Madness in Edinburgh – It’s not only comics who have psychotic interludes

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As per several of my blogs last week, madness reigns and financial damage to performers comes ever closer as the Edinburgh Fringe approaches because of a tussle between the Freestival and the late-to-arrive PBH Free Fringe organisation, both claiming to have rights to programme the Cowgatehead venue.

Today, there is a meeting to try to sort it out after a compromise was suggested by the Freestival – although, in correspondence last week with critic Bruce Dessau, Peter Buckley Hill (the PBH of the Free Fringe) said: “Such a meeting is not on the cards. There is no compromise deal on the table… There is no meeting.”

So someone somewhere either has to be telling porkie pies or is delusional.

I merely report the facts as a detached observer with a raised eyebrow.

But – surprising as it may be to some – there are other people in Edinburgh during August in addition to comedians and, indeed, some of them actually live there. Lucky them.

I have been going to Edinburgh every year since I was an embryo. When I was a kid, we used to go up every year to visit my father’s aunt who lived there. My mother also had a cousin living there. And, later, my father’s sister lived there.

I also – again surprising as it may be to some – know people other than comedians.

And psychotic interludes are not restricted to comedians.

Take my chum Sue Blackwell (not her real name).

“Have you ever wanted to be a performer?” I asked her on Skype yesterday.

“No,” she told me. “I was in three AmDram plays in the 1990s. I wanted to just try it. The minister at the local church was a very flamboyant character and held the rehearsals in his manse. It was fun. It was an experience.

“I did enjoy it but, at the end of the third one, I became ill. That’s when it started. They held a barn dance after the third one and I went feeling I was alright. The next day, I was telling people I had been hypnotised. It was a quick as that.”

“Did someone,” I asked Sue, “spike your drink?”

“Well, that was what the psychiatrist asked me, but I don’t think so.”

“Had you,” I asked, “had any psychotic incidents before this?”

“No. But I was in a marriage that was particularly bad and abusive and I had probably earned it after 20 years of what was going on. I think I had probably decided to do the AmDram to distract myself.”

“How long did these psychotic incidents last?”

“I was away from work for three months.”

“This was,” I asked, “hallucination stuff?”

“Voices,” Sue told me. “The first voice I heard was a man’s voice. It’s hard to describe. Eventually, I went to see a psychologist. Then I said: I want to see a psychiatrist.”

“Why did you want to change from a psychologist to a psychiatrist?”

“There was no rational rhyme or reason to my thought processes. But I did see the psychiatrist and I took a newspaper with me. I could no more have read that paper than fly to the moon, but I wanted to appear normal. I wasn’t thinking rationally. My daughter was with me and I was telling the psychiatrist this story about feeling different after the barn dance and she said: You’ve been odd for ages, mum.

Odd? Me? I said. And so it went on and eventually I left my home and went to stay with my daughter. I had this man’s voice in my head and it was really scary. I was still telling friends I had been hypnotised and some of them believed me. It felt like I had walked into the barn dance that evening OK but, looking back now, I probably wasn’t OK.”

“What were the voices like?” I asked. “Was it like listening to me now, in reality? Sometimes, when you dream, other people talk to you in the dream and…”

“It was an actual man’s voice,” explained Sue. “Lots of things I do remember, but I can’t remember the nature that it took. It was very unpleasant to me. It must have been me. It didn’t tell me to kill my husband – it only approached that once. But I was very frightened of the voice.

“It went on because it was not treated and, eventually, I went for treatment and they put me on amitriptyline and the voice dampened down. Then I went back to where I was living with my daughter and then it all started again, except it was a woman’s voice, which was softer. It wasn’t so harsh. There wasn’t the aggression in it.

“Eventually, I went to live with a gay friend of mine. I couldn’t talk about it by this time. I disassociated myself to cope. It was like a big egg. I was outside of it and I was not in contact with what had happened to me. Every time I did attempt to talk about it, my whole body would shake. I had been living in a place where I was scared of the person I was living with.”

“Your husband?” I asked.

“Yes. So I went to live with my gay friend and never went back and my gay friend was just amazing. He said: You need a bloody good scream, dear. So he took me out – but trying to find a place to scream in a city… We were driving around and eventually went up Arthur’s Seat but there were people parked in cars and we thought: We can’t do it here. People will call the police. So we drove down to the Blackford Hill in the south of Edinburgh and drove up to the Observatory car park and it was dusk and we walked round to look at the panorama of Edinburgh, where I know you like to go, and I just screamed my head off.

“We had also both been screaming while driving there. We went out a couple of times and screamed from the top of Blackford Hill and my gay friend was probably right. It helped on some level. Eventually, it got better.”

“Did the problem go away as quickly as it had started?”

“No. I went and saw another psychiatrist and I was barely… I can only remember bits of it. Going into the mental health unit. I accidentally went next door, which was a solicitor’s and I thought they were doing that to trick me. I was OK when I was talking to somebody. I told the psychiatrist: There’s a tiny part of my mind… I probably sound normal… rational… But inside I’m not. He gave me Seroxat.”

“Jesus Christ!” I said. “Did you read my blog about The Amazing Mr Smith committing suicide when he took Seroxat?”

“Yes, I know. But for me it worked. It started to dampen down the voices.”

“What were the voices telling you?”

“Every notice I saw… My anxiety was through the roof… I was getting panic attacks and God knows what. I would see a notice for a jumble sale and I would think it was somebody targeting me.”

“What for?” I asked. “To get jumble?”

“Not necessarily. Any old notice.”

“You thought they were criticising you?” I asked.

“Or something. It was all linked. I said to the psychiatrist I’m a schizophrenic and he said Oh no. that’s a totally different thing. He said: If you want a diagnosis, I would say you were very, very deeply depressed. But I had been functioning in the depression. I can look back now and think I was almost becoming manic. I couldn’t cram enough into my life.”

“To cram so much into your life you would not be aware of your depression?”

“Probably. I didn’t feel depressed but I suppose I was distancing myself from myself. Also another big thing was that I’d had these mental ‘absences’. If I went into the bathroom when I was living with my daughter, I might go into a… you know sometimes people are… just not ‘here’ for a minute. Then my daughter would say: Mum! Mum! and I had a sense of being pulled back from this other place, wherever it was, and I would feel a sense of almost anger.”

“At being pulled back?”

“Yeah. It was happening a lot. It was a deep ‘away’. I couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t just absent-mindedness. It was like going to a safe place.”

“But this was 15-20 years ago and you’re OK now.”

“Maybe that long ago. I don’t know. I can’t remember. I don’t put myself under huge stress now. It’s a difficult thing, mental illness. Because it’s all on the inside. It doesn’t show.”

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Filed under Edinburgh, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

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