Jack woke up alone – he couldn’t remember how he got there.
The pale walls surrounding him were covered in posters of motorbike riders. The floor was littered with things that seemed like his personal belongings, but he wasn’t sure.
There was a familiar band playing through old speakers, and every word of the song spoke to him on a deeper level than he’s ever experienced before. He felt his pulse fluctuate. He looked at his hands… they were damp with sweat.
There was one door in the room and it was beckoning him. He opened it and went through. He felt like he was somehow in the middle of nowhere, but at the centre of everything. Then he heard voices, as though shadows were whispering into his ear…
“I’d give my strength for you, I’d give my everything, I’d give my life for you,” they were saying.
He had a distinct feeling that someone was waiting for him on the other side of the door. His hand was weak, but he turned the handle and entered.
There was a woman sitting on a couch, listless. Against his instincts, he asked this woman a burning question.
“Mum… Are you real?” Jack* said.
The woman looked up, confused.
“What do you mean? What are you trying to say?” the woman replied.
“You’re not real,” he said blankly. Looking around for a moment, then back to her. “Everything here is fake. You’re fake,” Jack paused, “I feel like I’m in my own dimension, no one else is here.”
His mother’s face visibly blanched as the reality of the situation sank in. She was witnessing the dark signs of her son’s mental illness for the first time.
Introduction to self-destruction
Jack Mathers remembers the first time he experienced abnormal thought patterns four years ago.
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in Sydney and he went to his friend’s workplace in Surry Hills to smoke some weed. Then 19, he’d dabbled with marijuana before and enjoyed the high it gave him. But this particular afternoon his friends had an agenda to get as high as possible. After smoking seven hits of a bong, something happened: he felt walls breaking down within his mind. Then the voices started.
“YOU ARE GOING TO DIE,” a voice said to him, echoing throughout his entire being.
“It was almost like a floodgate had been opened,” Jack said. “I felt like I was on to something, like I was about to figure out some secret, or the meaning of life.”
For this reason, Jack continued to smoke weed. Little did he know he was experiencing symptoms of psychosis, a state in which one loses touch with external reality. It is a mental illness that affects approximately 5 in every 1000 Australians.
According to Professor Iain McGregor, a psychologist at University of Sydney, Jack suffered drug-induced psychosis, but there are many different varieties.
“The most common is schizophrenia, where symptoms include hearing voices, hallucinations, having bizarre and often paranoid thoughts about the world, becoming agitated and sometimes socially withdrawn,” Dr McGregor explained. “Then there is bipolar disorder – people can be in a manic phase, and they are kind of hyper-excited, and they often have very bizarre views of the world.”
Those “bizarre views” might appear to be just that to anyone else, but to the person suffering them, they’re very real.
“If you have belief or a delusion about what is happening to you that is induced by a drug then you can state that it’s every bit as real as someone in a normal state of mind would,” Dr McGregor said.
Lost in a state of ecstasy
Jack attests to the “realness” of his deluded thoughts, which became worse after he began taking ecstasy. At first, the drug didn’t seem to have negative side effects, like marijuana. “It felt like I was invincible, I felt free, like I could just be myself,” Jack told the Newsroom.
However, one day as the drug wore off, Jack started to feel “scat” – the ecstasy equivalent of a hangover – and his mental state plunged, leading to yet another drug-induced psychosis. But as with marijuana, the symptoms went away as soon as the drug ran its course.
Three months later, Jack decided to tell his mother of his condition.
“Soon as I told my mum, she went to see her doctor who referred her to the Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Clinic. This is where I was diagnosed with the mental condition psychosis.”
Despite the diagnosis, nothing really changed for Jack who continued to take ecstasy on a weekly basis, anywhere from 2 to 6 pills a night. Slowly but surely, his delusions got worse but, as always, the psychosis subsided after a night of sleep.
His friends had no idea about his condition. One night, he turned up to his friend Charles’s place to celebrate another friend’s birthday. He had taken pills the night before and he planned on taking more that night.
Before people arrived, Charles invited him into his room with his other friend Jim. Jim sat on the edge of a bed, idly tossing a tennis ball in the air. Jack nervously studied Jim, looking him up and down, but had not said a word.
Charles asked Jack “What’s up man? You’ve met Jim before, right?”
“Yeah,” Jack said evasively, before asking “So… What are you doing with that ball?”
Jim just shrugged and said “I dunno,” and continued to throw the tennis ball in the air.
That’s when Jack asked:
“Are you trying to kill me?”
“I remember Charles and Jim looking at each other and mouthing the words “What the fuck?” I genuinely thought Jim wanted to kill me. I didn’t last much longer before calling my mum to come pick me up,” Jack said.
The next morning, Jack admitted himself into Sydney’s Hornsby Hospital: “They took me to the psych ward; it was full of crazy people there.”
After three days in the hospital, he was released. Jack did not touch any drug for about six months. Before that, he had taken ecstasy every weekend.
“It was great, I felt completely normal. I wasn’t feeling anxious any more and I thought I was all good. I was proud of myself.”
The last straw
The lure of drugs again proved too strong for Jack. After six months of sobriety, he popped a pill at a club in the city. It was his girlfriend Jenna’s year 12 formal after party.
“When I felt it kick in, it was good. I was listening to the music and I could tell it was starting to work,” he said. “It didn’t last long at all though: I started having some crazy, dark thoughts.”
Jack went outside for a breather where he sat with his girlfriend who wasn’t aware of his state. He was staring intently at an old man – who looked well into his 70s – walking up and down the street repeatedly in front of the club when his girlfriend asked him:
“Do you remember smoking weed? Back in the day?” Jenna asked Jack.
“Huh?” he said, distracted by the man.
“Do you remember smoking weed with me? Back in the day?”
Jack could not comprehend her one bit – he had no recollection of ever smoking marijuana with her. “It was freaking me the fuck out, it was like I didn’t even remember my own life,” he said. “I looked back at the old man and I would think that he was a reflection of me. Like I was going back and forward in life, stuck, that I was going to keep getting older, that I won’t remember anything and my life would waste away if I didn’t stop what I was doing and sort my shit out.”
That was the last time Jack consumed a drug of any sort.
“I just decided not to touch anything ever again,” Jack said. “It just wasn’t worth it anymore, I wouldn’t even get high and I was risking my mental health.”
Fortunately for Jack, his drug-taking shouldn’t have long-term mental health consequences, Dr McGregor told the Newsroom.
“I’d say for the most part, as long as the people stay off the drug, it should never happen again,” he said. “But the issue is that the drug may have sensitised you to be more vulnerable to psychosis in the future.”
Jack has experienced one minor episode of psychosis since he gave up all type of drugs after the night of the formal. He now works in the film industry, he has a business of his own and has finished two feature-length films.
It has been four years since his last experience with drugs.
“It’s been pretty hard working in this industry. There are so many people trying to bring me down,” he said.
“But, I’m happy now. I’m consumed by what I do – it’s what I love.” – Sion Weatherhead
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.