Sunday Assembly: Keegan's story
Keegan, 36, was born in Lincolnshire, and has lived in Reading since arriving at the university in 2001. He’s been coming to Sunday Assembly since 2017, and joined the band soon after. He works in satellite technology.
I ask him to describe himself. “When I was 11 I had to write an essay on what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he says. “I wrote that I wanted to be a mad scientist or an inventor.”
Gesturing to his coat, he tells me that his mother made it. “She asked what kind of coat I wanted, and I said straight away – one like Doc Brown in Back to the Future.” He laughs. “So I’ve got the outfit, at any rate. And I seem to have made the rest come true as well. I’m a maker, I’ve got a science degree – and I even used to have the mad hair!” He explains that he used to have hair like Kevin Keegan – which is how he acquired his adopted name.
An active member of Sunday Assembly, he has hosted, been a speaker, read a poem, and sung and played in the band. “I’m one of these people who are a bit all or nothing. If I join something, I quickly become involved in the running of it. I get far more out of it by being part of the team.”
Keegan memorably kicked off our Christmas assembly by appearing to float into the room dressed as Father Christmas to the accompaniment of flashing lights and the Star Wars Imperial March. In fact, he was riding his electric skateboard, a Slick Revolution Flex-E, which he is continually tweaking and modifying. The flashing lights were controlled by an Arduino hidden in his hat.
As a speaker, he gave us an insight into his work at Satellite Applications Catapult, tracking illegal fishing at sea and monitoring the environmental impact of open cast mining. “Satellites are all around us,” he says. “Although we can't see them most of the time, they’re always working in the background providing important services and data.” In his talk, he showed us some amazing live feeds – some of which are open data that can be accessed by anyone.
But for Keegan, the most important part of Sunday Assembly is playing in the band. He tells me he felt a bit daunted at first. “There were all these amazing musicians who’d been playing together for ages and understood what each other were doing – it’s really hard to come in as an outsider.” But he settled in quickly. “It’s been great to get back into playing music with people – that’s such a big thing for me. Instead of worrying about not being good enough, I focus on the fact that I can learn from the brilliant people around me.”
And a key part of this, he adds, is that it helps him to cope with depression and anxiety. “It forces me to get out and do things even when I’m not feeling great – if I have band rehearsal, I know I mustn’t let them down.”
It’s a surprise to learn that he’s suffered from depression and anxiety all his life, and was only diagnosed three years ago. He first realised something was wrong when he watched a video of Wil Wheaton from Star Trek, discussing his own issues with depression. “I ticked every single box of what he was describing,” he says. “And I’d just had a total meltdown about somebody moving the hat-rack at work. I felt angry all the time. When I finally got help it was so bad that they skipped the counselling part and went straight to medication.”
He’s been lucky with medication – he was worried that antidepressants might affect his creativity, but adapted to them well after a few weeks. “One morning I woke up feeling a bit strange,” he says, “and it took a while for me to realise that there was no crushing weight on my chest – which had been there as long as I could remember – and I actually felt happy.”
He describes himself as combining a strange mixture of extroversion and social anxiety. “When I was at university, I saw myself as shy and lacking in confidence, but I later discovered that some of my friends really looked up to me.” We talk about imposter syndrome, with Keegan citing the example of Neil Armstrong at an awards ceremony, saying that he didn’t know why he was there – “I’ve only done this one thing.” Another of his heroes is Adam Savage, fabricator, special effects designer, and co-host of MythBusters. “Even he’s doubted himself as a maker, even though he’s extremely good at it – he’s been doing it all his life.”
One of Keegan’s coping strategies is to always look for the funny side of things – indeed, his warm, self-deprecating humour is one of the many assets he brings to Sunday Assembly. He tells me about a situation where he kept his head in a crisis – organising first aid for an injured student and handing over his belt as a tourniquet. “Of course, when I had to rush off for a first aid kit, my trousers immediately fell down,” he says with a grin. He contrasts this with a recent experience while shopping – “I had a massive panic attack in Marks and Spencer because I couldn’t decide between three different pizzas. Pizza, for God’s sake – when I’m capable of acting decisively to save someone’s life.” He shakes his head. “It took me a while to realise that I could afford to buy all of them. And I’ve got a freezer.”
Keegan is a firm atheist. He remembers struggling to get his head around the idea of God as a child, and deciding that nobody could have enough hands or remote controls to keep tabs on everything that was happening. “I would never come to Sunday Assembly if it was religious,” he says. “One of the best things is it not being preachy, or trying to control people’s behaviour. But it does have a great sense of community… the assemblies, the social events, new friends, the music, and so on.” I ask him what could make Sunday Assembly better, and he shakes his head. “I’d really just like more of the same, please.”