Bipolar disorder is a mental illness comprising extreme mood swings from exalted highs to despairing lows. My first experience of my own mental illness, long before I knew what bipolar disorder was or that I would live with the condition for the rest of my life, was an involuntary journey that took me to the abyss of depression when I was 24 years old. I was then a Rhodes Scholar and graduate law student at Oxford University. Below I recall a season when I touched the nadir of despair and struggled to stay afloat against the swirling currents of self-condemnation in a world beyond hope and meaning.
Psychiatrists say that although some people are predisposed to mental illness due to their genetic make-up, there is usually a trigger that sets off the advent of actual illness. For me, the trigger had been the loneliness of being away from home for the first time in my life; living in a foreign land where people usually kept to themselves, the sun hardly shone and it rained almost continuously. Since the autumn of 1991, shortly after my arrival at Oxford University, I had watched helplessly as my life began to unravel all around me as I sank deeper into the depths of depression.
It was early May 1992. I had been sleeping rough in the streets since late March when it became clear that my continued stay at University had become untenable as I was unable to hand in any of my weekly class assignments. Attending to the simplest of tasks had become an unbearable burden. However I was too terrified to accept my apparent failure to accomplish what had brought me to England and to take the reasonable decision to return home.
I had therefore abandoned my room at Jesus College and embarked upon an unending journey to nowhere, wandering aimlessly by day around the streets of Oxford. At night, I would find a secluded place and lie down under the cover of the starless sky, exposed to the elements, drifting between sleep and wakefulness, my mind never quite finding rest. All the while, I took great care not to go anywhere near Jesus College, the Law Faculty Building or Rhodes House where anyone might recognize me.
When I seemed to run out of places to go in Oxford, I would take the intercity bus to London to continue wandering some more, all the while brutally hating and condemning myself continuously for being such a good for nothing failure who could not make anything out of his life despite having been given the best opportunities.
Neither the rain nor the chilly cold deterred me from my aimless wanderings. On the contrary I endured them as a fitting punishment for being such a loser. I would walk and walk going nowhere in particular and yet ending up everywhere, wishing I could die and leave all this misery behind, yet too terrified to take my own life.
Once, before I left college, I had found the numbing pain in my mind too hard to bear and I had made elaborate preparation to take an overdose but I had chickened out at the last minute, which made me condemn myself all the more. “You are not even brave enough to kill yourself, you good for nothing idiot!” a voice would later mock me from within, almost audibly. “Why don’t you just go off and jump onto the path of an oncoming train? No one would miss you anyway!”
I had no appetite for food whatsoever and I would not eat until I was on the verge of starvation and then I would buy something, anything – a sandwich, a cake, a soda, an ice cream, whatever – and force it down my throat without tasting it, and it would be enough to keep me going until the next time I felt too weak to continue my endless journey to nowhere.
Sometimes, when I happened to be in London, I would return to Euston Station, where I had worked at a fast-food restaurant in happier times on an earlier visit to London at the end of 1989. During these dark days of depression, I would sit leaning against a wall at the station concourse near the food court trying to get some elusive rest oblivious of the crowds of people swirling around me rushing to board their trains. Just after 11 p.m., when the station was about to close, I would be evicted by the cleaners back to the bitter cold, into the outer darkness, exposed to the elements that had by now become my only companion.
One late sunny afternoon in June, I was wandering inside one of the parks in Central London when I happened upon a young couple just hanging out, having fun and obviously celebrating their seemingly newfound love. I had been watching the young man from a distance as he taught his girlfriend how to ride a bicycle. He was now sipping from a can of beer as he watched proudly and cheered her on as she wobbled along a nearby cycle track. Although I was in no state to admit this to myself at the time, I was desperate for some human company having gone for months without actually talking to anyone.
“Can you spare some food?” I asked the young man, whom I later learned was an Iranian student.
“No!” he growled back seemingly irritated at this unwelcome intrusion to his romantic pursuits and clearly in no mood to discuss the matter further.
“Thank you,” I said meekly without feeling. I started to walk away with no particular destination in mind, but then he called me back.
“What did you ask?” he sought to clarify, as if he suddenly felt guilty at being so abrupt even before he had actually understood what it was that I had asked him.
“I asked whether you had any food.” I repeated.
“I’m sorry,” he said remorsefully. “I thought you were asking for beer. A lot of people in this city don’t want to work and they beg for money just to buy drugs and alcohol.” He now sounded just as friendly as he had been hostile a moment ago.
He regarded me up and down as if trying to make sense of this unusual spectacle of a young black fellow, clearly a foreigner, who seemed so articulate and yet looked as filthy and disoriented as any homeless Londoner that he had ever seen. I must have been quite a sight to behold. I had not had a proper night’s sleep in longer than I could remember. Neither had I had a proper meal for just as long. It had been ages since I had taken a shower. I wore the winter coat I had first bought back in October from the Oxford open market and which had not been touched by water since except the seemingly endless English rain.
“My girlfriend and I are just about to go home to have supper and you are welcome to join us,” said the young man, who told me his name was Mohammed.
The early summer sun shone warmly behind us as I joined Mohammed and Salanger, his Colombian girlfriend, both self-sponsored students of English, for the ten minute walk to their flat, but I knew it was more than the warmth of the sun that I felt. It was the kindness of two young people, fellow aliens in a foreign country, who had reached out to me and instinctively empathized with my plight even before I explained it to them.
Though I did not understand it at the time, this brief encounter was to be an important lesson for me on the value of unconditional acceptance by other human beings as a critical step on the path towards healing from mental illness.
As we approached their flat which was about a kilometer from Kings Cross Station, Mohammed and Salanger asked me about my predicament. I told them that I was an African student without specifying from which country and that my school fees and pocket money from home had inexplicably been delayed. I added that I was now out on my luck and trying to survive while waiting for my family to sort it out.
It was a lie. But it seemed a more believable story to tell them than the truth. It would have sounded incredible to try and explain that I was actually a graduate student of law at Oxford University - a Rhodes Scholar no less - and that I actually had plenty of money in the bank since I had hardly used any of my living expenses for the last two terms, but I was paralyzed by debilitating depression and unable to make rational decisions regarding my life.
Mohammed and Salanger lived on the first floor in a block of flats near the Angel Tube Station. The young foreign couple’s flat was small and sparsely furnished. It was so neatly arranged that it gave the impression of being more spacious than it actually was. From what I could tell, it had a single bedroom and a small kitchenette. The living room had an old sofa set in front of which was a glass top coffee table. There was a small television set and radio on a simple wooden stand. On top of the TV, there stood two miniature national flags of Iran and Colombia. At one of the corners of the living room, there was a picture stand on which stood a recent photo of the young couple whose radiant smiles seemed to light up the room.
I was able to notice and store up all this information in great detail in my mind at a fleeting glance despite being hardly able to function normally, which is one of the ironies of mental illness. One exists in a twilight zone where one is at the same time extremely alert to the goings on around them and yet unable to connect meaningfully with one’s social environment. This is why it hurts so much when ‘normal people’ ignore us, patronize us, speak about us as though we are not there, or make decisions concerning us without involving us.
While Salanger quickly prepared a simple meal of spaghetti and minced meat, Mohammed shared with me his own struggles with loneliness in London before he met her fifteen months earlier. She served us and we ate in silence as we watched TV, though in my case, I merely stared blankly at the flickering images in the box before us and barely heard what the evening newscaster on ITV had to say in his bulletin.
As usual, my mind was racing with countless thoughts of self-condemnation. Why could I not just get my act together as these two young people had clearly done under more reduced circumstances than I who had graduated near the top of my class with a law degree and had been awarded a prestigious and generous scholarship to one of the world’s top universities?
In the course of our evening together, this God-sent couple had become quite friendly and obviously sympathetic to my plight. They seemed oblivious to my unending mental anguish, or if they noticed it, they mercifully pretended not to.
Although they seemed to recognize that I had nowhere to spend the night, Mohammed and Salanger clearly would not extend their hospitality to inviting a total stranger to stay with them overnight. Instead, they did the second best thing. They gave me an old duvet and packed some of the left-over spaghetti and minced meat in a plastic container for me. It was around 10.30 p.m. when I thanked them for their kindness and stepped out into the chilly London night.
(Months later in the early days of my initial recovery in October 1992, I would look back at this brief encounter with a young Iranian student and his Colombian girlfriend - foreigners themselves trying to find their way in a cold unfriendly country - extending a hand of friendship to a total stranger. I would recognize it as one of the many hitherto unnoticed evidences that even at my lowest and most vulnerable moments God had lined up His angels to watch over me.)
Alone once again, I wandered in the general direction of Kings Cross Station. I found a small deserted park. There I sat on a wooden bench overshadowed by a few trees which stood as silent witnesses to my lonely suffering and meaningless search for meaning.
Soon thereafter I lay down, converting the cold hard bench into a makeshift bed. I used the plastic container, still warm from the food inside, as my makeshift pillow and covered myself with the old duvet trying to shield myself from a soft rain that had suddenly began to fall on me.