If I’ve been incredibly rude to you or snappy or tearful lately, if I’ve taken offence where none was intended, or I’ve wildly overreacted to something you said on social media, I do apologise. It wasn’t the real me you experienced in those moments: it was the mad brain that sometimes seizes control of me.
The reason I have these episodes — as I keep having to explain to my bemused victims, after the event — is that I’m currently undergoing intensive medical treatment which gives me these weird and powerful mood swings. Known as the Perrin Technique, the treatment — which involves regular massage of the limbic system — has been very successful at dealing with conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome and even, I hope, Lyme disease. Because the limbic system controls your emotions the side effects, as in my case, can be bizarre beyond belief.
Part of me welcomes these episodes because they’re a sign that the treatment is working. But another part finds it quite terrifying that the person I think I know quite well — me — and have done for more than 50 years can so easily be taken over by this raving loon. It’s like suddenly having your plane hijacked by a crazed terrorist; it’s what I see some women go through when they have PMT and also in some drinkers who turn when they’ve had one too many. From the outside, we sufferers of these conditions look the same as ever, but our brains are no longer ours.
One of the problems with going mad is that you’re not aware you’re mad at the time — only after the event. So when, as happened the other day on Twitter, I furiously announced that I hated all Americans because a couple of them had given away some mild spoilers for the final Game of Thrones episode, it seemed a perfectly reasonable and proportionate response. Only when some Americans not unreasonably took umbrage at my blanket slur did I reconsider.
‘Whatever possessed me?’ it’s traditional to ask ourselves after such moments. This, I suspect, is our cultural and linguistic inheritance from the days when, quite understandably, madness was believed to be a form of demonic possession. Though I’m not schizophrenic myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Bible’s greatest loon: ‘My name is Legion: for we are many.’
Now that I’m on the healing path I’ve finally been able to take stock of my life and understand what a huge toll my Lyme years have exerted on me physically and mentally. There was a period — still too raw and horrible to talk about in detail — when I wonder whether I shouldn’t have been sectioned. Only recently, when I learnt that Lyme can cause psychosis and I looked up the symptoms, did I realise that this was what I probably had. I was in a dark and terrible place; I certainly wasn’t fit to make important decisions. God, if only I’d known what was happening to me, that it wasn’t my fault and that I needed help.
Again, though, we come back to that catch-22: only the sane think they’re going mad; when you’re actually mad the very last thing you think of doing is going to your doctor because you persuade yourself that this is a bad patch that will pass — or that this is just you being you. Also, who wants to be diagnosed as a nut job and put on chemicals? And who has time? Perhaps if I’d had a proper job someone would have noticed. But when you’re isolated at home as a freelance journalist, you’re free to go as bonkers as you like, just so long as you can keep it together when you’re producing copy. Given that hyperbole has always been my natural register, I don’t think many readers will have perceived much difference.
Only close family know about any of this. The Fawn said it was probably a bad idea to write about it because people might use it against me. But my schtick has always been to write about myself and about the world as honestly as I can — and I feel I have a kind of moral and journalistic duty to describe what I’ve been through, most especially for the benefit of others in the same boat.
What I don’t want is sympathy or pity, and still less do I covet that falsely conferred aura of superiority that some ‘survivors’ (as they bill themselves) like to wear now that mental illness has become so terribly fashionable. I quite agree with the Duke of Cambridge that we should be more open about these issues. But only so we can help people with real problems, not — as I fear is happening on campus right now — so as to encourage a free-for-all where it turns out that everyone is mentally ill in one way or another, and that therefore everyone has earned their coveted place in the hierarchy of victimhood.
Studying Shakespeare at school you learn all about the paradox of reason in madness. But I think this is just a cute literary trope. I’ve certainly never felt like a holy fool, blessed with an understanding the sane can never know. Going bonkers isn’t funny; it causes huge collateral damage to those around you, and when you’re in the trough it can be quite epically scary. Lear was right about one thing: ‘Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’ Nope. I really wouldn’t recommend it.
Writers worth listening to.