9 Feb 2016

My year of darkness: A journey back from psychosis

5:07 pm on 9 February 2016

What’s it like when you lose your grip on reality? Charlotte-Rose Ruddell writes about her journey into psychosis, and coming back out the other side.

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Photo: Illustration: Giselle Clarkson

My story starts in a wealthy suburb of Mumbai.

I’m there for Christmas with relatives, and intend to travel across India and Nepal over six months as a respite from a stressful year. I bond with my aunt, uncle and cousins and explore the city. One evening I arrange to meet a writer off the internet. Over whiskey and soda we become fast friends. We devour live theatre then head to a noisy bar. Something about our instant connection and philosophising about life gets me excited to the point where I can’t come down from the high.

That night I write furiously until sunrise, filling page after page in my notebook. It feels like an out of body experience where I am looking down on myself from high up in the corner of the room. When I look in the bathroom mirror my eyes are half-closed and I can’t open them fully.

Nothing can make you feel quite so lonely or disoriented as insomnia. Sometimes I’m startled by fireworks or temple bells from outside the room, but I feel compelled to write on every page of the book and keep going.

My mental state deteriorates the next day as music, thoughts, conversations and memories play on a continuous loop in my brain. The ringtone of my alarm is repeating over and over in my head.

One minute my possessions are neatly arranged beside the bed and the next everything is strewn around the room. I become obsessive about colour; silver is the devil, gold is the sun, yellow and brown foods are the only things that I want to eat.

When I speak, my ideas don’t come out as fully formed sentences: I jump to conclusions, swing out onto wild tangents and forget to provide context. My aunt gives me funny looks. My cousin nods along to my rambling. When I look at my notebooks some of the writing is upside down or back to front. The following night I scribble my mind-dribble down until the early morning call to prayer.

My journal reads:

“I finally dreamt again, but it took me a while. One night without closing my eyes and another without my head touching the pillow. But now I can sleep without wasting precious seconds, minutes, hours. And dream without running the risk of entering my worst nightmares.”

Food becomes of little interest over these three days. I don’t leave the house. I think I am a maid locked in a tower. Tiny bruises appear on my right earlobe and I am certain that it is because I am listening too intensely to what people say. I am convinced that my newly made friend is nothing more than a con-artist and thief after I misplace a wad of rupees the next time we meet. I begin to fervently believe my death is approaching on the 1st of January and it terrifies me. I do an okay job of hiding it but the facade is broken during a panic attack in front of my aunt and uncle. Eventually, I confess that I haven’t been sleeping well. Naturally, they are concerned.

A series of minor accidents gets me thinking I shouldn’t be travelling alone in India; cutting my hand badly, slipping over on water leaking from the dishwasher and having a shelf of weights collapse on my leg during a gym session with my cousins. I’m convinced I will die if I remain in India after the 31st of December. After six days of being in Mumbai I fly home. I sleep and eat the whole way home.

Arriving back in Auckland is tofu noodle soup for the soul. My boyfriend is ecstatic to see me - we are in a new relationship and very much in love. Things settle back to normal.

But slowly, back in New Zealand, threads start to unravel again. Some nights I can’t sleep so I go on the internet until the wee hours and then fall asleep on the couch. I grow edgy and argumentative. Compulsively filling a tiny black notebook with ideas, I decide I am now a writer, just like my pal from Mumbai. But also a musician and renowned songwriter. I want to open a community-based bicycle shop in Mt Roskill.  I intend to become a stand-up comedian. I also feel compelled to find a job involving sustainability and working with children and families in the community. My thoughts and ideas are all consuming.

One day in mid-January, I cycle around Ponsonby with no particular purpose to my exploration. I took hundreds of photographs, raced down College Hill and stopped to explore the housing and retail developments opposite Victoria Park. When I caught sight of some security cameras in an office my head exploded with possibilities. Were they waiting for me to arrive? And why were there so many courier vans delivering packages? They had seen me coming on their screens! They had wanted me to come and visit. They had something important for me. Was it real estate? Or was it advice about being a better neighbour?

I drift to Silo Park to meet a friend for lunch. To my mind every second stranger that crosses my path is a part of a happy conspiracy to get me employed. When I begin to realise that no one is offering the dream job I feel empty and go home. When my boyfriend returns from work we fight bitterly. Nothing makes sense -  it is as if we are speaking two different languages and trying to hold multiple conversations at once. My frustration reaches boiling point and I threaten to jump off the eighth story balcony. A few weeks before  I’d climbed from the neighbor's balcony to ours after locking myself out of the apartment, and the memory of that rush is as appealing as it is terrifying.

The next day I meet people for lunch at a cafe on K Road. Halfway through our conversation we are interrupted by my good friend, who pulls me out onto the street and bundles me into her car. She tells me we are going someplace where I will feel comfortable to be myself in a safe and pleasant environment. I imagine painting my thoughts with watercolours and playing with blocks and feel excited. But we wind up at the GP. We are permitted use of a small room and I lie on a bed while we wait our turn for an appointment. My boyfriend arrives after a frustrating wait and comforts me.

With paperwork from the doctor, we drive to a mental health facility to meet a crisis team. It all starts getting a bit serious. I am interviewed by two professional middle-aged women. It’s all not quite real. I feel dazed, exhausted and can’t quite keep up with the thread of the conversation.

When it’s my loved ones’ turn to speak about what they have observed in my recent behaviour I become hostile and defensive. They are wrong! So what if I’ve been a bit strung out lately? Big fucking deal. After what feels like a lifetime, I am sent home with instructions to come back the next day for round two. I’m too afraid to be back at the apartment so we spend the night in Mt Albert.

The next afternoon I return to the centre with my boyfriend and aunt. It’s a repeat of the same process as yesterday, but with a different woman. After being confronted for the second time about very noticeable changes to my personality and behaviour, I start to see recent events through others’ eyes. I am prescribed a temporary course of anti-psychotic medicine. For the next three mornings I am visited by nurses at home.

Over the course of the year I spend time working on my wellbeing. After six months I finally accept and understand my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. For the most part, I live 2015 alone with my darkness. I resent being medicated. Struggles with low mood, suicidal ideation, lethargy, weight gain and social interaction are my whole world. My boyfriend is a steady source of comfort, humour and unconditional love. There are glimmers of hope as I slowly establish routines and rekindle friendships. I feel kindness from other human beings tenfold.

It's been about a year since all this business went down, and I still have little idea what the future holds.

Were these events unique to place and time? Or could the psychotic episodes happen all over again when least expected? Will I embrace my bipolar self and work to achieve all the dreams I discovered when the shackles of sanity had been removed? Or have I simply learned a few lessons on slowing down, staying healthy and being connected to the people around me?

I don't know. And I don't think pin-pointing an exact idea is important right now. All that matters is that I'm feeling much better these days.

For Olivia. And my darling darkness - Teva


If you need to talk to someone about your own mental health, try these helplines. If it is an emergency, call 111.

Lifeline - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Healthline - 0800 611 116

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz