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Psychosis, Stendhal Syndrome and finding the courage to speak out
It’s my anniversary today. Mental health episodes are not something we usually celebrate. Eight years ago I was admitted into a psychiatric ward while backpacking around Europe. Today I can celebrate because I see how my breakdown truly was a breakthrough. I’ve found the silver lining in this traumatic life experience and have finally found the courage to speak out about it.
My psychosis transpired as a result of several stressful life events when I was 25. I unexpectedly ended my relationship with my boyfriend. We were living together and had great plans for the future. I found out he was dishonest so I left and went backpacking to find myself. Mid-travels my job was also made redundant so there was big change due at work when I returned. I was uprooted on all levels.
Throughout my travels I asked big self-reflective questions about life. I dug deep for a sense of self: a definition I could not find. The more I travelled and saw new things, the more I discovered about myself, which spiralled into more questions. I was so anxious to get answers I began turning to spiritual readings, meditation techniques and searching for signs everywhere I looked.
I was showing signs of the Stendhal Syndrome
Then something switched inside me. I started to experience bliss in a way that I had never known. Appreciating the richness that travel brings I became more and more enthralled with the emotions that numerous art galleries, cathedrals and natural spaces offered me. If we were in 19th century Florence I was showing signs of the Stendhal Syndrome; a psychotic state that arose as a result of admiring great works of art or strong spiritual sensations triggered while being in nature. For someone who constantly pushed herself to perfection, always moving, working and doing something, this was the first time I had really learned to be present and be still.
My experiences became a slow-building manic high over a period of a few days. I started to notice universal connections everywhere, everything became blissful. Ironically it was a ‘joint’ that broke me. I was in Amsterdam and legally indulged in a local cafe. Although smoking marijuana was the icing on the cake as the stress fractures in my system were already cracking my mental wellbeing before throwing my brain chemistry off further.
The manic high flipped to a paranoid low when I met family in London
The manic high flipped to a paranoid low when I met family in London a few days later, before heading home back to Canada; back to the reality of my change in job, change in home and change in relationship. I had also experienced so many changes within myself, it was hard to head home to face what I had left behind. Due to stress, lack of sleep and potential drugs still in my system I became paranoid. My thinking moved to the grandiose. I was in hell and could not leave the house.
My family grew concerned as my speech picked up speed and took on an esoteric focus. Refusing to go to the hospital that night, an ambulance came to get me because my panic had heightened to the point of trying to harm myself in an effort to get out of my own mind. This event lead me into a psychiatric ward after three months of travel and self-exploration.
For years I never said a word about my experience because of shame
For years I never said a word about my experience because of shame, fear of judgement and especially the stigma in the workplace. There was always a fear that it could happen again although I have taken great steps in holistic healthcare to maintain my sanity in times of great stress.
My break was a lucky one, it only happened once and I learned better ways to deal with stress and anxiety. I learned my breaking point the hard way though. Recreational drug use can spark psychosis in people and it can trigger permanent mental health issues, especially if their body is already under great stress.
By talking about lessons learned, others can prevent similar experiences
By talking about lessons learned, others can prevent similar experiences. Recognising stress signals in the body is vital. It seems to me that, with today’s economy, stress and anxiety are on the rise. As a result of my episode, I’ve learned to meditate and do yoga to naturally balance out my body, mind and spirit. As a HR professional now I advocate many workplace wellness initiatives to prevent and raise awareness of mental health issues.
I have also learned that the more I talk about this experience, the more others speak up about their personal or family experiences. There is great comfort in sharing experiences. Mental health episodes are so isolating to go through and to hear that you are not alone in your experience offers the greatest form of support.
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