When I was 25 I suspected that heartbreak might have finally and literally driven me insane. I was back on antidepressants for the first time in five years, an attempt to calm the anxiety which made getting out of bed and working feel impossible. My body was a carnival of twitches, aches and involuntary shudders. Sometimes I yanked at hairs in my scalp or eyebrows and remembered that an ex and I had a shared dark joke about each other: “I had a dysfunctional relationship with you and all I got were your lousy compulsive habits”; I got his hair-pulling tendency, he my finger-gnawing addiction.
I was in a bad way, and despite my expansive self-pity I could also see for the first time in my life that the way in which I loved, and the way in which I suffered the loss of that love, had made me behave in an unacceptable and frankly crazed way. It was one thing to be rendered weepy and morose after a break up, it was another to grow reckless and frantic, determined to win the exited party back at any cost. I had been overtaken by a single-minded commitment to making this ex want me. Even after he moved country with another woman, there was a large and resilient part of me which believed all I had to do was wait it out in the background until he came to his senses.
This wasn’t entirely my fault – it was a bad move on his part to let someone visibly rabid with love for him remain a close and constant confidante – but mostly it was. I had listened to somebody carefully explain in many different ways and over a period of several months that they would not ever be a partner to me, that their feelings were not the same as mine, and I had chosen to wilfully disregard it. I had kept seeing and sleeping with him in the fantastical belief my presence would eventually enchant him and erode his reluctance. In short, I had constructed a delusion of a love he had for me which had simply never existed. When I emerged out of my delusion, blinking like a mole in the harsh light of reality, I was aghast at myself and what I had done. It was true that I had been hurt, let down, messed around a little, but it was on me that I had let my false narrative become so dominant.
It was then that I began to read about erotomania, or de Clérambault Syndrome. One Saturday afternoon sitting in the beer garden of my local pub, supposedly writing but really still anxiously puzzling out my manic behaviour, I remembered the Ian McEwan novel Enduring Love. In it, the narrator is pursued and stalked by a deranged man, Jed, who is convinced that the two of them are in love after they meet in a chance encounter. Jed is never offered a shred of supporting evidence for the grand affair he imagines he is entangled in, but his mind takes care of that. He sees signs everywhere, minuscule movements and actions into which he reads meaning, mangling them into displays of love. I was struck by the thought that Jed’s terrifyingly dogged adoration was like an outsized version of my own, and I looked up the disorder he suffered from.
Erotomania is a persistent delusion – experienced most often but not exclusively by women about men – that a powerful or otherwise desirable person is in love with the sufferer. The disorder doesn’t require a pre-existing genuine romantic connection, and its target is usually blindsided by the fabricated relationship which is spun. The sufferer often believes that there are external forces such as a spouse or an institution preventing the object of their love from acknowledging their true feelings. Imagine that your student or employee with whom you have only exchanged pleasantries one day begins to bombard you with letters, phone calls, emails and visits, begging you to have the courage to admit that you are in love with them and have been for years.
For months afterward, I pored over reports from psychiatric journals. I was entranced by the biographical details of the patients, who felt all the more poignant for the thin strand of connection I could feel from my own constructed world to the ones they had built. I found a powerful comfort from dwelling within the case studies. There is something soothing about the necessarily measured neutral tone which must be taken even when describing the furthest reaches of the human mind, the most acute suffering imaginable. Doing this sort of reading is based at least partially on the relief of thinking: “At least I’m not that bad”. But it’s not a malevolent comparison, it’s a way to reassure yourself that what you believe to be uniquely perverse mental inclinations exist in others too, that your ugliness is not yours alone to bear.
I carefully noted down the specifics: a woman who fell in love with the doctor who had overseen her abortion, a woman who was still convinced thirty years later that the target of her obsession was about to come round, and let the world see their love. Some sufferers of erotomania become physically violent, but most instead are simply incredibly persistent in their campaigns of stalking and unwanted contact. As I read about the pain they caused to the objects of their illness, and the pain they caused to themselves, I eventually was able to address my own behaviour.
I had always thought of myself as being a victim of the hurt perpetrated upon me by my ex’s refusal to love me, and that any bad behaviour of mine could be justified through this hurt. Soon I could see that I was committing my own kind of violence by refusing to accept what he told me, what he felt. Being injured didn’t excuse my actions, and it didn’t make my dream world real or worthy of respect. I had read my unsightly tendencies writ large in these studies and was shaken finally by the repeated iteration that the patients rarely recovered, that many would take their false loves through the decades with them. I would not. Instead I tried to believe that I would someday be free and behaved as if that were true even when it didn’t feel like it. Eventually I was.
Megan's debut novel 'Acts of Desperation' is out 4 March, and available to pre-order here
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