When my doctor asked if I’d been feeling tired lately, I almost laughed. I didn’t know how to answer the question, or even what he really meant by it…
Of course I’m tired. I’m always tired! Isn’t everybody, secretly?
They’re just better at hiding it.
I was there because I was having issues at high school, and the school was concerned enough to encourage me to see a GP. I was struggling to get out of bed in the mornings, having issues in class, and then coming home and having emotional meltdowns. My parents didn’t know what to do. I was exhausted all the time.
Sure, teens have trouble getting out of bed in the mornings. But I missed my alarms, missed breakfast, missed the one bus to school. My mum would have to come home just to drive me, late, to school, and eventually she decided to stop doing that as well. As someone who had never bunked off so much as an hour of school before, this was mortifying and, combined with my mum’s negging and blaming, only added to my downward-spiralling mood.
I couldn’t engage in class. I had always loved learning and my A-levels were no different, but I’d started getting what I thought of at the time as writer’s block. I once spent a whole lesson making repetitive markings on the page, line by line, thoughts spiralling in tiny circles while I sat there hoping to restart my brain, everyone around me ploughing easily through their essay for the day. I’d regularly mentally phase-out in class, and found myself unable to respond properly to things around me. The school put me into “special observation”, usually reserved for naughty kids, but here implemented with my, and my parents, approval. Teachers were to report back to my form tutor on how I was doing. I was assigned a mental health coordinator, and was told I could check in with the school nurse who would find a place I could nap if I crashed out. I can’t fault them for trying, but they had no idea what was wrong with me, and neither did I.
Whatever it was, it left me exhausted at the end of every day. I’d go home and the mask I’d just about managed to cling to all day would slip, all my frustrations pouring out at my parents in an emotional avalanche, or a shutdown… curled up in my room, blank all the way through, when I should have been studying or being a normal teenager.
Outside the classroom was even worse, and not something the teachers would have been aware of so directly. I’d drift up to the library on my breaks and sit and read, find a study room where I could draw (often the same things over and over), or just a quiet place to be by myself. I’d wedge myself into strange corners between lockers, crawl behind bushes, sit against the wall at the back of a building where nobody ever went. Then I would be able to relax, just for a little bit.
I’d bounced between friend groups all the way through high school, usually gravitating towards people who didn’t quite fit in, in their own ways. I was always just lurking around the edge of the circle, never really part of the gang. But it was OK, because friendships are somehow easier when you’re younger. It got a lot harder as we turned into teens, and suddenly social interaction was centre stage. It wasn’t enough to share another kid’s obsession with dogs and talk endlessly about them. It was all about style, relationships, gossip, friendship groups, and friendship wars. I fell in with the wrong people, apparently got bullied, teased and generally taken advantage of, but to me I was just following charismatic people who tolerated my presence. And that passed for friendship.
In sixth form I met a group of geeky people and hung around with them. The expectation of social interaction seemed to be a bit lower with them, as they sat and talked endlessly about video games. I often found myself queuing for lunch alone though. I’d sit with the geeks if I spotted them in the lunch room, but more often than not just sat alone at the end of a table. I remember realising one evening that I hadn’t said a word all day to anyone, and then realising that it had probably happened a lot recently and I just hadn’t noticed.
To this day my mum insists that I was “just struggling with the academic pressure of A-levels” and that there was nothing wrong with me. I was just a “stroppy teen” and needed to put more effort in. But we went to the doctor anyway. As well as being put under special observation at school, I ended up on medication for depression and seeing a counsellor weekly, and in hindsight I can state with certainty that I was depressed, though at the time I didn’t understand what was going on at all…
It’s very hard to see it clearly when you’re in the middle of it for the first time, as though the depression is a pair of tinted glasses that you don’t realise you’re wearing. To you, it just looks like the whole world is dark and hopeless and you don’t understand that things will look different when the glasses come off. Once you’ve experienced it and come through the other side, it’s not so hard to spot the next time (though still by no means easy) and to realise that it’s just the glasses that are making things look the way they do: it’s not you, and it’s not the world, it’s the depression.
I struggled through and ended up with reasonable grades. But at this point, the general consensus was that because it was my struggle with learning that was the problem (according to them, and I didn’t have any reason to doubt them), university was not for me. I took a year out, moved away, and spent a strange year wandering around an unfamiliar city on my own. I spent spare afternoons in the city library and museum, walked circuits of the districts: had routes that I would follow and particular shops that I would visit, despite never really buying anything. I spent time in coffee shops alone, writing, sketching and pondering. I tried to join a couple of clubs, but nothing stuck.
But two thirds of a year in I was feeling much more myself and was missing the structure of school. I wanted to go to university, and I did.
Now, with hindsight, I believe it was the social side of things that so completely overwhelmed me at school, not the academic side. I wasn’t struggling with the academic material, as such, though my brain was certainly misbehaving due to the depression (and perhaps the medication) which impacted my performance and ultimately my memory heavily. But it was the friendship groups and the social interaction that I really struggled with. It was as if everyone around me started speaking another language as we hit our teens, and nobody had told me what it was. I just wanted to learn cool things and study, but suddenly that was “uncool” and ridiculed. If I wanted friends, then I had to master a whole new set of skills that everyone else just seemed to instinctively know how to do.
Perhaps that’s why I gravitated towards outsiders. We’d recognise that the other wasn’t quite fluent in the same social language as everyone around us, whether it was because of arbitrary bullying, mental health issues, language barriers, or what we’d now think of as neurodivergencies. So we were a little bit more tolerant of each other, and supported each other when everyone else bullied us for our weirdness. My friendships with these people didn’t always last long, but they are the ones I remember most fondly, and a few I’m still “in touch with” in that social-media way of observing from afar and occasionally commenting on a photo of theirs, and vice-versa.
I’m still tired out by social interactions. I can go on “nights out” but won’t be able to interact much, and will usually crash out half way through the night. Alcohol has “helped” a lot, but that’s another story.
The COVID-19 lockdown has been a bit of a revelation, in that for the first time in a long while, I’m not tired all the time. I can keep my own hours, true, but I’m actually getting to bed later than normal, and waking up earlier. I honestly think the difference is that I’m not having to deal with other people all day.