When I look back at my childhood, I realize I had experienced psychosis before the age of 10. I remember a string of strange events, sparked by one particular night when I woke up to a pitch black room, feeling my body but unable to “confirm” its presence. I jumped out of bed, and being disoriented, I just walked around to find a clue that could “Confirm” my body for me. I walked through the corridor and found a single light source flashing Red. I remember that red, and how brilliantly it shone onto my right hand, affirming my corpus. It was a new red, brilliant and saturated. Oscillating and bee striped by black. From that day onwards I started this fundamental need to confirm the presence of my body on a daily basis. I started thinking about which body parts were being more prominently felt every day, keeping track of limbs, afraid that one morning I’d wake up unable to control them.
In the same week, I remember waking up feeling heavier than before. I woke up feeling the weight of my teeth in my mouth, feeling the weight of my head on my neck, feeling the uphill battle with gravity. I concluded that I had grown to 3-4 times my normal size, but the world around me had simultaneously stretched and grown along with me. I remember looking at my body and feeling unreal, I remember looking down at my feet and not being able to distinguish whether they were within an arm’s reach or the furthest distance to the edge of the universe. Along with it came the horror of the human body, the sudden realization of being inevitably bodied, the thought that in the absence of thought, my body will cease to exist .
These de-realizations were to become the major source of my panic attacks and anxiety attacks in my teens. When I reached the age of 14 they became life-threateningly dangerous, but through intermittent uses of anxiety medication I learned to curb it into a controllable affect. I hardly thought about these de-realization episodes, until they came back a few years later with semi-psychotic episodes. I remember waking up around 4 am one night in my late teens, with my vision fixed on the 3-lane motorway swarming with tiny red dots 14 stories below my apartment. I could see the cars, but for the first time I couldn’t hear the highway. The entire sky had a red tint, oscillating with ribbons of black, and I remember being overcome with the most effortlessly reassuring desire to kill myself. I was trapped in my body,with my mind firmly set on the fact that I’ll soon be warm and secure in death. I stepped onto the balcony ledge, and as soon as my bare foot hit the ice-cold railing the sound of cars flooded my consciousness. I realized where I was, what I was doing, and I sat clinging onto the balcony railings for a half hours before I mustered the courage to slowly recede to the safety of my apartment.
From that day onwards, most psychotic episodes were tinged with red, and most episodes inspired a deep-seated longing for balcony railings and rooftop ledges. At the time I did not have a support system, which meant I did not tell a single friend (not even my partner at the time), about what had happened. instead I was unable to sleep, afraid of another episode like the last one. I’d watch Monty Python 8-10 hours a night and could only sleep once the first rays of sunrise paled the dark black. I was searching the world around me for culture that could affirm my mental abnormalities. I was searching for a language capable of sharing my experience with others.a deep-sea blue.
In 2014, I swore off smoking weed when three consecutive experiences lead to textbook cases of psychosis, the worst case being a two hour break from reality in which my consciousness was trapped in my room while my body was squirming like a flipped dung beetle in the arms of my housemate outside. and it was finally that year when I had a meltdown that forced me to seek professional help. I was working 70-80 hours a week and I was spending about $1000 a month on alcohol, which led to a spiral down a psychological wormhole.
After 23 consecutive work days, I got home late at night, and realized I had tied my bootstraps too tight. I yanked on the boot. It didn’t come off. The frustration sank so deep into my being that I fell to the ground, screaming till I lost my breath. I remember my vision sinking to the depth of my mind, like that scene from Trainspotting where he sinks into the carpet. All I could see was red, and for a couple hours, I was on the floor assured that I will never again find the desire to move or speak. I was fully content with the sheer stasis of my being and wished to stay there forever.
After coming to, I realized I could no longer bear the weight of my mental illness. I had been ignoring it for too long and had tried self medicating with drugs and alcohol. Day to day existence had been too much of an effort. I started taking a cocktail of meds, most of which were reacting to one another in unexpected ways. It took a year and a half of experimentation with different pharmaceuticals to find the right cocktail that wouldn’t send me spiraling down.
With relative mental stability, I finally started seeking information on my illness. I did not see myself represented in the art around me, so I started seeking art that could speak louder to my own experience. I started reading more about psychosis, anxiety disorders, suicide and depression. I found two books that helped me unlock secrets to my existence.
In 2019, After reading Esme Weijiun Yang’s “Collected Schizophrenias,” along with Christina and Martha Baillie’s “Sister Language,” I found new names for other aspects of my self-defined “Personality” that ended up being lesser known psychoses. My compulsion to dissect words and regurgitate them in illegible sentences, my personal dialogue with colors and my relationship to their specific personalities, and intrusive thoughts so loud they blurred the lines between thought and reality. A non-psychotic reader may laugh at these observations and wonder how it would be possible to overlook such behaviour for decades, but the ugly truth is that psychoses are only “diagnosed” when one’s ability to function in society diminishes.
Reading “Sister Language” I realized how important it is to have a language to explore psychosis, how our mind is at the mercy of voices uttered by the body. For the first time in my life, I could confidently say that a book had improved the quality of my existence without exaggeration. I could explore my mind and its abnormalities through language, a feat that had seemed impossible just a couple months prior. In the words of the late Christina Baillie, I found new solace. It was through her that I decided to further educate myself and perhaps try to speak of my mental states more openly.
It’s hard to describe psychoses to one who has never experienced it. I remember the only time I started opening up about my perception of the color red, and my friend was so dismissive that I decided to never share such information with a friend again. It took me years to understand it was ok to share these words, that there were millions of us, some like me, were just more functioning than others and therefore less frequently, “Diagnosed.” It’s hard to describe “delusions” to people who have never had them before.,that when difficult to convey the utter internalized logic of a delusion, that when I say I once walked the street assured that a passersby thought I was a murderer, it was not a “doubt” but a deeply internalized truth of my psychological existence at the time.
I started seeking more art on Psychosis, watching movies, going out for plays. I started learning more about myself, so maybe I could reach out and perhaps teach some others. I remember being in an immersive theatre experience at The Theatre Centre called, “Here are the fragments,” and during the main psychotic character’s “formal-thought-disorder” style soliloquy at the constructed “Street” in the theater space, I had a mental breakdown. I sat down on a prop bed frame and wept till I was sated. I realized a certain truth about my psychoses from that play that became apparent after delving deep into the inherent philosophies of theater and cinema.
I find theater acts on psychosis to posit a paradox in its very premise, since every act of theater induces a certain psychosis in the audience. The audience does not exist, there is only an act torn from the audience, and every interruption from the audience is strictly prohibited. the audience cannot answer the actor’s questions. Should an actress decide to smoke, the audience may smell that smoke, but be forbidden to cough. Theater embodies a certain psychosis that is even stranger for the actors, who are to act as if the audience does not exist. In every theater act the audience participates in mock psychosis; since the actors are visually at an arm’s length, but mentally intangible to the audience, and the audience poses a visual break in the reality of the play to the actors. Theater in itself is the greatest body horror experience one can attend. the horror of being imperceptibly bodied, and unreachable. Theater of Psychosis imposes these temporary psychoses on its audience while re-enacting psychotic cases such as the formal thought it simply fails to convey psychosis, since psychosis is built into its very foundation. Irony, where the play fails to convey. More often than not, Schizophrenia is used in Cinema to reveal a plot twist: The subjective narrative of the majority of the narrative is suddenly crumbled by sudden objectivity that reveals the audience had been fed the delusional narrative of the protagonist while the “objective” world carries on, void of drama or suspense. We can see how certain films with schizophrenic protagonists have gained great critical acclaim, they create “interesting characters” whose actors and actresses are immortalized: Psycho, A Woman under the influence, The Shining, Shine and even best picture Oscar winners such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and A Beautiful Mind. Such films follow an absolutely “Neurotypical Narrative,” with the psychotic character as the outlier. They normalize the delusions and psychosis by situating them in the “normal” frame of a neurotypical narrative. The story is told by a “normal” mind while the psychosis is hidden in the mind of the protagonist.
However, there is a second approach to psychosis in cinema. Lesser known films such as Clean, Shaven have used a wide array of cinematic tricks to invoke psychosis in the very narrative; where the audience is the outlier and the whole story is told from a schizophrenic mind.
After watching Clean, Shaven I realized that for me, Psychosis begins when mind-body equilibrium is broken. As groundbreaking as Clean, Shaven is, it’s yet another movie where “mental illness” equals “Dangerous,” where a neurotypical mind can explore psychosis as “Escapism” and come out of the experience more afraid of the mentally ill. We don’t have to dig deep into arthouse cinema to find examples of dangerous depictions of psychosis. 2019’s Oscar winning Joker was a film that tried very hard to give a voice to mental illness (and as we find out later in the movie as a twist; Psychotic delusions are at play). However, as much as we lack compassion towards the mentally ill in our media, it’s an entirely different problem where we create compassionate narratives towards mental illness rippling into spectacular violence.
Arguably, Joker did well in its depiction of how little help the mentally ill receive from their society, yet it managed to encode toxic masculinity in its romantically lovelorn protagonist who creates chaos since he has not felt loved.
As a cinephile, movies have always informed me the most about my own consciousness, but when I started digging deeper into such matters I realized how we’re in dire need of informative films on Psychosis, where a psychotic protagonist is no longer “dangerous,” is no longer a serial killer. After years of digging into my consciousness and seeking a mirror in Cinema to see myself, I realized we still lack compassion towards the mentally ill. We are fed incorrect depictions of our mentally ill and we grow up not knowing ourselves as a result.
It took me a decade of active exploration to scratch the very surface of my “abnormal” mind, but perhaps when a blockbuster depicts psychosis in a way that is educational and helpful to all those affected, we can all co-exist with more empathy and respect towards mental illness. Mental illness doesn’t equal danger. Know that all we need is a little bit of your patience and your kindness to survive just another day!