It's all about people isn't it? Life that is. As we look back on our happiest memories for the most part it's the people that shared those moments with us that made them so special; it's people that add the colour and character to life's precious moments.
It's people that can make the biggest difference to us when life reveals its darker side, when we grieve and when we hurt. And it's the people that share with us our tears as well as our laughter that we hold dearest to us.
I've seen life's darker side. Having suffered with crippling bouts of depression in both 2006 and 2013 I've wondered whether the darkness would ever lift, whether moments of laughter would ever visit my door again, whether the 'me' that I once knew would ever find his way back.
The 'me' that I had been was gone, replaced by a broken shell of what once was, a mass of pain and despair; of fear, terrible fear of what would become of me and who would still be there at the end of it, if indeed an end would come.
My mates were in my corner
But they were there. My oldest friends were there for me throughout, and I'll never, ever forget that and I can never thank them enough.
Craig, my oldest friend who I met at nursery and who has been there to listen ever since, to pick me up when I've been let down and disappointed, when I've been dumped, when I've been angry, when I've been dumped, when I've been hurt, when I've been dumped (you get the picture). He was there for me as my Best Man on my wedding day; he was also there when I wondered how I could face another day, when getting out of bed was the limit of my achievements, when the chatty, fun Matthew was replaced by one for whom smiling was an impossibility.
He was there, every week to take me out and just be there, reminding me of who I really was beneath the illness and letting me know that somebody believed in me, and that however bad things were I could count on him being in my corner.
Simon, my friend since I asked him whether he was a boy or a girl on our first day of primary school. A man so popular it's only a matter of time before he has a lounge named after him in his local (or a poker table at least); a friend that at times over the years I've lost touch with as our lives took us in different directions and to different places, but who I am always able to pick up with as if we'd never been away. The friend that took me out to play darts every week during my second illness even though his Dad was terminally ill. At a time when others less understanding could have - and maybe would have - thought, 'What have YOU got to be depressed about?', he was there, giving me brief respite from my waking nightmare whilst reminding me that 'trebles are for show but doubles are for dough.'
It's hard to overstate just how much their support meant to me. One thing that mental illness teaches you (or taught me at least) is just how much inner strength and resource you have, but in the midst of it nothing could seem further from the truth.
Between them, my friends reminded me that my illness wasn't me, that I had a lot to offer and would one day be me again, and that just for an hour or two I could escape from my broken mind and focus on the 'now' of a pub quiz or throwing a dart. Whilst being able to recognise this at the time it is only from the promised land of recovery that I can truly appreciate just how much of a difference their support made to me, how much it helped me in a recovery that at the time didn't seem possible.
There is so much stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds mental illness and this is acutely felt when you are surrounded by its fog. For men in particular it can be difficult to admit to, when 'being a man' is associated with being strong and tough and not admitting to needing help from anybody, from putting a shelf up to admitting that your life is falling apart around you and that you're scared and you can't cope.
Sometimes we can't admit this to ourselves, but what we can all do is look out for our friends and be there for them when they are struggling, to notice when they're not quite themselves and could use a mate in their corner. We don't need to understand mental illness to do this, we just need to understand that our friend needs to know we're there for them, whether to talk, to listen, to tell bad jokes or to give them an affectionate punch on the arm.
We need to face up to the fact that mental illness is real
Some people claim not to believe in mental illness; well, millions of people do believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy but their belief doesn't make them real. Similarly, not believing in mental illness doesn't make it not real, it IS real, and it can strike anybody at anytime; believe me, if it happens to you you will KNOW that it is real, and you will be left in no doubt that you are very ill and that you can't get through it alone. Nobody chooses mental illness, and from experience I can honestly say I wouldn't wish it on anybody.
But like most difficulties in life it teaches us things too, and one of the biggest lessons you learn is who is there for you when you most need them to be.
We can all be that friend.
Be in your mate's corner, you may never know just how much difference it could make.