Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Those times psychosis nearly killed me

In as much as you are able, face your own darkness and the darkness in the world without flinching

This article is one of a series on my experience of psychosis. The articles are:
Many years ago, what feels like several lifetimes in the past (but in fact around 1994), I was mad. Going mad wasn't easy, it took a great deal of time and determination but I finally made it. My madness lasted less time than the headlong plunge and bleak freefall into its crevices, but the recovery took around six years before I felt normal. Still there isn't a day when my mind doesn't wander back to that time and the pain of it all.

My madness was a psychosis, a delusion, it left me homeless in Cambridge for months ending only with a brief stay in Beford prison (where Pilgrim's Progress was begun and I was there at the same time as Lord Brocket, jailed for insurance fraud). I wasn't imprisoned for a criminal offence, but a civil matter, perhaps the topic of a different story. Along the way my psychosis nearly killed me several times, in a manner of amusing ways, and that is the story I tell today.

The root of my psychosis was succumbing to fear and running away from life, refusing to face the increasingly difficult situation I found myself in. Almost entirely of my own making I would add, although perhaps not fully. As with all stories the true beginning stretches back well beyond the place we call the start. My dark descent was ably assisted by copious quantities of psychedelics, consumed in a sincere search for spirituality as well as escape, which made my mind more pliable and able in the end to believe the most ridiculous of things.

The point at which we pick up this sad tale I was in my second year of a law degree at Corpus College Cambridge, having scraped through my first year with a "Desmond" (a 2:2). I was becoming increasingly paranoid and isolated and somehow believed that some acquaintances of mine, a buddhist priest and his young punk accomplices, were trying to steal my soul. Obviously the right way forward was not to avoid them or to seek help, but to continue to spend time with them despite no idea how nor the capacity to prevent what seemed to be happening. I was paralysed in what seemed like hell, my life slipping away from me, a passenger in my own mind and body. Desperate to break out of the cycle, on a winter evening of a college dinner, I decided that it might help if I jumped into the river Cam.

Not far from my halls of residence was a secluded stone bank beside the Cam. It was the site of a fantastic LSD trip I'd had with a dear friend months earlier, when he showed me this spot. We walked and talked, and admired the ducks, until dawn when we stood near this place and felt together the growing intensity of the sun rising over a hill. So I jumped in. The river Cam is cold in winter. So cold it knocks the breath sharply out of your body. I was certainly more awake than I had been, and I swam to the bank I'd jumped off to try and climb back up. The wet and high stone was impossible to climb and I could barely move. There were steps back up just round the corner from where I'd jumped, unfortunately these were against the current and the Cam was flowing fast. There was just no way I could get to them. I tried to cry out, but with no breath in my body I could barely manage a whimper and at any rate there was nobody anywhere near this dark hidden place.

At this moment I realised I was probably about to die. I was very cold and could barely move, I had no hope of rescue and no possibility of escape. And because death seemed inevitable I relaxed, after all what else could I do? The current swept me further downstream, and just beyond the stone bank the ground flattened out to mud and I scrambled out of the water cold but exhilarated. I'd just recently completed reading a magickal novel by Robert Anton Wilson in which he described how every acolyte must face death and accept it (something that only came to mind later), so I took this as a sign that I was still on the right path. Let's call this attempt on my life number one.

Months later I had left college, kicked out cleverly and ignominiously, but entirely reasonably, by the university. By this time I was living alone in a flat in Luton. I always say, probably unfairly, that the great thing about having lived in Luton is that anywhere else seems wonderful in comparison. I had reached a stage where the paranoia ("the fear") I felt whilst on drugs was with me all the time. In every human interaction I felt like more and more of my life was being torn from me and I was powerless to stop it. Because I couldn't face people I didn't "sign on" and I didn't claim housing benefit, so I lived in this flat for several months without paying rent to the man who owned it, something I still have on my conscience (and yes I have tried to contact him since).

I knew this horror was caused by fear, and if only I could conquer the fear I could be free. In particular, stemming from horrible experiences of being bullied and fearing for my life whilst at secondary school, I felt that it was a fear of violence. So the right way to be free was for me to "shoot the fear" by punching people. I really, really didn't want to do this but I felt that I had to. My life now consisted of walking the streets, all day, every day, trying to pluck up the courage to punch people. I did say I was mad. I must have walked hundreds of miles in those months. I did actually punch a few people, not many though (and indirectly this is how I ended up in prison).

One evening, yet another evening of walking the streets of Luton, I saw a man about my age at a petrol station. I walked up and asked him the time. As he looked down at his watch I sucker punched him and knocked him down. Then I walked on. Funnily enough I felt no freer than I had before, most perplexing and you'd think I might have taken this as a sign that perhaps I was a bit wrong about a few things. Moments later a car screeched round the corner and pulled up in front of me. The young man and several of his friends jumped out of the car, one of them reached into the boot of the car and pulled out a tyre iron and they approached me. First they asked why I punched their friend, to which I had no answer at all let alone a satisfactory one. Next they proceeded to beat me with the tyre iron. I fled at great speed, acquiring a large blister to go with the wounds on my head. Let's call this attempt on my life two.

Without signing on I had no money at all. I lived, if you can call it that, picking up cigarettes from the ground, occasionally pawning possessions and eating surprisingly well from out of date food thrown away by the local Iceland store. I remember one day I found about twenty packs of just-out-of-date bacon in the skip behind the store, what a treasure trove. Unfortunately I wasn't always so lucky, and probably the most ill I have ever been was brought about by food poisoning from some scavenged "dips". Naturally seeking medical attention was out of the question and I rode it out. Let's call this attempt number three.

Eventually my mind cracked, I thought I had been enlightened and I walked from Luton to Cambridge in triumph. Now I was properly mad, but at least I could talk to people and life was actually a great deal more fun than it had been. Oh, except for the being homeless part. On the first night I slept in a doorway, that was cold. I fell in with some of the other homeless and for a little while I slept in a concrete car park with them. We were woken every morning at six by a security guard and I can still feel the cold of the concrete seeping into my bones.

As I could now talk to people I thought it was entirely reasonable to claim backdated unemployment benefit for all the time I'd been unable to. I got a doctor to certify that I'd been ill, preventing me making a claim, but I was now better (pretty much the only valid grounds for a backdated claim). Every day I would go to the unemployment office to harangue them about the state of my claim. One day in particular I was waving an Aleister Crowley book at them and making my usual demands. A large security guard grabbed me by the throat and forcibly ejected me. This somehow didn't prevent my claim going through, and on the day before Christmas eve I received two giros (it was too large an amount for a single giro) for something over £900. With part of the money I bought a new pair of jeans and a pair of roller blades.

By this time I was staying in a hostel on Castle Hill. The city of Cambridge is basically entirely flat except for Castle hill which Wikipedia calls a "knoll located in the Castle ward of the city". Part way up Castle hill is a grassy mound, the old site of the Norman Cambridge Castle, where my Dad proposed to my Mum and where I proposed to Delia. I was living at the top of Castle hill. That evening I shakily made my way up the hill on my roller blades, moving hesitantly from lamppost, to hedge, to wall, anywhere I could grab onto as I advanced upwards.  Wearing a long coat and scarf I looked not entirely unlike the only true Doctor Who, Tom Baker.

The next day I felt more confident about the roller blades and I decided to use them to get down to the city centre. At first I followed the same pattern as my previous ascent, moving gradually from one perch-hold to the next. But roller-blading is quite easy really, so I stepped onto the road. Castle Hill is quite steep. So I started going quite fast. This was great fun, although the whirring and whining from the wheels were a little concerning. What became more concerning was the moment I realised that half way down Castle Hill is a large road that crosses the one I was on. The lights ahead of me were red and traffic was streaming across right in my path. A few seconds of frantic thought and I came to the only conclusion possible, I had to stop so I had to fall over. So that's what I did. I suffered little damage beyond a bloodied knee and one hole in my new jeans, but let's call this attempt on my life number four.

Thankfully my madness failed to kill me, coming to an abrupt and painful end in Bedford prison where I realised that I wasn't enlightened and in fact I'd burned everything in my life that I'd ever cared about. The rest, as is sometimes said, is now history.

I describe more of the time around my psychosis in Fragments of a Once Broken Mind and Why Should I Fear. More personal history in I was Brought Up.

"Gravity waves exist. The thunderclap of creation that resonate across infinity."

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