The chimp unleashed


I have a theory that the times in our lives that we lose to trauma, mental illness, or for any other reason become more vivid and significant in our minds and in our invented memories than if we had experienced them in the usual way. I have an interest, perhaps even a fondness, for the events of 2003 simply because I wasn't "present" for much, if any, of it.

I began to experience problems with OCD for a sustained period at the start of that year. I had first gone to the university GP about the troubling thoughts that I had raped and murdered people on a night out in the summer of 2002. Of course, I didn't put it like this to the GP because I was 18, had no knowledge or experience of OCD, and was concerned that I would go on some kind of police watch list if I said something like this out loud to a doctor. 

And right here is one of the many ways in which OCD ensnares people in its grip: it makes you feel personally responsible for the intrusive thoughts, and it makes you feel a deep sense of shame as a result of this misapprehension. Why would you then tell a medical professional, in a level of detail specific enough to be worthwhile, about something in your head that makes you feel shame to the very core of your soul?

The doubt, the shame, the torment caused by the intrusive thoughts caused the onset of a depression at

the beginning of 2003 that left me staring into an abyss. I didn't experience that year in the same way as every other sentient year of my life. I was not present because my mind was elsewhere. It was a battlefield filled with chaos, angst, despair, and an increasingly fragmented identity.

I was hospitalised at the end of March 2003 and so began the strangest two months of my life and a period I am only now facing and starting to come to terms with. My mind went into a defensive stance that numbed me to the psychological shock of my situation. My approach to surviving a situation I couldn't dare look right in the face was to isolate myself and retreat to an imagined past in which my mind was clear and I had been able to manage the OCD and depression. Because that is such an important factor in trying to cope with mental health problems: they make you feel that you are a failure, that you couldn't cope with life. When your health problems originate in your mind, you feel like it is your personality that has broken down. Nothing could be further from the truth. A mental illness is no more a reflection of a person's personality than a broken leg or the flu.

I didn't feel I was in the hospital to "get better". It never occurred to me that this was even a possibility. My primitive "chimp" brain took over (as it will try to for any of us when it perceives a threat). I spent the two months isolated and refusing to engage in any of the daily activities offered because to do so would have been to acknowledge the reality of my situation.

I would sleep as much as I could during the day and then stay up late into the night watching videos by myself on a little TV in the corner of the kitchen and dining area. I would watch the videos and imagine I was still at university with my friends and feeling completely fine. I know now that my primitive chimp mind was shielding me from the reality of a traumatic situation. The chimp was in control and hypervigilant to a threatening and scary time in my life. Sometimes something in the videos would trigger a past memory or association that would take me out of my fantasy world and hit me with reality smack in the face. Panic would then set in as the chimp went into full on fight or flight mode. I didn't know any of this back then. I was running on instinct with the chimp in complete control and the human me not present at all. 

I looked at the newspapers and would have the radio on. I saw the World Snooker Championships on the TV and watched both legs of the Real Madrid vs Man Utd Champions League tie. Again, I used these events to block out reality. I wasn't fully present and fully me when these things were happening. I wasn't myself so external events on the TV and radio weren't themselves either.

I was in the hospital for two months. OCD caused me depression; depression led to my hospitalisation; my mind protected me from the two months in the hospital. I had been through a traumatic experience. With the root cause of the depression untreated, I had also unleashed a monster in the form of my chimp mind. I compare it to the idea that Leonardo DiCaprio's character implants in his wife's mind in order to free her from their dream world in Inception. The idea serves its purpose but has terrible and unforeseen consequences once it is unleashed. My chimp served its purpose in protecting me from a situation I couldn't face. But a chimp won't simply get back in its box when it's had the experience of being in complete control.


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