Twenty five years ago I tried to kill myself. This is by way of an explanation.
School wasn’t bad. The structured life suited me, knowing where to be at what time. Break times were more difficult to get through, at least until I found my niche in the computer room, but overall I stuck with my few friends who had similar geeky interests and felt reasonably comfortable.
I got into Cambridge University: it felt like a foregone conclusion. Even when I didn’t outperform everybody else academically I did well, and it felt effortless: I quickly and easily understood ideas almost intuitively. My brain simply does that kind of pattern recognition and modelling naturally.
I know now that this can be hard for many people to understand: I never felt as if I was working hard at school even when I was putting in hours of effort because I enjoyed the academic pursuit so much. I got to indulge my interests in maths, science and languages.
The change when I went to university was massive. Suddenly I was living on my own, put into a room in a hall of residence and responsible for taking care of myself. I didn’t know what to do, where to be or when to be there.
More than that, I didn’t feel I had anybody to turn to. I felt I was expected to cope the way I saw everybody else around me coping. The way I’d coped at school. But at school I was given the structure to guide me, whereas at university I was left alone to work it out.
I picked up what I could from listening to peers, feeling so out of my depth compared to them that it was all I could do to remain afloat while they swam rings around me with their confident assurance. The only time I felt part of it was when I would be out drinking, when the alcohol distorted my judgement and lowered my inhibitions.
I faked it through my first year, scraped through the examinations somehow. There was one girl, maybe more insightful than most, who raised concerns about my drinking. I spoke to my tutor but the drinking was dismissed as normal for undergraduate life and I wasn’t able to bring myself to admit to any failings.
I felt that I had to cope. I dreaded being found out as a fraud, undeserving of my place and sent away in disgrace. I was terrified of failing: I still am. I believe that I’m only accepted as long as I keep performing these tricks, maintaining the approval of those around me.
In my second year at university the cracks became apparent: I was drinking more and missing almost all lectures, I would go around in unwashed clothes, my appearance was unkempt. I felt increasingly alone, isolated, out of touch with the life that was going on around me.
As the examinations approached my fear increased: I knew I was going to fail and saw no way to avoid it. If I felt alone now, I knew that was nothing compared to the rejection I would suffer once everybody saw me for the failure I was.
One night I went out in the early hours when there was nobody around, a kitchen knife in my jacket pocket, intending to find a secluded spot and use it to cut my wrists open.
I tried. I couldn’t cut deeply enough: I hadn’t realised just how tough human skin is, how sharp a blade and how much effort is needed. My blade wasn’t keen enough, and I was left with only scratches. More stigmata of my failure to even end my own life.
I drank myself to sickness and the oblivion of unconsciousness.
Looking back, I can see clearly that I needed support as an undergraduate. Somebody to mentor and guide me, show me the right path, help me organise my days, handle the overtures of personal interaction that I wasn’t able to manage. Somebody I could trust not to judge me, in whom I could confide.
I didn’t overcome my feelings, my suicidal thoughts: they’re still with me today. I don’t feel I need to act on them though. It’s not that I have a reason to live, but I do have a reason not to die and that is enough.