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Your Life: I was convinced my colleagues were trying to KILL ME; HEALTH She's bright, beautiful and successful, so it's hard to believe Erica Crompton was once convinced she was a terrorist target and her workmates were plotting to harm her. Here she describes her battle with paranoid psychosis.

Byline: By Laura Armstrong

Erica Crompton shook with fear as a technician tried to fix the office fax machine next to her.

Frightened and alone she was in the grip of paranoid psychosis, and convinced he was there to kill her.

To Erica, nothing around her was as it seemed. The slightest thing became a secret message from the conspirators who were out to get her.

And despite all of her efforts to ignore them, the predators were forcing her to the brink of despair.

Erica's situation may be out of the ordinary, but it is not unique.

Recent studies show that more than one in 20 people in the UK have experienced paranoid or psychotic symptoms at some point in their lives.

And when Erica began searching for fellow sufferers online, she came across hundreds of people who knew exactly how she was feeling.

They too had experienced psychotic symptoms - defined by mental health charity Mind as hearing or seeing things, or holding unusual beliefs, which other people don't see or share.

"Contacting a group of victims on the internet was one of the best things I've done. Before I was diagnosed in 2002 I was suicidal because I felt so alone - nobody knew how I felt," says Erica.

"I realised that there were other people who could help because they had been through similar things."

People can experience psychosis as a stand-alone condition, as well as part of another disorder.

In Erica's case, symptoms of an ongoing condition began to appear in the "false thoughts" that led her to believe terrorists were plotting against her.

And seven years after she was diagnosed with paranoid psychosis, Erica, now 28, reveals how she became caught in a vicious circle of fear and worry.

"I first started having strange thoughts in 2001, right after the 9/11 attacks. I worked in a tower block and I started to think the people I worked with were trying to get me to blow up the building," says Erica.

"It sounds odd, but the thoughts didn't really worry me too much until September 2002, after I'd moved out of London.

"Suddenly my thoughts became more disturbing. I convinced myself that my colleagues were trying to kill me - and that they were using computers, radios and TVs to send me messages.

"I really believed that it was happening, so I'd panic every time the TV skipped, or numbers came up on my computer.

"Once I even took my computer to the police as proof there was a conspiracy against me - but of course they couldn't find anything."

Frightened and with no-one to believe her, Erica quickly became depressed and retreated into herself, even considering suicide.

She refused to listen to her family's advice and would not be persuaded that the conspiracy did not exist - believing instead that everyone was either in on the act or ignorant of it.

She says: "I thought terrorists planned to kill me because of silly things I'd done - like falling over and knocking something after drinking.

"I knew the reasons were silly, but I couldn't watch TV or listen to a radio without panicking.

"I became suicidal, and angry - I wanted to shout that I didn't deserve this to happen to me because I hadn't done anything wrong." The final straw for Erica came when a technician came to fix the fax machine at her workplace, where she was a receptionist.

Terrified that he had been sent to kill her, she flew into a blind panic in the middle of the reception.

Soon after she was fired by her boss, who insisted on gathering her things so she could leave via the back door.

And the traumatic experience gave Erica the push she needed to seek medical help.

She says: "I went to my GP soon after I was fired and he referred me to a psychiatrist who prescribed a course of medication. At first I was confused by it all because I thought the doctor was in on the conspiracy as well, but once I started taking the drugs I began to see things more clearly."

With the help of regular medication and support from her family, Erica gradually began to rebuild her life. And since 2002 she has been working in fashion journalism.

Bridget O'Connell, head of information at Mind, explains episodes can be triggered by everyday factors - and are not limited to schizophrenia or depression sufferers. She says: "People can experience psychosis as part of a serious mental problem, but it is also a symptom of intense stress, severe sleep deprivation and drugs and alcohol abuse.

"Everyone's experiences of psychosis are unique.

Most people hear voices, but others can experience nonverbal thoughts, images and visions, or even smells, tastes and other sensations with no external cause. Many people who have one episode of psychosis will never have another, while some people will live with ongoing episodes."

Erica's experience has driven her to help others suffering from the condition, by starting up a new therapy group to help others deal with being 'mental healthers'.

"After I joined meetup.com, lots of people in the group gave me good advice about how to cope," Erica says.

"They motivated me to set up a meet-up group myself by showing me how important it is to talk about mental health.

"I also think it's important to campaign as much as possible to reduce thes tigma surrounding mental illness, because it causes so much damage for sufferers."

For people like Erica this stigma can be a daily reality - a survey has found nine out of 10 people with mental health problems experience discrimination.

Bridget O'Connell says: "People can have unjustified fears about the way sufferers behave, or believe that they can't contribute to society, whereas in reality people have jobs and lives like anyone else.

"Prejudice can affect people in every aspect of their lives, from relationships with their families to discrimination when applying for jobs or in the workplace."

Erica says: "If I had to give advice to someone diagnosed with paranoid psychosis I would tell them to remember that they are not alone - there are lots of other people out there who can help.

"I'd also say that whatever they think about psychosis is not necessarily right and that people who suffer from it can live normal lives with the help of medication.

"I take mine everyday and I still have paranoid thoughts, but they're far more based in reality.

"I will worry about people talking about me behind my back rather than terrorists trying to kill me.

"And then I will go to my family or friends and they will tell me if I'm being paranoid - sometimes we will even laugh about it together.

"I might be a 'mental healther' but I'm not going to let it take over my life - and neither should anyone else."

What the experts say..

The term psychosis describes experiences such as hearing or seeing things, or having unusual beliefs which other people don't share.

This is often highly distressing, however some people will only ever hear positive voices which don't cause them any problems.

Paranoid psychosis causes people to become fearful and suspicious of others. For example, someone may feel they are being watched, victimised or that there is a plot against them.

Around five per cent of the UK population has experienced paranoia and psychosis. People can experience psychosis as part of a number of mental health problems, from severe depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

However, almost anyone can have a "psychotic episode", which can also be caused by stress, severe sleep deprivation and drug or alcohol abuse.

For more information about paranoid psychosis visit the National Association for Mental Health (Mind) website at www.mind.org.uk or call the information line on 0845 766 0163 (Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm).

People with psychosis can live normal lives

I even told the police about the conspiracy

CAPTION(S):

HAPPY: Erica has come to terms with being a "mental healther" PICTURE: NEVILLE WILLIAMS; OUTGOING: Erica aged five; DIAGNOSIS: Erica in 2002; COPING: With friends in 2002
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 26, 2009
Words:1356
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