Sympathy for the psychotic

CW: Self-harm, suicide, slurs. 

I don’t want to write this. It feels petty. No mental illness is “worse” than any other. I can’t speak to the struggles of OCD or eating disorders. I have never been anhedonic and it sounds like a special layer of hell. One person’s suffering never diminishes another’s. 

But mental health awareness is still overwhelmingly focused on depression and anxiety. If you’re playing the numbers game, it makes sense. 20% of people in the UK are suicidal at some point in their lives. Suicide is the leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 34, with men being especially at risk.

And in the US, there’s an emphasis on PTSD. Anywhere between 11-20% of veterans suffer from this condition, and as the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the base number will just keep growing.

So when “good meaning leftists”™ talk about being allies to the mentally ill, those people are front and centre in their minds. After all, who couldn’t relate? Even if you’ve never been depressed, you know what it is to be sad. Nobody enjoys being sad. And you hate the wars in the middle east, right? So of course you’re going to side with the victims, all of them. 

Throw in some good natured pillorying of Autism Speaks and you’ve hit both the trifecta, and the outer limits of empathy you’re going to get from society. Everything else is too alien, too “other”. 

As someone who has suffered extended bouts of psychosis thanks to bipolar 1, this fact occasionally likes to smack me in the face. So let’s talk about it.

The Nazi

Tristan Morgan is a 52 year old terrorist who (thankfully) failed to set a synagogue on fire. Instead, he lit himself on fire, and the internet thinks this is hilarious.

Morgan has now been indefinitely hospitalized, and is where he belongs. As a society, our primary duty of care and concern lie with his potential victims. (In 2018, antisemitic hate crimes in the UK rose by 16%. Consider donating to a Jewish charity to help)

(This is also the moment to consider how many black and brown men are summarily executed before they could even see a doctor. Our society dictates that only nazis get to be mentally ill. If you’re wondering how deep the societal rot of white supremacism goes, that should help answer your question.)

I am firmly in the “punch nazis” camp, but I don’t think the story of Tristan Morgan is funny at all. I think it’s the culmination of years of failed intervention for a man so mentally ill that he was sectioned immediately upon arrest, and then sentenced to indefinite hospitalization. 

So what I see, with all the ‘laugh’ reacts, is the internet collectively saying “look at what the spastic did now”. And I mentioned that, and offered that as someone who has suffered through psychosis, it hurt and angered me to see the “hilarity”.

Two responses crystallized how far we have to go, and reminded me of just how “welcome” people like me are in safe spaces.

“I don’t see what this has to do with being psychotic.”

From the first line of the Wikipedia entry: ‘Psychosis is an abnormal condition of the mind that results in difficulties determining what is real and what is not.’

I do not know Morgan’s mental health history, so some of this is going to be inference, and some of it is just going to be drawing on my own life.

At the very least, we know he was psychotic during the attempted arson. We also know that, like a huge number of people with mental health problems, he self-medicated with illegal drugs, which made his condition worse. 

This didn’t come out of nowhere. This was a long, long, journey.

If you’re a vulnerable adult, having trouble telling the difference between reality and delusion, and an extremist recruiter gets to you, do you think they’ll be passing up that golden opportunity? Morgan was an enthusiastic nazi. He read the literature, created folk songs, tried to burn down a synagogue. He’s exactly what they need.

I don’t buy that he was an avowed white supremacist by consent, in the same way I wouldn’t buy that the child of nazi parents was racist by consent. 

You can convince a psychotic person of just about anything if you’re smart about it. They’re already not operating on this plane of reality. And they’re not subtle about it:

 “When someone is sliding into a psychotic episode, the people with whom they have contact pretty much know it. “

What Really is a “Psychotic Break with Reality”?, Forbes

The people in his life knew he wasn’t “all there”, and they set him on this road regardless. 

Being Psychotic

Going through psychosis opens a rift between you and the rest of the world, for a number of reasons. First, how do you explain it? The two “greatest” delusions I can remember were that ‘birds had listening devices planted on them’, which is so absurd that it’s now a meme, and “god spoke to me”. 

I asked a few friends, once I started writing this, what they’d do if god spoke to them. Everyone hemmed and hawed. Sane people speak to God every day, some even hear back. But reading their testimonies, what they go through is an ocean away from what I experienced.

I promise every single person reading this that if the God of psychosis spoke to them personally and told them to do something, they would do it. I get why Abraham almost killed his son. I would have.

And there is trauma there. Every time I see the “birds aren’t real” meme memories flood back of hiding by my window in the hospital, terrified, and hoping the sparrows on the branch outside would leave soon so I could go back to…whatever it was I was doing. You can’t explain that. It isn’t “CW:Suicide” it’s “CW:absurdist humour”. There is no escaping it. 

Then there’s the memory loss. I do not remember how I met most of my friends. I have the deep, abiding love that comes with forging a relationship over the years, but I wasn’t present for most of it. Some I know because people regale me with stories but most…I have no idea.

I’m afraid to ask, because the answers often reveal more questions. I recently learned that I first met my Dad’s friend on a trip to America I had no idea I’d taken. Was it fun? Who else did I meet? Was I kind?

My illness stole my life story from me, and half of the time I didn’t even know I was ill. After all, I now know my psychosis comes from what are known as mixed episodes. A manic person doesn’t believe they’re unwell. They’re full of energy and the joy of living!

And it leads you to making crappy decisions. 

You Are a Burden, and That’s (Relatively) OK

I hate being told “you are not a burden”. It’s a patronizing lie. Anyone suffering through an extreme mental health episode is going to destroy some things in their life, and hurt a good few people. Not only that, they probably won’t even realise they’re doing it.

As I said, I don’t remember most of the years I was going through psychosis. There are flashes though. I remember sitting in a pool of my own blood and my partner walking through the door. I don’t remember why I was in my own blood, or what happened after. But I remember being very sad that my favourite towel was gone.

I remember getting out of the hospital and a friend from the states showed up. I had no memory of agreeing to let them stay. Four people cramped into a one bedroom flat soon became untenable, and my friend ended up in a foreign country with nowhere to stay.

I made my parents cry more times than I care to consider. I remember trying to show off my new piano skills to my Dad over the phone and he just…broke. I was sad and confused then, and I’m sad and confused now. I have no idea why that happened, but I know I was the cause. I’m sure he didn’t deserve whatever led to that.

Messages go unread. Emails go unanswered. Excuses get made. The worst bit is, because of the memory loss, I don’t know how many people I hurt. I don’t know how I hurt them. They’re out there though. Just waiting to catch up with me.

If you’re lucky enough to have people in your life who love you, it’s ok. It’s not that they don’t mind, of course they mind. Spend five minutes with someone whose partner is unwell and you’ll get a litany of complaints about something or other.

It’s that this is the Faustian pact we strike with each other in life. You provide people with something positive in their life, and they’re willing to shoulder the bad to keep it. 

A manic or psychotic person who has yet to be well does not know and cannot help themselves. You just have to trust the people in your life. If someone tells you they want you around, and that they love you, listen

If your mental illness is bad enough, if you really are disconnected from reality, you’re at their mercy. I was so lucky with the people around me, they nursed me back to health. 

Tristan Morgan was not so lucky.

“The world would be better off if he were dead.”

This is the gut punch that keeps me up at night – because it came from the “well meaning left”™, and because it’s a reminder of how society will treat me if I relapse in the wrong way.

What are you saying, if you agree with that statement? I can think of a few interpretations.

When someone becomes too mentally ill for society to handle, we should murder them

Forgive me for saying so but that’s a very…nazi-like attitude to take. Any doctor who was seeing Morgan would’ve alerted the police or hospitalized him as a “threat to himself or others.” This interpretation implies that if doctors don’t do their jobs, the sick should be punished. I’ve had some crappy psychiatrists in my time, I’d hate to be executed for it.

I don’t care that this man was unable to tell the difference between reality and delusions. His deluded mind decided to hate (((the Jews))), therefore we should murder him.

This one is more understandable. Fuck nazis, right? But it presupposes that (a) his sick mind and his healthy mind would be in agreement and (b) he was somehow both disconnected from this plane of reality, but together enough to make an informed choice to hate Jewish people. It doesn’t allow the possibility that, upon being nursed back to health, he would look at what he had done in horror.

He had a duty of care to others to look after his own mental health, and he failed in that duty. The price of failure is death. 

And this one is both so much projection on my part that I should set up an IMAX, and the thing that’s been keeping me awake at night ever since my comrade let me know the world would be better if Morgan was dead. 

Because what I read is “if you people fuck this up, the world would be better off if you were dead.”

I do honestly believe that if you strip away all pretense, and shed the lie of “you are not a burden,” this is the closest you will come to a universal truth here. Once you’ve been healed, even for a short while, you do have a duty to others. You’ve come through the other side, been given a second chance at life! 

I don’t think Morgan has ever been well. The court reports made no mention of “his psychiatrist”. Once the NHS knows you’re insane enough to section, they don’t let you out of their grasp easily. But I am well, now, and performing my duty.

So let’s talk about it.

Doing Your Duty – The Life of a Recovering Psychotic

My dream is that one day I can go camping again. I love going to music festivals, and I really love hiking in the woods. But the biggest and most intrusive hurdle on your life is your medication.

Last year I made the risky call to take as little medication as I could get away with. Medication dulls your senses, plays havoc with very basic things like “your ability to spell”, and takes enough of a toll on your body that every 3-6 months you need your heart and organs checked. 

Compulsive eaters have my empathy in as much as some medications make your stomach a yawning pit. Every second of every day, you are hungry. You eat and eat and eat and it’s never enough. (Epileptics may know this as the “depakote munchies”.) 

For 4-8 hours every day, I am dead to the world. Hit me enough times and I’ll wake up, but if the house catches fire while I’m asleep I’m pretty sure I’ll die. It means choosing housemates and lovers carefully. It means never leaving your own house overnight without making sure there’s a lock on the door. The hour before you pass out can kindly be called a “production” as you drunkenly stumble around eating and drinking whatever you can muster.

But fall asleep fast! Or you can spend the next few hours writhing in pain as your muscles cramp up. 

And fall asleep consistently, because otherwise you’ll get sick. There will be no more ‘overnights’ at other people’s parties without notice and you’d better clear the calendar for 3-4 days. Take your medication every 12 hours or suffer the consequences.

And no drinking. I don’t pay much mind to this one (failing at my duty!) because I enjoy drinking and want to have a life. But I asked a doctor at a party once if I should keep drinking or commit to taking my medication that night and I will never forget the look of horror on his face when I told him what I was taking. 

“But you could die!” – well, yeah, I’d rather roll the dice.

Which sounds, frankly, insane, but lots of things in a mentally ill person’s life will sound insane, so you learn to put on a poker face. There is no nice way to tell someone you’re suicidal, and there’s no way to explain that that’s ok, it’s normal, you just need to spend a few days licking your wounds. So mostly, I don’t. If I need medical intervention, I know how to get it. For everyone else, I’m just “under the weather”. 

The same thing goes for hallucinations. I spend an awful lot of my time hearing voices. I know they’re not real, I just also know that that’s distressing to many people. So I keep it to myself.

Every emotion is suspect, but especially happiness, love, and lust. You know, the good ones. The line between excited happiness and mania is thin if you’re not at “peak performance”, which can be entirely outside of your control.

Because I could go on about spending 2-12 hours a month in hospitals on top of having a full time job, or not leaving the house for days because my anxiety is too bad, or struggling to communicate that “perhaps my sentences are hard to follow because, as I already told you, I have disordered thinking, and I’m not just fucking you about”. But the sword of damocles that hangs over your head with the word “relapse” on it has almost nothing to do with how hard you work.

If you get a cold, your body will be tired, and you will be distracted, which means you might miss a symptom when it appears. Seems like a simple thing, but a virus can mean suddenly your mental health hangs in the balance. A death here, a breakup there, a fight with your friend; these are all things that are inevitable. They’re parts of life you cannot prepare for. They’re also what will send you mad. All you can do is build up as solid a foundation as you can muster, and hope. 

I am held to a different standard than those around me, and they don’t even know it. “Good” is not good enough, not if I want to function, not if I want to share my life with others.

And if I fail, or life tips my hand, and I’m not gifted with the love and support I have received thus far, then maybe society would be better if I was dead.

I can’t afford to believe that about myself, and I don’t believe it to be true for Tristan Morgan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s