This time I was 20. Having just finished the first year of my medical degree, I flew out to Greece to work as a hotel receptionist for eight weeks. Sun, sea and plenty of sailing seemed like the ideal working conditions for the Summer. What could be better, right? Everyone was so friendly and inviting. “You’re the new guy, right? Come join us for a beer later.” And “Hey, how about a quick ski tow before work tomorrow?” etc. It all seemed perfect. I was enjoying the work, enjoying the guests, and enjoying my relaxing time off even more.
I became stressed. The workload started to take its toll on me, and the pressures of not making a mistake in the first week felt very apparent. One of my colleagues had received a disciplinary that week following an investigation into her performance, and had found she had made several crucial errors over the course of her time there. I guess the stress helped at first. I had so much adrenaline that I could power through shifts with ease. I could maintain a friendly face with all the guests and co-workers. But then I started to lose sleep. I’d start to worry about the prospect of receiving a disciplinary. I would wake up at 5am, again and again, night after night until the Sunday of my first week, where I had to work the night shift on front desk. I was required to stay up all night, until 8am the next day until handover, performing several mundane and monotonous administrative tasks.
The following day, my day off, I went to the beach with a few friends I had made from work and, again, this time on my own, I broke down in tears for reasons I couldn’t quite make sense of. Why was I crying when everything around me was so brilliant? In theory, I was having a ball! I was doing a job I enjoyed, surrounded by beautiful scenery and incredibly friendly people. I had received mentions of written gratitude from guests the week earlier. I had helped make their holiday fantastic and everyone thought I was doing a great job. So why on earth couldn’t I stay happy and positive? The next day I started to become fixated on people’s conversations. I was obsessively paying close attention to each and every word that was being said. I thought people were talking about me, but not to me. I could hear what they were saying, but I couldn’t interpret it as normal conversation. It seemed loaded with secret, hidden messages that were trying to tell me to quit, to give up and to pack up and go home, because they didn’t want me to be there. This scared me, and slowly but surely I became very delusional. This time, however, I was not taking Lariam. This time there didn’t seem to be a single, direct cause to my odd thoughts, my lack of sleep, and eventually, to my low mood.
Me: “I need to come home, mum. They’re all talking about me. They don’t want me to be here.”
Mum: “Who’s talking about you, love? What do you mean they don’t want you there? You’ve just started and you told me last week that they love having you!”
Me: “No. You don’t understand. They’re sending me messages and I’ve done lots of bad things, so I need to come home.”
I was beyond reasoning with. I was irrational. Ultimately I was psychotic. This was serious. I started to believe that the food I was being fed was poisoned. I was refusing to leave my accommodation. I thought that people were spying on me from a van outside, and that the TV show my roommates were watching had hidden secret messages in them. I firmly believed that they were telling me a story about myself, and this belief was impossible to shake. I began obsessing over the smallest of details, and would take much longer than usual to perform the most basic of tasks. I neglected all of my basic bodily needs. I was petrified. My manager came to see me towards the end of the second week, and could clearly tell that something wasn’t right. He would ask me a question, and I could barely answer in coherent sentences. I fixated on what he was saying, pulling out specific words that would form a connection in my mind and would translate as a secret message. Imagine that someone was speaking to you in a language you couldn’t understand, like Japanese. They would then throw in an English word here and there so you could understand some of what they were saying, but it obviously wouldn’t elicit a sensical response from me. I guess it was kind of like that for me with every interaction.
Following a discussion between my manager and my parents, I was put on a flight home. I was informally assessed by a Psychiatrist and a GP who we knew through friends. They believed what had happened was called ‘an acute stress reaction’. No official diagnosis was reached. I was given a single dose of Valium (Diazepam) on arrival home. This helped settle my thoughts and allowed me to remain calm. Most importantly, it helped me sleep. My regular mood and sleep pattern soon returned to its usual state. I quickly recovered, and was able to go about my daily life relatively care free.