Five Surreal Realities of Psychosis

This article is written to promote  the #SmileAgainstTheStigma campaign and generally shed light on the subject of mental health.

Since you've seen the title of this article, there's no point in sugar-coating it. With people becoming more aware of various mental health problems, finding treatment for it is slowly becoming easier. However, there is still a massive stigma surrounding mental health, particularly psychosis. It's very nature makes it difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain without sounding, well, crazy. Despite thinking I was one (you'll see what I mean), I'm no Doctor, so I can't explain psychosis empirically. However, if you can stomach clumsy metaphors and gratuitous pop-culture references, follow me down the rabbit hole as I try my best to explain what it was like to go through my episode.

 

 

1- While there is build-up, it can strike at random

2011 and 2012 was an especially shitty time for just about everyone not named Kate Middleton. The recession still had a stranglehold on the economy, there were riots in Britain, multiple high profile conflicts in the Middle East and Chris Brown's F.A.M.E somehow topped the album charts. It was especially shitty for me, as I had to witness all of this while working as a kitchen assistant. I worked ridiculously long hours (sometimes doing twelve hour shifts), barely had any breaks, I was constantly rushing around to get food prepared if I wasn't washing an infinite pile of dishes while simultaneously being in charge of desserts due to under-staffing.

 

It didn't help that the kitchen manager thought he was basically this guy.

In a textbook example of my generation, I was also stuck in my student overdraft and living at my parents' house. Working as a kitchen assistant put me off the idea of progressing in that field, plus I had other plans in terms of career prospects that I've been studying for (video game designer, writer, potential porn baron, etc.). The wages I did get for my unsatisfying job were just enough to survive and pay board money, but too slim to make any long term plans, so the only way I thought I could cope with my hopelessly stressful situation was through using cannabis.

 

 

Why yes, I do know what some people reading might be thinking.

In April 2012 eventually quit my job to look for work elsewhere, work I never found. All of this stress and dissatisfaction was piling on me like my name was Biff Tannen. I distinctly remember that it was a couple of weeks after I quit my job when “it” happened. I was sat at my desk one morning, ready to switch on my laptop when I suddenly saw a flash of bright light. In that seemingly random moment, my life completely changed.

 

 

If you're thinking it's anything like this, prepare to be disappointed.

2 - Anything can be a trigger

In our gradually sophisticated and tolerant world, the word “Trigger” seems to have become so overused that it's become a punchline for unimaginative trolls. The worst part is that different people have different triggers, so there is no empirical or logical way to deal with them. When you have psychosis, those triggers can be potentially anything and everything to fuel your delusions.

 

Even this might set someone off. Can't imagine why.

While some might scoff at the “special snowflake” cliché, there is some merit in it, especially when it comes to mental health. To try and help you understand the uniqueness of my episode (for lack of a better term), you have to understand that I'm a nerd. A huge nerd. The only thing stopping me from being the complete stereotype is the lack of glasses and understanding of algebra. One significant branch of my nerd-dom is Doctor Who, another is my love of video games. I'm a fan of internet reviewers such as Nostalgia Critic, Spoony and Linkara. Despite the film being a master class of generic mediocrity, Green Lantern is my favourite DC super hero. I even studied philosophy at college and post-modernism as part of my university degree. You do the maths.

 

So there I was sat at my desk after being hit with this bright light. From my perspective the world became lucid and hazy. Reality no longer felt real. What if none of this is real? I constantly thought. Am I in a virtual simulation? The Truman Show? A dream? Have I become aware of the fourth wall? These were questions I was determined to find the answer to. I attempted to “play along” with reality, going about my usual business, but it became increasingly difficult to do normal things without finding some hidden significance. Profile pictures on Facebook were distorted, their status updates about walking the dog had significant subtext. Trying to enjoy my usual hobbies such as watching internet reviewers, playing games and reading comics instead reinforced my delusional perceptions, making my mind jump to bizarre conclusions that seemed perfectly rational.

 

Although some “clues” were more overt than others.

I even remember sitting down to watch a TV show (I think it was Top Gear), which jokingly used the Inception BOOM sound effect for some reason. To a rationally-thinking human that would just be a neat little reference. But rationality and psychosis go together like peanut butter and spam.

 

3 - The "clues and patterns" are everywhere

To bore you with some significant Doctor Who lore, there is the plot device called the Chameleon Arch. To put it briefly, it turns Time Lords into humans and rewrites their memory in the process, but can be used to restore their memories. This is what I thought happened to me. I literally though I was a Time Lord getting my “true” memories back.

 

Any Whovian can tell you how badly this can end.

So as far as I knew, I was a Time Lord trapped in some kind of false reality. I scoured the internet and my collection of books/games/etc. looking for clues. I played Zelda and Portal back-to-back in search of a connection that only ever existed in my mind. I excessively replayed Majora's Mask believing I could somehow figure out time travel, reinterpreting online FAQs and guides as prophetic tomes that would help me reveal the secrets of reality. After all, nothing was a harmless coincidence any more. Speaking of coincidences, the plot of Majora's Mask tied in nicely with the whole 2012 Mayan apocalypse, so I had Armageddon to deal with as well. Before the psychosis I thought it was a daft prediction.

 

As a side note, for a company often criticized for being too kid-friendly, Nintendo sure seem to make a lot of games about the end of the universe.

I wrote down all of these clues and patterns, making notes and a bizarre brainstorm graph in an attempt to rationalize them, or at least turn them into Damien Hurst-esque masterpieces. In my erratic wisdom I even attempted to build a TARDIS out of seemingly random objects I found lying around – if I was holding onto them, surely they were a vital component, right? Any reasonable human scientist will tell you that if you could build a time machine, a Gameboy probably wouldn't be an essential component.

 

As well as constructing a time machine, I would wander out of the house at random intervals to look for more clues and glitches in this false reality despite never really having a clear goal. Electrical pylons were suddenly radio transmitters. I could “hear” people's thoughts when I strolled past them. Even worse, I thought a mechanical being, something like Skynet or the Cybermen, were trying to take over my mind and body. All of these signs were confirming that my delusional thoughts were real.

 

Thus proving Descartes wrong once and for all.

4 - Psychosis and psychopathy are vastly different

My psychotic breakdown lasted a week. It ultimately culminated when I went for a few drinks with a couple of friends who had no idea what was happening to me until I started acting and talking strangely, jumping around and speaking in techno-babble (at this point I really was The Doctor). In my confusion I even stepped out in front of a car, at which point my friends called my mum who took me to the hospital. I was officially sectioned under the Mental Health Act, diagnosed with psychosis and kept in a ward for three weeks.

 

Right, because this article has now reached maximum levels of maudlin, here is a picture of me being silly.

However, there is one thing I have to address. Being told at the hospital that I was psychotic was a metaphorical kick in the junk. Everything I ever knew or learned about insanity before actually going insane was entirely negative. According to both fiction and the news media, anyone who was psychotic was automatically declared dangerous, and I was now a “Psycho”. The only person I was potentially capable of physically hurting was myself, and even then it would be unintentional.

 

I'm less Norman Bates and more Norm Peterson.

Even before the episode I try my best to be polite and decent towards people, complimenting them and impressing them with my encyclopedic collection of Simpsons quotes. Yes, I do get angry and upset about certain things, but I vent out anger through cathartic video games (because I'm a nerd) and deal with sadness through comedy (because I'm British). Even now it can sometimes be too overwhelming to do that (I'll get to that), but the one thing I'd never do is intentionally hurt someone, whether it's a close friend or a stranger. I can only truly speak for myself, but having psychosis does not make you a monster, even if it makes you feel like one.

 

The existence of psychopathy throws a spanner in the works.

Sorry Mr J, but you're not crazy. You're just being a dick.

While this Cracked article goes into greater detail about psychopaths, I can't emphasize enough the difference between psychosis and psychopathy. Ignoring all the other scapegoats mass shooting sprees are blamed on, it's ultimately blamed on the nebulous term “mental illness”, particularly psychosis. The kind of psychopaths who go on mass shootings tend to plan them out weeks in advance, and if I've established anything in this list, it's that going through a psychotic episode doesn't make you the “planning things out” type. Even if their motives are twisted and selfish, psychopaths have a rational reason for their behaviour. People with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators. It's the general public confusion about mental health that makes the stigma and shame of mental health linger, not to mention the scapegoating I mentioned earlier.  However, if all of this worries you, there's some good news!

For you see...

 

5 - It's difficult, but it DOES get better

According to my calender, it's 2017, roughly five years since I had my psychotic episode. The world has drastically changed over that period, and so have I. While nowhere as severe as I was, I've had a few dramatic blips oer the years. The tag-team of Anxiety and Depression are recurring villains on my road to recovery.

 

In this metaphor, the table is my brain.

 But y'know what? I'm fighting back. My oldest friends have stuck by me and I've made plenty of new friends on the way. I joined an art therapy group and my drawing skills have vastly improved. The cosplay and convention scene have allowed me to express my nerdy side, not to mention build up my confidence – six years ago, I probably wouldn't sit on public transport dressed as Mario. I've finally achieved two of my childhood dreams. I've self-published two books and made several video games which are available on this very website, and you can be damn sure I'll carry on. Unfortunately, if I start saying I've achieved my other childhood dream of being a Ghostbuster, that might be a sign the Psychosis is coming back.

 

"We're ready to believe you." Sure you are...

 All joking aside, I can certainly empathize with anyone struggling with mental health problems, even though I know that it affects people differently. I can only speak for myself, but I know that current affairs give people legitimate reasons to feel depressed, anxious and overwhelmed. Ultimately, I think this is why I retreated into a delusional fantasy where I was an eccentric hero who could “fix” the world. Part of me still thinks I can, just not in the way Psychosis made me think I could. I can't simply ignore the bad things that go on in the world, but there are still positive things to be found. Even better, there are positive things we can put into the world ourselves. Don't let anyone – not even those pesky chemical imbalances in your head meat – tell you otherwise.

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© A L Harvey