Content warning: references to self-injury and sexual abuse. Delusions and non-epileptic seizures.
Derren Brown is making me fit. Tic, tic, tic, my head twitches, there’s a woozy feeling, a quickening pulse in my neck. Mostly I fall slowly, more of a crumpling, landing softly on my thighs and the tops of my arms, easing into it. If there’s an unexpected trigger, if someone mentions sexual violenceand I’m holding myself too tightly, I hit the floor suddenly, landing on my wrist or worse my head, an abrupt shocking flash of pain. Derren and his team have sent me literally to the school of hard knocks. I lie on the floor twitching and convulsing, as if a current of electricity is passing through my body, which has to run its course before I can wake up.
I sit in the reception area of my doctor’s surgery, anxious at the whirring of the blood pressure machine, the ringing phone and a sudden high-pitched bell as a patient’s name appears on the LED screen. It’s too loud and I am agitated. A nursecomes out of a side door dressed in blue scrubs and casually snaps a latex glove against her wrist. It’s this sound, the pre-courser to an invasive exam, that starts me twitching erratically. I stand up and fall abruptly, before I have time toplace my bag on the plastic chair behind me. I feel the straps twist through my fingers as I hit the floor. The nurse shouts to her colleague. I hear her run across to me and feel her slide her hand under my head and press down on my upper arm. The sensation of her hand on my skin makes me fit more violently, twisting away from her, my legs smacking against the lino floor. Someone grabs my calves and holds them together and inside I’m shrieking stop touching me, stop touching me, this is the worst thing that you can do. I hear the nurse shout to the reception staff to find out who I am, the receptionist on the phone calling an ambulance but I can’tanswer them. Someone untangles my bag from my hands and after a pause says my name over, and over again, bringing me back to the present. My body relaxes into the twitches, and after a short time the fit passes and I open my eyes. On the way out I see the ambulance parked in the car park and feel guilty that there’s no way to communicate that I don’t need medical intervention. Perhaps Derren is teaching me a lesson about what constitutes an emergency.
Some evenings I stretch out in the bath and count the bruises, on my shins and elbows, the tops of my arms. After a fit I’m dissociated, there’s a vague blankness and confusion about what year it is and where I am. I’m trying not to cut so I bite myself, the pain bringing me back to the present. There are small circles of teeth marks on my forearms. I poke at them for days as they turn red then brown. As they fade, they look like a little circle of thin freckles.
I fit mostly at home and the triggers are varied. Derren wants me to eat so having low blood sugar has become a trigger. Certain songs on the radio land me on the floor. When it started last year, I thought it was a literary joke, Derren was making me swoon like a Jane Austen character whose corsets were too tight. I imagined him in a rehearsal space somewhere, practicing with paid conspirators to test the effectiveness of his powers. After 18 months of fits I’m desperate for it to stop. As I shake and convulse, the carpet rubbing against my face, I weep that Derren can manipulate my body so entirely. When I fall, it’s as if I’m a marionette who has suddenly been dropped to the floor, wooden legs clattering as I hit the ground in a tangled pile, abandoned to the empty stage.
The fits pass in a few minutes as long as no one touches me. I can hear what’s happening, but I can’t speak. If someone puts their hands on me, I become frantic and start to scream. Unwanted hands on my body conjures memories trapped in the recesses of my mind, my body responds in a way it could not at the time, with terrified clawing and flapping of hands and screaming into the floor. My shuddering becomes more violent as I flail my legs and arms around, trying to fight off invisible attackers, historic ghosts who have not laid hands on me for many years.
The neuropsychiatrist’s office has a large window overlooking a small patch of grass. She sits at her desk with a pile of pale brown folders in front of her, one of which has my name on it. Opening it briskly, she takes a pen from a pot next to her computer.
‘I will need to take a full psychiatric history to get a sense of what’s happening for you so we can work out the best way to help you. Now tell me, when was the first time you became unwell?
For the next 50 minutes she asks me questions about dates and names of hospitals and which section I was admitted under and for how long. She asks me how old I was when I first attempted suicide and how many paracetamol I took. She’s detached, focusing on the paper in front of her and is concentrating so hard on writing she doesn’t notice that I’ve begun to cry until I ask for a tissue. She stops writing, pen in hand and says,
‘I can see this is very difficult, but I really will need a lotmore information from you if I’m going to be able to work out what’s going on for you’.
I nod and say again
‘Please can I have a tissue?’ She looks around but there isn’t a box to hand, so she leaves the room to fetch some.
I look across at the folder on her desk. The piece of lined paper covered in small black handwriting tells of diagnosisand interventions and different types of therapy. It’s a sparse clinical document, one of many that exist about me. The woman described on this piece of paper is unstable and chaotic and unsafe. I think about who I am aside from thediagnosis, the things these rooms will never know, the flavour of ice cream I choose at the cinema, or how bad I am at returning library books, or the staccato burst of laughter I make at an unexpected joke. There’s a particular version of my life in filing cabinets and on NHS systems, but it’s not a version of myself that I recognise, and I have no say over it and no way to correct it.
I hang my head and cry, feeling hopeless and confused about what the point of all these questions is. What happened to the answers I gave to other psychiatrists over the years, sat in similar offices with different files in front of them, when the list of admissions was shorter and hope in greater supply? Is this appointment an endurance test? Is Derren is challenging me to walk out? As I consider leaving, the psychiatrist comes back into the room, her hands outstretched with a wad of paper towels. I blow my nose and wipe my cheeks as she sits at the desk and picks up her pen and starts again.
‘And was that a section 2 or a section 3 you were detained under in 2010?’ I nearly laugh at how detached she is, at the pointlessness of these details, but her face is serious and expectant and instead I say, ‘section 3’ and she nods.
As the clock hands finally settle on the hour, she seemsfrustrated,
‘I haven’t got nearly enough information, we haven’t begun to talk about sexual trauma, and I can see that I’ll have to go carefully with you. I’ll need to see you again to continue the assessment.’
I nod, clutching the paper towels in my hand, feeling like in some way I’ve failed because I haven’t told her what she wanted to know but also that I’ve failed because I didn’t have the courage to leave. She continues,
‘The best thing you can do is to write some things down before the next time I see you so you’re prepared, I really do need to get a picture of everything that has happened to you from birth until now so we can try to help you.’
I imagine that I’ll come back in a week with the manuscript of my life written out in excruciating detail, exam results, shoe size, credit card details, national insurance number, postcodes of houses I’ve lived in, a list of the kindest Christmas gifts I’ve ever received, best fancy-dress outfits I’ve created, lovers and friends and near misses, unspoken wants and sexual misadventures and secret regrets. For a moment it feels like it would be an act of rebellion to give over a comprehensive personal biography in one detailed volume to this complete stranger of a psychiatrist, who asks for the most painful moments of my life as if she’s acquiring information to set up a bank account.
When I’m back at home, safe, and I think about this appointment, the idea of sitting in front of this psychiatrist’sdetached relentless questioning again feels impossible. I’vehad four full assessments from different organisations and referrals over the last eight months, all of which I was told were necessary to access support, all of which left me emptied out and weeping, drifting through the days after with a crushing sense of hopelessness. A letter comes through with a follow up appointment and I phone to cancel it.
If Derren Brown is testing me I’m not sure if I’ve passed orfailed but I’m too tired to sit in sterile rooms offering up my saddest most intimate moments of desperation and illness as a collection of facts and dates to be catalogued and dissected. For now, I will fit and twist on the floor and hope that in all the bruising Derren is toughening me up for something more tender.