I’ve experienced psychosis twice – in pretty quick succession in 2012 then again in 2015 – but I would not say the episodes are two separate incidents but rather one continuous flow, and I mean they are daily experiences to some degree, that has been an on ongoing psychological maze since about the age of fifteen (where I first started taking drugs, or at least beginning to see my mind in action). I no longer take drugs – well, once in a blue moon but I know it’s really no good for me – but I do not believe drugs caused psychosis – I was abstinent from drugs for a long time prior to being sectioned on both occasions. I had insight into an uncovered memory the other day on the train home. I remembered being a kid, about 6 or 7 years old, lying in bed while my Mum had friends round and really believing the strange adult voices downstairs were talking about me – commenting on my behaviour, sometimes even on my thoughts. This would happen quite frequently growing up; I used to sit at the top of the stairs mushing bananas into the wall trying to hear what they were saying.
What I’m trying to say is that even at a young age I had a predisposition for what is described in psychiatric terminology as ‘ideas of reference’ – where you believe an unrelated event or a comment by a stranger in the street is of direct reference to you. So a mix of psychological and biological factors – brain chemistry, stimulants, stressful events – can induce psychosis. Many people will have experienced it and not realised. These ‘ideas of reference’ I have now begun noticing going through my mind; for the first time aware that these thoughts are part of my illness and they are not real. I used to be so scared of them, and by ‘used to’ I mean up to about 6 months ago, because you feel you are made of glass and that your secret inner life is falling out of you for all to see. But I’m not scared anymore because, with great thanks to my psychologist who has taught me mindfulness techniques to deal with it, I have become aware of the thoughts that are unwelcome and not real. Two days ago I was experiencing ‘ideas of reference’. It can be a double edged blade having insight because I was aware of them happening yet they were totally convincing at the same time. A lot of recovery is learning how to adapt to the way your mind works – in a Buddhist sense the goal is to become enlightened to a mind that can interpret information wrong and to overcome it.
When I was really unwell this summer I experienced pretty much every psychotic symptom in the psychiatric books. I vividly remember walking the streets and believing the wind was speaking the name of a girl I had been in a relationship with. I sometimes heard ugly voices. My psychotic ideology was stitched together tid-bits of religious beliefs and paranoid ‘what-if’s’ about being on television, being famous, being significant to global events. Thinking the latter thoughts is a form of ‘grandiose delusion’ where, despite a rational explanation otherwise, you believe there is no way that your existence is not of extreme importance to the world around you. Of course we are all important, but while walking around eating raw steak meat and performing ritualistic behaviours that I felt had to be done to beat the system or the matrix or whatever, I felt my importance was known by everyone in the city and somehow they were all supporting me on my mission. What I am describing is a unique experience but with common similarities to all the psychotic illnesses - a lot of our illnesses have common threads and sometimes I wonder if we are seeing a reality others don’t. I witnessed aliens waving at me through windows, I saw the sun as a giant glass ball through which they were peering in on our world. Everyone’s life really is important and sometimes being psychotic can endanger it – the first time I had psychosis I jumped in the river Clyde believing I was dreaming and could have died. Then, I had no insight I was just mentally ill.
So I’ve been sectioned for a total of six months over the past four years. Yet it’s not a case of just being mad for a little bit then magically being better with medication alone. You have to work at it. You have to retrain your brain pretty much every day and that is a fight - so keep at it. My family and friends have stuck by me when I was at my worst and I have had support from the Esteem team in Glasgow who - though I have resented and felt distrusting of them at times – have helped me slowly, slowly, to become aware of my illness, particularly through access to a trained psychologist. I can also say being able to live on disability benefit and ESA has allowed me to recover, so the government isn't all bad. I have lost some people in my life because of being psychotic and that hurts a lot. But I wouldn’t swap my experiences for anything.
If you are reading this then know that despite how hard it might seem to become “better” – if that even exists – know that you really can develop insight and know that you do have the power to control the thoughts you don’t want to have. It all came together for me slowly – it’s one steady flow of fluctuating experience, Bill Hicks says “life’s just a ride” – and I feel I’m beginning to finally see that I can be ill and sane at the same time, that I can be mad and in control of it. My favourite book is Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse (which I highly recommend) and it tells us that we are all made of an infinite number of selves – our goal in life is to come to understand that and to not be afraid. You’ll be alright if you can see it - you are unique because of what your mind is.
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