If you happened to catch my podcast on how losing my mind landed me in prison via a burning building, here is a longer version of that story. So long I have had to split it into two parts. Tune in soon for part two, here is part one:
Here is the story of one of the times I went mad. I hesitate slightly to share it, the sharing of mad stories has implications. I am sharing it because I need to, it’s one of my stories that regularly forces its way out of me.
Before my breakdown I had had a number of difficult experiences in my life. By the age of 17 I had been in care, spent my 14th birthday in a psychiatric hospital, tried to kill myself numerous times and been homeless. Somehow, through all of this, I had retained a sense that I was ok, that I was more than the sum total of my worst experiences and that I could create a life in which I was happy. I was also determined not to get eaten up by the mental health system again and found my own way to sorting myself out. Having had so many brushes with psychiatry as a child I was very opposed to the system. My ‘difficult’ behaviors and emotions made sense to me, they held important stories and I wasn’t up for having doctors telling me I was ill or disordered. By 22 I was really doing ok. I lived in a housing co op, giving me community, and worked in a survivor led organisation for which I had a great passion.
Then Camilla jumped off a cliff.
Camilla. My beautiful almond-eyed friend of my soul. I had met her when I was 11. So many memories of my teenage years include Camilla. Getting drunk, listening to music, sitting on someone’s bedroom floor in candlelight while Es played the guitar and Cammy and I sang. Going to the smashy up place. Whispering and giggling in church while the righteous looked on with disapproval. And the woods, so much time spent in the woods, dancing, walking, playing. The three of us had a full cast of alternate characters with different personalities who would all interact as we whiled away our time in the woods. I always think of Camilla and Es now when I walk in the woods, my friends who gifted me with real magic. It really was magic. As dark and despairing as some of my world was, I loved and laughed in equal measure. Camilla was part of my life in such a deep and enriching way. And then she killed herself.
My grief was immense. I can’t accurately capture it in words beyond saying it was like the fabric of the earth beneath my feet ripped in two. I fell into a chasm full of molten liquid to burn me and ragged rocks ripping at my skin. I held tight to Es’s hand as we tried to negotiate our way out through the growling monsters and screaming demons.
I was troubled by images of what her body might have looked like at the bottom of the cliff. My beautiful friend all mangled and torn and broken with worms feeding on her and birds pecking out her eyes.
On the anniversary of her death I was consumed by this image. I took out my pastels and began to draw. When the picture was finished I wasn’t quite satisfied, it was almost right, but not quite. I got a new piece of paper and began again. And again it was not quite right and I had to start over. This continued for a month. I spent up to 20 hours a day drawing the image of her mangled broken body. I was surrounded by her death. The pictures filled every surface, wallspace, floor, some crumpled up, others in piles. The chalk pastel was in my clothes, on my skin, in my hair, crumbled into the carpet. The only time I left my flat that month was to get food, and once in response to a friend’s phone call. She was having a miscarriage. She called me from the doctors and asked me to come and get her. We sat in the park drinking tea while her baby died.
My memory is vague after I stopped drawing the pictures. I think I was withdrawn and sad, but no longer compelled to draw. I walked in the woods often, a lifelong ritual; I don’t remember much else from this time. It was a harsh winter. I couldn’t get it together financially so I often had no gas or electricity.
And then the world changed. It happened very suddenly. I went to a friend’s house and had some conversation about being sick in the head and was then physically sick. She said I could stay but somehow I got confused, I managed to lock myself out of her house AND out of my house and I was scared to ring the bell, she had gone to bed. So I started walking.
And then I understood I was supposed to have locked myself out. It was part of the plan. I didn’t need to know where I was going because I just had to follow the signs. Suddenly I was full of energy and I set off at my fastest walking pace. Road signs and markings and graffiti, they were all telling me which way to go and I laughed my head off as I walked, how fun to have stumbled across a nighttime adventure!
Then it became frightening. It was as if the content of my head had been splatted out into the world. Suddenly my whole life was there for all to see. Frightening memories, shameful acts, darkest secrets. I could see them all on the billboards and in the graffiti. And I understood. My friends had done this. They had all got together and shared all their information on me and I was in big trouble because I had done bad things. But they would forgive me, if I could face up to myself I would be rewarded, redeemed.
I reached the ring road and had to make a choice. Walk out of Leeds for good on the motorway or face myself. Part of me badly wanted to walk away, but the only way out was the motorway. I’d be sectioned if I started walking along the hard shoulder. And I would never be able to come back. This was clear, a true crossroads with no going back. Run away forever or turn fully to face myself. So I chose to face myself. I walked. All round Leeds. For the entire night. I followed the obstacle course laid out by my friends. There were tasks to complete, signs to interpret and follow, and images to confront. I had to accept that they knew everything about me, as shameful and exposing as that was, I had to accept it, I had to face up to the badness inside. I knew I would be rewarded if I could cope with it but that night was one of the hardest tasks of my life.
I felt safe through it all. I remember thinking to myself “this is what it would be like if I was psychotic… my friends have created my psychotic experience for me to walk through so I don’t have to REALLY be psychotic, so I can work all this stuff out without losing my mind”. I went through every known emotion that night. Shame and self hatred cut right into me, right to the core, as I saw the extent to which I had been exposed and confronted the darkness of my mind. There was also a lot of joy. Some of the tasks were fun, created by my friends knowing what I would enjoy. Sometimes I was extremely frustrated, I spent untold hours walking the same loop unable to find my way out, the signs kept sending me round again and again and I didn’t know what I had to do to master that task and I sat on the grass on a roundabout and cried. I was cold and tired and wet. It was raining and I didn’t have a coat or any money or my phone and had no idea where I was. Sometimes I walked fast, sure of triumph when I was reading the signs correctly and figuring out the clues. Sometimes I dragged myself along in despair. All the time I felt safe. My friends were following me. I couldn’t see them, I had to do this alone but they were making sure I was safe. If I sat down too long they would ring the tinkly bells or laugh to remind me it would be ok, and this task was a fierce one, but one I could accomplish.
I went into the bus depot thinking my friends had arranged for me to learn to be a bus driver. I started getting on the busses and ripping off the adverts thinking I needed to get the correct one to present to my bus driving instructor. I was escorted off the premises. I met a woman who had two bags. I was convinced that one was a bag of presents for her daughter and one was a bag of presents for me I just had to say the right words to her. I stood in front of her saying random words, trying to find the password. I remember breaking into the car park at the vets and sitting in the carparking space marked JC, I was afterall, a child of God.. When I eventually returned to my friend’s house I collapsed with exhaustion. I had walked for 12 hours.
The next period of time is a blur, I remember a few highlights and the overwhelming feeling of the time. I knew that I wasn’t ok but felt very clear that I could be ok. I felt like all the things in my life that had hurt me had popped up for one final dance, and it could be a final dance and I could then put them behind me. I felt very frightened a lot of the time. I felt I was being watched, I thought there were cameras everywhere. I thought people could read my mind. All of my senses were on overdrive, sound became unbearably loud, hurting my ears and making my body vibrate. My thoughts speeded up so much there wasn’t enough space in my head to think them, I could feel the words putting pressure on my skull fighting to come out. Time got distorted. I never knew what day it was or how much time had passed. Crossing the road became dangerous, I couldn’t judge speed and distance. I thought I was being poisoned and found it very difficult to eat or drink. I cried a lot out of frustration or despair or sadness. And sometimes good things happened. I remember one time when everything had built up so much I badly needed to calm down and just at that point the police sent their helicopter out – because they were watching and could see I needed soothing – and the helicopter flew in a slow figure of eight hypnotising me to sleep. I walked a lot, I had so much energy to burn and walking helped me think. It was also difficult, traffic noise pierced into me and it was so hard to walk past the adverts advertising the most shameful secrets of my life to the world. At the times when I needed it, I would look up and see that my friends – knowing I would walk that way and knowing I would become overwhelmed at that exact moment – had planted the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen. Intense colours and perfectly formed. Being watched all the time was terrifying, having my mind read was terrifying, yet I also had a sense of protection. This was tough love. It really was tough, but if I could get through it I wouldn’t be judged. The thoughts that had been read, the memories that had been revealed, they wouldn’t be judged if I could push through. Everything was an act, everyone was acting, my cat had been drugged or maybe replaced by a robot, the world became an extended audience participation event, except I was the only audience, the lines were constructed to help me learn something or to elicit a particular response.
I walked a lot. I sang a lot. I wrote a lot. I got very little sleep. Things got tougher. My friends found me more difficult. I had somehow ended up with a CPN who I couldn’t meet with because I never knew what the time was and thought people were changing the clocks to confuse me. I’d ask strangers the time and laugh out loud at their answers. I was stopped and searched by the police. I told them I was going to the doctors because “I’m fucking mental”. I remember saying that a lot.
I was frightened to be at home. My home was full of my art and my writing and testimony to my evil. Everything I touched was poison and my flat was infested. I stayed at friends houses until I wore out my welcome. I stayed in the communal rooms in the housing co op until a neighbour got cross and told me I couldn’t. I slept a few nights in the communal hallway until she told me it wasn’t fair for her to have to see me like this. So I went home. This was the beginning of the end and the worst possible place for me to be. I painted out my windows so the social workers couldn’t see me. Everyone else in the house moved out and the social workers moved in. I cleaned my bathroom obsessively for hours a day and spent my nights in the cupboard, terrified of the dark and the quiet and the satellites spying on me and the monsters who had come to live in my house. I would phone NHS direct and tell them “I’m fucking mental”. I started to get angry. One day I just lost it, I couldn’t contain a feeling so fierce inside so I started jumping on all the cars in the street. I ended up with soft tissue damage in my foot. I picked up bricks and started throwing them at people’s houses. A woman walking in the street grabbed her toddler close and firmly shut the gate between us and got inside her house. I saw the fear in her eyes and was horrified. I would never hurt anyone. Of course she didn’t know this. I was horrified that anyone would think I might hurt them.
I went home to my den of evil and resolved not to leave the house again. I couldn’t trust myself. A few days later I realised I had to kill myself. I was sad about that. I had felt so hopeful, I could see where I had gone wrong and what I needed to do to be ok but I just didn’t have the resources to do it. I could no longer leave the house. I had no food. I had pissed all my friends off. If I was going to die I had to erase all evidence of my existence, I had to remove the evil stain I had left on the world. I had to set my house on fire.