‘POOF AND YOU’RE MAD’
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
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.
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.
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