A Mote of Dust Suspended in a Sunbeam The Boy Who Lived

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The Boy Who Lived

By Andrew Simpson
There is neither happiness nor unhappiness in this world; there is only the comparison of one state with another. Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss. It is necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live.....the sum of all human wisdom will be contained in these two words: Wait and Hope.
-- Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

Where to begin? The beginning is traditional, although it's not entirely clear where that might be. My mind drifts back to memories of a boy of about nine, intelligent, a touch arrogant, starting out at private school for the first time. A doctor is what he wants to be. Eating lunch with a friend one day he feels faintly smug that he knows terms like 'myocardial infarction'.

Fast forward a couple of years and things aren't quite the same. It turns out everyone at private school is pretty smart and generally pretty competitive too. Cruising through doesn't get you very far and putting in the necessary amount of effort requires a maturity that is not yet apparent. Behaviour degrades. Education stutters along. Social skills stagnate. An interest in science remains and is cultivated but the boy exists more as a magnet for words like 'potential' and 'capacity' than anything else.

More years pass. Uni arrives, with all its opportunities and temptations. His immaturity is perhaps more abundantly clear than ever, although not to himself. Many mistakes are made without many lessons being learned. Some progress - a successful Honours year, a beautiful girl. Where to from here though? A PhD seems the default option and the opportunity to work at the cutting edge is no small drawcard. The cracks are obvious almost from the outset, but we rarely see that which we wish to keep hidden from ourselves. And so from the promised land of self-deception life moves insidiously, inexorably towards the abyss. The relationship breaks down. The career is not what was hoped for. All that ever was is suddenly as substantial as a snowflake.

A recognition, finally, that things cannot continue as they are. The PhD is put on hold and the demons of mental illness that have been steadily massing are confronted. With every new drug, hope flares like a match in the enveloping darkness. Perhaps this one will work. Or this one. But they never do, and each match is soon no more than an ashen footnote to a painful experiment.

Months pass, and then years. Time melts in on itself like a pack of gummi bears on a hot summer's day, their smiling faces congealing into an amorphous blob that bears little resemblance to its discrete beginnings. Atmospheric modelling gives way to pizza delivery a few times a week to make ends meet. The furthest city lights were long since outwalked. There is no hope. There is no present. There is no future.

Drastic measures are called for. Two months in a psychiatric hospital, twenty rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. A mind more fragmented and broken than ever, with little memory of what has happened to it, but no closer to that utopia of normality it so desperately seeks. More months pass. And then .. what? A sudden recognition, one day, that something has changed. A reaction to an idea that isn't quite the same as before. The point at which the edifice constructed over two decades hence has finally and completely crumbled. The boy lies naked at the centre of it all, exposed and vulnerable but distantly aware that time no longer stands still. Perhaps the boy can finally grow up.

A star appears in the sky, faint and feeble but a star nonetheless. Whispers of a future grow slowly stronger. Medicine is brought to the table, flippantly and disbelievingly at first but eventually the possibility is considered. Surely it could not happen though? Medicine is for those superhuman beings with the intellect and emotional maturity to be able to handle it, not for mere mortals. And yet .. the idea will not go away. But to attempt to get in is a dangerous business. To attempt to get in is to commit oneself fully, to countenance the idea not just that one may succeed, but also that one may fail. Courage is required to make such a commitment, a commodity in short supply previously but one that makes itself available now.

The road is a long and winding one. As is the boy's wont, things are never done the easy way. It starts out as a competition with everybody else but he comes to realise that, from the very beginning, it was always a competition with himself. And as he basks in the curious afterglow of acceptance, he knows that, after twenty years, his nemesis has finally been defeated.

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