How I joined a cult. Part 1: Midlife crisis

4 Dec

In the winter of 1990/91 I had my midlife crisis. I was in my late thirties. The coinciding of factors known for being challenging – battles with the ex over terms of access to two young children, death of my father, abrupt termination of a brief but intense relationship (overly so on my part), job insecurity, and major building work on the small terraced house for which I’d that summer scraped together the deposit – synchronised a depression whose like I’d not previously known.

Not that my life had been free of grief. Aged ten I’d come home from school to find my mother’s body hanging in the hallway of our Sheffield council house. She’d taken her own life, not twelve months after being baptised, at a time of day when it had to be me or one of my two younger brothers who’d find her. Children can be remarkably protective. Even in those first minutes of shock, anguish and the beginnings – suicide leaves a toxic legacy – of a vicious circle of guilt fuelling shame fuelling guilt, I was glad it had been me, not them, who had got home first.

After a few months of cobbled together childcare arrangements – paternal aunt, paternal half-sister still in her teens but with a baby of her own – had proved unsustainable, a more durable solution had to be found. (I don’t suppose the idea of dad quitting his job as a steelworker for one of full time parenthood received a moment’s consideration. This was the early sixties.) We spent the next four and a half years at a children’s home in Kent. Why so far? Big subject, as are my experiences there. Both merit a dedicated piece.

Here though I’m speaking not of sorrow but of depression. The two are quite different. I don’t say I’m an expert, though in the early stages of what for convenience I’ve called my midlife crisis I did read books on depression by people who seemed to know what they were talking about. They said depression has less specific causation than grief, and is sometimes referred to as rage turned in on itself. They also gave me to understand that depression and stress (here defined not just as outer pressure but as weakened inner resilience) are closely related.

I assume mum was suffering from what we nowadays call bipolarity. (In 1963 it was called manic depression, for which the treatment had all the finesse of a sledgehammer). I know others who experience bouts of severe depression. That’s clinical depression, as we now say, to distinguish what my mother experienced, and a few of my friends still do, from the milder forms which not only seem part and parcel of being alive but play a corrective role, stabilising body and mind in the wake of the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenalin.

Much as sugars and insulin interact in a healthy body.

Clearly there’s depression – and there’s depression. I do not believe myself ever to have known it on a scale to warrant that ‘clinical’ adjective. Nor have I for a single moment in my sixty-eight-point-two spins around the sun contemplated taking my own life. Just so you know. As a matter of fact, after that rocky start I see my life as having been uncommonly blessed.

All the same, in the winter of 1990/91 I fell lower than I ever have before or since. What I was going through was not consequent on any specific event. I don’t know about the rage turned inwards part, but what I was experiencing matched – notwithstanding the extrinsic factors laid out in my opening paragraph – understandings of depression as unfocused. To be sure, I didn’t enjoy the abrupt cessation of a sexual relationship still in its exciting phase. I didn’t want my dad dead, or to be quarrelling so viciously with my daughters’ mother, or to be living in fear of job loss. Nor did I enjoy coming home to a building site, the roof for months a sheet of canvas.1 (The acute insomnia accompanying these things, exacerbated by my brainwave of picking this moment in time to quit smoking,2 didn’t help.) But my Trials had an existential quality over and above – or beneath – these undeniably testing realities.

I don’t say those factors were coincidental. Indeed, the first book I read on depression linked it closely to stress, then offered a tick list of the usual suspects – job loss, bereavement, money worries, love-sickness – with my score going through the roof. (If I’d had one.) But my internal landscapes sure did seem to bear out the Gestalt proposition of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

And that, as it turned out, was the beauty of it.

I’m no etymologist but I do believe the word ‘crisis’ has the same Latin root as the word ‘cross’. As in cross-roads. I saw myself as standing at one of life’s more momentous bifurcations, a Quo Vadis finger pointing straight at me. Whatever I was suffering, I knew viscerally that none of the usual palliatives were going to work. I wasn’t going to toke or shag or party my way out of this. With no conceivable diversion up to the task, I was obliged to turn inwards; to face into the core of my being.

It was choiceless, you see.

So that’s what I did. First by reading books on stress and depression, and writing furiously. Sat up in my bed – the only part of my home offering a modicum of comfort – I’d scribble away the hours; night and day filling notepad after notepad with streams of consciousness so unguarded, so uncensored, that I could never bring myself to read back what I wrote. Indeed, as these filled notepads piled up under my bed I fretted, as if I hadn’t worries enough, over their being read by others: a problem solved when that fear, for months neck and neck with reluctance to part with such literary gems, finally won out. One Sunday I tore up the pages one by one – coal fires were a thing of the past, home shredders of the future – mixed them around in different bin bags and threw them onto a string of skips within a mile radius. Still I hadn’t read them. Not just because they’d embarrass me. Also because I knew by now that in this case process really had mattered more than product. And the process was over. This thread of my healing had run its course.

The books on depression gave way to self-help lit. In the early nineties, recall, big bookshops were still thriving: Amazon no more than a large river, or female tough cookie with one breast. And all had growing “mind, body and spirit” sections where I spent many an hour and parted with goodly chunks of my hard-earned. I couldn’t get enough of Dorothy Rowe, Susan Jeffers and a bunch of others, their names long forgotten. By the spring of ’91, I was feeling so much better that feeling better no longer cut it. I wanted to Grow. And since, for the first time in my life, I lived alone – with none of the currents and conservative pressures, gross or subtle, that keep us in the same old same old – it crept up on me that I could be whatever, subject only to the laws of physics and biology, I chose.

I could reinvent myself.

I adopted so-called healthy eating. Fanatically. A friend was into the fruitarian regime of Harvey and Marylin Diamond. I followed suit, but with the zealotry I unfailingly bring to bear on a new cause. I ate only fruit in the morning, masses of salads, almost no meat or dairy and cut out tea, coffee, alcohol and blow. Also – the Diamonds having pinched this (without acknowledging the fact) from the “Hay Diet” – I never mixed protein with carbohydrates. Very bad, that. Folks who eat fish ‘n chips, bangers ‘n mash, cheese sandwiches and pretty much everything else normal people fuel up on, well, they’re all going to hell. And since I always had a bigger thing for carbs than protein, my diet slid by default into de facto veganism.

Protein, I learned, is overrated. Yes, we need it. But as adults we need it in far lower quantities than is commonly assumed. At least, that’s what the Diamonds were saying.

And my experience, while it may not have verified their assertion that foods which take long to digest sap us of energy, was certainly consistent with it. On a diet where fifty to seventy percent of my intake was raw fruit and vegetables, with almost no processed foods or junk, a me fast approaching forty had the energy levels of a teenager. Dancing, or playing frisbee in the park, my zest drew dark mutterings from envious pals.

Something about performance enhancing drugs.

Friends stopped me in the street to say how good I looked. Women threw themselves at me. Two years on, I believe mild protein deficiency caught up with me but it was easily corrected. (A bigger risk from veganism – deficiency in one of the B group vitamins – I’d been addressing with supplements.) And I was in any case done with the Diamonds. My transformed outlook, I now think, had roots more varied than adherence to their strictures. I believe with hindsight I was experiencing a self induced version of the placebo effect, a complex phenomenon which gets its own chapter in Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Science. If I’m right on this, my having taken myself to task, and given myself wholeheartedly to change – simply because I saw no viable alternative – contained its own salvation. We don’t need faith in a supreme deity to recognise the core truth of this axiom:

When you take one step towards God, God takes nine towards you.

Or as your dear old gran used to put it, heaven helps them what helps themselves.

But I’m not quite through with specific courses of action. The books on stress and depression had urged exercise. So had the diamond duo. I started running, but still had trouble with the insomnia. (A GP prescribed barbs but they scared me. The bottle sat unopened for months until, cured by other means,3 I threw it out.) But a book on relaxation techniques led to another by the same author, on yoga. It wasn’t an especially good book but I soon found better ones. And if I’m to single out any one course of action from the many which had helped lift me from the depths, it would have to be the ancient discipline of hatha (i.e. physical) yoga …

… even if it did set me, in all innocence, on the road which a few years down the line would see me quitting a well paid and secure job – by this time as an academic – to enter a ‘spiritual’ cult.

But that’s a tale for another day – see part 2.


  1. I really shouldn’t complain. The entire street was having a mega overhaul: windows, doors, major plastering and new roofs. Upside? It was at government expense under a neighbourhood improvement scheme. Downside? Householders – some renting, with no stake in enhanced house values – had no control over scheduling. Our roofs were off for months because it was more cost effective for the builders to work on every house in the street simultaneously. One memorable low was the February night I woke from my hour or so of fitful rest to the drip of icy water on my face, courtesy a bulge in the canvas directly above.
  2. In all the literature I read on stopping smoking – and that’s a lot – not once did I find insomnia mentioned. Know where I found corroboration of my experience? In a novel by Wilkie Collins, a pal of Dickens! At risk of issuing a spoiler, the link between giving up the sot-weed, and sleeplessness, is critical to the plot of The Moonstone.
  3. I no longer suffer from insomnia. I simply experience it. Far and away the best advice I read at that time was to let it be. The worst thing is to lie awake, working ourselves up into a tiswas where it, rather than sleeplessness, is the problem. Instead, get up and read or write. Make a cup of tea – counterintuitively, caffeine in small doses can, if we are already users, have a calming effect, sufficiently focusing the maelstrom of useless thought to the point where ideas are no longer bouncing around like mad dervishes. And even if we still can’t get to sleep, we’re doing something more useful or enjoyable than going nuts in a sleepless bed.

2 Replies to “How I joined a cult. Part 1: Midlife crisis

  1. Congratulations Phil. You seem to have done a pretty good job of getting over quite a lot of trauma. That thing about your mother – dreadful, in the literal sense of the word. But to keep on keeping on, getting to and staying on the right (i.e. left) side in politics, publishing such an inspiring blog and keeping a good grasp of a non-materialist (I presume) view of the world are all achievements in my way of looking at things. I say this as a fellow cult-joiner – the cult (FWBO) was badish but the associated world view was excellent. Even the SWP wasn’t all bad! Nice one with the diet too. Anyway, keep on with the keeping on.

    • Cheers Jams – much appreciated!

      “Keep on keeping on” – Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks, Tangled up in Blue. What a song! What an album!! What an artist!!!

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