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Vol. 36 No. 9 · 8 May 2014

The ‘Belgrano’ and Me

Stephen Sharp

My problems began​ in 1984 when I wrote letters to Francis Pym and Sarah Kennedy about the Falklands War and Sir Robin Day’s part in it. Sarah was presenting a radio programme and I thought she was talking about me when she spoke of a young man who had just lost his mother. Francis Pym said, ‘Guns fire from Number 10’ on the Sarah Kennedy show. I took this to mean the PM had given the order to sink the Belgrano. But Mr Pym was speaking in a different context. Paul Daniels, who was also a guest, said: ‘Something strange is going to happen.’ From that day on all the radio and TV channels seemed to be talking about me. Convinced I was already a celebrity I thought a Rolls-Royce that skidded to a halt a few yards from me was mine. It would convey me to some beautiful woman. I couldn’t be bothered to get in. I wanted to go home for my dinner. There would be another Rolls tomorrow. Or so I thought.

My night out on a park bench in some Midlands town convinced my father I should see a doctor. The doctor thought I should see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist smoked through a cigarette holder and prescribed some tablets. The medication made me tired and I started falling asleep in front of the TV. So in 1985 I skipped the tablets and caught a train to Paddington and the tube to Westminster. From the Strangers’ Gallery I shouted at the MPs that Britain was a totalitarian society. My persecution by the media was proof of that. The guards dragged me away and locked me up until way into the night. By the time I got back to Reading the buses had all stopped, so I had to walk about three miles home. The next day, after an overnight self-inflicted haircut that made me look insane, I was back at the Commons. The guards recognised me and would not let me into the Strangers’ Gallery. I saw the fire alarm button, broke the glass and set it off. Although no fire bells rang I was in trouble. When I mentioned I was seeing a psychiatrist I was dispatched to a mental hospital. I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, to be detained for six months. I was given an injection of Modecate in the backside.

I met a woman called Margaret in Fairmile hospital. I assumed she was my link to the politician with the same first name. She explained periods to me. I wondered if the PM was angry with me for writing a story saying she deserved to hang for sinking the Belgrano. I tried to manoeuvre Margaret around to the front of the hospital so that a Rolls could pull in off the main road and take me to Mrs Thatcher. She didn’t seem very willing to comply. The shrink had been watching me and asked why I looked up at the sky when helicopters flew over. They were sent by Francis Pym to rescue me. Despite the massive grounds around the Victorian building the choppers never seemed to land. I soon realised I would do six months unless I staged a recovery. I stopped looking at helicopters and after only three months I was free.

The medication would surely stop now I was at liberty. Then one day a nurse turned up at my home. She wanted me to take my trousers down to make sure I stayed well with a monthly jab. I developed a Parkinsonian hand tremor, which I did not associate with my injections. I just thought my handwriting had deteriorated. I resumed attending the Commons. I met Mr Pym. He told me to see my own MP. I never saw Francis Pym again. I thought his book The Politics of Consent had been part of a leadership bid. I felt as if I could topple the PM and make Francis Pym leader of the Tory Party. The LRB wouldn’t publish my Falklands story or the letters I typed about Sir Robin and the war. Nor would anyone else. Schizophrenics often have a low verbal IQ and this was in the days before spell-checking. Tippex impaired the look of what I submitted.

Thought-broadcasting is a symptom of schizophrenia; it is a form of telepathy. I thought Ronald Reagan could read my mind. In 1979 I had been reading Kafka’s love letters and as a result wrote a letter that I didn’t sign, telling a history undergraduate that other students masturbated while thinking about her. Years later Mr Reagan referred to this young woman as ‘F’ after Kafka’s ‘F.B.’ I kept broadcasting the question ‘Does F fart?’, to which Mr Reagan replied: ‘Efforts.’ This is a typical grandiose delusion of a schizophrenic. The fact that Mr Reagan didn’t answer my other questions didn’t make me doubt for one minute he could read my mind. John Gavin who played Sam in Psycho was Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico. Psycho was the first Hollywood film to show a toilet flush. Encopresis is another mental illness I suffered from. It involves farting. The initials of the history student, now a graduate, began appearing on vehicle number plates. They were followed by 61. ‘F’ is the sixth letter of the alphabet, ‘A’ is the first. ‘F’ begins ‘fart’ and ‘A’ is the second letter of it. I kept telling people in thought broadcasts that I didn’t want to smell her fart. But it didn’t do any good. The CIA listened to the thoughts that went through my head when I masturbated. This seemed to confirm to them a diagnosis of coprophilia.

After they took me off injections I resumed taking tablets. But only for a while. Stopping them had the effect of making the auditory hallucinations louder. The voices sounded like the person nearest to me was whispering. Whispering, ‘Go on ask me.’ Sometimes I would go along with the voices and ask questions or make demands. The words I spoke most frequently were ‘Will you sack me?’ I wanted to be sacked and not hounded by people in the media, vehicle number plates and the voice of my brother. He had given up all hope of a career and marriage just to look after me. But I wasn’t grateful. He was a member of the Labour Party but acted as an agent of Margaret Thatcher. His perpetual whispering when I was trying to watch TV made me request to be admitted to hospital as a voluntary patient. Back on injections the voices subsided in volume. This time there was more follow-up when I was released. I was discharged into a day hospital near a funeral directors in Reading. I quoted Kafka to the nurse in charge: ‘I must torment myself.’ She thought this was clear evidence I was psychotic. So my stay was a long one. I attended four days a week for six months, and would walk into town at lunchtime to buy strawberries or chocolate. The psychiatrist signed sick notes and I got £5 a week in sick pay on top of income support. I was told I would not be discharged until I got a voluntary job. A woman called Margaret worked at Oxfam. I didn’t ask her about the lady who was at that time about to depart from Number 10. Surely now my agony was over and John Major would say: ‘Let’s forget the war.’ He would sack me and stop Radio 4 from tuning into my mind at lunchtime every day for the World at One. Reagan was long gone and Bush was in the White House. He didn’t send me any messages but he had the same initials as the General Belgrano. ‘GB’ was quite common on cars. The drivers would convey me to the president even though he was in Washington and I didn’t have a passport. I knew my psychiatrist would diagnose me with ideas of reference. I thought everything referred to me. The sick pay ended and I was back on just income support.

My consultant, Harry, said I was suffering from Jungian synchronicity. This meant, according to him, that I ascribed to coincidences my own weird meanings. I thought Jung had something more sinister in mind. That they were not just coincidences. Bill Clinton arrived. ‘BC’ appeared on number plates. Another president wanted to see me. But I just ignored the cars. The Rollers were diminishing in number. Rolls-Royce had the same initials as Reliant Robin and Ronald Reagan. A member of the local Labour Party had a Reliant. I attended meetings with the intention of discussing the Falklands with him, but this was now history and Tam Dalyell didn’t seem interested in answering my letters. A member of the party had prostate cancer and ‘PC’ started appearing on number plates. It meant either ‘President Clinton’ or ‘Prostate Cancer’. I prayed to God that the president wouldn’t cause blood to appear in my urine. I didn’t want to know what the other symptoms of the cancer were. There was blood in my semen. The GP didn’t seem concerned. I feared I would need a hearing aid after seeing the Reliant Robin man wearing one. I suffered a tactile hallucination that a device was on the back of my left ear. The shrink thought I had a suggestible personality.

I was middle-aged and after years signing on and not working I was put on disability benefits. I had more money, until my father died. Labour were back in power but Tony Blair seemed to like Margaret Thatcher. He didn’t end the persecution even though I voted for him. When he came to Reading he got a standing ovation from everyone except me. I’d given up going to the Commons, having seen Tam Dalyell just once and then only from a great distance. Thinking of him made me wonder: does F still use tampons? Yes of course she did, she was not that old. If I married her now we could still have kids. When I wrote to her father he gave the letter to the police. He knew I’d written the poison pen letter back in 1979. He’d told me years before that F was marrying someone else. I was losing my hair and only women fifteen years older than me seemed interested in befriending me. Schizophrenic single males have the worst prognosis. Married women with the condition seem more likely to recover. People often confuse schizophrenia with the split personality that Norman Bates had in Psycho. He was both Norman and his mother. Norman had dissociative identity disorder. I’ve written to the LRB about this confusion but my letter wasn’t published.

I was lacking what psychiatrists call insight. If you have insight then you accept you are mentally ill. If you don’t you are always likely to stop taking your medication. My community psychiatric nurse kept nagging me to try a drug called Clozapine. It was the miracle cure for treatment-resistant schizophrenia. When I relapsed and was back in hospital I decided to give it a try. Clozapine requires regular blood tests to assess the white cell count and for this reason is not dispensed by pharmacies but only directly by the mental health service. In the early days the medicine arrived through the post along with a monthly dose of Diazepam from the hospital. I had been warned that Diazepam was highly addictive and that I shouldn’t take it. But now I was sent a regular supply every four weeks. I was baffled. I didn’t take it and soon had a stash that would have been worth something to someone. A taxi driver who knew I had mental health problems quizzed me about whether I had any Diazepam. I said I didn’t. I could hear him whispering, ‘Go on ask me?’ If I was sane then he was taking a bit of a risk trying to procure a prescription high illegally and at the same time acting for Margaret Thatcher. It didn’t make sense so I didn’t ask him if he would drive me to F. I had learned that people never responded as I would have liked to this request. My nurse confiscated the Diazepam.

Clozapine causes hyper-salivation. I dribbled all day and all night. I wore a scarf to wipe up the saliva. I also had a cough from the time I started taking the drug. For some blood tests I had to miss my morning dose. When this happened the cough was less noticeable. Doctors no longer believe in cough medicines. They regard them as placebos. So none were prescribed for me. I had to suck Halls cough sweets until I came off Clozapine in 2013. The cough vanished within 24 hours. The medication also had other side effects. I became sensitive to the cold and had to wear an extra layer of clothing all through the year. Twice I developed hypothermia. I could not walk as far as I used to and was easily exhausted. My old foe the Parkinsonian hand tremor returned. It was undetectable except in my handwriting, which deteriorated to a scrawl. I was trying to make notes with a pen for a creative writing course, so this was a problem. I was very slow at typing and it wasn’t always convenient to jot something down on my desktop computer. I was paranoid about the internet so I didn’t go online. I feared that everyone would have access to my unpublished fiction. This may seem odd since I already believed that every person I met could read my mind.

One of the other side effects of Clozapine is constipation. My GP prescribed two laxatives. This just exacerbated the encopresis. My co-ordination started to go. I no longer felt safe walking near the edge of the pavement. Then one day I fell down the stairs. A few hours later I had my first seizure. Epilepsy is also caused by Clozapine. If I’d read the side-effects leaflet I would have known this. I was not given anti-epileptics. It was only after my second seizure that these were prescribed. The packet warned me not to miss a dose. I didn’t. Maybe I was a genius like the famous writers who had the condition, e.g. Flaubert and Dostoevsky. My writing was still not making much progress. I was in my fifties. Kafka was dead by now. And Flaubert didn’t make sixty. Neither did Dostoevsky. Almost thirty years had gone by and I had achieved nothing. Wayne Rooney wasn’t born when my problems began. President Obama’s initials were on the number plates now and when he spoke he would use certain code words to communicate with me.

I wondered if I had body odour. According to my old Maudsley handbook Clozapine typically causes about two stone in weight gain. That is about what I put on. It also causes tachycardia and somnolence. Throughout the time I was taking it my pulse was often over a hundred at rest. I went to bed no later than 6.30 p.m. Clozapine can also cause pneumonia and in January 2013 I developed it. I also had a breathing problem that only went away when I stopped taking Clozapine. Among its side effects is listed breathing difficulties.

As I came off the medication abruptly, without the suggested tapering, I had chronic diarrhoea and insomnia. When I was on Clozapine I suffered from loud auditory hallucinations, severe OCD (another side effect), thought-broadcasting to all and sundry, and ideas of reference. But would this change now that Margaret Thatcher was dead? Sadly not. The symptoms continued, although slightly reduced by Quetiapine. I still had no insight and believed the only reason Thatcher hadn’t killed me was because I wrote in my story about the Falklands that I deserved to hang for not fighting in the war. Suicide is one of the most common causes of death among schizophrenics. My energy returned as the Clozapine left my system and I could walk miles once again. I gradually lost the weight I had gained.

In 2013 I suffered from the grandiose delusion that Susan Sarandon was remaking the film Bull Durham as I watched it on TCM. Just as I thought that Susan Sarandon was so ugly she needed to emit pheromones to attract a man she started talking about the chemical. The film had been made years before, in the previous century, and the actress must have aged a bit. This failed to trouble me as Hollywood stars could be made younger, like Henry Fonda in Once upon a Time in the West. In one film I challenged Jack Lemmon to say ‘if’. Not surprisingly after about ten minutes he did. It meant ‘I fart’ in my code. I was convinced he was working live, sending messages to me although he’d actually died several years before. I told my psychiatrist about Robert De Niro saying ‘cunt’ when I asked him to while I was watching Casino on TV. She reconsidered her revision of my diagnosis from paranoid to residual schizophrenia. I began campaigning for the release of the most famous paranoid schizophrenic in the country. Not me but Peter Sutcliffe. My MP, Mr Redwood, said there was nothing he could do about people serving life. A Channel 5 documentary series about Broadmoor last year came close to recommending the release of Sutcliffe. I wondered if he was on Clozapine.

For thirty years mentally ill people had been trusted with an important role by the CIA. They all had to whisper to me and ask me to ask them whether I could see F. It dawned on me that some psychotic nutter would have told the CIA to fuck off. He would then have told me what he’d been instructed to do. But not one person had done this. Not one in three decades. Perhaps I was insane. Almost all anti-psychotics are bad for the heart. The Quetiapine was causing palpitations. I was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. I had at least one risk factor for sudden cardiac death. The cardiologist considered fitting a defibrillator. I might not have long left. Surely under these circumstances my brother would relent and tell me the truth. Perhaps the truth was that I had schizophrenia. If I accepted this the LRB might publish something I sent them before I expired. I gave up arguing with people who said Lady Thatcher was a great woman. I might make some progress if I tried to see the world objectively. But deep down I thought the LRB was concealing the truth about 1982. Why did Sir Robin Day vanish just before the Belgrano was sunk and only reappear when the war was over? The BBC has never explained this to me. I still think he disappeared because he refused to transmit Falklands propaganda on Radio 4. But I’m just a lunatic.

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