If I rest, if I think inward, I go mad – Sylvia Plath

After a lifetime of living with depression, it was not depression that almost killed me, but paranoia. Over the course of about a year of working on time-consuming experiments with the ever-present threat of the end of my research contract and work-sponsored UK visa, I became more and more convinced that I was being secretly filmed in the lab and that my colleagues were spying on me, trying to find a reason to stop my experiments. I thought that my only friend was my supervisor, who I admired and trusted, and who wanted the research to continue. A few months of University counselling failed to ease my paranoia. The stress of my experiments, applying for funding and new research positions and the prospect of losing my work-sponsored UK visa and thus my loving relationship and my home in the UK gradually built up.

A senior researcher who had known me for several years found me in the lab crying over my experiments. I explained about my worry over finding a new position that would sponsor my UK visa and allow me to stay in the UK with the man I loved. The researcher suggested that I was more suited to doing research under another person, that I was an excellent research associate driving forward someone else’s research agenda, but my research ideas and publication record were not good enough to get a fellowship or lectureship position. While I understand now, in reflection, that the senior researcher was offering good advice to go for another research associate position instead of fellowships and lectureships, at the time, I took the advice to mean that I simply was not good enough to continue in academia. I tried to look for positions outside academia, but could not find a company willing to sponsor my UK work visa. I felt trapped in academia. My stress, anxiety and paranoia continued to increase.

The point of mental breakdown was when my paranoia transitioned from the lab to encompass everything in my life. Something inside my mind clicked into an alternative reality dominated by paranoid thoughts and a conspiracy theory.

This conspiracy theory told me that all my actions and communications were being monitored (the lab was just a small part of the monitoring operation); my housemate was a spy for the US government, and all of my colleagues and friends were suspected of spying on me. The more I thought about the situation, the more connections seemed to appear to back up this conspiracy theory. In my mind, the eyes of the stuffed animals in my house were cameras and I was constantly being watched. The ice cream man that always visited the neighborhood, signaled by the ever-present repetitive tune, was a spy, so were all the homeless people that I passed on my way to work. All my skype conversations with my family and friends were being recorded. All of my emails had been made publicly visible and everyone was reading them. I could not trust anyone anymore. They all were against me and wanted me to fail. They were all spying on me. I became obsessed with doing the right thing, proving that I was a good lawful person (perhaps the most important person I needed to convince was myself).

At this point, my partner and housemate had become sufficiently alarmed at my erratic claims and behaviour to suggest that I skype with my family. I spoke with my father and mother and then to my sister and her husband, but I was convinced that it was too late for me. I had made too many mistakes in my life, broken too many rules, told too many lies; the list in my head of my faults reeled on and on. Every bad thing I had ever done in my life started crashing into my mind, reinforcing my negative view of myself and my situation.

The next morning, my housemate and partner had to leave the house to go to work, so I was left in the house alone as I was in no state to go to the office. While they were gone, I sat in the bath with the kitchen knife and cried. I did not know what to do. I was devastated, depressed, anxious and paranoid. Thank goodness my partner had taken away all the medicine with him when he left the house. It would have been too easy to take an overdose in that state. Instead I was left with a knife and I was too afraid of the physical pain to use it. I got out of the bath, returned the knife to the kitchen and cried in my bed.

I could not sleep that evening, so at sunrise my partner and I drove to a nature reserve, hoping it would calm me. As we walked around together, I became more and more suspicious of him. I thought the birds were robots with cameras and that there were people recording our every movement. As we drove over, he had mentioned that we should see a certain type of rare bird and I had also read a news article that said that these birds were unusually high in number at the nature reserves this year. When I could not see any of these birds, I decided that even the news that I was able to read on my computer was being manipulated. I could no longer trust anyone.

I demanded to be taken home. As we were driving back, I saw a car on the side of the road with some people standing around it. In preparing for my driving test, I had read that you need to call the police if you notice someone in trouble on the road. I told my partner that I needed to call the police and do the right thing in accordance with the road laws. I thought it was a set-up to test whether I was a good person, a law-abiding citizen. I had forgotten my phone at home and my partner refused to allow me to call the police with his phone. He did not think the people looked in trouble. I concluded that he was trying to keep me from doing the right thing; he wanted me to fail the test; he was on their side. I became more and more uncontrollable during the ride home, insisting that he give me the phone and let me make the call.

When we got home, I was so upset and determined to do the right thing that I continued to insisted  more and more violently that we call the police. My housemate decided to give into my demands and called the police to report the breakdown. He and my partner then insisted that I call a number of someone that they said could help me. I did not trust either of them anymore (both were certainly government spies) and decided to skype my family to ask for advice. My family convinced me to listen to my partner and housemate and make the call.

That call to NHS emergency services was the first step towards recovery. I was booked into an emergency appointment with a doctor that afternoon; the doctor wrote a prescription for paranoia, anxiety and depression and sent me immediately to another hospital’s emergency room, where they interviewed me and then sent me to a mental health hospital as an in-patient. All this happened within the space of an evening.

Unfortunately, I was not convinced that any of the doctors or nurses were real. I thought that they were all government spies and that what they had told me was a mental health ward was actually a detention center where I was being monitored for evidence to use against me. While I was now in a physically safe place, the worst of my mental illness was still to come.


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