I’m sitting on the train on the way to Gloucestershire. It’s day one of the Cheltenham Festival; the start of the best four days of horse racing to be found anywhere on the planet – aka “the greatest show on turf”.
Today, I am rekindling a love affair which began nearly twenty five years ago when I backed Make a Stand to win the Champion Hurdle. As all racing fans know, there are some horses – some races – that live longer in the memory than they perhaps deserve because they strike a chord with you; they create an experience that goes beyond the norm; that helps to shape you. This was such a moment for me.
In truth, neither the Martin Pipe-trained horse, nor that particular renewal of this 92-year-old sporting contest, was in itself especially memorable. But something happened to me. I heard the famous Prestbury Park roar on TV, saw the packed grandstands and knew that I wanted to be part of it.
It wasn’t long before I was making an annual pilgrimage and the week of St Patrick’s day took on extra significance for me, alongside the thousands of fellow Irish men and women (including priests with suitcases stuffed with cash as the legend goes) who make the short hop across the Irish Sea. Today is my first outing at the Festival since 2015 and the first since my life was turned upside down by my breakdown. I am excited to go back today and to join my partner in racing crime – my horse racing sidekick and dear friend in the Cotswolds.
But there is something different about how I’m feeling today. Something changed. I am still excited. Still fired up to be part of that roar when the tape goes up at 1:30 and the first race gets underway. Still ready to feel my heart quicken as they approach the famous Cheltenham hill and enjoy the spectacle and hopefully the profits I will prise from the bookies hands. But it is not the same. Just as watching my beloved Liverpool recently has not been the same. Not the same stress. Not the same butterflies. Not the same giddiness as the ball hits the back of the net and we maintain our improbable title challenge – something I’ve waited nearly thirty years to experience.
It is not just the passage of time; the maturing and calming influence of age. It is a more recent and dramatic change than that. It is a new phenomenon. A very new development. I am experiencing the unspoken downside of taking anti-depressants. That impact you are not told about; the side effect not listed in the lengthy leaflet included in the box; the trade off that is not majored on when you are briefed on the impact these tablets will have on your state of mind.
Just to be clear, I’m not complaining. I am very happy with the decision I have made to make medication as part of my wellbeing strategy. I received outstanding – frank and clear – advice from my psychiatrist. But there is something that is not really spoken about at the time of prescribing – something I’ve heard others taking about recently who have made a similar journey. As well as “taking the edge” off your bad moments; lifting the load to iron out the downs in your mood and state of mind, these little white tablets also take the edge of the good times too.
I am not, as I feared, feeling dead inside, or transformed into a different person by the medication. But my highs are lower than they used to be. My excitement levels with previously enjoyed activity or experiences are not reaching the same heights. All round, I am a calmer, more settled individual. The downside of this is that in my happier more spontaneous moments, I am in third gear rather than racing to fifth or sixth.
The trade off is something I am more than happy to accept. I feel much better than I did at the start of the year and I know that the medication is playing its part. It has reduced the frequency of my bouts of depression and would appear to have reduced the duration of these moments when they have arisen – which they still have from time to time. They have helped reduce the troughs of my mood but also the peaks. I feel the better for it but it is different – in the good times as well as the bad.
I will put this to the test again today, when I hope to see some of my favourite current horses climb that physical and metaphorical hill to victory at this extraordinary sporting crucible. I will put it to the test when I watch the next eight games of Liverpool’s season as we try to end a generational championship drought. I will put it to the test every day when I pick up my daughter and she tells me that she loves me. These moments are still exciting and special but different now than before. This difference is part of my new reality; a reality that wasn’t entirely what I expected but it overall better than I hoped.
The Cheltenham roar may not be as loud for me today but I know it will be better. It will be better because I am sitting here, writing this on the train without my previous levels of stress, unpredictable mood, nervous sweating, constant reaching for my emails, worries about everything from work to that dishwasher that needs emptying at home. This change of mindset is not just about the anti-depressants but also about me making different choices in how I live my life. I chose to make my own stand; to make the changes I needed to enjoy life more. Today is another step on that journey.
The image is of my brain, taken when I had an MRI three and a half years ago when I was experiencing tinnitus.