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The International Writers Magazine
: On Paranoia and other problems

Going Crazy in Norway
Kathy Sharrad loses her way
...I was losing my mind- I had visions of mental asylums, electro-shock therapy, concerned faces of friends and relatives coming to visit me...

So what does one do when one completely loses the plot in a foreign country? By the "plot" I mean the mental plot ­ if there is such a thing. After smoking some seriously strong weed while at a 24-hour mountain bike race somewhere in south-west England (I wasnıt competing in the race, I was just there with a mate "supporting" the poor people who were competing), I became very stoned. At the time, it was a usual stoned experience, complete with uncontrollable laughing, blank stares into the distance (the distance for me being the ground), and general anti-social, sitting-in-the-corner behaviour that is typical of stoners the world over. I enjoyed my experience, especially when it started raining (not unheard of during an English "summer") and me and my similarly wasted mate took a lot longer than is necessary to get ourselves into the tent ­ an hour or so at least. Somehow my friend managed to cook dinner at about 12am. Apparently she asked me if I would be able to help and I replied that I couldnıt move. I was telling the absolute truth. The drugs had worked a treat. What I didnıt realise at the time was what that weed would do to me over the ensuing two weeks (which have now ­ luckily ­ passed).

The day after our stoned evening we were suitably "straight" enough to drive back to Surrey, unpack our car and get ourselves ready for work the next day. What happened next is somewhat of a blur ­ and Iım sure this is a good thing, considering I think if I could remember clearly, I wouldnıt be sitting here, composed, sane, and writing a story about it. To cut a long and hazy story short, I experienced what can only be described as the on-set of severe delusions, paranoia and a complete breakdown of normal perceptions of reality (which is a slippery term at the best of times). I spent the next few days at work in complete fantasy land and Iım quite sure I will never know how I got through it. Thanks to the marijuana I had pumped myself with, coupled with an overly active imagination that I have always possessed, I had somehow convinced myself that my entire set of past memories were constructions of my own brain. I had been in the UK for 3 months, arriving here from Australia in mid-April. I wasnıt questioning my perceptions of present realities, nor my memories of the past 3 months in the UK. It was worse than that ­ I was actually questioning my memories of my past 6 months in my home town of Adelaide. I thought ­ and now I can see I was very wrong ­ that I had never experienced all the things I thought I had, I had never lived at the place I had fondly called The House of Clapham, I had never helped set-up and manage Australiaıs first fair-trade café/handicrafts shop (which, it turns out, I wasnıt very good at anyway), I had never gone to an amazing beach rave on New Yearıs Eve and ended up completely drunk and sick in the sand, with my poor mates having to drag me to the car. These were all ­ according to my messed up brain ­ inventions of my own head, a singularly constructed quasi-reality that only I knew about. These memories, you see, are fond memories, memories that I like to hold on to when life seems a bit too dreary and dull in Old Blighty.

So when one starts questioning these good memories, you can understand it is a tad frightening. Actually more than a tad ­ it was terrifying. A few days later, my delusions and paranoia hadnıt passed and I was getting more and more concerned because I was due to fly out to Norway for a five day trip with a friend from work. We had been looking forward to the break for weeks, after having scored cheap plane tickets on the Internet. It was a country ­ and a part of the world ­ I had always wanted to visit. To be honest, I had never been very interested in travelling to Western Europe, but I had had an obsession with Scandinavia ever since I did a school project on Sweden in Year 5, where my young mind was enthralled to learn (and to remember) that the capital was Stockholm, that it was quite cold there, and that there was a part of the country called Lapland in the north. (Note - any Norwegians or Swedes out there ­ Iım not saying I believe your two countries are one and the same, itıs just a connection Iım making for the sake of an interesting travel article. Apologies if any offence is caused.)

I packed my backpack with quite a bit of uncertainty, almost wishing my friend would come into my room and tell me she had lost her passport ­ or something that would prevent us from going. (Now I look back, why I hadnıt just hidden my passport under my bed ­ to achieve a similar result of not going, I will never know). I tried my darndest to pull myself together and out of this absurd world I had created for myself. It was impossible. I knew what I was thinking was completely unreasonable and that my very sensible mother would not hesitate to tell me in that very familiar tone to "stop being ridiculous Kathy" if I rang her now and told her what I was thinking, but the question "what if" kept popping into my mind. Nothing is out of the question, you never really know do you? At least this is what university philosophy had taught me. I knew I should have studied law. The delusions were getting worse by the minute. Not only did I believe my memories were created and hadnıt actually occurred ­ I thought that my entire set of friends and family were "in on it", to convince me that my memories were real and not invented. Great, not only do I have a crap memory I thought, Iım part of a sick conspiracy as well. Life was looking grim.

Somehow my friend and I managed to make our way to Stansted airport ­ the cold, hard floor of which would be our sleeping quarters for the evening. Not surprisingly, I didnıt manage sleep that night (and much to my consternation, my mate slept peacefully by my side). Checking in for our el-cheapo Ryanair flight was nothing short of a nightmare, especially on no sleep, shaking from far too many cigarettes and possessing the belief that my past life was an invention of my own head. We lined up for what seemed like hours behind quite a nice-looking young Norwegian man (the sight of him had given me some hope for the future, I must admit). When we finally reached the check-in desk, we were quickly informed that our bags were too big and we had to go to the over-size luggage section. After lining up there for another twenty minutes or so, we were told we would have to go back to the check-in desk to get labels for our bags (which the check-in lady had failed to give us the first time around). This shambles ­ experienced alongside other tired, grumpy (yet probably not as insane) people ­ was nearly enough to tip me over the edge. I wanted to start crying but the tears wouldnıt come. I canıt describe how much I wished some poor plane mechanic had forgotten to check the tyre pressure or something and our flight wouldnıt be leaving that cloudy, windy morning.

Landing in Oslo was an experience Iıll never forget. I had a completely mixed reaction to my new surroundings ­ excitement that I was in another country (namely a Scandinavian country) and complete terror at my state of mind, that was rapidly getting worse. My friend knew something was up ­ I was clearly not my usual loud, happy, yet slightly obnoxious self. What was going through her mind I can only guess ­ Iım sure it wasnıt a happy place either. After making our way through customs and receiving another coveted stamp in our passports, we realised our "cheap" flight to Norway was going to be ruined by the fact that we were a 1.5 hour and £25 bus ride away from central Oslo. Note to self (and to readers) ­ "cheap" flights are hardly ever cheap flights. As I should have learned by now ­ things are hardly ever as they seem.

I was appreciating this oft-stated pearl of wisdom more than ever as I stared blankly out the window of the bus as it made its way to our destination. My friend was understandably excited to be in Norway, yet clearly concerned with my sudden descent into madness.

My memory of Oslo is quite clear ­ a clean, well-ordered city with tall, sure-of-themselves looking people walking around in very stylish attire. Cobble-stoned streets contrasted starkly with modern shops, cafes and restaurants. In disparity to Britain, there were clear road signs everywhere, clean streets, logically and conveniently placed park benches, information desks and rubbish bins. The currency exchange machines worked, the lockers at the train station were hassle-free, and luckily for me, the Norwegians behind desks all spoke impeccable English. This country was amazing ­ things worked, trains were exactly on time, people were courteous and helpful. It just felt like you were walking around in an advanced society. The Scandinavians really do seem to have worked it out, I thought. This was until my friend and I came out of our Anglicised-stupor and noticed the high number of beggars sitting miserably on many street corners. This society may be lauded as being advanced in travel guides and on United Nations standard of living charts, but the high number of people sitting with money tins and tatted blankets told a very different ­ and unavoidable ­ story. I was shocked, and spent a good proportion of my time wondering what this meant. After wandering the streets of Oslo for a few hours, we made our way to a lovely park and gardens that surrounded what we assumed was the Royal Palace with serious-looking guards standing, staring ahead, occasionally stamping their feet or moving their guns. As I gazed at them, I wondered if they were ­ like me ­ trying to decipher if their past memories were true and accurate. At the time, I was sure they were, in hindsight, Iım sure they werenıt.

Later that day my worried friend and I boarded the train that was to take us across Norwayıs beautiful and breath-taking southern expanse to Bergen, the World Heritage-listed town on the west coast. This train ride was something I had wanted to do ever since picking up the Guide to Scandinavia a few weeks back ­ it was going to be a highlight of our trip. So I thought at the time. Now, as I sat in the very comfortable seats and looked out at the ice-covered mountains, deep lakes, pine forests and green valleys dotted with wooden Nordic houses, I couldnıt think of anywhere Iıd rather not be than here. I felt wretched.

I had always had my suspicions that I would go mad, I just didnıt think it would be on train journey in Norway ­ one that I had been so looking forward to. Additionally, I was quite disappointed that my madness didnıt include believing I was an agent for the CIA/MI6, which ­ although insane ­ would have been quite interesting. Bergen was quite simply, breath-taking. Set around a bustling harbour and fishing port, Norwayıs second largest city sprawled out and up the sheer hills surrounding centre of the city. It was magical. I loved it. Bergen is packed with museums and galleries ­ one of which, I took a particular liking to because of the psychologically-challenging works on display. I felt the art work was in-line with my current thought processes (even though I didnıt understand them) and I so spent a rather large amount of time there, only leaving at the patient yet firm request of my friend. Somehow in my drug-induced delirium, I was able to appreciate being in Bergen and experiencing the smells, sights, sounds and tastes of an entirely unfamiliar place.

One evening, we caught a cable-car up into the hills above the city and experienced an unforgettable view. We then went for a short walk into the wilderness that was only a few steps away from the tourist mecca that was the look-out. We walked up into the hills, enjoying the serenity and talking about our pasts. As you can imagine, I wasnıt sure what I was saying that night and can only guess it wasnıt overly clear to my companion exactly what I was on about. As we sat down to take a look at the magnificent Nordic sunset (at the rather late time of 11.30pm) and downed a couple of glasses of wine, we were suddenly attacked by ferocious and determined insects that fell in our beverages, crept into our ears and flew down our throats. I hardly cared though, I was losing my mind, midges were the least of my worries. I had visions of mental asylums, electro-shock therapy, concerned faces of friends and relatives coming to visit me and wondering what the hell went wrong (or alternatively, wishing they could get their hands on some of that weed Iıd smoked, itıs cheaper than acid after all).

Sitting up there in the Norwegian outdoors I was more scared than I had ever been in my life. That elephant mock-charging me in Tanzania, the reef shark approaching me off the aptly named Shark Reef in Fiji, the blizzard that nearly knocked me and my travelling companion off the slopes of Mount Tongariro in New Zealand all faded into insignificance. Nothing mattered. Nothing mattered except the fact that I had lost all sense of reality and I was about as far away from home as I could possibly be. The next couple of days went by slowly ­ time had never taken so long to pass. Time. Time. Time. I suddenly started thinking about Stephen Hawkingıs book A Brief History of Time that I had determinedly ploughed my way through a year previously. I wondered if he ever had to sit and think earnestly to himself whether his past was true and real or merely a construction of his (brilliant) mind. At the time, I was sure even he would think that ­ doesnıt everyone? My agony and delirium continued to get worse and my ability even to brush my teeth or say "Yes, please" when my poor friend asked me if I wanted another slice of salami was being tested. I tried to explain to her what was going on in my head ­ funnily enough, she didnıt understand. But she was preposterously patient, calm and caring. I could never have lived through those days without her. My misery was increased by the knowledge that she was having a rough time looking after a nutcase like me when all she wanted to do was experience Norway. I felt terrible ­ ashamed, guilty and worse of all ­ insane.

One of the strangest experiences of the entire trip occurred during the bus ride back to the airport. I was sitting like a zombie, clutching my bag, looking at my passport to check that my name really was Kathy Sharrad and I was from Australia, when I started getting exceedingly irritated with the annoying, whingeing voice of the girl sitting directly behind me. Not only was her voice the most infuriating and galling sound I had ever heard in my life, she was kicking the back of my chair with determined consistency. When I calmed down enough to realise that there was little I could do about it ­ considering I wasnıt even sure if I was alive or not ­ I settled back and enjoyed a bit of eves-dropping. From what I could garner, her and her embarrassed-sounding boyfriend (I think he was well aware of the annoying quality of her voice) were doing some sort of assignment. They were analysing the psychological situations of (what sounded like) quite insane people. The words "reality", "truth", "delusion" and "paranoia" were being thrown around as if they were really actually the words "glitter", "cloud", "fairy" and "happy". They were actually doing an assignment on the psychological problems of PEOPLE LIKE ME! Mad people. It was weird. I was considering turning around and, after telling the annoying voice to stop kicking my chair, asking them if they wanted to psycho-analyse me ­ a real, live mental patient.

We arrived back in the UK late that night and were greeted at the airport by my friendıs boyfriend who had dutifully come a long way to collect us. Iım sure my friend had never been so glad to see a familiar face (other than mine) in her life. And I couldnıt blame her. Her smile after laying eyes on him was so big I thought it was going to swallow her face. Again, I couldnıt blame her. After what seemed like an endless car journey, with me sitting in the back like a drugged-up robot, and my mate chatting about our "wonderful" time in Norway to her boyfriend, we arrived back home in Surrey. Arriving home actually calmed me considerably ­ having familiar sights, smells, sounds and faces around me seemed to help lift the haze that had been clouding my vision for the past 10 days ­ but not entirely. I took a week or so of respite at a friendıs house in Kent where I smoked a frightening amount of cigarettes, listened to my entire CD collection and spoke to my poor mum a couple of hundred times (in between hurriedly booking a flight home to Australia, only to cancel it fifteen minutes later). This therapy and some serious philosophising (or what I call philosophising anyway) and psycho-analysing my situation seemed to bring me to life again. After a long, hard day of trying to see past my delusions and paranoia, I was standing out on my friendıs back patio, smoking yet another cigarette, when I had my greatest epiphany yet ­ I realised what was happening to me! Everything became as clear as day (and even a bit clearer than that). Of course my memories are real. Of course Iım not part of the worldıs craziest (and most pointless) conspiracy plot! What was I thinking? Funnily enough, after realising the "truth" of the matter, everything around me took on a completely different form of clarity and meaning. It felt as though I could see things for "how they are" for the first time in years. Life suddenly looked rosy again ­ I could hear the birds singing, appreciate the blue sky and feel the sun on my skin (quite an anomaly in Britain I hear). Furthermore, I noticed how disgusting cigarettes are and even considered quitting. I felt like chains had been lifted from my throat, hands, and legs and I was now free to be happy again.

As much as I may like to think Iım a mad genius, unfortunately it turns out that all my past memories are in tact and there is no conspiracy against me. Sad, but true. There are three main points this experience has taught me (other than that Norway is hellishly expensive even when travelling on British pounds): For a start, the mind is a very complicated and tricky place. There appears to be (at least in my head) no limits to what you can convince yourself of, even when all logic, reason and rationale tells you you are wrong. On the other hand, I learned a bit about the power of the brain and the way it can ­ if you smoke enough cigarettes and stand on friendıs patios for long enough ­ think its way out of trouble, using very similar processes that it used to get itself into trouble in the first place. The third lesson is that life is wonderful. I didnıt realise how happy I was until I experienced the "other side" ­ a side Iım sure I wonıt visit again, considering Iıve given up the weed. I will visit Norway again and probably even do the Oslo-Bergen railway journey a second time. Maybe I wonıt spend as long in the art gallery this time though, and rather take more time to breathe in the clean, fresh air and gaze up at the Scandinavian sky, remembering those five days a long time ago when I certainly had a trip of a lifetime in Norway.
© Kathy Sharrad Oct 2004

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