Five Years Of Hell

I wrote about my childhood and my time at university. Now I turn to the next five years or so. I hope that you find it in some way helpful – perhaps you can identify with my experiences or perhaps you are just interested in other people’s lives. Perhaps you want to share your story here. Let me know!
Whatever your reason for reading I’m glad that I can share a little more about myself with you.
I do hope that your journey hasn’t been anything like mine.

University spat me out into a great chasm. Where does a student of poetry look for a job? I imagined turning up at interviews and being asked if I had been trained to use the latest software. I imagined myself replying “No, but I know what iambic pentameter is”.

I trawled through pages and pages of jobs seeing nothing that I believed I had a chance of getting. I was at a loss and very depressed about it all. Then, motivated by that moment when I would have to ask for my future wife’s hand in marriage, and out of utter desperation, I decided that the only option open to me was teaching. What do you do with poetry? The only useful thing is to teach it to someone else. At least there was a guaranteed job at the end of it with a reasonable salary.

The problem was: I knew that I was completely unsuited for the job. It was never going to work.

I was accepted by Homerton College, Cambridge University, and enrolled on a teacher training course. The subject was ‘English with Drama’ (and believe me there was plenty of drama) and the qualification was to teach in secondary schools. What a mistake.
The course was a total nightmare and I’m not sure to this day how I stuck it out until the end. I’ll give myself credit where it’s due: I’m a determined and tough so and so when I have to be. I don’t think, given what I was going through with depression and anxiety, that most other people could have done the same.

Some of the training was done on the job, (I think I taught at three schools as part of the course) and I was used as maternity cover for one particular teacher. It turned out that she was a friend of J.K. Rowling (I had never heard of her) and she mentioned that Rowling was coming to the school and would be in the library during the lunch-break. I was not in a good place at the time and was feeling less than enthusiastic about anything to do with children, schools, teachers, books, authors and anything that I didn’t really need to be involved with. I feigned interest and didn’t bother turning up.

When I finished my time there the teacher gave me a present: a first edition signed Harry Potter book. My disillusionment was so great that I decided to see if I could sell it. I had no idea if it was worth anything but presumed that there was always someone who wanted a first edition signed copy of something. It sold for a small amount. It would be worth a fortune now.

A career in teaching beckoned. Unfortunately the jobs on offer were not in my area and I had to become a supply teacher. With my boyish face and chronic lack of confidence becoming a stand-in for absent teachers (mostly covering subjects I knew nothing about) was a recipe for disaster.

The kids hated me (they hated all teachers and were particularly cruel to stand-ins) and I wasn’t thick-skinned enough to take it. I once had a laser sight from a gun aimed at me as I was sitting in a staff-room: one of the kids was actually pointing a gun at me. The red spot sat on my tie for a while as I tried to figure out what it was.

They demolished me by totally under-mining my authority. They threw things at me and each other, and if I playfully threw something back they threatened to sue me; they stood on the tables rioting; they threatened to throw each other out of the windows; they made comments about me that nearly reduced me to tears and they gave me a good send-off when at last I could bare it no longer: walking across the car-park to leave for the last time their cries of derision rung in my ears.

However, quitting my career and wasting my training wasn’t good for my mental health either. My wife and her family (we lived on her father’s farm) were sympathetic but I was deeply ashamed. I have tried to lose that sense of shame but shame and guilt are difficult opponents and they refuse to go away. Sometimes they disappear only to return twice as large.

Now depression really sensed its opportunity. I felt I had let everyone down and that I had no future. I felt a failure and an embarrassment. I also started to get the idea that I was cursed somehow and that the world was deliberately designed in order to exclude me and to prevent me from earning a living wage.

I was able to work some hours and earn a small amount of money on the farm (an occupation for which I was equally as unsuited) but I still felt only shame, guilt, fear, depression, isolation, hopelessness and just about every other negative emotion I can think of. There I was, a highly qualified student of poetry, shovelling shit in someone’s stable. There I was, the least practical person imaginable, with no common sense whatsoever, fiddling about with things technical and mechanical, understanding not the faintest thing about whatever job it was that I was being asked to do or trying to help with. That in itself was depressing and humiliating.

I can look back rather sentimentally now and picture myself driving tractors in the warm summer sun, watching an owl quartering the field in front of me on a late summer evening as I was turning the hay; driving the old grey Fergie’ (Massey Ferguson) from the fifties that I liked to chuff along on; lying on top of a trailer full of hay as we set off down the road, watching the white clouds in the blue skies above me with my hands underneath my head; drinking wine on summer evenings under the apple tree we had strung white lights in; walking in the fields with my dogs and looking after my goats and sheep.

However, the fact is that I was seriously ill and wanting to die.

I was seriously depressed and suffering with crippling social anxiety. When I walked through the sheds I saw thick ropes, meant for tying hay and straw securely onto trailers, and I couldn’t help but think of hanging. When we went up to see the majestic cathedral that dominated our landscape I only thought of jumping from it.

Just imagine wanting to harm yourself to that extent. We are hard-wired to survive and yet there I was contemplating ending it all by throwing myself off a tall building. That is how severe mental illness can be. My daily struggle was so awful that I was prepared to smash myself to bits or choke myself to death. I used to wake up in the morning (if I had actually managed to sleep that is) and my first thought would be to despair that another day was upon me. There was virtually no respite and nothing that anybody could do for me.

I didn’t help myself by denying that I had a problem and pretending to be a ‘normal’ person wherever I went. I expected a lot of myself and that only increased my burden. At that time I was learning about myself and my illness. I was learning what my capabilities were, what I could and could not cope with and how to look after myself. I got it very wrong for a long time by expecting too much and not being kind to myself. Knowing what I know now would have made my life much easier.

It was a secret illness. Nobody could see inside my brain. I often wished I had cancer or some other physical ailment that was visible to everybody else. Many other sufferers out there must know the feeling. We all end up being our own doctors, recognising symptoms, monitoring ourselves and trying to get the right treatment.

I began to spend as much time as possible on my own and I only left the house when I absolutely had no other choice. This only made my social anxiety worse. I found some solace in song-writing and losing myself in music but it was a seriously bleak period.

Those five years were really tough. They were hell.

 

Still Alive: University

University can be really tough.

I arrived in Cambridge to begin my course (English Literature and Language) falling to pieces. It frightened me that I was alone in a place I didn’t know, I had no idea of how to look after myself, feed myself, or live within a budget. I was frightened because I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did or what to do about it and I was frightened about a new ‘school’, new fellow students, and a new course with new ‘teachers’.

My father’s church friends got me a place to lodge down the road from them. This came to be very fateful. I was extremely nervous about living in a stranger’s house. I had a small room downstairs and the family consisted of a husband and wife and their young son. They were nice to me to begin with but our relationship grew to be very strained and broke down badly towards the end. I’m sure that some of it must have been my fault but I still can’t work out what.

As time went on I spent less and less time in their house, preferring to be down the road with my father’s friends. I was fed many times there. The example that they set (and the suffering that I was going through) led me to being baptised as a Christadelphian. That was the most momentous thing that happened to me during my time at university: apart from meeting my future wife.

My anxiety wound me up tight and didn’t let up for a moment. I found everybody at university seemed to be on a different planet to me. I was probably the only one that arrived to what I thought was my first day, waited in a queue for an hour and then was told that I needed to come back another day. I was so anxious that I could barely function and read important information like that. Everyone else seemed to turn up late or not at all. They were all paired off and enjoying their new found freedom. They seemed comfortable and like an adult whilst I felt like a child. My insides were exploding every time I went near the place.

Classes and lectures were torturous. There I was on my own and barely able to look at anybody. The chatting and laughter around me made me feel different somehow. I began staring at the floor and couldn’t look up. Trying to find different classes and lecture places reminded me very much of how it felt when I went to secondary school for the first time. I fretted and found it difficult to find things. Sometimes I just scraped in and sometimes I was about 30 minutes early. I didn’t have a friend to help me.

I had no social life during my first year at university. My social anxiety prevented me from hanging around in the pubs and clubs. I wasn’t yet interested in church social life. I found myself alone in my tiny room reading and listening to music. I actually saved quite a lot of my student grant money because I never went anywhere to spend it and I never overspent at the supermarket. This hermit-like lifestyle was a tactic to counter social anxiety but it actually made my social anxiety worse because I might spend two days alone in my room and then have to go to university when all of a sudden the world would be around me again and it was all the more frightening and anxiety-provoking for it.

Seminars were torturous. Often, we would go around the room, saying who we were and introducing ourselves and by the time it got to me I could barely speak, my face was bright red and my bowels wanted to explode. We would each be asked to contribute something in this way quite often and it made seminars terrifying. Any time that I had to speak caused me the utmost discomfort. It wasn’t that I couldn’t keep up with the work itself – it was difficult but I could do it – it was more that I felt the odd one out, I felt everybody’s eyes on me, ridiculing me. I felt that they could see me shaking; they could see that I was some kind of weird misfit, some child that was to be laughed at.

I grew to love Cambridge, but not in those first few years. I wasn’t used to city life. All around me were shocking battles that I witnessed wide-eyed. There were car-accidents, beggars, street preachers, fights, and all sorts of people from all over the world – some real characters too. Cambridge was full of intellectual students and seemed in a political sense, to be a liberal city. I didn’t fit in with the angry drug-taking underbelly, or with the bicycle pedalling intellectuals, and sometimes I felt more like one of the numerous Japanese tourists than a legitimate student.

I remember being almost run over by Professor Stephen hawking. There were quite a few academic heavyweights around the place. So there was a city with the have-nots causing problems and the ordinary people getting on with life, and there was a city with the intellectual liberal elite. As a student with what was the old polytechnic but now a proper university I felt decidedly second-class. The Cambridge University students took all the privileges and we picked up the pieces. There was no niche that I could fit in to.

The anxiety and depression was relentless and the pressure of university never let up, including the intensity of entering whatever world the next author created. The books were mind-expanding and one book or play, or poem, followed another in quick succession. The reading lists were extensive. I bought them all second hand and they piled up into small towers on my floor. I began to get used to being the only one to read the books and be prepared for the seminars. It was my anxiety and fear of getting into trouble and having a confrontation with the lecturers that made me read everything and hand my essays in long before anyone else. It had been the same at school and that was why I achieved what I did: sheer anxiety. There was no pleasure in it.

The others seemed to know that they could get away with not reading the books or turning up to the lectures. By the time my last year came around I wasn’t attending lectures either because I had realised that they were either irrelevant and of no use whatsoever. I feel let down my university. The books that were suggested as helpful for our assignments were not available in the library because usually they had one copy for hundreds of students. I remember doing assignments from the top of my head when I couldn’t access a single book to refer to.

The most important single piece of work was the dissertation so I decided to give a rough draft to a lecturer to get his unofficial opinion on the direction I was taking. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to mark it as if it was finished. I told him this was unfair but the mark was not changed. I narrowly missed out on a first and it galls me to this day.

My mental health was deteriorating sharply. It was about this time that I first began considering suicide. I felt so bad that I went to the university counsellor for help. She told me that I was suffering from Clinical Depression. It felt strange hearing a professional confirm what I already feared. On the one hand it was good because I could now go to my doctor and be more likely to have a fair hearing, but on the other hand I felt like a condemned man and I now had an adversary with a name. I was fighting this external aggressor like the flu virus I had struggled so badly with in first year. It put all sorts of things in my head as I found out a bit more about it. I even read Freud, I was pretty intense in those days and academia was all I knew.

My doctor put me on a medication called Dothiepin. Looking back, all it ever did for me was take away my appetite, give me nausea and dehydration and make me cold and unfeeling. My mood was still rock bottom but any glimpses of joy were squashed. This was to become a familiar problem. Being on medication worried me. These drugs were altering things in my brain but what exactly were they doing to me? How could the doctor know exactly how they were functioning in my brain and what long term effects they could have? My heart seemed to be racing and they put me on more medication to deal with that. That really scared me because I didn’t want to think about anything messing with my heart.

I don’t remember telling anyone about all this. There was more of a stigma in those days and I stigmatised myself. It was a case of living with an invisible plague in contrast to having a physical disability. Down the years I wished that people could see my illness and understand why I acted the way I did.

My connection with the Christadelphians might have saved my life. I found a safe haven down the road, at the church, and with families who took students under their wing and fed them on Sundays. I was helped by one particular family regularly and was taught how to drive tractors and work on their farm. They relied on students for help and I was glad of the diversion, I became very much a regular and got involved in activities that were run just for young people, gaining some friends on the way. Little was I to know that the daughter of my hosts that was away at university was to become my future wife…I like to think that the angels were at work!

By the end of my time at university my wife’s family took me in as a lodger. Every day away from their house, away from my wife to be, was such a contrast. I felt nauseous and full of panic, frightened and depressed, and very lonely. Insomnia plagued me and intensified my problems because I got no respite from the panic. At this time I was very quiet and withdrawn, I appeared aloof and intense, as if I was somehow angry and disapproving of everybody. I was just an impenetrable wall of ice and only my wife could see through it.

I hope this insight into what life can be like at university proves in some way to be useful to you.