Voice 1: Why? How do I get rid of you?
Voice 2: To get rid of us you have to get rid of yourself.
Voice 3: If anyone knew what was going on in your head…
Voice 4: Look who’s really crazy now?
Voice 5: Help me.
My mother said in an email, ‘You’re right. Most people don’t know what happened to you with Ella’s death.’ I haven’t cried such tears of relief, ever. After the worst of it was over, I did not know enough to cry tears of relief because I was so busy gathering scraps of my sanity back. That sounds like a cliché or a silly metaphor and I promised myself I wouldn’t use those when writing this because I wanted to explain my experience with psychosis clearly and factually- this also will mean attempting to communicate the maddest and objectively nonsensical events with journalistic detachment enough to tell the full story without the elaboration of rhetorical devices and other linguistic embellishments that I might usually use to evoke pathos and make for a better story. This isn’t a story. Anyway, inaniloquent as ever, I will begin my explanation of what really did happen that left me gathering sanity scraps. This silly image is annoyingly as accurate as language gets to depict how I felt after the initial implied destructive event- the scattering agent. It was my mind, once intact, now unrecognisable and in pieces and it wouldn’t work cohesively unless I found new ways to assemble the pieces and assemble myself all over again. In doing so, I reassembled an entire person out of the wreckage of someone who, though supposedly sane before, is also unrecognisable when I look back on her.
For a while, I experienced what my doctors explained was a ‘transient episode of psychosis as response to extreme emotional stress’. I had no sense of self as soon as it began, because prior to the episode I had put so much emphasis on the importance of my mind. ‘It’s my most treasured possession’ I would say, and in the most horrific hours I would be taunted by my own cackles at just how funny it was, how I’d practically asked for it because that treasured mind of mine was now gone.
Voice 1: I don’t want my body.
Voice 2: I want my mind.
Voice 3: Your mind is a long way-away-away-away-away…..
Doctors had recently diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder and I had been reluctant to fully accept this diagnostic label until they explained that transient psychosis is actually symptomatic of BPD. I will never be able to credit my therapists and doctors enough for their endless reassurance that I had not lost my mind, that it would come back, and that there was an end to what was happening. What I’d read was never in-depth, despite being a psychology graduate. Just textbook and impersonal. The truth is, if you know me well, you have probably played a part in my psychosis. If I passed you on the street, I may have heard you think. The voices were the main part- the worst part and something I could never live with permanently. I made a pact to myself and some god who I thought might resemble Allen Ginsberg (sanity = scraps) that if it continued as acutely as it was at its worst, as it was then, for three more days without improving, I would wilfully end my life. Looking back with sane eyes, I stand by that statement. If someone told me I’d have to return there, and stay, I would without a doubt end my life. Not because I’m suicidal or sad. The contrary, in fact. Because I love living and I am grateful for the mind I’ve grown up to have, and the idea of living a life without my mind wouldn’t be the kind of life I’d feel worth living. Everything I value would be gone. Everything I found valuable about living life wouldn’t be there anymore so life would henceforth have no value so I can say, totally sane and sober, that I wouldn’t find it a worthwhile thing to do, to live in psychosis that horrific. Thankfully, it gradually became less horrific and more manageable, until I started to remember what sane was like, and now I don’t regret that time.
With memories of the psychotic experience in the not-distant past, I reconciled with them eventually the same way I do with recollections of everything bad that happens in hindsight- you have to find some good in it, some way to make it worthwhile, or else it was a waste and there’s not much worse than wasted time spent suffering with no reason or nothing to come away with or nothing to balance it out again. The reason I am doing my degree is to one day to train as a psychotherapist and use my experience (bad time) of being mentally ill, in institutions and out of school and spending my adolescent years as anything but an adolescent but as a monster, to help people who are also going through it- it’s very delicate and very lonely and very varied between individuals, but through my time in group therapy I learnt that for all the other things I lack in every other realm of life, I do have one strength and that’s understanding and listening and somehow finding the important parts that are hidden away in what the person decides to share, and somehow saying helpful stuff. I don’t know, I don’t like to pay myself a compliment or talk about my strength in whatever or blah blah blah, but what I mean is that I don’t judge because I can’t- because I’ve been the one who has been judged and if I were to do that, how would I have a leg to stand on? I also think that there are people who aren’t listened to or find it harder to speak than most or have no one to talk to, and that these are the people worth listening to, and giving extra time to hearing, and even if they’re just talking or yelling, being there to listen is so incredibly important. So that’s how I’ve planned to balance out the bad with something better, and make something good (my career and helping somehow) out of something bad (which I wouldn’t know I could do if I hadn’t been through the bad). And then there’s the everyday bad stuff- all you can do with that really, is learn lessons. And learning from mistakes isn’t necessarily about making the mistakes and never making them again. Sometimes it’s about repeating the same mistake and learning more about how you want to live or what you want to become or how to treat other people each time you make it. When it’s enough, you’re not mistaken anymore. The psychosis was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced, and it’s also probably the thing (no, definitely) I’m most proud of going through. No one will ever give me a cheer or a pat on the back or congratulate me for battling a war with my own shadow and winning. I have to be proud of what I’ve done totally on my own, and I thank my fucked up little patched-together brain for teaching me through utterly going to pieces and only being reassembled to function with endless painstaking almost excruciating (no, excruciating) effort and time and working against horrible forces that only existed inside of me- invisible enemies only I could see because they were a part of me and still are- that sometimes the greatest things you’ll do aren’t about being evaluated by other people. I’ve learnt there are some victories you can enjoy even if nobody will cheer for you and there are some accomplishments that only you will be able to appreciate, and that is not a bad thing. I also extrapolated it to things like writing. I love to write, but not because other people read it. I write things for myself and I can evaluate myself and don’t need to rely on positive evaluations from other people to keep me writing. Some of my favourite poems are ones that others don’t notice, or don’t as much as other ones I don’t like as much. That is totally cool. With writing and everything else, I’m the only one it really matters to anyway, when it comes down to it. Nobody else’s memories or mental representations of me will hold any importance at the end of everything, so why is it that we only find value in accomplishments we can be awarded or congratulated for or at least seen to achieve? I based all my self-worth on accolades other people gave me before this.
Now I can weirdly, proudly, semi-cryptically, and strangely say without the least bit of genuine profundity that I fought the demons and voices my own split evil brain created for me after throwing me into a Kafkaesque horror carnival parody movie-like hell, and I beat them by outwitting them. (You can only beat your own mind with your own mind.) And it’s the best thing I’ve ever accomplished. The least enjoyable. I’m feeling a bit sick now after blowing my own trumpet like that. Back to the voices.
I heard mostly my own voice, but fragmented into many different Daisys. It began with family’s voices. My sister and her boyfriend, my cousin, my grandma, aunt, other cousins, and mother. I remember sitting in A&E waiting room and hearing my sister sitting behind me, mocking me cruelly, and her voice was so clear and plain I was paralysed and couldn’t turn round because I thought- if she’s behind me, she’s actually saying this, if she’s not my mind is gone. I couldn’t turn around. I heard a suicide pact between my grandma and cousin, debating whether or not to include me but eventually deciding my new hair colour was okay and I was too cowardly anyway and they didn’t want me in their afterlife. I heard stranger’s thoughts for one totally mad day. That’s a whole other story I may make into a song or small movie because it was packed full of what now I recall as insanity as art- my brain going off on wild loops rhapsodising poems without my consent, speaking in dialects, letting me in on the voices of social realism I didn’t even know I was aware of, but apparently these issues were thoroughly considered beneath my level of awareness in my unconscious mind. My unconscious mind was split from me, it was angry, it got powerful the more scared I became, and it hated me. It had it in for me and wanted me to die. It told me I had to end my life if I wanted the voices to go away. They told me I could save my cousin through suicide. When you’re sad, you can get very superstitious.
But I’m so lucky I never quite believed the voices totally. If I had I wouldn’t be here to talk about it. I knew from the start, perhaps because the nature of the voices and my unconscious mind with all the tricks it played on me was purely and exclusively Machiavellian, that they weren’t words I could believe or trust, if I wanted to get out of it alive (no hyperbole), and if I wanted a future. It’s amazing to think I stuck by this, even though my own thoughts were actually speaking to me. It’s very hard to tell yourself not to trust the things you find inside your own head. Usually you assume your thoughts are your own and therefore true to you. I had to continuously believe that my mind was not to my own- the things I heard were not my thoughts. Often they were the things, I discovered, that I was afraid of thinking or feeling, or afraid that other people thought I felt or thought, or the things that I absolutely did not believe or think or feel. Through fighting continuously with my true thoughts and beliefs to deny my evil split brain and its horrible voices the right to be validated as anything but hallucinations and a form of terrorism, I actually came out with stronger values and opinions and more firm in my knowledge of certain things I was not and am not willing to negotiate on (e.g. I am not sorry to my father, and I am not okay with what happened when I was seventeen because I did not ask for it). I would see things and hear things and the world became inescapably violent and unpredictable and it grew impossible to maintain a façade of sanity whilst existing inside it all. One evening I rang my mother in tears, convinced the voices were going to get me alone in the house, and she said, “At least you know it’s all in your head.” Those were the least comforting words, though spoken with good intentions. I had never felt more alone and there was nobody there to see the demonic things I couldn’t not see, nobody to hear the chilling voices I couldn’t not listen to.
I’m getting a bit carried away with my storytelling now. Better reign it in and stick to the facts.
Once I to shrieked upon entering a room because there was the face of an elderly woman peeled off and draped over the sofa. It was, in reality, a pink scarf, but I had developed an over-zealous aptitude for seeing faces in everything and everywhere. I didn’t have to look for faces. They were there ready to frighten me with their distorted countenances, to watch me, to exist in every inanimate object until the world was a room filled with furniture that hated me. It sounds ridiculous, but it wasn’t funny and I was losing my treasured mind to scowling sofas and disembodied voices- myself at various ages, with exaggerated tones, taking on different roles, creating an ongoing, sleepless theatre for my fragmented selves to perform for me (sometimes in song, even) all the reasons they were hell-bent on destroying me or getting me to do it myself.
My evil unconscious mind, somewhat ingenious despite being Machiavellian- would jump into speakers and amplifiers on tube and in supermarkets and broadcast across whole shop/train carriage with my own voice saying, “Look what I can do.”
To cut a long harrowing story shorter, every voice was against me. I never heard a kind or even civil voice. I’d like to know people who have delusions of grandeur or hear complimentary voices because I never heard anything less than vicious, ranging from the annoying and belligerent to the belittling to the bullying to the cruel to the absolutely terrifying. The least dreadful voice(s) were the last to go, and the ones that stayed latest at night, and the quietest. They were small voices asking ‘why?’ and saying ‘help me’. I heard ‘listen to me’.
It wasn’t until I started listening to them that I began getting over them. I see them now as being the angry fragmented voices of the angry fragmented person I had stamped all over and dressed up in different identities and denied, denied, denied. The person I really was got so sick of being mistreated- I wasn’t even drinking any fucking water or sleeping, that’s the extent to which I was denying and neglecting myself basic care without even thinking- that she got a voice, then she got more voices, then she got louder, then she went on a power trip to punish me for what a mess I’d made of whatever it was I organically was meant to be, by pretending to be a whole load of other things and never letting myself be happy and making people around me sad too. For what? No point asking. There are some things about our unconscious intentions I don’t think we’ll ever know, and that’s scary, but I was given the unique insight into my unconscious most people don’t get but in memories of dreaming and even though I’m grateful it was no gift and I wouldn’t wish it upon people if their unconscious intentions are anything like mine- I learnt that underneath the workings of my waking conscious mind existed a mind that absolutely loathed everything about my waking conscious self and what I’d made of it and wanted to simply destroy it, and if it couldn’t then it would make as much suffering as possible so I couldn’t carry on the way I was consciously. It worked and I did change and however evil they were I am grateful to the voices for showing me I couldn’t hide from hatred and more-than-mistakes like that for very much longer.
The voices made me conscious of what I was doing, what I was afraid of really, what I was becoming, what I was losing, what I was missing out on that I could have but was so busy being wasteful and harmful and in denial that I couldn’t even see it was being wasted.
The voices began the day after I heard about my cousin Ella being terminally ill. My doctors think it was anticipatory grief and the aforementioned extreme emotional stress. I think it was a ticking bomb and it was looking for an opportunity, or else it was the straw that broke the sane camel’s back. I began to hear my family saying horrible things (made up in my head but very real as if a person were speaking to me from right beside me), and then my own voice saying worse things, and then it took months and months to get some peace of mind.
There is nothing I’ve experienced more terrifying than hearing a voice in your head you know did not come from the outside world but sounds like it did, but actually shocks you because it’s not your own thought. Not an inner voice or imagined. A shocking, surprising, horrible thought in spoken word- a voice probably recognised- that you did not put there yourself and you do not want to be there.
Since I have passed through the transient episode, I think the evil split brain was actually perhaps in the long run out to help me. It wasn’t kindness through cruelty. It was more like myself getting its own back on myself for being wasteful of things I maybe should have said or could have given voice to but never did and for the wrong reasons, and getting revenge for being forced to fit into all kinds of costumes that weren’t right, and as seems to be the way with me. From what I’ve learnt of myself through life- though I now am tentative about making such statements because I also gleaned this from going through the whole psychotic rigmarole – the moment you start getting complacent and thinking you know yourself, the moment you’ll get thrown a curve-ball that proves to you that you know absolutely nothing)
I didn’t know limits and went a step or twelve hundred too far.
I’ll draw this circular story to a close now. I did just want to get it off my chest. I still hear mumblings now and then, if sad or tired to the extreme, and admittedly live in fear of my unconscious mind becoming unhinged again and getting its voice(s) back, but if it does happen again I know I’ll spend more time listening to what the voices have to tell me rather than running from the grotesque sounds and sights my own brain set out for me to hear and see, because they were there for a reason, and even though my unconscious mind went above and beyond to show me how much it hated me, I hope I’ve gained some of its respect back, at least enough to start talking in entirely the first person and continue on in my life as a whole person rather than the scraps of someone I don’t know and don’t care about enough to look after in the most basic way. Since the psychosis, I’ve been reluctantly able to accept that I am deserving (of water etc.) and sometimes need to be listened to, because there’s nothing to be that is ever going to work if its fiction and not fact. The scraps I’ve collected are structured day-to-day, moment-to-moment, and it can be ugly sometimes, because humans can be that way, but at least it’s honest. And my demanding unconscious evil split brain demands that I am honestly whatever I really am, however faulty and clumsy and ugly and riddled with glaring flaws that honest self really is. They are demanding little bitches, those voices. Still, whether they meant it all along or I somehow managed to salvage the tiny speck of good leftover from the hellish experience, those voices gave me insights and taught me lessons that have been invaluable, and though they destroyed me for a while what they destroyed was not a real self, just a costume, or many costumes, and in retrospect I see that they saved me, the real one, the invisible self disappearing under so many costumes I lost any recognition of who I really was. I guess I have to thank the worst parts of my mind for helping me rescue what can now become the best parts.
A recent graduate of University College London with an MSc in Social Neuroscience, I am now studying independent film-making because of a particular creative calling. I have also enjoyed learning British Sign Language, and have a great interest in languages, generally- etymology, linguistic relativity, and the phenomenon of lost words. I make T-shirts, mostly featuring images of Beat poets. I have been published in an anthology called Brainstorms a few years ago, and in the inaugral issue of the online literary journal Wildness.