Opinion

How puzzles became the nourishing distraction that helps me face the day

Sam Delaney's new found love of puzzling has transformed his mornings and helped him accept himself

A crossword puzzle makes for a good start for the day

Image: Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I’ve never been a morning person. Through good times and bad, whether I’ve been getting up in the dark to attend a job I hated or sleeping in late before a day of leisure, I’ve always found the first few moments of the day really unpleasant. I wake up feeling scared. I’m never quite sure of what. If my mind is a filing cabinet, I feel as if vandals get in at night, start opening all the drawers and throwing the important papers around. I wake feeling discombobulated; unsure of my ability to confront the future. There could be a scientific explanation to do with cortisone levels. Look it up if you like, I can’t be bothered. What difference would it make? I’ve been struggling like this since childhood. I’m past caring what the cause is; I just want a cure.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Recently, I think I might have found one. For the past few weeks, I have started waking up feeling happy. When I hear the alarm, I fling back the covers almost immediately. I scuttle downstairs merrily to feed the pets and stick the kettle on. I open the blinds and smile into the sunlight. Sometimes, I even have a little whistle. 

The cause of all this is not some fancy ‘optimisation ritual’ learnt from a weird alpha-male podcast. I’m not fasting or taking ice baths; I’m not muttering affirmations or scribbling out a gratitude journal. It’s more straightforward than all that: I’ve just got really, really into puzzles. Concise crosswords were the gateway drug. My wife has been a big fan for years; I have always teased her for being a nerd. Crosswords seemed a bit too spoddy for me. I had an idea of myself as a renegade who lives too fast and burns too bright for the gentle pleasures of word-based conundrums.

Like many washed up middle-aged men, I clung to a daft fantasy for a bit too long. The more I give in to reality – and accept that I am perhaps more Stephen Fry than Stephen Tyler – the more relaxed I seem to feel about life.

It’s a shamefully late realisation, I know, but there is huge satisfaction in making gradual progress as a result of continued practice. Who knew? I do The Times crossword each day, painstakingly stumbling through each clue in order and then repeating until the whole thing is complete, or near enough. Once I’m done, I am overwhelmed by a sense of self-satisfaction. It’s a bit like the quiet smugness I feel after a morning run, only less messy and undignified.

After a few weeks of crossword use, I started exploring other brainteasers: Wordle, connection puzzles, even a bit of Sudoku. I’m not exaggerating when I say they give me a thrilling little buzz. I think it must be the focus they demand; I’ve always enjoyed escaping into pastimes that block out all the troubling thoughts and chaotic feelings that swirl around inside me. There was a time when booze and drugs provided the escape, but that proved to be unsustainable. Video games sometimes do the job – but slouching in front of the telly playing a football management simulation doesn’t do much for your self respect.

Puzzles, on the other hand, are meditative yet improving; a distraction that both numbs and nourishes. I’m angry at myself for discovering their beauty so late in life. I’ve spent thousands on therapy over the years. I’m not sure puzzling necessarily helps me unpick the great conundrum of my life, but it has helped me to relax and shown me I am capable of progress.

Now, I don’t wake up thinking: ‘SHIT SHIT SHIT! WHERE AM I?! WHAT’S HAPPENING?! WHY IS LIFE SO INTIMIDATING?’ Instead, the first thing I think is: ‘Seize the day! Grasp the nettle! Call the cops! It’s time for another morning of puzzling!’ 

Read more from Sam Delaney here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this topic? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

Sort Your Head Out book cover

Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Constable £18.99)You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from 

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
If Rishi Sunak is so keen on our national identity, why is this British icon up for sale?
Paul McNamee

If Rishi Sunak is so keen on our national identity, why is this British icon up for sale?

Stacey Solomon is not afraid of having a go. She even makes DIY look easy
Lucy Sweet

Stacey Solomon is not afraid of having a go. She even makes DIY look easy

How the Northern Ballet's empty orchestra pit perfectly sums up UK's arts crisis 
Naomi Pohl

How the Northern Ballet's empty orchestra pit perfectly sums up UK's arts crisis 

Tories won't let the UN investigate rise of food banks in UK. Labour must welcome them
Philip Alston UN investigates poverty, food poverty and food banks
Alex Firth

Tories won't let the UN investigate rise of food banks in UK. Labour must welcome them

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know