Derren Brown vs the Coronavirus: my paranoid pandemic #5

This is the fifth and final 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, second, third and fourth diary entries here.

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

Friday 27th March – 7:07AM

I wake up agitated, with a sick feeling in my stomach. Try to listen the Matthew McConaughey app that helped two days ago. Today his voice is loud, not soothing. He says ‘Well, helloooooo there. I’m Matthew McCounaughey’ and it sounds all boomy and abrasive. For a terrifying moment I think it’s not coming from my phone speaker at all, but that McConaughey’s voice is speaking directly to me from the inside of my own head. I shift onto my side and try to concentrate, just relax, relax, this was very helpful last time. McConaughey continues ‘let your mind drift with me, for just a minute’ he sounds friendly and welcoming, but there’s a sinister edge to it, he reminds me of a hypnotist with a pocket watch, trying to charm an unsuspecting audience member on stage.

I lie on my back again and try to concentrate, McConaughey says, ‘how often do we really feel what’s happening within, and around us? Allowing ourselves to be moved, to be inspired, to be filled with gratitude, for the mystery and the beauty of this Universe, of this life?’. Quite regularly thanks Matthew, I think to myself- probably a bit too much mystery going on at the moment this end. He starts talking about the film ‘Contact’ which is one of my friend’s favourite films. I watched it for the first time with them last Autumn. It’s about aliens. I’m nervous, I don’t want to listen to alien stuff, things are too fragile, at least I know the Derren Brown stuff, I couldn’t manage aliens and Derren Brown, a flush of shame, come on, concentrate, this was helpful yesterday. I keep listening, gritting my teeth. I forgot to do the deep breath, that’s the problem, mindfulness doesn’t work without the breathing. I take a huge slow in breath, screw up my eyes closed, and try again to concentrate on what McConaughey is saying. He continues in his languid southern drawl, all rich bass tones and charisma.

‘Believer or not’ he says slowly, piano music playing quietly in the background, ‘this story called ‘Wonder’, reminds us, how many times we fear the dark, only to find that once we enter it, there’s not something to fear on the other side, but something to be in awe of, something quite magical.’ Panic, what is he talking about now, I can feel my breathing getting shallower and the pulse of my heart beat, quickening in my neck. McConaughey is still talking, trying to convince me, ‘when we were kids, it was easy,’ he says, taking time, slow and persuasive, ‘think about it, every ladybug was a source of amazement, every flavour of ice cream was a cause for joy’ he pauses and the soft piano music continues quietly in the background. ‘As we get older, we lose touch with that childlike fascination’ I open my eyes abruptly, Nooooo, no no no. I shake my head, pick up my phone and stop the app. No thank you, not helpful, no; I remember childlike fascination, sat for hours in the sun picking daisies in the hospital garden. A groggy summer afternoon, my friend Carly and I thought it would be funny to make a daisy chain necklace for Malcolm one of the nurses. We’d spent the afternoon making lists, of our favourite things and Malcolm was our favourite nurse today. He had a wide cheerful smile and talked openly about his own breakdown the year before. Instead of the tuts and dismissal I had expected when I self-harmed, he put his hand on my shoulder, looked he tenderly in the eyes and said ‘I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time at the moment’. It was the kindness, most generous response I’ve had from a mental health professional, it was unequivocally human and full of compassion. He didn’t try to fix anything, he just listened to what I needed until I felt safe. Carly and I made the daisy chain for a joke, we thought it was hilarious and took great pains to make it as long as possible, pinching holes in the thin daisy stalks with our fingernails, threading them together carefully. He was delighted when we ran up to the office window to knock for him. He wore it around the ward all afternoon and we laughed every time he walked past and pointed out that it was still there. Matthew McConaughey may well want to encourage people to be more intense, but lack of intensity is not really something I’m struggling with now.

My body is taut and twisted up. I hoped I would get more sleep last night with the increase meds. I think about calling my Consultant again today. Two days ago, we spoke on the phone and I was inconsolable, shuddering tears, raised voice, accusing him of being part of a system that causes such damage, however much he thinks he wants to help, he’s utterly complicit. He is soothing and consistent, speaks slowly and calmly- it sounds like I’m having a really difficult time he says, he wants to help me, it’s just the two of us on the phone. He invited me to come in to see him face to face, ‘We’re not currently doing face to face appointments’ he says ‘but if it would be helpful to come in and talk with me, if it would be easier for us to speak together, face to face, you can come in and see me Jen’. I pause for a minute and think of the light green chairs and white and orange patterned cushions, the low light and the Consultant’s colourful socks. Maybe that would be nice. ‘No, no it’s not responsible to travel’, I say slowly, open to being convinced, ‘I can’t come, we all have to stay in our houses, everyone has to stay in their houses’. He pauses and says, ‘Yes Jen, the government instructions say to stay in your house, that’s right, but if you would find it easier to talk with me, I’m saying you can come in to meet with me’. I’m confused, I trust the Consultant, but I don’t think he’s got this right. My friends and housemates have all been saying different things about what the vague Government advice means. They interpret it so differently it upsets and confuses me and I can’t work out what I should be doing for the best. In the end, I just stopped going outside altogether. What’s most confusing is that everyone speaks with such confidence, they’re either dismissive and casual, so I feel stupid and childish, worried that I sound unwell. Or they’re angry and scathing and talk about NHS staff and privilege, and how selfish people are, and I feel bright, hot shame for sitting in the garden yesterday. I’m tired and feeling desperate, I can’t work out who’s right.

I’m distracted by something out the window, and realise the Consultant is waiting for a reply, I’m agitated again. I know what I’m supposed to do, I received clear instructions from the government directly to my mobile phone yesterday. ‘GOV.UK CORONAVIRUS ALERT – New rules in force now: you must stay at home. More info & exemptions at Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Saves Lives’. Staying at home saves lives, I must stay at home, why is the Consultant suggesting I would do anything else? Is it a test? The government are telling us to stay inside. I remember suddenly an article that someone posted in a mental health facebook group yesterday about new mental health legislation. As part of the new Coronavirus Bill, you only need one professional to decide whether someone has to go to hospital. They hope this will ease the burden on services. Normally, to be sectioned, three professionals have to agree, usually an approved mental health professional, a doctor who has special training, called a ‘section 12 approved doctor’, and another doctor.

The Consultant nearly got me there, but he’s not going to catch me out that easily. ‘No, thank you’ I say quietly and politely, ‘Are you sure, Jen? I’m very happy for us to meet’, he says it kindly, he sounds like he wants to help, usually he is very helpful. I think about how I could get to the other side of the city at the moment. I haven’t been outside since Monday, I stopped reading the news, I don’t know if public transport is running and taxis are full of germs, the virus on wheels. Suddenly I do want to see him, but I don’t know how I would get there and it would be selfish of me. All the posts from twitter, pleading or singing or quoting statistics all saying STAY HOME SAVE LIVES, ‘We’re not supposed to be going outside’ I say to him quietly but more firmly, the subtext- it’s wrong of him to be suggesting it so casually. ‘Well, Jen if you think about it later, and would like to, the option is there, I would be happy to meet with you’. He says I can call him any time and if he can’t come to the phone, he will call me back as soon as he’s free.

I think a lot about it now, lying in bed, listening to Taylor Swift- what would it be like to call him up and talk it all through openly and calmly? I like my Consultant, I’ve never met a psychiatrist like him, he’s always directly honest and clear, first it was confusing. He doesn’t patronise me and is happy to answer questions about why he wants to know certain things or what he thinks about structural power. We talk a lot about power dynamics and diagnosis and hysteria as a historical gendered form of oppression. I think about telling him, everything that’s in my head at the moment, but it’s very hard to say it out loud without becoming confused and agitated. I talk with my family and friends every day. I sent them the first entry of this diary, and we talked about whether I should put this all online. My Mum, Brother and Sister-in-Law call me daily and ask gentle questions about sleep and hydration and food,  distract me with games, and film recommendations, funny videos and photos of what they’re having for their dinner to encourage me to eat. Just when I make up my mind to phone the Consultant back, I think again about the Coronavirus Act. I don’t want to get sectioned again; the thought terrifies me. I imagine, with resources being so stretched, they’re just locking people away. I read about it all the time, stories of children trapped in isolation rooms for years, fed through metal hatches. I remember the police hatch, and the bare room at the end of the corridor, I remember the one prone restraint I ever experienced, as if it were yesterday, screaming and flailing, staff shouting for help, hands pinning down my legs and arms, the weight of five people holding me down, wriggling whilst someone shoves their hands under my stomach and forces my trousers down. I remember thinking that being gang-raped was what Derren Brown had instructed, that it was part of my treatment and I should stop wriggling and lie still and get it over with, I should be passive, being raped was part of being a woman and something I had to go through. I remember the pinch of the injection in my behind, and the moment they all let go at once and the room was abruptly empty, the door clanged and I was on my own in a white room with high ceilings, sobbing into the plastic matt, trying to pull my trousers up from around my thighs. Since then, when I meet professionals, who are kind and seem genuinely to care, I fill out care plans and recovery stars and wellbeing toolkits, things that seem to please them and keep Derren Brown to myself.

This morning I think I would like to talk to the Consultant, but I don’t want to get sectioned. I’m worried he’s going to suggest I’m transferred to the Crisis team and out of all mental health services I trust the Crisis team the least. I called them once last summer. The Consultant had said I should ring out of hours any time if I was having suicidal thoughts, or worried about the lithium withdrawal. Immediately, I could tell the person was not going to be helpful. The telephones weren’t working she said, sounding stressed. She asked twice if I was taking my lithium as prescribed and repeated that I was reducing it as part of a supervised withdrawal she said crossly, ‘well, why are you doing that? Eventually, muttering and tutting to herself, she couldn’t work out how to transfer me to my own team’s out of hours number, so after five minutes she gave me the trustwide switchboard number and told me to phone that and see if they could connect me. The receptionist who picked up the phone sounded terrified and confused, when I explained I was a patient and the Crisis line had told me to phone the switch board. After awkward, muttering apologies, he said he thought he had the number, no that wasn’t it, just looking on the computer and after a few seconds he sounded incredibly relieved ‘ah I think this will do it’ he said. The phone started to ring again, I was desperately trying to remember all the necessary words and phrases I needed to communicate, now for the third time, and then a voice said ‘you have reached the crisis line, if you are experiencing a medical emergency please hang up now and phone 999′. He’s put me back through to the first number I’d called. It would have been funny if it was a sketch show, but it wasn’t, I stood sobbing in the park behind my house and called my Mum instead. I couldn’t face the idea of talking to the same dismissive woman again, and Mum said it was fine not to call them again. I wasn’t sure how much to increase my medication, so I just took double the dose of quetiapine and went to bed. That’s the only time I’ve called the crisis line in Bristol. Later, the Trust investigated and apologised. Since then, I don’t phone my team, I won’t phone them, we arrange an appointment and they phone me, just in case I ever speak to that lady again or someone else like her. I don’t want to be transferred to the crisis team, they’ll be callous and unhelpful and if I don’t do what they tell me, they’ll take me to the hospital and hold me down again.


Two years ago I did a two-day Mental Health First Aider Course and I remember there was a police officer on the course, who talked at length about getting called out to ‘self-harmers’ and people who were (he kept pausing to stress the syllables) ‘veeeeery unwell’. He was trying to explain how difficult it was to convince people to go to hospital and I thought to myself ‘no shit buddy, we might be crazy but we’re not stupid’. He said it was easier with smokers, and everyone in the room looked confused and someone asked what he meant. Apparently, you can’t section someone in their own home, that’s the law, you can’t break in without getting a warrant, which he said, is a real pain, the police have to sit around waiting for the paperwork to come through, a waste of everyone’s time. Apparently, the police have certain tactics to speed things along a bit. They keep the person who is unwell talking for a while. Chatting nicely, building up some trust, then when things are a little more relaxed, they casually ask if anyone fancies a cigarette, they might confidently pick up the lighter off the table, get up and make slow and casual walk to the front door– ‘let’s have a cigarette together, while we chat about this outside’ the police officer would say casually, the person would perhaps like a cigarette, after the stress of the police turning up to their house, these ones seem alright, seem to be listening, perhaps it would be nice to get some fresh air. He pauses for dramatic effect, we’re all leaning in now, not sure what he’s going to say,

‘As soon as they step outside, we grab them,’ he says.  I remember vividly there was something boastful in the way he said it, showing off an elaborate trick. He looked around the table for a response, expecting – I don’t know, approval, admiration. I’m not sure how this kind of story goes down in police mess rooms, trading tips for how to manipulate vulnerable unwell people into losing their liberty. Services traumatise individuals with these, seemingly small, acts of coercion that over years teach us to be suspicious, to expect to be let down, betrayed. When we tell you about it, we’re often pathologized, professionals don’t seem to understand why we might not immediately want to, or feel safe, sharing all the worst things that have ever happened to us in front of complete strangers in 50 minutes slots, in unfamiliar rooms. Instead they say, us patients are not committed to our treatment, not cooperating, not prepared to do the work. My wariness, my paranoia even, is utterly proportionate, given my experiences. It’s a defence mechanism that’s helped me survive in a system that regularly confuses kindness with coercion. I’m paranoid because I don’t trust you, it would be insane if I did.  

That day in a small hotel conference room in Reading, with fruit and snacks laid out in front of us on the long white table, I’m not sure what this police officer expected, but he caught the look on my face and realised he had misjudged his audience. The trainers delivering the session looked shocked and awkward, and the room was silent. He tried to back pedal, ‘Yeah, it’s bad isn’t it? Yeah, that was how they used to do it, not any more though, that’s not the way we do it now’. He says back pedalling and red faced  I remember, I was triggered raging on the inside, could feel the heat spreading across my neck, but I was a coward. Instead of calling him out, explaining in length, with a firm admonishment, about the delicacy and complexity of a service users therapeutic relationship with services, and the shattering long term damage that kind of coercive behaviour does to people who are already fragile and often alone, I took the easy way out. I made a joke,

‘Well thanks Ollie,’ I said lightly ‘I’ll remember that next time they try to get me sectioned, if I just stay in my house, you can’t get to me. ‘That’s a very helpful loophole you’ve given me there’ and he blushed, looked embarrassed, everyone laughed, except the trainer, who looked steadily at me across the room, checking I was okay, I think. They stopped laughing and the tension in the room was gone and we moved on to the next slide. So, thank you police officer Ollie you coercive, duplicitous bastard, as long as I stay at home, they can’t hold me down again. Two doctors, or one doctor, or fifty doctors’ not without a warrant, not without bureaucratic processes that with the virus, everyone will be too busy and distracted to be able to process. I will talk to the Consultant next week on the phone, I will tell him whatever I want, he can’t do anything about it. No one’s going anywhere in the coming weeks, there will be no supermarkets soon, no exercise, no outside at all and I can stretch out the emergency box, stuffed full of spaghetti hoops and crunchy nut cornflakes, for months, if I need to. People hold religious signs about the resurrection up behind news reporters, there’s an invisible killer virus raging through the streets, hiding on pedestrian crossing buttons, on door handles and light switches, people are shouting at each other in supermarkets, waving and clapping madly into the night. And only I know that Derren Brown is standing at a distance conducting it all, an omnipotent orchestra conductor, making sure the school closures, and home deliveries, the graphs and statistics and eventually the riots and terror all play out to his tempo. I’m not sure currently what is true and what isn’t but I do know, as long as I don’t leave my house, I’m safe.

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2 thoughts on “Derren Brown vs the Coronavirus: my paranoid pandemic #5

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, Its a brave and compassionate thing to do to share your experience. And your writing is brilliant!


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