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by Andrea Chell

I knew that something was wrong, but how could I explain to anyone. It sounded so stupid to say that I felt depressed, but I didn't know why. I didn't know what was wrong. But something, somewhere was going to crack soon. And it did.

I can remember sitting in the study rooms trying to work and a friend coming to talk to me. "How do you do it?" she asked. "You're going to do great in your exams, you're working so hard. I can't do it any more. I can't cope." I wanted to say that I wasn't coping; I'd been staring at the same page for the past half hour and the previous evening as well as evening upon evening before that. But I was the one who was always strong. I couldn't be seen to be weak. had to be strong, I had to cope.

One night about a week later I didn't sleep at all. My mock A Levels were starting in a few days. The lack of sleep continued and the night before my exams started, everything shattered. I suddenly felt as if I understood all my subjects perfectly. That all those who undermined my confidence didn't matter, that I was the one who counted. I felt so elated and relieved. I phoned a couple of my teachers about this wonderful revelation and then became manic. I forgot about my exams the next day, and when I remembered that I had to go into school the feeling of desperation became worse.

I knew I had lost control and I didn't know what to do with myself. I remember feeling that I was a complete failure, that I couldn't do anything, that I was incapable of ever gaining any employment. Of passing any exams, of ever being happy. One of my set texts was Wuthering Heights and I can vaguely remember flinging the bedroom door open and acting like a delirious Catherine. I then tried to throw myself out of the bedroom window and at that point, concern became real. Mood swings went from one extreme to the other until everything became black. My thoughts revolved around hell and fire and eternal damnation. I felt as though I had gone to hell and this was my sentence forever. I had been condemned to my own personal hell for the rest of my life. This was it, Hell. This is it. Yourself and your own self-torment. I could feel something clawing on my right shoulder and every time I tried to brush it off, the nails sank deeper and deeper into my flesh, scraping down my back and when I tried to run away, the devil was still there, nails clawing continually and biting to the bone.

I could sometimes see the devil, grinning with glee at claiming another victim and I could feel his long black tail lashing my back. I knew I was in hell because it was so hot, the heat was unbearable and there was no way it would get any cooler. It was getting hotter and hotter by the second and soon I wouldn't be able to take it any more. This is it. Hell. You think you can't cope with the hell you live in until that goes away only to be replaced by the next hell. It's never ending. It's like a factory chain. Once he's got you in his clutches, you'll never escape. There forever. Hell after hell after hell. Each progressively hotter, more painful and unbearable and as soon as you say you can't cope with your present damnation, it is instantaneously replaced by the next succession of hells to eternity.

My thoughts were mingled in a crazy labyrinth of mangled facts from my reading. Quotes from texts came back and haunted me. I remembered the old woman who had wished for eternal life and who had been granted her wish but who forgot to ask for eternal youth and was condemned to grow older and older and sicker and sicker but where her life would never end. Eternal life is eternal hell. Life is hell. Was this life in hell or hell in life or damnation. Was this existence? It was eternal, never ending and soul-destroying: like the old woman, had been condemned to the worst possible fate. I must have deserved it. Or is that life? Do you live for a certain amount of time only to be snatched away from that distant reality to the reality of things? What is reality? Perhaps it doesn't exist but we individually contrive our own form of existence and there really is nothing. Nothing exists. There is nothing. We're not here, only waves and sparks somewhere on the verge of an endless black pit.

So the sparks ignited. The darkness came and went and it all turned to white.

Fleeting glances are all I have of the days following my period of darkness. The most prominent memory is of being locked up in a tiny, white room with a barred window and impenetrable door. By that time I had been given so much medication that I was knocked out most of the time. The only object in the room was a cushion on the floor on which I curled up to sleep. When I woke, I walked round and round in circles, desperately trying to figure out where I was and what was happening.

There was nobody to explain, nobody to talk to and nothing to do.

I grasped at the bars on the window and shook them until my fists and palms hurt; I reached out to touch the glass, but it was too far away. I walked round the walls of the room, skimming the paint with my hands, in spirals, walking then running, faster and faster until I was so exhausted that I collapsed on the floor in floods of tears.

The door slowly opened and someone came in. I was so tired that I couldn't even lift my head. Everything disappeared into blackness again. And it was a relief to sink into nothingness. The door opened. A tray of food appeared. I let my head rest again and the next time I woke up. The tray had gone and the door was shut. The floor was cold to touch. I put both hands on top of the cushion and went back to sleep.

I woke up and felt my head. It seemed to be there. So, I still existed in some form or other. I put out my hand and felt the pillow. My eyes focused and I could see writing. Something to do with Health Services. My head dropped again. Health services. It might be a trick.

It was a different room, still white. The whole world was white. I was in a bed, there was a bedside table and two cards sitting there. I read one and was so angry that I tore it up and left it scattered in little pieces on the floor. I went back to sleep.

The floor was icy. I pattered down the corridor but didn't speak. I followed the nurse who talked incessantly and never waited for answers. We came to a smaller room at the end of the passageway. I wasn't capable of running my own bath, so the nurse did it. At least, that's what I was told. I sat on the floor and watched the water gush into the bath. I was told to undress so I did and then stepped into the warm water. The warmth was nice. My legs felt relaxed and I sank my arms into the water to make them feet better. The nurse was still talking. But I'd just noticed a series of bruises down my arms. I looked at my legs. There were bruises there too. It didn't seem important, the water was too soothing so I ignored the nurse and the bruises and sank further into the warmth.

I didn't want to get out. I wanted more warm water. But I wasn't allowed. I snatched the towel and walked down the corridor. I knew where my room was.

The television was talking nonsense people dressed in night things were walking down the endless corridors as though they were ghosts: they floated away and vanished. The television gabbled on regardless and the air was thick and gloomy. I was waiting, and very anxious. I was waiting to see the consultant. I wanted out of this ward. What would replace it. Was all a blur but it had to be better than these four walls of starchy white and nothing.

To start with, how had I got out of the room? Who was the consultant? How did I know he was in existence? And where did the TV and corridors come from?

My eyes shifted from the moving pictures and came to rest on my surroundings. I was in what seemed to be a common room, from which passageways led back to the inhabitants' lairs. The room wasn't greatly populated and the individuals there seemed oblivious to everything anyway. An old man hugged his knees and rocked backwards and forwards rhythmically, perched precariously on the edge of a cushioned chair, a woman stretched her hands out in front of her and argued in desperation with a non-existent person. Someone else was trying to leave the room but had trouble because muscle spasms claimed rise of his legs. I turned to the TV screen. The colours were comforting even though I couldn't understand the droning tones and my thoughts went back to the consultant.

The consultant eventually appeared and I had to convince him somehow that I should go back to the ward where I had first been admitted. Things were coming back to me and I remembered first arriving in hospital and the immense terror of being left alone. I suppose that's why I'd panicked so much. So my wishes were granted and I was taken across the hospital campus, dressed in my bath robe and a pair of slippers. Things became blurred again, the effort of convincing the doctor had tired me out.

This time I woke up in a colourful room and spent the afternoon pinning cards and get well messages to my wall. I'd never realised that anyone cared, that was half the problem, but all this post that had appeared seemed to convey that people somewhere here and somehow cared. A new revelation. That was when I realised that I could ask to speak to or see other people. I wasn't the outcast or demon I seemed to think I was and many people had already asked to visit me, it was just that I didn't seem ready to see them. So my steady flow of visitors began to wade their way to the ward armed with flowers, chocolates and supplies of books and magazines. The nurses were amused at my exercise attempts, when I wandered the corridors, conscientiously trying to "clench my buttocks" while walking and "feeling the tension" and still keeping moving while following the printed keep-fit instructions. I suppose I did look rather funny and the term "clench those buttocks" became a bit of a buzzword on the ward.

The main thing that still puzzled me was that I didn't understand what had happened, and until a few years later that didn't matter at all - the truly important thing was to realise that I was loved and people did care and there is a purpose to being here after all.

I realised that one day when, after a good few weeks, I was allowed to go out for a walk on my own. Yes - that is correct, on my own. I was walking towards a flower garden, consumed with the overwhelming thought that I would never have the feeling of enjoying myself ever again when my thoughts were interrupted by some beautiful scent. I stopped and sniffed and breathed in deeply. Yes - it was nice, it was even springlike and new and I believed I had stopped being so preoccupied. But what was it? I looked down to see an arrangement of purple and pink hyacinths. The immediate reaction was wanting to collect them all in my hands and practically absorb all the beauty and being of this wonderful thing.

That's how I started to get better. Hope can be small, sometimes it doesn't take a great deal but if there is something meaningful to the individual - that is what counts. So every Spring, I look forward to the hyacinth season and know that once they were my symbol of new life and hope. It was, still is and maybe will serve again as my pathway to a new start.