Overcoming the Amygdala Part 33


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?