Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Psychosis

It has been four years since my mental collapse. A part of me can’t believe that much time has passed; there are moments when it still feels fresh and harsh. I find myself surprised every time I mention it to someone who was previously unaware that it had ever happened. I guess I am as surprised as they are. Them, to find out that I struggled with mental illness, culminating in one gigantic psychotic break, and I, to discover that they did not already know, either by my own admission or through the grapevine. I think, “How could they not know this about me?”. To me it is still so relevant; a defining part of who I am. It seems odd that they wouldn’t have already heard the story. But I guess that just goes to show how little we actually know about each other.
Up until this point, I had never written about my experience of becoming and being unhinged because the thought of recounting it on paper was just too painful. There are still memories and feelings that make me cringe and scrunch up my face when they cross my mind. Even now, I am not ready to write down a full play-by-play of exactly what happened and exactly how I was feeling, but I am going to try to go in depth enough to provide a clear picture of the situation, as it was.
Before I dive into that deep well, I want to say that the most positive thing I took from my experience is empathy. When you haven’t a care in the world, it is easy to not have a care for others; to not recognize suffering and to overlook hardship. The experience of my fellow humans is real to me in a way that, I believe, it never would have been, were it not for my own unraveling.
So here goes...
In June of 2012, while on a tattoo related trip in Amsterdam, I had a psychotic breakdown. The core psychosis lasted approximately two weeks, the subsequent months being a slow, rocky period of recovery, some aspects of which have extended years, even into the present. Though what I experienced is a fundamental part of who I am and has shaped my life every day since, I realize that most people I am in contact with day to day have no idea that just beneath the surface, I am in constant fear of my mental illness resurfacing. Every conversation reminds me of my delirium or its effect on those around me. At some point, every single day, I am taken back to the time when I did not have control over my own brain.
I don’t think I will ever really be able to explain to someone with an outside perspective exactly what transpired, but here’s a summary of the situation, as it happened, in Amsterdam in June 2012:
It started with Jetlag. I was tired, feverish, and disoriented. This wasn’t my first time travelling between time-zones, but this time around, I just couldn’t seem to adjust. I was travelling with several other tattooers, friends and colleagues of mine, most of whom I worked with every day, back in Seattle. We were staying in a large apartment. Because there were so many of us, I offered to sleep on a roll-away cot, rather than get a room to myself. Our main purpose for visiting was to attend the annual Amsterdam Tattoo Convention; an event which I had actually gone to the year before as well. We had a few days to spare, before the convention to get adjusted, explore the city, and see friends. During this time, my jetlag seemed to somehow seamlessly morph into extreme anxiety. I could not relax enough to sleep, eat, or poop, and the inability to do so compounded my unease.
My anxiety turned into paranoia. I realized later that I had not fully understood what true paranoia was, until this. I started to feel like everyone was talking about me and plotting behind my back. Every action, every utterance, every sideways glance, every giggle, every voice heard through a wall was translated by my brain as menacing and directed at me in some negative way. And everything I did was somehow offensive or annoying to those around me. I started having a hard time recognizing people, places, and things I should have known. Also, the opposite of that, where I thought I recognized people, places, or things that should have been unfamiliar to me.
I tried to manage all of this internally for several days. I did pretty good when I was on my own, I even spent a day out in the city and got a tattoo from an artist I look up to. But as soon as I was in the company of anyone I knew, I would crumble. Eventually, it got to a point when it must have been fairly obvious that I was freaking out. I say “I think” because I still don’t really know what others’ perception of me was, during this time. I believe this was the first day of the convention. I was unable to interact with anyone, or really function at all, without having a panic attack. In fact, I felt like I was in a constant panic attack. At this point I think it had been about 72 hours since I had slept.
By the time I was able to ask for help, I literally thought that everyone I was travelling with was either trying to murder me or sell me into prostitution. Funny story, off topic, but still a part of the same string of events; early on in the trip I actually got punched in the back of the head by a prostitute in the red light district. It’s a long story. Ask me about it sometime and I’ll tell you...
Every time anyone tried to feed me, I thought they were trying to poison me. The especially sad thing is that eventually I became listless and almost accepting of the fact that I was going to be murdered and I might as well face my attackers head on. I tried, on a couple occasions, in my own panicked, insane way, to be brave and meet my fate, which of course made no sense to anyone around me and just got me more wound up. But back to the timeline: I said I was eventually able to ask for help. Barely. I didn’t know exactly what I needed, but I was able to recall the number of a friend in Seattle. It was probably 4:00 in the morning when I called her. After talking with her on the phone, she was able to realize that I really needed help. She got on the phone with one of my travel companions and conferred. Afterwards I was given the option of sucking it up or being taken to a hospital. I said I needed to go to a hospital.
The next day I was ferried around to several hospitals by my travel companions. It started with pretty much the whole group, but people broke off as the day progressed. I think most people went to the tattoo convention to work and party. I could barely get dressed that morning. I distinctly remember not brushing my teeth because I was scared that I would be yelled at. I don’t remember why I thought that. By this time, every song that played through the radio in the taxis was a sign. Every street name meant something. Every Dutch word spoken by pedestrians, taxi drivers, nurses, was translated by my brain as meaning something else in English. I actually felt like I could understand what they were saying, in a language I had never learned. And believe me, what they were saying was not good. Everyone was in on it. Everyone. The entire city. The entire world. I was spiralling and it was terrifying. I could barely move.
At each hospital, I refused treatment. My paranoia made me believe I was being kidnapped and would be sold or harmed if I went through with any sort of procedure or inspection. For a couple of them I didn’t even understand I was at hospitals or treatment centers. In Holland, doctors won’t treat you if it’s not voluntary. So every time I refused treatment or got scared or walked out the door, I was taken to another location. This in itself was terrifying and awful, but I have to try to find compassion in these memories. The people who stuck it out with me and transported me from place to place were doing their very best. I am grateful to them for spending the entire day doing that with me and taking care of me afterward.
It was completely dark by the time we pulled up to the last hospital. I remember there were armed police officers at the entrance. I don’t know how late it was, but we were all exhausted. I wonder if maybe my exhaustion played a role in my being more compliant and finally accepting “help” at this hospital. Again, I didn’t realize help was what I was receiving. I was deeply delusional and completely horrified.
First, I was brought into a room that I remember looking like it was a children’s nursery. My remaining companions, two people from the hospital (doctors, I’m assuming), and I sat down in the nursery and one of the doctors began talking with me and asking questions. It confused me that the other doctor didn’t say anything. My discomfort at this fact was noticed by the talking doctor. He asked why I kept staring at his companion. I tried to say that I would feel more comfortable talking to her, because she was female, but I doubt it actually came out that way.
At one point I was left alone for about 2 minutes. The others were probably talking about my situation in the hall. It made sense to me at the time that they were discussing my unworthiness to be a tattoo artist. The fact that I was covered in many beautiful tattoos became profound to me. I started taking off my clothes because I had realized and accepted the fact that they didn’t think I deserved all my tattoos. I decided to show them off proudly, even though I knew that they would probably be burned or sanded off. I didn’t want to cower any more. Of course, that didn’t go so well. When everyone came back in the room, my pants were half way off and I was met with shock and exclamation, which, even then, was very embarrassing… But at least I still have all my tattoos.
At that point, I was taken into a different room and had a one-on-one interview with a different doctor. I remember thinking she looked a lot like my ex step-mom, who coincidentally was a doctor. I was pretty much convinced that it was actually her. When I mentioned that I thought I knew her from somewhere, she squinted her eyes slightly and said she didn’t think so.
I don’t know how long I spent at that hospital. I remember the taxi ride back to the apartment feeling like the entire world was spinning and we were just driving in circles. I wanted to cry, but what good would that do?
The doctors had prescribed me anti-psychotic medication: Olanzapine. Thank goodness I was still on my mom’s health insurance plan when all of this happened. For the record, I was 22 years old. My travel companions/friends/baby-sitters basically had to shove that first pill down my throat. I finally got some sleep. And, I suppose, so did they. That first night of sleep I was finally able to cry. I woke up in the middle of the night and felt a profound, distinct sense of relief. I was still convinced I was going to be murdered in my sleep, but my mind was less worried. It was like a religious experience. I sobbed. I think the rest of the house was throwing some sort of post-convention party (I remember hearing the sounds of the party through the walls, as I was falling asleep, and being sure it was an angry mob about to come upstairs and kill me). So, I had been allowed to sleep in someone else’s room; they had been given the task of staying with me. They slept in the bed, while I was in close proximity in my roll-away cot. They were used to my craziness by then, but I am sure that my uncontrollable, loud sobbing was disturbing.
This was the first step on my road to recovery. Our flight home was either the next day or the day after, time had stopped making sense to me. Again, I have to give a huge thank you to those who helped me in the final days of that trip. I am still so ashamed of the way I behaved. You stuck with me, even when I was being a gigantic pain in the ass and ruining the entire trip. You know who you are.
Coming out of that dark time, my initial emotions were that of embarrassment and anger. Anger mainly at myself, but also at those who had been there on the trip to Amsterdam who I felt didn’t handle the situation well, when I was clearly not in my right mind. Or, even worse, those whom I had been surrounded by, pre-breakdown, who did not reach out a hand to pull me up while I was slipping down the slope of mental instability. I am working on letting go of those hateful memories.
I try to think of how I will be there to help if I am ever put in their shoes. I will be able to be an ambassador for my mentally anguished companion. I will not repeat the mistakes of those who tried to help me. That is what I tell myself anyway. I am beginning to think that it is not as black and white as that. Sometimes I don’t know how to help, but I will always try.
I do not want this to be a selfish explanation of my own mental problems, or an exercise in narcissistic catharsis, but it probably will be. All I have is my own recollection and perception of events. Alternatively, my hope is that this writing will lend some perspective to individuals who feel they are alone in dealing with anxiety, and give a window into their struggle, for others who do not understand. Plus, it’s always fun to read about other people’s problems, isn’t it?
Something that struck me in the ensuing months was how many people related to my story. Many people that I discussed my experience with had something similar happen to them, at almost the exact same time in their lives (late teens, early twenties). It occurred to me, if this is so common, why is nobody talking about it? Why only after the damage has been done are these experiences being divulged?
In the three years leading up to my mental break, I went through my tattoo apprenticeship and began my new career as a tattoo artist. I am forever grateful to the people who gave me the opportunity to learn and who taught me during that time. That being said, it was very stressful. I was pushed past my limit and didn’t know how to deal with it. Knowing what I know now, I would have never let myself be worn that thin. I would have made time for myself and let my mentors know that I needed a little extra time here and there to take care of myself. But hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it? No one noticed my distress, or if they did, they didn’t take any action to help me get better. Maybe somebody did and I just wasn’t listening. I can’t blame them. Again, this is an area where I have been working on forgiveness. The responsibility I had undertaken and my commitment to my position made me push on, even when I felt like I was about to collapse. I assumed that my brain would calm down once I had been tattooing long enough. Every tattooer goes through this right? This is just a part of the apprenticeship process and I have no justification for complaint. All my problems would solve themselves when my career got going. I just needed to work a little harder, get better at tattooing, wait a little longer. Surprise, surprise, the exact opposite happened. I snapped. Automatic shut down. Then I had no choice but to take it easy. And even then I fought it.
In the months following my collapse, I was so stressed at the thought of missing work and not proving my worth that I forced myself to return to tattooing as quickly as I physically could. I would work until my brain started attacking itself again, with paranoia and panic attacks, at which time I would have to be picked up from the shop by my mom (whom I was staying with at the time, to try to get my bearings back. Thanks, Mom, by the way).
My road to recovery was slow and painful. I sprang from my intense delusion as soon as I had spent a week or so getting full nights’ sleeps. But my paranoia and anxiety remained for months after my return from Amsterdam. I had trouble being in public spaces or even around close friends.
I started seeing a psychiatrist and psychologist, along with various other doctors and healers, as soon as I got home. I was started immediately on anti-psychotic medication (Olanzapine/zyprexa), the same as the Dutch doctors prescribed, which basically just knocked me out for ten hours at a time, Lithium, for manic depression, and Lorazepam that helped with my anxiety and would pull me out of a panic attack or paranoid delusion pretty much immediately, if I took even a quarter of one of the tiny pills. I should mention that I was never diagnosed with anything. I was told that I had “some sort of manic episode”, but was also told that, “these things just happen sometimes”. I was not diagnosed with manic depression, although I was taking medication for it, just in case. I was expecting to hear that I had developed schizophrenia, or that I had been dosed with LSD, or that I had a tumor in my brain that had made me crazy. I was hoping for any sort of explanation. Basically, as far as I can figure, it all came down to stress. Stress and pressure over a long period of time, at a pivotal period in my life.
I remained skeptical of taking too much medication, resisting taking my only “optional” medication, the Lorazepam, until it was an absolute necessity, meaning when I had spiralled into a full blown panic attack, and even then, I would take as little of it as possible, never taking an entire pill at once. I now recognize this as a mistake; add it to the list. But I did comply with the other prescriptions until I was able to work on a plan of steady reduction until altogether elimination of medication with my psychiatrist. He was not very happy about that, by the way, but I insisted. He described it like drunk driving, “Most of the time, you can drive home drunk and everything will be just fine. But then there’s that one time that you run into a tree”. I stood by my conviction and I am glad I did, although I’m always a little nervous about running into the aforementioned tree. The process of weaning off of the medications took about six months. I still have all the pills, still in their original bottles, just in case. I bring them with me whenever I travel. My husband knows which pills do what and what to do and say if I start freaking out. Our level of trust is all important to me.
Getting my sense of self back was really hard. It didn’t just come back on its own. I had to build myself brick by brick all over again. I couldn’t remember what I liked; what I liked to do, what kind of music I liked to listen to, what sort of clothes I liked to wear. I couldn’t tell what had been a preference of mine, or what had been pushed upon me by others. That blurry line is an interesting dilemma, whether you’re crazy or not. Everything felt foreign to me. When I finally did start to feel like myself again I made some big changes in my life and vowed to be nicer to myself. With the help of some great friends, I finally started to move on.
During the period shortly after coming home, I was depressed and confused. My poor boyfriend (ex boyfriend now) was trying his best, but of course, he was really upset and confused too. One day I was laying in bed moaning, telling him I didn’t know who I was anymore and I just couldn’t see a point to anything. He snapped at me for the first time since my return and said, “I don’t know, Megon! I don’t know what it is you want me to say! It used to be that all you wanted to do was watch Harry Potter and draw and now, all of a sudden, that’s not good enough!” His reminding me of things I used to love doing was so incredibly, unbelievably helpful for me. I was like, “Oh yeah, I did like doing that… I think I still like doing that!” And he didn’t even know what he had done. It made me remember something about myself that I had lost touch with since all my troubles. Him saying that really, actually pulled me up out of that funk. I thank him for that.
Around this time, I got an iPhone and an instagram account for the first time. I started following tattooers that I looked up to from all over the world. I was flabbergasted when I saw pictures of them on their days off (which I barely had, leading up to my breakdown. During the first year of my apprenticeship, I worked 80-90 hours a week). The pictures showed them travelling, taking it easy, and enjoying life with their families and friends. I was like, “What?! Tattooers are allowed to take time off? Tattooers are allowed to go on vacations not relating to tattooing? Tattooers are allowed to spend time with their families?!”. You can see how warped my thinking had become, like I was brainwashed. But instagram was an eye opener for me, as weird as that sounds. I was finally able to begin deprogramming myself and start living my life.
I love my job. I love tattooing and I love the life I have created for myself. I am grateful for all that I have learned; the good and the bad. It is possible to be passionate and hardworking without driving yourself to insanity.
A year or so after the Amsterdam trip, my husband and I worked at the Salt Late City Tattoo Convention. It was the first convention I had attended since Amsterdam and I was a little nervous. It turned out that in the booth next to us was a tattooer who had been there for my episode in Amsterdam. I was too shy and embarrassed to approach him and say hi. I didn’t know if he recognized me, but I was hoping that he didn’t. On the second day of the convention, he came over to me, shook my hand and said, “Hello, I don’t know if you remember me, we met in Amsterdam.”
To which I said, “I do, I wasn’t sure if you remembered me…”
He laughed and said, “Oh, I remember you.” This, of course, meant, how could I forgot the girl who went bat-shit crazy? He continued on to say, “I just want you to know that we were all on your side.” By “we” he meant all the other tattooers, at least the ones in the circles he ran in. “We know what happened and it was not your fault. No one blames you. All those jerks that you were with did not act appropriately and were not fair to you. If someone that you’re travelling with breaks their leg, you’re not going to make them wait three days before taking them to a fucking hospital.”
His words completely opened my eyes to a different side of this story. That being the shortcomings of my fellows and just what exactly would have been the right way to handle a situation like that.
In discussing these past events with the friend in Seattle that I had the sense to call at 4:00 in the morning, from the Amsterdam Tattoo Convention, she revealed to me that the leader of our group, the one she had talked to on the phone, had been extremely resistant to the idea of taking me to a hospital. She had quite a job convincing him that it was the right thing to do. Which, of course, it was. This leads me to believe that he and probably others were aware that I was in a dire state long before I was taken to see a doctor. I think of my brain festering in its own self destructive juices for days, and I remember exactly what it felt like.
As I have said before, I cannot blame them. It was not their fault that I lost my mind. They did their best. The point is that now I know better than they did and hopefully now you do too.
I have decided to make my story public in the hope that people going through a hard time: dealing with anxiety, nervousness, panic attacks and psychosis, will find comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone. They are not freaks. At least, not any more than I am.
Mental health tends to take a back burner in our lives and I am saying that we need to be better to ourselves and those around us. I do not wish what I went through on anyone. Pay attention to the people you love, yourself included. Pretending everything is alright when it’s not, can sometimes be the worst course of action. Notice when you or someone you care about needs help and try to give it to them or help them get it. Again, I cannot stress enough, include yourself in this exercise. Notice when you need to take it easy or when you need help and try to help yourself or ask others for help. Don’t just continue to ignore what you’re feeling.
Do it for me and do it for yourself.
Listen to my story and heed the wise words of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other”.
There is still a huge part of me that is embarrassed and terrified to share all of this. But I think awareness and openness is more valuable than saving face.
Thanks for reading. -Megon Shoreclay
“I’m pulling for you, we’re all in this together.” -Red Green




Most of these photos were taken in the first couple days of the trip; I was anxious, but not completely gone. The blurry picture with the bright light was taken the night I really started feeling off.
(to those pictured in the photos, if you don't want pictures of you posted, in conjunction with this story, let me know and I'll take them down.)

4 comments:

  1. Megon, writing and posting your story takes deep courage and strength. Thank you. I had no idea you had been through this and i am so glad you came through the other side of it. I salute you for your honesty, your vulnerability, and your compassion. All the best to you in all ways.

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  2. Hey Megon, (this is Tal, the weirdo with the WIP robot tattoo you haven't seen in a while)I had a similar thing happen to me when I was 17, I was really consumed with it for years after(even though I'd call that period recovering). Now I'm pushing 40 and I see all that time 17-25ish(25 or so is when I felt like I was really over it) were the most positively formative years of my like thus far. Anyway, we can rap about it if you want next time i get tattooed which should be an option soon. I hope it was cathartic writing/sharing your experience.

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  3. Dear, Dear Megon. You are such an amazing soul, incredible artist. I treasure you. The tattoo you did for me was very important to me, and you were amazing. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I have had my moments...
    Blessings on you! Jian and I need some very special tattoos, soon. I live in Greenwood now. Love and strength, healin, joy.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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