As promised, I would like to expand on something I glossed over in my interview on Catholic Geek Radio, but now that I look back on it, played a much larger part in my motivations as a writer than I realized. It concerns how I moved from one university to another. It is not something I am proud of – instead it is something I am grateful for, since reminding myself of it is an effective defence against pride. This post will involve some painful memories, so please bear with me.
In school I was a quiet, competent and somewhat arrogant young man. Understanding new concepts came easily to me, I was in a good and well-structured school and I did all the coursework and homework required, I excelled at every subject except English and history, I didn’t see the point of flowery language or rote-learning lists of dates. I was also good at sports, broke a few school records, and was relatively popular. Everyone around me assumed I would go on to achieve great things, myself most of all. Like a lot of young men, I saw myself as immortal, invincible, unbreakable.
After failing the interview to get into Cambridge University (my exam results were good enough), I chose the most difficult option available to me – a double degree in Chemical Engineering and applied Chemistry, but that wasn’t enough. I signed on for the extra language option, continued my training in the decathlon, joined and eventually ran the juggling society, and became evangelism secretary of the Christian Union. All at once. Because of the good schooling I’d had, I was able to coast through the first year of my studies while still getting good results – in my own mind I was unstoppable. To my surprise at the end of the year, I failed one subject. I studied over the summer, retook the exam, passed and it seemed all was well.
The second year the workload increased significantly, coasting along wouldn’t cut it any more. I started to fall behind, though I wouldn’t admit it to myself. It got so bad, that in the end I failed the entire year and had to repeat it. This came as a shock, but I quickly shook it off and thought, ‘I’ll have heard everything before, I’ll cut down on the extra-curricular activities, it’ll be a lot easier this time, no problem.’ I couldn’t get it through my thick skull that I wasn’t coping, I wasn’t grasping the magnitude of the effort required, and I hadn’t cultivated sufficiently disciplined work habits to manage the workload, especially when combined with my perfectionism.
I still somehow saw myself as unbreakable, until one day I… broke.
The repeat year got underway, this was my last chance to live up to those awesome expectations I had for myself, and I assumed everyone else had for me. I pushed myself and pushed myself, to the point where I literally fainted in the computer lab while working on a plant design project, but I was still falling behind again. I ignored the signs for as long as I could, then my illusions came crashing down.
It was going to happen again, it was inevitable – I was a failure.
I’d let everyone down that I assumed was depending on me to succeed, I was not as strong as I thought I was – in my mind I was a fraud. I had a total nervous breakdown, sank into deep depression, dropped out of university, suffered severe panic attacks and burst into tears almost daily, went more than six months without being able to laugh and considered suicide. It was ultimately my faith in God and the power of beauty that prevented me from doing that.
I was on a beach on my own late in the evening, considering wading out to sea to drown myself, when the clouds opened up and I saw the stars. Immediately two verses from Psalm 8 came to mind:
When I see and consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have established,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Suddenly I could see how self-absorbed I was being, the world didn’t revolve around me and didn’t owe me anything. I was able to take my eyes off myself and focus on the one who made all the stars, on the beauty of his handiwork, and be grateful.
This was not the end of my problems, it only halted my decline, and from this point onwards as far as I remember, I never seriously considered suicide again. I still regularly fell back into spirals of negative thoughts, though. It appeared I was just as hard-headed in my despair as I’d been in my youthful arrogance.
The spirals of negative thoughts told me I was worthless; no-one could possibly love or even like me, if anyone did then there had to be something severely wrong with them. This caused me to try and push away all the good people who tried to help me, including some very nice girls. My extremely-introverted-teenage-boy-who-never-had-a-girlfriend superpower kicked in to make those situations even more awkward, until one of them just wrapped her arms around me and held me for a long time as I stood there unresponsive, not knowing what to do or even how to process the event.
About twenty to thirty minutes after this unilateral embrace, sitting in the back of a meeting, I started laughing for no apparent reason. An inexplicable, indescribable joy just welled up inside me and it was the sweetest thing I ever experienced. I was filled with a great energy and enthusiasm to help others, I went back to the girl who had wrapped her arms around me and gave her a proper hug back. That was a good day. Shortly afterwards, we went our separate ways and lost touch with each other, but I am still grateful for what she did for me.
Even this was far from the end of my problems, there were no quick fixes, minor obstacles and stresses would still set off the panic attacks, there were setbacks and negative spirals, numerous temptations to give in to despair, I was constantly aware of my own frailty, instability and failures, and of course still very awkward around girls, but it was a start. I now had more weapons to fight back with – I had some hope.
Around this time, during one of the darker times, I had a vision that I would like to share here (I have shared it in the past on a couple of internet forums, but not here yet):
There was a large circular clearing in a forest, which had a small but beautiful hemispherical dome in its centre (maybe five metres in diameter). It shimmered like a pearl, and was guarded by a ring of knights dressed in white, who all looked quite frightened. I knew that this clearing represented my mind. All around the edge of the clearing, i.e. from all directions at once, very fierce-looking soldiers with studded black leather armour and viscous curved swords stepped out from the trees. I knew that these represented demonic forces.
They attacked the knights without mercy, and the defenders were slaughtered, dying in horrible ways- they didn’t stand a chance. I was getting more and more frightened as I saw all this happening. As the last of the knights fell, one of the black-clad soldiers slashed into the dome with his sword, revealing that it was made of paper, and it collapsed entirely, revealing a large diamond on a transparent stand.
Then it was the black-clad soldiers’ turn to be terrified as a bright light shone out from the diamond and vaporised them all, leaving only the diamond on its stand in the middle of the clearing, shining peacefully and beautifully.
I had been deeply hurt and had put up a lot of defences around myself to try and prevent further hurt and keep all my negative impulses at bay, which they were worse than useless at doing. The only thing they did do was prevent God’s light from shining in my life. The moment you give yourself to Christ, God places something perfect, powerful and beautiful at the centre of your being- Himself.
You can either let the light he has given you shine and spread its influence to every area of your life, or let other things get in the way and smother it. The enemy’s attacks were powerful and effective and it was very distressing to see my carefully built defences utterly destroyed, but they were in fact just barricades of rubbish that I allowed to accumulate in my life so I could hide behind them, trapping me inside.
The attacks or hardships instead of enslaving me, actually purified and freed me from my DIY prison cell. Also the best defence against the enemy is to let God’s light shine through you and throughout you unhindered. This fits in very well with Matthew 5:14-16:
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (NIV)
As I said, there were and are no quick fixes, but the above were important turning points and stepping stones on my way to recovery, additional weapons to fight the impulses to despair or do something awful that would squander all the progress I’d made. Slowly and with sufficient determination to keep saying no to those impulses every day, they got weaker and less frequent over the months and years.
I moved back in with my parents, and completed a degree from my local university in Chemical Engineering. I understood everything so well that the other students would come to me for explanations of the more difficult topics, I even managed to solve an engineering problem in two days that had had the entire department stumped for months, but when exam time came I would fall apart under the stress.
When I read stories of the hardships that other people have gone through, I am thoroughly ashamed of how little it took to break me.
Despite my extreme introversion and awkwardness at social interaction, being among a group of people that valued me as a friend was a help. As I grew stronger, more stable and more content within myself I was able to reach out and develop the deep and abiding friendship I now enjoy with my wife of fifteen years. The healing did not just come from her helping me with my problems, but primarily that I was able to help her with hers and that together we are stronger and more able to take on the world than we ever were alone.
How does all this connect to my writing? When I was taking part in a writer’s forum composed of teenagers, and saw some of them suffering from the same sort of angst and self-loathing I went through, I was able to not just tell them that I’d been there.
More importantly, I could honestly say that I’d been there and come out the other side. That there is an other side to reach, there is a way through, despair is not the end.
Seeing the despair radiating from their creations, and knowing the horror and damage of that despair myself, and its power to distort the facts so much they may as well be lies, I was determined to never promote despair in my own work. I would acknowledge that aspect of life and its awfulness, but show the power of truth and genuine hope to overcome it, because the most important fact about evil and despair is that it is temporary, it never has the final word, and is always less powerful than it seems.
In my work I want to bring a cup of water to a man dying of thirst.
I want to show those lost in the desert the oasis over the next hill.
I want to tell the besieged army that help is on the way.
I want to offer my hand to those sinking into the mire and help them up onto solid ground.
I want to show those trapped in despair that there is a way through, that the shadow’s just a passing thing.
I want to show those lost in a world of pain that they are not alone.
I want to tell those trapped in a spiral of depression that whatever they think of themselves, they are valuable, they have something to offer the world and those around them, and they are loved.
When I first heard of the concept of the superversive literary movement, it so precisely matched what I was trying to do with my work, that I just had to join it as soon as I could, and ended up a founding member.
My apologies for going on this long, and there are obviously things I have skipped over, but I believe the most important points have been covered. I hope that you have found it an enlightening, perhaps even uplifting read.
To see for yourself whether my work achieves the aims I have set for it, take a look by clicking on one of the images below.