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Exit strategy..

I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough this week on what feels like a bit of crash course in mental health self-awareness. It feels silly really, I’ve done countless courses on mental health awareness for work, and it all makes sense – but it’s a whole different gravy applying it to yourself when you’re in the throes of it compared to if you were spotting the signs in a team mate or employee, or a friend even.

The first obstacle is acknowledging and admitting that you are in a position of mental ill health. It took my boss to point that out to me (in a gentle way). We are conditioned societally to be strong, to cope with things. I’m not sure that it’s specifically true that it’s more so for men, anecdotally people seem to think so – it doesn’t really matter though, I certainly found it tough to accept. I’ve never been a “man up” kind of man, but I think we all naturally feel a little disappointed in ourselves if we are finding it difficult to cope with life.

Exposing that vulnerability filled me with an enormous sense of dread – people might judge, people might see me as a burden, people might see me as weak. In addition to that, people have their own problems – if you fall into the trap of trying to rank them, you end up feeling like you’re really making a mountain out of a molehill. I knew there were options for referring to NHS treatments but well, the NHS is really rather busy right now what with the whole pandemic thing, right?

That process of opening up was actually positive – some intuitive people probed (gently), others I selectively reached out to were receptive, kind and supportive. Realising that really recovery was only going to be driven by myself, nobody else has a magic wand to ‘fix’ me, that reluctance to share with people diminished. It’s helped me realise that when others are suffering I don’t need to feel pressured to solve their problems, but to be open to listening to them.

So by the time referrals to NHS CBT therapy and talking to a therapist via our Employee Assistance Programme (which I’m very lucky to have) had materialised into appointments I was actually already on the right road to recovery, definitely ably assisted by the group I talked about in my last blog post, as well as some great book recommendations. There were, and have been, and probably will be, bumps in the road – but the broad trajectory was improvement from the low base of going to bed and not caring whether I woke up again or not.

On Monday the NHS webinar I attend was addressing people who literally aren’t able to function – helping them form strategies to be able to build up to the basic tasks of managing their hygiene, their home and their work. Not really relevant for me, but reassuring that I’ve been really good at staying on top of those things. I’ve not shunned what social contact I’ve been able to have and I’ve been doing really well at staying physically active, eating well and hydrating.

My work-organised therapist is more bespoke but still centred around CBT – they’ve been really positive sessions, and the session today probably confirmed that landmark moment. Next week we’re going to spend the session mapping out an exit strategy from being in therapy. A lot of my issues are probably akin to the grieving cycle, unfortunately some of that just takes time to process, but the CBT techniques combined with the other extra-curricular steps I’ve taken have undoubtedly helped make more sense of and apply some structure to that processing.

I’ll miss my weekly catch-ups with Holly as they’ve been incredibly helpful and affirming, but equally, I’d rather not need to have them. Whilst I’m finding it increasingly less relevant I will stick to the NHS webinars too – each week we fill in a questionnaire to ascertain where we’re at with various measures – a couple of times that’s prompted a clinician to call me to check in, which at first was frustrating as it’s an indicator that those scores aren’t great, but latterly it’s more of a comfort that there’s a safety net there if needed. I think they have it set to a bit of a hair trigger personally, but better that than the other way, right?

More than anything though this process has helped me to correct the stigma I attached to my own mental health – not for others suffering, but just for myself. Mental Health is a shit term really – mental health should be the default, shouldn’t it? It should mean you are mentally healthy, and when things go awry then that is mental ill health. Just as with your physical health, there’s a sliding scale – we could all be more physically healthy despite describing ourselves as fit and well, the same goes for your mind. And of course that doesn’t even touch on the fact that the two are inextricably linked.

Maintaining good mental health is a never ending process just like maintaining your physical health. I think we all know that, but can lose sight of the muscle-memory nature of that when things start to go wrong. Just because you’ve risen from the pit of despair doesn’t make the kind of tools and techniques you used to ascend any less relevant. Perversely, I can see a path to actually being a much more content person than I was back when I thought I was a content person – but that will always require incremental adjustments and work to maintain.

So I’m feeling good about transitioning away from being ‘in therapy’ to more wholly self-managing the things I’m working through – and frankly, most of that management has been by me, but with a great support network of family, friends, colleagues and professionals when needed. I suppose the moral of the story, as ever, is that if you are struggling then please please do reach out for help. Particularly in the wake of 15 months of severe restrictions on our freedom, it feels like there could be a secondary pandemic of mental ill health issues on the horizon.

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I have a cunning plan, m’lud..

Amidst the swirling vortex of proactive research (to me, my mind was like a technical problem I might encounter – it’s not working how I’d like, I’ll Google it and find a fix), CBT webinars, CBT therapy sessions, private writing therapy and support from friends there’s been a really helpful group I’ve been participating with on Facebook. I reference it very fleetingly in a previous post, but it has been truly helpful – as indeed have most of the things I’ve been dabbling with.

It’s a fairly simple formula, which I’ll be about to make sound even more simple. My friend Naomi set it up – she described it as an opportunity to ‘unfuck yourself’ in her typically direct style. Grounded in elements of what CBT and NLP try to teach you, with a few lashings of mindfulness and – frankly – common sense, all wrapped up in a lovely supportive environment with other people with similar aims. It sounds very fluffy when you read that back, it’s really not – it’s about positive affirmation though, and trying to – again, paraphrasing Naomi, rewinding your tape and recording something better over it.

The basic tenet is to follow seven steps every day for a 30 day cycle. Seven is an auspicious number if you have certain beliefs (I probably don’t), and 30 days is what NLP or CBT will tell you is the time you’d need to change your habits or reprogram your neural-pathways. It’s not just about mental health though, it’s about physical health too – the two are of course inextricably linked to one another as I suspect I found to my detriment when I had my vasovagal issues a few weeks ago.

Without spoilering too much (I’ll link to Naomi’s page at the end so you can read the details), it’s really quite a simple programme – but there’s no compulsion to nail everything every time, and just because your 30 days finish it doesn’t mean you can’t recommence with a new round of them.

First up – eat healthily, and do that in a way that has meaning for you. For me I track my calories in and out, I’ve been doing that for nearly a year because I wanted to get myself in shape having let myself get quite overweight. Ironically at the moment as I’m close to target I’ve been quite lax on this in recent days, I’m planning on being sensible again from next week. That doesn’t mean dieting per say, just be mindful of what you’re putting in your body and what effect it may have on you.

Secondly is hydrating – again, something I’ve been good at – not least because you can chug a load of water if you’re feeling hungry when limiting calorie intake and make yourself feel full, but hydration in general is bloody important and overlooked often for those of us with busy lives. Lay off the alcohol (something I’d already been doing, never having been a big home drinker), don’t just drink caffeinated things although the odd one is okay. Try to make it mostly water.

Third is getting physical – of course, that will vary for people depending on their mobility or fitness levels. But at the very least spend 30 minutes a day outside, being active. For me of course that centres around playing football as much as humanly possible, or going out for walks. For others it might be a stroll around the garden, it might even just be sitting outside with a good book, or appreciating the scenery or birdsong. Get some vitamin D in you, escape the confines of four walls.

Fourth is finding the time to be creative or to enjoy simply playing. This could be anything, play an instrument, write a blog post, read a book, take photographs, do a jigsaw, paint or draw something. Probably best to avoid immersing in a computer game (for this purpose at least, if not in general), you could learn something new either just for the fun of it or even for professional or academic furtherment. For me this tends to be writing, messing around with music or reading.

Fifth is hard. A social media de-tox. When it started I was doing quite well at this – restricting myself to either two half hour windows of usage, or one solid hour per day. I activated scheduled quiet mode on my phone’s Facebook app and was doing quite well at sticking to it at first, then found the ‘deactivate for 15 minutes’ button quite easy to press. That said, when I do indulge most of my activity is centred around the group associated with this scheme, I don’t ‘doom scroll’ endlessly, I’ve done well at steering clear of more toxic environments like Twitter and Instagram. It feels shameful in some ways to find it so difficult to lay off Facebook, but my usage stats show that I’m using it less often and for less time than before.

Sixth sounds simple too – rest. Go to bed at a sensible time, get up at a sensible time, and actually get up – don’t set an alarm and languish. I’m not bad at this to be fair, except for the going to bed at a sensible time bit. I suppose having a 9-5ish job lends itself well to that pattern – but even before starting this I’ve been making a point of getting up and active at weekends or bank holidays too. Past Alan could easily have languished in bed for half the day if given the chance! I think we all know deep down that if we get up when we wake up we generally feel better than snoozing again. By the same token, and one I can definitely get better at, if you need to rest outside of your normal sleeping/waking patterns, then you bloody well should.

Seventh is the worst, but probably the most important. You need to write something positive about yourself – something that you believe. It feels uncomfortable for most people because we’re not encouraged to be self-aggrandising. This isn’t that, this is extolling your virtues to yourself, and deep down you know you have them – those things about yourself you’re proud of. Write them down, take a photo of yourself with it, save the paper, tell yourself out loud a few times what you’ve written. Try to believe it. After thirty days, retrieve the notes and read them back. Some of us have braved sharing these in our group, you don’t have to. Full body photos are a good idea if you want to track progress on losing weight or inches, but also taking body language cues.

It’s also important to track each day – just a simple notepad could do the trick, I reverted to corporate mode and made myself a PowerPoint template to fill in, I just made traffic lights for each of the seven steps. Social media was stubbornly amber, the rest were mostly green. I left space to note what I’d eaten, exercise I’d taken, random thoughts for the day, how things felt. It really did me a favour because a lot of the work I’ve been set for my assorted therapies have been centred around these kind of things – not that I’m looking for shortcuts, but it’s great to have some reassurance that I’m already working on things that are compatible with these solutions to.

So did I enter the process broken? Almost certainly. Am I fixed? No, not yet – whilst I’m sure I knew already that there is no magic wand for working through depression and anxiety, we are all individuals after all, what I have been able to do is have tangible evidence of progress compared to where I was. I also have tangible evidence of where I might have slipped back a little and had bad days, and I’ve learned not to beat myself up about that largely thanks to a wonderfully supportive group of folk who are trying to overcome their own challenges too. And hopefully I’ve been able to offer that same encouragement to them when they feel low.

We all have challenges in life – and if you look very hard you’ll find reasons to wonder why you might not be coping with yours when someone elses are so much worse. But that doesn’t invalidate how you may be feeling, whether you are able to function or cope. A non-judgmental and supportive environment is really invaluable in helping you to realise this.

Being nice to yourself, and others – who knew that might make your world seem like a better place? It sounds so simple doesn’t it? But if it was, then the world would be a happier place. All we can really do is our bit within it.

If you’d like to read Naomi’s much more succinct and less waffly guide to the Cunning Plan, then it’s here.

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Stop, or be stopped..

I’ve been finding it helpful to type these introspective little pieces as I work my way through a few struggles. The one saving grace I’ve held on to whilst I’ve had mental health difficulties over the last few weeks is the work I’ve been putting into my physical health since last June.

My stats are all green now on my Smart scales, my fitness levels are great and I’m in better shape than I’ve probably been since my teens, if I’m honest. Lots of walking, and since it’s been available again lots of playing football has been great along with tracking what I eat, making sure I hydrate, getting sensible amounts of sleep and pretty much giving up alcohol – it’s genuinely wonderful to wake up easily each morning and feel good ready to face the day.

That’s how I felt yesterday, I woke up before my alarm went off – I read a couple of chapters of my book before getting up and getting ready to start the day. I logged into work and had a really good productive day – ticked off loads of things on my list, popped out to grab some lunch, finished up early and had my assessment for the work-provided therapy I’ve been referred to.

That was a great conversation too – of course the subject matter was at times difficult, but I was honest, the lady handling the call was brilliant. She’s recommended a non-intensive course of CBT which I think means I’m suffering from mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression. I finished the call feeling uplifted – a path forward, something that might help to put a framework around some of the thinking and learning I’ve already been doing in my own scatterbrain way.

I logged back into work, we had a catch up call to close the day – it was fun, we’d all had a decent day, we had positive updates. I had one more call with one of my team to run through some stuff, also positive. It was basically as near as damn it a good day – the only fly in the ointment being a working at home day, so no actual people contact.

Work over, I logged out and headed out for a walk just to get a bit of fresh air and exercise – the sun was out, I tuned into a Podcast (Lee Mack and Neil Webster’s ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha’ – I’d recommend it for a light hearted exploration of Buddhism – which, ironically, is not that dissimilar to the book I referenced earlier but with added spirituality). It was a fun episode, it was a good walk – I didn’t go too far, with football planned for the next day I just wanted to ‘top up’ on activity. I stopped for a while in the park half way round to read a couple of chapters of my book, pausing the Podcast and enjoying the birdsong.

Once home again I cracked open the final HelloFresh order from my box and got cracking. Mango Chutney glazed chicken with Cumin Bulgar Wheat and roasted carrots – like all HelloFresh orders it takes all the pots and pans and impliments and fills up the dishwasher! It was fun to prepare though, I plated up both portions, one to go in the fridge later, one to eat and tucked in. It was lovely and satisfying. I sat on the settee to let my dinner settle and felt generally all was well with the world, considering.

After half an hour or so I figured it was time to get up. I’d opened the front door a crack and the back door to air the house after a bit of smokiness from the cooking, I picked up my bowl and got up to push the front door to, and that’s the last thing I remember except for the initial sensation of losing consciousness. I remember fleetingly worrying about breaking the bowl I was holding, the next thing I knew I was on the floor by the now closed front door, my arms jerking uncontrollably still holding the bowl I was still worried about breaking.

I’ve no idea how long I was out, or how long the seizure/fit lasted, as it waned I sat on the floor feeling disoriented and confused. I’d struck my head either on the floor, door or bowl, it felt tender but wasn’t bleeding. As I oriented myself I crawled over to the settee where my phone was, I dialled 111. I spoke to the lady on the other end for 20 minutes or so, she put me on hold a couple of times to talk to a supervisor/clinicial after going through check lists. She said to await a call from a clinician or a visit from a paramedic in either a 30 minute or 2 hour window depending on which happened.

I texted Mum, then was naughty and went to finish sorting out the kitchen / put second portion in the fridge whilst I waited for her to arrive. We waited, I did call back to chase as 2 hours came and went – they confirmed a paramedic had been dispatched. Right on cue he arrived pretty much as I hung up. He was lovely and caring, I masked up and he checked me over – mainly focusing on heart-related issues, stroke symptoms, blood sugar levels. Everything came back looking okay, which is reassuring, but he did identify a ‘regular irregular’ rhythm on the ECG scan he ran. Whilst not a significant concern, he advised I should go to A&E for blood tests as a precaution.

So we drove down to Burton A&E (good to know there’s one so close, I had no idea!). I’ve been advised not to drive until we get more answers, so Mum kindly dropped me off but couldn’t stay due to Covid-19 restrictions, after a lot of waiting and more similar tests in A&E it was established that whatever it was, it didn’t appear to be anything that was an imminent emergency. I was to be referred for more non-emergency testing, which is reassuring. I got home by about 5am and went to bed, thankful for our wonderful NHS and that to the best of their knowledge there wasn’t any dramatically sinister medical thing I’d need to contend with.

So I don’t know what caused me to black out and shake uncontrollably, it leaves you feeling tremendously vulnerable – but I was reassured that I wasn’t dealing with some kind of cardiac episode or stroke. Upon reading up and guidance from knowledgable friends the most likely culprit is a vasovagal – a fairly common thing, and something that is unlikely to require any medical intervention at all. I do sometimes get light-headed if I get up quickly from a sitting and particularly reclined position. And I do like a good recline!

I can manage elements of that – now I’ll eat my meals sitting at the dining table I’ve set up, eat slowly, enjoy it, give myself time to let the food settle, don’t get up quickly. It’s easy really isn’t it? Lots of what I’ve been trying to do mentally recently is forming good habits – similarly with the physical health kick before that. I’m really reassured that I think whatever it was that happened – whilst scary – isn’t likely to be a medical emergency, as much as it felt like it and it was appropriate to treat it as such.

Of course, further tests etc might tell me something different – and I’m taking the advice of the A&E doctors in taking it easy, taking some time away from work, not driving, taking a break from football. Just gentle walks for the next few days and seeing how things go. I did that today, Mum came with Buddy to make sure I didn’t collapse somewhere out and about. I didn’t, I felt fine, we extended our route to be a little further than the initial conservative plan and I even included the hilly bit of the local woodland. I felt fine. I really don’t want to lose the fitness levels I’ve been building up so well.

I and others jumped to the conclusion that I’d probably reacted to my assorted woes by doing too much exercise and stuff – I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve been mindful that I’ve been doing more intensive exercise but I’ve felt great doing it, I wouldn’t have played football so much if I was struggling. As a precaution I’ll lay off it a week, but I’m tentatively planning a comeback on Sunday. So I don’t think this really was a case of my body saying “stop!”, it was just a coincidence – but it’s a useful reminder. Listen to your bodies. Mentally certainly I recognise I’m fragile right now, and there’s bound to be causal links between that and my physical faculties in dealing with things that might normally just be a fleeting bout of light-headedness.

And thank you, NHS. You really are wonderful.

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Multiple personalities..

The title of this post isn’t meant to disparage a more serious mental condition, but it’s a good metaphor for my state of mind over the last few weeks. Plus by being called Al I’ve been able to weave it into irresistible puns based on that, and who doesn’t love a good pun?

I’ve been reading ‘Think less, live more’ by Richard Carlson. It’s not a particularly new book, it was first published in the 1990s and a colleague recommended it to me and I’ve been taking a lot from it. I’m only about 41% of the way through it according to my Books app, but it’s really helped me to put a framework around some of the things I’ve been grappling with myself.

To paraphrase its basic tenet (probably really badly) it outright states that your feelings are driven by your thoughts – and you have some degree of control of your thoughts, if you’re present enough to acknowledge them, recognise them and decide whether or not that type of thought is likely to fuel your happiness. I guess that kind of theory more recently would be badged as Mindfulness or Being Present. But I’m quite drawn to how Carlson achieves the same effect without feeling like you might have to bust out the buddhist bells and whack some joss sticks on.

As you can probably imagine, much of my thoughts have not been leading me toward happiness in recent times. When those negative thoughts surface now I’ve tried to learn to call them out to myself, to put them to one side, and leave some room for less damaging ones. It sounds really silly, but it’s been working – which surprised me. I’ve never been much of a self-help book kind of person, maybe it’s a case of finding something helpful at the right time?

So anyway, multiple personalties, right? In my private writing space I’ve been identifying my different voices, thought processes and moods. Of course, I’ve changed mine and anyone elses’ name on there because it’s anonymous and whilst I clearly felt the urge to expel whatever was going on in my mind somewhere, I’m certainly not prepared to go into too much detail in public. So I couldn’t take advantage of the subsequent pun-based idea I had, so I’m going to do it here without going into specifics.

For me at least, which this writing is principally for, it’s a combination of insightful and amusing – and I think to try to derive some amusement from what has been a genuine struggle is not necessarily a bad thing.

I’d like to introduce you to the Als.

Logic-Al is getting much more airtime in my internal monologue lately – he’s able to dispassionately weigh up the outcome of events and not worry about how that outcome came about. He recognises that however regrettable something might be, you can’t change it once it’s happened – so it makes most sense to focus on the present. He can seem a bit heartless or dispassionate, but he’s usually right. He’s been very much brought to the fore by the book I mentioned.

Analytic-Al was in the chair at first – he wanted to understand everything, he relived events both recent and further back, he scrutinised clues, agonised over the minutae of detail. Anyone vaguely familiar with my career would probably not be surprised he is often at the front of the queue, these are skills that have earned me my wages for less emotionally charged subjects. Whilst he arguably causes pain by reliving or discovering things, without him the road to recovery probably wouldn’t have been discovered, so whilst he needs to be tempered, he’s not a bad egg.

Cynic-Al has a very dim view of future opportunities – he’ll cherry-pick some of Analytic-Al’s work to turn everything that has happened back on himself. Things he should have done differently, things he should have anticipated, things he could have done better. He’s a bit of an arsehole in truth. He creates patterns that don’t really exist to sabotage the future, finds correlations without establishing whether one variable truly drives the other. He’s a terrible analyst.

Miserab-Al can’t see past the losses. He wallows self-piteously, simulteneously failing to see the myriad of positives in life that remain whilst agrandising things that are lost to almost mythic proportions. He feeds on the work of Cynic-Al and can’t envisage a path to a future with happiness, whilst often glancing wistfully backward through rose-tinted glasses.

Judgement-Al shifts the focus outward – he is concerned with the unfairness of situations, he fixates on how unfairly he feels he’s been treated by people, fate, whatever else. He looks to point the finger at other parties, trapped in his own bubble of feeling and unable to consider the bigger picture, life is unfair sometimes after all. He doesn’t have a very loud voice in my pantheon of personalities, I’m happy to say, but he pops up now and again.

Philosophic-Al is more accepting, he also takes Analytic-Al’s work but layers empathetic interpretations – he is in many ways the counterbalance to Judgement-Al. He isn’t devoid of emotion, and probably doesn’t put enough value on his own needs, but his heart is in the right place. At his core he is looking for answers like Analytic-Al, but with the ultimate goal of a calm resolution, whatever that resolution might be.

Antisociab-Al is a bit of a paradox. Nearly all of the Al’s are craving human contact, whilst the restrictions of lockdown are gradually relaxing allowing a little more mixing for those of us unfortunate enough to live alone, a year or so of heavier restrictions are surely going to make you ripe for wanting to be around people. Not always. Sometimes you don’t want to inflict Miserab-Al on the wider world, he’s quite a burdensome fellow. Again, luckily, he’s not really been a dominant part of the conversation so far. Even in more normal times it can be quite overwhelming to people, especially after a period of time without being able to.

Sociab-Al on the other hand has been more dominant too – he’s quite limited on options, but he’s been able to fashion ways for him to spend more time with more people in the last couple of weeks than he’d been able to in the twelve months prior. Whether it be football being available to play again (and boy, he’s played a LOT of football, I’m amazed he can still walk), meeting folk in gardens, for walks, clandestine secret project meetings he’s not allowed to talk about. He’s been a bit of a hero to be honest, he’s accepted the offers he’s received and run with them. He’s a good influence.

Inimic-Al has probably been the most eerily quiet. He has a silly name because I struggled to think of a better word that ended in al or le. But he’s angry. He’s similar to Judgement-Al I suppose, but instead of lamenting injustice he is just fucking furious about it. I know he’s there somewhere, more generally in life I’m quite good at keeping him under control – I’m at heart a peace loving person, I crave harmony, and I like to see the best in people. Inimic-Al is the opposite of that – he wants chaos, vengeance and beelines for the worst case scenario when it comes to the motivations of others. I don’t like him at all, in truth.

I’m sure there’s other Als that I’ve not been able to pigeon-hole into my weird personality segmentation – it’s nice that Comic-Al came forward with the idea for the puns to be honest, he’s not often far from the forefront of the conversation – I do have quite a fatalistic sense of humour, and it’s often by go-to mechanism to lighten a sad or stressful situation.

Welcome to the weird way I try to categorise my thought processes! I’m sure there might be other Als lurking about that I’ve not been able to identify (or come up with a pun for, more like!). It’s fascinating how we have such a wonderful capacity for abstract thought compared to our animal brethren, yet we seem to have reached a point where a significant chunk of the time we actually utilise it in ways that disadvantage us, or compound rather than resolve whatever problems we are working through.

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Locked down reprise

It’s been a while since I’ve written on here – aside from some geeking out with new routers and smart kit at home the last thing I talked about was struggling with lock down. Well, here we are nearly a year later and whilst restrictions are easing, we are still seriously hobbled with our ability to live our lives.

The period where things are starting to ease might be the worst, because you can almost see and touch the other side, but you’re still feeling desperately impatient for it to arrive. So that’s the general state of mind I’ve been feeling – cautiously optimistic that we’re over the worst of these things, that normality can resume, but also desperately impatient for some kind of normality.

Then along comes March. An underwhelming birthday – I think we’ve all had at least one now, some folk are now having their second lockdown birthdays, so that’s not a “poor me” statement. Days later I had to take my pet cockatiel of 20 years to be put to sleep, a not entirely unexpected thing – she has been poorly – but gut-wrenching nonetheless. Another family pet bereavement followed, then a friend passed away. Then my relationship collapsed on itself, and my whole world fell apart.

So much for cautious optimism, huh?

I won’t lie, the succession of things that individually I’m probably robust enough to cope with, whilst feeling sad of course, nearly broke me. I’m obviously not going to go into details or specifics, because this isn’t an anonymous platform no matter how few people read it. I’m lucky enough to have friends intuitive enough to look through the veil, so to speak, and I’m lucky to have a very cool boss who does the same.

I’m getting help, and probably the most difficult part of that process was admitting that I needed it. We all see the memes and the posts about it being ‘okay to not be okay’, we might even share them comfortable in the knowledge that at that time we are okay. But it’s quite difficult when you’re in that position, years of conditioning – mostly unwitting conditioning – to ‘get on with it’ is tough to break through. There’s always someone else worse off than you, right?

So I suppose if someone reads this in a similar position, look for help. Find some people to talk to without judgement, refer yourself for talking therapy via the NHS or – if you’re lucky like me – via your workplace. I’m trying to take some positive steps myself too – eating healthily, hydrating, finding time to exercise, be creative, making a point of writing something positive about myself down each day and severely restricting my social media use.

I’ve set up scheduled ‘Quiet mode’ on Facebook, which undoubtedly is my social media Achilles heel – now when I open the app on my phone it shows a picture of a cat instead of my news feed except for two half hour chunks of the day. I thought I’d find that really hard, and I probably will – it’s only been a day so far – but yesterday during my second half hour opportunity to binge on Facebook I found myself cooking my dinner rather than focusing on it entirely.

Outside of this I have set up private space to be able to write more openly about things, writing is often my creative outlet that I neglect, that has been helpful. There are a number of us doing the ‘positive steps’ plan, and we’ve got a group set up on, ironically, Facebook. We are technically allowed to use that group outside of our social media quiet time, but I don’t trust myself not to get lured into the rest of it so I’m being quite strict with myself. It’s good to have a support network though, and indeed, be part of that support network to help others with what their issues and goals are.

Yesterday after 9+ hours of no Facebook the time came and there were 20+ notifications, I’ll be honest, most of them were pretty meaningless. The ones from the group were ace, and there was one with an update on the lilies I sent to my Aunty in memory of her dog Digby she had to take for his final trip to the vet. They looked awesome, that aside it was mostly people posting pictures in beer gardens since the pubs have reopened.

I think I have a bit of a journey ahead of me to stabilise myself, but I’m certainly massively further along than I was, I’m cautiously optimistic (there’s that phrase again!) that I’m doing the right things – and as lockdown measures continue to ease it will be easier and easier to spend time with people and combat the crippling loneliness I’ve been enduring for, well, it’s more than a year now, isn’t it?

That was a cheery post wasn’t it? Haha! At least it implies the possibility of a happy ending 🙂

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Lightwave brainwave..

Gadgets are fun, right?

I love the idea of Smart Homes. I am a geek after all! There’s a few barriers without considerable investment to shoehorning this kind of thing into belligerently traditional non-smart home infrastructure, and of course the perennial problem with tech, especially the early stages of it, of compatibility or multiple choices of ecosystems, and of course the cost.

As someone already pretty deep into the Apple ecosystem, and the stronger focus on security it offers HomeKit was always going to be my preference over the other frontrunners in Alexa and Google Home. The drawback to this being a more limited choice of compatible kit, and a sometimes convoluted set up process. What I’ve found since playing with this is the default Home app used to configure it is actually pretty hobbled when it comes to tweaking your automations.

But there is a workaround to that, more on that later.

I do have a light in my office that connects to a Nest Home Mini just to control on/off and dimming, it doesn’t really interact with anything else so I’ll pass on that. I only bought it as it was a cheap way to better light my office which obviously in recent times I’ve been spending a lot more time in, and since it had smart capabilities I couldn’t resist picking up a cheap Nest Home Mini to play with it.

I’ve always wanted to start with my lights at home – partly because of having a pet bird and being able to control her lighting on a schedule is appealing for times (hopefully soon) when I’m likely to be out the house more at work or socially. Her UV light is sort of semi-smart being on a WeMo plug with a schedule, but obviously as autumn and winter comes I need to think about the normal non-UV lighting too.

Having scoured various options I plumped for LightwaveRF being the solution I wanted.

Lightwave RF switches are simple, functional but also pretty stylish

A couple of years ago an email enquiry even resulting in a chap coming round with a sales pitch. It’s not cheap, I pondered it but even with a discount for attempting the whole house was a bit much to find. I guess spending 6+ months at home makes you consider your environment more so I reconsidered this the other week!

I opted for switches rather than bulbs for a number of reasons – your bulbs can be as smart as you like, but if you turn off the switch then they’re off (I find this with my office light), and you’ve got strong muscle memory to simply flick off a light switch as you leave a room rather than asking a Virtual Assistant to do the honours.

Also, smart bulbs are expensive – most of my home lighting are recessed GU10 bulbs. Whilst there are options out there with Hue and Lifx offering options that work with HomeKit, with a switch I can use regular dimmable LED bulbs which is much more cost effective when you consider I have ten lamps in my lounge alone. The advantage individual bulbs would have is that you could have colour temperature / RGB colour options, or even do funky things by only lighting some of the bulbs or varying the colours of them etc.

I didn’t really want to do that – being able to control on/off and brightness was my only real drive.

Installing the Eufy doorbell came with its own complications but that’s not really relevant here!

Probably the main catalyst was succumbing to the whim of getting a video doorbell, I picked up a Eufy wired doorbell – currently this doesn’t connect to HomeKit (hopefully it will in the future), but it did signpost me to their internal security cameras. I use cameras at home to monitor the house when I’m not in, again, largely precipitated by being able to keep an eye on the pet birds as well as being mindful of security.

I replaced my ye old and slightly rubbish first generation Hive cameras with two very reasonably priced Eufy pan and tilt cameras, added them to HomeKit with no problems then realised as well as being security cameras (I set them to not do anything when I’m at home, based on Geofencing linked to my phone), but when I’m away they kick into actually acting as security cameras when I’m not at home.

Whilst the panning and tilting is cool, the field of view of these cameras is sufficient and it’s a bit freaky having the cameras following you around even when they’re not in active recording mode, so I disabled that.

Eufy pan and tilt cameras are ace in their own right, but add HomeKit in and they’re a steal – Eufy frequently have decent discounts too, so worth keeping an eye out!

By using HomeKit for this and being able to invite people to join your home, the same goes for others who might be spending time at home – if they have an iPhone of course – which is one of those nuisance limiting factors that plague these different systems.

So anyway, having a motion sensor in my living room made me start thinking about Lightwave switches again. As the living room simply has a single switch, it was the easiest starting point so I started stalking eBay for starter kits to save a few quid and eventually won one. Lightwave requires a hub, I connected that up to the router and set about wiring up the switch – I won’t detail that, follow the instructions, it’s pretty simple for one way lighting!

The initial barrier was occasionally a single lamp in my living room would light up – LED lamps obviously require much less power, and with dimmer switches sometimes even when off they let enough through to cause some flickering or single lamps to come on. Not a good start! A quick google led me to pick up an inexpensive bypass – it was actually designed to work with the Z-Wave dimmer system but does the same thing.

It was simply a case of wiring this behind one of the GU10 lights in the circuit, and recalibrating the Lightwave switch in the app – and voila, no residual light when powered off or flickering, and lovely smooth dimming working through both the Lightwave app and – once added – the Home app utilising HomeKit.

I think it’s the first time I’ve had decent dimming since switching the lights out from the halogen bulbs when I moved in to LEDs. Which then leads to doing clever things utilising the motion sensor.

A lot of this is kinda ‘because you can’ rather than making a game changer in your life – but it’s nice to have. I set up an overnight automation that if motion is detected (the motion detection on the indoor cameras are set to low sensitivity to try to limited false triggers) then the lights will come on to 40% if they’re not already on. When motion is not detected, and the lights are at 40% or less, then it will switch them off.

If everyone in my home leaves the immediate area based on Geofencing then the lights switch off. Then I’ve also set the lights to incrementally dim over the course of the evening to start to subliminally remind me that it’s getting closer to bed time. It remains to be seen whether this makes any difference or not, but it’s kinda cool regardless!

So that’s a total of seven automations:

The Home app is slick and easy to understand, but lacks the conditional nuances you really want to be able to properly automate things
  • Motion detected in Living Room, only when somebody is at home and only if living room light is off – turn lights on to 40% – so this means if one of us staggers downstairs at night the lights will turn on, obviously there’s a chance that a random movement or lights throught the window could trigger this.. so…
  • No motion detected in Living Room, only from 01:00 to 18:00 and living room light is on at 40% or less – turn lights off – if the lights are on at 40% then the chances are it was triggered by a movement, if that movement stops then switches the lights back off – if it’s less than 40% then it’s likely to be post 11pm when the lights dim to 20%
  • When the last person leaves home, only when living room light is on – turn off living room light – of course, having smart lights means you can check via the app if you’ve left them on – but why not just get the technology to compensate for potential forgetfulness?
  • At 8pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 80% brightness
  • At 9pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 60% brightness
  • At 10pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 40% brightness
  • At 11pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 20% brightness
Controller lets you either set up new or tweak existing automations with multiple conditions

Setting up automations in the Home app is really easy, but doesn’t give you all of the conditional tweaks that you might want (at least not that I’ve found), but if you download an app called Controller even with the free version you can both set up or customise existing automations to add conditions around presence, time or values for accessories. Home tends to focus on just one element rather than combining them, which is where the really clever stuff kicks in.

I can kinda understand that – but they could have an ‘expert’ mode or similar to manage these kind of automations in the native app rather than having to nip out to hack it, once you’ve done that, you can actually adjust the condition parameters in the Home app.

As a proof of concept I’m happy with my results – and definitely the bird room is next, the only reason that I didn’t start with it is because it’s a triple switch and Lightwave triple switches are double-width so there’ll be some work to do on extending the back box behind the existing switch in there. When I start considering upstairs there will be the combination of extending back boxes AND 2 or 3 way circuits to contemplate – so I shall see how I feel about that later! That’s the joy of a modular system.

That was a bit waffly but buried in there might be some helpful nuggets for anyone contemplating something similar! There’s something really satisfying about how the lights fade in / out when they’re turning on or off or changing brightness, and of course in addition to all the automations you can simply ask Siri to control them too!

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Internet AmpliFication

I put out a plea to ease my confusion in the murky world of internet router options the other day on Twitter and Facebook. Having spent far too long researching and reading reviews my mind was about ready to go pop. Plus, this makes a much more uplifting update than my last GrumpFest (which I’m happy to say I’ve largely overcome!)

Is it a router or a teeny tiny washing machine?

Having experimented with repeaters, they half work but the change in WiFi network name makes the experience somewhat less than seamless and the performance is sketchy at times too.

My house isn’t particularly big, but as it’s a townhouse it does go over three floors, and with the obvious need to work from home over the Covid period I’ve noticed performance issues on the 1st and 2nd floors with the ropey Hub 3 that Virgin Media provided me and perhaps unhelpfully insisted installing near my TV in the bottom corner of the ground floor.

The front-running solutions proffered by my friends were actually both created by the same company, UniFi is the commercial grade option with a lot more functionality, and whilst that appeals to my inner geek it’s a little overkill for my home needs, so I’ve plumped for the domestic grade Amplifi.

Biggest appeal was the ease of set up, which is definitely true. I ordered two HD routers, my intention is to connect the second upstairs via a gigabit powerline adaptor and run it in bridge mode, so in layman’s terms, it means that if I wander upstairs and the signal is better from the slave router, my device will connect to that instead – seamlessly, with the same SSID etc.

So it’s scalable. You can also add mesh based access points which simply plug into a power socket. It has an adjustable antenna that you can direct to toward the router(s) or other access points to give the best coverage. I went for the extra router because I wanted it to have an Ethernet based backhaul (connection back to the main router) rather than a wireless one. I also like the bonus Ethernet ports I’ll have on the additional router.

I’m pretty sure the two routers will meet my current needs, but by the same token, I have the option of scalability – if the top floor is still ropey I could get a further router or access point, or indeed if the spare room that isn’t my office suddenly requires faster internet I could do the same there.

Indeed, so far, the single router I have set up downstairs is already providing a much better range than the Virgin Hub 3 which is now sitting in modem mode providing the much prettier and more powerful AmpliFi HD with juicy internet.

Set up was as easy as promised. I made a note of the current Virgin Media SSID and password, duly put the Hub 3 in modem mode and allowed it to reboot, connected it’s #1 LAN port to the WAN port on the AmpliFi box, powered it up and then used an app on my phone to configure it, using the same credentials as my old WiFi network to make life easier. After a few tests it was up and running, all my devices connected to it without complaint and those things that were relying on Ethernet points connected up too with no issue.

The funky lighting it has is still currently a novelty, which I may tire of but it’s pretty cool to have an LCD screen which can either show the time, traffic to date this month, which Ethernet ports are in use or – my favourite – a live gauge of how much bandwidth you’re using, uploads and downloads.

The only tweaks I made to the settings were to change the DNS servers, again via the app. I don’t bother with a guest network as generally I’m happy for friends who visit to just join the main WiFi but the option is there, you can leave it open or add a password – and you can restrict the number of users. Not sure if you can throttle the bandwidth or not.

I’m going to resist setting up the second box until I’ve got the gigabit powerline adaptors next week – I do have a ye olde powerline adaptor I currently use as a fallback for my main computer in case the WiFi craps out whilst I’m working, but I figured I’ll wait until I’ve got the setup I want before adding phase 2.

But yeah, in a nut shell, it was easy to set up, it looks great, it wasn’t ridiculously expensive and it appears to be performing much better than the dreadful Virgin Hub 3 even with just the single router set up. So if you’re suffering similar problems, I’d definitely recommend.

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Locked down..

I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve found the Covid-19 prompted lockdown really difficult. March feels like an awful long time ago – I’d just finished celebrating my birthday by swimming with Sharks and other marine fish in Skegness as the rumblings of a lockdown began to become reality.

It made sense to make sure I got Ella back home before it became fully reality – with no conception of how long it would be before it would be over, I guess in my head I was thinking weeks rather than months. The prospect was difficult. Working from home took some adapting, and some investment in my office at home, but it has come pretty easy since. Being estranged from my girlfriend a horrible prospect.

Early in the lockdown I tried to make the best and make sense of this ‘new normal’ as everyone kept talking about. Group video calls were reasonably frequent which have now all but dried up, I tried to measure contacting people with not wanting to be too needy, and decided to occupy myself by torturing my Facebook friends with ukulele covers, slipping a few ‘significant’ songs in there as a proxy for not being very good at articulating how I’m feeling.

Live streams from many of the awesome musicians and bands I know and love were a hugely welcome distraction in those early lockdown weeks – latterly they felt hollow and made me miss everything that goes with live music. That’s not to belittle the excellent performances, and some fantastic innovation in being able to still perform. It just began to feel flat for me.

Making my own forays into performing was fun, but of course left with too much time in your own brain I started to worry people might think I took it rather more seriously than I did. I know I’m not a very good singer, and an average-at-best ukulele player, I’m sure people know that I know that, but it niggled at me until I didn’t want to do it any more.

Nobody said anything to make me think that, it was all in my own head.

Relationships have become frayed – misunderstandings or misinterpretations run wild amidst what is a spectacularly stressful landscape, where anyone can be excused for not thinking particularly clearly, and perhaps not getting their communication plan quite right. Work has been a welcome distraction, but at times quite stressful and emotional too – and oddly working remotely can make it more difficult to get respite from that.

Last week I found myself getting frustrated and feeling down whilst trying to present a positive front on Facebook, I can’t stand the idea of being one of those people who whines on Facebook, so I deactivated my account for a while to try to protect my mind a little.

Then I realised if I did that my associated Facebook page for my now one pet parrot Frankie wouldn’t update, I overcame this with a fake profile which so far seems to still be working. That sounds patently ridiculous really, but well, maybe her updates help keep some other person going during their own locked down dystopia?

In wider familial animal news a cherished family pet made her final goodbye today, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to her because of this accursed lockdown. It was the right thing to do to prevent her suffering, and not putting people at risk, but it bites – with Frankie, my nearest thing to a housemate, needing increasing amounts of veterinary care and not getting any younger I constantly worry about her.

Spending as much time as I do now with her stuck in the house I seem to notice endless things to worry about in her behaviour or demeanour – most of which are probably lodged firmly in the ‘in my head’ category, she’s probably just more tired than normal with the extra out-of-cage time she’s been enjoying!

A week into my self-imposed Facebook exile and amazingly I find myself feeling resentful that nobody really seems to have noticed.

Maybe they have, I’ve noticed when people have gone AWOL before and not always reached out to check-in, so I certainly shouldn’t be judgemental if others have the same impulse. I’ve hovered over the reactivate button once or twice, but I’m not sure I’m ready to step back into what can be a really poisonous as well as positive environment – which is counterproductive in many ways as I’m basically further isolating myself when already feeling hopelessly isolated at times.

Amidst all these negative thoughts I’ve decided I really ought to tackle losing some weight, I’ve duly acquired scales and a calorie counting app that syncs with my watch to track exercise too. I’m half a stone down so far, which is a real plus. Or minus I guess! Still a way to go, but a solid start!

Some of the work-related pressures will abate soon, which will make life easier in that regard. Left with a vastly unwelcome amount of time by myself I’ve had ample opportunity to overthink and generate unholy amounts of worry around all manner of things – which generally generates more questions rather than answers.

One thing is for sure, whilst I fully acknowledge having your own space is great, I’m not a fan of it full time. I’m also keenly aware that – by and large – I’ve been one of the lucky ones in this whole drama. I’ve been able to continue working and earning throughout, nobody I know has been killed by this dreadful disease, and for the most part I feel incredibly lucky.

But I also feel incredibly out of sorts, foundations have been shaken and whether they prove robust enough to hold everything up remains to be seen. I’m terribly bad at reaching out when I’m struggling, but luckily enough for me I’ve got an ill-updated blog that gets barely read so it gives me a way of dipping my toe into the water, or at least attempting to put some order to what’s going on in my brain.

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Blank playlists on Apple Watch

Since adding the perhaps inevitable final piece of the Apple ecosystem into my life one of the small bugbears I’ve had with my Apple Watch is that the music app had a long list of blank playlists before reaching my actual playlists. A quick Google search revealed this is clearly a reasonably common experience – but was quite light on providing solutions, which I’ve stumbled on today.

To be honest – it’s not really a big deal, but just a bit annoying. The ‘blank’ playlists are not visible on iTunes on my Mac, on my iPhone nor my iPad. I use iTunes Match to store my library in iCloud and stream from there or download on demand on whatever device I happen to be using – so I’m not sure whether the same issue occurs / is fixable in the same way if you use Apple Music or a locally stored library.

I should also add that I’m currently using the 3rd Beta of WatchOS 6 on my watch, which is a Series 4 cellular version. The fix is so obvious I’m kicking myself on not finding / trying it when I was using the latest production WatchOS. It’s a simple as opening the Music app on your watch, clicking playlists, then swiping right to left on the blank ones, tap the three dots that appear, tap Remove and finally confirm by tapping Delete.

Voila. They are gone. As I said above, a relatively trivial niggle in an otherwise fine experience – but one that’s surprisingly easy to fix but I’ve found no reference to online so figured I’d post it here if anyone is searching like I was for a solution!

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Why you shouldn’t wear cheap Ukrainian underpants..

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the shit joke headline!

A cheesy trailer I made from our depressingly inadequate photos and videos!

This is probably quite an overdue post really – since I’ve written in the past about exploring and abandoned places – as in honour of my 40th birthday last year my brother Rich organised a trip to probably one of the ultimate abandoned places which we went on in October last year.

In 1986 a spot of testing at reactor 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station resulted in a catastrophic explosion, exposing the graphite core – now on fire – to the elements, lofting fumes of plumes of fission products into the atmosphere over Ukraine and Belarus in particular, but also Western Russia and the rest of Europe.

Nearby Soviet ‘model city’ Prypiat – built to attract talented workers to the facility – was evacuated, albeit not immediately as the very secretive Soviet Union attempted to contain the disaster and not publically acknowledge it. Eventually though the inhabitants were bussed out, many never to return, and a 30km exclusion zone around the plant was put into effect – encompassing other towns and villages in the area.

Unbeknownst to me whilst not officially a tourist attraction – you can organise trips into the zone with authorised agencies – which Rich had gotten wind of and organised us flights to Kiev and a day’s excursion into the zone. The pressure is on this year as he turns 40 to try to find something on this level of epicness to reciprocate!

Bus wankers…

We landed in Kiev and considered a taxi to get to where we were staying, but instead braved the local bus – we had no idea where it went, but after a meandering journey it deposited us near the central railway station.

Upon reviewing Google Maps we found our apartment was quite a way from there – we’d texted and phoned the proprieters to let them know we were running late after a delayed flight and braved the underground (after managing to not find the terminal at the station and walked about a mile to find the next one!).

The railway station in Kiev is a rather grand affair
Even the underground stations were all marble and chandeliers!

A haughty Ukrainian lady behind the counter understood us well enough to help us find the right train to get on in the grandioise underground station – and we did a really good job of changing at the right times to get to where we needed to be. A bit of wandering and we found the building we needed, only to find no response from calling the number we’d been given. Bugger.

Whilst Rich continued to try to get in touch with the apartment owner I perused where we needed to be the following morning for our trip into the zone. Right outside the main railway station – where we’d just been, and quite early in the morning! Recalling there was a giant Ibis hotel right there, and that we were paying for the apartment on arrival, I suggested we go back to where we’d started and get a room there.

So we reversed our underground journey successfully – both legs cost us about 40p each – and quickly checked to see if booking online would beat the room rates advertised outside the Ibis hotel. No such luck, they were the same so we availed ourself of a room – happier in the knowledge we just hand to stumble outside to find our transport for the next day.

I think this is probably our minibus…

That morning we headed down to the street which was lined with minibuses bearing radiation signage – Chernobyl Tour were our trip organisers and soon enough we were checked in and sat on our minibus with a group of people from all over Europe. We had an excellent English-speaking guide (shamefully my delaying writing this means I’ve forgotten her name – I’m so sorry if you ever see this!) and we were underway!

The first obstacle was getting into the zone – it’s guarded by the military who had advance notice and check-lists of visitors, there was a stumbling block for me – my passport doesn’t have my middle name on it, but their list did – this seemed to cause a considerable amount of consternation from the officious Ukrainian soldier checking us in – I thought we were going to fail at the first hurdle but luckily our guide interceded and smoothed things over! That was just the first check-point!

Final check-point – you’d be in trouble if you got caught taking a photo of the actual check-point!

Before entering the exclusion-zone proper there’s another check-point complete with souvenir shops. Officially we were not tourists but ‘visitors’ to the zone – but clearly there’s recognition that there’s a commercial opportunity here. Mercifully we were able to traverse the check-point without issue this time and drive on. Once in the zone there are a number of sites we visited, our guide cunningly planning an order to try to limit our exposure to the number of other groups touring the area.

Trusty dosimeter..

Our first stop was the village of Zalissya – overgrown and long-abandoned we were able to wander around what were presumably paths at one time, now reclaimed by nature. A fair few buildings were still standing (many were bulldozed in the zone after the disaster before the realisation that disturbing contaminated earth was probably a bad idea). We’d been each equipped with dosimeters which enabled us to both identify radioactive ‘hotspots’ as well as cumulatively measure our exposure during our visit.

I read the news today, oh boy…

There’s something I find both harrowing and strangely comforting about abandoned places – comfort that nature moves back in, that human endeavours ultimately don’t count for much, but also sadness – music cards, newspapers, clothing – things that were once cherished left behind in the wake of an epic human folly. It was a great way to become acclimatised to this fascinating place.

A short drive later took us to the kindergarten – sinister dolls and childrens toys and cots set an eerie scene. Whilst I’m sure explorers both official and otherwise (those that sneak in without permission are referred to as Stalkers by the guides in honour of a computer game that features the zone as one of its settings).

Hello, Dolly…
Entry to Prypiat…

It was Prypiat that was really exciting for me though – built as a showcase Soviet city to demonstrate their affluence, desirability in a cold-war era when propaganda was really important. Deliberately placed close to the power plant to demonstrate how safe it was, it was designed to be a flagship settlement with fantastic facilities to attract skilled workers needed to work at the power plant, and of course the ameneties they would want to mean their families moved in too.

Fairground attraction

Trees close in on the roads and between all the buildings – tower blocks looming overhead it’s hard to picture what it must have looked like before. In the bus we’d been watching a DVD which included footage of the city before the disaster, and at various points whilst walking around the area our guide had pictures from the same points – it’s awe-inspiring to see how much its changed in not such a long time.

We saw the famous fairground, the swimming pool (which amazing was in use well beyond the disaster for people still working at the power plant, which was still generating power until December 2000 and countless other sites. Our guide was knowledgable and answered all our questions – it’s a difficult subject for Ukranians to tackle, ultimately it was a disaster done to them under Soviet rule – but they’re left with the consequences at the need to clear up the mess.

It was at once scary, awe-inspiring and a privilege to be able to stand so close to ‘ground zero’ – under that big steel arch is reactor 4

Having said that, the disaster was probably a big contributory factor to the fall of the Soviet Union too. The clean-up operation is still underway, as robots work under the new metal sarcophagus entombing reactor 4 (which was originally contained by a concrete covering). It’s a political and practical minefield which I can only really scratch the surface of with my limited understanding.

Much like I’ve really only scratched the surface of our visit with this post – it would be impossible to do it justice, if this sort of thing interests you though I’d heartily recommend a visit, it’s fairly inexpensive by our typical tourist fee standards and absolutely fascinating.

Unbelievably our trip included a hearty lunch in the cafeteria a mere stones throw from the reactor itself. We were warned not to take photos of the surly babushka’s serving us – the food was really good! I also got to make friends with some dogs outside, presumably descendants of abandoned pets who escaped the death squads who pursued them in the aftermath of the disaster. Life finds away – indeed, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is an incredibly successful accidental nature reserve.

Duga 1 over-the-horizon radar system designed as an early warning system to detect incoming missiles

On the way out of the zone we visited the Duga 1 radar installment – once a top secret and fundamentally flawed missle detection system, now abandoned and unable to be demolished due to the contamination of the land, it’s a monument to the levels of paranoia that era had. Clearly it wasn’t deemed too secretive by the time of the 1970’s when it would’ve been visible from the tower blocks of Prypiat – although our guide suggested it would’ve probably been described to curious locals as a TV aerial or similar – certainly evidence of old check-points suggest that any intrepid inhabitants wouldn’t have been allowed too close to it.

Our last stop was in the actual town of Chernobyl, quite distant from the reactor that it named it’s actually inhabited. People can only live there for 3 months at a time before leaving – there’s a cafe, there’s even a hotel which caters for folk undertake multiple day excursions. The population there are involved in the clean up operation – and storage of other nuclear waste which takes place within the exclusion zone.

A quick radiation check on the way out, and we’re good to go!

I know that there are pockets of people who have returned to their homes in the villages of the zone – we didn’t encroach on any of them, whilst it would undoubtedly have been a really interesting experience – instead heading back out of the zone and back to Kiev via a final chance to stop for souvenirs and a radiation scan to ensure we’d not picked up any nasty particles. One of our party did set off something, but he didn’t look too perturbed after returning from whereever he was whisked away to.

Checking our dosimeters upon exiting the zone showed that we’d been exposed to less radiation than we had received on our flight from London to Kiev, so all in all, a pretty safe endeavour!

We spent the next day exploring Kiev which is a massive and beautiful city – we witnessed the Ukrainian ministry of silly walks, I resisted the urge to bungee jump off a bridge, but amazingly we found a bit of beach by the river and it was warm enough to sit and bask whilst munching on snacks we’d found at a nearby shop. If you fancy a city break with a difference then I could heartily recommend this!

In the meantime, if you have any ideas for an epic 40th birthday idea for Rich then I’m all ears!

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