My teenage years were a nightmare of anxiety. Long before such things as anxiety, depression and all the rest of the language of mental health came into common use, I wandered around in a daze of worry: my whole world was so cognitively distorted that at a couple of points I began to hallucinate and see faces in the woodwork, literally. They were the Dark Years.
I attended a university in which the Hall of Residence where I was staying was connected to the other university buildings by a long footbridge over a beautiful valley. The bridge was overlooked by the majestic modern façade of the library, the administration block and several other structures — hundreds of gleaming windows, watching the valley below. And, to my cognitively distorted mind, that was the problem — I had to cross that bridge with the whole university watching. In my mind, the hundreds of eyes behind those windows were not only watching, but judging — judging my appearance, the way I walked, my mannerisms — and coming to the conclusion, inevitably, that I was a totally inadequate human being who should be scorned, derided and rejected. Every step was hellish.
Walking across that bridge every morning was such an ordeal, I even invented a name for what I was suffering — ‘Spectator Syndrome’, I called it: the sensation of ‘being watched and judged’. To make matters worse, after the bridge I had to climb a hill and the pathway was cut across by a major road, up which ran the buses which delivered thousands of students to the campus every day. And of course, everyone on the buses would be looking at me too, and coming to the same dismal, humiliating conclusions as all those faceless people behind the university’s windows.
That was the start of the day: it got worse from there and I won’t bore you with the details other than to say that this all added up to a very depressing few years. Part of the depression was that I wasn’t aware that I was ‘depressed’ — my daily agony, I thought, was ‘normal’. In fact, during my second year studying English Literature, as we ‘tackled’ Shakespeare’s King Lear, I became convinced that only myself and Shakespeare understood the fabric of despair from which the universe was composed — all the apparently ‘happy’ people were living in a hallucinatory ‘bubble’ which would one day pop for them, revealing the raw meaningless horror of reality. (It hadn’t helped that the first book we’d studied in the first year was Jospeh Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — Kurtz’s ‘horror, the horror’ rang true for me too, though I was even less articulate back then.)
So I am extremely familiar with the effects of cognitive distortion and how it can create a false picture of the world around a person, to their lasting detriment and misery.
How did I emerge from this period?
There were a few distinct episodes which helped, and one friend in particular who managed to pierce the gloom. But in general, I slowly became aware by observing those around me of a surprising, indeed revelatory truth: they were not observing me at all. A casual, and then a slightly more scientific observational sweep of my surroundings showed that, far from peering through windows at me and ruminating over devastating personal judgements of myself, hardly anyone noticed that I existed. They were living in their own little worlds too.
That brought its own wave of negativity of course: but it was far better to be invisible and excluded than to be scrutinised, assessed and excluded. Invisibility had advantages — one could go about one’s routines without fear of being interrupted or distracted. And one could observe others and decide what aspects of life one personally preferred.
For example, it was around this time that I decided that my hatred of parties of any kind was actually a personal choice, perfectly valid, rather than a pathological fault in my make-up. I started to avoid them and felt much better for it, rather than feeling maximally excluded from the human race even when I attended them. In fact, it was from this time that my true, conscious and selective personality began to grow — not always along perfect lines, and with much still to learn, but far more mature than the bumbling and reactive bundle of nervous tension I would previously have called ‘Me’.
In those first, depressed years, there were times — whole terms, in fact— when I would not leave the university grounds and was mortally afraid of having to go into a shop and converse with anyone behind the counter. My mother sent me food parcels, literally — every week I would collect them from the office at the residential hall, avoiding any contact with ‘the Outside World’. But as I began to perceive the world around me with slightly fewer distortions, I began to venture out. Soon I was able to visit people in their homes and not enter or emerge as an electric cloud of tension each time.
Sometime around then I acquired the gift of Listening — real listening, not just ‘socially receiving communication quickly in order to make a point in reply’, but actually sitting down and paying proper attention to what another person was saying. The difference was almost supernatural. I recall a specific time sitting outside in a university courtyard, as the person next to me began to speak. Instead of ‘tuning out’ from his boring monologue, as would have been my prior approach, I ‘tuned in’ and properly received and processed what he was telling me. It was utterly fascinating. Everything he was saying was interesting, even down to the way he was saying it. I had to double check to make sure this was the person I thought he was. Yes, the same person — but the quality of the experience of listening to him was off the scale. He noticed it too — he began smiling and even giggling as he recognised that he was being listened to, properly, maybe for the first time.
One of the most extraordinary experiences was when I found myself in a group of friends somewhere and was trying to get a word into the rambling conversation. I was normally hopeless at this and became resigned to being ignored and relegated to the fringes of any group. This time, I paused and listened properly — and could therefore judge much better when to speak. Instead of being drowned out or ignored, as I spoke every single person turned to face me and listen to what I had to say. It was unnerving to a sufferer from Spectator Syndrome, of course, but also educational — so I could be heard, I thought, just because I could listen.
One of the biggest problems with anxiety and depression — possibly the underlying fundamental problem — is that they introvert the sufferer and shut him or her out from Life. And one of the simplest and most revelatory things an individual can do is ‘break the spell’ by actually listening to another, not with any ulterior motive, not with any purpose at all other than to properly hear what that person is saying — to hear it, understand it, take it on board for what it is, and not seek to interrupt or modify it in any way. It can open one’s eyes, as well as one’s ears and mind: and it can do the same for whoever is being listened to as well.