University libraries are great places to watch people. In the ASS library in Bristol, for example, you can see all the socialites of the university swirling in their friendship groups, exhibiting their best clothes and wiping away the secret sweat of self-consciousness from their shiny young faces. If you work there daily, you’ll get to recognise particular groups very quickly indeed. They’re always there: smoking outside the front door, eating in the café, billowing about on the stairs outside the silent areas and so on.
After a certain amount of time, you can begin to discover a little about people you never actually talk to. You might learn where some of them like to sit, or maybe start recognising the kind of clothes they wear. It’s even possible that you’ll repeatedly overhear some of their conversations, so that over time you begin to piece together an idea of who they are and what they do. But they always remain people you don’t know; you just know more about them than they might think.
It’s funny when you consider how many people you might know in this way – that is, know but not know. People you see every day but never talk to. You probably don’t even know their names. You just pick things up about them in that strange way you do: seeing them talk to certain people, overhearing a phone conversation, possibly finding out their name and seeing them pop up on facebook. Most of the time, however, they remain anonymous. They’re just the background strokes of the colourful painting that makes up your life, subtle but present nonetheless.
In my first year and a half at Bristol I’ve come to know a lot of faces, as everyone does. On any given day I would probably have an inkling of the characters of maybe two-thirds of students in the ASS library. But some people stand out – some people, for whatever unknown reason, just stick in your memory that little bit more don’t they?
There was, for example, one boy that I had seen most days since my first year. I always saw him with the same group of people, and I felt I had a pretty good idea of what he was like as a person. He was an average height and ever-so-slightly stocky, with an appearance that made me think he’d been to a public school. I obviously couldn’t actually say if he’d been to a public school, but he certainly had the looks for it: rosy, sharply drawn cheeks, swept hair, a puffer coat and expensive-looking trainers. Often wore cord shirts. His voice, when I overheard it, had that extended, downward intonation of the upper middle classes, and his face was that familiar paradox of being simultaneously childish and cruel. Whenever I caught snippets of his conversation it was always about either one of two things: his friends or his work. Not very unusual, I suppose, but it made me vaguely suspect that was all he was capable of talking about. I don’t mean that in a cynical way – it’s just an example of the kind of conclusions you come to about people you don’t know. Once or twice I think I probably overheard him talking about what drugs he’d taken at the weekend.
He was always visible, somehow, sitting with his arms stretched loudly around the back of his chair or leaning with a familiar grin over his friend’s work in the silent study area. I think I assumed that he was an entirely stereotypical public schoolboy, so typical in fact that there wasn’t much more to him. He appeared very socially confident, probably a little misogynistic, likely a Tory. Again, this was a subconscious thought, not a conscious one. He was one of those white acquaintances, whom you always recognise and whom you are sure always recognise you, but to whom you never quite manage to speak. I suppose I rather wrote him off.
One day, however, without the slightest bit of warning, he spoke to me.
I was in the middle of writing an essay, and had decided to take a break by sitting on the stairs outside the ASS library. Suddenly a pair of legs appeared to my right.
‘Sorry,’ said a boy’s voice. ‘You’re Benjamin Tunwell aren’t you?’
I looked up and recognised him immediately. I didn’t know who he was.
‘Yeah, I am. Sorry, I don’t think I know your name?’
Turned out his name was Chris. We shook hands. Then he asked me: ‘Mind if I take a seat?’
I was surprised, obviously, but of course I said yes, so he sat next to me. He made to say something but then paused and coughed to cover his hesitation. He was nervous. That surprised me somehow; he didn’t seem the type to get nervous.
‘Sorry,’ he finally said. ‘I know this is a bit random and everything, but, basically…’
He hung his head between his hands for a second.
‘Basically, a mate sent me your article on depression that you put up last summer, and, basically, I’ve been experiencing something similar, and, like, I dunno, it was helpful to read the same thing I guess, so thought I might catch you in the library…’
He spewed it all out in the same way you spill a glass of milk.
‘I hope this isn’t too weird, you know, me coming up to you like this, but I found your article really helpful so, guess I just wanted to say thanks.’
I blinked, and was so astonished for a second that I didn’t know what to say.
This boy had depression?
He twitched and fidgeted with his fingers as he explained a bit about his condition, but I still almost didn’t believe him. I couldn’t say why exactly, but it just seemed so unlikely.
We spent the next ten minutes talking about it, and I got to know who he was. He came from a very typically upper middle class family in London, and had been to one of the big boy’s boarding schools, Radley or Harrow I can’t remember which. There wasn’t much else remarkable about him other than that. He was studying Economics, and for all the world seemed like a normal, happy, posh student. But of course he wasn’t – he was depressed.
But really, the question arose, is there such a thing as a normal student? Or is depression the new normal?
I asked him a bit about how he found school – ‘Yeah, it was alright mate. Normal all boy’s boarding school, really!’ – and his family, with whom he said he had good relations. There had been no traumatic event, no bullying as far as he would make out, no inherent sense of disconnection from an early age. He’d just been struck by it like a raindrop from an empty sky.
‘So why do you think this has happened?’ I asked him. ‘Do you think there’s a reason?’
He breathed in deeply and looked up at the sky, which that day was a light, cold blue.
‘I don’t know, mate. I guess – I don’t know. I think it just happens sometimes. I don’t think there’s a special reason.’
‘What about the future? Are you scared of the future?’
Now he looked at me with big, round eyes.
‘Yeah. Yeah, I’m scared for the future.’
‘Because… I don’t know what kind of job I’ll get… I don’t even know if I’ll get a job… I don’t think I’ll get a job I’ll like. I don’t know if I’ll get a girlfriend or wife, or even if I want that. I want to use my youth as much as possible but I also want to be secure, and be happy when I’m older. I don’t know if I want to be a dad or anything like that, like the idea of children terrifies me… Sorry mate, it’s a bit much to just unload on you like this! You don’t even know me.’
I assured him it was fine. Then he said the most interesting thing yet:
‘Actually,’ he said with a sudden vigour. ‘There is something I guess I think. Like, I guess you’ll understand this, I’ve read your stuff on gender and feminism and everything… And it’s going to sound so weird to say but, like – it’s really difficult being a boy. Like, sometimes being a boy is the shittest thing in the world.
‘I know girls have it hard, like I’ve read quite a lot about feminism recently, and like my mum and sisters are feminists, so I’ve heard it all. But you never hear about men’s problems. It’s like we’re constantly expected to just keep it in, and, like, never talk about how you’re actually feeling… I have literally never, not once, ever told my best mates about my feelings. Not in any proper detail, anyway. Or my dad. Like, yeah, I’ve mentioned I’ve got depression, and, I dunno, if I split up with my girlfriend or something I’d say I was feeling pretty down or whatever, but I never say what’s actually in there. It’d be so awkward if I did that. Like that’s just not something we’d do.
‘And I’ve literally never said this before, but, you know, competing for girls and stuff. You’ve always got to be competing. It’s like, you’ve got to show up to your mates, and like, always be competing for girls, always comparing girls, never, like, properly connecting, you know? I hate that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have great mates who are girls, but… I want to break out of it. I don’t know. I don’t think that whole ‘lad’ thing has helped.’
We sat in silence for a moment while we both took in what he’d said. It seemed to have occurred to him that he’d just said something very intelligent, and it surprised him more than it did me.
For a minute or two we pontificated on this point, but it was just as I was preparing to get into a bit more detail about it that he suddenly told me he had to get back to his work. We shook hands once more, and before I knew it he’d blown back inside the library like a passing cloud.
I remained outside for a minute or two more. I was astonished that someone who had for so long been hidden behind the sidelines, whom I had assumed was just another emotionally insensitive piece of grey matter, had suddenly stepped forward out of the background of my life and shown himself to be a very intelligent and emotionally sensitive person. In all that time of seeing him around the library, I had never once guessed that this might be the case. But as I had discovered in the space of ten minutes, it was.
I realised instantly what a strange and accidental mistake I’d made. Without realising it I had judged his character from a distance, and of course I had got him wrong. We always do. Judging a person is like trying to catch a ghost: as soon as you think you’ve got them, they’ve slipped through your grasp again.
And yet here was this boy, Chris, pouring his heart out to me and revealing his intense awareness of how gender roles damage people. What nagged at me the most was not that I had got him so wrong, but that I thought I knew how to avoid judging people like that. Every human being is a well of thoughts too deep to judge from sight alone. It’s only in our desire for certainty that we assign judgements to people we don’t know.
And his depression… That really caught me off guard.
What is this thing that’s stalking under everyone’s skin? It’s everywhere! You can’t turn two corners without bumping into half a dozen people with it. But you would never, ever know this was the case, because it’s so silent and so damned secret that it’s as unnoticeable as air. Is it just insecure people? Or is it also people who are happy with themselves? Is there a way of escaping it, or do you just have to live with it? Or wait until it goes? Is it a modern phenomenon or has this always been the case? Will everyone have to go through it at some point?
Maybe like me you’ve already drawn your own conclusions about those questions. But this ought not to distract from the point: mental illness, in whatever form it takes, in whatever place it arises, is a big problem. It’s everywhere. From the mortally young to the carelessly old, and the manically insecure to the totally oblivious, this thing is stalking us like no other phenomenon ever before it – and it is almost completely invisible.
1 in 4 people at any given time will be suffering from it; suicide is the leading cause of death amongst men under the age of 50. You do not escape from statistics like that. Either you face up to it and realise the vast scale of the thing, or you choose to remain blissfully oblivious. But if you do that, then you end up being like the boy in the library – peacefully blind until depression hits you and forces you to open your eyes.
There was actually one thing that Chris said to me before he left me to go back to his work. I was foolhardy enough to ask him if he wouldn’t mind my writing about this, and he replied:
‘No, I actually don’t mind. Just change everything about me. Change my background, my clothes, what I study. Make it so that no one can tell who I am. Change my gender too.’