7 weeks ago I had my first adult experience of psychosis. I was extremely fortunate in that I knew what was going on, and was able to find enough strategies to manage it that it passed comparatively quickly. For the next several weeks I felt very vulnerable, on the edge of that place. I felt dissociated, and mildly paranoid. I had a strong feeling of being watched at all times, or of having someone behind me. At times it was stronger than that, the sense that I was standing on the lip of a hole in the fabric of the world. I was looking at reality, but just behind me was a tear into the void, dark and cold and terrifyingly inhabited. I could feel a cold wind on my shoulders.
I was still in a highly sensitive place, where certain things would speak to me in a way I wouldn’t usually experience. At a party a few nights later, a song comes on that has a guttural male voice singing and it’s like that moment in films where the background suddenly seems to zoom into the foreground without displacing it. The sound of the deep voice is reverberating in my body and making my hair stand on end. I go outside where I can’t hear it well. My hair settles back against my skin.
For the first few days I stay in the light, keep all the houselights on all day and night, and do not leave the house after dark. I do not drive, I do not work, I’m just patient. I test how things are developing gently, try turning out a light and wait to see if the hallucinations return. I find that I exist in a twilight state for a few weeks were the dark is mostly empty, but sometimes starting to fill with hallucinations. Being driven home by Rose, I’m watching the sky curiously as night falls, relieved when it’s empty, cautious when things move within it.
A few nights after the episode I’m lying in bed, talking on the phone, and the conversation is becoming increasingly stressful as Rose and I don’t see eye to eye or understand each other. I feel a sense of a charge rising in my body. It reaches mass and my sense of self suddenly dissolves, like a drop of oil onto a vast surface of water. I have no sense of my body, of gravity, of weight. I have no sense of being the right way up or even what way that is. I feel vastly infinite and utterly tiny at the same time. There is a consciousness at the center of a galaxy of stars like dust. I am falling in every direction at the same time. I close my eyes, knowing that I am still only a woman, still lying in bed, speaking on the phone, having an argument with my love. We keep talking. We find a place of connection and common ground. I feel myself come back together, like big bang in reverse, silent and without violence, all the stars gather back into my skin.
Gradually it eases, this sense of being suddenly skinless, on the edge of this world and another one. I’m so fortunate. How many people even know what psychosis is when they have their first experience of it? More than that – know what might help, know that it’s temporary, know that I can survive it? I re read a book I own called Unshrinking Psychosis by John Watkins. I recommend it for anyone seeking to better understand psychosis. Two ideas stand out to me – that there is method and meaning even in madness, and that not all psychosis is a breakdown. Some is a messy restructuring of the mind, a transformative process. Not breakdown but breakthrough. Not indicative of problems or stress or failure, but of growth, process, recovery. This resonates with me.
I also reached out to a mentor who has also experienced psychosis and we went out for coffee. The chance to talk with someone else who has been there – and come through it, sans lifelong complications, diagnosis, medications, and stigma, is such a relief. I ask one question in particular – “I felt so lonely in that experience, was it like that for you?” They tell me – “Lonely is not a strong enough word for the feeling of profound aloneness and alienation.” Yes. That’s how it was for me. They remind me – crisis is nothing more than the interruption of a pattern. For good or for bad.
There are things I understand better now. I understand the tremendous distress of people who’s sense of reality has collapsed when we try to tell them the things they perceive are not real in an attempt to comfort them. This is not reassuring. We are trapped between our psychotic perceptions (which may be terrifying, or not) and an awareness that we are going mad, which is absolutely terrifying. Knowing that the experiences are not real does not stop them happening to us. It’s like being trapped in a nightmare from which you cannot wake. Knowing it is not real does not stop the fear or the horror, in fact the sense of disconnection from everyone else, from the ‘waking world’, to push the metaphor, is terrifying. And we don’t know if we will wake up. So we cannot come to harm physically unless we act upon the psychosis – when the terror was so intense that my skin was literally rippling across my body, the effort it took to stay still and not run – blind with terror, through any obstacle and into any terrain, took everything I had. Even if ‘it’s not real’ means I can’t come to direct physical harm, I can certainly suffer psychological trauma. ‘It’s not real’ reminds me of the dissociative process of a child being sexually abused – not physically harmed, but violated and traumatised, who thinks to themselves ‘If I pretend this isn’t happening it cannot hurt me’. We know that’s not the case, that these experiences impact and change us even if we deny them. The experience of psychosis impacts, changes, and even traumatises us, even if ‘it’s not real’, because experiences that invoke terror, horror, helplessness, and isolation always have the potential to be deeply traumatising. The emphasis on it’s not real, don’t acknowledge it, the focus on getting over it and back to life, sealing off the experience as quickly and completely as possible seems like a highly dissociative process to me.
And there lies a dichotomy in my experience. It was not real, and yet it was real to me. More than that, it had a sense of profound significance and meaning that I am still gently examining. There was a sense for me of the indelibly familiar about an experience that was at the same time, utterly alien and new. Talking with my support people I drew upon many seemingly disconnected threads of my life that all had some link to this experience. I remembered my vivid imagination as a child where I could perceive things that other people did not – particularly at night. Foxes that ran up and down our hallway, soft footfalls on carpet and the brush of coarse fur against my legs, but not the musk of the real animal. The shadows that congregated in our lounge room every night, tall as adults, having meetings, talking among themselves in a murmur of voices that was the soundtrack to all my childhood nights. If disturbed, they would rush as one furious mass to wreak some unnamed horrifying punishment on any child out of bed. Some nights having crept out for a drink of milk I would be trapped in the triangle of light that spilled from the open fridge, waiting for dawn to come so the shadows (which could not move into the light) would go dormant. (waiting for the dawn to come – so many sleepless nights where only dawn soothes me to rest even now) My wild imagination made me stand out as a child, but not so much that I would have received any kind of psychotic diagnosis. I was different but not that different. I wonder sometimes if all children are naturally psychotic – and yet aware of the divide between the real and ‘not real’ that they perceive: imaginary friends, ‘pet tigers’, games. Somehow we lose this with age.
Another link; making connections with younger parts in my system (I have DID) has been a frightening and fascinating process. It has been hard for those of us who are older to permit our inner kids to have time out in our body. For some of us, it’s painful to be misunderstood as being childish. For others, it’s frightening how vulnerable inner children can be, and how lonely it can be to be a child in an adult body. A few months ago a very young part came out to play with a my little pony toy. They ‘flew’ the toy around the room. We were co-conscious for the play. What was absolutely startling was the physical response in our body. It reacted as if we were flying. Muscles tensed and relaxed, electric sensations feathered across skin, with the highs and lows of the flight the stomach flipped like we were in a car going fast into dips and rises on a road. When the adults switched back out, they were blown away to have this glimpse of a child’s world again. Children, or least, my inner children, have an intense empathic bond with toys that allows them to experience what the toy does. It’s outside of anything I have felt as an adult. No wonder children can play for so many hours. No wonder I struggled to not lose this ability myself as a child, playing games with younger and younger children as my peers lost interest in imaginative play.
A few months ago I was playing a game with friends that relies on imagination. Called Beyond Balderdash, you have to quickly invent plausible definitions of words and other cues. I find these quite challenging, not least because being a creative person, I’m expected to be very good at games like this and the pressure interferes with my thinking. For the first couple of questions I wrestled with my brain, trying to come up with original ideas and mostly drawing a blank. The struggle was fruitless, like trying to use a hammer to thread a needle. Then I felt a shift inside me, something wrestling with me and wanting me to get out of the way. I relaxed and let the process unfold. I stopped shaking my brain in frustration, trying to squeeze a creative answer out of it. Suddenly ideas came out of nowhere, easy as reading off notes someone else was handing to me. There was no struggle. My imagination just spoke. I thrashed everyone else at the game, and went to bed that night feeling thoughtful and a bit confused. It almost felt like cheating, the way Eleanor Longden describes her voices giving her the answers to an exam and wondering if that was cheating.
In my arts practice I’ve also been experimenting with something curious. When I’m doing something like painting, for me it’s a very intellectual process of calling to mind the shapes and colours I want to create and then doing my best to get my hand to make them. I’ve noticed at times that while doing this, I can ‘see’ an image on the canvas (or paper, or skin) that I’m painting on. It’s not really there and I know that, but I can still see a faint ghost image of what I’m trying to create. And it’s often different from what was in my head – maybe only in a small way, such as the placement of an eye, but it is different. So sometimes I ignore what I was trying to paint and I paint the image I see instead. Again, it feels oddly like cheating. The strange thing is, it’s surprisingly effortless, and it almost always looks better than what I had been going to do.
I think about sculpturers describing their process as being seeing what is in the stone and setting it free, rather than turning the stone into something. Rather than a quaint turn of phrase, this concept now startles me.
Nightmares that have been so deep, involving, and horrifying that my sleep became a place where I was helpless and tortured. And yet, a sense that in them in something powerful and important that I would be at great loss without. Memories of being so afraid of the dark as a child and young person that there was a sense of being on the edge of running, and that if I ever allowed fear to overwhelm me and started to run there would be no stopping and no safety ever again. An incident as a young person where I briefly hallucinated a nightmare figure when trying to confront my fear of the dark and had a panic attack. The experience of sensory dissociation and trauma so profound that I craved touch to ground me back into my body and sense of self. My desperation to experience psychosis as a highly traumatised young person who could not escape the daily pain of things like chronic bullying and alienation at school. And yet, curiously, I failed, and at the time, reality remained immutable.
Separate and yet connected experiences. Many of them, like threads all leading to a complex tapestry I now seek to understand.
I understand now the rage I felt in some people at the last Hearing Voices conference I attended. At the time I recoiled from it, wanting to walk a gentler path of diplomacy and peacemaking. But, sitting in my bedroom wracked with terror, on the edge of needing crisis support and knowing how profoundly traumatic that ‘support’ would likely be, I felt the terror and fury of someone marked for abuse and helpless to prevent it. The sense of safety of being at the edge of conversations about appropriate supports and responses to psychosis was stripped away. I was no longer a ‘voice of reason’ on the sidelines. I was now naked and vulnerable and under the microscope. The knowledge that simply being honest about my experiences could see my most basic rights taken away from me in the name of protecting me, could see me drugged and locked away, trapped and confined, subjected to solitary confinement, forced into therapy with people who use entirely different frameworks from me, horrified me. The instinct for self preservation said – silence. Secrecy. Be small, quiet, hidden, and run a long way away from the places where people like you are kept under guard, sedated, tied to the bed, given intense directives and advice by every nurse, doctor, and shrink, most of which is contradictory. So instead, I blogged.
I should be able to call a place like ACIS and tell them about my drug allergies and DID and trauma history and explain that I need a quiet place to rest for a few days and just enough sedatives to help me sleep without sending me into liver failure. The liklihood is that I would be abused and ignored as a faker, or committed, dosed on meds I cannot tolerate, and then find myself trapped in hospital in a spiral of drug induced psychosis and forced ‘treatment’. A system that is both over and under responsive to crisis, that has ‘entry and exit’ problems – it’s hard to get into the system and get help, and also hard to get out again. There’s rage in me that this is the ‘help’ available to me – high risk, and likely as traumatic as it is helpful. What I need is Soteria, a place of safety and respect, where people who are neither afraid of me or my experiences hold my hand while I rest, find my feet again, make sense of things, return to my life.
There’s not just chaos and loss here. Psychosis has been like being tipped up into my own subconscious, filled with wonder and stuffed with nightmares that breed in the dark. I refuse to live in fear of my own mind. There’s powerful things here, about life and love and art. If the alternative is the loss of those things, is the ‘flatland’ of a life that does not move me, of art that is forever the imposition of my will upon things around me, instead of a conversation with my own shadow, then I’ll risk a little madness.
When I was a child, my Mother believed fantasy and imagination were powerful and important. Creativity is essential to life. One of her friends believed they were dangerous. Her children were not permitted to watch the films we watched, or to read the books we read. Their play was shaped in ways mine was not. I wondered, after this experience, if they were right. Has being exposed to fantasy made me more vulnerable to losing my grasp on reality? Or has it left me better equipped to navigate my own inner world?
In the hearing voices group I’m involved in here in SA we often talk about our inner reality. Instead of conversations about reality and delusions, we talk about the shared reality and the inner reality. What I experience in psychosis isn’t real. But it is real. It is my reality, drawn from my mind and my life. Full of the promise of connection and art and a deeply felt life, as well as nightmares and terror. Of embracing child parts and making sense of trauma and facing my demons.
I’m back on my feet at the moment. The dark is empty, I can walk through life without music or images speaking into my heart and calling up a flood. I’m scared, and angry, and aware of a new gap between me and people who don’t experience this, and another reason I am vulnerable to stigma and ignorance. I’m also thankful, thoughtful, listening to the world with one ear cocked towards that void. I will go where my heart wills and seek the deep truths of the soul. Fray into stars and become a person again.