As my episode of psychosis is fading to the distant past (over three years now), part of me wants to keep the memory alive. I am very blessed to be in a privileged position of talking about the mental health illness which led to breaking my back, from a place of wellness and positivity which I hope helps to inspire others, and make a difference to mental health stigma. The only way people will understand and have empathy for this condition is by hearing people’s experiences of it.
Brave – yes, I am! I am not scared that some people may think that I went mad, because I did !!
Mental Health Speaker
Part of my speech gets to the nitty gritty and describes what psychosis is like. I emphasise how it is VERY different for each person, in the same way other illnesses (both mental and physical) are different. Take Covid for example, some lose their sense of taste and smell, others don’t. Or your common cold, it goes to the chest on some, but not others.
The same is true with psychosis. Whether it is linked with a chronic mental health illness such as schizophrenia, or, as in my case, a stress-induced episode, the symptoms can vary greatly from person to person.
It is a misconception that everyone experiences visual or auditory hallucinations. In the main, I didn’t, although if you read my book ‘Catch Me If I Fall’, I did have some sort of hallucination on the roof that led to my actual fall.
Losing touch with reality
The common denominator with psychosis though, is ‘losing touch with reality’. What some people refer to as ‘going mad’. But what does that look like?
Well, for me it was like being stuck in a dream that I could not wake up or step out of. In fact, rather than a dream, it is more like a nightmare.
It is a terrifying experience when you are in the thick of it. Everything that you know and are accustomed to in the world, becomes horrifyingly scary and you feel extremely vulnerable. I remember everything around me seeming like a threat, even my own dogs were sentinels sent from hell, and were ready to attack me at any minute.
The world switches from a euphoric place akin to paradise with a deep inner knowledge that I am connected to the universe, to a dark and evil living hell where I feel threatened, and everyone is trying to trick me or drag me to my worst possible fate.
Because the experience is totally immersive, there is no part of me that can ask for help or think of a logical way to get to safety. I start to shut down, keeping myself in my bedroom and avoiding everyone and everything.
Use your imagination…
Can you imagine for one minute, the room you are sitting in now, where everything is calm and peaceful with people around you that you know and trust, suddenly turning into a horror film? The picture on the wall you’ve never really noticed before, the face in it is suddenly watching you. The TV programme is speaking to you directly and sending you messages you don’t want to hear.
Freaky – I know! Paranoia is not a pleasant experience.
You may receive the message, don’t tell anyone what is happening or else your loved ones will die. You believe the food you are served has been poisoned and you dare not eat it. As your mind starts to panic with the new world around you, the rollercoaster speeds up and you can’t get off! And you can’t tell anyone what is happening!
With your body in ‘fight or flight’ mode, your senses are on high alert and every little sound and sight is greatly magnified. The doorbell rings, or the telephone rings and you jump out of your skin believing the motorbike you just heard was a Hells Angel who has just arrived on your doorstep to harm you. Mad, maybe. But not bad. Just sad, and very scary.
I see things today (from a place of saneness) that may trigger a memory of what I experienced during my psychosis. It can be something simple like, my husband removing his shoes and I remember how I had somehow believed he was Jesus Christ, and I wanted to wash his feet for him. (He doesn’t know this)! I can clearly see how insane this sounds now, but at the time, in my world, it made complete sense.
Another memory is moving all the photos of my husband and children around the house believing I could only keep them safe if their pictures were in certain rooms; superstition became obsessive, and I felt I had some great power that affected things around me. Mad, but again it is very sad. It was one hell of a responsibility!
I cannot watch horror films today, because I have often wondered if horror films have somehow lodged in my subconscious and play out during a psychosis. It is difficult to pinpoint a particular film since it felt like a blend of every horror film I have ever seen jumping into action. I had to battle my way through moment by moment. I am anxious that watching horror films today could trigger another episode, so I refuse to watch them!
My husband and I nearly walked out of the cinema recently. We were watching the most recent ‘matrix’ film and Neo experiences very realistic symptoms of psychosis at the beginning of the film, which were a little triggering. I got through it though.
Facing the fear
The hardest part about living with the knowledge that I have suffered psychosis is learning to battle the fear of it happening again. We all tend to find a way to survive our own world and the circumstances it throws at us, and it has taken me many years to realise that the best way I can battle the monster I have known as psychosis, is to be open and honest and face it. By talking about it, I lessen its hold over me, I reduce the fear. I also lessen the likelihood of it happening again.
It may be that I never experience it again, or, in the worst case scenario, it could strike again. The difference these days though, is that I have become very good at safeguarding myself. If I am under extreme stress or upset (such as that recently caused by my family!) I alert the doctor and ask my close friends to keep an eye on me.
Each time it has happened there has been a trigger, followed by a few days (or weeks) of symptoms that I have tried to hide in the past. These symptoms are extreme anxiety and a sense of things feeling a little ‘off’. My head feels like it is full of cotton wool, and my appetite wanes. By exposing this to you, and others, I better safeguard myself!
So, I hope that by trying to imagine your world being turned upside down and feeling like you are about to be murdered, burnt alive, or tortured that you can understand that going ‘mad’ is really a painful and horrifying experience. It is very ‘sad’ that this can happen to people. They deserve love and compassion for surviving and not judgement or criticism.
The mind is a powerful and complex organ that can go wrong at the flick of a switch. The line between sanity and insanity is a fine one (in my opinion). Please, never judge someone who has experienced such a horror.