Action potential

“Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”
“And are you?”
“No. That’s where it all falls down of course.”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

My first degree – a BA – was in philosophy. I say was, because after four years and much grief I ended up leaving without graduating. I got a DipHE (no, I’d never heard of them either).

Shortly afterwards I enrolled with the OU and started studying both Human Biology and Ancient Greek. Which is what happens when you have undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a university prospectus.

I never finished that, either, although I can at least transliterate Greek script and get annoyed when people use the wrong sigma.

I did graduate, eventually. I got a BSc in psychology from Birkbeck, which is a college specialising in part-time degrees. It took five years (including a year off while I had a depressive breakdown), a lot of bloody mindedness, and a number of all-nighters after which I had to put in a full day at the office. Doing a degree part time while working full time is… well, 200 people started the course, 80 finished it.

Most of my peers graduated in 2002. I managed it, finally, in 2010.

I’m smart, and I always have been. I’m just not very good at it.

I used to be.


A lot of psychological disorders generally emerge in adolescence – among them schizophrenia, bipolar and unipolar depression. Why this should be is still debated in the circles which debate these things, and it’s not the case for everyone. You can get depressed children and first episode psychosis in the fifth decade of life. Still, as a general rule it generally holds.

And I’m not saying I was fine before I was fifteen. As a kid I was something of a loner, although prone to excitable outbursts. Most kids thought I was a bit weird and I guess I was.

I’m not saying I was fine before I was fifteen, but I was at least smart, and I was good at it. I had a good future ahead of me. I knew I was going to go to university before I even fully understood what university was. I enjoyed science and I enjoyed art and I enjoyed writing, reading. I was the kid who read Hitch Hikers at ten and loved it, who had a favourite planet* aged eight. I was the kid with the Usborne book of science who played around with the experiments inside.

I mean, I had a chemistry set too, which I mainly used for mixing everything together and seeing what would happen**, but that’s all anyone ever uses chemistry sets for.

I was going to be OK.

Then, suddenly, I wasn’t OK any more.


I know, I know, life is about playing the hand you’re dealt and not bemoaning you don’t have better cards. I know, I know, this is petty bitching, the world owes no one anything. But I can’t help but feel grief for the kid I was, to feel sorry for how I’ve let him down. After the shit time he had at school he deserves better than this, this life of fits and starts, steps forward and falls back.

And I never wanted to be rich and I never wanted to be important, all I ever wanted to be was happy. But somehow I keep failing at that, shooting so far forward then falling so far back, never staying still long enough to get a hold of the world. I’m given these drugs to make me less weird, less of a loner or prone to excitable outbursts. Psychiatrists and neuropharmacologists throwing chemicals into receptors to see what happens, which is all anyone can do. Maybe we all deserve better than this but the world doesn’t care what we deserve.


After the BSc I enrolled on an MSc course – neuroscience. I like neuroscience, really, really like it. I like the cellular biology of neurons, the crazed circuit diagrams that look like god got happy on acid and crayolas. The drugs and the receptors and signalling cascades, the sexy and flawed imaging studies. The sheer absurdity, the impossibility, the hubris of the attempt to understand the brain. Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever get there.

And with the MSc I was on the home run. I was steering myself smoothly to completion and graduation. Then suddenly I wasn’t OK any more.

I keep trying to get back. I keep dipping into the water and I’m fine, going deeper and feeling riptides and having to pull out, afraid of being dragged under. I’m so, so tempted to quit. If I do I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. It’ll be just one more way I let that kid down. Shooting forward than falling back, pulled by the gravity of a heavy heart, never reaching escape velocity.

I’m so, so tired of trying to fly. And I’m so, so tired of being stuck on the ground. I just want to be OK again.


* My favourite planet was a toss up between Venus (hell) and Jupiter (big). I’ve now settled on Venus, because that planet wants you DEAD. Titan is obviously awesome but it’s a moon rather than a planet. Between Venus and Titan it’s a whole Sophie’s Choice scenario.

** You get brown sludge

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3 thoughts on “Action potential

  1. Pingback: Cornflour | Explosions in Slow Motion

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