Sensation and memory are powerful things in mental health. As a career soldier, my chosen profession has taken me away from the West Midlands, and so my opportunities to go and see Aston Villa live have been fewer and fewer as family commitments and distance from Birmingham increase. What struck me, though, as I made my way to the Holte End last Bank Holiday Monday, was the power of memory and sensation.
As I walked past The Railway pub outside New Street (where as 17 year olds, my mate Tom and I frantically used to down as much Guinness as we could after a Villa game, racing against the last train home); walking through New Street and buying my ticket to Witton (even though the refurbished station is unrecognisable from my youth); the walk past the red brick Victorian terracing around the ground; seeing the stately, timeless beauty of the Holte End; the welcoming, happy camaraderie of my fellow Villans (even though I was meeting a number of new friends from Twitter for the first time); the songs old and new, and the glorious view from inside the stand: the happy memories were overpowering and my mood was lifted sky high.
Memory association is critical in mental health. I can still remember my first game: Villa 6, Everton 2 in November 1989. I was ten. It was unforgettable. The sheer volume of the crowd noise, the frantic pace of the game, the bitterly cold and damp November air in my lungs, the thrill of getting Platty’s signature after the game, the taste of the pie and chips we stopped off for afterwards. My experiences of watching Villa are all indelibly imprinted in my mind as one big happy memory, and so all the associated sensations make Villa Park a powerful place for me if I need to lift my spirits.
It was memory association that led to some of the more challenging times in my life. After three tours of combat in Afghanistan, on returning to the UK, I would struggle with the sound of helicopters overflying my house. Memories of helicopters were interlinked with memories of evacuating casualties, and memories of the jangling nerves, sweaty tension and adrenaline of flying into a night assault on a Taliban compound. Even the splash of lumps of wet sand on the beach as my dog dug a hole upset me, as they reminded me of the splash in the dirt of bullets as they impacted nearby. These were experiences that I brushed off at the time, but it was the memory, and sights or sounds associated with those memories, that caused my mental health to deteriorate on my return.
This is why talking to someone and getting help is so important. They can help you break the chain of association with bad memories. If you have suffered trauma, you will almost certainly have negative associations of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. If you have dark or challenging memories, they may haunt you unless you process them, and every time you smell the smell, or taste the taste, or hear the sound that reminds you of trauma, it can trigger a negative mental health episode. Sometimes, even just talking and getting it off your chest, rather than bottling it up, can stop the link between memory and sensation. Unprocessed memories are like a deck of cards thrown on the floor: they make a mess, but if you pick them up and put them back into order, they will be easier to deal with.
And whilst the processing of bad memories and associated sensations is vital, so is doing something for you; something you enjoy; something associated with happy memories; something to lift your spirits and improve a dark mood. And whilst there have been some terrible memories on the pitch recently, the good times are coming back and there is still nothing quite like going to Villa Park, having a beer with your mates, and singing your heart out for the boys in claret and blue. I can think of few happier memories that can beat it. The power of sensation; the power of football; the power of Aston Villa. UTV.