A piece intended a friend or a colleague, with the purpose to inform, and maybe entertain. It relates to a personal experience of an episode of paranoid delusion in the context of bipolar disorder.
A Southampton student quarter, a balmy summer break 1992 – culturally a season of grunge rock, garage music, and a certain pre-millennial moral ambiguity. Parties were less to converse, or dance, or eat, but more to fall down into deep threadbare sofas, to experience mind-numbing electronica and dubious designer drugs.
It seems I’d become something of a fixture in the spacious flat of Seamus Murphy’s, above a KFC fried chicken restaurant on Shirley High Street. Seamus had given me use of a box room behind, over-looking a spike-metal fenced disabled children’s centre, mostly screened off by willow trees in full summer bloom.
In what was like to me a chaotic desert sizzling with student dissent and dissipation , for shy shell-shocked product of a quaint Northern public school, Seamus’ domestic situation was an oasis for me. All about me there was fin de Sie lifestyle experimentation, a confused Post-Modernity, and what were perhaps the turbulent final death throws of entrenched class-consciousness. Certainly now our post 9/11 times seem rather tame and pious compared. Ever since the Communist Party of Great Britain had declared ‘The End of the Party’ earlier that year, I’d no club to belong to. Seamus lived with a beautiful quiet and sure young woman, Amanda; blond and slim, very tidy, I liked her a lot. She, despite appearances, shared Shamus’s wild hedonistic attitude to life, at least to down-time. A remember a small brown dog, a loyal Jack Russell, who I’d look to, especially when the parties Seamus hosted got crammed and claustrophobic.
Seamus was a larger-than-life person. He was tall, almost albino-blond, thick hair wrested into fashionable dreadlocks. A bright & charismatic philosophy undergraduate, he had something of an aristocratic bearing, with his voice, and confident deportment, despite his name. I was magnetically drawn to him and his world. A magnet for me, he’d branched out in his extracurricular activities to take in dealing significant amounts of Skunk, hashish, cocaine and tablets on the Southampton student scene. With my mental tendency to escapism it was moth-to-flame. I’d help cut, weigh, and bag stuff for him in a little cottage industry set-up, and would shave off a little of the stuff for my own use. I wasn’t just in an oasis; I was virtually living right by the water hole.
I was far from happy though. But I couldn’t pin-point why. In the psychiatric trade I was in a “prodromal psychotic mood”. I’d been increasing stuck in that elusive flat through July, August and into September. I’d convinced myself that a more efficient method of study than uncomfortable lectures was to lie on my back in the empty flat of an afternoon among text books, soaking up the late sun and soaking up my brain and nervous system with cannabinoids.
But it wasn’t just the drugs; something more abnormal and sinister was going on in my mind. I’d become hopelessly depressed and I hadn’t the slightest handle on it. Lonely, anxious, groomed by teachers at prep school into a mini-man, compliant with authority, buttoned up, I wasn’t accustomed to sharing and processing emotions in any normal way. I just sunk into the spaces in between in this flat that reeked of burned chicken fat. Perhaps there was guilt about my free rent, free drugs, confusion about the freely-offered care and kindness from Seamus and Amanda. Keeping a low profile, I had no more than an employee-customer relationship with the droves of callers coming and going from evening to the small hours of each day.
By mid-September I’d not left the flat for several days. The pathology: a mixture of generalised hopelessness deeply suppressed, and in the brain tissue a perfect storm of dopamine depletion, acting on a genetic predisposition to mood disorder. I found the outside a formidable place, likely to trigger fearful ‘fight or flight’ bodily responses. I’d soon retreat upstairs, to fall onto the futon, or just the carpet and drift back into the comforting certainty of my own imagination.
What had started happening in my head was not really detectable to any observer for quite some time. As things got worse, I became more and more concerned to disguise my emotions, my guttural fear. The devil here, entering from the diabolical margins, was paranoia – a very palpable but totally unreasonable fear for my life.
I can’t say how the paranoia started. I can’t remember whether there was an inkling that propagated into a looming menace, or whether it was just suddenly full-on. However, by late October things had progressed, or exploded to the extent that I hardly dared to move around the flat, I lost my trust in Seamus, Amanda, family, anyone. There was only the little dog, silent and hyper-vigilant, that I could relate to. Amanda’s grace and serenity I had begun to take for the cool resolve of an executioner.
It’d become clear to me that the way they did it was to take the bodies straight into the back of the KFC and process them there for eating. I just knew it. Shamus’s friend Jonathan worked as a manager there, and he frequented the flat – he seemed to say as much himself, albeit in a kind of code, which I pretended not to understand. This knowledge was dangerous, a deadly scandal. One false step and it would be my separated body parts bubbling in the fat fryer before too long. How many people who had stumbled on this have already gone this way?
The ‘human body parts for fast food’ revelation for me obviously become a cosmically engrossing preoccupation, transporting me away from everyday existential nausea to a broad new place. It was scary but also exciting, like inhabiting a thriller novel. It was a grand idea, a majestic concept that transcended everything that had become miserable and mundane and meaningless.
There was now perfect justification for my reclusiveness – it was a matter of survival. Anyone could be a part of this thing, this ongoing atrocity with 11 secret herbs & spices – anyone, except the dog. With a minimal respect for sleep – such a vulnerable state – I maintained a round-the-clock guard from the box room, crunching back and forth on a carpet of shattered CD cases.
Assuming a heroic duty, the appalling circumstances I perceived had propelled me into activity, stirred me into action. I made anonymous calls to a number of tabloid newspapers. The man on the News of the World newsdesk gave me less than half a minute before hanging up. There you go, I thought, he could be in on it too, I’d have to be more careful next time.
More details emerged. The Children’s Centre was part of a Final-Solution, a Nazi-style euthanasia. It was perfectly plausible an arrangement. Plausible to me. Those poor kids came for therapy, for recreation, games with balloons sitting cross-legged in circles. They were then murdered with cruel efficiency. What kind of mind could even imagine such a thing?
On this parabolic trajectory of grandiosity and persecutory delusion, for me a hard re-entry to earth was inevitable, but that would take a long time to break in to my consciousness.
By November, there was Seamus, bending over my huddled form as I picked through the rubbish aimlessly on my box room floor, avoiding his gaze. He was crying. There was no doubt about that – this remained foremost in my memory. I had never seen him cry. He was crying that he’d been trying to help me, but that I wasn’t getting any better, that he’d called my brother, who’d called my father, that I was being taken away.
Still trying to feign an appearance of being fine, I was inwardly relieved but at the same time still very deluded. I was going somewhere where I’d be protected, where my aptitude for deception and survival would be appreciated. A safe house, like a spy, in a New Forest priory. A leisurely debriefing for a valued asset.
I was going away happy, but far from well.
I was imperious. “That’s OK Seamus; I’m quite happy thank you very much. Take care now.”
Recollections of friend Seamus related to university contemporaries, winter 1992
He was always such a nice guy; I don’t know what happened. Into the summer he was full of life, bouncing around. He was, like me passionate about ideas. The pair of us could talk for England, all night. He loved his Marxism Today rag – strangely Thatcherist that New Times manifesto. He even got elected to the NUS conference in Blackpool. Dark horse. Liked the girls, the last couple were both Welsh – there was that one who lived above the train station, a bit proletarian for him I’d say, wonder what happened to her…
Strange thing, the worse he looked the more polite he was. Everything became ‘just fine thank you’, when clearly it wasn’t. ‘Found him whispering stuff to the dog Mollie. Amanda and I used to take him and Mollie out for walks on Sunday mornings. Like I’d a second dog. I shouldn’t have given him the drugs, he couldn’t handle it. But, still, nobody else reacted like that.
He just sort of faded out. I got so worried. He didn’t seem to care about anything anymore. Where did all his ideas go? He didn’t share anything any more, just looked a mess.
I did the right thing. He needed help. We didn’t know what to do.
Amanda, remember we tried treating him to that fried chicken bucket?
The petrified look on his face! He didn’t touch it.