Writing Myself Well: Jessica’s Story
I’ve always found words to be comforting. So much so that I took the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. I then spent my career working in Bath and scribbling words on behalf of brands for a living.
In September 2017 however my life took a turn for the worse. I had taken a job in London and was doing a gruelling 100-mile commute each way. My mental health slowly degraded and ultimately I lost my job. Over the next year things spiralled out of control and I had a ‘full-blown’ psychotic episode in July 2018. A psychotic episode, also known as psychosis, is a condition where you experience symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations and disorganised behaviour.
Soon after I started to lose my grip on reality, I was hospitalised for 28 days under section 2 of the Mental Health Act. When my family asked what they should bring me in hospital, I requested a notebook and pencils. I kept writing even though I didn’t always have the best handle on reality. Even though I was in hospital, I could still pen a few lines of a poem or whisk up a short story. Writing gave me a great deal of comfort in hospital and dare I say it kept me sane!
After this first episode…
After this first episode, I tried going back to work again at an advertising agency. But I couldn’t think as clearly as I could before I was ill. Psychosis has two types of symptoms: positive symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations and negative symptoms such as problems with memory and concentration. These negative symptoms often stubbornly persist long after the conspiracies and voices have faded. As returning to my old career was now off the table, I started volunteering in a bookshop to keep myself busy. As I recovered, I felt well enough to get a part-time job in a library. Unfortunately in August 2019 I had another psychotic episode and I was hospitalised again under a Section 2.
In hospital the occupational therapy team took me to a creative writing workshop. Although at the time my thinking was muggy and I paranoidly thought it was some sort of initiation into a cult, I slowly began to realise it was actually a fun activity to pass the time. There were other activities too such as gardening and art, but it was the writing workshops which meant the most to me.
At first I was very suspicious during the sessions as I thought that everyone was against me. I kept seeing ‘signs’ in everything from a cup of tea to a car number plate. Anything could be a sign and most of these signs had some negative connotation that I was going to die or be hurt. These are called delusions of reference and are when you believe things such as music and graffiti have a specific meaning for you personally. At the same time I was very paranoid and felt as though everyone was against me.
Despite these symptoms, I did my best to listen attentively during the creative writing sessions in hospital. Each session we were set a new brief and had time to scribble down our thoughts and had the opportunity to read our stories out loud.
Finding my voice
I found my own voice each week amidst the debilitating symptoms of psychosis.
Although I often thought that the creative writing workshop was a kind of ‘test’ that would determine my fate (which I felt certain was death), and that the art studio where they took place was a kind of real life escape-the-room game, as the antipsychotics began to work and I became more lucid, I enjoyed the writing more and more.
From a story about a chicken escaping from its pen (wishful thinking on my part as I kept trying to escape from the hospital because I thought I’d been kidnapped) to a story about a city where everything is grey (and one person was in technicolour: me I presume). I scrawled my thoughts and feelings into the pale red exercise book they gave me. And it genuinely helped me manage my delusions.
In retrospect I think it’s amazing that I could still use my imagination and engage creatively even though I was so ill. These creative writing sessions in hospital are invaluable and I am so grateful to the occupational therapy team for running them. The volunteer who facilitated the creative writing group was incredibly supportive and told me I should make sure I keep all my writing, even the rambling stories from when I was ill, as I might be able to publish it later.
This engagement with writing has continued through my recovery and I have blogged, short storied and flash fictioned my way to wellness. I’m writing more and more as my concentration improves and I hope that one day I will be able to go back to a job writing for a living. The soft pitter-patter of fingers on a keyboard as I type through my recovery is almost meditative.
Things are more stable now, and I’m working on a memoir about these unusual experiences so that I can help make sense of them and show others that you can craft a meaningful recovery from psychotic experiences.
Posted on: 12th March 2021