Rewind 15 years. I am 18, and about to sit my final school exams. Each weekday morning, I wake at 5am. I am working late, and not sleeping well. I have panic attacks in anticipation of the post arriving; university offer letters. I am not frightened of not getting a place, but that I will. I am torn between my teachers and my parents. My teachers, predicting multiple top grades, urging Oxbridge, telling me this is the time to do as I wish, irrespective of my parents; my parents (read: my mother) telling me that the only way I will ever be able to cope is if I stay close by. I cannot, she says, live independently. I am incapable and simply will not succeed anywhere else. I want to die. There is no point in academic prowess, if I cannot use it. Without it, I am nothing. I am afraid of university. I am stupid enough to believe my parents, that they want what is best for me. I do not acknowledge that they want what is best for them, even as I can see my teachers want what is best for the school. I resent my parents. My teachers resent me: I should have applied to Oxbridge.
Then, as aged 11, I wanted to fling myself from the top of a very tall building. I could imagine it, in my mind’s eye. I was a tool, for the school’s reputation (and I was going to fail them) and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had no friends because they were all out drinking, while I was not allowed with them. We know what they get up to. Really? I wish I did. I am threatened with the G.P., if I cannot stop panicking. It is presented as punishment. I am misbehaving again. I cannot help it. I want to die. I deal with this by smiling, bouncing. In lessons, I am running around the classrooms, around the college. I am loud and exuberant, interrupting explanations with my own attempts at witty interjection – quick fire pun – where a few months before I had been elective mute. I cannot sit still. The teachers are concerned. But I dare not betray my parents, explain how bad things are at home. When I am in charge, all Enid Blyton books will be banned.
This week, all these memories have come back to me in tidal fashion. On Tuesday morning, one of the buildings on campus is cordoned off. Police incident. Student incident. On Thursday, we are told that a student has died; those in the building say that they jumped down the fire escape. I am white, and washed out, and I cannot concentrate. The media are silent at the family’s behest. It is exam season. The building is iconic, epitomy of the university. It is on every log-on screeen. It part-hosts Psychology. I am triggered and desperately sad because I know that I too have stared down that hard, concrete stair case – in my imagination, and for real. Thought about climbing over the bannister, jumping from it. My mind chants repeatedly, ‘I want to die’. Then another death reported liberally by the media. A walking into the sea. And I am thrown back against the sea wall, my own mother’s death wishes echoing around the waves, a few months after I had left for university, breaking into my mind’s ears. Death is an end to pain.
But it is research focus day for Psychology. And they must not know I am affected. I sit through the presentations, consciously ground myself as I begin to dissociate, at the sight of each house-style presentation, the building blaring from the projector. I force myself to listen and offer comment. To make conversation. And then to go out to lunch, and in the evening to the pub. They must not know I am affected, or why. Whatever happens, they must not know.
It begins again the next day. I am back, and presenting, myself. Presenting myself as a worthwhile member of the Department, to convey what I am doing and why. It works. People like what I am doing, are warm and positive. I feel like I belong here. It feels great. At 10pm I am still working. With so much to do, and having been fired by adrenaline, in the company of others, over-using caffeine to stay awake, to stay present, I have driven myself into hypomania. It is midnight and my mind is racing. I cannot sleep. I cannot concentrate on anything, either.
And now, I am rocking, still trying to find calm. My mind is awash with all the things I should be doing whilst I am writing this instead. A seemingly neverending to-do list. And a dull fatigue drums in the background, a heaviness that I cannot shake off, of uselessness, of aloneness, that must be untrue, but feels so real. I don’t know what to do to end it. The chasm between insight and practice is wide and wild as sea at night.