My friend Malcolm Brabant has gone to places none of us would like to go.
He has been possessed sitting on his veranda under a dark, Attic sky; he has heard voices in his head that have urged him to kill; he has been drunk with delirium, believing he was the chosen one, the Messiah come to save the world. He has grappled with inner demons, devilish thoughts that have made him believe he was Lucifer, too.
For almost two years, my friend Malcolm has slipped in and out of madness, dancing on the edge of an abyss most of us will never know. Spirits he calls guardian angels – friends and relatives who died prematurely – have sometimes accompanied him along the way. They have spoken to him in commandments, urging him to drink his urine or eat his excrement – or brush his teeth with a lavatory brush. And, like those satanic thoughts, they have inhabited his soul.
My friend Malcolm, a spirited man in his 50s, conquered by furies; an award-winning BBC foreign correspondent and storyteller par excellence who should never have been narrating this particular tale.
“There is a very fine dividing line between madness and sanity,” he says. “I have slipped between the two very easily. It is extraordinary, really, how rapidly it can happen.”
I had not heard his voice since he left Athens in October 2011. The departure had been “hasty”, a shocking end to an illustrious career covering the killing fields that were the Balkans and the savagery of Chechnya before setting up in Miami and returning to Greece for a second stint in 2003.
For years, Malcolm’s was the familiar face that we saw on our screens reporting from all those spots. Like so many BBC veterans polished in the school of pitch and pace, his voice remains confident and strong. But as he speaks from his new home in Copenhagen, it is imbued with something else. “The doctors say there is a good chance I will fully recover, but there is also a chance I could relapse, too.” “Relapse”, a word I would never have associated with bold, brave, get-on-and do-it Malcolm. “I’m still on drugs, antipsychotic medication, even if it has been much reduced.”
It all began, Malcolm believes, with a pinprick – a yellow-fever jab administered for a trip to the Ivory Coast. Well before most, Malcolm had become a one-man band, self-taught in the art of making films, creating packages and doing lives. But his choice to be based in Athens also came with its challenges. In a country long perceived to be a non-news maker – before its dramatic economic collapse – editorial indifference meant life as a freelance was marked by periods of feast and famine. There was no fixed salary or paid holidays. Enterprising freelances survived by broadening their skills and rooting for stories elsewhere.
In the early spring of 2011, Malcolm was doing just that when he elected to go to the Ivory Coast on a non-BBC assignment to make a film for Unicef. The vaccine, a dose of Stamaril, administered at a municipal clinic in Athens, was part of his preparations for that trip. It was Friday 15 April 2011. Pressed for time, Malcolm stopped at the clinic while doing the school run with Trine, his Danish wife. “She asked: ‘Shall I come in with you?’ and I said, ‘No.’ It was routine. And there seemed nothing wrong with the clinic,” he recalled.
Within hours, the symptoms erupted. Gripped by a raging fever, he turned lobster red, shivering so violently the headboard above the couple’s bed shook uncontrollably. It took two weeks – after admission to hospital and a dose of steroids – before his temperature could be brought down.
Then came psychosis. A shooting star, glimpsed after supper from the balcony of their home, quickly convinced Malcolm that he had witnessed the Second Coming and, as such, had been invested with all the powers of a modern-day Messiah. Trine, by turns, suddenly found herself confronting a man she did not know. One minute he was Baby Jesus – demanding he be swaddled in a sheet – the next he was ranting incoherently or daubing crosses on the walls of their home with the juice of crushed strawberries.
Often, the couple’s son, Lukas, would witness his father consumed by fury and despair. “He was an innocent 12-year-old boy who should never have seen such things,” says Malcolm. “He is as much a victim as me.”
Incarceration began in Athens with Malcolm spending his first three weeks in a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of the capital. But there was worse to come. And when it did, it came in the form of Lucifer himself. Unable to keep up his job in Athens – following a bout of treatment in his native Ipswich – it was decided that the couple should retreat to Copenhagen.
“What happened in the Greek hospital was completely mild to what happened here,” says Malcolm. “We left in a hurry, a real hurry, and in November, soon after we got here, I just collapsed. It was as if I had been stabbed in the lungs and all the air had been taken out of me. I was convinced I was the devil and that my actions would lead to both Trine and Lukas being killed.”
There was no option but to be committed, this time to a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Copenhagen. “It was a locked-in ward known as 811. I spent seven days rocking back and forth saying I was the devil,” he remembers. “I grew a long, spikey beard and just rocked and rocked.”
Forced to endure the “guttural screams and shrieks of other patients” and not speaking a word of Danish, Malcolm thought he was experiencing hell on earth. For Trine, whose father had been incarcerated in the same ward before taking his own life 20 years earlier, it was hard beyond words.
Imagining himself, in his first bout of madness, to be the Messiah was one thing. “But to believe I was the instrument of the devil, to be consumed by such dark thoughts, was quite another.”
Dogged by depression, his life in complete ruins, Malcolm underwent four sessions of electroconvulsive therapy which, initially at least, spurred the couple into thinking he was on the way to recovery. “On Christmas Eve I was allowed back home for three hours. Trine had cooked a wonderful meal, but as I was standing in the kitchen, carving the meat, a 10-inch blade in my hand, all I kept hearing were these voices saying ‘kill’, ‘kill’, ‘kill’, and they were incredibly loud. I was like a camera outside myself … my conscious and corporeal being were never going to give into them, but I was really very shocked.”
Was he a schizophrenic or a potential psychopath? Both thoughts raced through his mind.
On New Year’s Eve, utterly persuaded he would kill his wife and son, he placed a belt around his neck and tried to take his own life, instead. A nurse caught him, just in time.
In July last year, Malcolm was let out of the hospital. He has not been readmitted. But what he regards as a fluke of fate has destroyed his life. His job, his beloved Greece have both been lost. And, in being taken to places no one would want to go, he has been brought to the brink of penury.
The couple do not doubt that the yellow fever vaccine is to blame. “From when the fever first started, it was clear that Malcolm was having an adverse event,” insists Trine, a journalist herself. “All the experts I have spoken to believe the batch was contaminated.”
Steadfastly they have pursued the manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, for compensation. The company has vehemently denied any link, arguing that the batch of vaccine in question had “passed the numerous quality controls” and suggesting that perhaps Malcolm’s breakdown was the result of being predisposed to mental illness.
Although the company admits that reports of side-effects have included mental disorders, it says there have been fewer than 10 such reports, including Malcolm’s, after the distribution of more than 300 million doses of the vaccine worldwide.
Out of the darkness, scrambling for light, Malcolm has written eloquently, in his book, Malcolm is a Little Unwell, about his descent into madness. It was, as I have said, the story he was never meant to tell. But as a friend, I can only thank the gods that he is here to tell it.
Malcolm is a Little Unwell, Kindle Edition, Andartes Press, £6.70, available on Amazon
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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