The first part of Chapter 1 from my 2012 memoir “Daygame”:
“We think too much and feel too little” Charlie Chaplin
To begin at the beginning, we have to rewind to my shambolic interactions with girls at high school. With chronic acne, a reversed bite, a lanky frame and thick glasses, I was a prime target for bullying and this kicked my self-confidence into the ground. The girls at school would enjoy my Nice Guy personality, laugh at my jokes, but ignore me romantically in every sense.
Quickly I created beliefs that girls found me ugly, girls thought I was strange, girls just got with the “bad boys”. This was the hand I had been dealt, I resigned myself to thinking. So I didn’t build a social circle at school, I didn’t go to house parties, I didn’t drink. What I did have was a brain, and I took refuge in studying and my self-proclaimed nerd status.
I became Head Boy (the teachers noticed me, even if girls didn’t) and pinned a picture of Oxford University above my desk at home. This was going to be my focus – remaining in my bedroom surrounded by textbooks and revision, an academic hermit with the aim of studying Biology at Oxford.
Each evening I’d come home from school, turn on my lamp and sit at the small desk from 8pm until 2am. It was my escape from reality and the bullying that was going on in school. My parents just saw the impressive work schedule, not the damaged kid inside, and praised my dedication. It wasn’t their fault; from the outside I seemed like the model child making his parents proud. I hadn’t told them about the bullies or the social anxiety as I didn’t want to seem weak in their loving eyes.
My extreme revision schedule and self-discipline paid off, and in the Autumn of 1998 I began my degree at Oxford amongst the dreaming spires and immaculate lawns of one of the oldest universities in the world. Rather than the usual right-of-passage three years of socials, drinking, sex and friendships that my school friends were experiencing at university, I further buried my head in the sand like an introverted ostrich. Oxford encouraged this – hours of silence in the library, avoidance of social situations.
The real Harry Potter
By Christmas of 1998 the self-inflicted isolation and pressures triggered a wave of panic attacks. The first one hit me in the college library. I remember the surroundings starting to spin and an intense feeling of impending doom. I left my work and ran to my room, pouring with sweat and waiting for some kind of disaster.
These attacks became common, and the flip-side of them was a bell-jar feeling of sadness. My doctor confirmed the diagnosis of clinical depression, and the next few months were spent trying different drugs and having uncontrollable meltdowns of crying or paranoia. Girls were the last thing on my mind.
Despite constant attempts to quit, my ever understanding parents encouraged me to stick with the degree. Sure enough, the medication began to kick in, numbing me to the mood swings and allowing me to study without either the panic or the sadness. The downside of this was that the tablets left me even more removed socially – giving me a feeling of being an observer on the sidelines of reality, looking in on everyone else who was living life for real.
A few sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) at the local hospital taught me how it was possible to detach our thoughts from the feelings they trigger. At the time this was just an interesting phenomenon that I accepted academically, but found impossible to put into practice. I was literally living in my head, with very little contact with the real world.
My next door neighbour in my college was fucking like a rabbit – I’d hear his bed creaking and his girls screaming through the wall as I had my head in an Evolutionary Biology text book into the small hours. He quickly established himself as the college bad boy, throwing parties, making his own vodka jelly and seducing an endless stream of girls into his room. To me, a virgin at the age of 19, it was another reality.
I remember a girl from another college taking a liking to me and coming to my room one night to write an essay together. She sat on the bed while I shuffled nervously by the window. I think I lent her a book of poems and imagined making her a girlfriend in my head. Not surprisingly, she never came round again.
One of my lecturers on my course was the famous Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. The book explains the genetic basis of Charles Darwin’s mind-blowing theory of evolution, and how it is not the species or individual that is the unit fighting for survival, but individual genes. Nature is inherently selfish because of this – Tooth and Claw rather than Peace and Love. Sex is the key mechanism for the genes replicating, and thus the biological “meaning of life.”
This brutal truth made my head spin, just like the panic attacks. Such a fundamental shift in my world view compounded the lingering feelings of depression and anxiety. I made an appointment with Professor Dawkins to go over some of the questions I had about the book, and he kindly agreed to see me.
In his large Victorian north-Oxford home, I sat on his sofa and went over what was disturbing to me about his concepts. Are humans nothing but vehicles for a collection of genes trying to copy themselves? Is life nothing but a selfish race for replication? Love, beauty, happiness, relationships…did these not matter, were they just the trappings that hid the Tooth and Claw mechanisms of nature? It seemed to be what I had seen in secondary school – fights, idiocy, cruelty and bad boys getting the girls. Biology wasn’t beautiful to me, it was simply brutal.
Professor Dawkins listened with a concerned ear, but offered little practical advice about feeling better. He showed me his vast book collection, suggested a few titles and emphasised how Darwinian evolution was intrinsically beautiful because of its simplicity. I was too lost in my thoughts to listen to the truth in what he was saying, or to notice his glamorous wife Lalla Ward, an ex-Doctor Who actress, gliding through the house.
I remember going back that night and lying on the floor of my college room. It was like I was drowning. Sinking. Numb. On a micro and macro level, I was fed up with life.
The chronic acne often stopped me leaving my room – I was getting boils and lumps around my nose and mouth, and was embarrassed to even go shopping. Things were as low as they could go. I could hear the other students in the college having parties in their rooms, dancing late into the night in the quadrangle outside, frolicking free in the joys of an uninhibited life.
The roll of the dice seemed so unfair. I had succeeded academically, winning a scholarship for my end of year exam results, but I was the opposite of happy. A lack of friends, a lack of a social life, a lack of women. I wasn’t just living in my head, I was living in my self pity.