Alastair Campbell

by Lorenzo Piccoli


I started to train regularly with my bike during the rainy Florentine winter of 2016. Then, in April, I went to live in Neuchâtel for a semester and I decided to bring with me my older bike so that I could still go for a nice stroll every now and then. Those long rides in the countryside are my clearest memory of that period. I usually spent eight hours in the office sitting in front of a computer and then I rode through farms, dogs, cows, big yellow flowers, smell of shit, wind, mud, skin burning under the dry sun, kids playing in the courtyard of the school in the afternoon, trucks, nuns walking down the street. These are the kind of things that stick into my mind.

It was during those rides that I started listening to the podcast of David Axelrod following the kind advice of Giallu. At the time, the podcast was really about the future coronation of Hillary Clinton as President of the United States (turned out to be pretty a inaccurate display in terms of political forecasting). Some more pedestrian topics were touched upon, too. One of these was depression. I remember exactly the day when it first came up. It was a sunny day, a Saturday morning, I was riding up to Chaumont and I decided to give Alastair Campbell a shot. He spoke amazingly about his experience with depression – spiralling out of control – in a way that, I still remember, stroke a chord with me.

The following months, several of my friends experienced episodes of depression and nervous breakdowns. The diseases of modern life: the burden of freedom, self-determination, and choice. Too much choice, in fact, especially for my kind of demographics: around 30 year old, the time when depression usually peaks; and doing a doctorate, one of the jobs that are most likely to conduct to nervous breakdown for a series of reasons that have to do with the loneliness, the lack of a routine, the uncertainty, and the perennial questioning of one’s own ideas. I remember a certain kind of worry was taking shape in me.

I moved to Torino in October and I decided to shut myself from social life so that I could finish writing my Ph.D. thesis. Wrong decision. The build up time. Isolation. Anxiety crept underneath and bursted out in late April, when I temporarily moved back to Florence. Depression has many shades and sets a different story for each of us. In my case, it took the worst out of me; and then it spilled over the people who were around. I spent about a month without sleeping, walking around the city in the night among hordes of drunk Americans. By then I could not fully appreciate the irony of living above a bar called Insomnia. Truth is, I could no longer enjoy watching movies, listening to music, doing sports, eating. I lost ten kilos in the process: I nearly disappeared. People who are close to me know that I tend to be melodramatic, but people who were close to me at the time when shit hit the fan will realise that I am not being melodramatic now.

It is hard to deal with depression for those that are around. This thing is so mysterious and scary. But at the same time, the simple fact of having people who were asking me questions and cared about the way I felt was the most important thing I could wish for. It took them courage, empathy, creativity, and so much patience. I am grateful to them all, but I owe something special to Martina, Martin, Giallu, my parents, Thomas, Iris and Erik, Nicco, Pietro, Fabio, Stefania, Daniel, Dani. I hope they know.

I have been asked if I ever thought of committing suicide: never have I, mainly for the reason that there were these people worrying for me and I felt I could not let them down. The other note I mentally scribbled down from those dark months concerns sleeping. This has always been a natural thing for me. I could sleep anywhere, regardless of the situation. I stopped working the moment I stopped sleeping. I have finally discovered there are very few things that I enjoy more than a night of good sleep. For that, I learnt, I have to treat myself, every now and then.

I am now back in Neuchâtel. This is the place where it all started, but my mind is clearer now than it was then. At least I can say that once again I have started to appreciate the smell of shit when I am riding my bike.

***

An epilogue, for those of you who read Italian. In June, when I was heading towards the zenith of my sickness, Manuel gave me a poem that goes like this.

Questa è la cosa più bella che dite,
la più bella cosa che dite:
trasformare il dolore in bellezza.
Vale una vita questo.
Dite che sempre qualcuno c’è riuscito
sempre, sempre.
Ci riusciremo ancora? Questo vi chiedo.

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