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‘I thought I was living in a game show’: one adlander’s experience of stress psychosis

'There are broadly two responses to stress, over responding and under responding'

Barry Ennis, a career coach at Nabs, relays his experience of stress psychosis and his road to recovery after a period of extreme burnout.

I used to work in TV where I had a classic experience of stress, responding in negative ways such as drinking and eating too much. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly traditional burnout story.

But this year something different happened. March was traumatic – lockdown 1.0 happened, a friend of mine attempted suicide, a neighbour was mugged, there was violence in my neighbourhood and all I could see around me was despair. I convinced my partner Rob to flee the city with me, but we returned after a few days because we’d decamped to my mentor’s farm, and Rob wasn’t prepared to spend the rest of his life living in a tent in the fields.

We came back to London and I started doing what's known as ‘over-responding.’ I became obsessed with work, working ten to fifteen hours a day, six days a week. I stopped sleeping. I was really enjoying it and felt as though I was saving the world, even though people were asking me how I was keeping this up.

This went on for about a month up to August. I realised that the sleeplessness was catching up with me, so I booked into a retreat hotel for the bank holiday. When I got there, even though I needed to relax, I couldn’t sleep. I was having a great time. I got in with the hotel staff, who kept upgrading me. I started to behave like Kevin in Home Alone 2, living like a lavish king in the hotel with no parents to stop me. I was paying for other guests’ meals and roaming the hotel with my puppy. I told the hotel’s owners that they were going to let me live there for free in return for some consultancy.

In truth, I was in a version of psychosis. I’d escaped reality to the point where I believed that I was in a Truman Show-type set-up. I had Rob in tears because I told him to stop acting as I’d worked out that we were in a game show.

I’m very lucky and consistently in awe that I have such an amazing support network. I’m aware that not everybody has such people around them. My support network, including Rob, my business assistant Laura, and my friends, had been observing my increasingly erratic behaviour since lockdown and by this point, were all in touch with each other. That’s how Rob and Laura were able to get me home and stage an intervention.

Rob had come to get me home after I called to tell him that we were moving into the hotel. In the meantime, he’d also called our GP, who got in touch with the mental health crisis team, and the crisis team called him. They came to our home on the same day. It would have been a rapid response under any circumstances, let alone during the pandemic. It just shows that there is help for you, whenever you need it. I was amazed at how responsive they were.

Two people came to speak to me. I wasn’t convinced by them, I thought they were actors in the game show as well. But they realised where my head was at, they handled me with a lot of care and diagnosed that I was experiencing a kind of mania.

I was prescribed sedatives because I hadn’t slept for a month. I took the tablets and slept for four days straight. Then I went to see my amazing GP, who’s been my doctor ever since I moved to London. She saw me in surgery, with all the necessary PPE – it was a well-organised visit, so more props to the NHS there. She was reassuring and told me to take it easy. At this stage, after much sleep, I understood more about what had happened and knew that I needed space and time to recover fully – which I set about taking.

Recovery was a gentle process and again I was amazed and delighted by the amount of support I received from my loved ones. Rob cooked me healthy food, my friends visited one by one, we went for walks and watched trashy TV together to relax and to laugh. After a couple of weeks of this, I took a day in bed alone to really process what had happened. I’d been journaling all the way through the recovery process and continued doing this during my ‘alone day’. I wrote a lot of stuff down, which was so helpful.

Nabs was very supportive throughout. I only work for them one day a week, but they treat me as one of their own. My manager was brilliant when she found out what was happening – empathetic and understanding. She told me not to work for a month while I recovered. I applied the same duty of care to my clients outside of Nabs and didn’t see anybody until I was healed.

The speed at which healing took place was pretty dramatic. I could make sense of it because there was a really obvious stimulus for the stress – the mix of COVID, the mugging, my friend’s suicide attempt, and I could see the cause and effect. From a neocortex perspective, my body went into flight. I ran away. Once I came back home, I could understand the difference between my real and my felt experiences. I could return to a sense of normality and a more standardised view of the world.

As a professional, here’s my reflection. Stress has historically been told through the lens of depression. But there is another version of stress that’s much harder to identify as an individual. It’s the same stimulus – stress – but it results in an upward, not a downward spiral.

Since then, I’ve dialled down my activity. That’s a challenge because as a freelancer I don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from. It’s difficult, but it’s a self-supporting action to work three days a week. The experience has also been a huge wake-up call to what I want out of life.

Rob and I are moving to the countryside. We’ll spend our time between the Cotswolds and London so that we can spend time in nature relaxing as well as working in the city. It’s the reality of what my hotel dream was about – to live in a lovely house surrounded by nature, but we’re doing it in a way and that feels healthy and sustainable.

I recognise my privilege in being able to move house to support my wellbeing. But the point is to carve a healthy space that’s your own, whatever your situation. When we were in London full-time, we had a little spot of wasteland where we grew vegetables and flowers. It didn’t look like much, but the flowers we grew brought us (and our neighbours) a lot of joy. It’s about reconnecting with the earth and reconnecting with nature.

In fact, the experience has made me realise on the whole what’s important in life. Friends, family, the love of people around you, and connecting to those real relationships. In the hotel, I was making very transient, flamboyant relationships with complete strangers that felt safe because they were distant. Real relationships are rare and honest. Real friends turn up at your house with a bowl of soup and some bread.

I’m being open about my story because I find, especially working with a lot of male clients as I do, that not talking about emotional problems is such a masculine trait. Only 30% of callers to Nabs’s Advice Line are male; we know from research that men often leave it until it’s too late to seek help.

On the surface, it might sound like a dramatic tale, but really it’s quite simple and relatable. It’s a little kid who got scared and fled to a hotel. I created an unrealistic world that I couldn’t afford. I was playing the game of life with my real life. Fortunately, Rob loves me and stayed with me, I’m surrounded by good professionals. Without those factors, I don’t know where I’d be right now.

I’m not ashamed about what I went through. In this day and age, coaching, as well as being a contributing member of society, is about transparency and humility. This isn’t really spoken about publicly, but when I’ve spoken to other men I’ve found that I’m not the only one who’s experienced this form of stress (although maybe not to the fabulous extreme of nearly buying a hotel).

There are broadly two responses to stress, over-responding and under responding.

We can be overly stimulated by stress, we can be numbed by it, or retract from it. When I’m working with my clients now, I’m very aware of the energy and the warning signs. This kind of overly presented, joyful, and gregarious personality needs to be monitored as much as someone on a more obvious decline. Life isn’t easy. We need to support each other to get through it.

If you’re concerned about your emotional or mental health, the Nabs Advice Line is here for you. Call Nabs on 0800 707 6607 between 9am – 5.30pm or email support@nabs.org.uk for tailored advice and guidance, whatever your level or experience. Nabs aims to respond to all calls and emails within 48 hours.

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