Monday 23 April 2018

'One pill and I went mad' - How Sophie White's nervous breakdown started at the Electric Picnic

In this exclusive extract, with recipes, from her new memoir-cum-cookbook 'Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown', LIFE columnist Sophie White reveals how one Ecstasy pill at the Electric Picnic in 2007 led to a cataclysmic shift in her life

Sophie White
Sophie White

Sophie White

Before going mad, I didn't really give madness that much thought. It seemed like a distant concept that had absolutely zero bearing on my life. A life that had been pretty average up until that point. I was born in 1985 in Dublin's Rotunda Hospital, the first and only child of Kevin and Mary (aka Herself). So far, so good.

I grew up. I went to school. I played with my friends. I watched Bosco, Zig and Zag, Blossom, Saved by the Bell, Party of Five. I loved drawing and making things. I loved reading and telling stories. Up and up I grew. I played Mrs Bennet in Fifth Class. I went to secondary school. I wore black, I listened to Green Day. I did reasonably well in exams.

I still loved art and started to do photography. I had a small group of really close friends. I kissed boys. I was fat but not as fat as I thought I was. I wasn't pretty but I wasn't as ugly as I thought I was. I wanted to be an artist. I grew up and up. I did my Leaving Cert and went to art college.

I drank wine and smoked. I did drugs. I made sculptures. I hugged a tree the first time I ever did magic mushrooms and cried because the stars were so pretty. I worked in a restaurant. I worked at the dogs. I was heartbroken and I fell in love. I lay on a blanket under a tree in the garden and loved a new boy. I went to parties. I read books and drew pictures. I wrote my thesis and ate takeaways. I drank too much and got sick. I had a bathtub beside my bed and lay reading in the water.

Sophie White
Sophie White

I got my First at college and worked in a bookshop. I wondered what to do next. I bought a plane ticket but ended up missing the flight. I was going along, living the life that I knew. I thought going mad was a gradual kind of state - after all, that's what the phrase kind of suggests. But for me it was an instantaneous transformation. Poof and you're mad. Most people have watershed moments in life, the events that divide the life they had from the new reality, and this was mine. Electric Picnic, Saturday, September 1, 2007.

Wake up one morning in a field with your friends with no idea that by the next morning, everything will be changed irrevocably. Poof and you're mad.

Funnily enough, the moment when my life made this cataclysmic shift actually felt physically like a shift. I had taken a pill about an hour earlier and was walking through a field when I felt the familiar unbearable lightness of coming up on Ecstasy. Then I felt an unmistakable jolt, like an abrupt jerk in the Earth's orbit. I was unnerved but shook it off. I'd had the odd bad trip before on mushrooms and knew that entertaining the seeds of doubt can virtually bring on the badness, but if you brush them off and focus on positives sometimes you can essentially style it out.

If all this is making me sound like a seasoned druggie, believe me, I was not. To my mind I was very moderate in my drug-taking. Though, with hindsight, my frame of reference might have been a bit skewed, as I had just come through art college, where the attitudes were possibly a bit more lenient than your average campus.

Anyway, back to the 'Poof and you're mad' bit. I soon realised that I would not be shrugging off this bad trip. It was taking complete hold of me by the time I managed to make my way back to my tent. A bad trip is different for everyone, but the gist is this: extreme anguish, profound terror, with or without auditory and visual hallucinations. Fun.

I lay in that tent for hours and hours, racked with terror. On many levels I thought I was going to die and had full-blown hallucinations of talking to my parents about this. But somewhere I had an element of conscious awareness. I felt I would survive. I just needed to rehydrate!

I had a few litres of water in the tent with me, and as I rode each wave of anxiety and blackest fear I clung to this one act of trying to cleanse myself of the drug and get to morning. At some point near dawn, I fell asleep.

Upon waking I initially felt profound relief. I had survived the night, the drug was wearing off and we were heading home. I still had the uneasy feary feeling of a bad, bad hangover, but I was glad to be out of that tent. I distinctly remember thinking that I would never take drugs again. What I didn't realise then was that I would be reliving elements of that first night over and over for the next few years. That it would be four years before I would feel stable enough to have even a glass of wine with dinner and that I would wind up on drugs of a very different variety.

Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll.

The first few days after the trip I noticed that the persistent fear and anxiety were showing no signs of abating and appeared to be getting worse. I was also having strange visual and auditory disturbances. I found watching television absolutely unbearable, as the onslaught of sounds and images felt like an attack on my frazzled brain. Trips to the supermarket or other crowded places were such an aggressive assault on my senses that I avoided them at all costs. I had begun to notice that everyday objects looked unfamiliar to me. This is hard to describe, but completely innocuous things like shampoo bottles and boxes of cereal would appear altered and fill me with dread. Even my own face and hands were frightening to me.

One night, as I was washing dishes my left arm suddenly felt like it was not my own. I stopped what I was doing and touched it with my other arm. I could feel it, but I couldn't shake the sense that this arm was alien and not really a part of me. I pretended to continue with the dishes while carefully watching the arm out of the corner of my eye. It too continued washing the dishes. The strangest thing was not the mistrust of my own arm but that some part of my mind could still recognise that these were not normal thoughts.

I began to be plagued by the sensation that I was going mad. During this time I experienced a lot of obsessive thoughts. The thoughts felt to me as if they were uncontrollable, that they were not my own, and I was terrified of the images that would flash across my brain. All the while I still had a scrap of rational perspective that I tried to use to talk myself down. A recurring obsessive thought was that I would kill my boyfriend. I knew without a doubt that I didn't want to kill him but I was afraid that this was where all this madness was heading. That I would wake up out of this nightmare having murdered him, pleading insanity in some highly publicised murder trial. I tried to explain these thoughts to him, and credit to him he laughed and said he could easily take me.

Weeks and weeks had passed since the 'Poof' night and I was rapidly getting worse and worse. I was plagued by a strange physical sensation that I called 'brain nausea'. It was like a constant terror that increased and decreased in waves at all times. Another quirk of my madness had also developed. When I opened my eyes and looked around me, it felt as if I was looking at things through the wrong end of a telescope. People and objects seemed very small and far away. And unreal. The unreal feeling became more and more persistent. I became quite convinced that my memory of my life was false and that nothing in this world was real.

At more lucid times, I tried to reason myself out of this line of thinking. I would play the Beatles and say to myself, 'If nothing is real, then does this mean you wrote this song? That you created all the art in the world and masterminded the garlic press?' Of course, this was not really something I or anyone else could reason me out of. Something had been profoundly altered in my brain and there was no easy fix.

I was absolutely obsessed with pretending that everything was OK. I told none of my friends what was happening to me and I think I put up a decent enough show of normality when I had to. Pretending that I was fine did help me to feel marginally more normal when I was with them. I began to hint to my mother that I was feeling a bit off, not really myself, and she started to push for me to 'see someone'.

The person closest to knowing the full extent of things was Himself. We lived together at the time in a crumbling old coach house at the bottom of his dad's garden. We had met a year before and become completely besotted with one another, so much so that in his family, we were known as 'the twins'.

Himself is a calm sort of person, which perhaps helped him to deal with what was happening to us. I also believe that I didn't ever tell him the full extent of things. I didn't tell him about the stranger's arm, or how I was afraid of my own face or the whispering in my ears. He told me later that the scariest thing was a particular look that would come over me. I would stare for long periods quite fixedly, at nothing that he could perceive, with an expression of abject terror. He would try to talk to me to break the spell and eventually I would snap back and acknowledge him. For the most part, he tried to act normal and mind me.

I continued to go to my job in the bookshop, though I had developed a certain paranoia relating to the place, and pretending to be fine all day in a retail environment was challenging. Completely sane people would go mad from it.

I was resisting the 'seeing someone' because I was terrified of what they would say. My mother had made a few appointments for me that I had cancelled at the last minute. I was terrified of telling anyone about my obsessive thoughts and brain sickness. I was pretty much terrified of everything. I had started my own regime of restricted diet and herbal remedies in a bid to cure myself. I was petrified of sugar, alcohol and caffeine, anything that would cause physical stimulus and exacerbate my anxiety. I was completely convinced that manuka honey and valerian would cure me.

Every night I went to bed and slept, which was a miracle, since all day, every day, I was plagued by my thoughts. I think that the fact that I could sleep was down to sheer exhaustion from pretending to be fine all the time. A strange thing I noticed was that in my dreams I felt normal again, and for a couple of seconds in the morning, before the rushing terror and flat unreality returned, I would think it had all gone away.

It was like my worlds had reversed. The all-pervading atmosphere of dread usually felt in nightmares had become my waking reality, while when I slept I was peaceful. In my dreams was the only time I felt like myself again.

Two things happened that eventually convinced me to see a psychiatrist. First, I started to plan my suicide and, second, I met a man who had experienced what was happening to me. Not to dwell on the suicide plan, but here's a quick rundown: I was very sad about what I felt had become the inevitable outcome to all this. I had had my fun and done drugs and was now getting what was coming to me.

The main emotion I felt was sadness for the people who loved me, though there was also a kind of inevitability about the whole thing, as though my life had been heading towards this conclusion all along. I had a feeling of determined resignation. I made the actual plan when I was lying beside Himself in bed one night. And I distinctly remember feeling very sorry for him and thinking, 'You poor thing, you fell in love with the wrong person'. Making the plan gave me a bleak kind of hope, a sense that this would all be over soon and I wouldn't have to feel like this any more.

How I met Andrew was pure coincidence. It seemed so very serendipitous that for quite a while I suspected that in my state of madness I was hallucinating him. I was leaving the bookshop and Andrew applied for my job. He was hired and came to work with me for two weeks so that I could show him the ropes. On the first morning he made a pot of coffee, and when I said that I didn't drink coffee any more he asked me why, and quite out of the blue I told him absolutely everything. Confiding in a complete stranger was bizarre on some level, but perhaps it made a skewed kind of sense. He was a stranger who wouldn't cry or get angry or sedate me if I explained about being afraid I would kill someone or how I was planning to kill myself.

Incredibly, Andrew had been through a similar episode, also induced by drugs. He is an insanely (pardon the pun) serene person and he said a lot of things that I could hardly believe had happened to him. He had gone through psychiatrists and counsellors and seemed to be ambivalent towards psychiatric medication, but he said that he tried not to obsess too much over the meds he was prescribed. He believed it was likely they had contributed to his recovery, along with cognitive behavioural therapy and time.

In November, three months after the 'Poof' night, I finally got the bus to St John of Gods and met my psychiatrist for the first time. I pretty much felt like I was hanging on by a thread by this time. I'm not sure if it is a common thing for a person to hate their psychiatrist, but I hated her from the first moment we met. I told her a lot of what I had been going through but held back about the obsessive thoughts and lied when she asked if I was suicidal. She gave me a prescription on my first visit for an anti-depressant called Lexapro, but I didn't take it.

I also began seeing a counsellor in the same clinic, who I grudgingly warmed to slightly more than the psychiatrist, mainly because, as a counsellor, he wasn't giving me prescriptions. Still, for the first few visits I was ridiculously guarded with them both, completely defeating the purpose of our sessions. I was deeply suspicious that the psychiatrist was secretly hypnotising me, which sounded so incredibly paranoid that I was afraid to voice these concerns to the counsellor. Eventually I was prescribed and agreed to take Olanzapine ('to help with your thoughts') and the original Lexapro prescription.

Olanzapine is a type of anti-psychotic. Now, I can tell you it is pretty demoralising being prescribed an anti-psychotic. The antidepressant prescription confused me as I didn't imagine that what I was suffering from was depression, but the anti-psychotic seemed to confirm my worst fears. Poof and you're mad.

Anyone who has ever been on Olanzapine can probably attest to the fact that it is officially the least fun drug ever. The feeling Olanzapine gives you is sedation without contentment. It helped with my thoughts on some level, in that while I was on it I was hardly able to make eye contact, never mind form coherent thoughts. Every night I took my Olanzapine at 8pm, and by 8.15pm I was barely capable of speech. The first few nights I took it I didn't anticipate the effect it would have on my coordination and found I was hardly able to use a knife and fork.

One evening Himself and I went to dinner with all our parents. It was an awkward meal. I was, as usual, making an exhausted and largely unsuccessful effort to appear fine. The reservation was for 7.30pm and I was besieged with panic from the moment we sat down. At the time I hated being in any scenario that required me to sit still for any period of time. Car rides were excruciating and I was phobic about public transport as I felt trapped. On trains, I was fixated on the fact that if I needed to bail out at a moment's notice I was at the mercy of automated doors.

In the restaurant we were seated at a large round table in quite a plush dining room. On the wall across from the table was a large mirror framed in padded leather. This is where my studied calm began to unravel. As we were taking our seats, I caught sight of my reflection with my peripheral vision and a thought came unbidden to me. There were always a lot of disjointed thoughts assaulting me at any given time, but this one made me feel sick to my stomach, which, in a bizarre kind of way, seemed immediately to lend this thought more credence.

It stood out from the rest of the cacophony because it had produced a physical reaction. The stand-out thought was: 'There's the other me, the real me'.

I don't know if everyone with drug-induced psychosis has these fixations on doubles, but I certainly had. I frequently harboured suspicions that those around me were in fact replacements, like pod people, in the same way that I felt that I, myself, had been replaced.

Throughout the meal I tried not to look at the mirror but I was deeply unnerved by any glimpse of my reflection, or, as I saw it, her presence. My grasp on the situation was tenuous. The parents were chatting away, apparently unaware, as I tried to focus on acting fine. Fine, fine, fine. My hands were always shaky and my mouth was always dry from the medication, but around this time each night, as 8.00pm and my nightly dose approached, I always felt that the incessant thoughts and dread that ebbed and flowed all day would start to hit a crescendo until I took the pill, when all would go quiet and I would become slack.

At this dinner, I tried to hold out on taking the Olanzapine - after all, a tense and watchful person is still preferable to a person verging on catatonia unable to piece a sentence together, especially at a dinner party. In the end, though, the crescendo was peaking and I made my way to the bathroom and took my pill. Soon after, Himself made some excuse and took me home before the main course. Presumably the parents glossed over my behaviour and got on with getting along. It was the first time they had all met.

The Olanzapine admittedly did provide some relief from the fractured and relentless thoughts that tormented me and caused frequent shocks of cold fear in my chest. And the feelings of unreality seemed distant and less threatening under the cloak of sedation. The feeling induced by the medication was that someone had thrown a thick felt blanket over all these sensations. I could still feel them through the material, but they were blunted by the meds. They didn't seem so vivid or relevant to me anymore.

Then again, nothing in my life seemed vivid or relevant any more. I sat on the edge of my bed and idly wondered where I had gone, while also noting how odd it was that, it seemed, I no longer cared. My life was stalled, I was living in my parents' house while my friends were travelling the world and making plans for their lives. Drugs are bad, I got the message. No lecture required.

To this day, I've no idea how much of my recovery I owe to the medication and how much simply to time and therapy. I'm sure it's a bit of a mix, but during those months at Fenvil, the company I was working for at the time, I actually did start to feel better, little by little. I felt a bit stronger. I developed a new strategy regarding the obsessive thoughts whereby I started to detach from them somewhat. I started to realise that these thought spirals were fed by me and my panic and that I actually could decide not to engage with them. Of course this is not the case for everybody. I can only speak from my own experience, and it's not as simple as deciding to get better and you will.

I do feel that a huge factor in my recovery was luck. My parents had good jobs, I wasn't relying on the public health care system. I got a referral and was in a private hospital within days. I could afford to stop working and drop out of life. I had a family home to move back to when I couldn't take care of myself and was suicidal. I was supported in every way imaginable, and I cannot overstate how much I think this contributed to my recovery.

For me, the process of getting better was baby steps forward and baby steps back and baby steps forward, and so on and so on. I stayed on Lexapro (the anti-depressant) for another two years. I didn't drink alcohol again for another four years; I never did drugs again! I began to recognise the cycle of relapse. Over the last 10 years, I have felt bad in my brain now and again, but each episode seemed fainter and the time between each one got gradually longer and longer. And they never felt as powerful as those first months. When you know you can get through it once, you know you can get through it again.

'Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown' is out on Friday but available to pre-order from Gill here

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