Derren Brown vs the Coronavirus: my paranoid pandemic #1

This is the first in a series of diaries written at the beginning of the pandemic, by the inspiring and amazing @miserysquid . We’ll be releasing a new diary entry from @miserysquid, every morning this week.

Trigger Warning: self-harm, suicidal ideation, hypomania, restraint, ECT, psychosis, paranoia.

Sunday 22nd March 2020 – 02:15am

I can’t sleep. There’s a tight, buzzing feeling in my legs and neck. Strange unrealness in the air today. I should check the news; it’s irresponsible not to know what’s going on at the moment. I pick up my phone from the bedside table and click through the headlines quickly. The internet is full of graphs with multiple bold red lines curving upwards and upwards. Immediately there’s a twist in my stomach and I feel sick. Weird dread feeling tightens my throat. I check twitter. There’s a short video clip of a man in quarantine pretending that the home-made sock puppet on his hand is eating the cars driving past his window on the road, down below.

This evening, I cried hot, silent, tears whilst listening to a mindfulness app, then ten minutes later, watched Pride and Prejudice and laughed when my housemate couldn’t decide if Colin Firth or Matthew MacFadyen is the best Darcy. I wondered earlier, if I cut my little finger off, whether all of this will stop. It would be a kind of penance, I thought, maybe I’ve done something wrong, and a little finger would be an offering to reset the scale and restore equilibrium. I think this thought is unwell and shake my head backwards and forwards to get rid of it.

I went for a long walk yesterday near Clifton Suspension Bridge, blooming red tulips, a young family flies a kite, whilst a group of teenagers kick a football around. They’re not concerned by the news that Italy is locked down, singing from balconies, grieving and at war. Parked by the viewing platform, two older people are sat in their car, eating a packed lunch. A broadsheet newspaper is spread out across the dashboard, the different sections laid out casually, like a peaceful breakfast scene. The window is shut up tight. As people walk past -the government mandated 2-metre gap between each group -the couple sit in their tiny bubble of portable domesticity, entirely separate from the world. A vacuum, a vivarium of vulnerability. I feel like I’ve peeped in on something private and precious, it makes my eyes suddenly and unexpectedly fill up. I wonder how they feel, are they frightened? What will happen to them? All at once, this thought is overwhelming and a full flushed feeling of shame crashes in. I’m a burden on services, using up precious NHS resources, I’m so selfish, these people are vulnerable and making the best of it. I should jump off the Clifton Suspension Bridge, I deserve to be dead. It would be better for everyone, one less person to support through this catastrophe. There’ll be no world left soon, no support for anyone soon. It will be roaming dystopian gangs, survival of the fittest and I won’t survive.

I stop still and catch the thought spiral, closing both eyes. I can manage this. I know how to manage this. In my backpack there is a small pot of children’s play-dough. I feel the blistering flush of panic stirring in my chest and my face turning red. I quickly shrug one arm free from my backpack and rummage around, find the little white pot of play-dough, peel off the plastic lid and shove it hastily into my pocket. The nearest person is walking a dog some distance away, I decide to risk it and hurriedly take off my gloves. The virus can’t jump that far. I tip the pot upside down and hastily crush the cracked blue play-dough between my fingers. I breathe slowly and deliberately and feel the hard, dry dough start to soften in my hand. A dog runs past, the kite twists in the air, I shut my eyes and the wind pulls a strand of hair across my cheek. Breathe in and out slowly, breathe in and out. Count four long seconds in, hold, hold and five long seconds out and repeat. After a while, my shoulders relax, my mind begins to settle. I open my eyes and a woman is pushing a buggy whilst her partner holds an ice cream that is just starting to drip. Normal spring scene, normal dog sniffing a bench, normal game of rounders on the downs, normal white clouds and seagulls cawing. Normal, normal, normal, but I don’t feel remotely normal.

It’s selfish to be outside so long, I should go home. I stand careful and alert at the edge of the pavement. I pull my jumper over my hand so I can press the button for the pedestrian crossing, without touching it with my finger. There are less cars on the road than usual, but I still feel strange and distracted. I don’t want to get hit by a car today, that would be a waste of medical resources that are going to be needed in the coming weeks. I think about the news reports coming from Europe- lack of staff, military hospitals, three wise men protocols to allocate care. I’ve thought before about stepping in front of a car, not today though, I won’t do that today. Careful, gently does it, pay attention. Take a deep breath again and slowly, exhale the cool spring air across my teeth. I wait for a while, distracted by the trees, the birds, then look down at the crossing to check if the red circle around the button is lit up, not sure if I pressed it hard enough. Someone has left a silver house key on top of it. A normal looking silver house key with no key ring, sat on top of the box that lights up.

Suddenly, I know very vividly, that Derren Brown wants me to pick this key up.

I’m certain he does. And then I’m not certain. And certain, and not certain, and then I think probably, very probably, someone found a key on the pavement and left it there so if the person who lost it retraces their steps, they’ll find it easily. But maybe, Derren Brown left the key for me to take. Keys are very metaphorical, security, safety, a home, locked up, lock down. The crossing beeps, green man lights up, and I stop thinking about metaphors. I hurry across the road quickly, looking back behind me at the dog walkers and kite flyers and families, that seem suddenly suspicious. They are being much, much too casual.

I know that Derren Brown is not making a film about me. It’s been fourteen years since the psychosis started, and I do know it, but sometimes, probably more than sometimes, I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes, he seems to follow me around like a well-dressed spectre, encouraging me with signs in graffiti, writing in toilet cubicles, hiding around corners, peeping out of webcams. I imagine him sat in an elegant office full of security camera monitors. Sometimes he’s in my house, teaching my friends metaphors to trick me, and occasionally he flies past in a helicopter, but that only happens when he has the budget for an expensive aerial shot. At times, I’m pretty certain he’s doing these things, and at times I don’t think that’s very likely, but mostly I live in a space where I’m not sure. Psychiatric professionals have taught me techniques to weigh these thoughts up – ‘take the thought to court’ CBT test it – how valid is it? How likely? Make a list, write it down if you need to. When I hear a code, find a message, start thinking someone is talking in metaphors, I stop and notice the thought. I spend some time considering its likelihood, unpick the various possibilities. After a little while, I feel more settled about it and I can fold the delusional thought away carefully, like a crisp piece of paper, wary of the sharp clean edges, and try to tune back into what the person in front of me is saying.

I used to be a fan of Derren Brown’s television programmes, before he started following me around. When I was 19, I went to see him perform live at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. It was funny, my Dad’s chair broke just before the start of the performance, and we laughed that perhaps it was a trick, and Dad would have to go on stage. When my Dad died four years ago, Derren Brown was wild and insensitive about it, and I wanted to kill myself to get away from him, but I changed my mind and went to hospital instead. He does take time off; I can go months without getting messages, but there’s still an underlying niggling feeling that I’m being watched. Most of the time when he does send me a code, I ignore him- occasionally I nod and smile to let him know I appreciate his work, it seems rude not to, he goes to such trouble and gets no recognition for it. Then I remember I’m unwell and it’s a delusion bought on by chemicals and craziness and I feel very sad and suddenly lonely.

Really, if I’m being absolutely honest, the main reason I don’t follow the messages when he sends them to me, isn’t because I don’t think they’re real – I still regularly feel a little thrill in my stomach, the cleverness of the code, the excitement to have found a clue – it’s because the last time I did, really properly follow the Derren Brown treasure hunt, when he left clues in traffic signs and bird calls, and the colour coding of cars, it ended with my screaming face pressed into a blue plastic mat, as five staff pinned me to the hospital floor. I still have nightmares from time to time about being held down. My current Consultant is kind, supportive and encouraging, but I’d be foolish not to be afraid of him, on some level. He can lock me up, if he decides I’m a risk to myself, or others, and keep me there for months on end, in a room where the window only opens an inch. When all is said and done, I’ve learned the hard way what happens if I don’t do as I’m told.

In this escalating pandemic, I’m in the same situation as thousands of frightened, anxious people, in countries all across the world, people who are courageously turning up for NHS shifts, adapting to working from home, looking after little ones, isolated from family and friends – all of our daily routines have been utterly turned upside down. The structure that helps me stay grounded, is gone. Normally, with the help of lithium and quetiapine, even with a big change in routine or unexpected life stresses, I know which of my delusional thoughts are symptoms. But, in a fabulous piece of ill timing, I spent the last 12 months doing a planned lithium withdrawal, with the support of my community mental health team. Three weeks ago, I celebrated the last small oval pill, I remember clearly the satisfying ‘click’ of the meds box as I shut it. Coming off lithium has been a year of breathing deeply in weekly psychotherapy sessions, attending appointments with my care-coordinator, with my consultant, analyse, monitor, reflect, discuss. I’ve sat in soft chairs with a box of tissues to hand, dug out dark closets of family trauma, sifting through skeletons that haunted and rattled and strangled. I’m careful with caffeine and mindful of sleep. I’ve turned up for monthly bipolar support groups, made precious connections with people who help me feel less ashamed, and wept late at night in front of my sensory box, because I’m feeling unsafe with sharp edges. We developed a considered, thoughtful withdrawal plan, with emergency numbers and distractions tactics, but now the plan is gone. My friends call me up emotional, desperate and overwhelmed, my care co-ordinator is a thin reassuring voice on the other end of the phone, and I see people wearing gas masks in the street.

My brother and I spoke on the phone two nights ago, trying to decide whether I should stay at my flat or not. Things will likely get worse before they get better. We may be locked down for months. When things deteriorate like this, normally I go and stay with my Mum for a couple of weeks. But, if I go now, I won’t be supported by the psychiatric professionals who know me, and I don’t know what the services will be like there. In the city where I live, there is a much wider variety of crisis provision if I lose insight entirely. I don’t know whether I’m carrying the virus, my Mum is 68 years old, how do I know I’m not bringing the virus to her? Where is the safest place to go through a global pandemic? Where is the best place to experience a psychosis? Where is the safest and best place to experience psychosis during a global pandemic? We talked round, and round, becoming more agitated and upset. ‘Can’t you just start taking the lithium again now?’ he asks, but lithium is toxic in too high a dose and has to be monitored carefully when you first start taking it. I would needs regular blood tests to monitor the levels. My GP surgery is no longer doing face to face appointments, and it would take weeks to build the dosage to an effective, therapeutic amount. I can’t go back on lithium. I do not want to become unwell. I double my quetiapine and wait for my Care-Cordinator to call me back.

At the moment, hours slide past, one into the other, I forget to eat or drink anything, go to make a cup of cranberry tea, find a cold one sat in front of me that I’d forgotten about. I lose track of what day it is, typing lengthy emails and texts to friends, skyping, talking, talking, talking, trying to keep up with this intense, pressured feeling that I should be doing something useful, something that helps people. Instead, I sit at home, feeling utterly powerless. Through my open bedroom window, I can hear a blackbird tweeting and the neighbours having a terrible row. I wonder if the row is a code. Mostly, I know we are experiencing an unprecedented global health crisis of terrifying proportions with savage losses, and heart-breaking economic implications for huge swaths of the population. But also, I’m secretly waiting to see if Derren Brown will arrive, with a puff of smoke and a raised eyebrow, and delightfully deconstruct this trickery in an extended Netflix pandemic special.

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2 thoughts on “Derren Brown vs the Coronavirus: my paranoid pandemic #1

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