What it’s Like to Experience Psychosis
The story of how I lost my mind
Most people don’t believe they will ever go crazy. And that’s because most people don’t go crazy. In fact, a majority of us reserve the term ‘crazy’ for people we care not to associate with. We distance ourselves from crazy people. We dehumanise them. A ‘crazy person’ is out of control, unpredictable and sometimes even scary. They’re weird. They say strange things and engage in bizarre behaviour. We’ve all seen someone in public behaving oddly, shouting incoherently at passers-by or talking to themselves. In the past, my feelings towards these people have been a mixture of concern, fear, and curiosity. How do they survive in the real world when their minds exist somewhere else? What could possibly be going through their heads? How have they come to be so far removed from reality? I certainly never believed I would go crazy. Not like that.
So what exactly does a complete loss of touch with reality mean? Associations become skewed, meanings become twisted and bizarre fantasies suddenly become very, very important. The body becomes an unrecognisable passenger to a brain that’s snapped off track. For some, this can arise from substance abuse, but for others, it can occur completely naturally. Either way, the brain malfunctions to the point of debilitation. This state of disconnect can last from a few hours to months at a time. For for those with chronic mental health conditions, it may last even longer.
Before I continue, I must stress that this is my story and therefore, completely unique to me. Psychosis is a state of mind that can manifest itself in completely different ways for different people. There are a range of symptoms that fall under the condition, and not all of them need to be experienced for a diagnosis. I am no expert on the illness, I was simply unfortunate enough to experience it.
In terms of mental illness, I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’ve always had a firm grip on reality and the ability to rationalise ‘normally’. I would experience mood fluctuations, but never enough to seek help. My home life is stable, I have a good job and generally I’m doing pretty well. However, mental illness runs in my family. My cousin struggles with bipolar disorder and I have at least two other family members who have been sectioned with psychotic symptoms. But when it crept up on me, I was not aware of the severity of my condition until I could no longer hide the extremity of it.
Last year was my 27th year on this planet. It was the end of the summer and as the city was beginning to temporarily reopen, I was starting to enjoy a slightly more active social life again. I was 3 months sober and in great physical shape. Work was a little stressful, but in terms of my environment, nothing was especially off kilter.
I would like to take you to the convenient place where it all began and neatly point at the ‘trigger’ that set me off, but that would be a falsehood. The build up was slow and subtle. It crept up slowly until very quickly, over the course of about 48 hours my family had to call 999 and I was in the back of an ambulance. There were however, some changes in my behaviour in the weeks leading up to call. If I were to pinpoint them, they would be the following:
- I became very interested in self improvement
- I was sure I had undiagnosed ADHD and began researching it obsessively
- I had frequent epiphanies that I would write down
- I firmly believed I was going to write a book
This doesn’t sound too extreme in itself. And it wasn’t. Until it escalated into full blown mania. I remember waking up at 5am furiously writing about why I am the way I am. Despite my sobriety, I felt like I was high on cocaine. The chemical balance in my brain felt the same. I was frantically explaining to anyone who would listen about how I had ADHD. I stopped sleeping, my thoughts were racing, I was barely eating and eventually I just stopped logging in to work.
I ended up having a bizarre argument with my sister, insisting that I was manipulating her because I thought I could predict her responses. I persisted that in order to break the ‘stale mate’, she had to make me cry. She was completely confused, disturbed and didn’t know what to do. She took me to my parents where I fully broke down. I was completely freaked out by my surroundings and scribbled down pages of notes about how I had thought myself into a paradox. At this point, I was also convinced that my mum had manipulated me my whole life and all of my achievements and interests were orchestrated by her. All of my thoughts ceased to make sense.
By the time the ambulance came, I was wailing and chanting about witches, poison and suicide. None of this I remember. I have next to no memory of being in the ambulance, aside from the vague feeling that the whole scenario was fake, including the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, I was sectioned.
I spent the next two months in three different psychiatric wards. My memory during the first six weeks is patchy at best. There are snippets I remember, such as certain patients or nurses. I spent a lot of time wandering around looking for ‘clues’ to piece together some kind of meaning out of my environment. I thought that the people around me (mostly nurses) represented people from my own life, despite not having any real resemblance. Strangely, these associations were not with people I knew well— my friend’s brother, an old maths teacher, my ex boyfriend’s dad are just some examples. I would sometimes call them by these names. I would also talk to them in their own accents. I don’t know why I did this, but at the time it felt important that I did. In hindsight, I would normally cringe, but in the context of my episode it’s easier to accept it. There is so much I don’t remember that’s worse (I’ll get to that).
I was disruptive, breaking equipment and bashing down doors. I spent time in seclusion where I was pinned down and injected (with what, I don’t know — I’d hazard a guess at a sedative). I thought the nurses were carving out pieces of my flesh with a scalpel in the shape of a swastika. I was covered in bruises from hitting things and being restrained. It was quite literally, a waking nightmare.
I don’t believe I experienced hallucinations (although I do have memories of seeing ‘doubles’, so perhaps I did) and I only heard one or two voices very early on. However, I experienced delusions by the truckload. Some of these beliefs included:
- Thinking I was a clone
- I had a twin brother and we were in love
- He was on another ward and we were being kept apart by magnets
- I was on a reality TV show
- The US and UK governments were after me
- I was going to be the target of an acid attack
- I was Jewish
- My employer was paying for and controlling my treatment
- People on TV were talking about me
- I had infected my whole block of flats with COVID
And these are just a few I remember. In addition to my delusions, I also experienced strange, difficult to place thoughts and associations. With psychosis, ideas can be vague and dreamlike. I experienced a lot of uneasiness, but what was making me feel uneasy was hard to explain. For example, I had a ‘thing’ about Nikes. I can’t really define ‘thing’, other than that they felt significant. For weeks after I was discharged, I would still feel very on edge if I saw someone wearing Nikes, like it was a sign they knew me or I was being targeted by them. There was very much a theme of feeling targeted. These are common in psychosis and known as ‘Persecutory Delusions’. Of course, people would tell me these thoughts were not true, but it wouldn’t stop me believing them. At the time it wasn’t even a belief, it was fact.
So what was the hospital like? Well, pretty horrible. It’s loud and it’s boring. There’s a lot of staring into space and pacing around. There were activities such as art therapy and one or two cooking classes. There was a TV but I didn’t like watching it because of my paranoia. There was a sensory room with squishy bean bags and lights that would change colour. There were fights between the patients sometimes — once someone grabbed the dessert off my tray and flung it at another patient as I ducked for cover.
When I was well enough, I was allowed out for an escorted walk twice a day. Although I was incredibly paranoid, escaping the ward was wonderful. Towards the end of my stay I was allowed to go for two fifteen minute walks a day unescorted. I couldn’t go very far in that time. Since I’d become lucid I’d taken up smoking again (quite common for psych patients apparently). So I would just walk up and down the same road smoking two cigarettes back to back before going back to the ward. If you were late, they would send the police to get you. I remember calling my sister during one of those walks because I thought the shops were fake.
When I was moved for the last time, I was moved back to a ward I’d been on previously. There I encountered some patients I’d already met and we became a little group. They told me the last time I was there I was running around the ward naked and pissing myself. I was a little shocked, but not that surprised. I wasn’t in reality, of course I was capable of something like that.
Other than medication, art therapy and the occasional meeting with doctors, there wasn’t really any other treatment provided in hospital. It was more of a holding pen. I don’t remember when I was started on the meds, I just remembered them being shoved at me and not questioning it. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t really remember the first 6 weeks, but there was a turning point where I saw myself in the mirror and I was unrecognisable. I was dirty, I’d lost a lot of weight, my body hair had grown out, my glasses was broken. I was a complete mess, but I’d finally sort of ‘come to’. I remember going outside to the courtyard of the hospital and there were autumn leaves on the ground. The last thing I’d remembered it was summer. I’d blinked and the season had changed.
Recovery is a whole other topic, so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. It takes time and patience. I had a rough time on anti-psychotics. I was restless, bored, disconnected and constipated. 24/7. I suffered from a side effect called akathisia which meant I felt the need to move all the time. I couldn’t sit and eat without having to get up and pace around. My brain just felt completely shut down, I couldn’t experience joy, I was numb. I couldn’t work for the first few months after I was discharged and it was essentially lockdown so I was really bored. The medication made it difficult for me to read or hold a pen, so I made collages (pictured in this article). My medication was gradually tapered down until I was off the anti-psychotics, around four and a half months after I was first admitted. I’m still on lithium to stabilise my mood, but luckily I don’t experience side effects and I’m content with how I feel. Because of the mood component, it’s likely I’ll be on lithium for at least another year.
I’ve only really scratched the surface of my experience. I have a whole mental library of bizarre memories and thought patterns I could unpack for hours. If I was to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say my brain somehow hacked into the space between reality and dreams. I was stuck on a bridge between the two, unable to distinguish either. It’s like sleep walking, except you’re conscious and you can’t wake up because you’re already awake. It is utterly exhausting, terrifying and mystifying.
I think it would be disingenuous to say that anything good came from it, because it was hell. I still think about it every day. I suppose one positive is that now I know the signs of mania and I have measures in place to prevent relapse. I’m also taking medication that is suitable for my needs and I have a better understanding of my mental health. I would also like to share my experience in the hope that perhaps it will help others feel less alone or just gain a better understanding. Am I immune from it happening again? Absolutely not. I just have to hope it won’t. In the mean time, I’m not going to live in fear of the possibility.
Thank you for reading my story. If you have any questions, please comment or feel free to email me on email@example.com