Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


personal 12 min read

There’s a gap in my identity.

It’s about seven years long, more or less. It corresponds with the time when I had a different name. I’ve mentioned it before, in abstract terms and brief summaries.

I’ve talked about the darkness that came from it, and had so many touching messages from those who have gone through similar experiences, or who know someone in that position.

I’ve never really talked about the reality of that period, though; what it was actually like. I’ve tried to explore it for myself, to build a bridge across that strange, blank time in my life, but it’s difficult. It’s my lowest point. So much of it doesn’t seem real.

Yet it was all real, and there’s so much there that shaped me. So much texture and detail, and truth. The only thing I can do with it is drag the dust-covered box from the back of the cupboard, unlock it, and lift the lid.

Let’s look inside.

I would have been sixteen. Or rather, I was sixteen – or thereabouts. It had finally got bad enough that I made an appointment with the doctor. Feeling detached, and disconnected, and ambivalent. Unable to cope with high school. Withdrawing from things. Nightmares and panic attacks. Dark thoughts.

I took the train to school, half an hour each way. There were times I’d just keep riding the trains during the day, to feel like I was always going away from somewhere. But then I’d have to come back. Then, in the evenings, the tears became more and more of a regular feature. I’d duck into a room – usually my own – and leave the light off. Draw the door over, and sink down to the floor. I’d remain there for some time. My mother or grandmother would sometimes peer into the room in search of me, and never know I was there.

It was a girl who pointed out that I was probably suffering from depression, in the end. Her father was a long-term sufferer too, so she knew what to look for. She and I had been together for a little while by that point. She had her own problems, but she was right. And so, to the doctor.

The dam broke as I sat in the doctor’s office. It was a great relief to tell someone, and he was entirely supportive and sympathetic. In the end, he saved my life.

The statistics for suicides amongst depressed young men are very troubling. He went outside normal channels to have me seen by a friend of his; a consulting psychiatrist, for whom I was well outside the catchment area. My doctor has moved up through the ranks of the health service and is now a rather senior figure, so I’ll omit his name. But he took me seriously, and eventually, that’s what kept me alive.

I walked out of the doctor’s office (the surgery, as it’s called here), and wandered two streets over to the pharmacy with my prescription. Antidepressant medication, of course. Little pale orange house-shapes; chalky and bitter. Footholds. Mind changers.

My mother knew I’d been to see the doctor, and she snatched the white paper bag (emblazoned with a green cross) from my hands when I returned. I told her it was medicine for acne. She had no means to falsify that claim without opening one of the boxes, and as it turned out, it would be more than a year before she even learned that I was ill.

I wasn’t really living there anymore. I’d been spending increasing amounts of time at the girl’s family home. Her parents were professionals in a medical field, and their two other children (a boy and a girl) were grown, and had moved out. Their third and youngest child was in the year below me at high school. I’m not sure when she became my girlfriend, but that’s what she was. I think there were about ten months between us in age.

I was a live-in boyfriend, with her and her mother and father. I had my own room in their expansive home. The two of us were even left to occupy the house on the rare occasion that the parents went off on holiday. I got on famously with the man and woman, and I was a buffer between them and their daughter. A buffer of the enforced politeness and moderation that guests invoke.

How bizarre it seems now. But I needed to escape, and they were more than willing to have me. Far away, at the other side of the city. The man even said that it was like having his son back in the house – even though I was dating his daughter.

Strange. And yet it was a sanctuary.

It was these people who took me to my appointments with the psychiatrist. A clinically depressed man, the father of my girlfriend, whom I lived with; he drove me to my appointments. My own family knew nothing of it.

Different hospitals and community medical centres, in various places within and outside of the city. Often in woodland, past lines of trees. Parking spaces on concrete under boughs, clustered around low buildings, miles from anything else. Tranquil places, but still hospitals for the mind.

The psychiatrist was a small, soft-spoken, earnest and vaguely melancholy man. He looked like the more erudite brother of Rick Moranis. He had little round rimless spectacles that looked expensive, and he had neither beard nor moustache. He exuded genuine concern, but also capability. He drove a black Porsche.

He arranged for me to see a psychologist under his charge, and he sent me for brain imaging. Severe depression can have physiological causes, he told me, like structural defects or epilepsy. They like to rule those out.

My girlfriend’s father drove me to that appointment too. A sprawling metropolitan hospital this time, and its brand new neurosciences unit. A room that seemed too large for its equipment, and then the scans. My wrists were secured to the reclining chair, and that made me afraid. A device above pulsed with light, three times per second, in a failed effort to provoke a seizure. There were electrodes glued all around my head.

They found no structural abnormalities. I was driven back to my temporary new home, and then the man left on another errand. I knelt naked in a bathtub, using my girlfriend’s nail-polish removing fluid to dissolve the residual glue in my hair.

Seeing the psychologist was helpful, at least as a release valve. She was a petite, soft-spoken Indian woman, and looking back now, I think she was only in her mid-twenties. She asked a little, and listened a lot, and she gave me homework to do. Mood diaries; one of the tools of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There were printed grids, dividing the waking hours of each week into one-hour chunks. In each box, I had to briefly summarise what I was doing during that hour, and how I felt. The idea was to identify triggers for low moods, and then explore those triggers in the sessions. It worked reasonably well to help me understand what was going on, if not really to improve things.

Time moved slowly onwards, and I kept taking the drug. There were lots of side-effects, and I experienced almost all of them. Suddenly breaking out in a sweat for no reason was the most harmless. I’d be walking along at a gentle pace, on a cold day, and suddenly I’d feel sweat running down my temples. It would stop as quickly as it started.

Another one was the need to have something sweet in the morning in order to activate my appetite. If I didn’t have something sweet, I wouldn’t feel hungry. I’d forget to eat – at all – because I no longer had the normal urge to. I’ve spoken to a number of others who were in the same position. I kept the information leaflets from all of the packets of pills over the years, held together with a rubber band, as a sort of reminder. It was quite a stack by the end. I still have it somewhere, I think.

The girl and I went to London once. We had an early morning flight, and I hadn’t eaten anything since the day before. We were just leaving a subway station when I collapsed in a tunnel leading to an escalator. She ran off to get me a soft drink, and I just sat there against the wall, not able to do very much. A woman passed by and asked me if I was a drug user. I shook my head, but I suppose I actually was.

There were dark times, as I’ve spoken about before. Long evenings sat in a kitchen with only the hallway light for illumination, lost in my own mind, weighing up the pros and cons of not living anymore. Calm, rational-seeming internal debates. Hours, days, weeks. I was broken, and it seemed the natural conclusion. I copied down the number of a suicide-prevention hotline from the phone book into my school homework diary, then obliterated it with so much blue pen that the page tore through.

Next time I saw the psychiatrist, I had the presence of mind to mention it, and the dose was increased.

My relationship with the girl continued, but her home life became more and more troubled; she fought with her parents endlessly. It was probably more her fault than theirs, but I had to play both sides. I needed the place to stay, after all. But eventually, even I knew it was time to go home – which presented a problem.

I went into school and made an appointment to talk to my housemistress (it was one of those schools with a house system with points and yearly cup, and compulsory uniforms, and a school song, and Latin classes, and hockey and rugby, and millions of pounds worth of premises and equipment; whenever a master entered the room, we all silently stood up). The house staff took their pastoral care seriously. We were always surrounded by systems of support, for any eventuality. It was a very safe and nurturing place. I have a very great love for it.

My housemistress saw me within half an hour, in her quiet office looking out onto the Biology pond. I explained the situation: that I was being treated for depression, and had been for quite some time now. That I was living away from home, and now planning to return, but my mother had no idea about any of this. She nodded, and asked if I’d like for my mother to be informed about everything before I made the trip home. I said that I thought that would be best.

I later found out that it was the rector himself, with his Order of the British Empire, who made the call. That evening, I returned to the place where I’d been staying, packed my two large bags, said my goodbyes, and walked to the train station. It was Winter again. I sometimes wonder if it was perhaps always Winter during those years.

I remember standing on the eastbound elevated platform at Partick rail station, waiting for my connection. Orange streetlights everywhere, people in dark clothing, and the sounds of the city of Glasgow around me. Waiting to go back to a place, and a situation, that I dreaded. About forty minutes later I arrived home, and I remember the reproachful uncertainty on my mother’s face. She wasn’t pleased to have had to find out via the school. I can understand that now.

Within an hour of my return, my mother’s sister and her husband had been summoned to the house to discuss the situation. I was told to just pull myself together.

I slept a lot, when I wasn’t at school. Nothing had really changed, but I opted out of being involved in the drama and the problems. I simply didn’t participate, because it had already damaged me. I was more of a guest in my own home than I’d been in the other family’s house.

My appointments continued, except it was now either my mother or my uncle who drove me to them. I took a downturn at one point, and the psychiatrist said he’d like to admit me overnight, to administer a higher dose of medication than he’d be comfortable giving me without supervision. I told him I’d really prefer he didn’t, and he just nodded and said OK, making another appointment for me a few days later instead.

I made the mistake of relating that anecdote to my mother when I got home, and she flew into a rage, telling me I’d tricked the psychiatrist. She called my uncle to return and take me back to the hospital against my will.

That’s so incredibly bizarre to think of now, but it happened. I panicked of course, and called the hospital to ask to speak to the psychiatrist, but he was gone by then – he was a consultant who visited many facilities all over the region, and I just saw him at whenever location he was working from when my appointment was due.

I asked the admitting nurse what the procedure was if someone was brought to a hospital against their will by a parent, with no admission order. The poor woman didn’t know what to say, but she asked me if I wanted her to call the police. I didn’t, and I never did get bundled back into my uncle’s car. But that gives you some idea of the environment.

As I said, I slept a lot.

There were various other bit-players drifting through, including the men; my mother’s abortive gentleman friends. I don’t begrudge her any of that. It’s difficult to meet people anyway, particularly as a divorced mother of two who runs her own business from home. But she really did know how to pick them.

There was the kind and friendly handyman who never paid his taxes but liked to drink far too much – and became a monster when he did. From him, I know that Jekyll-and-Hyde alcoholism is a very real thing, and terrifying.

There was the small businessman whose response to the end of the relationship was to mail her a set of Polaroids of himself naked, and a cheque for a hundred thousand pounds (she tore all of it up). I saw his office once.

There was the lovable little Glasgow rogue who robbed a bank down south, and made periodic appearances in our lives for a while before disappearing again. We saw him on a TV gameshow years later, and none of us were surprised. I hope he’s still out there somewhere, planning the next scheme. He was probably the best of them.

There was the one I’ve written about before, with his magic tricks and sleight of hand; his scars hidden from view; his lies and his own darkness. He’d been in an institution more than once himself, without the option to just go home instead. He had my father followed, by a carful of men. He eventually hanged himself from a bedroom light-fitting. I still feel a great swell of pity for him.

Somehow, at some point, I finished high school, and a few months later I started university. I was still seeing the girl, though we had some ups and downs. I think we’d both started to realise that we each had a function in each other’s lives, and weren’t sure where our relationship lay in reference to that. Or if we really had one, perhaps – but we did at least believe that we loved each other, in the way that teenagers do. We both clung to something we saw as good, amidst a lot that wasn’t.

It continued right through her own final year of high school, and in the blink of an eye it was time for her to head off to university too. I was at Glasgow, and she was to attend Edinburgh. The fights with her parents continued until moving day arrived, and they weren’t going to even transport her and her luggage the one-hour drive to her student accommodation, so the plan was for me to go and meet her, and we’d take the train through; I had no car.

At the last minute, though, she called to say that her parents had relented, and they were packing the car even now. She’d call me from her new flat at 10PM, which by now was a long-standing daily habit for us. Talk to you tonight; love you. It was a Friday; October 2nd, 1998. I went about my day. It rained.

Ten o’clock came and went without the phone ringing, and eventually I went to bed. It took about a month for me to stop waiting for her call. Maybe a little longer.

As for what happened to her, I have no idea; I never saw or heard from her again. I did call her parents once, about two months later, just to ask. Her father was brusque, and said they’d pass my message on, so presumably she was alive and well and embarking on her studies. That was seventeen years ago, and I suppose she’ll be married with kids now. I hope she’s as happy as I am.

I never blamed her. I went through periods of knowing that I should, but I never did. Even now, telling you this and remembering it, I only feel bewilderment and a sense that it must have been my fault. I’d be lying if I said that the experience hasn’t coloured every relationship I’ve had since. I watch, and I worry, and I hold tight.

As it turns out, those aren’t the worst things to do when you love someone.

There are many other stories from that time of my life – they’re all flitting through my mind now, stirred up and scattered by the breeze as if I’ve finally pulled open the door of an old cupboard – but it’s all materially the same. Terrible, fascinating, mundane. Vivid and unreal. Me, but another me.

The sense of continuity just isn’t there. I look back, and there’s a break, and while my memory goes beyond it, I don’t. My sense of me-being-there.

It’s a response, I know. A reaction, and probably a necessary one. And don’t get me wrong: there were good times too. I’m sure there were. I could almost swear to it.

There must have been, and of course I eventually got out – out of the place, and out of the hole, and out of my other name, and out of that part of my life. I pulled myself out, through a hole I probably had to tear open first. That’s my impression of it.

The edges must have been sharp, that’s all. They must have been, because I left things behind, hanging in strips and fragments. Not everything can come with you. But those experiences are still there. They were real. I remember them.

They’re just no longer mine.