Three Poems from a Friend

My friend Ben is, I’m pretty sure, the funniest man I’ve ever met.

We were sitting in a room a few weeks ago, at a university neither of us attend any more, looking through CVs and job applications.

“Here’s an idea!” I said, slamming my hands down on the desk in the parody of a Hollywood newsroom editor. “In the bit where it says Interests, talk about your poetry, and we’ll put ‘published poet’, it will look really good! And we can put some of it on my blog, so it’s technically true!” We both laughed, and agreed to do it; after all, any advantage you can get as a recent graduate in the job market, you take.

Ben’s poetry has left me laughing to the point of pain on too many occasions to count, a torrent of silly sponges, racist farm yard animals and inexorably advancing home counties. So when I opened up the word doc he sent, lovingly titled ‘SRS-PEOMS-4-DA-BLOG.docx’, (because of course it was), I was expecting something similar, the dark comedy that everyone who has met him adores him for.

Instead, he gave me these, and broke my heart. 

 

Stark

Remember the light and believe the light.

That way, when the hatch comes down

there’s something to focus on

 

and that last afterimage will slowly fade

green, then blue, then darkening purple

until all you are left with is the idea of a sun.

 

Remember the light and believe the light

When the mask slips at half past two in the morning

You could have fucking died that night

You are letting things pass you by

You deserve this

You are guilty

You are being punished

You deserve this

Mile wide ring of failure

Who would look at you

You deserve this

and the self shatters like a dropped snowglobe

and you drop in front of the TV and tune it to some random channel

and you feel like dying.


When It Happened – 7:27 PM, One Day in November

For a second I’m running down six flights of stairs.

The sound is harsh, the colours too bold,

a faint pulse beating against the backs of my eyes.

 

I know, I can do nothing but run. And as I run

all the lampposts streaming past me

blur into one, two yellow tracks

guiding me up the paths. Out.

Then it wasn’t possible to run any longer

and not collapse.

 

It had shone so cleanly

under the harsh white bulbs as I had backed away.

I think if I run for long enough

I will get away from it completely one day.

I won’t see in the corner of my eye

a sudden glint, a hand reaching through a doorframe,

that sight that fills my mouth with a taste like pennies and petrol.

 

Think about what I understand.

Only a second ago I was running full pelt down six flights of stairs,

I didn’t know my voice

If it was given to me

Would be so broken, my sentences

Like Dickinson, dashes-breaking-up.

I didn’t even know that word “safe”

Until I felt the warmth of a mug of tea pressed into my hand,

And saw my friend’s face staring, worried, above a mug of his own.


Medicating

Half past three in the morning. City lights

bouncing back off the clouds make a yellow haze in the sky.

In front of me, the joint’s end glows red in the almost-black.

Above me, points of light in a tower block burn cold and white.

Those stars will do, even if they are man-made.

 

When you are in so deep that you never really remember

having done anything, spoken to anyone,

before coming back to your room.

 

When you’re aware of how bad you’re getting,

how every day becomes just like looking at the tower block,

just a few white dots in a great grey cloud.


The night train rattles past, and I cough.

Half past three in the morning.

Yellow light above, red light below.

No stars.


© Ben Walker, 2018. Used with permission.




Ben, you blow me away every time with your talent, your humour, and the sheer amount of fucking heart in you. I love you, brother.

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We need to talk about Hellblade

*WARNING* This article contains *major* spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

 

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the most unique and significant video games of my lifetime. A bold claim, perhaps, but not one without merit.

Why though? It’s innovative in theme, yes, a seamless blend of hack and slash, horror and Norse mythological adventure.That isn’t why. The gameplay then? Well, no. While entertaining, it is a little clunky in its own idiosyncratic way. That’s not it either.

Senua, Hellblade’s protagonist, suffers from psychosis. This is portrayed throughout the game by a number of distinct Voices, visual hallucinations and distortions, flashbacks, and delusions. The player is forced to experience every skin crawling syllable and mocking barb that Senua endures as she fights her way into Hell itself to retrieve the soul of her beloved.

At any one point the Voices, (or Furies as the game refers to them), may praise, deride, encourage or taunt Senua as she fights her way through demonic creatures, dizzying heights and evil Gods. In short, Hellblade is an enjoyable, refreshing action-adventure game, whose protagonist just happens to be psychotic.

However, NinjaTheory, (the production company behind Hellblade), have created something rather more significant than first meets the eye. Hellblade is to my knowledge the very first video game to broach the subject of psychosis, and it does so magnificently. From the first moments, it provides a tiny but sickeningly real window into what it is like to live with auditory hallucinations: the opening shows Senua paddling down a river while she is abused by her voices for minutes before the player even gains control.

This is how psychosis sufferers like me live every minute of every day of our lives. Our every motion, choice and thought is picked apart and commented on by the fears and doubts in our minds given life. The experiences that Senua (and by proxy the controlling player)  have are the single most accurate portrayal of audiovisual psychosis that I have seen in any piece of fiction, and Hellblade delivers them to the player in a unique format that no other art form can achieve.

Despite the fact that estimates for the lifetime prevalence of Voice Hearing stand between 5 and 28% of the population, the stigma around hearing voices is still brutal, and causes many people who truly need help to avoid seeking it out, out of shame or fear of persecution. “Normal people don’t hear voices.” I’ve heard that from real people, and, ironically enough, from my own voices. There is such a gulf in understanding put between neurotypical and non-neurotypical people by the cultural attitude to mental illness that any attempt to empathise, even with yourself, has somehow become collaboration. With them. With the others. With the crazy people.

Hellblade breaks down that barrier, plunging the player directly into the mind of the protagonist, warts, voices, visions and all. As the trauma and terror of Senua’s life are laid bare before them, there is a subtly nauseating feeling of voyeurism and violation, just a suggestion of the invasiveness and raw, naked, exposed vulnerability of having someone else run rampant in the most private, guarded and intimate corners of your mind.

If you have experienced psychosis, the delicate care put into the creation of Hellblade will be obvious. Included with the game is a featurette about the careful steps that the designers took to include feedback from both lived experience and mental health professionals. NinjaTheory could easily have brushed over this part of the process, gotten a single quote from one non-clinical researcher, and still loudly touted themselves as having ‘consulted experts’. The fully realised game is a testament to the level of inclusion of first hand experiences of psychosis in the writing and design of Hellblade, and this in turn is the thing that makes it so exceptional.

Hellblade confronts many parts of mental illness that sufferers have to deal with on a day to day basis that are not immediately obvious to people with no experience of them. The first time I played through the opening, I called my housemate in to my bedroom to listen to Senua’s voices. “This. Just this. This is what it’s like, every moment, all the time.” Not ten minutes into the game, the screen begins to distort and flash, as a roar of static builds in the speakers. “Oh God!” he said. “Why is everything so bright and loud? That’s awful!” That is Sensory Overload, and it’s why I have anxiety attacks in supermarkets.

Similarly, the game’s ‘permadeath’ function acts as a perfect metaphor for the hopeless dread that creeps in on the edges of psychosis, the reason why schizophrenia is so often correlated with depression, and the reason for our 5% lifetime incidence of successful suicide attempts. From early in the game, the player is warned that every time Senua fails or dies, the rot eating away at her hand will spread throughout her body, until it finally kills her. Permanently.

It is this Sword of Damocles that hangs over your head as you play, making you doubt every decision, making you dread every confrontation. Maybe this will be the one that finally ends me, you think.The one that will be too much. I don’t want to die.

The thing is… there is no permadeath in Hellblade. No matter how many times you die, the rot will never claim you. There is nothing to fear but fear itself, so the saying goes, but you have no way of knowing this as you struggle through, paranoid about where the next attack will come from, where the next threat will be concealed. The game lies. Your mind lies. You are the unreliable narrator.

Hellblade also tackles the theme of abuse, specifically in regard to mental illness. Her meeting with her mentor, Druth, is shown to have happened after Senua is driven out, forced to become a Geilt in the forest, a cursed and banished thing. Senua’s mother Galena is shown in flashbacks to have very similar experiences to Senua herself, and in the game’s denouement is shown being burned alive by Senua’s father for refusing to renounce her voices.

In fact, Senua’s true downspiral into the Darkness comes only after her mother’s murder at the hands of her father, and her lover’s execution at the hands of raiding Norsemen. She doesn’t reach Hel until trauma and violence at the hands of others drags her there. A sane reaction to insane circumstances.

And I know. No one gets burned alive anymore.

But a person with serious mental illness has a 1 in 4 chance of suffering violence as a direct result of their condition in any given year, most commonly at the hands of a partner, carer or family member. That’s 14 times more likely than the average person. People like me are much more likely to be the targets of violence than the perpetrators, even while we are packaged neatly into a parcel that society has stamped with [KILLER].

Yet somehow, Hellblade’s Pictish warrior woman struggles through the story as simply a normal human. There is a bizarre and grotesque trend in screen media in recent years to portray neurodivergent people as superheroes – Sherlock, Monk, The Big Bang Theory to name just a few. Senua’s aides at least have the good grace to be supernatural – a magic mirror, the Sword of Odin. Her illness itself seeks only to undermine and abuse her, even as she accrues the power she needs to fight an unwinnable battle against the Darkness.

And somehow, Senua continues. Despite the abuse and trauma she has suffered at the hands of her Darkness, she carries on. Despite grief and pain and loss. Despite everyone she knows calling her monster, plaguebringer, outsider, when all she has ever done is feared the rest of the world.

I know that fight. It’s exhausting. It’s excruciating. It’s demoralizing, dehumanizing and humiliating.

But it’s the fight that I, and every other one of the 75 million schizophrenia sufferers in the world get up and fight every day, even as all the while we are unthinkingly and ignorantly branded as monsters, when all we ever wanted was to live as everyone else does.

 

It’s time that video games took responsibility for their own prominence in our lives. Hellblade has set an example that must to be followed, regardless of whether this was its intention. An art form that a scant few years ago was only the realm of tessellated blocks and pixelated alien fleets now has the opportunity to do some real and tangible good in the world, perhaps as the only form of media to do so.

In news media, in TV, in film, mental illness sufferers are the invariable villains, the cheap and lazy target for the spiteful human reflex to need blame in recompense for tragedy.

We are the mass shooters. We are the drug addicts. We are the ones away from whom you hurry your children in the street.

Not any more.

Now we are strong.

Now we are victorious.

 

Now we are heroes.

 

 

Joseph Hand is a biology graduate and aspiring actor from Southampton, UK. He is an avid tabletop gamer and singer, and is quite partial to the music of Johnny Cash.

His recorded work has been used by the NHS to introduce recently diagnosed psychosis sufferers to alternative therapies, such as roleplaying gaming.

cropped headshot

Nerves

Yesterday was one of the bad days. Voices? Check. Visions? Check. Tactile hallucinations? Check.

Oddly, those I’m used to. In the moment I am experiencing them, they are awful, distracting, terrifying, whatever. But those you can step back from and see them objectively as false, according to all reasonable and rational thought processes. Sometimes the worst bit is what comes after.

For one, the nightmares. Again. Always the same dream, burrowing back out from the box I’ve put it into with hard work on my CBT techniques, wrecking my efforts to sleep when I’m already so very very tired. Out of 14 hours in bed, I slept about six. The hallucinations aren’t gone, the jeering voices, the reek and stench of blood from everything around me, the feeling of that hooked knife disappearing into my wrist, but they’re never as bad as after that initial panicking hit.

The worst is that indefinable feeling I always get after an episode, and sometimes before.

I feel like a nerve. Raw and exposed, strung up, skinned, and pierced with hooks, I am an amphibian leg in so many high school science lessons. Every sound and every colour is nauseatingly bright and loud, a wash of sodium ions and a jolt of electricity. My head hurts from the shocks sent through my brain at the slightest provocation, let alone when something is actually loud or bright. Four people were talking at once on the bus this morning, and it hurt enough that I had a bit of a cry when no one was looking. This is the feeling that made me two hours late for work, and made me doubt whether I’d come in at all. Completely normal everyday things are so harsh and grating, the footsteps from the floor above, the squeak of the door handle of the office across the corridor. The odd thought occurs that it’s easy to tell what’s real on days like this, because the Voices aren’t agonizing to listen to, (not physically anyway).

When I try to think, my head feels woolly, like it’s full of cotton balls which get in the way of all my thoughts, making them take a much longer path than they should. This is a problem I have a lot: the inability to either remember my coping mechanisms, or to be able to concentrate enough to see them through. So I’m defenceless, my only choice to try to shut down everything I don’t need to survive today and deaden myself to sounds that have become screeches, colours that have become searchlights.

I started writing this to tell people like me that things will get better, but I’m struggling too see that right now. There is a cold comfort in knowing only that you’ve survived worse.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” he said.

I hate the phrase ‘Don’t do anything stupid’.

In the past few years I’ve said it, heard it said, and has it said to me, but I think that the fact that this has somehow become our societal go-to when someone talks about suicide is indicative of the much larger problem our culture has. This is the response of someone who, “Oh gosh, I don’t know, I’m not sure what to say”. No one who hasn’t already had first hand experience of either their own or a loved one’s self harm really does, because nothing in our education system or culture prepares us for that conversation.

I went to a pair of schools where I honestly believe no two words were said to us about mental health in the 13 years I was there. I think the fact that the latter, (11-18) was a competitive all boys school didn’t help: there is a pervasive feeling of ‘You’re a man now, deal with it,’ at a moment when a teenager’s mind is at its most insecure and vulnerable. The utter toxicity of this approach became apparent at the end of my first year of university, when I went into my first schizophrenic episode completely and brutally unprepared for what was to come. Far from psychosis though, it also gave me no indication of the fact that one in three of my classmates would at some point suffer from anxiety and depression, one in four in any given year. It didn’t prepare me for the fact that one of my old friends would take their own life at the age of 22.

‘Don’t do anything stupid’ is also a loaded term: frankly, the last thing someone who is considering suicide needs is to be told that the decision they are making is stupid. They almost certainly already think that, and they’re giving themselves a psychic beating with those same words because for their entire life they’ve been told that suicide is something that is stupid, that weak, selfish people do. It’s just not. It’s something that any one of us could be driven to consider, because we are human. Surely it is better to tell people in that position that they are loved and valued, and the world is better off with them in it, than to confirm the lies their brain is telling them.

 

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, and the theme of it is Take a Minute, Change a Life. If you know someone struggling with mental illness, please, take a single minute to reach out to them; you could be the only person who does, and you could save a life. If you yourself are considering suicide or self harm, please, reach out to someone. And if anyone tells you not to do anything stupid, remember that by reaching out, you’ve already done something clever.

J x

 

UK & Ireland – The Samaritans – 116 123

Northern Ireland Lifeline – 0808 808 8000

America – The Samaritans – 1 (800) 273-TALK

Australia – LifeLine – 1-300-13-11-14

Netherlands – National Crisis Line – 0900-1450

 

Let’s Talk about Suicide, an excellent post by Amber Kemp of mylifeincolour

http://my-lifeincolour.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/lets-talk-about-suicide.html?spref=fb

Swords are Cool

I am, at my core, a bard.

As a child I was raised on a strict diet of fantasy: dragons, trolls, goblins and sea monsters. I build my life around stories, whether that is in the form acting, writing or Game Mastering. I am consequently the keeper of a fairly vast knowledge pool of swords, one of the most prevalent themes throughout high fantasy: Narsil, Glamdring, Ice, The Sword of Truth, all wielded by the greatest heroes of my childhood, from Aragorn to Matthias to Buffy Summers.

Whether or not you subscribe to Joseph Campbell’s idea of the [monomyth], swords – magic or otherwise – are much of a muchness. Regardless of their ability to cut through steel or whether or not they were forged from the metal of a fallen star, all of these weapons had one thing in common: they were tools of war raised in defence of the innocent by the forces of good. However, I’d argue that the pervasive common theme of the sword-wielder is reluctance: the hero would rather there was peace, to stay in the village without venturing out into the dark, scary forest. Extreme circumstances force them against their will to take up arms against the encroaching sea of troubles.

None of us chose our mental illnesses. None of us chose to be here on this battlefield, desperately dodging blows from a foe that only gets stronger the weaker we get. You and I, we are the ones that always have to fight: every tiny victory has to be clawed from the jaws of defeat, every moment of joy is the reward for a long, exhausting and painful quest. By necessity, along our journey we become hardened, more resilient than we ever thought we could be in Chapter 1, before the villain’s herald showed up and declared an age of darkness throughout the land. In this, we are both the hero and the sword: fighting a battle of emotion on the one hand, and cold reality on the other. And like swords, repeatedly beaten and heated into shape and sharpened on rough stone, the making of us was something horrific. But it has made us strong.

You can make a sword from iron. You can’t make a sword from coal. But by stoking the forge to a terrible heat, we emerge without the weaknesses we had: our raw materials become steel. Our old selves would have bent and shattered by now, and we both know that we wouldn’t have survived without adapting and changing. And unfortunately there isn’t any way back to the cosy confines of the prologue. The enemy is at the gate, the denouement is fast approaching, and if we do nothing we will be overrun. No one will tell you that you’re better off this way, that the path of peace wasn’t preferable. But we’re here now, and the show must go on.

You are stronger than you know. You are beautiful and badass. You are fearsome and mighty.

And if you ever, ever feel scared or powerless again, remember this: you, my love, have the capacity to cut a bitch.

J x

This short post is at least in part cribbed from a slightly drunken pep talk given to one of the bravest people I know.

The Dark Rainbow

The Dark Rainbow

Best title ever, huh?

Most of you reading this have known me for quite a while, so it’s probably time to introduce you: these are the Voices in my head. The squatters in my cerebellum. The shitty Justice League. The Avengers of being a dick.

I’ve been hearing Voices for three years, and over that time a lot of people have traipsed their way through my brain, but only a fraction of these stick around for any length of time. These few have developed, getting into patterns unique to them, and gaining (dare I say it?)… personalities? An interesting phenomenon that popped up soon after my first Voice is their colours: the longer term residents each create a colour when they speak. I don’t see the colours, I feel them about an inch deep in my temples, behind my eyes. I know. It’s super weird. Try imagining being able to hear with your knees.

I’ve read up recently on the relationship between schizophrenia and synaesthesia, and it does make for interesting reading. There is solid evidence that colour based synaesthesia is linked to an increase in schizotypy1, and it is mentioned in primary literature that it can be difficult to distinguish between the symptoms of both2. When you think about it, there is actually very little difference: a synaesthete finds colour or smell where there is none, while I find shadowy figures in windows and wounds in my wrists that don’t exist either, (the difference in public perception of these disorders lies here; no one has ever made a movie about a synaesthete beating people to death with a Dulux colour chart). Content is the only difference between these mismatches of reality, whether or not they are caused in the same region of the brain.

Regardless, I still experience something similar with my Voices, so here they are, in full Technicolour. Allow me to present: The Dark Rainbow.

dark rainbow

Yellow and Black:

“You’re not worth anything to anyone. You’re just going to end up hurting them, so why not do it? Throw yourself in front of that car.”

The outer rim of The Dark Rainbow, enveloping all else, and who just HAS to be the centre of attention. Yellow and black. The universal symbol for danger. Not loaded with symbolism at all, huh? This is my grandfather’s Voice, and the first one I ever heard. It is cruel, pitiless and cold. All of the commands to hurt myself or other people come from here, as do my violent visions. He is my fear made manifest, and knows it; he lives in the place where I store my insecurities and worries, and makes it his playground. His aim is not to make me suffer per se, but to have dominion over me, to make me toe the line, to obey.

“You can leave when I say you can leave.”

I once described the colour of this Voice rather poetically to a mental health professional as ‘if lava could get an infection’- that’s what this Voice represents to me: danger, sickness, revulsion. It appears exclusively from over my right shoulder, which is why I tend to get jumpy about people touching it, even now.

Blue:

This is the only one I’d consider worse than my grandfather at times. Blue sounds like me. He’s the Voice of reason, the temptation of a way out. He’s certainly the most insidious of my Voices: he likes to agree with the others.

“You should listen to him. It’ll be worse if you don’t.”

In an odd way, it’s easier to resist aggressive Voices – they give you something to push back against, something to fight – but passive, calm and familiar Voices are a lot more believable. He sits in the corner of any room, talking flatly and emotionlessly about the situation at hand – he is the difference between ‘Cut yourself’ and ‘You’re bleeding.’ Because he uses my voice, it’s hard to differentiate between my own thoughts and the things he says. He’s a little like Grima Wormtongue, toadying to the Dark Lord.

Purple:

Next are the Whisperers. The Nonsense talkers. Inky purple, they appear from underneath my shoulderblades, pushing at my back and trying to get me to turn round and to panic. One of the worst things about them for me, is that they make no bloody sense. I cope with my schizophrenia by analysing it and finding patterns, but here there are none.

“The box is in the UK and Ireland destinations. Why is the orange on the morning entertainment services.”

Even so, they aren’t the most annoying or distressing Voices, and in fact useful at times; they are a pressure gauge, and are the first to appear during an episode, so I can use them to judge when  I need to step back and take care of myself to stop the others turning up.

Red:

“Leave. Him. Alone.”

Oh Red. Who says Voices have to be out to get you. Red is on my side, and has at times physically fought off the other Voices to give me a break. She even gave herself a name, because she wanted one. I first met her a few months after I was diagnosed, around February of 2015, but I can’t be sure of the exact date. I was fully hallucinating in a palaeontology lecture, and left early because I couldn’t deal with the Voices, so I got on the bus and waited for it to start moving. Then a girl who wasn’t there got on wearing a red hoodie and sat next to me, putting her arm around me and telling me it was going to be ok.

“Go to sleep. I’ve got this.”

From then on, she was a pretty permanent fixture for about two years, always on my side, sitting by my left shoulder as a buffer against the others. I wonder as I’m writing this if this is the origin of the shoulder angel/shoulder devil trope: someone like me hundreds of years ago who had phantom agents of good and evil arguing in opposite ears.

She isn’t around anymore, which honestly breaks my heart: when I took a turn for the better and tried to approach my Voices more rationally, I started to try to treat them as hallucinations, not Voices (a fine distinction, I’ll admit). However, I came to the realisation that as comforting as she was, if I was going to be well, I had to let go of the hold she had on me: as the others like to say, “Normal people don’t hear voices.” She was the only one who ever admitted she was a Voice outright, and the only who left when I asked her to. Guess we know whose side she was really on then.

All the rest:

I would say that about 40% of my Voices come from the long term residents: the rest are nameless phantoms who drift away as soon as they can get off a single sentence. That’s not to say that there aren’t patterns; one of the main things I get shouted at me is just the word ‘RUN!’. It’s more that these other Voices have no identity, they have no capacity for continuation. They simply file into my head, pick up a pre-fabricated queue card and yell the word or sentence, then leave, happy that they had a nice day out, making my life hell.

Below is an example of the kind of things that get said to me during an episode: this was a bad afternoon at work, between 1:30 and 2:00pm early this year. Still finished the shift.

VZVi8RN

And that’s basically it! These are the Voices I hear and how they affect me. I hope you’ve enjoyed readi… No, wait. There’s one more. Because if we look down here, at the bottom right of The Dark Rainbow, we find it.

pheasant anomaly

The Pheasant Anomaly

Sometimes it isn’t threats, or orders, or visions of apocalyptic fire.

Sometimes, a Voice will just sit behind you for ten fucking minutes, and just yell the word ‘PHEASANT!’ at you. Over and over again.

‘PHEASANT! PHEASANT! PHEASANT!’

Great. Nice one, brain.

 

1: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1314590/1/1314590.pdf

2: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28276863

In Dexter’s Lab

Did you ever watch Dexter’s Lab?

I used to love it when I was a kid. I’d like to say I had some grand story about how watching it got me into science, how it inspired a passion in my young mind that brought logic and reason to the forefront of my brain. Unfortunately, I’m an insect biologist, not a pint-sized physics genius. Dexter, however, is for some reason the first thing that jumps into my head when I think of the word ‘scientist’. Not sure why, just some molding my primitive childhood brain experienced between 4 and 5 after school each day.

On the other hand, a scientist I very much remain; I tend to solve my problems through rational thinking and logic. This mindset has actually been very helpful for me throughout my illness. Science teaches us to question what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears; just because you can’t see air, it doesn’t mean it’s there, and just because you can’t see where lightning comes from, it doesn’t mean there’s a bearded, toga’d-up man sitting on a cloud with a pathological hatred of tall buildings, trees and the odd unlucky jogger. So when I found that I could no longer trust my ears, eyes, nose or skin, I looked to logic to help me out.

Use All Your Evidence

“The floor is on fire. You can feel it, can’t you? It’s burning your feet, and if you don’t warn everyone, they’re going to burn too.”

Pretty much word for word, that one. Put yourself in my shoes for a second, in that lecture theatre, or pub, or restaurant. My eyes are telling me that I can see flickering flames, I can smell smoke. I can feel the skin on my legs begin to singe and bubble. But setting those aside for just a moment, and quelling the rising panic I can feel forcing its way up my throat, what else can I see?

That couple in the corner are laughing and drinking wine, completely undisturbed by the flames licking their way up the wall. My professor is continuing her lecture, and no alarms are sounding, no one is running for the fire doors. Taking a second to step back and consider all the evidence available to you is a powerful tool, because once you can grab on to that anchor of reality, the fact that other people are not seeing what you see, it becomes a lot easier to pull yourself back.

Get a Research Buddy

I have had this conversation more times than I could physically count:

“Jack, just going to throw this out there, so I am completely sure… there’s no one standing behind me, is there?”

“Nah.”

“Cool.”

Having someone confirm the unreality of a vision lets you know that it is just that; a visual stimulus cooked up by a wonky bit of brain matter that wants you to see something that isn’t there. Being vulnerable and trusting people with your inner thoughts is difficult, but if you push through, other people can be a valuable anchor into reality.

Be Curious

There is one simple question that’s driven the scientific inquiries of many of history’s greatest minds: from Aristotle and Newton, to Doctor Doom and The Brain. ‘But… why?”

My best rate of recovery came about when I started to question why I was having a particular experience. Not why I was having it at all, but why my brain had caused that moment to take that form in my perception. Even though the symptoms of psychosis are idiosyncratic and uncountably variable, they all have a basis in reality.

If you hear voices shouting that you are in danger, or that people are following you, then on some animal level, you feel threatened, and this is the only way that your subconscious mind can communicate those feelings. If you see and feel blood on your hands, then you might quite reasonably be worried that you have hurt someone; this could be your brain’s way of telling you that you’re worried about your relationship with a friend, something which can really suffer under the stress of psychosis. Investigating the reasons for your experiences can be a really useful way of identifying the underlying stresses that make your condition worse.

(This isn’t to say that every experience you have has a direct underlying cause, I once had a Voice just yell the word ‘PHEASANT’ at me for ten minutes, but it’s worth a go.)

 

Ultimately, voices are simply just another expression of the chemicals that make up our bodies, so look for the patterns and the results revealed by them.

 

Of course, no coping mechanism is perfect, and the Dexter Approach certainly has a weakness: it rests on the assumption that your brain will work well enough to be able to draw logical conclusions. I find it most useful when I’m experiencing low-grade hallucinations which, while completely ‘real’, are still easily distinguishable from reality – sure the floor’s on fire, but no one else is running. The problems arise when my head fills with that icy black, thought-freezing fog, shutting down my logical conscious mind and letting my amygdala go to town.

But by this same token, the Dexter Approach is most useful when it is most available to us. On a good day, I still hear Voices and see things pretty often; on the best days, three or four in a day. And on my best days, my head works as well as it did before I ever heard Voices, and the mind-fog isn’t even visible on the horizon, so logic is easy to summon.

If you can, be curious. Be a scientist. Be like Dexter.

Omelette du fromage

J x

Losing the Battle

I want to watch The Wire. Have done for about 4 years now. I’ve had it recommended to me by five or six friends by now. I think I’d really enjoy it. It’s critically acclaimed and exactly the kind of show I’ve enjoyed in the past. But today I’m watching sitcom reruns.

I’m lying in a bed at 1pm in our accommodation at the Edinburgh Festival, arguably one of the best cultural events in the world, and certainly one of the most diverse, original and exciting. And I am lying in bed, watching Brooklyn-99 on Netflix. This is the fourth time I’ve watched this series, and it won’t be the last. I’m lying in bed, kind of wanting a cup of tea but not getting one, watching sitcom reruns. They’re comforting, and I’m tired. I’m not going to lie to you: I’ve made a blanket fort.

I’m coming off the back of a couple of seriously bad episodes over the last few weeks, probably the worst they’ve been in a few years. A lot of people I know have been struggling recently for a lot of reasons; usually we can cope well enough together, but its difficult to fight your own fear while also picking someone else up. Then again, it’s always easier to be strong for someone else than it is to find strength for yourself. But up here, I’m separated from my normal network: people are kind, but as odd as it sounds, there’s no one to be strong for.

The Voices aren’t being kind today: the usual barrage of insults and threats, coupled with a greater than normal amount of indecipherable whispering; I’m also hearing something like a 1940s jazz band through a crackly radio that keeps shutting off and turning on again. Shame, I quite like jazz. My wrists are bleeding, and when I catch them in my peripheral vision, I can see the gaping two-inch holes in them. Worst of all is the ever-present pressure on the back of my neck, telling me that something is behind me, the monsters are going to get me if I don’t press my back into the pillows or up against the wall. It’s trying to make me panic.

Honestly I’m kind of pissed at myself, and the fact that there is a cornucopia of the finest, most innovative and frankly weirdest theatre just outside of the front door, and that I’m sitting here in a blanket fort because I feel safe in here. But at least I feel safe. And tomorrow I will be able to get up and go to the theatre and perform and do what I love the best in the world.

And yet this feels like defeat. I’m wasting my life in here, they say, I’m proving them right that I’m worthless, and people hate me because I’m too weak to get up and do something. No, worse than that, they pity me. But sometimes you have to swallow defeat. This is a tactical withdrawal, to conserve my energy for another day. I’m going to lose this battle, in order to win the war. As far as objectives go, being able to do the show is top of my list, anything else is just bonus points, so I will do the show. I will get what I want out of this, but I can’t have everything.

To paraphrase a quote often misattributed to Charles Darwin:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Today, I am not strong. A strong person would be fighting back the demons and sitting in the front row of a standup comedy gig in an abandoned church, or watching a magician on a street corner. Hell, a strong person wouldn’t even pay them any notice at all.

Today I am not clever. A clever person would not have spent seven hours on this, too distracted by any tiny shred of passing information to actually write something. A clever person wouldn’t have this icy black fog filling their mind, slowing the speed of their thoughts to a crawl.

I am not strong or clever today.

But today I will adapt, outlast and survive. I’ll sit in my blanket fort and maybe get some tea. I’ll start writing six blog posts and finish one because that is what I can achieve today. I’ll watch Detective Jake Peralta fall through a ceiling again because it still makes me laugh. I might get dressed.

Today I will take refuge in comfort, not because I’m lazy or weak, but because it’s sensible.

And tomorrow I will watch The Wire.

 

Why we carry on

At first it’s panic that gets you through.

Then it’s fear.

Stubbornness will be in there as well.

Maybe spite too when you have nothing else.

One day you’ll have no choice, you’ll be acting on survival instinct.

After that it’s whatever reason you can find to make it through the day.

 

Because you want to.

Because you shouldn’t.

Because time is running out.

Because people are relying on you.

 

Because he said you couldn’t.

Because you won’t let him see your fear.

Because you know he does anyway.

 

Because the sun is out.

Because it’s raining.

Because you can smell the dust on the wind.

 

Because if you do you can go to bed later and have a bit of a cry.

Because it’s just fucking hard, and that is the simplest truth of it.

Because it hurts.

Because if it hurts you can feel something.

 

Because you want to see her grow up.

 

Because this is what you love doing.

Because these are the people you love the most.

Because you can make something beautiful.

 

Because heroes don’t give up.

Because good always triumphs in the end.

Because you’re a Gryffindor.

Because The Dawn will come.

 

For me.

For them.

For her.

For both of us.

For all of us.

 

Because you’ve beaten this before.

Because you survived.

Because you don’t want to die.

Because you do.

 

Because when pain and tiredness and grief and madness have taken their toll, and when all the rest of you is stripped away, when the light is fading and there is almost nothing left of you, in the darkest hours of your life, you will find one tiny golden spark of defiance that will be all you need to carry on. It will make you invincible, unshakeable, and unassailable. And you will beat back the darkness and the demons will flee from the light in you.

 

I’m still in here.

I’m still fighting.

I will not die here.