The acute pain of my first psychotic breakdown


I was moved to tears by Charlotte's latest blog on Friday and I promised her I would open up fully about what it's like to experience an "acute psychotic episode" -- the worst kind of nervous breakdown -- which happened to me 8 years ago and led me to attempt suicide in hospital.  This is going to be painful for me, but I want to give you an insight into psychosis, to reduce the risk of suicide in anyone reading this who is currently going through a breakdown, and to inspire you with my personal recovery from the utter depths of mental chaos.

It was in 2003 that I last worked for the BBC - for Radio 4 and for Radio Cumbria, where there are lots of top-secret installations e.g. Sellafield, BAE Systems in Barrow which builds nuclear submarines, MOD/DM Longtown which has closed now but stored depleted uranium stocks, and something classified which I could get prosecuted under the 1989 Official Secrets Act if I were to tell you about.  So I won't!  My life has been difficult enough without spending time in prison as well as hospital ...

Digital Radio Studio Copyright Ian Birch 2002

It was when Cumbria's Police HQ called my producer, Laura, over this top-secret piece of investigative journalism I was doing in 2003 that I first realised the BBC has a very different attitude to official secrecy than, say, The Guardian, a former deputy editor of which I know very well, and I am currently involved in a Guardian report.  Unlike The Guardian, the BBC doesn't challenge restrictions on official secrecy. It just accepts them.  It threatens its staff who dare to object and it is very much a state broadcaster.   Because of the BBC's role as the Wartime Broadcasting Service, should, heaven forbid, we ever be invaded again as a nation, some of its staff are vetted.  Well once I heard this, and searched for evidence (which is all in the past -- I'm not going to risk vulnerable readers becoming more paranoid by providing links to Amazon books on BBC staff vetting or internet links to extracts from these), I became acutely unwell.

BBC TV Centre Copyright Ian Birch 2001

The first I remember is being jammed into my local market's car park, by two cars, and becoming convinced this was MI5. It couldn't possibly have been - even I didn't know I was going shopping until a few minutes beforehand and I drove my brother's car.  So to quote my CBT therapist this is a "definite improbable"! That day my Orange mobile phone showed "no access" on the screen and I couldn't make or receive phone calls.  I believed MI5 were interfering with my phone!  At the time the DWP informed me there was a fraud marker on my file from when I volunteered at a community radio station in the mid 1990s and claimed benefits -- I was cleared but there was still a marker there which I fought hard to get removed.  So I also believed they had me under surveillance and I started opening DWP (benefits people) mail using gloves to avoid fingerprints as I believed MI5 were responsible for these letters.  The reason -- the DWP had just opened a returned mail handling centre in Belfast -- and an Irish journalist colleague had once briefed me extensively about the IRA.  The DWP kept calling me Kevin -- his name -- which must have been a pure coincidence but it convinced prodromal-phase Ian that he was being targeted by the security service.

I drove up to Cumbria and stayed in B&Bs and took photographs of roadworks on the way, putting my life in danger on some very fast roads, believing they had been put there by MI5 to make me late or reduce the chance of me getting to the county.  I gathered "evidence" that I had been sent on stories near secret things - Anthorn NATO radio transmitter for example, which I thought was a BBC mediumwave transmitter until I investigated.

At this point, Les, whose surname I won't give you so you can't google him and read his psychotic ramblings about torture in the UK, contacted me from Harrogate to warn my life was in danger and that I was a "targeted individual".  He gave my email address to lots of very unwell people around the world who wrongly believed they were being subject to individual targeted harassment by the security services. Les has been back in touch recently.  I have tried to get him professional psychiatric help, but to no avail.

Man screaming

One day my mum caught me up in the loft looking for bugs at 5am.  This was New Year's Eve 2003.  That afternoon, I was sectioned.    I will share the story which I can now laugh at, though at the time it was very serious.  I was having a late brunch and two ambulanceman and the psychiatrist who had previously presribed a low dose of an antipsychotic (which I looked up and refused to take) arrived at my door.  I was living with parents and they let them in.  They said: "Ian, you are extremely unwell and we want you to come voluntarily into hospital with us for assessment and treatment."  I thought they were all MI5 actors and laughed at them and refused!  At that point I continued eating my soft boiled eggs and refused to budge.  Then they called the police and said they were going to section me.  I continued eating my soft boiled eggs and dipping soldiers into them!  Finally the police arrived and sent me upstairs to get dressed.   Well, I just went straight back to bed.   They were gentle but not for messing and came upstairs, and, having failed to persuade me to come back downstairs, grabbed me by the arms and forced me down that staircase. At this point, I realised this was serious and voluntarily climbed into the ambulance -- in my pyjamas and a dressing gown -- watched by various neighbours!

NHS ambulance

I was accompanied to hospital by a police officer and my mum, and met there by my dad.  I immediately escaped from the secure ward -- well it obviously wasn't that secure! -- planning to flee to France where I believed wrongly that interntional TV news channel CNNi had a bureau -- and was going to brief them all about me being vetted out of the BBC and becoming a "targeted individual".   Of course nothing going through my mind at the time was true -- it was purely a failure to make reasonable adjustments for my disabilities, ME/CFS and depression, which made me walk out on the BBC.  And it was my choice. Nobody forced me.  Nobody withdrew work from me.  I simply couldn't take it any more. Fortunately ward staff noticed and recaptured me and gently returned me to the ward.  I was told in no uncertain terms though that if I tried to escape again, I would be transferred to a more secure unit.

Once on the ward, and my parents had left, it was soon evening, and everyone else was celebrating New Year's Eve.  I was given a tranquiliser and went to bed.  That first night, my diary says my feet and hands were red and I reported that the tissues and toilet paper made me bleed.  Obviously this isn't possible -- I must have been very psychotic!  That night, I heard defibrilator noises on the ward which I interpreted as a threat by MI5 to torture me with electric shocks.  The next day, I saw a nurse with a huge port-wine stain on his face.  I deduced psychotically that I was to be sprayed with acid as a punishment for my interference in BBC affairs.  My consultant signed the sectioning document "CS".  I thought this meant CS spray was to be used on me and became very agitated.  As you can see by now, this was becoming extremely frightening, although I can see the funny side in some ways now ..

Hospital hallway

The next day I heard voices in a foreign language which made me feel dragged round the ward, as though I'd been hypnotised, and my diary says I believed this was MI5 again!  In reality, it was a "titration effect" of my antipsychotic medication.  Few people realise that going on medication makes you MORE ill for up to a month before it has any positive effect.  I would soon become suicidal, and when I was given 3 days of leave to go home (under strict sectioning conditions) I had to return to the ward within hours and hinted strongly to nurses that I wanted to die, as I felt I was being psychologically tortured.

It was a month later, the maximum time I could be held for assessment, that I was finally released, after pacing up and down the hospital corridor and not interacting at all with the staff -- most of whom stayed in the ward office and ignored all of the patients except for medicine rounds and meal times.  In that month I put on three stone -- I am now XXL -- I was large size.   Medication side effects continued, and I was discharged on several drugs, at which point the tranquiliser was withdrawn. 

Soon the tranquiliser withdrawal would make me suicidal, and, though I feel too many vulnerable people read this to describe what I did, I prepared for suicide and only didn't attempt it because of my deep love for my mum and the lifelong pain it would cause her were I to die.  But once returned voluntarily to hospital, I made my first and only attempt on my life.  This was in 2004 and though I have been suicidal (with strong compulsions) from time to time since I had been so thoroughly debriefed by relieved staff in hospital that I know the risks and potentially lifelong consequences of suicide attempts and have never tried anything since.

Hand shadow

As you may have read in my first Mental Healthy Blog I have now made a full recovery and no longer believe MI5 vetted me out of my job, nor psychologically tortured me, nor targeted me for harassement in any way.  This was pure psychotic fantasy -- but it is extremely common in first-episode schizohrenia.  That hasn't always been my diagnosis -- it's been acute psychotic episode and disorder, bipolar -- schizoaffective has been mentioned too.  My main symptom nowadays is low mood -- which can induce paranoia.  But I'm more likely to be concerned that I have offended someone through an email or there has to be what my CBT therapist calls an "activating event" -- basically a trigger -- before I become paranoid.

Let me give you an example.  Because I have a high-profile job and a very public website I am contacted each week by a lot of people in distress.  Sometimes it's in response to a story I'm researching for a publication or broadcaster. But more often than not it's from someone who has read my work and believes, genuinely, that they are being targeted by security services around the world for being "subversive".  There's no doubt my views on politics ARE subversive.  And if there were any evidence that security services do still monitor journalists in this country -- well I couldn't tell you because of the 1989 OSA -- but trust me, they are far too busy with tracking down serious organised criminals and terrorists!

If you've been personally affected by this blog post please read more on schizophrenia or see our partners SANE's factsheet on Schizophrenia: and if you fear for your, or a friend, relative or employee's mental health please copy and paste this into your browser or Google search bar: If your friend, relative or employee is acutely ill and they are under mental health services, your CPN/keyworker or duty manager or crisis team are the first point of contact.  If not, you can ring 999/112 or take your friend/relative to the nearest A&E department and ask to see the duty psychiatrist. It might mean that, like my mum back in 2003, you have to agree to sectioning, but I don't begrudge anyone who took that decision back on New Year's Eve in 2003. Without their intervention, it's likely I'd be a permanent inpatient in a secure unit or even not alive today. It has ruined New Year's Eve ever since though and I'll probably never be able to celebrate it again as long as I live ...

Please remember that, no matter how secure you are in your convictions that you are being targeted by security services or that your life is in danger, this is, in most cases, highly unlikely, and with help, you can, like me, go on to make a full personal recovery.  It's been good to share this with you, and I hope I've provided a real insight into psychotic breakdowns and hope and inspiration for the future for people who are recovering from one. 

Until next time, take care.


Thanks for posting this articulate and interesting insight

Hi. I'm so glad you found it interesting and articulate and insightful.  I certainly didn't have any insight back then but I hope my current insight will remain with me for the rest of my life! Ian

Thank you Ian for opening up about your experiences, I am sure it was very hard to do, but know that you will be touching many others who will be inspired by your courage.


Thank you Ian, this was a fascinating read. I praise you for being able to talk about this so articulately, it must have been difficult to write.

It must be difficult, with your work been centred around subject matter that may be controversial to discern reality from an episode of psychosis, because of course many journalists are paranoid, but maybe rightly paranoid? I guess what I'm trying to say is how do you know when the paranoia has become dangerous and isn't reality?

Thank you for your kind and extremely perceptive words Carrie.  I was indeed reporting on some very sensitive and controversial issues and I still am today to a lesser extent.  I'm sure that somebody somewhere is keeping track of what reporters do within each major newsgathering organisation.  I just feel that it's unlikely the security services have the resources to do this any more, and that it's done in-house.  All the published evidence is that the practice ceased in 1986.

My CBT therapist disagrees and says it would be only right and proper to vet journalists who, like me, are naturally attracted to official secrecy.  I spent quite a while working as an investigative reporter before becoming news editor of three radios stations and taking on a more day-to-day agenda and, post-breakdown, working for magazines and websites.

You are so right -- journalism IS paranoia-inducing at times, but with insight I feel it is possible to separate out possibles and probables, and say it's probable that somebody listening to my broadcasts was monitoring them -- maybe BBC Monitoring at Caversham -- but no spies!

Take care.

Thanks for the reply Ian - it takes a very strong person to have gone through what you have gone through and come out with all that insight! Look forward to future blog posts.
^^ this was from Carrie, just forgot to log in!

Or *some* journalists are paranoid, just like *some* people - didn't mean to make such a generalising statement, but hopefully you know where I'm coming from.

Great cmomon sense here. Wish I'd thought of that.
Thank you! I know this has been posted for some time. I have a loved one who is currently convinced he is a TI. I have hope for him after reading this post as we are just begining treatment options. I, for one, am so grateful you have shared such a personal story and want to say that I am truly and deeply touched. Best to you!