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Fighting off the inner demons

Former BBC Athens correspondent Malcolm Brabant relives the nightmare of mental decline after a routine yellow fever jab

In his new book 'Malcolm is a Little Unwell', former BBC Athens correspondent Malcolm Brabant relives his swift and destructive mental decline after being given a routine yellow fever jab in an Athens medical clinic. 'What have I learned from this?' he tells EnetEnglish. 'That there is a very thin dividing line between being sane and crazy... Being successful one minute and homeless the next'

For Malcolm Brabant – one-time BBC Athens correspondent and a much-admired journalist of three decades' experience – the defining point that marked the divide between sanity and madness came in the form of a pinprick.

It was on 15 April 2011, in an unprepossessing medical clinic in Pallini, northeastern Athens, that a routine yellow fever jab was administered.

The chain reaction was immediate and did not stop until he was penniless, had – in his words – committed professional suicide and stretched the seams of his close-knit family to breaking point.

The ordeal is the subject of Malcolm is a Little Unwell, a brutally honest and gripping account of his descent into mental hell, that has been published as as an ebook.

It is a terrifying read... Terrifying for all those who know others suffering some form of mental illness; terrifying for any parent who can relate to a 12-year-old son who loses his innocence in witnessing scenes no child should; and terrifying to realise how fragile is the divide between sanity and madness.

As Brabant told EnetEnglish: "What have I learned from this? That there is a very thin dividing line between being sane and crazy. There is also a thin line between being successful one minute and becoming homeless the next. That is an experience that I'm sure many newly unemployed Greeks can understand."

And it is a story that has Greece very much at its heart.

Within hours of Brabant being administered a Stamaril vaccination ahead of a working visit to Ivory Coast for Unicef, came a bed-shaking fever of over 40 degrees that took the best part of two weeks to come down.

There followed a quick and destructive mental decline.

He was admitted to the Sinouri psychiatric clinic, in Nea Eritrea, northern Attica, where he was overtaken by paranoia and hallucinations. The Greek government and secret police were monitoring him, he believed. He wept uncontrollably during the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Most notably, he believed he was the messiah and stopped at nothing to tell people – the staff at the clinic, senior religious figures and correspondents, his commissioning editors at the BBC.

There would be other stays in psychiatric units over the next 18 months and numerous moments of uncontrollable slide into a mental abyss. The culmination was a New Year's Eve attempt to take his own life in a clinic in Denmark, where he moved to with his Danish wife, Trine, and son, Lukas, in the search for a healthcare system that would support him.

Between times, Brabant transferred in his mind the honour of being the messiah to his son and undertook, in the place of doing God's work, to be the devil. It took the last vestiges of sanity that he possessed to control thoughts that he would kill his wife and son.

As one would expect of a combative and principled reporter, he spares no detail of the pain he both endured and inflicted on his loved ones; his insistence on parading his bouts of insanity to his BBC bosses and contacts; and, latterly, his campaign to seek compensation from Sanofi Pasteur, which produced the jab.

The world's largest vaccine manufacturer insists there was no connection with the Stamaril jab and Brabant's mental illness – saying that they have tested the batch from which the vaccine came and found no fault.

However, responding to a recent article on Brabant in Britain's Daily Telegraph, the pharmaceutical company admitted that "less than 10 cases relating mental disorders, including Mr Brabant’s, have been reported".

The firm added that "none of them have resulted in a complaint".

But what sets his book apart is the extraordinary detail in which much of what Brabant thought and did during his bouts of psychosis are catalogued.

One particular rant from the garden of his house in northern Athens, with its view of Mt Pendeli, which he documented with his video camera as if broadcasting to the BBC, says it all (see excerpt below).

Brabant's writing is also extraordinarily insightful. The demons he had clearly suppressed throughout adulthood – the experience of reporting from warzones such as Bosnia in the early 90s, to picking the limp and lifeless body of his four-month-old son, a cot-death victim, from his pram 32 years earlier – came gushing uncontrollably through his now perforated protective barriers.

As a reader, you cannot escape thoughts of your own vulnerability.

But so, too, does the book offer hope, and often a dark and engaging humour. It is also remarkably unbitter in its tone.

"The fact that my illness began in Greece does not diminish my love for the country," said Brabant, who was the BBC's man in Athens for eight years, from his new home in Copenhagen.

"That said, I wish I had had the vaccine in a better institution than the Pallini local government centre, because maybe I might not have become sick and I'm afraid to say that we instantly rejected taking any legal action in Greece because of the shambolic and occasionally corrupt nature of the judicial system there, and the fact that lawsuits can take years to come to fruition."

And, above all else, it is a story of courage, not least on the part of Brabant's wife to fight for her husband's life, despite also being a victim of his condition. And to battle seemingly insurmountable odds in taking on the pharmaceutical giant that is Sanofi Pasteur.

And, of course, courage on Brabant's part, not least in trying to rationalise the irrational now that he is back home but in constant fear of relapsing. 

"Although I thought I was variously the messiah and the devil, I have reverted to my previous lifetime position of agnosticism," he says. "I look back on the experience as 'the messiah' as one of dark humour. I made efforts to contact the abbot of Esphigmenou [a monastery on Mount Athos] to tell him that Jesus had arrived. I also contacted a colleague in Rome to inform the pope of the same message.

"I occasionally wonder if there is a god or a devil but it's not an issue I dwell on. I remember the words of a chaplain in the Copenhagen hospital who said there was no devil. She said there was just a battle between good and bad thoughts in your psyche."


Excerpt from Chapter 8: A wise man relapses

I picked up the camera and went through the sliding door into the garden. My lungs were bursting as my real rant began.

“I am the wise man. Protect me.” Dogs in the neighbourhood began barking as their afternoon siesta was disturbed.

“I am the wise man.”

Somewhere in the house, Lukas started crying.

“Jesus is coming to Greece, to save Greece. Come and protect me.”

The barking intensified.

“We are the wise people. I know about technology. I know what I’m doing.

“I need your protection. Jesus is coming to save Greece. You’re going back to the drachma. My wife saw it. So did my son. He’s not the Messiah. But we are the wise people. I am the BBC and you had better trust me. You’re going back to the drachma. You’re going back to the drachma, you’re going back to the drachma. That is your protection. That is your protection, are you listening?”

I started strutting around the garden.

“I’m not mad. I’ve been in an asylum and one of those doctors poisoned me.”

I walked up the steps to the small balcony outside a utility room.

“And the best thing of all is publicity.” By now I was snorting like a raging bull.

“I am the best journalist in the world. I am the best journalist in the world. Fucking hell I am. And Jesus doesn’t mind if you shout and swear because he’s got a fucking sense of humour.”

I re-entered the basement and started heading towards the kitchen.

“Let’s do a live broadcast. Let’s do a live broadcast,” I shouted. “But we won’t because we’re perfectly sane. But we’re doing this for our protection for my family’s protection.”

By now, I had reached the kitchen balcony that had a marvellous view of a valley gently sloping upwards to Pendeli.

“I want all of those people who believe me to come around my house and protect me. Your government has been particularly evil. Come round to my house if you trust me. I work for the BBC.”

The dogs were still barking and the valley went quiet as the occupants of scores of houses start watching and listening to the lunatic whose voice boomed into the distance.

Thespians the world over would have marvelled at my ability to project.

“I have reported all over the world. I have reported all over the world for thirty years. I reported from Bosnia. Where Christians and Muslems...”

Suddenly I glanced to my left towards the neighbour next to whom we had lived for seven years and with whom we were on nodding terms. He had come into the garden to see what was going on. My facial muscles contracted into a grimace.

“Hello. You’re Christians, I know you are. We’ve never talked but I know you are Christians. Please protect me.”

By now, I was almost crying.

“There are forces of evil out there and they belong to the Greek government. And I demand...”

I caught myself in mid sentence and said laughing, “I’m not going to demand because I always do that of the BBC. But my friend Jeremy who’s advised the Prime Minister...”

I put my hand over my mouth and said, sotto voce, “Oops, gave that one away Mr. Cameron.”

The shout now echoed back at me from the direction of Pendeli.


Malcolm Brabant describing his illness on Channel 4 (UK)

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