An anonymous contributor shares their experience of living with psychosis
When I was a young child, around five or six years old, I was taken on holiday to visit some family friends. I don’t remember much about the holiday other than some dodgy soup, a trip to the local science centre and my first experience of psychosis. I was put to bed in the same room as another little girl and settled to go to sleep, much like every other night. This night, however, a man started screaming at me in the dark, piercingly and aggressively. From what I heard he could have been no further away than sitting on the bed right next to me. I sobbed and screamed back, begging the man to ‘leave me alone’. That’s how I remember it, but I can’t have been yelling that loudly, because my parents didn’t hear from downstairs. As for the other little girl in the room, I can only assume I scared her into silence. What I have since realised, but didn’t for perhaps years, is that the man that terrified me so much that night never existed in the first place.
On the journey home the following day I lay shivering next to my mother trying to explain what had happened. Of course, if a man really had broken in and tormented me the adults would have heard. So I think she just put it down to a fever dream or something, given that I was shaking the whole way home.
I moved on, confused but ultimately comforted by my mother’s reassurance that the man hadn’t been real. Unfortunately, incidents like these punctuated my childhood. The sound of people screaming at me, louder and clearer than if you and I sat down and had a chat in a coffee shop today. It was distressing and usually pushed me to tears, but I assured myself that it wasn’t real and was, therefore, harmless. I’ve since learned that this is a naively simplistic take on the situation.
There was a period of time in my teenage years where I wasn’t bothered by hallucinations, but, let me be clear, the psychological impact these episodes in my childhood had had on me haunted me, and I was always just waiting for the day to come when the condition would return – and it did.
When I started university, I began to see shapes in the night. I told myself that everybody does, it’s just the hyperactivity of the human mind in the dark. Soon, however, these shapes turned into old men standing over my bed, wild animals approaching from the corner of my bedroom, large spiders crawling all over my bed and, on one strange and decidedly less sinister night, laser lights above my head that I reached up to touch. Again, I told myself that these hallucinations, although terrifying and preventing me from getting any decent sleep, could not actually hurt me. I have experienced auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations in the past few years alone, both in bed at night time and in public during the day.
I keep going on about how my hallucinations can’t hurt me, but the reality is they have a severe impact on my day to day life. I am frequently too terrified to sleep and am consequently exhausted and struggling to cope with trying to coming to terms with the fact that I am seeing and hearing things that don’t exist (I still haven’t really managed). Aside from that I recently had an experience where I truly believed that what I was seeing and hearing was actually happening, and that by far has been my scariest experience of psychosis to date. Anyone who has experienced a total break with reality like this will be able to testify that it is a horrific situation to cope with, both during and after. After this incident I was left not only despairing at my own mental state, trying to process the unignorable deterioration of my mental health, but I was also physically sick for the following few days. The effect of the short, intense period of anguish I’d experienced during the hallucination left my body debilitated long after the incident had ended.
Not only is suffering from the condition often intensely distressing but the word psychosis or psychotic is often misconstrued as meaning psychopathic, or worse maniacal. This misunderstanding leaves people suffering with psychosis, and believe me more people do than you think, frightened to talk about the condition for fear of being categorised as a violent, out of control lunatic.
Conditions like depression and anxiety have largely become accepted as common ailments in modern society, but if you fall outside that small box of ‘common mental health problems’ you quickly realise that the prejudice surrounding mental health problems is enduring - it has simply shifted focus. It’s become a cliché at this point but we must continue to talk about mental health problems, particularly less common ones, in a bid to normalise them and make accessing resources and services easier for those who may currently be living in fear and shame. Additionally, creating and sustaining a discourse around uncommon mental health problems like psychosis will make it easier for those suffering to come to terms with their condition, because at the moment reaching out for help can seem like an impossible leap when it’s so difficult to even accept the existence of the problem yourself.