In 2009, my third year at Oxford, I went through what psychiatrists later told me was a ‘major psychotic episode.’ ‘Psychosis’ (from the Greek ψυχή “psyche”, for mind/soul, and -ωσις “-osis”, for abnormal condition) is a ‘generic term for a mental state often described as involving a loss of contact with reality’ (Wikipedia special). Before it happened to me I would have said, without hesitation, that there was a kind of person who was sane, and a kind of person who was not-sane, and that I was firmly in the former category. I was wrong on both counts. This is my story.
I have always been of the mindset that if you aren’t going to do something to the best of your ability, you might as well not bother. Half-arsed is not an option. If I am honest I sometimes feel quite strong contempt for people who aren’t of the same mentality. Construed benevolently, I’m what people call “passionate”. Not-so-benevolently, I’m obsessive, and am quite capable of disregarding everything else in my life except the particular goal that happens to occupy my attention for the time being. During Michaelmas and Hilary Term of the academic year 2008/2009 that goal was excelling in finals. By Trinity Term of the same academic year I was in a psychiatric institution.
The story of how I ended up there is not an uncommon one in Oxford. I love sports, but enjoyment wasn’t factored into my game-plan for finals, so rugby, surfing, running, swimming, football – it all fell by the wayside. I gradually progressed from 12-hour working days in Michaelmas to 16-hour working days in Hilary term. I’d get up at 9am and go to bed at 2am, only pausing briefly to prepare meals, which I would eat by myself, in front of my computer. I always worked alone in my room.
Over the Easter holidays I stayed in college whilst everyone else went home. I’d go for days without speaking to a single person. Often I wouldn’t want to waste time shopping or eating meals in hall, so I lived on porridge and water. When I took an hour out to meet a friend for coffee, the panic from having missed an hour of work was too overwhelming to sleep that night. I booked a doctor’s appointment and another two sleepless nights later I broke down in floods of tears at the GP’s surgery. She advised me to see a counsellor and prescribed sleeping pills. I took them for the first time later that week. That is when things rapidly went downhill. I remember starting to shake violently about an hour after taking them and a feeling of complete alertness. I didn’t sleep at all that night, my fourth sleepless night. The shaking eventually stopped but that feeling of alertness stayed with me. My concentration was in pieces, but I felt wide-awake.
Quite quickly I stopped feeling other things as well as fatigue. I stopped feeling hungry or thirsty. I stopped feeling happy, or even sad. I felt nothing, except what I can only describe as fear. Imagine walking home at night in the dark and hearing quickening footsteps behind you. Think of the rush of adrenalin, the sinking feeling of white panic, the nausea, the blur of thoughts as your brain struggles to work out what to do. Imagine all of this. And then imagine feeling it all the time, 24 hours a day. Physically, my body was on fire. It hurt to sit still, and my muscles felt as if they were dissolving as adrenalin shot through my system. Mentally, I felt only panic. It was as if my world was different from everyone else’s, darker somehow.
I couldn’t have a conversation; I could only repeat disjointed thoughts, which mostly began “if only I hadn’t… none of this would have happened” – complete non-sense. I stopped speaking to my friends. Trinity term had just started but I wouldn’t go to college meals. I stopped eating, even drinking water, because I didn’t feel hungry or thirsty. I don’t remember sleeping at all, though I must have, at times. I’d take sleeping pills, sometimes with alcohol, but I’d always get up and try and work when I couldn’t sleep. I remember pacing my room for hours as days dissolved into nights and new days. I dropped from 9 stone (57k) to 7 stone (44k) in not much more than a fortnight.
Eventually, after missing all my counselling appointments, the counsellor asked for permission to contact my college tutor. He called me in to see him and took me straight down to the college office to (in terminology only Oxford could choose) “degrade”. In layman’s terms, I dropped out. I wasn’t to be sitting my exams that year. I ought to have felt relieved, but instead I felt like I had failed. I started punishing myself. When I went home I stopped trying to help myself. I deliberately refused to eat. I wasn’t even trying to sleep- I’d pace all through the nights and always took sleeping pills with alcohol. I lost all ability to rationalise. I couldn’t make the simplest decisions, and I’d freeze if I tried; I couldn’t have chosen between white and brown bread. My sole focus, and the only thing I understood, was destroying myself. I fantasised about ways of killing myself and started hoarding sleeping pills. I was my secret, and my protection against the world. Everything became a game of persuading everyone that I was fine, so that no one would realise what I wanted to do. And I felt fine, in a strange way – I certainly didn’t feel mentally ill. I was winning my game.
My behaviour and thoughts became completely manic. I’d think about the same sentence for days. I’d randomly take my clothes off. I’d lie, and hide things. The Plymouth mental health ‘crisis team’ removed my driving licence when I tried to reverse off a roundabout onto a dual carriageway, something which at the time I genuinely thought was grossly unfair. It was my complete lack of what is termed “insight”– understanding of the fact that I was mentally ill – that triggered my GP to recommend that I be institutionalised- if not by choice then by force.
By virtue of medical insurance I went to the Priory. I went without much of a fight, though when the doctors questioned me I had no idea what I was doing there. One girl came in who thought she was Britney Spears. She was about 14 stone and black. Another woman was convinced she was Jesus and had been found wandering the streets of London barefoot at night with her two children in tow. An ex-soldier with PTSD would have episodes in which he would be down on all fours howling and roaring in raw emotional torture. Most were chronically depressed and suffered from crippling social anxieties. I fell within none of these categories. To my mind, I was fine. But I was trapped. I couldn’t leave – even if, implausibly, I had managed to sneak out, I would have been immediately sectioned. I spent days seething with rage in that prison.
When I wasn’t angry at being there I thought it was almost funny. Some slightly sick joke. And so I broke all the rules. I didn’t go to my classes. I was reprimanded for talking to the ‘addicts’, who are only allowed to socialize inter se. I answered my psychiatrist’s questions with banalities. I thought I’d leave within days. I was there for almost two months, during which time I was diagnosed as having had a ‘major psychotic episode.’
I wasn’t well by any stretch of the imagination when I left. But I was discharged as no longer a suicide risk. I couldn’t go home. My mum suffers from depression and my illness made it worse. My little sister blamed me, and wouldn’t talk to me for months after. I went back to Oxford and stayed in a rented apartment by myself. I didn’t see anyone- speaking to people made me anxious and kicked off racing thoughts again. My mind was healing slowly as I brought some structure and routine back into my life. I started sleeping again, but I couldn’t concentrate nor could I remember the smallest things. I couldn’t write a shopping list for about 6 months after I left the Priory.
My college tutor had written to the psychiatrist in the counselling service at Oxford and said that he would only allow me to return to repeat my third year if I was passed as fit. I was so frightened of not being allowed to finish my degree that I refused to allow the Priory psychiatrist to tell the Oxford psychiatrist that I had been institutionalised, or that I had been diagnosed as suffering a psychotic episode. I was terrified of what people who had seen me in college would say, so I never spoke about the previous year. I remembered it all vividly, and that only made the feelings of guilt and shame worse. I hated spending time with anyone who had known me that year. And they never mentioned it. It was the elephant in the room.
It took about 10 months before I spoke to anyone about what had happened, and two years before I spoke to any of the friends that saw me during my episode about it. So now I’m talking. I’m talking because I want other people to feel they can. I’m talking because what happened to me is an important part of who I am. I’m talking because I want people to look out for their friends- to notice when things start going wrong. I’m talking because mental heath problems affect so many of us- either personally or because someone we know is suffering. And I hope others will join this conversation, and tell their story too.