I’ve been burgled a couple of times in my life. On one occasion, someone kicked open the door of my first flat, the one my husband and I lived in when we students. We were lucky that time; despite the damage to the door, nothing seemed to have been taken. Perhaps they were been disturbed somehow. The second burglary occurred about a decade ago, at a time when I was getting over a serious mental health crisis. My husband and I left for an appointment with the psychiatrist and forgot to close a fanlight window in the kitchen; we were both distracted by the state of distress I’d been in. After the appointment my husband had to go into work, soI came home by myself. Bizarrely, it was several minutes before I realised that the living room was a mess, and not the usual mess of a household with two children under five. Most of our portable electrical goods had been taken. They were easily replaced, as we had contents insurance. Later, however, I realised that someone had searched through my jewellery box. They had been in my bedroom, maybe even sat on my bed, as they looked through my things. The only item taken was my engagement ring, originally my great grandmother’s and dating from the First World War – much more valuable to me than a VCR.
Most of my professional life has been spent undertaking “offending behaviour work” with convicted criminals, trying to help them see the impact of their offending on others, and supporting them to make better future choices. The criminal justice system rightly makes a distinction between domestic burglars and those who commit “non-dwelling” burglaries. It’s unacceptable to enter a shop or warehouse premises to steal goods. But it takes a special kind of detachment to be able to take personal items from someone’s house, all the while surrounded by evidence – photographs, ornaments, children’s drawings, notes on the fridge – that you are in someone else’s personal space, that you are taking things that belong to real, individual victims. Stiffer sentences are given to burglars who cause physical damage to the property, or make what the police refer to as “an untidy search” (rummaging carelessly through papers and possessions, leaving a trail of mess). No wonder so many victims of burglary speak of feeling violated. Someone has been in their space, rummaged around in their private and personal possessions, taken items without any idea of their emotional importance. The phrase “to be broken into” is about to more than the forced door, the smashed window.
Right now, I feel broken into and I’m beginning to feel violated. It’s not my home that’s being intruded upon this time, but my mental space. The intruders are thoughts to which I feel no connection. I have no sense that they belong to me; they feel as if they have sneaked in to trespass upon my consciousness, without setting off the alarms. Once inside, they rifle through my deepest fears and anxieties, leaving them open and vulnerable, making an untidy search. In spring of last year, these intrusive thoughts took the form of images. Whether my eyes were open or closed made no difference; the images imposed themselves on my visual cortex regardless. For less than a second, I was made to see something horrible, and there was nothing I could do about it. Imagine watching a film, a romance, or maybe a comedy, only to find some joker has interrupted your viewing by inserting a couple of frames from a very graphic horror movie. You’re not prepared for it – how could you be? – and now you have seen those images, there is no way you can unsee them. Worst of all, the horror flick is about you. The degree of violence and gore truly shocked me, and all of it was perpetrated by me, against myself. I watched as I jammed my own hand in a whirring blender, observing how the chunks of finger flew. I saw myself slamming my head, again and again, in a massive door, so thick and heavy it could only belong to a bank vault. There was nothing I could do but watch, as I took a stainless steel meat cleaver in my right hand and chopped my left hand off in one fluid movement. I used the same bright, shiny cleaver to hack at my Achilles’ tendon, hobbling myself. I took a machete (a machete, for Christ’s sake? Where would I even get a machete?) and drew it across my own throat, saw blood spurting in a bright arc.
The horror movies lasted about a month before a high kicked in and the elation melted them away. Since then, I have had the odd intrusive though when anxious or low – the urge to throw myself in front of a tube train, the desire to slice the ends of my fingers off when preparing dinner – but in the past couple of weeks it appears the intruders have upped their game, taken things to a whole new level. They are squatting in my consciousness, generating cruel ideas, leading me to strange and frightening conclusions. One seemingly innocuous word or phrase dropped into a conversation can suddenly lead to a horrible sense that something is deeply wrong. It started with relationship worries; fairly common, slightly paranoid concerns that my partner might be having an affair (as he points out, it would be a bloody miracle if he had time to have an affair). But then the intrusive thoughts went slightly further: didn’t I know that he’s only waiting until I’m more stable before he tells the truth? That he won’t tell me now, because he’s worried I might kill myself? This was new; nasty and new.
I’ve been blogging less because I have been typing away at a longer work, the idea being that maybe I could pull bits of this blog together and work them up into something book length. Two weeks ago I was writing fluently, enjoying the process to the point where I had to force myself to rest and eat. I don’t even want to open the manuscript now. I’m caught in the belief that if I finish it and manage to get it published (or self-publish it), knowing about incidents from my childhood would somehow give strangers a sort of malign power over me and I won’t be safe. It’s tempting to delete the progress I’ve made, to make sure that can’t happen, but I know that sending tens thousands of words down the drain would be beyond stupid. I’m trying to use logical self-talk. It’s not like I have to finish it if I don’t want to, and even if I do, I don’t have to show it anyone at all, let alone publish it, right? But I think I’ll keep away from the manuscript until this sense of danger passes, and I hope that I can then start to work on it again. In the interim, a Twitter follower tweeted that he wished I would write a memoir, because he enjoyed my writing. Maybe he saw one of my very rare references on Twitter to what I’ve been doing; maybe it was a genuine and spontaneous thought, in which case, the correct response would be: what a lovely thing to say! My intruders didn’t see it that way. “He knows! How does he know?” they demanded, before offering their own answers: that he knows because he can somehow watch me, see into my computer, maybe even see me through my computer. I felt a wave of horror, a moment of thinking they must be right, before I was able to connect to my more logical, conscious self. My poor follower! The intruders are the culprits, but they love to pin the blame on someone else.
On Tuesday I felt well and truly violated. One of the ways my daughter and I keep in touch during the week is via Facebook. I find it quite sweet that she will do this – I’m well aware that as she moves into her teens, my days of being permitted to be her FB friend are more than likely numbered. On Tuesday we were chatting in real time, and I was telling her that I was going to become a Mind “Expert by Experience”. I explained that it meant speaking in front of a group of people, but that I was OK with that, because I only had to be an expert on myself. My daughter has a quirky sense of humour, and to make jokes about me and about our relationship is entirely in character. But her response (“No, I’m the expert on you!”) woke the sleeping intruders. They convinced me that the person I was talking to was not actually my daughter, that someone else – someone older, someone who wished me harm, someone evil – had hijacked my daughter’s account and was using it to mess with my mind. Enough of my conscious self remained to know this couldn’t possibly be true, but nevertheless I felt it to be true with all my being. The feeling was so strong that I worried I might faint, or be sick. I wanted out, immediately, but I forced myself to end the conversation in a normal way, on the off-chance I really was talking to my daughter, because I didn’t want her to be scared or upset. And then, shaking and crying, I closed down Facebook, because I couldn’t bear to even look at it any more.
I’ve been trying very hard to explain to my partner how strange and difficult it is to know that something is incorrect and at the same time believe that it is true. It feels like the intruders are gaining control, and they really don’t want me to talk about what they’ve been doing. They warn me that if I “grass”, all the bad things they’ve had me thinking will come true. It’s difficult for me to believe that these thoughts are not coming in from outside, but are just the product of another, less conscious part of my mind. There is no-one to blame, and no-one to bring to justice. I have to accept these intruders and challenge them, just as I once worked with real life burglars.