Short Story: “Losing The Plot”

After a mental breakdown, Michael reconsiders his entire perception of the world.
Art Concept of The impact of Brexit on the pharmaceutical sector. European Medicines Agency. 3D Rendering.

Art Concept of The impact of Brexit on the pharmaceutical sector. European Medicines Agency. 3D Rendering. © Angel Soler Gollonet /

November 26, 2023 04:04 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: Are there any narratives in your own life that you’d be better off without? 

There was a time when almost everyone in Britain was saying they’d been driven mad by Brexit. 

And what I wanted to say to them was, well, “Did you end up in a mental home?”

Because that’s what happened to me. I spent the first week of July 2016 in a psychiatric facility, convinced I was on the cusp of saving the world and unleashing heaven on earth. 

You could say I lost the plot. 

As far as I can recall, I believed I had joined a secret elite who could communicate telepathically. I had broken through the restrictions of the mind and could read other people’s thoughts and project my own. But I wasn’t satisfied with my newfound power and my new status among this select group. I knew that every human being alive was capable of breaking through these limitations. And it was my mission, my destiny, to help them do so.

And that’s why this elite group, or whatever it was, wanted to lock me away. They couldn’t bear the thought of everyone else breaking free, because then they would lose their power and status. 

I tried to explain to them, telepathically of course, that if everyone could escape the limitations of mind, there would be no limit to what we as a species could achieve. With each of our finite consciousnesses merging into one, we’d be able to solve every problem the world faced in an instant. We’d tear down the barriers between individuals. We’d know everyone, love everyone, as though they were our closest companion.

Unleashing this knowledge to the masses would be the beginning of a new dawn for humanity. It would usher in heaven on earth. There would be no need for power or status. There would just be perfect happiness.

And at the height of my madness, what the doctors would later tell me was a psychotic episode, I believed, truly believed, that I had found a way to spread this understanding to everyone. I thought I was about to save the world. I could feel the understanding spreading, I could hear millions of voices speaking to me, thanking me, for letting them in, for letting them understand who they really were. 

And I felt a level of happiness that isn’t remotely possible to describe. My best attempt is to liken it to the feeling of being in a football stadium when your team scores a crucial winning goal in the last second of the most important game there’s ever been. Except you aren’t just you, you’re every single person in the stadium, and the stadium’s capacity is 8 billion. 

It was a happiness that I literally thought might kill me, and I didn’t care if it did.

I ran screaming through the streets of London, running down Buckingham Palace Road (honestly, that’s where I was at the time), leaping into the air in celebration, picturing all the wretched lives that would now explode into this same unlimited happiness. I could feel the new world coming to be.

And then, I don’t know, the elite, or whoever they were, they found a way of closing the doors, of locking the understanding away. They took it from the billions who were about to grasp it, and they took it from me too. And they locked me up, for a week, in a psychiatric facility. 

Over the course of that week, I realized that what I thought was telepathic communication was actually just my own mind speaking to itself in different voices, brought on by the fact I’d got way too invested in the Brexit referendum and hadn’t slept since I cast my vote nearly ten days earlier.

These things had combined to make me go mad, and now, if I put them right, I’d return to sanity. That was the new story and that was what I did. And it worked. 

The world slowly, and then quickly, went back to how it was before.

I was now a normal person who, for a week or a bit longer, had gone a little bit mad and had then, thankfully, recovered. And I stuck to that story, that narrative, for quite a while. 

Until, a few years ago, it occurred to me that this too was just another story. 

It was stories, really, that led to my mental breakdown. One story that a lot of people were buying into at the time, was that the Brexit debate was seriously important. Important enough to fall out with friends and family. To lose sleep. To get angry. Important enough not to hear the birds or feel the warmth of the sun. Important enough to make you divide people into groups, which is what so many stories require us to do. 

But my breakdown wasn’t really about Brexit. It was about another story. A grand narrative of my life story, a story where I was destined to achieve greatness. This is something I’d been convinced of since I was five and someone told me I was good at reading, and I decided I would end up being one of the greatest writers who’d ever lived.

So at age 26, in 2016, when I unlocked this new understanding and realized I could share it with the world, well, it kind of made sense. I was telepathically narrating a story to the entire world, and it was the most important story that had ever been told. 

And although it didn’t take me long to drop the savior of the universe story, the “great writer” story is a lot harder to do away with. 

And it doesn’t matter if I fail because that too would be another story. The great writer narrative would be replaced by the obscure, romantic writer who writes on regardless. And if I stopped writing altogether I’d be trapped in the story most people tell themselves: that they could have done something great with their lives but life got in the way. That’s a compelling story but it’s not true. 

No story is true. All stories are fiction. Including whatever you did yesterday and the idea there will be a tomorrow. And the greatest revelation, the greatest discovery a human being can make, is to realize your life is not a story. 

Your life is not a story. 

Your life is a collection of poems. Some are well-written, others are barely legible. One bad poem doesn’t ruin the whole collection. But a beautiful line is still beautiful even if surrounded by dross. 

So often in life, we’re so focused on the story that we skim past poetry without noticing. We fail to enjoy a rainbow, or the sound of birds or our child’s first word, because we see them as part of a bigger story where you’re struggling to build a company or be a good parent, or you’re succeeding, you might be doing brilliantly, but these little bursts of beauty are just descriptions you can skim read until you’re back to the action. 

You could say I lost the plot in 2016 but that’s not true. I switched from a mundane narrative to a fantastical one. To “lose the plot” would be to see things as they are. To see colors and hear sounds. Not to ignore these things because you’re concerned about which way your neighbor voted in a referendum. Or what your friend thinks about the last thing you wrote. 

Losing the plot means looking at a baby and not wondering what she will be like in a year, or ten, or twenty. It means looking at your own life and not thinking about how you can change it.

It means not letting the living of your life lie like scrappy annotations in the margin of a book no one else will ever read. 

It means living instead of telling. 

Narratives discolor everything. When you’re in the midst of a sad story, you’ll find the trees and the birds sad too. But it’s possible to enjoy a sunset on the day you lose a friend, or to experience the happiest moment of your life at the same moment you lose your mind.

Even physical pain only hurts because of the story. “This pain will last for hours,’” because of the story. “This pain is too much,” because of the story “I can’t take this.” But without a narrative, pain is just poetry with a sharp edge. 

I think I was ending the narrative. At the height of my psychosis, I think I was so happy because I was ending the narrative for everyone. If all our minds could merge into one, we’d know exactly what to do about all of humanity’s problems and we’d do it. But no one would have any ambitions, no one would take any credit. 

I thought I’d be the most famous person in the world but only for a moment. Because the minute I’d unleashed this understanding, everyone would know it wasn’t my understanding to unleash. The whole world would love me, but they’d love everyone else just as strongly. 

But this too is a story.

And it’s time for me, for all of us, to lose the plot.

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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