid my homeless friends as I cannot afford to buy them a cup of tea. Even though very few of them ask for money and often I have to force it upon them. They are proud young men and women and are loathe to be regarded as wasters and scroungers.

The statue stopped me dead today for it pricked my conscience. I once attended a suicide in the homeless centre outside where it is now located. A tragic end to a young life, but sadly no longer a rarity amongst our urban homeless communities. The underbelly of our society which we are quick to hurry past on our way to the office, or chuck a few coins in their direction and smugly feel we have met our social and moral obligations for the day.

I can do so much more. I call myself a Christian and like to view myself as a decent person. Yet, what would Jesus make of the behaviour I’ve described in the paragraphs above? Talking the talk and walking the walk, but only when it suits me. Even if I can’t give them the coins in my pocket, I can still afford them my time and prayers. I’m not perfect and I never will be. But I can do better. Much better. Can you?

What do you make of ‘Homeless Jesus’?

Do you do enough for the homeless people in your town or city?

Ode To OCD #4

Garrotted

Besotted

Hypnotic narcotic.

You beckon me

Threaten me

Neural dichotomy.

Tossing me

Turning me

Desperate, I yearn for thee

Obsessive

Compulsive

I yield to thee, OCD.

Never Tell A Dentist You’re Not In Pain

Well, the troublesome tooth I have grumbled about these last few months ago is no more. Yesterday morning I attended a specialist dental clinic in Belfast to have it ‘extracted.’ Apparently dentists don’t pull teeth anymore, they extract them. Ever the pessimist, I was prepared for the worst but adamant I was not going another day with the malignant molar in my mouth. Today was the day.

Upon being ushered into the treatment room by an ever so friendly dental nurse, I met the man who was going to perform the extraction. And quite the character he was. An elderly gent, he cheerily informed me that he had 35 years experience at ‘this sort of thing’ and it wouldn’t be a problem. ‘I wouldn’t even bother with sedation,’ he added breezily. ‘You’d only be wasting your money.’

By sedation, he meant gas and air. That didn’t stop him, though, from producing a gigantic needle and proceeding to inject me not once, but twice, with a mouth numbing anaesthetic. He then proceeded to tell me he spent six hours lecturing the previous day and his ‘brain was frazzled.’ ‘Not that frazzled?’ I nervously asked, whereupon he laughed and told me to open my mouth. This wasn’t going very well at all.

‘Can you feel any pain?’ he enquired, beginning to root about in my mouth with an evil steel implement he produced from nowhere. ‘Naaaarrghhhh,’ I gagged in reply, not sure what the social etiquette was in these situations. He paused and looked at me sternly. ‘Never tell a dentist you’re not in pain,’ he responded darkly, before a grin broke out across his features. Dear God, I was in the hands of a madman.

There followed thirty seconds of poking around before he rose triumphantly, holding the offending tooth aloft. I take it all back, the man was a genius. Two minutes later, he was ushering me outside, reminding me to pay at reception or he’d ‘have to put the tooth back in.’ I literally floated out of the surgery, surprising even Fionnuala with my Lazarus like recovery and babbling incoherently about my new dental hero.

I felt so chipper I was able to later take Rebecca for her check up at the ‘ordinary’ dentists where I regaled a clearly unimpressed Dr. Helen about my morning appointment. ‘Yeah well, that’s all he does. Extract teeth,’ she pithily pointed out, sidestepping the elephant in the (treatment) room that her surgery’s finest had been unable to remove the blasted molar and referred me to the Belfast practice in the first place.

Wow! Even dentists get jealous! I bit my lip and nodded sympathetically at the considerably heftier workload Dr. Helen and her kind battled with daily on the dear old National Health Service. Cleaning, fillings, implants, the list is endless. And on top of that, they’re expected to extract the little enamel blighters. The last thing they need are smug patients popping in to brag about the superior extraction techniques of their better paid colleagues in the private sector.

I won’t miss my misbehaving tooth. I woke up this morning with a dull ache down one side of my face. The day was spent popping painkillers and gargling with saltwater but what a tale I had to share with my long suffering family and friends who have endured every step of the extraction odyssey. So I thought it only fair I also update the blogging universe. And remember, people. Never tell a dentist you’re not in pain.

Keep Going

My beloved Manchester United won today, coming from behind to beat Bournemouth F.C. 2-1. This was even more exciting, given the nature of the winning goal, a last gasp strike from young English striker, Marcus Rashford. United have a rich history of such last minute heroics, harking back to the 1999 Champions League final, when they scored two goals in the last two minutes to win the biggest prize in European football.

I still get goosebumps when those goals are shown. Just like the time I travelled to Old Trafford to watch them beat arch rivals Manchester City 4-3, courtesy of a 94th minute Michael Owen goal. As the ball hit the back of the net I leapt to my feet and sprinted up and down my section of the Stratford End stand, high fiving all and sundry. I was fuelled by the ecstasy of the moment, in addition to the six pints of Stella Artois I downed in the bar before the match.

The list goes on. During the 1990’s and 2000’s under the management of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, United were an unstoppable force in British and European football. Champions League trophies, Premiership titles, F.A. Cups. They won the lot and much more besides. The never say die attitude and attacking football philosophy of the club was epitomised in countless numbers of last second, come from behind wins. It was their trademark. You never wrote United off. Ever.

Since Ferguson’s retirement six years ago, the club has fallen on comparatively leaner times. While still one of the biggest and richest clubs in the world, success has been harder to come by on the pitch. This season has been no different as the team has struggled to find its stride and play the flowing, attractive football it is world famous for. The game today brought back memories of better times. They are a slumbering giant.

Win, lose or draw I will always support United. They are my team and I’ve followed them for over forty years, through thick and thin. Thankfully the kids have heeded me and both Adam and Rebecca also support the Red and White Army. Hannah isn’t a football fan but I reckon if put on the spot would choose United, if for no other reason than familial loyalty. Plus she would never hear the last of it from me if she did otherwise.

We should never give up on those we support. This can be applied from our favourite sports team to the special people in our lives. Loyalty is what drags them through the tough times, as well as the glory days. Life might seem horrific but it’s a little less horrific knowing there are people out there loving us and willing us on. Such love is indestructible and indefatigable in equal measure. It transcends distance and overtones all obstacles.

Such support makes us want to keep fighting to the bitter end. It makes us want to crawl over broken glass and battle through this morass we call life. For maybe, just maybe, there is a light at the end of the pitch black tunnel. Nothing more than a pinpoint at first, but growing in size and intensity as we break into a run and sprint towards it. Bursting beyond into daylight and new life. A better life, free from the shackles of our old selves.

You might not feel that way today as you read these words but I encourage you to keep going, keep fighting, right up until the final whistle. Keep going for those who are cheering you on, waiting for that special moment when everything falls into place and you score the winning goal. They believe in you, so follow their example and believe in yourself a little bit. For that is where dreams come true.

What’s the most nail biting sporting event you have ever watched?

Are you a loyal supporter? Or a fair weather fan?

Do you believe in yourself enough to fight to the final whistle?

Red Pen Day

Today, for the first time, I’m printing off a hard copy of the book I’ve been working on this last year. I may even have it bound, just to make me feel more like a real author, as opposed to a pretend one. It’s been through four self edits already and a raft of chapters are currently out for review with my loyal core of beta readers. My research though has indicated that it’s beneficial to sit down and edit a hard copy of the manuscript. So that’s what I’m doing.

Apparently you pick up errors and inconsistencies via this form of editing that you would never detect if you were poring over a laptop screen. It should also help me identify plot gaps and continuity issues. I’ve been through it with a fine tooth comb four times now, but I understand there is still much work to be done. In expectation of this, I have several red pens on standby, raring to go.

One of my beta readers, Meredith, edits my drafts with a purple pen, as it’s a more soothing and less aggressive colour. But I’m a traditionalist so I’m sticking with angry red. I will be like a grumpy teacher marking homework, except it will be my own. Hopefully by the end of it, it won’t have become too much of a literary bloodbath. I’m not keen on the sight of the red stuff, least of all my own.

Speaking of bloodbaths, I’m currently sourcing the services of a professional editor to carry out a line-by-line edit of the manuscript. Grammar, punctuation, structure, plot, the whole ten yards. Yesterday I was quoted $3600 dollars for a 300 page manuscript, way beyond my humble budget. All the advice I’m reading though is that a professional edit is advised, before considering approaching agents and/or publishers.

Several of you have already kindly offered support and advice in this area. Does anyone know of any friendly copy editors out there who would be willing to provide a more reasonable rate for such services? Or am I being naive and that’s the going rate nowadays? I’m no cheapskate but we are a single salary family and these hatchlings are a bottomless money pit.

Stupid Things I Say To My Barber

This post was inspired by my recent visit to the Tivoli Barbers in Belfast city centre, for my quarterly shearing. Thankfully my genetic make up has blessed me with a full head of hair at this age in life but, that aside, these places fill me with fear and foreboding. The reason for that? Having to indulge in small talk with the barber, an almost mandatory obligation at such encounters. You see, I don’t do small talk.

I made a real effort this time, though. The Tivoli is bedecked with boxing promotional posters, one of the few sports I know nothing about. I was determined, however, to engage my barber in whatever topic he opened up with. Barbers love to talk. It’s all part of the hairdressing experience. And this time, I was going to venture beyond the normal monosyllabic responses and awkward silences.

If the weather came up, I was well versed in the cold snap presently gripping our fair island. If football, I knew I was on solid ground and could converse fluently in the current demise of Manchester United. And if it were boxing, then I was going with the non negotiable opening line of ‘What do think about Carl Frampton’s next opponent?’ I only know the names of around five boxers and he’s one of them.

I was shocked, therefore, when the conversation veered towards uncharted waters. My ever talkative barber began to bemoan the dwindling economy in the city centre and how several nearby businesses had either closed or relocated. Seeking to allay any concerns he had, I confidently reassured him that I would always frequent the Tivoli as they were reliable, quick and offered the cheapest hair cut in town. £6 no less.

‘I know,’ sighed my barber sadly, not the response I had been expecting at all. ‘We’ve been charging the same price for five years now. Which reminds me, I need to put our prices up.’ I instantly froze, my blood turning to ice as I felt the glares of the waiting customers behind me boring into the back of my head. Unwittingly, I fear I had just made their lunchtime visit to the Tivoli a slightly more expensive one.

When my locks were shorn, I sheepishly slipped my coat on and asked him how much I owed, while resolutely avoiding eye contact with all and sundry. ‘That will be £6 to you, mate,’ he replied, with a knowing wink. I handed him £7 and told him to keep the change, before beating a hasty retreat from the establishment. Once outside, I extracted my foot from my mouth, vowing never again to speak to a barber. Or anyone, for that matter.

My route to and from work, takes me past the Tivoli every day. I dread my next walk past it, to be greeted by a sign in the window announcing a price hike due to the prevailing economic climate. Forever carrying the secret shame, that I was personally responsible for the long haired gentlemen of Belfast having to dig a little deeper into their pockets for the ‘cheapest haircut in town.’

What do you talk to your barber/hairdresser about?

Have you ever said something inappropriate and immediately wished the ground would swallow you up?

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.

Are You A Morning Person?

In our house on weekdays, the alarm normally arouses the adults from blissful sleep at 5:45 am. Routine then kicks in and our weary bodies go onto autopilot. Fionnuala commences the Herculean act of getting a bouncing eleven year old and two zombie teenagers out of the house and on their way to school. Uniforms are ironed, lunches are packed and there is much hollering which would raise the dead, but not seemingly a sixteen year old boy.

I’m largely entrusted to get myself ready for work, although Fionnuala might have something to say about that. I stumble out of bed, wash and shave, before dressing and making my way downstairs to bedlam and my first Diet Coke of the day. Slices of toast are hurriedly shoved down throats and then we are all on our way, via bus and train, to our respective schools and workplaces.

Weekends are not much better. Yesterday Adam had a rugby match so I had to have him at his school for 8:45 am. It was worth the early start as they won 57-5 but lie ins are a rare commodity these days. Today, we all had to be up early as we have visitors calling so have to ensure the house is ship shape and ready. It’s little wonder, Fionnuala and I are ready for bed by 10 pm most nights. The all night partying is a distant memory when you’re married with three kids.

It’s fair to say, we are morning people out of necessity more than any great desire to be. If I had a choice, not that I do anymore, I’d much rather remain under the covers as the first rays of morning creep over the horizon. I often claim I’m going to arise for magnificent dawn runs which will leave me energised and inspired for the day ahead. This rarely happens, and my running gear remains untouched at the bottom of the bed.

The same goes for those people who bounce out of bed, stick on a pot of coffee and get tonnes done before the rest of the world stirs. There have been books written about how that first hour of the day can be the most productive. Sorry, that’s just not me. It takes at least an hour for both my body and brain to crank into gear. And anyway, I hate coffee, so I’ll just leave all you Perky Pete and Paula’s to it.

I’d love to be a morning person, truly I would. I could accomplish so much. Sometimes there is so much stuff to wade through that I would happily welcome a thirty hour day. I feel bad when I don’t make that early morning run, when I don’t finish the chapter I had planned to, when I overlook a task or errand that needs ticked off the list in order to keep family life trundling along like a well oiled machine.

Something always seems to have to give. Everything can’t be a priority. Why can’t I be everywhere at once, doing everything at once? Why can’t I keep all the balls in the air at the same time? It’s at times like this, I need to take a deep breath. Turn off panic mode. Shift from negative self-reflection to positive assertion. Focus on what I have achieved from day to day. The runs that did happen, the words that were written, the million and one tasks that were completed.

No, I’m not a perfect husband, father, employee or person. But at least, I recognise that. And I try every day to get the job done, to get from A to B as best I can with the skills that God blessed me with. Trying is sometimes all we can manage. Trying is trying. But it’s better than dying. Dying in a morass of mediocrity and apathy. Giving up and giving in, when there are still battles to be fought and one.

I’m going to try again this morning….

Are you a morning person?

Are you too hard on yourself?

Or can you try harder than you have been?

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?

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.

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.

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?

The Bible Is Full Of Idiots

I didn’t come up with that title for shock value but, let’s face it, I’m not far off the mark. Let’s consider the evidence.

I’ll start with Abraham. He hardly covered himself in glory now, did he? That business with Hagar, the slave girl, who gave birth to his son, Ishmael. Although his wife, Sarah, didn’t help to be fair. A bit like Adam and Eve. Dumb women egging on even dumber men. You couldn’t make it up. Although doubters would contend it is all made up. But, I digress. Onwards.

I think Samson was at the back of the queue when the grey matter was being dished out. He tended to act first and only engage his brain afterwards, when the damage was already done. I mean, that business with the foxes and setting their tails on fire. It’s like something out of a really bad Rambo movie. Like Abraham he was also a bit of a disaster with the fairer sex. Just ask Delilah.

Which brings me to David. Warrior, King, Visionary. A man after God’s own heart. Oh, and numbskull. He decides to lounge about on the roof of the palace when his armies are on the field of battle. Lo and behold, he sees Bethsheba and the rest, as they say is history. Cue adultery, deceit and murder which culminates in the death of his own son. Not his finest moment.

Peter, Peter, Peter. Where do I start? The disciple whose foot was permanently in his mouth. A man whose very presence within the inner circle of Jesus gives hope to us all. Denying Jesus three times was bad enough. But offering to erect some huts at the Transfiguration when Elijah and Moses descend from Heaven. It’s akin to meeting the Queen, sticking a pencil up your nose and going ‘Wibble, Wibble.’

These men (and women) were idiots. Their words and actions revealed inadequacies and character flaws which we can all relate to. People are weak and flawed; we are vain, selfish and forever falling flat on our faces. Yet, God still continues to pick us up, dust us down, and use us for His purposes. He has a plan, and we are part of it. Any idiot can apply to be part of the team.

I’m no exception. I mess up day after day after day. I ignore God, I moan at God and I consistently do the opposite of what I’m meant to be doing as a card carrying Christian. I don’t go to church enough, I don’t read my Bible enough and I don’t pray enough. I sin, and seek his forgiveness; then I sin again, anyway. I’m forever straying off the straight and narrow. I don’t like being around other Christians and sometimes I don’t like being around God.

Yet still He patiently tolerates me and seeks to use me. He waits and then plants an idea in my head which I reluctantly mull over, before finally agreeing that he was right all along. He encourages me, supports me and motivates me. He reveals to me the truth, His truth, not the tainted truths being peddled by the supposed pillars of our community. Hypocrites are twist the Word to suit their own petty needs.

I get angry when I think about these people, but not as angry as I get about myself. I know I can do better. I let religious buffoonery get in the way of my relationship with Jesus. I hope it’s a righteous anger, a means to an end. For I need an end, a finish line, a target. Otherwise, life is a futile, empty gesture. I need to open my eyes. I need to cast off the shackles. I need to stop being an idiot.

Do you get angry with yourself and other Christians?

Who is your favourite Biblical idiot?

Can you do better in your walk with God?

Writing Sucks, Yet Still I Write

I used to have a very romanticised image of us wannabe authors. We would languidly lie stretched out on our chaise longues, waiting for inspiration to strike before committing to paper the fruits of our labour. These words would flow seamlessly and effortlessly, with no need for correction, before we would fall back, nibble on a fig, and wait for the next literary gem to form in our minds.

Well, that bubble has been well and truly burst. I’ve posted before about writing being hard work. This week has been no exception as I struggle to remain creative and relevant on the blog, while at the same time trudging through the never ending fourth edit of the novel I am currently working on. It has been a case of one step forward, two rewrites back, as I have agonised over minute punctuation, grammar and continuity issues.

When I’m in the zone, the words flow freely. I’m not one for painstaking plotting and planning before I write. I usually just get an idea or scenario and run with it. Often, the story seems to pen itself, and I am but a conduit. Ideas come to me as I write which I know I never would have had, if I had tried to prepare the story in advance. I am at my most creative when I am in the physical act of writing.

Here, I am at my most free. The wind rushes through my hair as I ride the runaway train as it hurtles down the track, heading where to, I do not know. It is exhilarating as the adrenaline flows and I hammer away furiously at the keyboard, afraid to stop or look up for fear that the silver thread of creativity I am clinging onto will snap and this magical moment will be lost forever.

Which is why editing is such a struggle for me. I recognise it is a necessary part of the writing process, but why oh why must it be such a chore. My life is now one where I obsess over quotation marks and commas; I fret over glaring gaps in the plot and continuity errors that a three year old should have picked up on months ago. Paragraphs which I once viewed as unadulterated genius, are brutally hacked to pieces and subjected to searing scrutiny.

The delete button reigns supreme whilst doubts and delays leave me wondering, what’s the point? What’s the point in pursuing this middle aged fairytale when I could be focusing my time and energy on much more tangible pursuits. Why put yourself through this torture day after day, week after week; for a piece that will realistically only see the light of day if I can magic thousands of pounds from somewhere to go down the self publishing route.

Then it hits me. I am not editing the book, rather the book is editing me. The writing process is allowing me to channel my obsessive nature in a constructive, as opposed to destructive, manner. It is chipping away at me, like a sculptor works a lump of shapeless stone; with a patient precision aimed at eventually revealing the beauty within. Removing layers and smoothing rough edges. There is a method to their mundane madness.

Writing makes me a better person, as does running, my other passion. But my true reward is the journey as opposed to medals and published books. They are merely the external signs of what I have accomplished. The real rewards lie within, in how I have changed and am changing as a human being. These are the reasons I sit hunched over my keyboard night after night. It is a painful process, but a necessary one. Pain is the bedfellow of rebirth. You cannot have the latter without the former.

What is your favoured writing style?

Do you struggle with your writing?

How do you overcome your writing fears?

I Told You So….

Don’t you hate it when people say that? They always look unspeakably smug and the urge to scream in their faces is almost irresistible. We don’t like being told we are wrong, even more so admitting that we were. Pride is a bitter pill to swallow, even when it has been sugar coated and gift wrapped in the most palatable of packages. We gag, we choke, we resist the urge to swallow. Being told we are wrong is just wrong.

A few months back I had a horrific experience at the dentists which involved insufficient anaesthetic, followed by a world of white hot pain. The butcher….I mean dental surgeon eventually took pity on me and called it a day. She made another appointment for me, stating that my only options were root canal surgery or having the tooth removed. Neither appealed particularly to me at the time.

I told her I’d think about it and then come back with a decision. She said that was fine but sooner, rather than later, because the cavity was deep and was only going to get deeper. She ominously warned that the pain would be on a whole new level unless swift action was taken. I nodded in agreement, before fleeing the surgery, vowing never to darken its door again.

For three months all was well. Bar the odd niggle, there was no pain. I mean, what did she know about teeth? I laughed in the face of the countless certificates on the wall and numerous letters after her name. For I was doing just fine, living in a toothache free world. Granted, I dared not drink or eat on that side of my mouth but ’twas a small price to pay for escaping a return to her chamber of unspeakable horrors.

Until this week that was. The pain has returned, subtle at first but increasing by the day, spreading from the tooth, along my jawline and into my neck. Ibuprofen has become my best friend and I am perfecting a new technique of running with my mouth closed and breathing through my nose, in order to avoid cold air hitting the offending area. It’s quite the sight, I can assure you.

I know that I’m only delaying the inevitable. The day is fast approaching when I will have to skulk back to the surgery, with my tail tucked between my legs. I am already imagining the disappointed expression on my dentists face as I explain, between sobs, that she was right all along, the pain is too much and I need ALL THE DRUGS! She will tut, smile wanly and reply “Mr Black. I was afraid this would happen. I don’t want to say I told you so but….”

I will rise above this verbal barb, and respond in a mature, adult manner. By falling to my knees, grabbing her pristine scrubs and screaming “JUST GET IT OUT OF MY MOUTHHHHHH!!!” I’ve thought about it for a while and regard this as the only reasonable course of action. I’m sure dental surgeons see this sort of behaviour all the time. She won’t even bat an eyelid and remember, doctor-patient confidentiality is an unbreakable bond of trust.

Expect further tooth updates to follow. Let’s face it, it beats me droning on about marathons and writing novels. But whatever I post in the future don’t reply “I told you so.” For those are even more painful than the little enamel elf currently tap dancing along my back right molar. I wish he would go back to Tooth FairyLand or wherever he normally hangs out. I don’t even need a pound coin under my pillow. Just go!

Care to share your favourite ‘I told you so’ moments?

What’s the worst toothache memory?

One Little Spark

This is the iconic Bank Building, which has stood in the heart of Belfast city centre since 1785. For the last 40 years it has housed Primark, one of the most popular department stores in the country. The building has become a famous landmark with its iconic clock overlooking Royal Avenue. It is a popular meeting place and buskers and street evangelists often ply their trade outside it, vying for the attention of the passing public.

Yesterday morning, just after eleven, Rebecca and I were travelling out of Belfast along the M1 motorway. We were heading home, having been in the city on an errand. A fire engine suddenly flashed past in the opposite direction, its sirens wailing and blue lights flashing. Then a second….and a third. We wondered what was going on. When we arrived home, Fionnuala was watching a live video feed from the city. The Primark building was on fire.

The fire started on the roof, apparently after a workman’s blowtorch was left unattended. A stray spark had started a fire which was soon raging out of control and spreading downwards. Thankfully the building was safely evacuated and hundreds of frantic shoppers spilled out onto the streets below. Within hours the building was an inferno and a black, choking shroud of smoke could be seen across the skyline.

Fourteen fire appliances and over 100 firefighters battled the blaze throughout the day. The roof collapsed, followed by all its floors leaving only a blackened, smouldering shell. There are genuine fears that the historic building will have to be pulled down. Hundreds of staff have lost their jobs. The city is mourning the loss of an old friend. It had survived the German Luftwaffe and countless terrorist bombings during ‘The Troubles.’ But now it was gone in the blink of an eye.

I walked past the blackened hulk this morning on my way to the office. There was an eerie silence and the smell of cloying smoke still hung thick in the air. So much history, culture and memories lost. All because of one tiny spark. Life will go on. Businesses will reopen and trade will resume. Yet it won’t be the same. The shockwaves of that spark will ripple outwards for many years to come.

Life can be like that. One moment of madness, one loose sentence and the fire is ignited. Small at first, but soon raging out of control, fanned by petty fears and jealousies. Before you know it friendships are consumed, relationships destroyed and families are left in ruins. The fire and smoke of our foolish actions can have repercussions which will impact upon the lives of others for generations. No family tree can survive its wrath.

Think before you speak. Consider the bigger picture and play the longer game. Wisdom and discretion are hard won, but invaluable, qualities to possess. Take responsibility for your words and actions. Nothing burns like a spiteful tongue and nothing hurts like a deep burn. Such wounds may never heal fully and even if they do the scars will remain throughout the ages. Yet they can be so easily prevented with a little care.

Are there fires raging in your life today?

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.

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?

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?

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?

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.

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?

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.

Unreality Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your views on reality TV?

Are you living a real or unreal life?

Adrift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your pet hates at the movies?

Have you ever felt adrift?

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.

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?

How Was Your Life Before WordPress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was your life before WordPress?

What difference has blogging made in your life?

What Are You Going To Blog About Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Familiar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you spend the first hour of your day?

Have you discovered the power of the familiar?

Where are you at today on your journey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sucking Up The Bad Days

Since I started running just over 4 years ago I have prided myself on rarely, if ever, having had to stop and walk during a run. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have done this. Walking is for quitters I would say and a quitter I am not. Less than a month ago I ran the Belfast Marathon without stopping. That’s 26.2 miles of constant running. 42 kilometres. 3 hours, 51 minutes and 10 seconds. I would rather have died than walked.

Yesterday I set out on a 5 mile training run. Like I have a thousand times before. It should have been utterly uneventful. Yet after 2 miles I felt like death. My arms and legs were like jelly, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I plodded on for another mile, determined to finish, before the unthinkable happened. I found myself walking. I looked down at my legs and there it was. I was walking. My body had rebelled against my disbelieving brain.

I was still 2 miles from home so had no choice but to soldier on. I lowered my head in shame as cars drove past no doubt thinking ‘Hey there’s that guy from our village who runs marathons. Why is he walking?’. I felt embarrassed and utterly rubbish. The OCD voice in my head was jubilantly informing me that I had finally been found out for the fraud I was and that this was the end of my running career.

After half a mile I felt slightly better so cautiously started running again. I felt fine and managed to run home without stopping. But my confidence had taken the mother of all kickings. I racked my brain as to what had went wrong. Yes, I had foolishly set out during the warmest part of the day but heat doesn’t normally affect me like that. My Garmin is on its last legs so I was running without a watch and was unable to pace myself. Had I run the first two miles too quickly?

Either way I am dreading my next run. Is this the beginning of the end? Has my always fragile self belief finally been irreparably torn to shreds? Will this perceived failure on my part overflow into other areas of my life? What if I turn the laptop on later and am incapable of writing a word? What if my hard earned progress as a husband, father and half decent human being judder to a sweaty halt just like my body did two miles from home yesterday?

It’s at times like this that I need to look back on what I have achieved and focus on the positive. I had a bad run. Get over it. They happen. You should be glad that they happen to you much less than they do to other people. These bad days make the good days all the more memorable. Practice what you preach Stephen for wallowing in self pity is not a good look on you. Suck it up as they say.

I woke up this morning to find the sun had risen. The world was still turning. The international, national and, for that matter, regional news made no reference to a middle aged, average paced distance runner having had a bad day at the office yesterday. Fionnuala and the kids had not left me and there was still a roof over our heads. All was as it should have been. I had lived to run another day.

Never let your mind deceive you and magnify the negatives to the extent that they eclipse the many more positives in your life. You can be your own worst enemy. Liars never prosper and that equally applies when we lie to ourselves. Embrace the truth. Bad days happen. We are not perfect. It’s called life. And we can’t reach the promised land unless we occasionally flail about in the desert of mediocrity yesterday. Like I did yesterday. Suck it up Stephen. Shake it off.

How do you deal with the bad days?

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?

Why Are Some Friends So Unfriendly?

Fionnuala has been visited this week by an American friend who she has not seen in over 30 years. They have kept in touch, most recently on Facebook, but this is the first time they have actually physically met since then. And you know what? It was as if it was yesterday. They started chatting right off and there were no awkward silences or stilted conversations whatsoever. This got me thinking about the subject of friendship.

To me, this was a sign of true friendship, a bond that distance nor time can diminish. Fionnuala and Elaine have always been friends and will always be friends. They are there for each other, no matter what. A friend of mine died suddenly last week. I had not seen him in a number of years as he had been working in Canada. I have recently been informed that he stipulated in his will that he did not want flowers at his funeral; instead people have been asked to make donations to SHINE, the charity for spina bifida and hydrocephalus.

Our daughter, Hannah, has both of the above and some years ago my friend, John, took part in a charity cycle round the circumference of Northern Ireland to raise funds for the charity. He still remembered us despite his high powered, globe trotting career. I was truly humbled when I became aware that he had asked for this in his will. Again, it was a true act of friendship despite not having seen him in years.

Elaine and John didn’t forget their friends despite the passage of time. We remained a constant fixture in their hearts and minds even when we were thousands of miles apart. They cared and made that effort to maintain the relationship. And we made the effort as well because friendship is a two way process. There is give and take on either side. Both parties have to work at the relationship in order to make it succeed.

If only all friendships could be like that. I know people who would never stay in touch with me unless I made the effort to do so with them. There are people I talk to every week. I tell them about my life; my family, my running, my writing. They nod and they smile in all the right places but you can tell they have no interest. I know people who only contact me when they want something. People who don’t return calls or reply to messages. If you asked them they would state we were friends. But I know in my heart that they’re not.

Why are people like that? Are they oblivious to the pain they cause with their slights and silences? Are they that emotionally switched off that these not so subtle snubs fail to register with them? Or are their hearts so hard that they simply don’t care? It saddens, frustrates and angers me. I see it happening to my kids as well which is even harder to stomach. I see it in the office, the church, everywhere. People no longer seem to be willing to go that extra mile for others.

What is the answer? Do we persevere with these friendships in the hope that the situation will improve? Do we love them even harder in an effort to thaw them out? To lead by example and show them what true friendship is? Are we willing to endure these false relationships because we are afraid of losing the little connection that we have with these people? Our need for company leads us to sacrifice our integrity and ethics at the altar of ‘popularity’.

Or do we cut the cord and walk away? Accept that they are unwilling or unable to take the friendship beyond it’s current status? Would they even notice if we stopped phoning or messaging them? It’s a tough one and I’m not sure I have the answer. But it worries me. Society is becoming more superficial by the day. People crave friends and likes and followers on social media. Is that what we have become?

Do you have ‘unfriendly’ friends? How do you deal with them?

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.

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?

We Lost A Friend Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are proud of you

Around this time last year Stephen wasn’t in a great place which is no big secret as he regularly blogs about it. As a result of his state of mind back then I encouraged him to do what he loved to do again and that was to write which was when this blog was birthed.

Over the last year Stephen has fought his demons by putting pen to paper or in this case fingertips to the keyboard and he has broke down many barriers and obstacles.

The reason I am writing this is because today this blog has reached 5000 followers. I noticed last night that it was at 4995 and asked him was he going to blog about it and he said no that it would come across that he was boasting. Stephen is a very selfless person nowadays the old Stephen, which he refers to himself as, would be shouting this from every platform possible. I am writing this because I am bursting with pride at the man, husband, father and my best friend he is now and of everything he has accomplished via this blog.

Congratulations on the 5000 Followers Stephen and the first year of Fractured Faith Blog.

Fionnuala, Adam, Hannah & Rebecca xxxx

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?

I’m Broken. Are You?

I’m broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m broken. Are you?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tree On The Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Love Is A Mist….

If love is a mist

Then I must persist

For cords of affliction

And wisps of addiction

Are flogging my faith on a rack of derision.

The demons are screaming

Stop me from believing

Oozing lies, succubi

Leave me battered and bleeding.

Their hunger is fed

On the paths of the dead

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

Cutting ties, crushing lives

We can all sympathise

But the blame lies with me

Wrapped in guilt, when once free

Destruction their function

Impaled at this junction

Slicing my soul without fear or compunction.

Yet I will resist

I’ll repent and desist

And walk through the mist

Towards fresh joy and bliss.

For this kingdom of sighs

Will give way to new life

And I will be vanquished

A thorn in their side.

Embracing Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What aspects of your life would you like to change?

Tell Them

I have had a crazy week work wise which meant I wasn’t able to post yesterday. But fear not, I’m back and normal service is resumed. However I’m very tired so don’t be expecting a Dickensian masterpiece today. More low expectations than great. Sorry, that was a terrible play on words. Let’s just forget I ever mentioned it and move on to the next paragraph ok? Great.

Without going into the nature of my work I had to deal with a number of sudden deaths during the week. They were all equally unexpected, sudden and in tragic circumstances. One second these people were there and the next they were not. No opportunity for loved ones to say goodbye to them, no chance of righting wrongs or seeking forgiveness. They just ceased to exist. Snuffed out in an instance.

I am trained to deal with these incidents in a professional and empathetic manner, as are my colleagues. It is distressing but necessary work. We arrive and we do what we have to do as discreetly and sensitively as possible. It does leave its mark though. I saw sights this week that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But I’m alright. My employers will offer me trauma counselling (which I won’t avail of) and I will go home to my family.

It is my job. I get paid a significant amount of money to do it. I move on to the next week and the next incident and the world keeps turning. Well my world does anyway. For those families and friends left behind it does not. It comes to a jolting, juddering stop. And for some it never starts again. The colour is drained out of their lives never to return. They don’t move on because moving on suggests forgetting and they never want to.

Why? Because the memories are all they have that’s why. So they cling to them like a drowning man would cling to a piece of floating wreckage. It is all that there is between them slipping away into the nothingness of grief and despair. Memories are fickle, flighty friends. The good ones can provide comfort and solace but the not so good ones can flutter endlessly around your mind like a belligerent bat.

Why didn’t I ask them for forgiveness? Why didn’t I forgive them? Why didn’t I say no? Why didn’t I say yes? Why didn’t I stop them? Why didn’t I let them go? Why didn’t I say that? Why did I say that? The list could go on forever but I’m sure you get my drift. Why? Why? Why? Those unanswered questions that snag beneath our skin and gouge away at our flesh the more we twist and turn in an effort to dislodge them.

Think of the people you love most in the world. Think about when you last saw or spoke to them. Now imagine that you never saw or spoke to them again; and think about the regrets you would have, think about all those unanswered questions that would start to slowly settle on your mental landscape like ash from a volcano which for ages lay dormant but is now ready to erupt again with unrivalled fury.

Think of that and then seek them out. Now. Today. Tell them you love them. Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them they’re better at handstands than you. Tell them whatever has been sitting on your heart but needs to be spoken aloud. Because tomorrow it might be too late. And you will be left alone with only your memories to accompany you into the beyond.

Do you need to tell a loved one something today?

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.

I’m A Christian But I Intensely Dislike (But Don’t Hate) People

Sorry about the cumbersome title but I know ‘us lot’ aren’t allowed to hate people because Jesus says we shouldn’t; even though God spent most of the Old Testament laying down fire from above on anyone who looked at the Israelites the wrong way. Jesus is right of course but then Jesus is always right. So us Christians must turn the other cheek (ouch), love our neighbour (have you met my neighbour?!?!) and carpet forgive even the most heinous of acts. Hands up who does that on a 24/7/365 basis?

Hmmmmm….thought not.

Of course there will be a smattering of raised arms from the ‘Stepford Wives & Husbands’ Brigade who you see glamming it up with their perfect 2.4 children (boy named after obscure Old Testament minor prophet, girl called Grace, not sure about the .4) at a evangelical ‘super’ church near you every Sunday. They love everyone and will tell you that while nodding enthusiastically; fixed, rictus grins plastered to their faces. Until they ignore you in the supermarket the following Wednesday or when they cut you up in their Audi at the school gates without a second thought.

The rest of us will shuffle uneasily and stare at the ground, myself included. Which annoys me because I truly get forgiveness. I like liking people. I don’t want to have enemies just as much as I don’t want my head full of these negative thoughts towards certain individuals. Feeling angry, resentful and vindictive all the time is just so exhausting. It genuinely eats you up and casts a dank cloud over your days which relentlessly follows you around and refuses to budge. I hate blazing arguments and cold, unending silences. I’m the one who apologises even when I know I was in the right just so as to make the peace again.

All very good in theory but then why can’t I practice what I preach. I ran a half marathon yesterday where 3,500 people took part. How many did I speak to during the event? None. That’s right zero, nada, zilch. I skulked in my car before the start and then scuttled off as fast as my aching legs would allow me once I’d lurched over the finish line. In previous years I would have been part of a group who would have travelled down, ran together and then taken lots of selfies afterwards which I would have plastered over Instagram. Just to let people know what a great, popular guy I was.

Those days are long gone. I’m a lone wolf runner now. And not in the enigmatic, Forrest Gump stylee. More in the socially awkward, avoid fellow runners at all costs stylee. If such a stylee exists. While hiding in my car yesterday before the start I messaged Fionnuala to say I had never felt as out of place. Her reply was typically to the point. ‘You’re a runner. You’re about to race. How can you feel out of place? You’ve as much right to be there as anyone else. Stop beating yourself up.’ She’s good like that and it was just what I needed to get my sorry backside out of the car and to the start line.

Saying that I still hid behind a tree right up until the starters klaxon sounded before slipping anonymously into the shuffling herd as they commenced their 13.1 mile odyssey. This post was meant to be about said odyssey but nobody wants to read another running post. They even bore me at times. Runners are geeks. A modern day phenomenon who, if they had been around in the 1980’s, would probably have been playing Dungeons Dragons, spending their weekends rolling 20 sided dice and pretending to be Level 12 paladin knights called Lucius the Avenger.

Rumours that I was in my school’s Dungeons & Dragons Society are totally unfounded and will be strongly contested….

The one observation I will make about the race is that after about a mile a guy I used to be very friendly with passed me. He didn’t see me but I certainly saw him. We ended our friendship on bad terms and as he passed I could feel the waves of anger, resentment and intense dislike (but not hatred) rolling off me towards him. He probably hadn’t spared a thought towards me since we parted company over a year ago yet I still allow myself to be affected so adversely. By him and others. Which filters throughout so many other areas of my life. Outside of my immediate family I trust nobody, I struggle massively to make new friends, I haven’t been to church in over four months and am highly demotivated at my work. What gives God?

I get the theory so please don’t bombard me with lots of well meaning Scripture. I just want to hear from others about their experiences. Christians and non-Christians alike. I’ll even accept comments from the ‘Stepford’ community although of course nobody will own up to membership and they’re probably tied up with Sunday School or a cake sale in any event. Do these feelings bubble up within you? How do you deal with them? Are there particular people who press your button no matter how hard you fight the red mist? How do you move past these feelings? For I’m a bit stuck on this one if I’m honest.

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?

Dawn Manoeuvres

Over the last few mornings I have launched covert dawn operations at chez Black as I have attempted to extricate myself from the house and head off to work without waking Fionnuala and the kids who are still on their Easter break. As I normally move around the house with all the finesse of a hamstrung hippopotamus this has required previously untapped resources of stealth and balance on my part. But, all round good guy that I am, I resolved to be as quiet as Quiety the Mouse so as not to disturb their slumbers.

I ironed shirts, raided sock drawers and packed gym bags on tip toe avoiding squeaky floorboards with the grace of the nimblest of ninjas. I put the bins out and you could have heard a pin drop…. if I’d had one to drop. I waa Silent Stephen performing backward flips and forward rolls with the athleticism of an Olympic gymnast. Alright I may have made that last bit up but you get my drift. Whereas our house around 6:30 am on a week day normally resembles Piccadilly Circus at rush hour it has been an oasis of calm these last two mornings.

As I drove into work I reflected proudly on my efforts, pleased that all my sneaking about had achieved its goal of allowing the rest of the family a lie in. Apart from Charlie the Dog but he needed out for a wee anyway and had been giving me strange looks from his cage as I crept around the kitchen. I shared my toast with him which seemed to buy his acquiescence so all was well. Yes I was like the incredibly quiet cat who got the cream as I hurtled down the road towards the office.

But then it hit me. A few years ago I spent most of my life sneaking around the house. But for entirely selfish, as opposed to selfless, reasons. Back then my very existence was founded upon lies, secrets and deception. It became second nature to me. I told so many lies that I even believed them myself half the time. Much of my time was spent either concealing the truth or struggling to remember the nonsense I had come out with for fear of being tripped up. I felt increasingly unhappy and depressed about the life I was leading. I was a fraud and a failure. My mental health suffered and I simply could see no way out.

Things inevitably came to a head and I was dragged out into the light as opposed to of my own volition. Whilst incredibly painful at the time for myself and my loved ones we emerged on the other side stronger and wiser. I came to realise that living a double life was neither clever nor exciting. The only person I was fooling was myself. I was travelling in increasingly decreasing circles and becoming a prisoner in a cell of my own making. I was miserable and forever in fear of being found out. I was sick. Sick of myself and sick of the direction in which my life was heading.

Nowadays I don’t keep secrets. There is great freedom in waking up in the morning and not worrying about what I said or did yesterday. It was an exhausting existence and one I would not recommend to anybody. If this post strikes a chord with you I want to tell you that you’re not alone and it’s not too late to turn your circumstances around. Stop and think of the damage you are causing. To yourself and others. You have a choice. Either you can continue as you are in which case I can guarantee you the situation will only deteriorate. Or you can be brave and make a decision to change.

It might be painful. Oh who am I kidding, it will be painful. But the long term gain will outweigh the short term pain even if it might not seem that way at the time. Shake off the shackles of secrecy and stride into a sanctuary of safety and serenity. Cut your ties with toxic relationships and walk away from the demons of your past. Your present is bright and your future is even brighter. You are better than this and you were created to achieve so much more than skulk in the shadows. You need to hold your head high and walk out of the self inflicted storms you are wandering through aimlessly.

So what do you reckon? Are you going to start today? By ditching that rucksack on your back which has been weighing you down for so long. By kicking it to the kerb and starting afresh. Afraid to take that leap of faith? Feel there is too much at stake and you can might lose everything? Believe me it’s nothing compared to what you will lose if you allow the status quo to continue unchecked. You will be found out. It’s only a matter of time. Make the change today. Now. Before it is too late. Before you’ve allowed it all to slip through your fingers.

What are your experiences of lies and secrets? Have you been a victim or a perpetrator?

Are you in a dark place now? Are you willing to change?

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?

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?

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?

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.

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?

Who Needs You Today?

Earlier in the week I wrote about how Peter, the most unlikely of leaders, became head of the early Christian church in Jerusalem following the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The church grew at an incredible rate during this period as many thousands were converted after hearing the testimonies of Peter and the other disciples and witnessing the many signs and wonders they performed which are sprinkled throughout the early chapters of the Book of Acts.

It must have been a period of great excitement. People were being healed, speaking in foreign languages and the Holy Spirit was running amok. Believers genuinely expected the return of Jesus any day and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Local religious leaders were on edge and the occupying Romans were itching to brutally subdue the first suggestion of revolt. It was a dangerous, intoxicating time and life was lived on the edge as the early believers never knew what was around the next corner. Yet for all the excitement it is the following verses that always stop me in my tracks:

‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.’ Acts 4:32-35 (NIV)

Wow!

I’ll just say that again for effect.

Wow!

To me this is the purest description of community imaginable. Never mind preaching in front of huge crowds, outarguing the supposed greatest theologians of their time and performing miracles at the drop of a hat; it meant nothing unless it was underpinned by love for others. Loving people so much that you were willing to sell all your belongings, even your own house, in order to provide for them. Nobody went without. Everything was shared equally. There were no distinctions made. They were all in this together. They lived and loved out of each other’s pockets.

This to me was and is church. Church is not a building you go to once a week where you exchange small talk with people you don’t really know or care to know and vice versa. Church isn’t singing a few songs and wearing your best clothes so that you look good in front of those you want to impress. Church isn’t fake smiles and ‘I’m fine’ and ‘I’m so sorry to hear that I’ll pray for you’ but then don’t because you didn’t really mean it and, hey, they aren’t going to know anyway. Church is so, so much more than that. Church is love. Selfless, humble love.

Church is praying privately for someone you don’t particularly like without them knowing you are; church is helping out a needy neighbour or a homeless person and then not bragging about it to all and sundry. Church is keeping in touch with people seven days a week instead of just putting on a performance on a Sunday morning. Church is every second of every day you have. Church is Jesus and Jesus is Church. It’s not about rules and regulations and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. It’s about the freedom of loving and expecting nothing in return.

The early Church had it spot on. Because it’s leaders experienced it first hand with Jesus for three years during his ministry on earth. They saw and they got it. I’m not so sure what Jesus would think of many of our churches today. I see more love on the streets, often being carried out by people who have never crossed the threshold of a church building. These are the people who inspire me to try harder and to do better. These are the people who truly get what Jesus taught two millennia ago.

You shouldn’t be ashamed to love others. We can all learn from the early Church. People who gave up their livelihoods, their reputations and often their lives for a cause which they knew was right. People of honour and integrity. People like Peter and Stephen and Paul. There is power in humility; there is strength in revealing your weaknesses and flaws to others. We need to work towards building these communities again. To let the lonely, the broken and the desperate know that they need never be lonely, broken and desperate again.

I would encourage you today to look around within your own community and identify someone in need. Then take the revolutionary step of doing something to address that need. It could be as simple as buying a cup of coffee or sending a text message. There is someone within your sphere of influence today who needs help, who needs your help. Be bold and take that first step, make that first move. Identify and address their need. They need you and you need to act. Be their community and make a difference today. Thank you.

What is church to you?

Who needs your help today?

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.

Feeling Useless? Worthless? Hopeless? Then Read This….

I read a lot. Too much probably. But the book that I probably don’t read enough is the Bible. I try to pick it up every day, even if it’s only to study a few lines. I know it is not for everyone and is probably the most controversial book ever written but, personally, I always feel better when I leaf through it. I’ve learnt so much from it and, when properly and consistently applied to your life, you really can reap the benefits. I know I have.

If nothing else the Bible is full of great stories of er…..biblical proportions. It is bursting with heroes and villains, incredible battles, natural disasters, miraculous happenings, epic family dramas and breathtaking love stories. It really has it all. Even a talking donkey millennia before Shrek was released. What’s not to like about that!

The Bible offers a consistent message that rings true to me – no matter how hopeless your situation might seem or how worthless you might feel there is hope. The Greatest Story Of Them All is bursting with tales of how God used walking disaster zones to perform great deeds. Zeroes to heroes. Don’t agree? Well then I suggest you check out the stories of Moses, Gideon, Samson, David, Jonah, Matthew, Paul and so on and on and on.

My favourite though has to be Peter. The Fisherman Formerly Known As Simon who Jesus plucked from the relative obscurity of the shores of Galillee to spearhead the greatest revolutionary movement ever to sweep the earth. He was hand picked by Jesus to lead the early Christian church against seemingly insurmountable odds. Yet, throughout the Gospels, he comes across as the most infuriating of characters. And the most unlikely of leaders. Peter who saw Jesus raise the dead and heal countless people, including his own mother in law, yet still had doubts. Maybe he didn’t want Jesus to heal his mother in law. Like many other men. Not me I might add. I get on very well with mine. I’m not scared of her. More a healthy respect 😳

Peter, whose faith failed him when he attempted to walk on the waters. Peter, whose nerve failed him during the transfiguration causing him to start babbling about building tents for Jesus and the prophets. Peter, whose temperament failed him when he struck out in anger in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, whose nerve failed him when he denied knowing Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion. What on earth did Jesus see in him that led him to declare that Peter would be the rock on which he would build his Church following the Ascension?

He saw something. He saw beyond the many flaws to see the innate inner strength and courage. The courage that meant he was the first to race into the tomb that Easter Sunday. The courage to speak to thousands on the day of Pentecost. The courage to establish the churches in Antioch and Rome in the face of barbaric persecution. The courage to die a martyrs death in the latter city yet still have the humility to ask to be crucified upside down as he didn’t view himself worthy enough to die the same death as the Messiah.

I don’t believe in natural leaders. Peter certainly wasn’t one. I believe we all have the ability to lead and influence others. We all have the ability to set a positive example and bring out the best in others. I also don’t believe in lost causes. None of us are worthless, hopeless or beyond redemption. It is never too late to turn your life around. No hole is too deep, no mess too messy. Everyone has good in them, everyone has the potential to be a better person and change the world. We just have to rise above the shame, the guilt and the despair. Peter did and so can you.

I can be shy about my faith and there’s no bigger turn off to me than having Christianity rammed down your throat. But I should talk about it more on this blog. So over the next few days I’m going to write a bit more about ‘useless, worthless, hopeless’ Peter and the rabble of murderers, thieves, political extremists and social outcasts who Jesus entrusted with spreading his message. People who changed the world. And it all started in an upper room in Jerusalem where they gathered frightened and confused awaiting a sign from Heaven.

Until next time. Never give up. Just like Peter never gave up.

Matthew 16:18 – ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’

This blog post is in conjunction with a series being written by Littlemissbearpaw at http://sistersbyfaith.wordpress.com over the coming days. I’d encourage you to check out and follow her blog.

Here’s To Being Average

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What height are you?

Are you comfortable in your own skin?

What’s so awesome about celebrating the average?

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.

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?

What’s So Super About Heroes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death to heroes.

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

Creeping Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bite Your Lip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know your pain.

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

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

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

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

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

We Dare You To Comment On This

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

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

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

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

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

Please comment below. Thank you.

The Grind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find the grind. For there you find yourself.

What is your grind?

Where do you hope your grind will eventually lead you?

OCD And Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Outta Aghalee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your embarrassing ‘talents’?

Melancholy v Mirth? How do you balance them?

There Are People I Avoid On The Train

There are people I avoid on the train. I always see them before they see me. I turn the other way. I pull my cap down over my face. I hurry along and hold my breath dreading my name being called out or a hand on my shoulder. Pulling me back to a place I don’t want to recall, to a place I have battled to escape and have no intention of returning to.

There are people I avoid on the train. Note I say people as opposed to person. Plural as opposed to singular. For when you add them up there are quite a few. In fact they seem to be everywhere. My daily commute is a minefield of potentially awkward and embarrassing encounters that I have no desire to resurrect. So I skulk and scurry. I dodge and duke. Catch me if you can cos I’m too quick and I’m too clever for you all. Aren’t I?

There are people I avoid on the train. I sometimes wonder what they would say to me if we spoke. Would it be inane small talk about the kids or the weather? Or would they cut to the chase and go straight for the jugular. Why? How? Where? When? Would there be polite chit chat or raised voices and recriminations? Would they offer a hand of reconciliation? Would it be a hot tongue or a cold shoulder? Good job I’m the Scarlet Pimpernel of public transport, right?

There are people I avoid on the train. But I can’t avoid them in my dreams. They visit them occasionally where I am forced to face the inevitable. You can’t run away in your dreams. Well you can and I’ve tried but you never seem to get very far. They always seem to catch up or be waiting for you just around the corner. Like Freddy Krueger. And their accusations cut just as deep as old Freddy’s claws. Last night they accused me of jealousy. But on another night it could be something else. Either way I can never get back to sleep. Wide awake. Thinking.

There are people I avoid on the train. I’m getting rather good at it. And then it hits me. Are they avoiding me? Are they seeing me a split second before I see them? Are they the one taking evasive action and diving for cover? I always thought they would want to talk, to engage, to build bridges and tear down barriers. Because it’s all about me and the hurt they have caused me. It’s all their fault and I’m the victim. I’ve done nothing wrong and I should be standing tall and proud beyond reproach. And yet I skulk through the carriages like a thief in the night.

There are people I avoid on the train. Or am I avoiding myself? Am I avoiding the inevitable? Is this a cowardly act or a necessary one of self preservation? I mean no offence with this self defence. I need to hide away in my fortress and pull up the drawbridge. It’s either that or be utterly exposed to the searing truth. The truth that burns away all the excuses and lies, that reveals me for who I really am. A broken man picking up the pieces the best way that he can. Broken yet functioning. Clinging on thanks to the grace of a God I don’t deserve.

There are people I avoid on the train. I’ll keep avoiding them. It’s best that way, But I can’t avoid God no matter how hard I try. He can be annoyingly persistent. He even bugs atheists and agnostics. He will nag and niggle with that small, still voice of his. A message here and a sign there. Chipping away at my scorched, scarred heart to reveal fresh, living tissue beneath. A new heart for a new man. Pumping with passion and purpose. Soaked in the blood of another. Beating to the rhythm of heavenly drums.

There are people I avoid on the train. But I can’t avoid myself. Every day I have to look in the mirror. I don’t like what I see but I see it anyway. For seeing is believing. And I believe again. I believe I’ve been given this twenty second chance for a reason. For this is my season and I’m grabbing it with both hands this time. This is my destiny, this is what I was called to do. One day there will be no more train and no more need to hide. For my story will be told bright and bold. You can’t avoid the void forever. One day you have to stop running and stare deep into the darkness.

For that is where you will find the light.

Are there people you avoid?

What are you running from?

2018 – The Year Of Death

I got a phrase in my head the other day. This happens from time to time. It’s hard to explain but it’s as if the phrase was not of me. I didn’t think it into existence, it came from elsewhere, as if someone or something else planted it in my mind. I’m not sure if it is a promise, a warning or just my admittedly overworked brain playing tricks on me. Whatever the reason the phrase was there and I had to deal with it. What was the phrase? Why, I’m so glad you asked.

It was this. 2018 is the Year Of Death.

On the face of it, not the most cheery or reassuring message. It’s hardly up there with ‘2018 is the Year of Winning the Lottery’ or ‘2018 is the Year of Manchester United Winning the Champions League.’ Was there going to be a death in the family? It was enough to send a serial worrier like me into a full blown panic. Yet I didn’t feel frightened by the message. Something told me that it had been sent to reassure and comfort me as opposed to dismay and alarm.

I began to see the flip side of the message and realised it was a message of hope and intention. It was a positive proclamation. Death should not be feared especially within this context. Death is just part of the journey. I have walked a long and winding road in recent years. I have been carrying a lot of baggage from my past which has weighed me down and distracted me at times. It has made the journey a longer and more cumbersome one than it needed to be.

I saw it as an old fashioned leather rucksack filled with stones. It’s straps were cutting into my shoulders and my back was aching from the weight of its contents. It was literally killing me. My past was playing havoc with my present and preventing me from reaching my future. The rucksack was overflowing with guilt, shame, embarrassment and a host of other negative emotions that needed flushed out of my system; a toxic stew that had to be purged from my contaminated soul.

This blog is part of that purging process. It has grown beyond our wildest dreams and we have big plans for it in the year ahead. It has reignited my love of writing and I have received amazing feedback and support which has spurred me on. I want to write, I need to write and I hope I’m reasonably good at it. The written word is my weapon against the past. I will use it to slay my demons. I will use it to cut the rucksack free from my weary shoulders and let it fall by the wayside.

With it no longer holding me back I can stride on with fresh vigour and purpose towards my destiny. So I say death to the past. Death to guilt and shame. Death to regret and remorse. Death to addictive behaviour. Death to obsessive, intrusive thinking. Death to fear and worry. Death to negativity. Death to jealousy and hate. Death to the self. Death to relationships and friendships which drag you down. Death to lies. Death to anything which prevents you from becoming the person you were born to be. Death to Death.

You were born to live. You were born to make an impact, to make a difference. You are a pebble thrown into a vast, still lake. The ripples you create spread out across its surface from shore to shore. You are an agent of change. You are an electrical current surging through the grid of creation. You are unstoppable. You are irresistible. You light up your environment like a firework on the 4th of July. You are precious and unique. You are loved. You are love.

2018 holds no fear for me for it is the Year of Death. I embrace it.

What are you ‘Death to’ in 2018?

CSI: You

Crime scenes can be fascinating but grisly locations. My work occasionally involves me attending them and experiencing the other side of the cordon. I’ve even had to wear those silly forensic oversuits, masks and gloves on occasion. It wasn’t my best fashion moment let me tell you. I resembled a giant, white Teletubby. My Tinky Winky was decidedly un rinky dinky! Here’s a tip as well should you ever find yourself in one (well you never know). If you bend over make sure you are wearing an undergarment. They tend to rip quite easily. You’re very welcome.

Crime scenes are frenetic, highly pressurised environments. Scientists, photographers, mappers and scenes of crime officers buzz around carrying out their various duties. They have to be painstakingly meticulous. The tiniest oversight can result in crucial evidence being overlooked. A hair, a speck of blood, a fingerprint. Attention to detail is paramount. Clues can be concealed anywhere and only the most highly trained mind can identify and decipher them. I tend to find myself at the eye of this storm. I direct, advise and consult. But when it comes to the technical, scientific stuff I take a step back and leave it to the boffins and geeks. For I am neither. Cos I am the coolest of albino Teletubbies.

You might pore over a crime scene for hours and see nothing. A highly qualified specialist can spend just a few moments working the scene and report back with observations and findings which will leave you standing slack jawed in astonishment. Piecing together what happened at any scene is a team effort. It requires a cast of many. I cannot be expected to do it on my own. I don’t have the necessary knowledge, experience and skills. I rely on others to paint a picture for me. I delegate and I listen. Failure to do so can be career suicide.

When all the pieces of the jigsaw are presented to me I can then begin to slot them together. This is where my analytical and interpretive skills come to the fore. I provide a strategic overview like a general surveying a battlefield far below him. I’m nowhere near as important as a general but you get my drift. Jigsaws can be frustrating and time consuming. But there is no better feeling than fixing those last few pieces into place and the picture finally merging into focus. It makes all the hard work beforehand worthwhile.

Life can be a bit like working a crime scene. Baffling and bloody in equal measure. Attempt to decipher it alone and you will soon find yourself in hot water. You will quickly become swamped and end up hopelessly out of your depth. You need others around you, people who you can rely upon. Experts who will guide you through the pitfalls and lead you to the truth which is often staring you right in the face. You cannot rush life’s trials just like you cannot rush a crime scene. It takes time and it requires teamwork.

I spent a good chunk of my life trying to do it on my own. Attempting to unlock the riddle locked inside a conundrum wrapped inside an enigma that was me. I never got very far and invariably blundered past the subtle signposts and discreet directions set out along the path I travelled. I have been clueless to the clues and oblivious to the obvious. Unable to make any sense of the evidence spread out before my weary eyes. Blinded by my own selfish and sinful needs. Unable to see the wood for the trees. Bogged down in a quagmire of self pity and negativity. Going nowhere fast. When the answers were staring me right in the face all along. My faith and my family. They were my solution. They were the magnifying glass that this Sherlock Holmes needed.

Crime scenes cannot be held forever. Eventually the cordon will be taken down and the various agencies will pack up their bags and head home. The cleaning agencies will scrub the streets clean and it will be as if nothing ever happened. Nothing to see here folks. Move along now people. You only get one chance at at crime scene. Time is precious. You need to process it as a team before the opportunity is lost forever. They call it the golden hour. One chance, don’t mess it up. No pressure. Just like life really. You get one chance.

Your life is like a crime scene. It is a living, breathing, messy puzzle and you are the detective called to unravel its secrets and decode its mysteries. You only get one shot at it so tread carefully. Examine every inch of it and from every possible angle. In minute, fine grain detail. Every crime scene examination is a search for the truth. The truth you have been searching for your entire life. Your purpose. Your meaning. Your calling. The tiniest grain of information could unlock the door to worlds and universes that you never knew existed before. The key to your life.

But don’t do it alone. Use the resources available to you. Those who know you better than you know yourself. I can’t tell you who these people are. They are your tribe, your inner circle. Allow them underneath the cordon tape and into your confidence. Show them the beautiful mess that you are. Allow them to sift through the debris and help you piece together the jigsaw that reveals your purpose and destiny. Let them help you for you cannot do it alone. You must not do it alone. For before you know it the scene will be lost and the secret treasures of your being will be blown away into the night never to return. You will be unable to find the message in your mess.

Standing alone and confused on a dark, damp street. In an ill fitting Teletubby costume. Not knowing who you are nor why you are here. Now that would be a crime.

How are you getting on at working your crime scene?

Who are your tribe? Do you allow them under the cordon?

Is there a message hidden in your mess?

January 150 Mile Challenge Update

After three days on the sidelines due to illness I started running again yesterday. 8.1 miles yesterday and 7.2 miles today bring me up to 60 miles in total for the month so far. Which has me back on schedule to attain my target of 150 miles in January. Running to me is mentally beneficial as much as physical. It does wonders for my high stress levels and low self esteem. A running Stephen is certainly a happier Stephen.

I will post occasional running stories throughout the year. I don’t want to become a running bore (which I am prone to do) but running is part of me and part of my story. So it would feel odd if I didn’t write about it now and again. In a previous blogging existence I wrote about nothing else. But that blog was all about my ego and craving attention for all the wrong reasons. When I write about running now I do so in order to promote the benefits of healthy exercise to those struggling with addiction, depression or other mental health issues.

It costs nothing and it’s given me renewed life and freedom. Four years ago I weighed over 15 stone in weight and could barely run the length of myself. I’m now three stone lighter and ran my seventh marathon last November. I plan to run more this year. If I can do it then so can anyone. All you need is a little bit of ability and a whole lot of determination. Dreams can become reality. All you need to do is wake up and take that first step.

Keep running your race. Wherever it takes you,

The Ugly Truth

I used to lie all the time. In fact I became rather good at it. I lied to my wife. I lied to my kids. I lied to my mother and sister. I lied to my friends and work colleagues. I lied to anyone who I was engaged in conversation with for any length of time. I lied face to face. I lied on the phone. I lied via text message. I lied online. I liked to lie. I was a walking, talking lie-ability.

I even lied to myself. And I was such an accomplished liar that even I began to believe myself. I still continued to believe that I was a more or less honest, upstanding husband, father, son, brother and so on. Like any addict I was delusional. I thought I could stop lying at any time and return to the real world. Every lie, however, took me a step further away from where I needed to be. My lies accumulated and created a sticky, tangled web from which there was no escape.

Why do we lie? Why are some of us seemingly allergic to telling the truth. Well at the heart of it is self preservation. Lying is fundamentally a selfish act. The liar seeks to preserve their reputation and prevent others from seeing what lurks beneath the lies – the ugly, sinful truth. Why confront that when you can be mesmerised by beautiful, glittering lies. Lies are fluffy, soft and shiny. The truth, on the other hand, is all sharp edges and hard surfaces. Lies are beautiful. The truth is no oil painting.

The truth regarding me was not a pretty sight. And eventually it was exposed for all to marvel at it in its malignant magnificence. They say the truth will set you free but it didn’t feel like that every time it happened to me. And it always did. I wasn’t as good a liar as I thought I was for I was always found out. That moment when you realised you were exposed and cornered; when your blood turned to ice and your heart lurched into the pit of your stomach. There is no more sickening feeling.

It was then and only then that I saw the lies for that they really were. I saw the pain and distress I caused my loved ones. I saw that beneath the cocky, swaggering exterior I was nothing but a lilywhite coward. My legs turned to jelly and I struggled to breathe. I was overcome with nausea and self pity. I became nothing. Without my protective cloak of lies the cruel, ugly truth burned me to a crisp. It left me naked and bleeding, ashamed to look at myself in a mirror. I still struggle with that even to this day.

Learning to tell the truth again is hard work. When your default setting is to lie it takes a conscious act to do anything but that. The truth is clunky and cumbersome. It trips you up and slows you down. The truth is sitting in a huge traffic tailback as Liar Airlines zooms past overhead. Learning to tell the truth again is like learning to walk again; one painful, uncertain step at a time. It is so tempting to fall back into old habits and tell a little, white one just to oil the wheel the oils of life.

But one lie is never enough just like one drink is never enough for an alcoholic. Every landslide starts with one tiny stone rolling. And I must never be swallowed up again by an avalanche of my own creation. My lies are the smokescreen I create in order to hide sinful secrets. Secrets that have broken me time and time again. I cannot and will not allow that to happen again. I must fight the urge to lie and avoid the liars who have led me down dark paths before.

Every addict is an accomplished liar. Strip away the lies and you see the addiction for what it truly is. The truth to an addict is like kryptonite to Superman. It brings the strongest miscreant to their knees. It obliterates them and it is only then that they can start to rebuild. From scratch. The truth is a wrecking ball in the cosy life of a liar. It is radical and violent. There is nothing cuddly about it. Every avenging angel comes with fire and fury, not fluffy clouds and heavenly choirs.

I cling to the truth. It burns and cuts me. I slip and stumble but I cling on for dear life. An ugly truth for a battered, dirty soul.

Do you struggle with telling the truth?

How have lies impacted on your life?

Sick Of Being Sick

Chez Black has been struck with all kinds of sickness and illness over the last few weeks. Fionnuala has been particularly unfortunate and has been struggling with all sorts of ailments. Once she overcomes one bug another one has appeared over the horizon to blight her. It has been a very exhausting and debilitating period for her.

Hannah and Rebecca have both been off school this week with various sniffles and coughs. Hannah also had a nasty stomach bug after Christmas. Even our eldest, ‘IronMan’ Adam, came home from school today feeling under the weather. And as for yours truly? Well I’ve been manfully battling manflu these last three days. But I’m not one to complain right?

We’ve had to miss various trips and appointments. We haven’t been to church in over a month and have effectively quarantined ourselves off from the rest of civilisation bar essential journeys. We are well and truly sick of being sick. It seems that we have picked up every lurgy going. You name it, we have it. I know we have been hit by nothing really serious but it’s still been a frustrating start to 2018.

If only everything was so infectious. Why can’t I be struck down with excessive kindness, tolerance or generosity? Wouldn’t it be great if you woke up one morning and couldn’t stop smiling? Or caught a nasty dose of neighbourly love? Nope. These characteristics seem to come much harder to most of us. They are not an automatic action like sneezing or coughing. They require an actual effort on our part. An effort that is often lacking on the part of many.

Fionnuala and I watch the regional, national and international news but see nothing but hatred and bigotry. We turn on mainstream television and see traditional values and morals being relentlessly attacked by the ‘politically correct’ police. You are scared to open your mouth today for fear of offending someone. Our skins are becoming thinner as our hearts become harder.

The same applies to all aspects of society. People don’t seem to care any more about nobody but numero uno. Indifference and apathy are reaching epidemic proportions. If you dare to have an opinion contrary to the accepted norm you are ostracised and ridiculed. It’s a mad, mad world. Or rather it’s a sad, sad world.

I’m embarrassed by our elected representatives. I’m appalled by many of our so called celebrities. I’m disappointed by supposed role models. I’m let down by family and supposed friends. It’s little wonder we often as a family do not want to mix and mingle. Be it attending the workplace, church or social events. Everywhere we look we see shallowness and hypocrisy.

We will soldier on through this period of illness just as we will soldier on through life. We will love where we can and hold our heads high. We are proud of our home and our kids even though our throats are sore and our noses are blocked. We care and because we care we won’t give up. We remain optimistic even though the world doesn’t offer much in the way of optimism.

We are sick. But the world is sicker.

Shatter The Silence

Silence is golden they say. In today’s hectic world it is almost impossible to escape the constant hustle and bustle of everyday life. With technological advances we are rarely totally alone nowadays. We crave anonymity and inaccessibility. We just want five minutes of peace and quiet. We need a break, a time out, a little ‘me time.’ The ‘must have’ holiday invariably involves a deserted beach with no internet.

Some people choose to drop out of society. They become hermits and recluses. They turn their backs on human interaction. There can be a plethora of reasons for this. Some say it is the only way they can sustain a meaningful relationship with God. The noise of the world creates too many barriers between them and their Creator. They argue that by turning their back on modern life they are discovering the true meaning of life.

Others are hounded into silence. They have given up. Life has knocked them to the canvas once too often and they cannot pick themselves up again. They have been abused, betrayed and hurt beyond repair. The pain of a lonely life is preferable to the horrors they have experienced. They retreat into their self made fortresses. They become ghosts, drifting through life like wraiths on the wind.

All of the above scenarios involve choice. Although all three originate from differing needs they all entail a decision being made in order to improve an individual’s set of circumstances. Be it for physical, mental, emotional or spiritual requirements the quest for silence is all-consuming. It may be for self preservation or self improvement but it is dictated by free will. We decide. We crave the silence. It is more precious than anything. It is the gold at the end of our rainbow.

What if we don’t have that choice however? What if the silence is forced upon us. I see so many relationships today that are empty shells containing nothing but silence. So many friendships derailed by miscommunication and misunderstanding. For some silence is a weapon in their armoury that they wield to devastating effect. It can cut deeper than the most refined steel, piercing dreams and shattering lives. Silence can be a killer.

The victims are left bewildered and broken. Their is no closure, no explanation for how things have turned out the way they have. Questions are unanswered, apologies are snubbed, olive branches are thrown into the fires of recrimination. They are left hanging in limbo, twisting in the wind, clutching at the noose which squeezes the last breath of hope from their screaming lungs.

Many say Hell is a place of eternal silence and darkness. I can think of nothing more horrific. Silence is golden they say. It can also be toxic, sickening and leave its victims broken and bleeding. A cold shoulder can burn as deeply as a white hot poker. It can brand people for life, scar them beyond recognition. There is much to be said for reconciliation and restoration. No relationship is beyond salvage if embraced with love and hope.

Swallow the bile and the pride. Find it in your heart to forgive. Expose yourself to the healing glow of forgiveness. It’s not easy but it can be done. Put down that stone you are about to throw. Look around and then look deep into your very being. Are you really any better? Taking the high moral ground means you only have farther to fall when the tables are turned and you find yourself in a similar situation.

For that time will come. As certain as night follows day. Shatter the silence. Let your voice be heard. It could save a life of today.

Have you been a victim of silence?

Have you used silence as a weapon before?

Can you forgive someone today and shatter the silence?

Excess All Areas – Part One

I am a creature of excess. When I get involved in an activity that I am passionate about I have to take it to the nth degree. If there is a nth post graduate qualification, or possibly a masters option, then sign me up. I always take it to the limit, to the extreme, to 100% and beyond. Is that even possible? To give over 100%. Answers on a postcard please. I am Mr. Excess All Areas.

In my days of copious alcohol consumption one drink was never enough. Social drinking has always baffled me. Having one beer was pointless as far as I was concerned. I drank to get drunk. Doesn’t everyone? No??! Well who knew. I didn’t even like the taste of it. It was an ends to a means; a way of getting from Point A to Point B as swiftly as possible. Point B was where it was at. I had no problems or worries there. The downside was that the following morning I awoke with a horrific hangover to find I was right back at Point A again. I binged. Then cringed….and winged.

Some years ago I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Order (OCD). This explained a lot. I was largely driven by it. At times I fled it but on other occasions it urged me onwards to new heights. Or depths depending on your perspective. When I run, my default setting is to run long distances. When I have the bit between my teeth at work, I clock up long hours. When I became a Christian in the early days I lived, ate and breathed it. I have an addictive personality. Which is why I avoid PlayStations, scratch cards, heroin and daytime soap operas like the plague.

When I took up a new activity or interest I had to become the best I possibly could at it. There were no half measures. I could never be a lukewarm participant. With me it was either freezing cold or scalding hot. And as we all know exposing yourself to extremes of temperature is a dangerous business. I bolstered what little talent I had in any given field with bucketloads of OCD fuelled determination and stubbornness. It was all or nothing. The secret of my success was excess. It is a fine line between passion and obsession. I still walk that tightrope every day.

I can, and have, become obsessed with just about anything. In order to ensure the integrity and impartiality of this post (he typed pretentiously) I asked Fionnuala to compile a list of 10 things I have become obsessed with down the years. Her initial response was ‘only 10?’ She’s a laugh a minute my wife. Anyway here is her list….

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook (before I discovered Twitter and Instagram), alcohol, work, running, Diet Coke, Tomb Raider (the games and Jolie movies), football, calories, the Game of Thrones cast (primarily all things Stark) Katy Perry (not so keen on the new haircut) the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival (which is held in March but I started preparing for it the previous November), selfies (hangs head in shame), lying (hangs head even further in shame), being liked by others and being somebody who I am not. In the end I had to tell her to stop. She’s probably still typing.

I see a lot of similar people on WordPress. Their demons drive them to excess. They are damaged souls. Life has gouged great holes in them, gaping wounds. They seek to fill these voids with anything that will allow them to feel again. They are beyond numb for at least numbness is something. They are nothing. They need something, anything to cling onto. Excess is their oxygen. It is what propels them gasping and spluttering above the raging waters of depression and despair. It is life.

It can be anything. Drugs, alcohol, money, power, sex. It can be a person. It can be a possession. Anything. But it must be ramped up to excess. Excess is the common denominator that underpins every story I read. Addiction, Depression, OCD, Anxiety, Anorexia, Bulimia, the list go on. We crave escape, release, freedom. But the demons are clever. They seduce us with their soothing words. They promise the above but in reality they are urging us deeper into the mire of captivity. They lie. The shiny baubles they dangle so tantalisingly in front of us are worthless. It is all superficial. We need to look beyond the bright lights to find the truth.

They are masters of deceit. Yet we fall for it time and time again. One more glass, one more hit, one more purge and all our problems will be gone. Or at least eased. Anything to get away from our drab, dreary realities. There must be more to life than this. We see excess as the swipe card which will allow us access this magical kingdom, this nirvana which we have been so desperately seeking. It is only when we stand on the other side and the veil falls back that we realise we have been duped.

We crave the grave. Not literally (although tragically some are driven down that dark path) but we seek an end to who we have become. I am currently reading ‘How To Murder Your Life’ by Cat Marnell. If you ever read one story of recovery from addiction and mental illness read hers. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. Brutal, visceral honesty. Searing passion and written in such a frantic, beautiful style.

Sorry I’m obsessing again. Do you see a pattern developing here? But the title says it all. Excess is our weapon of choice. When we survey the crime scenes of our lives we will see it glistening in a pool of our own blood. We are murderers and the victims are our lives. We flee the scene but, despite what we think, we cannot flee ourselves. We wake up and are right back where we started. Excess is a prison not a get out of jail free card. It doesn’t open doors, it builds walls. Between yourself and your loved ones. Between who you are and who you have the potential to be.

It is a double edged sword. A sword that can be wielded for good or harm. My next post will focus on the latter and explore how we can use our excessive, obsessive natures to overcome our demons. We can turn the tables and slay them with their own weapons. And as they lie bleeding at our feet we can finally taste true freedom. A new world where we can live without fear and shame. Just believe. You are within touching distance.

Can you relate to this post?

What are your experiences and thoughts regarding excessive and obsessive behaviour?

Who Do You Trust?

Last year I made an unusual New Years Resolution. I decided to give up having friends. That’s right. I was going solo. All I needed were Fionnuala and the kids. The reason? Well largely it was forced upon me. I had self destructed in such spectacular fashion that some people no longer wanted anything to do with me. Others did but only if I adhered to a number of pre-conditions. After some consideration I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t. And others again I had to cut adrift myself as they simply were not good for me.

Within a relatively short period of time I went from having a reasonably busy social life to well….nothing. We left the church we had been actively involved in and are still struggling to find a new spiritual home. I cut off all my ties with various running groups I had been linked to. I left all formats of social media and deleted a swathe of contact numbers from my mobile phone. I don’t have a big family. I have one sister who I don’t see very often and I lost my father in 2010 to prostate cancer. Since then my mother has become something of a recluse and, although we talk every day on the phone, I maybe see her once every couple of months.

It was Fionnuala and the kids. I got up, went to work and came home. I run on my own. I go and watch my son play rugby but don’t really mix with all the other parents. I keep my head down wherever I go and usually wear a cap. People walk past as if I don’t exist and that’s just fine by me. I used to seek out the limelight whereas now I shun it. Plus I can no longer fall back on alcohol to combat my social awkwardness. I’m a weirdo, a geek, an oddball. As long as I have my Kindle Fire and Netflix then I’m as happy as a pig in you know what.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m anti-social. I’m shy and awkward but I would love to have friends. The written medium is my strongest communication format. I feel very at home when I am writing. Put me in a room full of strangers, however, and ask me to engage in small talk and I would crumple in an embarrassed heap. I’d be like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. ‘I’m mellllllttttiiiiiiinnngggggg!!!!’ Flying monkeys optional. They really freak me out by the way.

I want to have friends but I just can’t get my thang together on this front. I’m just me and not a lot of people get thar. I like hobbits and zombies and running 26.2 miles for ‘fun’. These icebreakers tend to be greeted by a lot of blank stares whenever I drop them into the conversation. I’ve been trying to explain my rationale regarding this situation for five paragraphs now but I guess the ever so eloquent Taylor Swift sums it up best.

I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me….

The Social Media Wannabe Formerly Known as Stephen Black has inflicted and sustained considerable damage over the last few years. Thank God I’m now back on the straight and narrow. I have massive trust issues, however. I trust very few people. I’ll take that a step further. I don’t even trust myself most of the time. It can take years to establish trust but you can destroy it in a few seconds. Fionnuala dragged me very reluctantly back onto social media via this blog and I am slowly starting to find my feet again. I am learning to trust others and myself again. I hope others are learning to trust me as well.

It’s a constant battle though. I want to help people through this blog but I’m ever alert and wary. Am I coming across as too arrogant? Pretentious? Am I disclosing too much about myself? Too little? How do I come across? Am I doing enough? The questions keep coming. And it all boils down to one little word – trust. Trust rusts. It needs constant attention like one of those massive road bridges that are constantly being painted to combat corrosion. Once the painters get to the far end of the bridge they have to start all over because the near end has started to rust again.

I want to thank WordPress. For allowing me to be myself. For allowing me to lower my defences and display my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For allowing me to trust people again. For allowing others to trust me. For allowing me to learn to trust myself again.

I am everything you are allowing me to become. I trust this community, this tribe. I think I’ve finally found my people. Thank you.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Where do you stand on the issue of trust?

The Blame Game

How many times this year already have you grumbled to yourself about a situation you have found yourself in? Bemoaned your circumstances and muttered ‘why me?’ under your breath? Shook your fist at the heavens and cursed your bad luck?

When it comes to feeling sorry for yourself I have it down to a fine art. Where there’s a pity party going down I’m invariably the first one there with a bottle and a tray of sandwiches. It’s as if I take a perverse pleasure out of any misfortune that befalls me. Because then I can focus totally on my favourite topic – myself.

There’s a problem at work. I invariably place it at the door of my senior management. I never blame a member of my team because I’m such a nice guy remember? But anyone a pay grade or more above me is fair game because that’s why they’re paid the big bucks right?

Or something goes wrong in the house. I’ll blame Fionnuala, the kids, Charlie the border terrier, the postman even; anyone but myself. I feel like Captain America at times as I must have the world’s most awesome shield to deflect all the blame heading in my direction. I must think I’m made of Teflon because as far as I’m concerned – nothing sticks.

Shifting the blame and shirking your responsibilities is no walk in the park let me tell you. It’s hard work. It involves lying and conniving and all other sorts of other disreputable behaviour. Your brain is constantly working in overdrive trying to keep ahead in the blame game. By the end of the day I’m invariably exhausted. Being this perfect and faultless doesn’t just happen.

And why do I slave so tirelessly at the blame game? Well let’s consider the alternative. Facing the uncomfortable truth. Looking in the mirror and realising, heaven forbid, that some of the messes I regularly find myself in might just be of my own doing. Some of the wounds I sustain might be self inflicted? Somebody call the Reality Police! There’s a man down over here.

If we are brutally honest (and that’s what this blogging business is all about after all) and take a good, long look at our circumstances we will find that, more often or not, we are least partially at fault for what has happened. Did we really have nothing to do with the latest office crisis? Are you 100% without fault for that argument you had with your friend last night? Is it really the kids fault that you lost your cool with them at the weekend?

Acknowledging and taking responsibility for your own failings and shortcomings takes guts. We tend to gloss over them and focus on our more positive characteristics when we are taking stock of our actions. It’s so easy to point the finger at others when, in fact, there are four more pointing back at ourselves. Oh alright then, three fingers and a thumb but you get my drift.

Take a moment and replay the last ‘disaster’ that took place in your life. Now conduct a mental inventory. What could you have done to have avoided or minimised what happened? Were your actions totally without blemish? And if so what can you do now to rectify the situation. That’s the great thing about the blame game. No matter how late in the day it might seem there is usually always time to make amends. Throw that Hail Mary pass. Score that injury time penalty kick.

Take the blame and ease the pain. In the long run everyone’s a winner that way.

What are your thoughts on The Blame Game? Are you a player?

We Need You

I read a lot of blogs on here and try as much as I can to interact with, and encourage, you the good people of WordPress. Some posts are penned from places of hope and restoration by writers who have been through horrendous experiences but have emerged (battered yet triumphant) from the other side. Others are darker stories from people who are walking similar paths but are at different stages of their journeys. Their rawness and honesty is to be applauded as they stumble through the eye of the storm.

If AFracturedFaith has a mission statement it is to act as a beacon of light to those who are walking the same path as me but not quite as far along. I don’t see myself as a role model but if my words can help even one person then my work is done. Every day I read inspirational stories of courage and resilience. I see tales of tragedy and trauma. But through it all another theme emerges. I see talent amongst the trauma. Pain exposes potential. It unearths an energy and creativity that, otherwise, might never have seen the light of day.

It is akin to the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Where there was once decay and destruction I can now see the first shoots of recovery emerging from the ruins. Your words are rising upwards and creating a latticework upon which you can construct new life. Not only for yourself but for the others who follow your blog. Every positive message is a step forward not just for you as an individual but also the wider recovery community. Your words move us; they turn us into a movement.

I see some of you question the value and validity of your posts. You wonder if anyone even reads them, what’s the point? My message to you is to keep writing and posting. Your words are both therapeutic and educational. They reveal as well as heal. They help others cut through chains of addictive behaviour and find a way through the mist of mental illness. They provide clarity and focus. Your mind may once have been in pieces but you now offer peace of mind. You are both a peacemaker and a pathfinder.

We need you. I need you. And I hope that some of you need me as well. I have spent too much of my life as a needy, attention seeking man. I now want to draw attention to your needs and your talent. Together we are strong and can change lives and worlds. Our former brokenness can lead to breakthrough in the lives of others. Our scars act as signposts for others travelling further down the road behind us. If we sow enough seeds some of them will fall on fertile ground and flourish. From tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow.

So keep sharing your story. The rough with the smooth. We want to hear your voice loud and clear. You are special as is your story. We can learn so much from you. There will be tears and there will be heartbreak. That is all part of the process. It is a necessary evil which will ultimately lead to a greater, sustainable good. You may feel worthless, useless and hopeless but you are not. You are not. Your perceived ‘lessness’ offers us more than you will ever realise. Don’t ever stop.

Where are you on your journey?

What does the blogging community mean to you?

Unhappy New Year

I hate New Year! There I’ve said it.

No, hang on, hate is too strong a word. But I really don’t like it. For all sorts of reasons. The overpriced taxi fares, the fake bonhomie, the soul withering hangover the following morning. All these memories from my past cause me to break out into a cold sweat. This post, however, is about New Year much as I dislike it so I’m not going to focus on the past. Call it one of my New Year Resolutions ha!

Everywhere I look people are making resolutions. They’re going to eat less, exercise more, save the planet, yadda yadda yadda. I’m sure all these declarations are well intentioned and heartfelt at the time but, let’s face it, how many of them last beyond January 7th. By then most of us, myself included, have fallen off the wagon in spectacular fashion, and can only sit on our bruised backsides and egos, watching it roll on into 2018 without us.

This makes us more unhappy than when we started out. For in order to make a resolution you have to be unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your current situation. You are resolving to make a change, to improve your circumstances, to move forward. Yet when the resolution invariably crashes and burns you find yourself more unhappy than when you started. You consider yourself as weak and a failure. Your resolve has dissolved and you haven’t evolved.

You’re back to square one. Make yourself comfortable and take in your surroundings as this is where we spend a good part of our lives. Maybe eat another mince pie while you reflect on what a useless human being you are. Except you’re not. It’s the New Year Resolutions which are useless. You build yourself up all December for this chance, this hope to turn your life around in 2018 only to fall flat on your face at the first hurdle. New Year Resolutions well and truly suck.

This propensity to fail sets us off on entirely the wrong mental footing. New Year and I’ve already flunked out. Just like last year and the year before. By striving to change and move forward we find ourselves ruminating on the imperfections of our past. Which kind of defeats the whole point of the exercise. You sit there with your head in your hands thinking you have to wait another twelve months before you can try again to get a foot on the bottom rung of whatever ladder you are hoping to scale. Right?

Wrong. Why wait a year or a month or a minute for that matter? If I ruled the world (a disturbing thought I know) I would do away with New Year. Who says you can only make resolutions on 1st January. Why not 2nd January, 3rd January or 18th October for that matter. Any day, hour or minute that you choose. Change is a constant process, a state of mind that should run through your veins 24/7/365 not just once a year. So what if you screw up on 2nd January. Dust yourself down and try the next day and the day after that.

Change requires determination. Old habits need broken and new ones formed. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Transformation is a life long process. Do not allow yourself to be defined or confined by your perceived failings on a set, pre-determined day of the year. Every defeat is actually a victory. You learn more about yourself, where you learn from what went wrong the time before and then tweak and tailor your tactics in order to make sure you don’t repeat the same mistake the next time you try. For there will be a next time.

And a next time, and a next time, until it sticks and you nail it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or New York, Paris or Belfast for that matter. They are living, breathing cities which continue to grow to this very second. They are works in progress, as are you. Beautiful creations with a plan and a purpose greater than the sum of all your broken resolutions put together. Make your life one of constant resolution.

For within every resolution lies the solution. To unlock the person you were born to be.

Unhappy New Year everyone! Happy New Rest of your Life!!

Have you a track record of broken resolutions?

What are your 2018 goals and targets?

Beardy McBeardFace – Part One

I don’t have a bucket list but if I ever compiled one I reckon that growing a beard would have been on it. I’ve never had a beard, stubble yes, but never a full one. I’ve always wondered what it would look and feel like. Would I resemble a mighty warrior from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? Or a sad, middle aged man who should really know better.

Fionnuala hates all things face furniture and has always been strongly against the idea of me growing one; anything beyond a two day stubble and she looks at me disapprovingly. She thinks they are dirty but finally relented a week ago and said I could grow one over the Christmas holidays. So it was with much excitement that I banished my razor and shaving foam to the back of the bathroom cabinet. Operation Beardy McBeardyFace was go go go!

There was little to report over the first few days but, as we now reach the week mark, I have become fixated by my facial hair. I have been caught examining it in the mirror. This is bizarre as I normally hate looking at my own reflection and avoid doing so whenever I can. Yet the beard has an eerily hypnotic pull and keeps drawing me back. I find myself stroking it without realising that I am. I even shampooed it the other evening. If this were to continue beard oils and combing may enter the equation. I am like a child with a new plaything.

There are pros and cons to growing a beard. I considered working out how much I would save in toiletries over the course of a year but then decided this was a step in sadness too far. The same goes for the 3.475 days a year I now have to spend on other activities. Like staring in the mirror at myself. Or shopping for beard oils and other related products. The beard is saving me time and money. All I have to do is sit back and do nothing. What’s not to love about that?

The experiment has also reassured me that I do not possess a ginger gene. Being Irish this has always been a concern of mine. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against redheads. Belinda Carlisle was the first love of my life. I used to stalk Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones around Belfast city centre. And Ed Sheerin and Prince Harry have made it cool to be ginger again; no, this all comes from the darkest recesses of my school days when to be a ginger was akin to having social leprosy; you were a pariah, an outcast to be mercilessly mocked for all the days of your life. Duracell Head, Carrot Top, Ginger Ninja and so on and so forth.

I was tubby, shy and wore glasses but at least I wasn’t ginger. Or was I? Thankfully the beard has allayed any concerns I might have had. Not even a hint of copper. It has sprouted up reassuringly dark apart from a grey section around my chin which I think makes me look most distinguished. George Clooney eat your heart out. Why didn’t I think of this years ago. I could have been modelling for Armani. Not only does the beard turn me into a Holywood sensation but it also covers the many parts of my face that I am not so enamoured with. Everyone’s a winner.

Yes a week in and everything is going swimmingly. When I started writing this post I never envisaged it developing into a two parter. Yet it has. You see the beard is taking over. It has developed a life of its own. It is like an alien life form that has attached itself to my face and taken over my mind. And for all the advantages I have listed above there are as many, if not more, disadvantages. The beard is most definitely not beardier on the other side. Part Two will cover all that so try to contain yourselves.

And no before you ask I’m not posting a photo of my bearded self. Some of you may be of a nervous disposition and I don’t want to scare you.

Men – do you have a beard? What have been your experiences with facial hair?

Women – are you a fan of face furniture? Beards? Moustaches? Hipster goatees?

Stinking Thinking – Part Two

Follow me He said. So I did and it led me to them. I was hungry and needed fed, my starving soul craved sustenance like an addict craves the needle and the relief of release. I gorged on their manna but the more I think back, it wasn’t from heaven. This desire to please was like a disease. So I smiled and I nodded as they queried and prodded. I listened and learned but the sin it still burned. I yearned to be better and free and unfettered. Love me, like me, tolerate me, anything me. Mesmerised and traumatised. I stumbled on regardless, deaf to your screams as I destroyed our dreams.

Sober as a judge but as drunk as a skunk as I slithered and slid back down into the pit. And this time it’s worse so I curse the day I blamed the drink. No excuses this time, no rhyme or reason for this new season of shame and pain. I stand oblique to your clique and it reeks of the world not the word. Judge, jury and executioner. They strike the gavel as I unravel.

We’d travelled so far but I’m sliding back and there’s no slack as I scrabble, babble, fall back into the rabble. Hands digging in the rubble. A muddle of troubled thoughts and all for naught. The same old mistakes as still I rake over the ashes of my past. I’m second class and second best. Small groups for small thoughts. I talk the talk and walk the walk but my path is down, down, down. There is no crown where I go, just dirt and grime and endless time. Sleepwalking all the way to the grave. Going six feet under to be torn asunder.

I found God or rather he found me. And what a sorry acquisition I was. Preaching and teaching my way to Hell. Oh well. There goes the bell. Handshakes and smiles all round. Another sermon and yet I’m left squirming at the staggering hypocrisy of it all. Practice what you preach you leach. I grit my teeth and spit the grief in their faces, telling them exactly what they want to hear. And not a second over twenty minutes mind because that wouldn’t do as there are biscuits to eat. The sheep bleat and I beat my retreat to my fantasy world. My life is absurd as I vomit the Word. I gag on my sin, the demons within. They feed me, they need me unlike those on the outside. I see through the facade. I tear down the veil and behind it there is nothing.

Going through the motions. Drink the magic potion. For then everything will be well and this Hell where I dwell will dispel. Ain’t life swell? He’s a leader in making if it weren’t for the faking. My life is just fine so where do I sign? You want sweat, blood and tears? Here’s the sum of my fears. I want freedom yet I’m bleeding and everyone’s leaving. My blood turns to ice and I’m back where I started, my loved ones departed. The truth set me free but now I’m adrift and the rift I’ve created cannot be broached. I’m a roach needing squished. I wish.

Blinded by the lies that mesmerised, now watch me die. These soul ties I despise are the death of me. Please rescue me from myself. My muddy, befuddled soul has seen better days and all I want is a friend to lend me hope; but nope – they smile and nod as I scream in their faces, then scurry home to their 2.4. They want nothing more of me and my sordid world. Until next Sunday anyway. When normal service will be resumed. Big hugs and how they’ve missed us. Not as much as I missed you on the darkest of nights when I poured out the festering, rancid slops of my soul. Still waiting for that reply. Might wait till I die. Sure we’ll all meet in glory. Run along now. Don’t bore me.

So I lurch to the next church and it’s more of the same. It’s all a holy game.We want you, we need you. No time for your ranting cos we’re too busy planting. The biggest in Ireland we’ll be, you’ll see. So holy and pure yet they offer no cure. With their beards and their beanies, those skinny jeaned meanies. They’re safe in their huddle as I struggle to cope. I’m flat broke. Out of hope. Just you tithe and stay alive. That’s all we ask. For we are perfect and you are not.

If this is love then keep your drug. I read the seeds and want to sow but how can I grow when all I see is hypocrisy over cups of tea. The devil wears many masks. You find him in the most unlikely of places. He is a beautiful creation, whispering words of sedation that soothe me and move me. My eyes see their lies and I learn to despise those Sunday mornings. Mourning what could have been, what should have been. The funniest part is that you didn’t even notice. And even if you had would you have cared, wrapped up in your own world of point scoring your way to eternal glory. Tick that box and move on. Those happy, clappy Christians with their perfect lives and their perfect wives. They could be in for a big surprise. I stay at home and stare at my phone. Tapping my way to death.

Sanity Scissors

On Christmas Eve I said enough was enough and decided to get a haircut. I was starting to resemble a cross between Boris Johnson and Wurzel Gummidge (I suggest a quick Google search if you don’t know who either of them are). When I woke up in the mornings I looked like I had been electrocuted. Whenever I entered the office and took off my cap my colleagues shot me the strangest of looks. I’m not a pretty sight at the best of times first thing in the morning but this was a bridge too far.

As I settled into the barbers chair the young Polish barber asked me what I would like. ‘A number four all over please’ I confidently declared trying to avoid looking at my myself in the full length mirror. ‘Are you sure? That’s very short’ he dubiously replied before spending the next five minutes attempting to talk me out of it. But to no avail. The bit was well and truly between my teeth. It had to go. Hair today, gone tomorrow.

I now know what a sheep feels like when it is being sheared. Locks of dark hair tumbled past my shoulders on their way to the shop floor. It was raining hair, my hair! As I’d had to take my glasses off before he started I hadn’t a clue what my head looked like but at one point I was pretty convinced that I had a Mohican. Then it was gone as well. Thanks to a generous gene pool I will never go bald but this was the nearest comparable experience. When he had finished I put my glasses back on and marvelled at the transformation. I resembled a fuzzy pool ball.

When I got home the girls were fascinated. ‘It’s so soft Daddy’ they whispered in awe as I lowered my chrome dome for them to stroke my head stubble. Fionnuala observed it was a vast improvement and even Adam, who isn’t impressed by anything, looked marginally impressed. I was a new man. I felt revived, reinvigorated….anything really that you can put the letters ‘re’ in front of. It literally was a massive weight off my mind.

Wouldn’t it be great if a trip to the barbers could rid us of all the worries and concerns that rattle round our heads? If a snip here and a clip here could send them floating to the shop floor never to bother us again? We wouldn’t have a care in the world? Unfortunately I don’t know of a hairdresser who provides such a service. We are left with a head full of anxiety and stress which, if left untended, will grow and grow until it consumes us. It grows and grows until nothing else matters. It becomes us.

Don’t let that happen. Don’t become another victim or statistic. If you had a broken arm you would go the hospital right? There would be no shame in that. Well the same applies to a broken heart or mind. You can’t do it alone. Seek help. Talk to someone, be it a friend, your doctor or a counsellor. Suffering in silence is insufferable. You need to seek out voices in the real world in order to dispel the voices in your head for they will not stop on their own.

They want to destroy you. They will not go away. They will haunt you and taunt you until you lie shattered in a million pieces. Only then will their work be done. Don’t let that happen. You are better than that. You deserve better than that. It worked for me. I sought the help I needed for my OCD and life is so much better now. Not perfect but better. You can’t cure OCD but you can control it. I needed a brain barber to work their magic with the sanity scissors. The intrusive thoughts and overwhelming compulsions are less frequent now. I am in control now.

I’m not a big fan of New Year resolutions but if you do make one this year make one that will count and that you can keep. Get the help you need and become the person you were born to be. Get ahead by sorting out your head. You were only given one brain so look after it. We devote inordinate time to the rest of our bodies with visits to the gym and beauty salon. Let’s start to take care of our most vital organ. For without it, nothing else really matters.

What’s the most daring haircut you have ever got? Did you love it or live to regret it?

Is your mind weighed down today? What are you going to do about it?

I Haven’t Been Through Hell

You hear it all the time. On public transport, in your workplace, on the television news your social media timelines. You may even have uttered the immortal words yourself.

I’ve been through hell….

Hell. The Underworld. Hades. Sheol. Whatever people call it, for those who believe in it, it is a place of unimaginable, unremitting torment. But what is hell? Where is hell? There are various theories. Some view it as the traditional lake of fire populated by grinning ghouls with pitchforks. Others picture it as a lonely, desolate chasm of darkness where tortured souls suffer the ultimate horror of eternal separation from God. To these people it is an actual, physical location. It exists. Somewhere.

Whatever their interpretation, all these folk are agreed on one thing. It’s not the sort of place where you would want to spend your summer holidays. Or any holiday for that matter. It is a place of perpetual punishment and pain. A place of no return. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200. Or dollars or euros. There is no glowing ‘exit’ sign to guide you out the other side after your visit is complete. Hell is the end of the road. And it’s not a yellow brick one with a fairytale ending.

I’ve been through hell….

As a Christian I believe in an afterlife which contains a heaven and a hell. I haven’t quite got my head around what the latter looks like but I’m pretty certain I don’t want to end up there. Many people view Jesus as some loved up hippy who wandered around 1st Century Palestine waffling vaguely about peace and forgiveness. Yes he did talk about these topics but the one he talked about most was hell. He was pretty blunt on the subject as well. This was one pill that wasn’t sugar coated. Hell was real and hell was permanent. He came to warn us. Hell was….well….hell.

I’ve been through hell.

You don’t go through hell in the theological sense. You remain there. It’s a one way ticket. The big, red guy with the pitchfork kind of expects you to hang around. Permanently. Life can be hellish. Excruciatingly painful. But it’s not hell. Because life eventually ends. The curtain comes down and, whatever your circumstances, they end. No more need to worry about debt, despair or death itself. You don’t have that sense finality in hell. You don’t die in hell as you’re already dead when you get there. You don’t get the relief and release of death.

Real life is hellish. But it’s not hell.

Real life can be horrific. It’s crushing. Nothing I can write here can do justice to what you have been through or are presently experiencing. An individual’s pain is personal and unique. It is often indescribable. It is many things. But it’s not hell. Because hell is a place without hope. And as long as we have breath in our bodies, then we still have hope, no matter how tiny a scrap that is. Hope that we will overcome our private and public struggles. Hope that we will lurch out of the darkness and into the light.

I’m not devaluing anybody’s pain here. I see devastation and anguish on my timeline and in the real world every single day. Broken people surveying the debris of their broken lives. They deserve so much better, so much more. I want to tell you that there is more, and that that more is hope. No matter how dire your circumstances are there is a way out. There is a way through. All storms can be navigated. There is safe passage and harbour.

Your hellish state might be addiction. It could be alcohol, cocaine, heroin, prescription drugs. It might be physical. Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis or any other number of debilitating and agonising illnesses. It might be mental. Depression, Anxiety, Anorexia, Bulimia or, my own personal bugbear, OCD. It can be financial, sexual or relationship based. It can be bereavement. It can be anything really, a billion and one different situations or experiences. Everyone’s ‘hell’ is unique to them.

There is a way out, a way through. If you have hope, you have a lifeline; one that you have to grab with all your strength and cling to with all your might. Hope is life itself. It is the oxygen that fills your lungs and allows you to scream your defiance. It is the blood that pumps through your veins and drives you onwards, forwards, upwards. It is the oil that lubricates our dreams and prayers.

Hope won’t get you through Hell. It will be too late then. But it will get you through everything else.

Do you believe in an actual Hell?

Do you feel hopeful or hopeless today?

Hell v Hellish? What are your thoughts on this post?

The Outsiders

I’ve felt an outsider for most of my life. At school I was bullied, mostly by fellow pupils but also some teachers, because I was chubby, quiet and shy. I was no good at sport, despite trying hard, which meant I was never part of the ‘in crowd.’ I didn’t go to our school formal and don’t think I spoke to a girl until I was eighteen. I had few friends and didn’t go out much. I was a loner; happy sitting in my room reading Stephen King novels and listening to heavy metal music.

My university years did not fare much better. These swayed between alcoholic excess in my first year to hermit like abstinence in my final one when I finally realised I needed to knuckle down and study in order to get a decent degree. It was during this final year that I began to exercise excessively and then secretly binge eat during all night study marathons. An unstable home life at the time also left me permanently anxious and worried. Looking back it was a deeply unhappy and lonely year of my life.

When I left university I gained a place on a post management graduate course where alcohol reared its ugly head again. I was now living in rented accommodation in Belfast. It was the social crutch that I leaned on heavily for the next twenty years or so. I secured a good job and worked my way up the corporate ladder. When I tell people what I do for a living now they look genuinely impressed. I met a wonderful woman who has stuck with me through thick and thin. I don’t deserve her but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for her.

We have three amazing kids and live in a lovely house in a quiet village. We are financially comfortable and on the face of it I epitomise what ‘fitting in’ to society should look like. Then why do I still feel such an outsider at times? Why am I still plagued by feelings of insecurity and low esteem? Why do I still periodically battle with OCD and the demons from my past? Why do I struggle to make friends and sabotage the few genuine friendships I have formed in my life? Why am I still so socially awkward? Why do I feel such a failure at times?

While people might look at it and think I’ve got it made, I still feel as if I am fighting a losing battle where time is not on my side. I desperately want to please people; the problem was that I always set out to please the wrong people, not the ones who mattered. I donned various personalities in order to curry favour but these all ended in disaster. I disliked myself so intensely that I would do whatever I could to be someone else. I still do at times but the purpose of this post is not to indulge in a pity party.

The purpose of this post is rather to celebrate where we have come as a family in 2017. It has been a long and often very rocky road. There have been slips and stumbles along the way. I am learning to live in my own skin. I am me. Glorious, imperfect, messed up, wonderful me. I am proud to be an outsider as I have finally realised that most of my problems in life have been when I have tried to be somebody I’m not in order to fit in.

I’m a square peg. I’ll never fit into that round hole. I’m learning not to look through the window and focus on what might have been but instead concentrate on what I have. On the outside. There is safety on the outside. There is safety in numbers. For we are many. This last year has taught me that in order to heal I need the clear, crisp air of the outside. I need to breathe in the truth and purge myself of the lies from the past. I need to take a step back in order to move forward.

Detoxification can be intoxicating on the outside. I want to be drunk on life. I want to run and write and love. I want to laugh more. People say I don’t laugh enough. Yes I’m a weirdo, an oddball and the most infuriating man in the world at times. But at least I am me, at least I can look at myself in the mirror and not have to avert my gaze in disgust.

And I have finally found my social media home with you – my fellow outsiders.

Viva la difference!

Do you feel like an outsider?

How have your efforts to fit in damaged others and yourself?

Slam

Happy Christmas Eve everyone!

I hope you are all looking forward to spending the holiday period with family and friends. AFracturedFaithBlog will be taking Christmas Day off as there is much present unwrapping and food consumption ahead of us. I’m particularly excited about that little pest Elfie the Elf returning to the North Pole. I’ll be writing Santa a strongly worded e-mail about his antics in our house these last few weeks.

Fionnuala, the kids and myself will also be thinking about those less fortunate than ourselves this Christmas. It can be a sad and lonely time for many and our thoughts and prayers will be with those who need them most. Amidst the excitement and merriment we will also be remembering the first Christmas over 2000 years ago when a scared, heavily pregnant teenage girl and a tired, penniless young man trudged into Bethlehem desperate for a roof over their heads for the night.

The village was packed to the seams, however, given the upcoming census. The scene must have been chaotic with people and animals scurrying through the packed streets. Joseph had many doors slammed in his face that night and eventually had to desperately accept a smelly, dirty stable. Beggars can’t be choosers right? At least it was dry and Mary had somewhere to rest and recover from the arduous journey they had undertaken from Nazareth. No such luck. There followed a painful and uncomfortable night which culminated in the birth of their first son.

They called him Jesus. He would grow up to change the world.

He had every right to grow up with a chip on his shoulder. Born into squalor and poverty his formative years were lived as an immigrant on the run from a bloodthirsty Herod before the family could return from Egypt to Nazareth. He worked hard learning his trade as a carpenter but when he launched his ministry around the age of thirty he faced three years of verbal and physical abuse, betrayal, rejection and endless mocking. All the way to the Cross. He knew a bit about doors being slammed in his face. Not to mention hearts and minds.

His response to a lifetime of this was as follows:

John 14:2-3: ‘My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am.’

Jesus and his family deserved better that night in Bethlehem. SLAM.

He deserved better than the life he led culminating in a brutal, humiliating death on the Cross. SLAM.

We lie. We cheat. We covet. We mock. We steal. We sin again and again and again. We laugh in his face. We don’t deserve better.

He opens his door and welcomes us with open arms.

Matthew 11:28-30 – ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

He turned his back on nobody, even though this was all he knew his entire life. A turned back is a lost opportunity. A slammed door is a full stop on relationships and friendships that do not have to end. If he can do it then so can you. So can I.

My hope and prayer this Christmas is that you fling open your doors, hearts and minds to the world. To a broken world that sorely needs you.

Happy Christmas from Stephen, Fionnuala and the kids.

Wake Up Dead

As I get older I find it harder to leap out of bed in the morning, full of the joys of spring. Or summer. Or autumn or winter for that matter. Especially winter. It’s cold and dark. And invariably wet. Why on earth would anyone throw back the duvet to embrace that? All I want to do is remain under the covers and hope that the world doesn’t notice my absence for the next 24 hours or so. I’m sure you could all cope.

Unfortunately I am expected to get up and do adult stuff. Like go to work. Communicate with other equally grumpy grown ups. Smile when I don’t particularly feel like smiling. There is so much to do. Kids to shout at, bills to pay. Elves to put on shelves or place in other equally ‘hilarious’ scenarios. Yes life is a veritable hoot I’m sure you will all agree.

Sooooooo. I crawl out of bed. Take a slug of Diet Coke. Wash. Shave (most days). Dress (every day). Eat toast. Get train to work. Arrive at work. Take many more slugs of Diet Coke. And so on and so forth. I commute to and from work on a train full of miserable looking people all trying their hardest not to look at each other. Noses stuck to their phones, glaring at the screens.

The other day I found myself on the train sitting beside two young woman who were facing each other across a table. One of them was reading a Bible and frenetically taking notes. She had a glint in her eye and was totally immersed in her studies. I had to admire her passion and energy. You don’t see many young people openly reading a Bible these days. Or anyone for that matter.

The other woman was lying slumped across the table with her head resting on her arms. She was out for the count. All I could make out was a mess of long hair. She must have had a heavy night I thought to myself. One (or ten) too many beverages I suspected. I was at my judgemental best and frowned at her. If only she could have been like the diligent, devoted girl sitting opposite her. Tut! Tut!

The train pulled in and passengers began to disembark. ‘Diligent Girl’ (for that’s what I had christened her) closed her Bible and began to pack away her notes. ‘Drunk Girl’ (boo hiss!) arose from her stupor and groggily looked around, uncertain as to her whereabouts. Belfast? Baltimore? Beirut? Who knew. She yawned and began to sleepily gather up her belongings.

It was then that the two girls started to talk. They obviously knew one another. Then I noticed that they were both wearing name badges indicating that they were members of a church organisation. Whatever your thoughts on their beliefs here were two young women who were about to venture out onto the mean streets of Belfast to do what they thought was the right thing to do. Sharing the love of God with others.

Yet I had already trialled and convicted one of them as being a useless waste of space. I felt guilty and shuffled off the train and onto the platform with the hundreds of other commuters. My fellow runners in this rat race we call life. All shuffling along, heads down and eyes fixed firmly on the ground. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year.

We are the Walking Dead. We wake up dead. We go about our daily routines dead. We go to sleep dead.

Those two young woman had a purpose, a passion, a mission. For all I knew ‘Drunk Girl’ could have been exhausted because she was up all night praying for someone in need or helping a broken person find their way through the night. Or maybe not. Whatever her tiredness it was not for me to judge her. If only I had an ounce of her faith and conviction. If only we all did what a better place the world would be to live in.

Why do we get out of bed in the morning? Beyond the mundane, dreary necessities of life why do we do it? Are you driven and passionate? Are you pursuing your dream, the reason you were placed on this planet? Or are you just aimlessly drifting along from one day to the next with no real goals or ambitions?

We are nearing a New Year and with it come the traditional resolutions that rarely last a week. Why wait that long? Why not start today. I’ve spent most of my life in zombie mode, going through the motions. From one self inflicted disaster to the next. Trying to fill the gaping hole in my soul with trifling distractions. I’ve achieved a lot. I have Fionnuala and the kids. But there is so much more to do, so much more to achieve. And the clock is ticking.

I cannot waste a second. I need to push on. Forwards. Alway forwards. I might not leap out of bed but I get up now with vision and focus. It makes it all worthwhile.

I wake up tired. But alive.

Do you wake up dead every morning? Are you shuffling through your day like a zombie?

Or have you a plan? A target? A dream worth getting up for?

Uncommon Sense

You haven’t the sense you were born with!

This critique of my decision making and problem solving skills has dogged me throughout most of my adult life. I am told that I am intelligent and I hold down a reasonably important job where I (shock horror) manage other adults and ‘do the grown up stuff’ without blinking an eyelid. I can deliver presentations to large audiences, brief senior management and function effectively within a high pressure working environment.

Fionnuala says there are two Stephens. ‘Work Stephen’ who is confident, assertive and strong; and ‘Home Stephen’ who can barely change a light bulb and who dithers over whether he wants pizza or Chinese from the takeaway.

I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure….

I cannot make a decision to save myself. My self esteem is low so my default setting is to please people. I want to be liked. It’s different in the working environment. I am representing an organisation and making decisions on their behalf. It’s not personal and if people don’t like the decision then they can blame the organisation and not me.

It’s different outside of work. The buck stops with me. When I am asked a question I’m immediately second guessing what the person who asked the question wants me to say in response. My brain goes into overdrive. If I say pizza will they be annoyed because they really wanted Chinese food. Or vice versa? I hmmmm and I haaaaa and then end up saying ‘Oh I’ll have whatever you’re having’. This drives Fionnuala nuts. ‘I wish you would make a decision’ she sighs.

This people pleasing disposition has got me in all sorts of bother down the years. I can’t say no. I hate confrontation and disagreements. I will agree with someone’s opinion or point of view even when every molecule in my body is screaming that they are wrong. This has led me down many wrong paths and before I know it I’m up to my neck in a whole world of pain.

I have worked hard this year on many aspects of my personality. This includes making decisions based on what sits best with my conscience as opposed to what the other person wants to hear. It also involves saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘no’ and veering clear of people and situations which I know are not healthy for me. This has drastically wiped out a large chunk of my social calendar but I view it as a small price to pay.

Fionnuala has asked me in recent weeks what I want for Christmas and as usual I wasn’t able to give her a straight answer. Until now.

All I want for Christmas is wisdom and discretion.

I don’t want common sense. I want more. I want uncommon sense. I want the wisdom of Solomon. I want my yes to mean yes and my no to mean know. I want to make healthy, well informed decisions which I know are right for me and my family. I want to walk along the paths I was born to walk along. I want that piece of my mind that has always reneged at this to know true peace of mind.

Is that too much to ask Santa?

Would you say you have common sense?

What bad decisions in your past have influenced your present?

Steps Lead To Shelter

Last night I woke up at 04:00 am and the following words hit me like a bolt between the eyes.

Steps lead to shelter….

We are all on a journey. And every journey requires forward motion. Change is daunting and many of us fear and avoid it. But it is necessary in order for us to evolve into who we are meant to be. We need to embrace new situations, relationships and experiences as opposed to recoiling from them.

Change involves transition. Transitions require decisions.

Are you at a crossroads in your life? Have you a significant decision to make that will change your life irrevocably? If you have it’s a frightening time. You may feel that you are exposed and vulnerable; that the next step may only take a second but could lead you into a life of regrets; that you are leaving your safe, comfortable existence behind and are entering a dangerous, new world.

My advice?

Take the step.

Be honest with yourself. The decision was taken days, months, years ago even. All that is required now is the actual transition. You need to turn that thought into a concrete action. Take the step. And then another one. And then another one. Don’t look back in anger the song goes. I say don’t look back at all. When you have made your decision stick by it.

Your comfort zone is a war zone. You might feel safe there but you are in fact engaged in a fight to the death. The death of your dreams and hopes. The death of your future. The death of who you were created to be. Suffocated by the smog of your present circumstances. The comfort zone is a dank, dark, cold environment.

I see little comfort in that.

The future might seem frightening but throw back the veil and you will see for the first time that it is in fact quite the opposite. It is a place of opportunity; of revelation and restoration. Where you are going is a place of construction. Where you are coming from is a place of obstruction and destruction.

What are you constructing? A new world. A world you deserve and are entitled to live in. It is your birthright; it is your inheritance. It is also a place of sanctuary. You have moved forward in order to find your retreat. You can build strong, thick walls behind which yourself and others can heal and flourish. It is a place of genuine comfort.

A storm is coming. You can see it on the horizon. It is hypnotic and you can’t take your eyes off it as it edges ever closer. It is time to move on. It is time to take that first, faltering step in the opposite direction. You may take it alone or you may take it with others. That is their decision but do not be tied by it for you have already made yours.

Take the step.

Steps lead to shelter.

Have You Been Naughty Or Nice This Year?

At this time of the year children all around the world unite and traditionally engage in the damage limitation exercise known as ‘The Naughty Or Nice List’. Wherein they attempt to rectify eleven months of misbehaviour and disobedience by falling over themselves to perform household chores, which they had blissfully ignored for the rest of the year, and suck up to their parents in any way possible in the hope that, come Christmas morning, they won’t be waking up to a whole lot of nothing.

‘Santa has been watching and knows if you have been naughty or nice’ we proclaim sternly in the vain hope that it will spur them on to tidy their pits (I mean bedrooms), bring down their dirty washing (before it walks down the stairs itself) and solve the age old conundrum of where have all the cups gone (I believe Rebecca hold the current record of having five on her bedside table at the same time).

All I can say is that Father Christmas must be the most naive magical being alive as he falls for it every year. 360 days of utter chaos in the Black household are wiped off the slate by a few half hearted attempts to wash the dishes and put the bins out. Getting them to dry and put away the dishes or bring said bins back into the yard is a whole different blog. Despite all this gullible old Santa falls hook, line and sinker for this pre-pubescent ‘hearts and minds’ offensive every year and duly delivers the goods on Christmas Eve.

If only real life was like that. If only we could wave a magic wand and undo all the mistakes and bad choices we have made this year. If only we could turn back the clock and undo those harsh words we spoke, erase those impure thoughts we had or reverse the many selfish actions we undertook . If only we could be ‘nice’ for the next few days and forget about the many other ‘naughty’ days we have clocked up throughout our lives.

I intensely dislike the word nice. It’s a nothing word. My old English teacher said it was the laziest word in the English language. Naughty isn’t much better. But I suppose it’s only kids after all so doesn’t really apply to us larger humans who supposedly do the ‘adulting’ stuff. Why be naughty when you can be nasty, cruel, spiteful or just plain old mean. That’s more up our street isn’t it. And when you develop a mindset which regards these as second nature then it’s a long road back.

Unfortunately we don’t have Santa Claus to turn a blind eye to our faults and failings. Which placed me on a sticky wicket when I hit rock bottom a few years ago. He was nowhere to be seen. Not a reindeer or an elf in sight. I had no other option but to rely on my fractured faith which I had neglected for many years. I started reading my Bible and trying to practically follow the teachings of Jesus on a daily basis. I know not everyone who reads this blog believes in Jesus any more that they believe in Santa Claus; all I can say is that it worked for me.

I’m far from perfect. There have been many hiccups along the way. I screw up on a regular basis. I can do SO much better. But I hope that I’m getting there a step at a time. No disrespect to the Big Man with the red suit and beard but Jesus is the main event at Christmas for me this year. And no matter how ‘naughty’ you have been he can wipe the slate clean and offers you the same opportunity to start again on the ‘nice’ list. All you have to do in return?

Believe. Trust. Follow. The choice is yours.

Isaiah 9:6 – ‘For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

Have you been naughty or nice this year?

Do you follow Jesus? Are you curious? Or do you think it’s just a festive myth? I’d be keen to hear your views. Comment below.

Love Is….Hard Work

Everybody wants to fall in love right? We all crave that ‘high as a kite’ feeling where our heart performs somersaults every time we see the object of our desire and they occupy our every waking thought. For many it is the single most important objective in their lives and they devote an inordinate amount of time, energy (and invariably money) towards achieving their goal.

But why do we fall in love? Why don’t we soar in love or, at the very least, hover? Falling suggests a loss of control. Which is correct because when a person falls in love they do, to an extent, lose a degree of objectivity. Often nobody or nothing else matters outside of the object of their affection. When it’s good it’s very good. But it can lead to harm, hurt and potential heartbreak. When we stampede blindly down the road to romance others can get trampled in the process.

Falling in love is both a selfless and a selfish act. Selfless in that you put the needs of the other person before yours and will often park your own ambitions, values and ethics to one side in order to conform to theirs and thus be accepted. Selfish in that, as they are now the centre of your universe, others previously in that position, are now shunted out into the outer cosmos. Somewhere between Neptune and Uranus I suspect.

Yes falling in love is a fantastic experience. Your stomach does somersaults and your head is at 49,000 feet. A fantastic experience but a temporary one. Every fall must come to an end. Often with a shuddering halt. And it is what you do then that truly matters. Falling in love is the easy part. It is a fickle, transient state of being. It requires little effort. It is a feeling, an emotion, an altered reality. But remaining in love? Well that’s an entirely different ball game.

Loving someone on a 24/7/365 basis is hard work. It is a wilful act as opposed to a fleeting fancy. It requires bottomless amounts of forgiveness and patience. Especially when it involves someone who doesn’t display particularly lovable traits; someone who doesn’t appear to reciprocate the love; or someone who you want to scream at and punch in the face rather than buy chocolates and roses. I know. For I have been loved at my most unlovable.

Loving someone likes this often involves telling them what they don’t want to hear. Delivering hard and unpleasant information otherwise known as ‘the truth’. Some of you may have heard of this term. To others it remains an alien concept. Falling in love is like standing under a tropical waterfall. Remaining in love often involves throwing ice cold buckets of water over your sleep walking, day dreaming partner. In order to smell the coffee you must first be woke up. That can be an unpleasant, but necessary, experience.

Loving someone like this is entirely selfless. You have to be entirely selfless in order to destroy the selfishness in the other person. In order to prick their conscience you have to first burst their bubble. And that can be a messy process. True love involves bursting that bubble but also remaining around afterwards to mop up the mess. Sacrifice is a dirty, disgusting business. In order to be truly purged we often have to be submerged in blood, sweat and tears.

Fall in love, yes. Enjoy the rush, the thrill, allow yourself to be swept off your feet. But when you return to terra firma be prepared to roll up your sleeves and knuckle down for a hard slog. Love is a war where many enemies, both internal and external, will attempt to grind you into the ground. True love will prevail but it will be a war of attrition. One day at a time. With its casualties but also with its heroes who are often unsung. For they understand the true meaning of love.

This post is dedicated to my wife, Fionnuala. ❤️

How do you define love?< strong>What are your experiences of falling, and remaining, in love?

Stinking Thinking -Part 1

Look at me and what do you see? A husband, a father, a runner, a blogger. I hope that I am all these things and more. But not so long ago I saw myself differently.

I saw a failure, a fraud, I worshipped false gods who gnawed at my flaws. Fixated on the din of sin, no quiet, still voice for me within. Rather, the insanity of vanity ravished me, ravaged me until I lay feeding on the bloated carcass of my future. I was deflated, my appetite for life abated. A vain, conceited man, whose veins ran red with others pain. Oh what a brain but no common sense. Dense with demons who would not relent. My world could not revolve until I evolved. Evolved from the mire and shed my desires. Not easy for a spineless liar who flinched at the fire. The fire of truth which lay at the root of everything I refused to stand for anymore.

On my knees for all the wrong reasons….

The truth stung like sea salt on a fresh cut. Like an open handed slap to the face on a bitter cold morning. I was someone too big for their boots. These boots were made for walking. I wanted to walk the paths of the righteous….you’re never right so shush…. but too often I strayed off the beaten path. Until I was beaten to a pulp. I could not travel but instead unraveled before an unseen God who looked on waiting. No shortage of trouble when you have your own shovel.

I had been diverted. Diversions leading to fresh perversions. I averted my shameful gaze from the sordid secrets on the screen to my journal where I wrote words of life day after day after desperate day. Yet day after day I lived a life of lies. A double life of double standards. Standing at my own gallows with the good book in my hand. They say I saw the light but they didn’t see my frostbitten heart. Black and dead like a gull on an oil slick. My words were slick yet I was sick, vomiting up my own hypocrisy to be gobbled back down time and time again by an adoring audience.

A dog always returns to its own vomit.

Losing weight yet so full of hate. Hating myself for what I had become. Numb. Personal bests on the road. Personal worsts off it. Home alone and on I droned on my twirly throne. With that hateful phone. Tweet Tweet I bleat, no end to my conceit. Empty words. I was running on empty. As the fat fell off me my soul became clotted with the cholesterol of a chaotic existence. A requiem for everything I once was now turned to dust and rust for I was broken. My lungs were choking. Suffocated on stuff I hated. Gasping for breath but there’s nothing left. Drunk on retweets and punch drunk on deceit.

Flatlining on my timeline. But every heart attack requires a heart. So life went on. Prolonged….

The sins of the father. Well my father sinned but even he would have shook his head and looked away from what I had become. Thank God they sealed the coffin lid. The dead mourned the living that February day. He had to leave yet I couldn’t grieve. Disbelief as I bluffed my way through his wake. Wide asleep. The emotional thief high on death. An endorphin rush from the grave. The big man holding the family together I was, yet falling apart inside. The tears wouldn’t come, frozen inside me and encasing my essence. Holding me together yet tearing them apart. This stinking thinking which was my inheritance. Was cancer the answer God? Really?

I had no will to kill the thoughts. They would not stop. You go on to bed. I’ll be right up. The fridge opens. Another drink. Don’t want to think. Just sink. Clink Clink.

Weakened every weekend they went to sleep leaving me downstairs to mourn the death of my former self. I dreamt drunken dreams where I was strong and not the mess causing so much stress. But I digress. Another beer. To kill the fear. The fear of what I had become. For even when the beer had run its course I still was hoarse; from the lies that lined my sandpaper throat. Saliva like acid burns as I slide back, backslide to where I came from and where I was going.

Alcohol was my crutch. It wasn’t much but was enough to snuff out what was left. I was bereft. I lost two parents that day and gained a child I did not want. You’ve lost your father? Doesn’t matter. You’ve still got your mother. Yet I smothered another, my lover, the mother of my children. I am ashamed and I was to blame. She deserved better and I hope these letters and these words are an end for her and a beginning for us. An end to sin. New life within.

Four years ago. Sober at last. But a sober drunk is a dangerous creature. For we still thirst. Which leads to worse.

To be continued…..

The above piece is part of a trilogy that I hope to post over the next week. Thank you for taking the time to read it. If you have any comments or questions then please leave them below – Stephen.

Decrease The Creases

We live near the shores of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. It is home to a rich variety of wildlife including elegant geese who regularly fly over our house in a perfect arrowhead formation. It’s a wondrous sight but not quite as jaw dropping as the herd of pigs which flew over chez Black around lunchtime yesterday.

Okay. Okay. I made that last line up.

But there was an equally miraculous visage for Fionnuala and the kids to behold. Yours truly standing at the ironing board. As in actually ironing! With an iron!!

Fionnuala hasn’t been feeling that well this weekend and even I couldn’t avoid to see the mountain of ironing accumulating in the corner of our kitchen. Now my housekeeping skills leave a lot to be desired. I can burn water. But surely even I could manage a few shirts and school uniforms in order to take the pressure off my long suffering better half. Wee buns as we say in Northern Ireland.

Over the course of the next couple of hours I fine tuned my technique until a sizeable amount of freshly pressed clothes were folded up on the kitchen table. It was hard to imagine that they had previously been a crumpled heap in the wash basket. I must admit I felt quite pleased with my efforts. I can’t swim and I don’t own a bike so it will be the nearest I’ll ever come to being an Iron Man.

Sorry couldn’t resist….

How many of you feel like a crumpled shirt or pair of trousers? Dishevelled and unwanted. Covered in creases and wrinkles. The wrinkles can be literal, the result of unremitting pressure and stress. Wrinkles are bumps on the highways and byways of our lives. They need to be overcome and the iron creates the searing heat needed to eradicate them. A white hot heat that regenerates and purges. I needed a hot iron in order to remove the creases from the pile of clothes I tackled today.

Sometimes in order to remove the problems in our lives an external heat needs to be applied. It can be a concerned friend or a caring relative. We stumble around in a maze of mistakes and cannot see the bigger picture. We lose our perspective and become subjective. We require a blunt appraisal of our situation from an outside source. Warts and all. We might not like it but the best medicine never goes down easily.

We become blinded by bias and a friendly iron can be be a painful necessity in order to smooth out our predicament. Heat hurts but it also heals. It can lead to wide, flat plateaus of peace devoid of the cobbles of confusion and flagstones of fear. Why sidle on the sidewalk or ponder on the pavement when you can surge ahead on the straightest, narrowest road imaginable.

Chase your dreams on open highways. We all accumulate wrinkles and creases on our life journeys. Don’t allow them to force you down dark alleys that lead to dead ends and delay. Swallow your pride and share your problems with someone who you can be truly accountable to; allow them to bring the heat and drag you out of the trough you find yourself in.

You need never be alone. De-crease your problems and increase your hopes of a brighter future. Just reach out. We are here for you.

Are you an ironing geek? Or do you dread this chore?

Do you need help with a problem today?

Are there people out there who can iron out your creases?

Human Remains

As I walked through the city centre this morning I gingerly sidestep the discarded debris from the night before. The greasy pizza boxes frozen to the pavement and broken beer bottles glistening in the half light. Empty like the drunken revellers who had gorged upon them. Signs of lives that sparkled, then spluttered, across the Belfast horizon not ten hours ago. Grime scenes of pointless brawls and even more pointless declarations of undying love. The dying embers of the best or worst night of their lives.

The street cleaners are already hard at work, their trucks shattering the silence as they trundle by, removing all incriminating evidence that the night before ever existed. No more blemishes on the landscape. A return to the status quo, order restored. Setting the stage for the same tired melodramas to be played out later that evening; penning another tawdry chapter in the sorry storybook of their lives. New opportunities, high hopes, dazzling dreams. Waiting to be shattered.

Human remains. Washed down the drain.

The actors awake in their beds. Or possibly somebody else’s. Some recall every second of the previous night, for others it is a dim memory that evades their grasp long into the daylight hours. Some smile and others shudder as they replay the sordid scenes that unfold before their bloodshot, hungover eyes. Phones are checked, messages are cherished or hastily deleted. Some can’t wait til the next time, others swear never again. Alcohol enthrals them as it once enthralled me. But now I stand appalled. At who I once was.

Love affairs (and death affairs) blossomed here. Life long friendships were cemented or derailed. I see it all with jaded eyes as I’ve been there, done that, bought the ill fitting t-shirt. I stand on the outside now looking in. My nights of revelry are a distant memory. I avoid bars now. I recoil around the drunken revellers. I feel isolated, intimidated, afraid? I fear them but not as much as I fear myself. What I am capable of. The side of me I want to bury. I didn’t come through hell. I was hell. My victims are legion. Their lesions are my living testimony.

I had a choice. The high life or a real life. I chose the latter. I chose my wife and kids. I chose nine to five and staying alive. For one pint was never enough. I drank to get drunk. The quicker the better. Pint upon pint. Bad decision upon bad decision like stacked dominoes. I scarred the hearts of my loved ones like alcohol scars the liver of the lonely lush. It numbed me to the truth. It deafened the words of wisdom I needed to hear. Because who wants to hear when there’s another beer. She was my mistress. She was my mistake.

I turned my back on those human remains in order to remain human. I now see a life beyond the next weekend, the next party, the next crushing hangover. I run long and I think longer. I want my remains to outlive the street cleaners. I want my legacy to be generations of flesh and bone; fond memories; happy times. I want my existence to matter. No matter what. So I sacrifice to accumulate. A small price to pay given the rewards I see ahead. My faith is as blind as it is lucid.

I am a broken man, but a resurrected man. I wear my scars like battle honours. No longer reeling, rather feeling and healing. Liquid healing under a cascading waterfall of love, grace and hope. I heal so I can be real. I cling to the present like a new born child cling to it’s mothers breast. I am thirsty but not for beer. I desire to be restored by living water from fountains of knowledge and wisdom. This knowledge opens the door to worlds where dreams can become reality. Knowledge leads to truth. And truth leads to freedom.

No more human remains for me. No more. Yet I am human. And I remain.

What sights do you see when you take an early morning walk through your town or city?

What remains from your past are you struggling to scrub from your present life?

How are you dealing with healing?

Bad Head Day

Today was a Bad Hair Day. A very Bad Hair Day. I would post a photo but I don’t want to scare any of you good, good people. You all deserve better than that. I’m not sure if it was my now infamous cap, the windy conditions or that I’m in desperate need of a haircut but I resembled a 5′ 11′ Northern Irish troll when I finally reached the office this morning. Which is not a good look.

My arrival was greeted by a chorus of guffaws from my rarely sympathetic colleagues causing me to beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom to inspect the damage. I looked like I’d seen a ghost. It would have been a truly hair raising experience if it wasn’t for the fact that my hair was already raised. There followed a frenzied few minutes of wetting it down and trying to restore some semblance of sanity to my appearance. I looked like Albert Einstein after he stuck his finger in a power socket.

Makeover complete I returned to the office looking every inch the suave, sophisticated middle manager everyone knows and loves. Note to self – always keep a tube of hair gel in the office to avoid a repeat performance in the future. Or stop being so lazy and pay a visit to the barber’s to get it all whacked off. Hair today, gone tomorrow. I apologise. That was possibly the worst pun in the history of WordPress.

That’s the good thing about Bad Hair Days. They can easily be rectified, no matter how dire the reflection that greets you in the mirror. But what about those Bad Head Days? When no matter how hard you try and no matter what you do you can’t shift the smog of sadness which silently settles on your mind like volcanic ash. As it settles you become more unsettled. For you know what is about to follow.

Unsettled by depression and despair. Depression like a giant raven which sinks its talons into the meat of your mind and refuses to let go. It is relentless and seeps into every recess, polluting and contaminating your every waking thought and every restless dream. Dreams that make you scream. Screams that nobody hears because you are entombed in the solitary prison that is your consciousness.

Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Money. They offer only temporary release, a momentary relapse in the onslaught which rains down on you like meteor showers hitting the atmosphere of your soul. Souls full of holes which can never be mended. Irreparable damage to irreplaceable hopes and aspirations. You feel utterly alone and are utterly defeated. You fly the white flag of surrender against a backdrop of nightmarish proportions.

Bad Head Days have a habit of becoming Bad Head Weeks. Then months, then years and before you know it your life is slipping through your fingers and you are left staring at nothing. Why wash? Why eat? Why answer the phone? Why get out of bed? Why breathe another breath? Options decrease as the anguish increases. You are broken. And choking. Choking on the bitterness of empty promises and seductive lies.

Lies. Soul ties. Time flies and before you know it they are gone. The loved ones, the loyal ones, the people you felt would always be there to catch you when you fell. Fell into hell. You’re in freefall. But it’s not free. It has cost you everything you’ve ever held dear. Suicide is painless they say. Not for those you leave behind. They will die every day reliving the day of your death. There is no hope at the end of a rope. Hope is living. Even if living is little more than survival.

In order to thrive you first must survive. A minute at a time. A breath at at time. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat ad nauseum. Until you are sick. Until you vomit up the poison. Until you see that first chink of light on the horizon. That first hazy sunset which cuts through the smog and warms your frozen heart. Scream. Scream until your lungs burst. Scream until you are heard, until you get the help you need to visit tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that.

Are you having a Bad Head Day? Or know someone who is? Please don’t suffer in silence. Get help. Today. Now.

Raise your voice. Kill the noise.

❤️🙏🏻❤️🙏🏻

If The Cap Fits….

Last summer we holidayed as a family in County Kerry which is right down at the very bottom of the island of Ireland. And while there we did the whole tourist thang, battling through coach loads of American pensioners to visit various gift shops. These had all kinds of traditional ‘Oirish’ gifts including Star Wars themed t-shirts, Star Wars themed mugs and er…..Star Wars themed tea towels. Scenes for the latest Star Wars movie had been filmed in Kerry earlier that year.

My attention was drawn, however, to a 100% Irish cotton flat cap with optional, drop down ear flaps. Think Sherlock Holmes with dark hair and glasses and you have it. Despite the giggles and strange looks from my adoring wife and kids I was enamoured by it, thinking I cut quite the dashing figure. I swooped and the purchase was made. When we returned home I gave the cap one last, admiring glance before tucking it away in a drawer to await the colder weather.

Which promptly arrived about a week later. Summer time in Northern Ireland usually consists of a weekend in late June if you’re lucky. After that the winds pick up, the heavens open and the temperature plummets. Before I knew it my chilly ears demanded the return of the cap. Thankfully Mark Morrison was nowhere to be seen as I proudly donned it and ventured out to meet my adoring public.

Day 1 in the office produced the following devastating sartorial critiques. And I quote….

Are you wearing that for a bet?

You look like a sheep farmer.

Did your grandfather leave you that in his will?

That’s the most ridiculous piece of headwear I’ve ever seen.

And that’s just the printable comments. Jealousy is a terrible thing and it was obvious that my colleagues just couldn’t cope with my ground breaking head furniture. None of them could carry off this look I thought, rising above their petty jibes and ignoring their juvenile attempts at humour. The ear flaps helped on the latter score but, that aside, I rocked it like a hurricane. Me and my hat were the talking point of the office. Hats off to Stephen!

A notable feature of my life BC (Before Cap) was that my social awkwardness was seriously enhanced by being visible to the human eye. When I saw colleagues in the street I had to acknowledge them and there was always the fear of bumping into people I didn’t particularly want to meet. Not any longer. I walk unrecognised through the mean streets of Belfast. My own mother would walk past me when I’m wearing my cap. It’s like a cloak of invisibility. Except it’s a cap….and it’s not invisible.

I have worn many caps in my time. I tend to adapt my personality to fit in with a certain crowd. This stretches to my values, morals and ethics. I play a role. The problem is I’m a pretty rubbish actor and, before too long, the scenery comes crashing down around me. I didn’t like the real Stephen very much so was constantly endeavouring to reinvent myself and create exciting new personas; be they online from behind a keyboard or in the real world from behind a pint glass.

My various caps blinded me to the truth. Never mind a tissue of lies. I used up entire boxes of them. It got to the point that I became so wrapped up in my various personas I no longer grasped who I was. I was adrift and spiralling out of control. I was in freefall and it was only rock bottom that removed the cataracts of confusion from my eyes. The juddering impact also cleared my head. I looked in the mirror, really looked, for the first time in many years and saw the real me.

Not a pretty sight. Without my various pieces of headwear I was a bloodied and bruised mess. Stripped of my ego I lay exposed and broken. But I was real. And where there is reality there is recovery. Steps leading to a better place. A life without lies. Without secrets. Where I didn’t have to pretend any more. Where I could look my loved ones in the eyes and speak the truth. Warts and all.

I love my Kerry cap. I look like a clown in the office and I move like a ghost on the streets. But beneath it I am content. I am happy. I am me. No more Drunk Cap Stephen. No more OCD Cap Stephen. No more Liar Cap Stephen.

Just Stephen. In a silly cap….

Do you have a favourite piece of headwear?

Have you ever worn different ‘caps’ to fit in with others or avoid confronting the real you?

Words

What’s in a word?

All my life I’ve enjoyed playing with words. Juggling them, rearranging them, making them dance to my tune. I guess I’m a wordsmith. They have been with me in soaring to unimaginable heights and plummeting to indescribable depths. They have been my most loyal ally and my most bitter enemy.

What’s in a letter? 26 little squiggles make the world go round. Or at least the English speaking world. Oh look! Do you see what I did there. With one extra letter I’ve made word becomes world. Aren’t I clever? Words are like putty in my hands, I say jump and they say how high. Without words we are nothing. Our lives are fuelled by words. They shape our futures and cement our pasts.

Words can be weapons. They can hack, slice, pierce and gouge. Words can be swords. Look I did it again! Words can start wars and end lives. They can make good men do bad things. Words can unleash the most horrendous evil. It was words that fuelled the killing factories at Auschwitz and Belsen; it was words that sent tens of thousands of brave, young men over the top to their deaths at the Somme.

Words can break hearts and crush dreams. They can worm their way (three times! three times!) through the smallest gap and wreak havoc. They are permanent. You can’t take back a word. The tongue is the most dangerous part of the body. Actions speak louder than words? I’m not so sure about that. Words are just as capable of irrevocable damage. Words end lives.

The voice inside is just as dangerous as the voices around us. The voice that tells us we’re ugly, stupid, fat or just not good enough. The voice that drips words like poison into our muddled minds to be soaked up by our saturated souls. The voice that tells you to do something that you know is wrong over and over and over again. The voice that leads you to your grave. That seductive, hypnotic voice that drives you to distraction with its promises and lies.

The sweetest poisons are often the most deadly.

Withheld words can be just as devastating as spoken or written words. Silence is a weapon as well. The pain of silence deafens and disorientates. That question that goes unanswered, that cry for help that goes unnoticed. Phone calls that aren’t returned, text messages that are read but ignored. Cutting people out of lives cuts them to the bone. There is no pain like the pain of rejection. Loneliness is the slowest, cruellest of deaths.

Tomorrow I’m going to flip the coin and write about the beauty of words. They inspire and they motivate. Without words there can be no hope, no joy, no charity. Words are love. The Word is love. Your words today can heal. They can change lives. They can drive you onwards and upwards.

Your words are the greatest gift you can bequeath to the world. Choose them carefully.

Please feel free to let us know your thoughts on this post. We always appreciate your comments and feedback.

Why Do We Have Scars?

Why do we have scars?

I mean really? If God is this all powerful being why does he allow them to exist? To blemish and defile the pinnacle of his creative powers. Mankind.

Broken bones heal. Why don’t all wounds?

The answer? Bones heal but scars reveal.

They reveal where he have come from and remind us what it has taken to get where we are now. We are ashamed of our scars but we should be proud of them. We have earned them. They are battle honours that we fought long and hard for. Your story is told in your scars. Each one is a chapter of your life and each one adds to the person you are today.

You are your scars.

Yes God could wave a magic wand every time you bleed and most times he does. The wound heals and the new skin grows back leaving no sign of the injury. But not every time. No matter how skilful the surgeon or how intensive the therapy.

Stitches are a railroad to our souls, jagged paths that we need to walk in order to grow into who we are destined to become. Some say they are ugly but I say they are beautiful and lead us to greater understanding, knowledge and wisdom of ourselves and others . The wise cherish their scars. They have survived to tell the tale. The tale is in their scars.

We must forgive but in order to do so we must never forget. Weapons aim to dismember but scars allow us to remember. How can you forgive if you can’t remember? For forgiveness is not a one off quick fix. It is a journey, a life long work in process. We may have to forgive a person every day for the rest of our lives. Seven times seventy times and more, Jesus taught. Scars allow us to remember. Scars allow us to forgive.

You may feel broken, unworthy, soiled. But you are beautiful. They say beauty is only skin deep but beauty is in our DNA. It permeates every organ, every tissue, every cell. And there is breathtaking beauty in our scars. They are what make us unique. The unblemished are the incomplete. Our scars make us who we are. Our marks are magnificent.

Scars allow us to love and be loved. They should not be hidden. Scars shouldn’t scare. Instead they should inspire. Inspire and encourage. Scars are for the living and not the dead. Life flows from our scars like the clearest, purest water from a mountain spring. Scars are a tapestry leading to the very essence of who we are.

We are our scars. They complete us. They define us.

Please feel free to comment below and share your thoughts on this post.

The Devil Wears Grey

Are you one of those people who sees the world only in black and white? Or do you know someone like that? A person who knows right from wrong, has their life totally sorted and knows exactly where they are headed? Who is 100% happy with their life?

If you are one of those people then I doff my metaphorical hat to you.

For I’m nowhere near there. I live in a world of grey.

50,000 shades of grey. Without the kinky stuff you will be glad to hear 😂

We want to drink ice cold, clear water from Alpine streams. But the truth is, most of us splash around in a pretty muddy mire. Polluted by pride, guilt, self pity, loathing and a billion other contaminants that form like cataracts over our eyes and conceal the truth from us.

What is the truth? It’s who we truly are. It’s where we are meant to be heading in our lives. It’s that little voice inside of us screaming to heard above the vacuous words we spout every day that make us inwardly cringe and hates ourselves all the more. It is blindingly obvious yet we are so obviously blind to it. The truth will set you free. But we see the truth as confining, restrictive and conforming. We seek something else.

The blackness is all around us. It whispers in our ears. It comforts and seduces us. It tells us what we want to hear. It is a reassuring arm around the shoulder, that warm hug after a long day of rejection and failure. While the truth hurts, its lies soothe and console. And before you know it that blackness has taken up residency in your heart. It is your best friend. Yet it wants nothing more than your complete destruction.

We are all a work in progress. An unfinished masterpiece. We strive to be good people but find it so hard to expel the darkness from our lives. We live somewhere in between. Mix black and white and what do you get? Grey. Grey is indecision and confusion. It is ‘maybe’ and ‘I don’t know’ and ‘there’s always tomorrow.’ It is limbo and it is exactly where most of us are to some extent.

The Devil doesn’t wear Prada. He doesn’t have all the best tunes. They call him the Prince of Darkness but his favourite colour is grey. He knows he’s not going to turn you into the next Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler. His is a defensive war. He craves the status quo. He wants nothing more than nothingness. He wants you to drift through life in the most nondescript fashion possible. No plans, no decisions and no impact.

Seventy odd years on the planet without having even made the slightest dent. Then straight into his welcoming arms. He is a grey god. I turn my back on that. We fear and avoid the darkness but that’s not where he wants us. He wants us to exist in the murky half light of under achievement where all hope and ambition has been beaten out of us. He doesn’t want serial killers or corrupt politicians. That’s waaaaay to easy.

He wants mediocrity. He wants an army of sleepwalkers marching through the gloom to their drab destinies. He wants tired, lethargic hearts and minds. He wants to numb your very soul. He wants inaction and meh. He is the meh-vil and we are his target.

Let me tell you something. It might shock a few but here goes anyway. You’re never going to be perfect. You’re never going to live in the light on this world anyway. But you can acknowledge it and move towards it. Aspire to be perfect. It’s hard, frustrating work but perspiration leads to inspiration.

Step out of the grey. I know you can. I’m no Christian Grey (thankfully you shudder) but I also don’t want to be a grey Christian. And whatever your beliefs you don’t want to live a grey life. You are better than that. Step out of the murkiness and wear your real clothes with pride. You are technicolour today.

Do you live in the grey? How can you step out of it?

Why Do You Blog?

My social media profile used to be entirely self centred. All I was interested in was getting more likes, more followers and more retweets. I used to have almost 10,000 followers on Twitter. But that was never enough, I always wanted more.

I portrayed myself as the wittiest, cleverest person on the internet. I craved the spotlight like a sponge soaks up water. My online life became more important than my real life. I ignored the people who mattered as I was more interested in myself and my own ravenous ego. I was consumed by the self to the expense of my spiritual and mental health.

The wheels came off in spectacular fashion and, after that, I stayed off social media for a long time. I was ashamed of the person I had become. I was embarrassed by my online activities. I was a fraud, a liar and a joke. I never wanted to see another tweet or Instagram photo for as long as I lived. They epitomised everything I hated about myself. They were the blackest of mirrors reflecting a side of me I despised.

So why do I blog? Well…. Fionnuala encouraged me to come back as she felt I had a story to tell. And yes, it has been for partly selfish reasons. It has allowed me to write, to express my hopes and fears; to exercise my creative muscles; and to exorcise some demons from the past. Through the blog I have learnt more about myself and those I love. Blogging has become an important part of my life. But not the most important part.

This time round I have reflected on my past failings but moved the spotlight from myself onto others. My past online career thrived in the shadows but this blog is about shining a light that will cut through the darkness; to expose the demons and shine a path to restoration and healing. To offer a lifeline to others who are suffering and struggling in silence. Too damaged to reach out for help in the real world.

Too hurt. Too many confidences betrayed. Too many promises broken. Once bitten twice shy. I know, I’ve been there. But broken bones can mend. A fractured faith is still a faith. Belief can be restored and hope can grow back even on the most rocky, barren soil. Recovery is possible. Believe me I know.

I see such pain and loneliness online. I see people consumed by addiction, illness and abuse. They need to know they are not alone. They need to know that there is life and freedom on the other side. I’m here to guide them there in any small way I can. I don’t have qualifications but I do have experience. I want to help. I need to help.

So I blog. And I pray for people who don’t even know I read their cries for help. That’s why I’m here. A passion needs a purpose. This is mine online.

Why do you blog?

Are You Okay?

Two little words that mask a multitude of emotions and experiences.

Two little words that paper over bottomless chasms of hurt and disappointment.

Two little words that cement the thickest, highest walls of denial and regret.

Two little words.

I’m okay.

How many times have you answered a heartfelt, caring question with these words. The question of a relative, a friend or perhaps a complete stranger. Words that stumble out of your mouth. When inside all you want to do is scream and scream until your lungs collapse. Two little words. One huge lie.

I see so much pain on WordPress. I see broken people. People who are too scared or proud or whatever to speak the truth out loud. So they write it here. And it saddens me.

I’m broken as well. I’m not okay. But that is the first step. Admitting it to yourself. Facing up to the facade that you have constructed because that is what society expects of you.

Let me tell you. It’s okay to not feel okay. It’s okay to feel devastated and distraught be it through illness, addiction or bereavement. Or those million other demons that force us to our knees.

And why are you not okay? Because you are more than that. You are precious, unique and loved. You have a purpose and a plan. You are a message in a bottle. Adrift on a stormy sea for now but destined to settle one day on the beach of your destiny.

My name is Stephen and I’m not okay.

But I’m okay with that.

So let’s start again. How are you today?

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