Suffering from stress is so common now – or at least so openly talked about – that I don't feel any embarrassment when discussing it. I mean, who doesn't feel anxious about some life events? A first date, a driving test, an important meeting – stress is just as common as any other feeling nowadays.
But at 19, when my stress first began, it didn't feel normal at all – in truth, it felt anything but.
While people can suffer from stress and anxiety at any point in their lives, not all experience a definitive moment-in-time trigger. I did. My trigger was my previous job at an insurance company, where I'd find myself locked in a toilet cubicle hyperventilating on a weekly basis, trying to calm myself and wipe my work-filled mind clear.
Stress is known as 'the silent killer'. Problems can seem relatively minor, only to spiral out of control if not treated, or at least talked about. While many sufferers might appear fine on the outside, they can be crying out for help on the inside. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and mental health issues such as depression have been caused by stress. So, when I was silently suffering, I wasted no time in seeking professional advice.
People have different tolerances for stress – one man's panic-inducing confrontation is another man's mildly stimulating discussion – but if so many of us are beside ourselves with stress, it's important we realise it and learn how to relax.
I tried a list of proven remedies to reduce my stress over the following months. None worked. I returned to my GP in search of alternatives, but nothing was really helping. I was enduring sleepless nights and minor breakdowns at work, finally quitting my job when it became too much.
It was only then that I found my perfect remedy: snooker.
During the ensuing period of unemployment, I'd play snooker regularly. It was a happy accident: I started to play because the snooker hall was equidistant between the pub and my house. Then, three months after my first game, I became a fully-fledged member and began to feel the faint rumblings of an addiction.
Where life was unpredictable, snooker was perversely reliable. Where life was fast, snooker was slow. The game was invented to help soldiers pass Indian summers in peace while they waited for the locals to twig that colonial rule wasn't going to do it for them in the long run. It has always been a game of relaxation.
Snooker is an almost anti-competitive sport. Sure, there's someone else to compete against, but in reality you're taking it in turns to play against yourself, trying to get through the game stress-free. There was something quite therapeutic about it that immediately put my mind at ease.
It was on my next visit to the GP that I realised the affect snooker was having. My doctor asked me to recall occasions when I had felt fully at ease since our last consultation. Aside from a few sound nights sleep – which usually still resulted in me waking up in a sweaty heap – my replies all revolved around snooker.
I played snooker – and still do – not because it's fun, but because it isn't. I find the whole experience comforting. The eerie silence throughout the hall, with only slight whispers and the connecting of balls for company, creates an almost meditative atmosphere.
Because to me, snooker really is more meditation than sport. It empties you of ambition and concern. It puts you at one with cloth and cue. The feeling when that final black ball drops into its netted home leaves you remembering your time at the green baize fondly. It almost reassures you that, in comparison, everything else you do that day will seem easy and normal – because snooker would be very simple if it wasn't so utterly impossible. Straight pots veer off at right angles. Balls left just on the lip rattle out of the jaws. Every pot is a minor triumph. A break of more than 10 borders on heroic. But nothing is expected of you; you're playing yourself and, for that moment in time, it's all that matters.
I found that televised snooker had the same comforting effect. The referee's dulcet tones; John Virgo's soothing Yorkshire accent as he quietly asks where the cue ball is going; and the slow, smooth snooker that the professionals play. It was another perfect combination.
A few months in and snooker was proving tough on the wallet, so I decided to find out if pool would have the same result. But despite being like a scaled-down version, pool is inherently different. It is snooker's younger, louder cousin. No, snooker is nothing like pool. Pool was designed for pissed blokes, by pissed blokes, to help them hold back the dawning realisation that they have nothing to say to their best mates, even when they're drunk. In snooker, no words are required. Snooker is for the men. It is for the mature and cultured men – or at least those with aspirations in this direction.
The atmosphere that snooker creates and holds you in is one that I long to remain part of forever. The feeling when I'm at the baize lets me forget everything else. For the next hour or so, it's just me and that table. Relax. Nothing else matters.