I took a long time to get started in adult life. After university and a false start in London I took off and travelled in South America. I was 23. When I came back, a year later, I was rich in experience but still poor in purpose and direction.
I wanted to lead a creative life but had no idea how to go about it. I had also strayed into a bad situation at home. While I was away my father had remarried, disastrously as it turned out. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. I was confused about my relationship with the girlfriend I’d been travelling with. I began to suffer from panic attacks and general anxiety.
In desperation, and with an introduction from my father, I signed up with a firm of Edinburgh solicitors to start my articles. But they couldn’t take me until the spring, a few months off. By way of another family connection (it was all so easy in those days) I got a temporary job in Aberdeen, where I’d studied, working over the winter for an oil service company.
But the loneliness – my student friends had all moved on, the long dark winter nights, and the work itself, supervising squads of dockers as they loaded and unloaded the supply vessels that served the rigs, pulled me into a downward spiral. My girlfriend came up to visit me and suddenly it all seemed too much. I downed tools and fled to my mother and stepfather in Edinburgh.
They took me in, of course, but looking back on it now, none of us knew how to talk about what was going on. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what amounted to a breakdown, and they didn’t know the questions to ask. They sent me to the family doctor, elderly, tweedy and bespectacled. I remember sitting in his large panelled consulting room in Heriot Row as he looked me in the eye and asked me: ‘Are you pulling your weight?’
What did he mean? I still don’t really know to this day. At the time I presumed he meant financially, to which the answer, up until a few days previously, had been Yes. But maybe he meant something entirely different, such as was I making a proper contribution to family life, or to society at large… Whatever he meant, it seemed a strange and baffling question to a depressed, anxious 24-year-old.
It would be quite wrong to suggest that that time of my life was all misery. It wasn’t. There was plenty of excitement and fun, too. It’s easy, nevertheless, to underestimate the enormous task at that age of figuring out who we are; the uncertainty, the emotional and psychological stress, the expectations that go with becoming an adult. Most people get through it, but not everyone does.
A young family friend of my friend and colleague, Stuart Delves, took her own life last year at the age of 21. She was a gifted dancer with a loving and supportive family, yet when she was in extremis she was let down by the mental health professionals who, it seems, failed to take her seriously.
Stuart’s wife, Catriona Taylor, is an artist, theatre director and film-maker. Their two children, Caitlin and Jamie, were close friends of the young dancer and both are also involved in film. At Jamie’s suggestion they have decided to make an awareness-raising documentary, entitled Careless, about how mental health services serve young people.
This important and touching family project is being crowd-funded. Please visit the website (here) to hear Catriona talking about the documentary and see footage of their enchanting young friend – who might still be dancing today had she been properly listened to when it mattered.