TW: Graphic Descriptions of violence, Death, Psychosis, Suicidal thoughts
*Note from the editor* You may find this an intense read so please make sure you look after yourself.We feelthis post opens up conversations about a side of mental health that isn’t talked about as often, and it is important we recognise all sides of mental health and mental illness . It’s heavy, but personally, I also found it eye-opening.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised here, there are people you can talk to. Check out our Talking and Support page or ring the Samaritans helpline on 116 123.
I am nine years old, and wake to the sound of weeping. Afraid that somebody in my family is upset, I jump out of bed and rush to my parent’s bedroom door, but no sound comes from their room. I then go to my sister’s bedroom, but she is silent too.
The crying is incredibly loud, as if it was coming from right next to me. I go back to bed, confused and frightened and, after a few weeks, I think it must have been a nightmare.
I hardly see anyone talking about psychosis, despite new research which estimates approximately one in thirteen people can expect to have at least a single psychotic episode by the age of seventy-five.
I am now twenty-six and I have had recurring periods of psychosis since I was nine years old. Sometimes, it can be two weeks or even a month of persistent, negative voices whispering into my ear and visual hallucinations all focused on death: people throwing themselves off of a bridge, a man hung and swinging from a tree; melted faces, bodiless and hovering in mid-air, and mutilated bodies crawling down the stairs.
But I have also been free of psychotic episodes for years at a time.
My psychotic episodes are occasionally benign and funny: the voices can tell decent jokes, and I once saw a vortex to another dimension open up in a wall, which I thought was actually pretty rad.
However, my psychotic episodes are far more often horrific and disturbing. I found it an incredibly isolating illness; when I first started university, at age twenty, I remember my class having a discussion around depression and anxiety – which I have also experienced, mainly in conjunction with psychosis – but nobody else mentioned hearing voices.
I was surprised to find research that stated psychotic episodes are relatively common, and I wonder if it’s the absurdly untrue, negative stigma around psychosis that keeps people suffering in silence. It’s a common misconception that the word ‘psychotic’ means ‘dangerous’ and Hollywood and the media have often portrayed those experiencing psychotic symptoms in a negative light.
Psychosis only began to affect my life in a significant way from the age of eighteen. I have since been told by mental health professionals that late teens to early twenties is most often the age it first starts, or begins to really kick off. The visual hallucinations became far more disturbing and lasted for longer durations of time.
I am eighteen years old and at home by myself. A headless man appears in the room, a few feet away from me. The atoms that make him form fly together as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. I am frozen in shock, and he staggers towards me, arms outstretched, zombie-like. I think he is going to strangle me, but as soon as he is within touching distance, he disappears into thin air. This all happens in less than a minute, and I wonder if I had fallen asleep on my feet, despite not being tired.
From then on, I saw people or corpses every few months. Even when the people were whole, there was something wrong with them: blank, staring eyes, slightly transparent, anatomy slightly off, no facial features. The voices were far more frequent too, but, at this point, they were a dim chatter in my head, and so vague that I could only make out a few distinct words amongst the chatter. They did not speak directly to me or about me.
I thought that there was only one reasonable explanation: my house was haunted.
Eventually I moved out at age twenty to go to university, and I couldn’t wait to leave my haunted house. My first semester at university was fine, which further convinced me of the existence of ghosts as the explanation for everything I had seen and heard. But one day, as I got up early in the morning for one of my lectures, a face began to form right in front of me, then proceeded to drip and melt as if it were made of wax. I then began to think that it wasn’t my family home that was haunted, it was me.
I eventually quit university because of my deteriorating mental health, and I doubted I would have passed anyway with all the missed lectures due to increasingly frequent psychotic episodes. The voices began to change: they became more individual and distinct, and said negative things about me and to me, telling me that I was worthless, nobody liked me or cared about me and that I should just kill myself. Unsurprisingly, I was plagued by anxiety, depression and exhaustion. When I first started university I had made plenty of friends, but I soon started to withdraw and eventually became so isolated that I spent most of my time in my room and barely spoke to anyone.
For years I was too afraid to confide in anyone or to seek help, but I was finally inspired to speak out by writer friends in the writers’ group I regularly attend, who shared their poetry and short fiction about mental health. In October 2016, a friend asked me to read a piece of my writing at a public event for Worcestershire LitFest and Fringe on the theme of mental health. The piece was called A Ghost Story, about my journey with psychosis, and I’ve since performed it again at Acts of Searching Closely festival in London (2016). The first time speaking about my experiences of psychosis in front of the public was scary; I was afraid that I would be judged negatively, but I was surprised at the positive reaction. Lots of people spoke to me afterwards, asking about psychosis and revealing that their family member or friend had had a similar experience.
I now run a performance collective called Brain Cocaine, and our work is inspired by our own experiences of mental illness and healing from trauma. We specialise in performances for individuals or small groups that aim to raise awareness and to help audiences tackle their own traumas and mental health issues in a positive and therapeutic way. I have discovered that talking and making performance work about my mental illness is not only cathartic for me, but also helpful for others around me. I make relatively little money from it at present, but the thing that keeps me getting up to drive to London in the early hours of the morning to do a big show are the individuals who have said that my performance has helped them to overcome their difficulties and has made them realise that they are not alone. It is very much worth it.
I have never gotten much out of counselling, but now my work has become my form of therapy, and has also begun to shape my life in a significant way. While I feel I have lost out on many opportunities in life because of my illness, my performance work has taken me across the country to festivals and events and has given me a new passion in life. When my mental health started to seriously deteriorate, I never imagined that I would have the courage to talk about my feelings, let alone have an audience of hundreds of people want to listen. I like to believe that there is a silver lining to the negative things we have to endure in life, and I can honestly say that without having experienced depression, anxiety or psychosis, I would have a lot less to write about and could have never made the majority of my work. The fact that my psychotic episodes have had a positive contribution to my life helps me to accept my illness and makes the difficult periods far easier to deal with.
I am now on medication that works to control my psychosis, and find that the very rare episodes I experience now are related to extreme stress, and I have to be mindful of how much pressure I put myself under. I returned to university and graduated with a first-class degree, and now hold down a regular day job beside my performance work, and for the majority of days, I live a perfectly normal life. I believe that if more people experiencing psychosis were to speak out, especially about their successes, then we can change the way society views the illness and help people to realise that we are perfectly normal people who sometimes hear voices.
McGrath, JJ, et al. 2016. Age of Onset and Lifetime Projected Risk of Psychotic Experiences: Cross-National Data from the World Mental Health Survey. Schizophrenia Bulletin. Electronic source available online: https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/article/42/4/933/2414019/Age-of-Onset-and-Lifetime-Projected-Risk-of#82207353
Mind. 2016. Psychosis. Electronic source available online: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/psychosis/about-psychosis/#.We3LrmhSzIU
Brain Cocaine – www.braincocaine.com
A Ghost Story. Gilda Lockheart. 2016. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33IV6L-nsHA
Video credit to Acts of Searching Closely.
Image from performance of “Born To Die” at Worcestershire LitFest and Fringe 2017
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