It’s taken me a while to finally get to this point where I feel comfortable recounting my experiences of psychosis whilst abroad, although I have been wanting to tell my version of events for a long time. Not necessarily as a form of catharsis, but as a way of shaping the narrative into something that could be understood, at least parts of it anyway. I think because these events and experiences are pushed to the edge of human existence, by telling the story I hope to make it seem as though the psychosis was actually a natural, in-built response to the stressors that were going on at the time.
My first experience of Rome didn’t quite hold a candle to the gilded glamour on show in Roman Holiday, although the power of the surreal exoticism of the city no doubt fed into my first encounter of psychosis. The overpowering, imposing religious iconography also played a part, with every street corner featuring beautiful statues, fountains and churches.
The trip (no pun intended) began in the fashion that for me would be repeated for several weeks until under heavy psychiatric medication – no sleep. A friend and I got the last train down to Coventry Airport and rather than get a decent night’s kip as anyone in their late twenties and beyond would do in an airport hotel, we opted to try and sleep at the airport, the wet behind the ears scamps we were.
What we hadn’t factored into the equation was that even regional airports close overnight, so whilst we could we slept in the lobby which occasionally filled with a baltic blast of air as the automatic doors opened. We were then turfed out and had to sleep, or try to, in the entrance to the airport. I must have got about half an hour’s sleep, certainly not ideal for the start of a holiday.
We caught the early flight and arrived in sweltering heat in Rome. My memory fails me as to how we got from the airport to the city centre, although I am sure we got fined for not buying a ticket for the metro pretty early into the holiday. We also did not have accommodation sorted, so we went off scouring the city for a place to stay.
We found somewhere and soon after met with our employer for the holiday. He let us know what our job would entail much to our pleasure it would involve lots of drinks and hi-jinks with hard partying tourists. Throughout the day, we were to try and get as many people to meet up with us in a terrace near the Coliseum, where we would be encouraging drinking games such as beer pong, before heading round Rome’s bars and clubs for discounted drinks, with the odd free shot of questionable origin to be thrown in too.
Some more friends came out to stay and it was, for a short time, good fun. However, a number of factors started to stack up against my favour. Firstly, and most apparently, I was drinking far too much. I was pretty consistently drinking as soon as we arrived to host the evening pub crawl. In fact, for our evening meal, we would go to a buffet at a local Irish pub. Free food, on the proviso that you bought a couple of pints. So from then on in, it was drink after drink. And as host of a pub crawl, you couldn’t show to be slacking, could you?
Secondly, and what seems to be a consistent theme in my psychoses, was the heat. It was hot from the moment you emerged from alcohol induced slumber to the moment you drifted off fourteen hours later. All through the day, it was claggy, uncomfortable. The only saving grace was a shower in the hostel that didn’t actually heat up.
I think the third factor was having to speak to people all day, selling the pub crawl. I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural salesman, so having to come up with new ways to reach out to people was difficult, as often people I stopped just wanted to amble around the Coliseum and its grounds without being hassled by pub crawl touts, was difficult. I felt like a spring was tightly coiling inside of me; the more I tried to cajole people into coming to the pub crawl, the more I felt on edge, that something wasn’t sitting right.
As has already been mentioned, I was getting by on practically no sleep, and any sleep I was getting was alcohol induced. So basically the brain was getting no time to subconsciously process all the stimuli it was getting in the day. I was walking round the city semi-comatose, yet summoned the energy each and every night to entertain the masses.
There is a strange phenomenon reported by a minority of visitors to Jerusalem. They report powerfully religious hallucinations, voices and delusions which stem from the manifestations of Christianity in the city. But it’s not only Christians who experience these symptoms but Jews and Muslims have been know to show signs of the illness too. Now I’m not claiming that I went through something akin to Rome Syndrome, but the possibility is there that our visit to the Vatican or the eminence of Catholicism in the city may have affected me. It may be, like the other possible explanations, conjecture. But it may be down to a combination of some if not all of the factors mentioned, even some I may not have considered.
The year leading up to it also had its fair shares of ups and downs. I didn’t really settle down into university until halfway through the year after a long distance relationship ended. I made a lot of new friends and was socially doing very well. However, I was scraping by with my law course and only just passed my exams. So it was a fairly turbulent year all in all, and really I should’ve taken time off to take stock and relax. Instead I went to Glastonbury, and loved it. It was a massive release after a lot of self-imposed pressure and I saw some of my favourite bands with a few good mates.
My memory of the fallout is pretty hazy and fragmented. Throughout the episode (I hate that word as it fails to convey the extremity of the experience), I was emotionally labile, elated one minute, aggressive and hostile the next. I remember several isolated incidents which added up seem to indicate that I was extremely psychotic and distressed. What follows is a series of recollections which are not chronological so it may be hard to follow but some common threads may be identifiable.
From what I recall, I think the first sign of stress starting to boil was when I was paid for my work. It was on commission, and whether rightly or wrongly I thought I had performed equal to or better than my friend. I let it simmer under the surface; everything was fine and dandy as long as the beer flowed and the punters kept coming.
We managed to get a flat in the outskirts of town which from memory was very nice, but almost as soon as we moved in I started to get worse, going through my friends’ things at night, reading special meanings into the various guide books we had bought and getting unexplainably upset to Oasis’ song She’s Electric (you’ll notice that music tends to play a a part in these situations).
I got next to no sleep again and started to think my drink had been spiked on the pub crawl. I tried to flush it out of my system by taking on lots of water. I then went and sat outside the apartment in my pyjamas, stewing over conversations my friends had had at dinner, convinced they were talking about me in code. I then became very upset when next door’s baby started to cry. Things had quite apparently escalated.
Next thing I remember all four of us were in a park and for some reason I felt awful, a terrible mixture of paranoia, depression and elation. I ran away from everyone and my friend, extremely concerned, eventually found me.
The next thing I remember was being in a tanning shop and literally covering myself in tanning lotion before running out the shop. Quite what motivated me to do that I don’t know but I ended up with my friend chasing after me in a nearby metro station. A policeman prevented me from going through the gates, and as my friend came to try and explain, I hit him. More of a slap than a punch, but still well beyond the pale.
I then set off alone round the bars and cafes of central Rome, my friends increasingly concerned for my whereabouts. I had developed my own conspiracy theory, that the Euro 2004 football tournament had not in fact fully taken place and that if I undertook various tasks, I could win tickets for the real final.
All the while, I was phoning friends on my mobile asking for clues to help me on my quest. I don’t know what and why I was asking, but I’m sure my phone bill for the month was quite something. I remember going into one bar and having three or four iced coffees before going to the bathroom and trying to clean it, asking the bemused, if not concerned staff for a mop and bucket, despite knowing a handful of Italian words and phrases.
The mirror in the bathroom had an air freshener stuck to it, and as I recall it fell off as soon as I opened the door. I took this for a sign that I was being watched, and on a grand scale. I thought I was on TV, on something like Big Brother and this fuelled the grandiosity of the perceptions.
I went round a couple more places, sweeping up cigarette butts, in my mind as penance for the extravagant travels I had enjoyed the year before in my gap year. I was very lucky to visit the places I did, but feeling guilty about it does seem a little weird.
My last memory of the holiday (?!) pre-hospitalisation was stripping down to my Jack Daniels emblazoned boxer shorts (how’s that for a plug!) and just running. I didn’t know where I was and my feet were dirty, cracked and sore. Eventually, I just collapsed in the arms of a passing stranger. Who knows what could have happened had he not called for an ambulance and stayed with me.
The oddness continued in hospital. I was heavily sedated and upon waking I thought I was in heaven, due to a water bottle with the French word for heaven, ciel, being offered to me. I was wheeled to the other side of the hospital and I thought I saw one of the members of the band The Strokes, wishing me well. As the trolley weaved its way through the hospital, I started to think I was being sent to Rome’s space station. I had read a few months previously about space travel in a men’s magazine, and I must have seen a connection between the two, whatever that may be.
I took some restraining as the doctors tried to diagnose me, once requiring about six of them to pin me down, awaking to find my wrists tied to the hospital bed. I kept opening my eyes wide open and jolting my body upwards. People thought I was fitting, but actually I was emulating the character in this music video who regains consciousness after a car crash (at 3.23). I was physically trying to wake myself from this nightmare, but it was of to no avail.
A kindly doctor realised that I could well be suffering from psychosis and I finally got the necessary care. I was moved to a psychiatric unit which I only remember very vaguely – the one and only memory being walking round its grounds heavily medicated with my Dad.
There was a final scare on a hotel rooftop when awaiting my air ambulance home. I had been discharged from the unit and I think it was decided just to have a drink where we were staying. The rooftop was probably not the best place for a psychotic young man to be, so we swiftly headed back to our rooms.
I flew home under a chemical cosh and checked in to the local psych ward for a torrid fortnight where my condition was brought under control as I paced the unit, fuelled on soggy chips and weak squash endlessly watching my DVD’s of The Office and Phoenix Nights.
What followed a few months later was my first experience of depression. I. Had dropped out of uni, stopped socialising and exercise was consigned to the back burner. I don’t cry very often but I broke down a few times at home, unable to understand what I had gone through. It was later agreed that I was also experiencing something akin to PTSD. It felt that now I had an albatross around my neck, I was that guy. I dreaded what people may have been saying, and I suddenly felt watched and an object of gossip. It was a year to forget no doubt, and after a long time sitting on the couch turning things over, I began talking therapy. This helped massively, combined with the new task of going to pick my brother up from work. I started at the gym, and began a course of anti-depressants. My mood lifted and I applied to Leeds University to study my favourite subject at school, Spanish.
A new chapter of my life began in September 2005 at Leeds. I had a few downs, but in first and second year I got on with my work and kept a fairly quiet social life. This all changed on my year abroad in Valencia, where I fell in with a large group of fellow British Erasmus students, and had a whale of a time. Final year was fairly pressured but I had some good mates and set up The Mind Matters Society, the university’s first mental health society.
I came away from the four years with a first, though I felt a bit hollow and ambivalent about it, perhaps a sign that my mood was changing. This would all spill over on a post exam holiday to Morocco, which you can read about in the following post, The Marrakech Express.