By Nell Prince
Previous Creative Writing PhD student Nell Prince reflects on her experience in her first and second year at King’s College London.
I recently read Leonora Carrington’s harrowing account of her descent into madness, Down Below. It made me relive my own bout of psychosis during the second year of a PhD.
I began a PhD at King’s in the autumn of 2020. Waiting for the funding result (unsuccessful) was difficult because it was during the first round of Covid lockdowns. I remember it was during those warm spring months when I began to experience difficulty concentrating. I couldn’t read properly. I thought that our house was bugged and that my computer had been hacked.
I started journalling to keep a record of what it was like during lockdown. I recorded the long walks my mother and I went on and the wildlife we saw. We were lucky to live in rural Lincolnshire, far away from the cramped city. But despite our geographical luck, my mental condition was slowly deteriorating. I clung to the idea of doing a PhD because it offered a vocational pathway and a chance to study a subject I cared about: poetry.
The first term was an awakening of my interest in formal long narrative poetry. The PhD really got started, though, in the second term when I explored encounters with Spenser. I fell hard back in love with The Faerie Queen with its never-ending marathon of exquisite imagery and sound. In my own work I thought I could marry ecological concern with a blank verse Spenserian narrative.
It is important to understand that severe mental illness can be a two-faced beast. I could speak eloquently enough about poetry during supervision. I could be lucid enough for social occasions giving the impression nothing was wrong. But beneath the surface I was increasingly preoccupied with people sending me secret messages through conversation and books.
To give an example, I thought Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was about me. I thought it was a cheap potshot, a book created in order to humiliate me. I thought it was part of a large conspiracy of writers to ruin my life. I also firmly believed that my favourite poetry journal contained clever nudges and winks telling me that I had, once again, been hacked. I set fire to the journal and erased my hard drive (losing much content in the process).
Seascape of the Ocean Foam, 2015. Photographer: Alexandra Diaconu.
Over time the delusions grew worse. By 2022 I was convinced that several of my acquaintances were secret agents. I was also worried that I was going to be murdered and started carrying a knife. Travelling to London because of a King’s College language class, I carried the knife in my pocket. That same evening I walked into a bar on the South Bank. I got chatting to a man who worked for NASA (naturally I assumed he was a secret agent), and two women, one a therapeutic coach. We had drinks. From the outside, you wouldn’t know I was ill, but in the back of my mind I was scanning for revealing ‘clues’ during the conversation.
The therapeutic coach made a comment about cutting your own hair and the evening before I had done exactly that. Reading into the comment, I knew it meant the bathroom mirror at home must have a camera behind it. Quickly, I left my new acquaintances and started running in the dark. I was frightened the secret service would murder me.
It must have been around 9pm when I found myself out of breath and in the garden of Christ Church, Southwark. I then walked across Blackfriars Bridge in the grey night, trying to blend in with other people. My mind was thick with suspicion. I had decided, oddly, to stay all night in the Maughan Library as a protest against the secret service. So I went straight to the law section and sat there all night, twirling the knife in my hands.
Not long after this I had a crisis. A mental health worker, my mother had contacted, suggested that it might be best if I was sectioned, but my mum didn’t want to lose my trust. I was lucky; I had just enough objective space left in my mind to allow a visit to a psychiatrist who said I was suffering from severe depression with psychotic features. He said I should try anti-psychotics. Within a few weeks of taking the drugs I started to realise how delusional my thinking was: there wasn’t a conspiracy to murder me; I didn’t start the war in Ukraine; I wasn’t the inspiration behind the Harry Potter books.
But what I have realised is that psychosis isn’t just a break with reality: in my experience it grows like a subtle web over time. It is constantly refined by the ego. It is dynamic. It is unique, I think, to each sufferer. It is hard to cut through its thick fog to relate exactly how it operates. Not only this but there is also poor education about psychosis compared with other mental health issues. This is important when we consider the stressful context of a PhD. Given that 1 in 100 experience a psychotic break in their lifetimes, I wonder if awareness of psychosis should be raised within universities.
Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.
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