An essay by Q.S. Is
A colleague of mine wrote to me telling me that his son was experiencing psychosis and had been sectioned. When I read his email memories returned of my own psychosis and the fear of being trapped in a parallel world that had no rules or limits and was a complete mental fabrication, and yet so potent and intoxicating, part of me never wanted to leave. For the sake of protecting the identity of my colleague I will call him Noah. I’ve only met Noah once; he came to a small exhibition of mine.
When I first saw him, the image that I had already carved in my head didn’t tally with the one I saw. He seemed worn down, not by life, but by mental daily woes, something I identified with – it was all in the eyes, they had that hollowed out quality that comes from chronic battling with the demons that lurk in our heads. And yet when we spoke on the phone he sounded young, almost like a timid boy. The gaps between sentences, the occasional stammer, the quietness of his voice all resonated. It was like he was speaking in code. The long pauses meant he was thinking about every word he uttered and the consequences of what he said; the sporadic stammer the result of medication or previous psychosis; the quietness a foil to appear gentle and safe to the world when really he was angry and had something to roar about. I could be wrong, but this is what I sensed.
Of course, I never relayed any of this to him. When I first saw his art work, the same decoding took place, each meticulous stroke, the hours that went into every drawing, the manic intensity of his shading – yes Noah and I were definitely carved from the same gnarled, ancient and neglected tree. Both artists and writers, both sufferers of psychosis, both labelled with mental conditions that were unhelpful and stigmatising, both trying to engage in work that would attempt to answer the questions about the mind that the ‘doctors’ were still trying to fathom and both parents to sons.
My biggest fear was that my son might one day be afflicted with the same ‘hot’ brain syndrome as his mother. I’d already explained to him at the tender age of two that ‘when Mummy’s brain gets hot she shouts, but if Mummy’s brain is cool, she’s calm.’ ‘Breathing helps’, I told him and he would emulate me by mimicking long inhalations and exhalations, he even knew the importance of sleep and would often say ‘Mummy sleep’ and close the door to allow me to rest. Such insights and understanding at his age seemed remarkable. He would also say ‘Baba don’t like shouting’ and I would reply ‘Mummy doesn’t like shouting.’ I didn’t like shouting at all, but when I became unwell I could start ranting, something I have witnessed with my own mother and my middle sister. My rants wouldn’t last long, they were like short, sharp, painful electric shocks, another sign of failure, of my inability to control my hot brain which heated up with such alacrity there was no way for me to ‘nip it in the bud.’
And yet each day I was hopeful that I would manage one ‘no ranting’ day, a day that was calm and solely full of laughter, affection and stimulation for my son. When Noah told me that his son had ‘got it’ I wondered then if it was inevitable that my son would also ‘get it’. We had both tried to do something productive with our very different sort of brains, to create, to write, to believe that we were afflicted for a reason.
Noah told me that his son wouldn’t stop smoking weed, I’d dabbled myself and never realised at the time that I was playing ‘Russian roulette with my mental health’. The first time I tried cannabis was aged 18, it was a rites of passage smoking a joint, like losing your virginity. But, even though I had no idea that smoking weed could cause or exacerbate mental health problems, my experimentation was short-lived. I abstained for over a decade, never touched alcohol or did any other sort of drug, but then at aged 29, when I found myself alone in London and after tiring of being incessantly offered some insalubrious substance and seeing the inevitable look of disappointment when I refused, in a moment of apathetic weakness, I accepted and this time when I smoked the joint I liked it. Sometimes I didn’t know what I was smoking, be it hash, weed or skunk it didn’t matter.
I would describe myself as a casual, occasional smoker, I even abstained for long periods before bumping into a ‘friend’ who would casually offer me a joint and then I would swiftly resume the habit. I didn’t stop until I was 36. The last joint I smoked may have contributed to the first psychotic episode I experienced. I don’t know, it was most probably a combination of factors, stress, sleep deprivation, a series of traumas and disappointment that all conspired to cause a combustion in my brain. Perhaps the joint was tantamount to lighting the match that fuelled the fire that began to incinerate my brain. It was bewildering when I suffered a second episode, even though I had now stopped smoking cannabis. Was the second episode the result of the still burning embers that swiftly became another inferno?
It was when I experienced subsequent post partum psychosis and identified patterns and clearly defined cumulative stages that I realised the pathways in my brain had been irrevocably changed by the psychosis, just as someone who suffers a brain injury that renders them disabled, the psychosis had traumatised my brain, shattered it and altered it beyond recognition. Given a set of circumstances the descent towards psychosis could be swift. Such is my awareness of my ‘condition’ that I am acutely aware of the danger signs * and now know what to do to stop the fall.
One psychiatrist told me that I would have developed psychosis without the weed, but I am certain that smoking weed didn’t help at all. The hallucinations and voices only started after my cannabis use, before then my ‘illness’ oscillated from depression, to thoughts of suicide, to hopelessness to an inability to get up, brush my teeth and eat. These morbid, depressive phases are seldom now. Instead I am walking a fine tight rope, avoiding triggers that can set me off into rages and rants and a whole series of very specific symptoms that all conspire together to lead to the same dark, burning hole which is psychosis.
Noah told me quite candidly that his son was a cannabis user and I immediately blurted out ‘he has to stop.’ It was a trite and obvious thing to say, of course he had to, but if he didn’t want to there was not much anyone could do. Noah also told me how his son was targeting him with his rage, something I had also done with members of my family, friends and people who had been close to me. The main target was my husband. When you are deep in the throes of psychosis the people who are nearest and dearest become your punch bags, but also your only allies. I said some unspeakable things, which fill me with abject horror and shame. It is traumatising to be at the receiving end of such rebarbative and rancid nonsense and yet you can’t stop even if you want to. And even after I recovered the residue of psychosis is there on your tongue, your thoughts, your way of looking at the world. After the psychosis you are not the same person and never will be or can be again.
Noah told me how his son had not been sleeping either and although he’d been sectioned and put on medication he wasn’t recovering. The strain in his voice was palpable. I listened, tried to show empathy, but I knew that nothing I said would ameliorate Noah’s pain. I sensed Noah’s guilt – that he’d passed on the ‘mad’ gene to his son and the fear for his son’s future once he was gone.
In Noah’s last email he apologised for being unable to attend my exhibition, he wrote that he had not been sleeping and that ‘trying to work out what best to do to keep myself sane seems impossible.’ I hastily wrote back that ‘sleep deprivation’ for people with our sort of brains was like taking a cocktail of potent drugs. Noah’s son’s illness seemed to be infecting him and I started to worry. What if Noah became ill too, then who would be there for his son? And what about all the precious work Noah was doing?
Each word I wrote seemed feebler than the last and then I realised, despite all my insights and empathy and hope that things would get better I was powerless. Absolutely powerless. Even the doctor’s were. Noah had to sleep, his son had to rest and stop smoking cannabis, they needed peace and calm and nutritious food and access to nature and tranquillity. They needed to be as far away from the ‘toxicity’ of the city as possible and they needed time – copious amounts of it – to let their hot brains cool down.
Yet would they have access to such nature, food, peace, quiet and tranquil calm or would the anxiety about his son, and the crushing and slow annihilation of the spirit that occurs when dealing with a loved one who is deep in the clutches of psychosis impinge on Noah and, like lead hand cuffs, stop him from doing what he had to do to get strong and fight to help bring his son back into the real world. Right now, sleeping pills gave him little respite; Noah would wake in the night, plagued by nightmares and worry. Noah could only watch as his son was devoured by the sharp teeth of psychosis, watch as the illness munched through his son’s brain and reduced him to a ranting, foaming, imposter. And even though I was not there, I could see it too and I was filled with fear for him, compounded by the fact that maybe this too would be my own son’s fate one day.
For years now I was trying to keep my psychotic imposter at bay, I called him Fred and Fred was there, watching me, waiting for me to fail, jumping in if my brain got hot and turning up the heat for his amusement. Keeping Fred out of my life was my own daily battle. My young son knew about Fred already and I knew Fred wanted to infect his nascent mind, just as Fred had got to Noah’s son. Even though I was writing books to help my son when he was old enough to understand the nature of psychosis and the fiend that was Fred and what happened to his Mummy when Fred got inside her head and how Fred would maybe try to get into his head too and that if he wanted to stay well and be strong he must abstain from smoking weed or consuming alcohol excessively and be vigilant and careful about the people he surrounded himself with.
How naïve was I? How could I stop him from teenage exploration? Would he care? Would he listen? Would he fall and not be strong enough to get up and fight, because each day was a battle for Noah, for me, for his son and maybe one-day my own son – and now this second child that was growing rapidly inside me, moving around in the safety of my womb as I write this. ‘Stay in the womb, you are better off in that warm cave than out there in the glare of the world with all its very sharp teeth.’ Of course, this second baby would soon be out and Fred would be waiting, all I could do was to keep on fighting, to be the protector, the educator and never accept defeat, even when I was on my knees and weeping inside begging for a different brain and just a slender slice of normality and peace.
The reason why I wrote this essay was for Noah, his son and my own children. Words and art are all we have – that’s our ammunition to fight this – not pills, or dubious concoctions – Noah said he wasn’t happy with the medication or the impact on his son, so what would work. Not giving up and continuing the fight against the illness, the disease, the condition, which I called Fred. I am reassured in the belief that everyone has a ‘Fred’ it’s not just us. The problem is he’s become a force so potent and destructive in our lives that we have to rally together to lock him away, except he will never go away, he will always be there, with me, with Noah and his son. ‘What to do’ as my own son often says. ‘What to do?’ I reply. ‘Don’t give up.’
I end on this, Noah, remember that your son was not always ill, remember your boy before the psychosis and hold onto that and hold onto the belief that he will come back into your world and speak to you in a kind and gentle voice and the memory of the psychosis will be a disturbing stupor and that it was never real and he never wants to go back there, however alluring Fred’s world may seem, it’s a sick world, a rotten world, a world where there is no hope. Hold onto that Noah and don’t give up on your boy.
* These signs are: mania a fanatical need for order, talking very rapidly, frenetic work activity, flight of ideas, inability to sleep, amplified sounds, identification of patterns related to numbers/ people, illusions of grandeur, anger towards specific people mainly family members, vivid and disturbing visions, acute paranoia and so on – when full blown psychosis occurs all the symptoms are weaved together to create a seamless other world, where only you have the power and the answers to solve all the world’s problems and crack the code, this perceived power gives you the mandate to shout and rant and force those around you to listen and obey. The state is so alluring, when you are in it, part of you never wants to leave.