Discover more from The Reset by Sam Delaney
The Day I Arranged To Fight A Stranger
And other reasons why the news is bad for your mental health
It was April 2015, just a few weeks before the general election, when I arranged to meet a complete stranger outside a tube station for a bare knuckled fist fight.
It’s the sort of thing you read about in football hooligan memoirs. But we were not the top boys in rival firms organising a mass-tear up on match-day. We were simply two middle-aged dads who disagreed over the nuances of government spending policy. We had disagreed on Twitter over the wrongs-and-rights of the coalition government’s austerity measures. It started as a reasonably intelligent debate , with both parties exchanging actual data on spending growth in relation to inflation and other dull crap. But eventually we both realised that no amount of facts and figures were going to resolve our disagreement so we decided to have a fight instead.
Things escalated quickly
Before long we were exchanging direct messages. The arrangements actually went into quite advanced detail with the pair of us - both grown men - soberly co-ordinating our schedules in order to meet and engage in physical combat. This was no bluff on my part. In that moment I was completely certain of my intentions to meet this bloke outside a central London tube station and fight him on the pavement. I went as far as explaining, in some detail, precisely what I would do to him once we had entered the arena of combat. Something about kicking him in the bollocks then knocking him out. With a single punch. This was designed to scare him but, in retrospect, was an unnecessary flourish that only made me more vulnerable. I mean, I doubt Bobby Fisher sent Kasparov written notice of his offensive strategy the day before a big chess match.
But, whatever, it didn’t matter because - as you’ll have probably guessed- the fight never took place. We scheduled it for 24 hours hence - both claiming that the other party would be too much of a ‘shitbag’ to actually turn up. Ironically, neither of us did. At least I didn’t and I’m assuming he didn’t either or he would have been straight back on Twitter to call me out for my cowardice. As it was, we never exchanged messages again.
I guess I just somehow managed to calm down.
A good job too because I suppose I might have got beaten up (it hadn’t occurred to me at the time that this bloke might actually be a bit handy). Mind you, the price I paid was mental rather than physical. I had lost 24 hours of my life consumed by rage, frustration and that strange social media anxiety you get where you can’t stop checking your phone to see if some dickhead you’ve never met has messaged you back yet.
Those were 24 hours that I could have spent doing all sorts of more enjoyable things like playing with my kids, watching telly with my wife, walking in the park, reading a book, calling my mum, having a nice cup of tea, stroking my cat, doing the hoovering or eating some crisps (NB, I would have mixed all of these things up in the space of 24 hours, not stretched one of them out across the entire period, that would be insane).
Why had I reached the point where I was planning to fight strangers in a public place?
In my defence, I had a serious drink and drugs problem at the time. I was locked into an obsessive state whereby my mind needed 24/7 distraction to avoid the shame and fear that bubbled constantly inside of me. Social media is a great outlet for that.
I have always been quite politically minded and, as a general election loomed, I had become more and more absorbed in the daily debate. I felt angry about certain things I read in the news, frustrated that I couldn’t change them and resentful towards the people who didn’t seem to share my point of view. I was a walking embodiment of futile emotion.
My own life had started to feel slightly unmanageable during that period.
I was effectively working three jobs, starting unreasonably early and finishing stupidly late, often writing through the night to meet a book deadline, trying to squeeze childcare and family stuff into the tiny gaps that remained. We had just moved house, it was being renovated and our possessions were spread out between various storage units plus the spare rooms and attics of sympathetic relatives.
I had also slipped on an escalator at Camden Down tube station on my way home one night (following a solo sake binge in a branch of Yo Sushi during my lunch break) and broken my wrist pretty badly. After they operated, the doctors had given me some of those mental, prescription-only painkiller. I was banging these bastards like they were Minstrels every day, washing them down with copious amounts of booze and substantial cocaine chasers. This was my method of coping with the disrupted and slightly chaotic lifestyle I was temporarily having to endure. I was stupid and naive - I should have just quit a couple of my jobs and simplified my life a little bit. I would have had more time on my hands, been less stressed and could have coped with the reduced income because I would have been giving less dough to the dealer and the publicans.
Those were the things I could have taken control, of (I just didn’t see it clearly enough at the time). What I had no control over was political landscape, the management of the economy or the opinions of other, equally angry and frustrated people I met on Twitter.
I had enough to cope with in my own life and should have just focussed on that stuff. Allowing myself to become so preoccupied and emotional about the things I saw on the news or read in the papers, then raging about it at anonymous people online, was about as helpful as going outside and shouting complaints at the moon for its inconvenient scheduling of the tides.
Over the past year the news has been more troubling than usual.
I know three or four close friends, about my age, who have been triggered by the toxic cocktail of Covid, Trump and Brexit into serious mental health crises. Of course, it’s natural to worry about you or your family getting Covid. But all any of us can really do about that is be as sensible, safe and cautious as possible. The rest of it - the doomsday headlines, the chilling what-ifs, the government failures, the corruption and the lies that seem to surround it all - is beyond your control. It is important that we know about the mistakes and the allegations. But if you feel you can’t read about that stuff without it having an emotional impact, you should disengage from it. The same goes for Brexit. Does thinking about it, worrying about it or arguing about it have any significant impact on anything other than your own mental health?
Most news nowadays is at least 40% entertainment and/or clickbait. No-one wants headlines that reflect the dreary ambiguity of most news stories. They don’t want uncertain or vanilla headlines about Brexit or Covid. They want either doomsday predictions or Churchillian superlative. Most of all, news outlets and their audiences want big, outrageous opinions and wild-eyed, blood-thirsty debates.
And you, as someone who probably has enough on your plate already, are collateral damage caught in the cross fire of all this bollocks. You are the bloke worrying about getting home to put the kids to bed while actively seeking out the viewpoints of people online who disagree with you about fucking fisheries. It is not your fault. You have been drip-fed fear and fury, conflict and poison, invective and hyperbole by a mixture of desperate media outlets who are running out of ways to make money and the millions of mad individuals on social media who will say and do anything to make themselves feel significant or important in a world where most of us are just helpless spectators.
Maybe you should make peace with being a helpless spectator.
You cannot control the news. Certainly not by worrying about it non-stop or entering into useless debates with people whose minds you will never change.
You can only really control the way in which you live your own life. Try your best to live it in line with the values that you think are important. And if you want to run for office or start a campaign or write an era-defining treatise on the future of liberal democracy then by all means give it a crack. But look after your own feelings and mental health first. Delete Twitter, stop reading the news and take a break from forming opinions about everything that has ever happened. At least until you’ve got yourself sorted out.
By the way, two months after the 2015 general election I gave up drink and drugs forever. Since then I have not once attempted to arrange a fight with a stranger outside a tube station. Co-incidence? You decide.
Here is a playlist I made of some of my favourite songs released in 2020. A few years ago I decided to stop listening to news and sport on the radio and went back to listening to music throughout the day. Since then, I have become incrementally happier with each passing day. Remember what George Michael said: ‘You’ve got to have some faith in the sound, it’s the one good thing that we’ve got.’
I read this over Christmas too…
Why We Eat (Too Much) by Dr Andrew Jenkinson exposes the numerous myths about nutrition spread mostly by food giants (who want to flog dodgy sugars and vegetable oils) and Big Pharma (who want to flog us statins). He uses exhaustive biological and anthropological research to demonstrate how the western diet is basically bollocks. The good news is that he seems to be saying we can eat as much cheese as we like. Interesting stuff in there too about the link between food and mental health.
Some helpful links and numbers if you need to talk to someone
Some services, links and phone numbers to help you through the tough times
https://www.samaritans.org/ Tel 116 123
@calm 0800 58 58 58
@YoungMindsUK 0800 018 2138
@ChairtySane 0300 304 7000