Derren Brown vs the Coronavirus: my paranoid pandemic #3

This is the third 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.

You can find @miserysquid’s first diary here and second diary here.

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

Thursday 26th March- 12:36PM

This morning, Derren suggested I spend some time sitting in the sun on the living room windowsill. I woke up at 6am, fidgeting and shifting around in my bed, trying to get back to sleep. I’m too anxious and awake. I open up the daily Calm app someone online recommended. My sister-in-law told me there’s a meditation where Matthew McConaughey reads a relaxing story about the wonder of the Universe. I browse pictures of beaches and forests in dappled light, soothing quotations in italics with wide desert backdrops, and find the stylish black and white close up of McConaughey’s face staring intensely out of my phone screen. I listen to the recording with my eye mask on, the soft fabric pressed gently against my closed eyes, enjoying the descriptions of animals and stars, musical instruments and flowers. As he speaks, images drift through my mind and though I don’t sleep, I do feel much more relaxed afterwards. I lie there for a minute, then slip the eye mask over my head and pick up my phone again. I’m about to close the app when an alert comes up about a brand-new meditation story called, ‘The Grand Plan to Rise and Shine’- Derren Brown has a message for me about how to start my day. I’m excited. I immediately press play, delighted to have a special story appear on my phone like a targeted ad. Frankie Bridge, from the pop band ‘The Saturdays’ reads to me in a soothing tone, and I pay attention so I can absorb all the metaphors.

Most of the codes and signs that Derren Brown sends me are pre-planned and work to an old structure, that I know very well. The colour pink, the name Esme, a particular cough. The Gnarls Barclay song ‘Crazy’ came out during my first admission, I couldn’t get away from it, everyone on the ward played it on their phones all the time. He wrote the catchy Black-Eyed Peas song ‘I Gotta Feeling’ during a different admission when I was so sad, I kept hitting my face into the sink in the hospital bathroom, until my whole cheek turned black. I remember, I sat for hours, staring at the television in the mixed ward lounge, and would break into an inane and painful grin when the song randomly came on MTV2. For 4 minutes and 50 seconds at a time, I was happy and distracted knowing that Derren was trying to cheer me up. He doesn’t write the songs himself, the lovely thing is, he gets friends of mine who play in bands, to collaborate. Then Derren Brown uses his celebrity connections to find famous people who want to help and record pop versions, ready for commercial release. This disguises which of my friends are involved so we don’t ruin the game. Once he’s released a song for me, he plays it repeatedly on the radio all summer long. At first, I thought he was in charge of all the radio channels, all the time, but that was silly. He only blocks our radio at home, jams the frequency so he can beam in whatever he wants from special equipment, set up in an unmarked van outside. I used to sit, medicated and groggy, at my Mum’s kitchen table, and he would send me a song through the radio, and I would lift my head and smile that he hadn’t forgotten about me after all.

Over the years, the codes have expanded, they cross reference each other in a tangled web – by now you’d probably have to know the first one for it to make much sense. My friend really likes the radio programme Only Connect – if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a tricky word game hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell, where you trace obscure connections between seemingly arbitrary words. I haven’t actually listened to it, puzzles games like that tend to have too many messages and I find them upsetting- from the description, it’s very similar, except crazy and Derren Brown always wins. I’m pretty sure I could tell you the moment that each one started, the sign it links too. A silver Vauxhall Corsa is safe, it was the car my Mum drove in 2006 when I first became unwell. Now she drives a dark blue Peugeot, but the code hasn’t shifted, the Corsa is still the message. Canada is a reference to a soccer match I was watching in 2006 with a group of friends at University, when I started thinking one of them was secretly trying to propose to me through signs and messages in the television. That was the first time I was mad. The Canadian flag, Canadian whisky, a badge on someone’s lapel, a bottle of maple syrup in the shape of a maple leaf – that can all stand for Nick. That one means DANGER, step back, you’ve got this wrong dear heart, you’re going to go loopy again and you’ll start sending people crayoned wedding invitations from mental hospital again, if you don’t get some rest.

I wrote a full list once, a kind of vocabulary chart, to try to explain to people how Derren Brown works, but when I read it over, it just looked sad and insane. I know other people with similar psychiatric histories who respond to the same codes, which is confusing. How can we all be right? I feel sad for them sometimes, and other times I know we are all unwell and find it interesting that some of the hooks are so similar and keep cropping up between psyches. I keep my codes in my head now, I don’t tell anyone about them. Until I’m very unwell then I babble it all out and spoil the trick of it and they increase my medication. I become groggy and unreceptive. Derren Brown has to go away and make money on a quick book or a TV special before he can afford to come back and start the whole project with me again. At times it can feel unreal and nearly magical, like I’m in a fantasy adventure on my own (he wouldn’t like that description of it, he’s all about empirical evidence). I’ve become so sensitive to the way that he works, at times there doesn’t even need to be an object or a sign, the code is a shift in the air, things get louder, certain sounds fall away and that’s him, telling me he’s watching. Technology has progressed over the years and he has much more choice about how he contacts me now, there are all kind of digital tricks he can use, web shadowing and algorithms. I imagine it was much harder during the first episode (interesting coincidence that we use the same word to describe bipolar illness and television programmes?). He turned half of Exeter into a film set, using fake road signs and pretend shop fronts and trained seagulls. He only does that now when I’m really agitated and need immediate intervention. If I’m doing something dangerous, he sets me back on the right course, but most of the time I don’t need the messages so much – after so long working together he’s taught me how to look after myself, and most of the time I can figure out how I’m feeling and what I should do.  

*

Back to the fake meditation app, I’ll tell you what gave away for certain that it was a code (because I’m never 100% sure, not since the psychiatrists intervened with their classifications and contradictions): Right at the beginning of the recording, Frankie Bridge quoted a William Morris saying that I learnt by heart absolutely ages ago. What are the chances? The quotations says ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. It comes out of the blue during the introduction to the mediation and Frankie pronounces it slowly and deliberately, in soft tones. Derren hasn’t sent a message as obvious as that in a while, that one was some years ago. I’m touched he remembered.

I’ll show you how it works, Frankie Bridge reads a story about a woman called Olivia, who likes to make lists and keeps her house beautifully ordered. Olivia is a beacon of delicately described calmness. The story talks about how she is ‘grounded’ and ‘peaceful’ and often sits by the window in her lovely house mindfully admiring the scenes below. I was sat on the floor next to my bedroom window yesterday, listening to the bird calls and watching the pollen float about in the air. This is so definitely a metaphorical message for me. Olivia stops all her work responsibilities by 6pm and takes the entire evening for herself. There we are – solved it –  this is the point of the metaphor – Derren is trying to tell me that he knows I was up writing on my laptop until 2am again and he is gently reminding me that I’m supposed to be winding down by 9:30,- it’s on my daily list of calm pre-bedtime activties, from my W.R.A.P plan, that I’m currently ignoring.

I do as I’m told and go and sit on the window ledge in the living room, the sun immediately warms my face. I’m delighted to have been given a new place to sit. In the last week I’ve been putting cushions up against my wardrobe, testing out different areas of the floor to curl up and read on, lying upside down on my bed with my head tipping over the edge, just for a change of scenery. Our road is lined with tall Georgian flat conversions that look beautiful from the outside but actually have horrible black mould and leaky roofs. Down on the street below, there are parked cars and I can hear the birds tweeting. A man steps out of the front door of the house opposite and lights a cigarette. I’m not sure what to do. Should I get down from the windowsill and go inside? Derren Brown said it was okay to sit here, I’m allowed to sit here, but the man is smoking and that’s a bad code, so I’m not sure. He looks up and sees me staring at him and waves briefly then looks back down at his cigarette. I’m surprised and pause for a second to consider what to do next. No one I don’t know has ever waved at me first. This is a new strange moment. I decide to wave back and, keen not to miss this opportunity to connect with a code, I move my arm in broad sweeping motions as if I’m flagging down a taxi in the street. We keep waving and staring at each other for a little while. I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to talk to him. I think about it, what would I say? Probably all anyone is saying right now, which is – Are you okay? What is the sign for that? He might not be able to make out standard, thumb and first finger round circle, generally accepted okay sign. I put my thumb in the air, an enthusiastic thumbs up, instead, right up high so he knows it’s for him. He doesn’t respond. I do it again – and nod my head towards him this time to show I’m asking him a question. He pauses again and then does a huge caricature of a shrug and I nod and nod and nod sympathetically to show I understand. He goes back to his cigarette and starts walking down his drive towards the road. Now I’m worried, why is he stepping out of the boundary of his garden? He’s supposed to stay in the garden. I’ve made a mistake, I shouldn’t have sent this man a message, he’s an extra, he’s a clue, not a real person. He takes a few long, slow steps along the street, past the boundary of his neighbour’s house and then stops and turns, slowly, pacing up and down, backwards and forward. It suddenly clicks, -why Derren is worried -it’s the window, I’m leaning out over the scaffolding. The relaxation story on the app said, ‘Olivia sits serenely NEXT to the window’, not Olivia opens the window and leans out waving at strangers. I stand for a minute and close the window and battle the impulse to nod. If I nod, I am reacting in real life and I am mad. If I keep it in my head, I’m not mad, I’m managing. Slowly, slowly, I think what my counsellor said, act opposite, notice the impulse, the itch, the urge, I don’t have to nod, it’s not necessary. If Derren Brown is there actions speak louder than words, if Derren Brown is not there then no one knows that I think he might be.

*

At lunchtime I eat soup as I promised my Auntie I would. She was worried about the virus and my immune system. I’ve stopped thinking about the virus in case I convince myself it’s not real and go running out into the street. Today I’m not sure it’s real, but it’s important to keep physically strong, just in case. As I slurp small spoonfuls of soup, I check the news and begin to scroll through the headlines, ‘CORONAVIRUS WANTS TO KILL YOU, A PATIENTS PLEA FROM THE ICU’, a desperate selfie of an ill looking man in a hospital bed.  A photo of a nurse in a face mask leaning over to remove shop bought supplies from the boot of her car. A row of terrace houses where a bed sheets hangs out of an upstairs bedroom window with ‘WE LOVE THE NHS’ and ‘THANK YOU’ painted clumsily in large rainbow letters. I scroll down, past ‘THE ISLE OF WIGHT IS CANCELLED’ and ‘WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF TRUMP LOOSENS RESTRICTIONS TOO EARLY’. I begin to feel panicked and hot and the room seems loud, sirens outside, a grass mower starts buzzing filling the air with noise, ‘WHAT WILL BRITAIN LOOK LIKE AFTER THIS’ the sirens get much louder.

Derren Brown wants me to stop looking at the internet.

I sometimes forget he can synch my laptop. Closing all the tabs quickly I take a deep breath. The sirens are replaced with bird song and the beep of a large truck reversing. That means I’m reversing, backing down, changing my choices. Suddenly I really appreciate that Derren is here, looking out for me. 

*

Occasionally I read back over this and think – ahhhh I see, I’m rather unwell at the moment. This episode isn’t as intense as they have been in the past, I don’t feel like he has cameras in my flat. He only puts invisible cameras in the corners of the room when I’m a risk to myself. A blackened burnt mark appeared around the window of the top floor flat in the block directly behind ours a few weeks ago. I wondered then, if Derren was trying to warn me about something metaphorical, a fire that got out of hand, carelessness?  a near miss? an open flame? There have been more messages since before Christmas. I think I was probably still smoking then -Derren and I often disagree about that. He wants me to quit, I manage to pack it in for a while, a few years even. Then something happens and I get stressed and start smoking again and he employs actors to cough behind me in the street to tell me off. It’s paternalistic and he knows it annoys me, but I appreciate the fact he’s looking out for my physical health too.

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