My first encounter with depression came when I was 13 years old, fresh into my teenage years and slouched, bored, at the back of my Food Technology class. Something unfamiliar and unpleasant was crawling around in my head, and I wanted it out. It was telling me, in that empty voice that suggests an intelligence far superior to your own, that I was going to make a fool of myself. We were cooking pizzas, and I was pretty good at Food Tech, as I was in most of my lessons. But today, for whatever reason, I was going to fail. I didn’t know why, but that cold voice had told me, so it must be true.
So instead of rolling out dough and picking the most exotic combination of toppings I could possibly think of, I did what every teenager with problems seems to do these days; I unscrewed the blade from one of my pencil sharpeners, and I carved a noughts-and-crosses board into the back of my hand. Cross. Circle. The blood flowed freely down my wrist and onto my forearm, where it collected in a little pool before dripping to the floor. Cross. The sight of it - red, viscous, squeezing its way out through layers of flesh - seemed to soothe me a little. Circle. Suddenly, the peace turned to fear; what the hell was I doing? I propelled myself to the back of the room, snatching at a fistful of paper towels and forcing them unceremoniously onto the wounded skin. My hand stung as the blue of the paper slowly gave way to spreading red, and I pressed it ever tighter against myself, praying that the bleeding would stop. It seemed like hours, but eventually I tore the towel free, took one last disgusted look at it as if it were somehow responsible for my foolishness, and threw it down into the bin to be disposed of and forgotten. Throughout all of this, not one person looked up from their work stations. No-one came over to see if I was alright. No-one cared.
I’m 15. Like every other boy my age, I’m hopelessly in love with a girl who’ll never be mine. This realisation has struck me like a physical blow, knocking me sideways into a bed that was all too eager to accept me. It is moulded perfectly to my body, shaped by days upon days of lying here in this same, lethargic state. The initial problem has long since faded, but still I remain confined to the duvet, floored by the weight of crushing misery and a seemingly unshakeable weariness. The pillow is wet with tears, my eyes red and puffy, cheeks sunken into a face that hasn’t thought to eat for days, years, aeons. School ring insistently, and every day I have a headache and will not be able to attend. I don’t think I’ll ever go to school again. What’s the point of getting an education if you’re never going to be more than this pathetic mess laying spread-eagled in a tangle of sheets and stewing in your own filth?
A burst of life, like an electrical current. I am at the head of my Drama group, spewing endless improvised lines that put our scripted work to shame. I am the one who they turn to to salvage the performance when the other actors forget their lines. Without a second thought, I launch into an epic monologue, flushed with the thrill of my own magnificence, drawing laughter and applause from an audience who will never suspect that this wasn’t planned, that such art could possibly be the seamless invention of such a young mind.
It is summer, and I’m on crutches. I’ve broken my heel doing stage combat, and I’m coked to the teeth on Co-codamol. My crutches lie disused against the fence, and the children’s play park is my fortress. I clamber up and down the slide, throwing myself off the top of the equipment, clattering to earth 5 feet below. I slide down the metal pole like a fireman, squealing at the top of my voice, running around like a lunatic. My friends stare at each other in disbelief – “What’s he doing now? This guy gets weirder by the day…” – but I’m wonderfully, magically oblivious to their concern. The sun sets my skin tingling, the grass glistens and crackles beneath my feet, and I have never felt more alive.
I’m crying in the arms of a female friend, muttering some incoherent nonsense about how I feel so awful I might die. My home life is stable, my schoolwork is excellent, I have high ambitions and every chance at achieving them, my group of friends are witty and intelligent, and despite my red hair and pale skin I have never suffered from bullying. Most would say that my life is blessed, if mundane. I know this, and it only adds to the heartache; I’m so lucky in so many ways, I think, so why do I feel so bad? The sobs wrack my body, and it is all I can do to keep from collapsing to the floor and pounding the cement like a child throwing a tantrum.
I am possessed with grand notions: I will toss myself in front of every model of car! Not in an attempt to end my life – an unthinkable notion! – but how marvellous it would be, what an achievement! A Ford Fiesta, slam, a Fiat Punto, crash, and my, how the people around me stare, as if I’m some kind of freak! Why can they not see how inspired I am? Poor things, still blinded to reality. Not me though, I’m free, and nothing anyone can say could bring me down.
Only later, at the age of 17, will I begin to realise that my moods are perhaps a little unusual. Surrounded by countless friends’ teenage mood swings, the pathology behind my chaotic early teens has been allowed to go unnoticed; a little eccentric, perhaps, but nothing to be concerned about. Slowly, as the self-harming behaviour escalates, thoughts turn to suicide, ethereal voices creep into the outskirts of my mind and I begin to lose touch with reality more and more frequently, I will be forced to seek professional help.
At first, my GP prescribes me Prozac, to counter the increasingly suicidal depression into which I have plunged. At first, it only makes me nauseous and kills my appetite. Then, my leg starts to twitch. Within 2 days, I’m flying around at a frantic pace, completely forgetting about sleep in favour of long-distance runs and late-night studying. My thoughts accelerate; at first, my productivity multiplies tenfold, but then everything starts to pile up – I can no longer read, I can barely speak over the chaos in my head, I’m fighting every fibre of my being not to impulsively jump on a plane to some far-flung resort. The Prozac gets pulled, and the leg stops twitching, and I can read again, but the world is still full of beauty and secrets just begging to be uncovered. The fluctuations of mood become increasingly frenetic, the instability making it impossible to predict how I’ll feel when I next wake up, if I sleep at all. My life steadily deteriorates into an emotional gamble, fate decided by a cosmic dice roll. Eventually, I can take it no more, and reach out to the mental health services for salvation.