Suppose you had a time machine. What would you do with it? I’ve often thought about this. I’m a science fiction writer. Before I wrote this book I wrote a stack of science fiction novels, some of which have been published. I write about time travel a lot.

If I had a time machine, I would go back to try to help my younger self. That boy, that young man, was (and often, in middle-age, is still) in a world of strife, confusion and misery. At age sixteen, he discovered, the hard way, that he had bipolar disorder. He is still, to this very day, decades later, dealing with this problem. If I had a time machine, I would absolutely try to help that kid. Because I remember being him. I remember what his life was like. I remember the fear, the loneliness, and I remember the anger. I did not know what to do with all these feelings. It was as if I were constantly being struck by lightning, but had no means of earthing the current. I was a boy made of nerve-endings.

Growing up didn’t much help. It was Act II in a play. The sets had been swapped out, and the main character wore a different costume, but he was still made of nerve-endings, and still full of lightning and storms. In this part of the play, the fundamental problem was pretending to be normal, while definitely not being normal. The problem was keeping people from finding out his secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret. It turned out she was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.

Act III of the play covers the past few years, the “present day”, as the storm-filled boy finds himself middle-aged, his medication no longer working, hugely overweight, lost in midnight seas. He’s in trouble. He’s taking on water. He’s sinking.

His doctor decides to bring his medications into the 21st century, and admits him to hospital for what should be only a couple of weeks, but turns out to be five months of agony and turmoil, an unprecedented ordeal the like of which our protagonist has never known, and from which he is still, a year after leaving hospital, recovering.

It was an experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it, but in writing about my experience last year, I saw that I needed to address the influence of my illness on my entire life.

The thing about mental illness is that it messes with your head. It makes you think weird stuff. It makes you believe things that are not true. And you believe them the way you believe in gravity and your mother’s love. These wrong beliefs wrap you with cobwebs. You’re not even aware of it. It happens slowly. It’s like cataracts forming in your eyes. You never notice them, but then one day you can’t see. Same with the cobwebs cocooning your mind. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t move. Your whole sense of who you are as a person is tangled up in cobwebs. Pretty soon you’re dead inside. You’re barely able to get out of bed. You could sleep for a thousand years. You believe that everyone you know would actually like you to go away. Don’t come back! you imagine them adding. When you have major depression, it will try to kill you. It will talk to you about how you can help all the people around you by getting out of their way. It tells you that you are a dreadful burden on your friends and family, and that you can help them by going away.

This is not true. It’s the cobwebs talking. The cobwebs lie. Your friends and family love you. Stay. Please stay. Get help. We love you. Stay.

I’ve been fighting the cobwebs all my life, but especially this past year. It’s been a brutal year. When I was sixteen and first diagnosed was a bad time, too—but I would still rate last year as worse. You’ll see.

I can, by now, deal with the cobwebs and all the bollocks that goes with them on my own. But sometimes I need help to deal with the ones out of my reach, and for those I have an excellent clinical psychologist, who has a very long stick. I would not be here without her and her big long stick. This book is a tribute to the many mental health professionals who put me back together again when I thought I was irretrievably broken.

Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs, too. I have done my best to scrape out everything, no matter how personal, no matter how private, how intense. Mental illness stuff, and especially male mental illness stuff, needs to be brought out of the darkness. When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s it was all secret and terrifying. You simply did not talk about these things. It was not done. It was shameful. My dad had a terrible time, and you couldn’t talk about it. There was this awful fraught silence. That deathly silence is a big part of why I wanted to write this book.

All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world an image of myself suggesting I was fine. I have played the part of a well person. To conceal my stain. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when it is possible to write about it and speak about it.

I imagine myself, middle-aged, married, a man in possession a time machine, visiting my teenage self the night I had my first huge terrifying breakdown, the night I feared I’d die of crying. If I visited that evening in June 1979, what might I see? A boy, crying so hard he’s worried he might die from it, that something might happen, that he might break open. The boy’s mother, my mum, much younger than I’m used to seeing her, holding the boy’s hand, stroking it, talking to him, doing her best to soothe him, to help him, armed only with the magic of love. On the other side of the bed is a nurse, doing much the same thing, only in a professional capacity.

And there in the centre, that poor young bastard, afraid that he’s flying apart. That he’s burning up on re-entry. He’s just had surgery to remove his appendix, but he’s also just failed a bunch of upper high school exams. He believes he’s doomed, a failure.

I want to tell that poor kid that this is not the end of his life. This is his new life being born. Everything gets better from here—though admittedly not for a long, long time, and the road gets harder before it gets better.

It’s a seven-year slog, and he’ll one day look back on it and call it his “Years of Hell”, and it begins on this volcanic night in 1979 and ends in August 1986, on the fateful, lucky, sunny day when he first meets Michelle.

This is a book of fragments and shards. My dad, back when he was a motor mechanic, used to have these huge trays full of screws, nuts, washers, bolts, and all manner of odd mechanical gewgaws, glinting dully in his workshop light, and all of it a bit sticky with a film of oil. How I hated having anything to do with any of that stuff! But that’s this book. It’s a big random mess of parts. It’s got stories from my whole life. There’s bits from when I was a kid growing up in the “Space Age” 1960s to right this week and everything in between, including my histories of mental illness and obesity, because I’ve always believed the one was a manifestation of the other.

All my life I had to pretend I was normal, but I wasn’t normal, and I wasn’t well. And I had to hide it. I had to seem normal at all times. It was the most important thing in the world. It was impossible. That strain, that impossible task, and what it did to me, is what this book is about.

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