Ten Years

This month marks ten years since I first set foot in the US. As I waited in line at immigration, tired from the flight and daunted by everything that might happen next, it was easy to forget everything that came before. Just three weeks earlier, my workplace had been tense with news that another wave of redundancies was sweeping through and I was unsure in what direction I was heading1. I was ready for a change, but did not want the uncertainty of finding a new job or the certainty of choosing to leave the one I had. I was living a step ahead of my means with little attention paid to the future. I was smoking. I was making dubious decisions or avoiding decisions entirely. I was feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb.

One afternoon our manager called us all into a meeting room. There, he informed us of two positions available in the US and asked if any of us were interested. It felt like the silence lasted a long time although it was probably only a few seconds. No one was volunteering. I do not know the trigger  — my desire for a change, the allure of working in the US, or my need to get control of my life, but slowly, I raised my hand. I remember rationalizing it as no big deal, after all, I was only expressing interest, it was not like I would be whisked away to a plane immediately. With the raise of my hand, so began a series of small, easy decisions that led to the biggest self-directed change of my life so far.

Within the three weeks from when I raised my hand to when I stepped off the plane in Detroit, I packed, paused, and displaced my life. Boxes were filled, paperwork was filed, and farewells were planned. There was no time to stop and think about what I was doing, just lots of small decisions to make — accept or negotiate the contract, pack or throw away my things, take or leave my guitar, stay or go, sink or swim. All along the way, I kept telling myself it was not forever, it was no big deal. I was only going for a couple of months to meet the customer face-to-face; work (and a longer stay) was always going to be dependent on the acquisition of appropriate work visas. It was no big deal.

And so it was. Three weeks flew by. My sister, my parents, my new boss in the US, my old colleagues in the UK, my friends (including my housemate, who was seriously ill at the time), and many more all helped in some way. I am incredibly grateful to their support, it was amazing. During the whole experience, trepidation wrestled with excitement. Seconds after the taxi pulled away, leaving my parents and friends as they waved goodbye, excitement turned to panic.

What the hell am I doing?

I repeated that phrase in my head many times between London and Detroit. When the taxi left my old home. When the taxi left me at the airport. When I was pulled from the security line for "special screening". When I sat on the plane. When the plane took off. At least once per hour during the flight. When I landed. When I got into the immigration line. Over and over.

What the hell am I doing?

I am pretty sure I was terrified, but just like the small decisions that got me there, I focused on the immediate situation and did my best to ignore everything else. I think excitement and terror are pretty much the same thing but with different interpretations. As I accepted the situation as an adventure, the terror would subside and excitement returned.

Blimey, I'm actually going to America!

That was how my first few weeks in the US continued. A mixture of terror and excitement, depending on the situation and how I let myself accept it. It was the beginning of something new and ten years on, I cannot imagine doing any differently if it were to happen all over again. It was by far the best decision I ever made because I learned the value of making a decision instead of letting fate decide. I faced my own anxieties head on and made a decision to challenge my fear. The amazing sense of achievement that came from deciding for myself was life-affirming. While it took me another nine years to take that moment of control over my anxiety and begin learning how to harness it on a day-to-day basis, I still look back on that decision and the many ways it has changed my life. In a moment, I went from feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb, to engaged, excited, and driven.

Of course, that first day in the US was merely the beginning, a lot has happened since and a lot more will happen yet. Though my move was certainly no panacea to my problems — there were many difficult challenges to over come, it was a catalyst for solutions, an opportunity to grow, and a clear example that fear alone could not stand in my way if I could find the courage to face it. It is a lesson that I have applied many times since; from winning the CodeMash Pecha Kucha contest, to marrying my amazing wife, so many achievements began in an otherwise unremarkable moment where I pushed my fear aside and made a decision to try.

So, whatever the next ten years hold for me, it is not fear, but small moments like raising my hand in that meeting room that will shape them. Can you say the same? Where will your decisions take you?


  1. Unlike in places such as Michigan, where employment is considered "at will" and can be terminated at any time, if a company in the UK wants to downsize, they must go through a process of making positions redundant. That means the position will no longer exist and as such, the organisation cannot hire someone else to perform that job. For a better explanation and more information, check out https://www.gov.uk/redundant-your-rights/overview 

Kicking the Habit

This is a long story. I have never written it down before or told it in its entirety because I never really saw it as worthwhile to do so. However, recently I have learned some new lessons and have come to realise that sharing this might be useful to me and perhaps others. So, take a comfortable seat and I shall begin.

In the beginning…

When I was very young, I remember taking a puff on my Uncle Jeff's pipe. The sweet smell of pipe tobacco, both before and after it was alight, and the mischievous nature of my uncle were enough to lure me in. One attempt at smoking it was enough to put a stop to that nonsense and I vowed I would never smoke again.

What the hell did I know? I was just a kid.

When I was around nine or ten and with my memories of early pipe experimentation faded, a friend and I discovered a pack of cigarettes on the stairs of my house. It had been left there by a contractor who was doing some building work for my parents. My friend and I had often pretended to smoke by lighting dried bracken stalks (we never inhaled – goodness knows what carcinogens are in that smoke), but now we had the opportunity to try the real thing. It only took a brief tête-à-tête to convince each other we should take one.

Later that afternoon and with a pack of matches from by the fireplace, we went for a walk down the fields. Once we felt we were secluded from prying eyes, we lit the cigarette. I do not recall who went first, but I do recall that whomever it was, their coughing and watering eyes did not deter the other. As we played it cool, denouncing tobacco as "no big deal", the cigarette was stomped out and we walked home again.

And that was that. For years, that was that. Even though my grandmother and her cousin had smoked around me for many years. Even though my uncle smoked his pipe. Even though a number of my cousins smoked, and people my parents knew smoked, and I often encountered smokers when out and about, that was that. Smoking was not for me.

Social Smoker

And then I started working at my local pub. Some of the friends I had smoked and so, when we were out drinking, I would occasionally have one. I was a social smoker. No big deal. I just had one every now and then. I was not addicted, it was just fun. One, maybe two cigarettes a month. No big deal.

That continued through my early years at university until 2000, my graduation year. In 1999, I had moved in with a drug dealer. This was not my plan, I should note, it just was. My landlord from the previous year had offered me a spare room in this house and it was already occupied by two friendly girls and a drug dealer. The girls moved out within two days of my moving in. They knocked on my door the day before they left to let me know that it was not my fault and that they really liked me, but that drug dealer guy, yeah, he was something else. They had to leave. And so they did. Shortly thereafter, one of the drug dealer's friends moved in. A few months later, everyone but me moved out.

There are many stories from that final year, including some that I am unlikely to share. As I think back, 2000 turned out to be quite eventful for me. I graduated university, got my first mobile phone, lost my virginity (I was always a "late bloomer", as some say)1, lived with a drug dealer, and started smoking.

Before the drug dealer and his friend moved out, there were many nights of watching movies and smoking in the lounge of our house. When you live with someone, you overlook some things in order to have a peaceful existence, and so I overlooked some things. At some point, during this, I started smoking. I guess I felt it was better to actively smoke my own rather than passively smoke theirs. Whatever it was, by the time May rolled around, I was alone in the lounge, in the whole house, smoking.

I tried to quit. I figured I had only started in February so surely I can just quit. I was only smoking five or ten cigarettes a day. Quitting would be easy. Little did I know that after four months of smoking, it would take me years to quit. I was an addict, regardless of whether I acknowledged that or not.

Addicted

Many times I tried to quit. Before I started my first job out of university, I quit. I even advertised "non-smoker" on my CV as if that would somehow make me stand out. Only a week or two into the job, I was smoking again.

I quit using nicotine patches, then started smoking while wearing the patches.

I quit cold turkey, then slipped up having a beer one night and let guilt side with my addiction in the morning.

I quit and quit and quit. Each time, the addiction seemed to come back stronger than before. Like a friend, it was always there when things were difficult, stressful, or uncomfortable.  It could be relied upon. Each time I fell back into its embrace I would be disgusted with myself to the point that I would squeeze harder, searching for some comfort. What a terrible thing, addiction.

In early 2005, an opportunity arose to try a job in the US and so I did. Eighteen months later, after talking about it with some good friends, reading the autobiography of a quadriplegic alcoholic, and reviewing all the ways I had failed to quit before, I decided to quit again. This time I signed up to a smoking cessation website, listened to a self-hypnosis MP3, and started using nicotine gum.

I had my last cigarette on August 31st, 2006. I know because, after finishing the autobiography, reciting the serenity prayer to myself, and having one last cigarette on the balcony of my apartment, I wrote the date down. This was a lesson I had learned from trying to quit before.

1. Remember when you stopped smoking and why

Before, after about three months, complacency had set in. I had beaten this addiction. I could control it. So, one cigarette won't hurt. But it will, every time. By writing down the date, committing it to memory, I was always able to remember when it was and recall all the effort, as well as calculate how much money I had saved. By writing down why I quit, I could remind myself of what the effort was for and why it mattered.

For those first few weeks I was a grumpy, short tempered arse. I could not help it. I warned friends and coworkers what to expect. They were incredibly supportive. This was another lesson.

2. Tell people you stopped smoking

It was important that people knew so that they could be supportive. They could give me some slack when I got a bit ratty and they could keep me honest when I came close to having a smoke.

The nicotine gum really helped with this too. By using gum, I was able to keep my smoke break routine, get a hit of nicotine, and avoid smoking. Another rule.

3. Keep the challenge small

In the past, I had tried to change too much. For example, to avoid gaining weight (a common occurrence when giving up smoking), I would commit to working out more and dieting while trying to quit. However, bundling things like this is a terrible strategy because failure of one tends to cause failure of the others. All paths would lead back to smoking.

Of course, that didn't mean I had to do everything else the same. There were triggers to smoking. Times when smoking would come to mind more strongly than others. All my failed attempts at quitting had highlighted some of my triggers. It turned out that all those failed attempts were actual lessons on how to quit.

4. Learn your triggers

By analysing my previous attempts to tackle my addiction, I was able to identify my triggers, such as,

  • Going out drinking
  • Coffee breaks
  • Leaving the gym
  • Driving
  • Boredom

And so, with nicotine gum, supportive friends, and effort, I stopped smoking. Until I had another cigarette while visiting the UK. I was drinking at my local pub (a trigger) and a neighbour had a smoke. I asked him for one. He refused, saying I had quit. I pressed him and he gave in. It was not his responsibility to stop me smoking, it was mine and I failed. I enjoyed that cigarette as I walked home. However, unlike other times, when I awoke in the morning I remained smoke free.

5. Accept that mistakes do not mean failure

A terrible aspect of nicotine addiction (and I suspect addictions in general) is that addicts punish themselves over any slip or fall, which causes them to run into the arms of the only friend they can rely on, their addiction. It's vicious and if you are not looking out for it, inevitable.

You have to allow yourself to be fallible and accept that you will screw up. Whether it is relationships, your addiction, or some other aspect of life, you will screw up. Changing my mindset to accept that I might slip up but not allowing it to derail my effort was one of the most difficult things to do, but ultimately, it is possibly the biggest aspect of coping with addiction.

By the end of August 2013, I had been almost entirely smoke free for six years. It was great.

An old familiar friend

By now, you might think you know where this is headed and in part, you could be right. The end of 2013 was pretty rough. We had a terrible winter and I was suffering from depression. This ultimately led to me doing something I should have done years before. I sought help and entered therapy. As 2014 drew on, I delved deeper into what made me tick, why I did the things I did and felt the way I felt. It was liberating and emotional and terrifying.

Without really noticing, I turned to an old familiar friend. It started much the same way as before. I tried a cigarette while out with friends (a trigger) and hated it, but I knew I used to like it, so I did it anyway. Then it was just a social thing. Just one every now and then. Suddenly, a month or two ago, I was buying a pack and sneaking around to have a smoke. I convinced myself I was in control. I could stop any time. I could quit. After all, I'd done it before, hadn't I?

No. Clearly, not.

I knew it had to stop and told myself, "Today is the day I stop."

The next day, with five cigarettes left in the pack, I had one more. One wouldn't hurt right? Then I would stop.

I finished the pack and then, I stopped. My wife spoke to me about it soon after my last cigarette (you can't hide that smell, no matter how hard you try) and also, quite rightly, demanded I stop. I even spoke to my therapist about it to see if I could work out why it happened and what I needed to learn to get my addiction under control again.

So, here I am, one week in, with nicotine gum in my cheek, learning how to control my addiction. Because that is all I can hope to do, control. I will always be a nicotine addict, I just hope that I can retain control such that I can live without nicotine. Armed with all the lessons from my missteps along the way, I just might.

I hope that by sharing some of the details from my struggle with addiction in general and nicotine addiction in specific, it will be helpful to others. Perhaps some of you might like to share your own experiences with addiction in the comments. For now, this will serve as a reminder to my future self when that old familiar friend comes calling. I am Jeff, I am an addict, and I have been smoke free since December 10th, 2014.


  1. though I have always felt uncomfortable with the flower analogy 

Forgiveness

This is a long time coming. I have thought about writing this for as long as I have thought about having a blog. I have tried writing it in stories, lyrics and poems. All have fallen short somehow and I have similar expectations for this, but I need it. I need to find a way to reach myself and let myself know it is okay.

When I was a kid, I was confident. I was funny. I was naive. I was sensitive. I believed that people were kind and forgiving and that the world was safe…not such terrible things and perhaps a starting point for every child. I wasn't perfect, obviously. I was mean sometimes, I talked too much. I was snarky and loud. To those that know me, this may sound familiar. I'm still that person. Turns out you can't much help being who you are and that is just how it should be. You should be you. As Alan H. Stevens said at KalamazooX, "you don't need anyone's permission to be you". As a kid I inherently seemed to know this, but as I grew older I began desperately needing someone's permission to just be me, so much so that I lost sight of who I was because I so desperately just wanted to be liked. No, to be loved.

It all changed because I was bullied. I was beaten, called names, and ostracised by my peers and others. I was even made to think that my suffering was not worthy of help because others suffered worse than me. I don't know when it started but I have distinct and painful memories that are as strong now as they have ever been. Like when painting at nursery school and being very publicly derided by a supervisor for painting the wrong part. I am sure I messed up and I was probably not being at all graceful about it, but I was three or four, I had things to learn. And then there was the time at primary school when, after a particularly vicious break where even my friend had been participating in the name calling, he approached me and said something like, "I'm sorry, but I have to join in or they'll start on me. You understand, right?" I dutifully agreed, grateful to have a friend at all and feeling my friend's dilemma. And then there was high school, the church choir and my first job at the local pub where I was gay, smelly or the reason my sister wouldn't date someone1; I was bullied in many ways by many people for a long time, so many incidents that I could write more than just a single blog about them. Still, I do not want you to think that I am removing myself from any responsibility here. There are things I could have done to not be such an easy target (oh how I hated that phrase, "don't be such an easy target!"). I was a fat kid with a smart mouth; quick witted, cutting, but too damn slow to run away. I was certainly not street smart enough to realise the correlation and keep my mouth shut. Yet just because I perhaps did some things that enticed bullying, because I liked being the centre of attention, does not mean I am responsible for the actions of others.

I doubt my experience is unique. Many kids are bullied. Like me, they may not look for help for fear of being passed off with advice like "avoid them", "don't be an easy target", and "fight back", or because of threatened retribution by their abusers. Seeking help can be incredibly daunting, but reaching out will help and it will get better (there are links below where you can find numbers to call or email addresses)2. Eventually, we get to leave behind the petty-mindedness and surround ourselves with those who value us for who we are.

For me, that started at university. I had been there for two years and had made some good friends, but I was still lacking confidence or a sense of who I was when I decided to take a year out to get some work experience. There, I met some new people and got a chance to “reset” who I was. By the time I got back to university, I found the confidence to join a band, get on stage and sing. It was amazing and before long I had my first proper girlfriend where I didn't flinch at every moment of physical contact. I wasn't fixed, but I felt more myself than I ever had before.

You are worthy of being loved. You are worthy of being you. You are not responsible for the actions of others.

Repeat that to yourself as often as you can. I still need to repeat it to myself because even though I know it to be true, I still struggle with accepting it. I still feel responsible. I had a smart mouth. I talked back. I used words where others used fists (and still do). I was fat. I challenged. I made myself an “easy target” and I struggle to let that go. I am a victim and yet I blame myself for how I was treated more than I blame those who abused me. It makes no sense, but that's their legacy and the only way I can get past it is to face it and forgive them, and you must find a way to do the same.

For most of my life, I did not understand forgiveness. I was too angry. Too angry at myself and the world to realise what it really meant. “How can I forgive them? Look what they did to me. Look what they've done to me!” I was so wrapped up in being a victim, fighting to get my confidence back and fighting to be loved that I couldn't focus on anything else. It was making me bitter, arrogant and nasty. It was making me hate myself. It was making me a bully. In struggling to deal with my own experiences, I let it infect me to the point where I bullied others because I felt worthless and unloved. How could I forgive anyone that had made me feel this way or do these things? But I had forgiveness all wrong. Just a few years ago I learned forgiveness is not about accepting what happened as being justified or okay, forgiveness is about letting go. As I sat with my wife watching Madea Goes To Jail3, forgiveness finally made sense to me:

Forgiveness is not for the other person. It's for you.

The longer you hold on to it, the longer you hold onto the pain and the past and the hurt, the longer you hold yourself back from being free.

– Madea

Forgiveness is hard. I don't know if I am there yet, but I finally understand where I need to be. I refuse to justify my actions because of something someone did when I was kid, when they were hurting, trying to gain control of their own lives. These painful memories will always be a part of me — they are anecdotes when I want to relate, they are lessons when I want to help, and they are inspiration when I want to write, but it is time to stop letting them be shackles that hold me back.

I cried eight or nine times while writing this. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said it was because I was bullied, but I suspect the real reason is that I am empathetic. It is just a part of who I am. I am also a funny bastard. A funny bastard with one imaginary kid, two cats (one with opposable thumbs and a smoker's voice) and an amazing wife who sees me as I always was.

If you are struggling with abuse of any kind, reach out. There are people who know what you're going through, there are people who love you and there are people who can help you.

National Bullying Hotline (UK): http://nationalbullyinghelpline.co.uk/

It Gets Better: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/


  1. The real reason was that she had some level of taste. 

  2. Unfortunately, for some kids, it is too much and they give up, an all too familiar and unnecessary story. 

  3. Seriously. In fact, being in an interracial couple means I have to watch Tyler Perry movies or they revoke our marriage license. 

How I got started with computers

I, like many others, enjoy the ramblings of Scott Hanselman. Recently, Scott posted a blog on how he got started in computers and programming and I thought I'd share my own story of getting started.

Domesday

It all began in the distant past (don't worry, the story isn't as long as it sounds) when I was at primary school (elementary school for those Americans reading). We were very fortunate in the UK during the 80s; the BBC was working hard to promote computer literacy. This culminated in a number of things, most notable (at least for this story) were the BBC Domesday Project and the BBC Micro.

The Domesday Project was a partnership between the BBC, Acorn Computers and various others to mark the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book, an 11th century census of England. It resulted in our school library having a laserdisc that gave us an unprecedented interactive view of the country.

The BBC Micro was the computing platform that formed a part of the Domesday Project and my formative programming experience thanks to the BBC's efforts to get one in every primary school in the UK.

A Domesday system at the Vintage Computer Festival 2010, Bletchley, UK
A Domesday system at the Vintage Computer Festival 2010, Bletchley, UK

We have lift-off!

It was a year or so after the Domesday Project had visited our school library. A BBC Micro sat conspicuously in my classroom day after day. I don't remember exactly how it started, but at some point I went from playing educational games on it to writing small programs in BASIC. I suspect it had a lot to do with a very inspirational teacher I had (Mr. Garbutt, I believe). He read fascinating books to us, he played guitar to us, he had us writing and remembering poetry and eventually, he had me writing software.

It was towards the end of my final year, shortly before my leap to high school, when I created my most elaborate program yet. It was a picture of a space shuttle complete with scaffold and a car with stickman owner for scale. It even had NASA written down the side (for someone who still struggled with some geometry at age 10, I am impressed with myself for rotating those letters). The program itself was more a feat of effort than it was of programming ingenuity; it was several hundred lines of MOVE and DRAW commands. However, that effort earned me a £10 book token and a printout of the drawing and the code used to create it. The printout has since been lost, but the book I purchased has journeyed with me and sits in my bookcase at home, inside it is taped the card that had contained the prize.

The book I purchased with my prize
The book I purchased with my prize
Inscription that accompanied my book token
Inscription that accompanied my book token

The Theory of Relativity

If it were not for the support and sacrifices of my family, that may well have been that. I would have left primary school and perhaps programming, behind. However, my parents recognized my interest and bought a home computer. It was a Tatung Einstein, a little known microcomputer and it was perfect for me to while away hours at home gaming and coding (now I come to think of it, this may be how I got my start with videogames too).

I wrote a whole host of programs for my Einstein including electronic versions of "choose your own adventure" books, an electronic Beatles album and a timetable manager for me and my classmates to use for who knows what. I even remember using the Einstein for our stall at a school business fair (I seem to recall it was some sort of murder mystery thing though I don't remember for sure).

Tatung Einstein and monitor
Tatung Einstein and monitor

Friend and Family

As my Tatung Einstein started to suffer from technical problems I set my sights on something grander; a Commodore Amiga 500. My parents sold our piano to afford this computer, much to the chagrin of my sister (and probably my piano teacher, although I'd already found my lack of talent by then). Meanwhile, at school I gained access to a 286 PC and an Apple Macintosh. The former was part of my science work and often included some lunchtime visits to Sid Meier's Civilisation with a very supportive science teacher, Dr. Stec; the latter helped me to write legible schoolwork for various classes (thanks, Mr. Simpson), assist in the publication of the school newspaper and learn about e-mail for the first time.

An Amiga 500 computer system, with 1084S RGB monitor and second A1010 floppy disk drive
An Amiga 500 computer system, with 1084S RGB monitor and second A1010 floppy disk drive (© Bill Bertram 2006)

And The Rest Is History

By the time I finished high school, my career aspirations were set and I headed off to get a degree in Computer Systems Engineering leading to my job as a software engineer. Along the way, I've had the opportunity to work with some amazing people on some great projects in some diverse circumstances and I owe it all to the opportunities I was given by the BBC, my schools, my teachers and my family. I will always be grateful for their support and the sacrifices that were made so that I could follow my ambitions.