George, OCD and a shot in the dark…

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Every so often, while either researching something for a novel/short story or just generally wasting time on the internet, I stumble across an interesting case that I can’t get out of my head.

It happened with Brandon Swanson, it happened with Elisa Lam, and now it’s happened with a man named (by the British Journal of Psychiatry) as George.

George and OCD

At the age of 19, George was depressed.

In fact, that’s an understatement.

George had been plagued with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for years, spending hours every single day washing his hands, taking four-hour showers, checking doors and windows were locked, and checking his wallet for cash. As is common with OCD, he was tortured by intrusive thoughts of horrific scenarios and terrible images – all tailor-made by his own mind to be as disturbing as possible. The subsequent rituals and compulsive behaviours he developed to mitigate the impact of the thoughts soon became their own reward, strengthened over and over again through a lifetime of repetition and a feeling of relief when carrying them out. Operant conditioning in full effect.

Things got so bad for George that not only did he drop out of school, he also quit his job. The combination of the intrusive thoughts, the compulsive rituals, the knowledge that he was being completely illogical (as is common with OCD), and now the triple loss of social life, further education, and income, became a perfect storm of conditions that tipped George over the edge.

Falling into the black hole of depression and finding himself irresistibly crushed on all sides by it’s darkness, he told his mum that his life was so “wretched” that he just wanted to die.

Her response – which possibly took her out of the running for Mother of the Decade – was that if his life was so bad, he should just go and shoot himself.

So, one night in 1983, he did.

George, OCD and a Gunshot

Using a .22-caliber rifle, he went down to his mother’s basement, aimed the weapon at his head, and pulled the trigger.

George didn’t die, obviously.  This would be both a very short and very bleak story if he did.

What did happen is that the bullet lodged into his brain – in the left frontal lobe.

He was rushed to hospital and worked on by surgeons, who managed to remove the majority of the bullet but were unable to remove every little piece.

Three weeks later, George – who as we know had been plagued by OCD so severely that he saw no alternative to suicide – was cured.  He was no longer obsessive.  No more compulsive hand-washing, no more four-hour long showers, no more incessant checking and re-checking.  Nothing.

Interestingly, for over a year prior to his suicide attempt, George had been treated on an ongoing basis by psychiatrist Dr Leslie Solymon. He had undergone IQ tests and various other assessments of his mental capacities, which helpfully gave a huge amount of data with which to compare his abilities after the suicide attempt.

Comparing the data, Dr Solymon saw that George hadn’t lost anything, except for his OCD.

George went back to college and excelled in his studies, got a new job, and basically lived the life that he had always wanted to.

George, OCD, a Gunshot and… a cure?

Historically, an extreme treatment for OCD was – and sometimes still is – surgery on the sufferer’s left frontal lobe. (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, possibly in combination with medication, is the preferred treatment for obvious reasons).  Even though the surgery would sometimes be successful, it often came with horrific side effects, such as massive personality changes, paralysis, and cognitive impairment.

For some even unluckier souls, they didn’t survive the surgery at all.

Of the successful cases, the OCD symptoms wouldn’t just disappear either.  In most cases they would be improved after the surgery, and then gradually get better and better over time, which makes George’s total and immediate ‘cure’ even more incredible.

By accidentally aiming at exactly the right spot, at exactly the right time, and with the exact right ‘tool’, George had performed surgery on himself.

He’d given himself an accidental lobotomy.

And it had worked.

(Just to be clear, I’m not advocating self-surgery here, and especially not with, y”know, a gun.)

It’s difficult to know what to make of all this.  If there is a moral to this story it’s hard to know what it could be.  Attempted suicide might help in unexpected ways?  You can cure yourself of OCD?  Sometimes a gun will solve your problem, but only if you aim at yourself?

Realistically, there is probably only one message to take from this story:

Always listen to your mother, kids.

Even if it does sound like she just wants you dead.

Blue

To learn more about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or to get support for yourself or someone else, take a look at OCD Action or OCD-UK 

Goodreads giveaway – win a free paperback!

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As of today, Goodreads are running a giveaway to win a paperback copy of my psychological thriller Sleep No More!

To be in with a chance of winning just click here to enter.

After the closing date (5 Feb) Goodreads will get in touch with the winners, and I’ll send the free books to those lucky, lucky people.

 

 (If you’ve already got the book/couldn’t care less about psychological thrillers, feel free to share this with anybody else who might want a copy.)

 Good luck everyone!

Sudden Strangers: The Capgras Delusion

capgras delusion_angelo marcos blog

Imagine you’re having a conversation with a close family member.

Maybe you’re talking about work, or someone you both know, or an event in the news.

Things are all fine, except for a strange niggling sensation at the back of your mind.  Like a cat scratching at the back door, insisting on being let in.

You can’t quite place what is bothering you, but its there.

Shaking it off, you continue talking, all the while trying to ignore the ferocious scraping of those feline claws.

As the conversation goes on, you slowly – but unmistakably – come to a horrific realisation.

The person you’re talking to is an impostor.

They look like your family member down to the tiniest detail.  They even sound exactly the same.

But they’re an entirely different person.  You know it, even though you don’t quite know how.

Something just feels wrong.

 

This might sound like science fiction – or even a horror film – but it’s not.

It’s a recognised neuropsychological disorder known as the Capgras Delusion.

And it’s really, really weird…

The Condition: The Capgras Delusion (or Capgras Syndrome)

The Capgras Delusion was named after J M J Capgras, a French psychiatrist.  In 1923 he had a patient named Madame M, who was convinced that members of her family had been ‘swapped’ with impostors. Like an oil spill the delusion inexorably spread outwards from its source, smothering her friends and neighbours, and convincing her that they too had been replaced.

There have been numerous cases since.

Some sufferers will suddenly believe that their pet is merely a copy of their ‘real’ pet.  Other sufferers feel that their house – which they may have lived in for decades – is no longer theirs, but is a place that has been constructed to appear to be their home.

It may be an exact copy, but it’s a copy nonetheless.

The Cause of the Capgras Delusion

So what is going on here?

As with the phenomena of sleep paralysis and automatism,we have a collection of theories interspersed with as-yet unanswered questions.

The Capgras Delusion generally occurs in people who have suffered a traumatic head injury, or damage to brain cells for other reasons, for instance through dementia.

There have also been a number of cases documented in people who are suffering from complex mental health conditions such as schizophrenia. (Madame M above had a number of other mental health issues, so the Capgras Delusion didn’t – and generally doesn’t – happen in isolation, but rather alongside other conditions.)

The main theory is that the connections in the brain leading to the amygdala (which plays a primary role in the processing of emotional reactions) have been disrupted through the head injury/brain damage.  This then inhibits the emotional response we would ordinarily feel when viewing something familiar.

This lack of any emotional response then trumps everything else, including intellect.  It’s so unnatural to us as human beings that the only logical explanation is that the person or object is fake.  If that lady was your mother, you’d have had an emotional response.  But you didn’t, so she can’t be.

Interestingly, there have been a number of cases where the person suffering from the Capgras Delusion will think that someone is an impostor in person, but if they hear their voice without actually seeing them – for instance over the phone – then there is no problem.

Treatment of the Capgras Delusion

At present, there is none.

Some sufferers who have developed the delusion through a physical brain injury can sometimes ‘reconnect’ the pathways between perception and emotion. There have also been cases of sufferers with other mental disorders having the Capgras Delusion symptoms alleviated by medication taken for those other disorders.  However, for many sufferers there is nothing that can be done.

Trying to convince a person that they are mistaken often doesn’t work, especially in the cases of dementia or complex mental health conditions where logic and rational argument are largely ineffective.  Distraction techniques can be helpful, but this will vary from one individual to another.

Sadly, this means that the Capgras Delusion is therefore permanent in most cases.

Fortunately its also incredibly rare.

It does make you wonder just who is worse off though – is it the person who feels as though they are surrounded by impostors and the victim of some sinister plot, or is it the ‘impostors’ themselves, who have not only lost their family member to illness/injury, but will likely never be able to convince them that they are who they claim to be?

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Of all the ways to lose a person, death is the kindest.”

Goodreads Giveaway – Win a signed paperback!

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Yup, as the chunky title says, you could win a signed copy of my psychological thriller Sleep No More!

(You know it’s exciting because I used an exclamation mark and everything.)

The giveaway is being run by Goodreads, and you can enter by clicking on this link or on the cover picture.

Goodreads will notify me and the winner after the closing date. I’ll then sign the book, send it out, and bask in the warm glow that comes from knowing I’ve made someone’s dream come true.

Or, you know, make a sandwich.  Either way it’s all good.

Anyway, why are you still reading this? Enter the giveaway here!

The Nightmare of Sleep Paralysis

The Nightmare of Sleep Paralysis Angelo Marcos

The Nightmare of Sleep Paralysis

Anybody who has been reading this blog for a while will know that I often suffer from sleep paralysis.

(If you don’t know what that is, here is my colourful description)

Sleep paralysis has pretty much been explained by science, although there are still aspects that we don’t understand.  We’ll get to that later though.  For the moment, what exactly do we know about sleep paralysis?

 

Sleep Paralysis is Good

Seriously.

If our brains didn’t paralyse us as we slept, then we’d be up and acting out our dreams.

And this isn’t theoretical, there are numerous cases of people doing this, sometimes resulting in fatalities.

So sleep paralysis is doing us a favour, it only becomes a problem when it occurs outside of actual sleep.

This phenomenon is known as either awareness during sleep paralysis or isolated sleep paralysis, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m going to refer to it simply as sleep paralysis.

 

Stages of Sleep and Sleep Paralysis

There is a lot that we don’t know about sleep – we’re not even sure exactly why we need it at all, and don’t even get me started on why we dream – but there is a general consensus about certain things.

Most researchers agree that there are five stages of sleep, occurring in repeating cycles of 90-120 minutes throughout a person’s sleep period.

Stage one is light sleep. We are ‘drifting off’ at this point, and it doesn’t take much to wake us. This stage is commonly associated with muscle twitches and what are known as ‘hypnic jerks’ – which are those odd sensations where you feel as though you’re falling and your body suddenly judders and wakes you up.

At stage two we drift further into sleep. Muscle activity lowers and we start to become much less aware of the external environment.

Stages three and four are often grouped together as one single stage. Here, our brain waves slow right down. Using electroencephalography (in essence, reading the electrical activity of the brain), researchers will see long ‘delta’ waves here. These stages are considered to be the most rejuvenating and restful.

Stage five is the REM sleep stage, also known as paradoxical sleep, also known as ‘the stage where the weird stuff happens’. I’m going to hand over to Derek here, the sleep technician from my novel Sleep No More, to explain the rest:

     “Stage five is my favourite part because fun things start happening. You start breathing more rapidly and not as regularly, your muscles are paralysed and your eyes jerk around all over the place. If you want to know where sleep paralysis lives, it’s here Chief. Your brain actually paralyses you – think about that, our brain paralyses us every single night! It does this so we don’t start trying to get up and act out our dreams in our bedrooms, which is a good thing. But…”
     He paused for effect and raised a finger. Anthony – whose name was now apparently Chief – wondered just how many hours this man had spent studying sleeping strangers from this dark little room.
     “When there’s overlap between this stage and waking up,” Derek continued, gesticulating excitedly, “then your brain might get confused and keep you paralysed for a while. On top of that, your heart rate gets quicker too, your body can’t regulate its temperature properly anymore, and your blood pressure ratchets up. Imagine it Chief, imagine waking up paralysed, in the middle of the night, with your heart racing a hundred miles an hour, and feeling either unbearably hot or painfully cold. Not nice, Chief. It’s the kind of thing that, over enough time, would drive a person insane…”
     He gave a throaty chuckle but Anthony didn’t join in. He suddenly felt the legs of a hundred spiders scuttling down his back.

So sleep paralysis is essentially a ‘glitch’ where our brains keep us paralysed even though we’ve already woken up.

There is, of course, more to the sleep paralysis phenomenon than not being able to move though, which leads us nicely to…

 

Hallucinations and Sleep Paralysis 

One of the big ‘unknowns’ of sleep paralysis is why sufferers often sense or see a malevolent presence in the room with them. A common experience is of an entity sitting on the chest of the victim (as famously portrayed in a painting by Henry Fuseli entitled ‘The Nightmare’).

Hallucinations of this type are known as hypnopompic hallucinations, although unfortunately giving something a silly name doesn’t make it any less disturbing.

As Creepy Derek said above, REM sleep is where sleep paralysis lives. It’s also where our most vivid dreams live too, and so hypnopompic hallucinations could be explained as ‘leakage’ of these dreams into reality (in the same way that sleep paralysis ‘leaks’ into wakefulness). By virtue of the fact that we are awake – albeit not fully – it follows that we might ‘see’ elements of our dreams in our actual, real surroundings.

In addition, the part of the brain responsible for intense emotions – the amygdala – is heightened as we dream, which would amplify the emotions we feel. Waking up paralysed will of course evoke negative emotions, and so the fact our amygdala is already heightened would mean those emotions are likely to be extreme.

In short, why wouldn’t we feel terror?

So we have an explanation for the paralysis itself, the hallucinations, and the extreme feelings of panic. So we can all go home now, yeah?

Not quite.

The strangest thing about sleep paralysis, and the only thing that none of the research or literature has been able to explain, is why different people all seem to hallucinate similar – if not exactly the same – images.

Very often it’s an old hag, sitting on the chest of the victim, and/or a shadowy presence in the corner of the room.

If the ‘members’ of these specific groups all shared apparitions common to each other – for instance, people in the West all seeing one type of figure, and people in the Far East seeing another type – then the argument could be made for societal influence, or that the inherent values or views of those particular groups could have influenced their hallucinations.

But these apparitions – old hag, sitting on chest, shadowy figure – are common to hugely diverse groups all over the world, and also to people throughout the centuries.  This means that a person who suffered sleep paralysis two hundred years ago may well have seen exactly the same apparition that you might see tonight.

Looking at it that way, it’s no wonder that some people ascribe sleep paralysis not to glitches in the sleep process or dream-like states, but to supernatural phenomena.

 

Breaking the Spell of Sleep Paralysis

Ok, so we’ve looked at what it is, but what can we do to stop it?

One strategy that a lot of people claim helps them, is to sleep on their front as it means that if and when they wake up paralysed, then at least nothing can possibly be sitting on their chest.

Personally, I tried this but it actually made things worse. In short, instead of waking up paralysed with a pressure on my chest, I woke up paralysed with my face pushed into my pillow and unable to breathe.

(I’ve actually managed to find something worse than sleep paralysis. Yay, me!)

Most of the other ‘cures’ revolve around the same idea; move something, anything, and you’ll break the paralysis.

This one did actually work for me for a long time. If I stayed calm and focused on moving, say, a finger or a toe, then as soon as it twitched I could move the rest of my body again.

Unfortunately, this stopped working after a while as my brain decided to play an even meaner trick on me. In short, I’d wake up paralysed but nothing would work to break the paralysis because I wouldn’t actually be awake.

Yup, my sleep paralysis has evolved to the point where I now have dreams within dreams whereby I think I wake up with sleep paralysis, but I’m actually still asleep. So nothing works to stop it.

It’s like an even-more-confusing version of Inception.

And if anybody has got a cure for that, I’m all ears…

Free short story – Killing Time

KILLING TIME COVER_ANGELO MARCOS

 

 

For a limited period, I am offering my short story Killing Time as a free download.

(Yeah, I know. I’m nice, me.)

The story centres around a young woman, Petra (that’s her on the cover…), who finds herself trapped in a dark and eerily silent place.

Every so often the silence is broken by strange murmurings from her captors, who seem to know her name.

The enforced sensory deprivation confuses her perceptions, and she finds herself attempting to assemble a jigsaw made of pieces that may not even exist.

Using the limited – and unreliable – resources at her disposal, she strives to decipher not only where she is and how she is going to get out, but just who is responsible.

As well as how she is going to make them pay…

 

Sound good? If so, you can get your copy here.

Sound bad? Um, well, this is awkward… I dunno, maybe watch this talk I did on creativity instead.  Or go make a drink or go for a walk or something.  Your life, my friend, you decide.

 

Cheap nightmares…!

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Blue

UPDATE:

This promotion has now ended.

Sorry…

Blue

 

As some of you may know – if you have signed up to my mailing list/follow me on Twitter/live under my bed – I have recently finished the first draft of my fourth novel.

(Yes, I know there is still a lot more work to do before it’s publication-ready, but I’m taking it as a win at this point…)

As a kind of drunk-with-happiness, mini-celebration of this, I have now priced the eBook versions of my psychological thriller Sleep No More at only 99p/99c!

This is a time-limited offer, so if you would like to get a copy for less than the cost of half a cup of coffee then click the photo above, quick!

Oh, and feel free to share this information with anybody else who likes incredibly well-written psychological thrillers written by authors who are also stand up comedians, and featuring a mutilated doll with one blue eye on the cover.

(Probably quite a niche market, to be fair, but I guess you won’t know until you ask them…)