I’ve been moping around for a little while, dragging my feet, waiting for me to come back.
I’ve shared with you before that I’ve been a little empty. Having spent my summer paddling down a river day after day, camping on sandbars, dodging barges, existing in great heats. I returned to the UK and didn’t encounter so much a culture shock, as a lack of one. The contrast between America and the UK isn’t great, which I’ve realised just makes for a slow-burning reality check. I thought I’d beaten it. For a week I was hop, skip and jumping. Great! I’ve escaped the slump! I’ve nailed it! All I needed to do was keep moving, thinking, doing.
And then it hit.
Well, it didn’t quite hit. It just crept up quietly in the night and sank into me when sleep rendered me defenceless. I woke up one morning and felt lost. I knew what was happening before the kettle had boiled. I stood there in my kitchen in shorts and a hoodie, looked at my feet which were buried in wooly slippers, and said out loud, ‘bugger.’
It’s natural. There’s no need to complain, it just happens. Of course it does. When life swings back and forth violently the door is going to edge off its hinges. My identity had shifted. I’d been immersed in an alternate reality for three months and now here I was, back where all is familiar but seeing it differently from a subtle new angle. It’s like being a dream where you’re tacitly aware of discomfort, that sense of knowing that this isn’t a good dream and something negative is preparing itself. I had that hollow feeling. My heart-rate was increased, something was wrong.
Having been flung off-kilter, I just needed to regain my balance. Previously, it’s taken me months. I didn’t know how long it was going to take this time but I felt like I needed to address things and set myself straight again. There’s no skeleton key to unlock post-expedition depression, but the idealogical route to recovery is to develop new habits and become comfortable again in your habitat. The new habits serve to indicate a new era. I began reducing my addiction to email and Facebook, bit by bit. I had a book to write, clicking back and forth between Gmail and News Feed just in case I’d received a little bit of online love wasn’t doing me any good. It was wasting my time. I was wasting my time.
But I didn’t feel like writing. I didn’t feel worthy of it. I didn’t respect myself for feeling this way because by nature I’m positive, I’m a doer, I say yes to things. And here I was saying no, don’t feel like writing, I’m lost.
I slept one afternoon. I never do that. I barely sleep at night, there’s way too much to do, so kipping in the afternoon screamed out that there was a problem here. Or maybe, I was solving the problem. There is nothing more important than rest. Grumpy? Overworked? Had an argument? Sleep on it. Calm yourself down by making yourself absent and letting your body recharge.
And then I broke the habit of a lifetime. I prepared for a talk. I’m a privileged man, I make a living by standing in front of other people and they give me the platform to tell them stories. I can’t imagine a greater honour than being given others people’s time and ears. I have an ongoing debate with myself about whether I should feel grateful or embarrassed at what I do, but each talk seems to go well and I feel good up there and the feedback is rarely tepid, so I keep doing what I do. Which, usually, is to select some slides and ad-lib as they come up. Sure, I have a rough structure to my talks and I re-hash the good jokes and funny anecdotes, but no two talks are exactly the same.
Yesterday I was on a train to Bristol and I started writing a script. A script for a brand new talk. I was to be speaking at an event where other, very good speakers would also be presenting. Each one of us had 20 slides, and each slide was to move on after 20 seconds. You have to be disciplined, your talk needs structure, otherwise it falls apart. If you’re still telling a story and the slide moves on and you haven’t finished, the second-count on the next image is diminishing. Panic sets in.
In front of 400 people you can’t afford to lose yourself. Lost composure manifests itself into ‘errs’ and ‘umms’ and ‘you knows’, there’s nothing worse than paying for a ticket to sit there and watch someone who can’t articulate themselves. The Night of Adventure is designed to be entertaining. The non-stop Pecha Kucha format is designed to enthrall. Sharing the stage with others isn’t easy for any speaker, it’s just a chance for your own talk to be shown up. It’s challenging and my pulse raced from the moment I woke up yesterday morning. I had to sit through four talks before mine and I could hear my heart beating through my chest. I was sweating, gulping down water, glancing at a printout of my slides, drumming in the brand new script that I’d written that day.
And then it was my turn. The script went out the window. I hadn’t had a chance to run it by anyone - not that I’ve ever done that, anyway - but bang, when you’re up there feeling like it’s interrogation time because of the bright light that means you can barely see anyone out there in the darkness, wow. Something strange happened to me. I’d been nervous all day. I don’t get worried about these things because I do them all the time, but this was different. Combined with the unspoken comparative competition of the other speakers and the stresses of such an unrelenting format I felt under considerable pressure, because I wasn’t on my game. I wasn’t feeling myself, I’ve been down in the dumps, glum, displaced. So on the face of things I wasn’t really in the best situation to go out there and entertain, or motivate, or tell stories.
And then I was the guy at the front. Al passed me the microphone and clicked his button and my first slide was on the screen (which is huge by the way, we were in a cinema screen and there I was twenty foot tall with a sombrero on, quite disconcerting) and I began to introduce it and then, all of a sudden, I felt like me again. I’d chosen the opening slide for the simple fact that it wasn’t serious. I’m no macho explorer. I have no muscle-bound frame, I’m a bloke who feels most at ease wearing a straw hat and pulling a quizzical face. It comforted me, remembering that. Accidentally, my first slide reminded me who I was, and I was off. Me. Happy. You beauty!
The only problem is that now I need to prepare for an hour-long talk tomorrow, which after 400 seconds last night seems quite daunting!
> See how I do at my next talk, in London on the 19th October
On 17th October the next instalment of Alistair Humphrey’s Night of Adventure lecture series will arrive in Bristol for the first time.
I’m delighted to be one of a number of speakers taking on the challenging Pecha Kucha format, 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. It’s fast-moving, fast-thinking and fast-talking, easy to lose your train of thought as a speaker but superb to watch from the audience.
If you have easy access to Bristol on the 17th I highly recommend coming along to this event. It’s being held at the Showcase Cinema de Lux at Cabot Circus, with the first speaker kicking off at 7pm.
The line-up includes Adventurer and round-the-world cyclist Al Humphreys, Amazon River Walker Ed Stafford, Adventurists Men of mystery Dan Wedgwood and the marvellous Benedict Allen. I’ll be chatting about Expedition1000, with an emphasis on my recent journey down the Mississippi by Stand Up Paddleboard.