One of the few memories I have of high school stems from the philosophy classes I took my junior and senior year. I believe it was early on in the year, when we were all first getting used to the idea of philosophizing, when our teacher asked us the question: “how do you know?”
It’s one of those deceptively simple questions. How do you know? You can read things in a book, be taught them in a formal environment, experience them in real life, deduce them from certain situations you’ve been exposed to. You know things through your senses; through seeing them, smelling them, hearing them, touching them, tasting them. In a sense, the only way you know anything is through your senses.
This is perhaps a boring question to most people, but to the small percentage of the population who hallucinates (either through auditory, visual, olfactory, or tactile means) it’s an incredibly insightful question. Because my hallucinations, most notably these rather horrific looking creatures I see, are as real as anything else I perceive. The horrific monsters I hallucinate have just as much presence in my sense of reality as anyone else I interact with – they’re as true to me as my parents or my dearest friends.
Our senses lie to us, our senses deceive us. And the only logical conclusion to come to is that we don’t really know anything. How could we when our senses deceive us? And it’s not just those with mental illness whose senses deceive them – most people have seen something out of the corner of their eye and turned to see nothing is there, most people have heard something that wasn’t there – perhaps someone calling their name or else some other sound. It’s not uncommon when talking about biting insects to get itchy all over at the thought of them. What I experience with my mental illness isn’t totally unique – everyone shares those experiences to some degree. Mine are just much more powerful, much more complex, and in many ways, debilitating.
Schizophrenia literally means “split mind”, and this is a relevant definition for my experience with schizoaffective disorder (itself just a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) because so many of my experiences are split. I seem to exist in two worlds – the world everyone else participates in, and the world of my brain’s twisted constructs. The most obvious of these constructs, the aforementioned horrific monsters, don’t really represent much of a problem for me. I can exist with them just fine; I’ve learned to live at peace with them. They can enter and exit my life as they please and I’ve learned not to be alarmed by their presence. I’ve learned to accept them as a feature in my life: they no longer represent how sick I am, how crazy I am, how other I am. They just are.
I confront a lot of two different types of knowledge: the intellectual knowledge of something and the knowledge gained from directly experiencing a thing. My dad has a deep intellectual knowledge of what it is I go through. He and I have had many talks about my experiences, what they’ve done to me, how I feel about them, and what they mean to me. But he doesn’t experience them directly. And, because of that, he’s missing out on something fundamental. It’s one thing to be told about the horrific things I’ve experienced, it’s quite another to experience them yourself.
This was demonstrated to me when a homeless man came up to me on my stoop the other day and asked me for a light. When I handed my lighter over, he told me to look at the sky and tell me if anything changed as he lit his cigarette and took a drag. I could immediately relate to the paranoia and world-shattering kind of disconnection he was experiencing. So I looked at the sky and reported to him that nothing had changed when he took a drag of his cigarette. I knew I couldn’t just glance at the sky, that I needed to take a good long look at the sky, that I needed to study it for any sort of change. I felt simultaneously the best possible person he could ask to undertake such a mission, and the worse. The best because I knew precisely what he was asking and how to provide the answer for him. And the worst because I might see something and make his paranoia worse.
We ended up talking for a good half-hour/45-minutes. And in the end he told me I was the most comforting person he’d ever talked to about his paranoia. Though I didn’t tell him about my own paranoia and mental health struggles, he seemed to know I understood, on a fundamental level, what it was he was going through. I also think a large part of it was not being scared of him – was being able to relate to his experience and know that I wasn’t in danger. I ended up finding him a comfy spot on the grass outside my apartment building and gave him one of my heavy blankets so he could feel some reprieve from the onslaught.
It was that experiential, fundamental sort of knowledge of paranoia that helped me help that man. If I’d only had an intellectual understanding of paranoia I might not have been able to help him so much. It’s not to discount an intellectual understanding of paranoia – I’ve been helped a great deal with my own paranoia (and many other features of my illness) by people with only an intellectual understanding of paranoia. But there’s a difference.
This split in my person is most prominent when I think of my worth as a person. Intellectually I know I’m a good person, I know I’m probably one of the best guys you’re likely to meet. I know I’m kind, responsible, and self-controlled. I know I’m a good friend; that I’m loyal, that I’m funny and charming and can keep you entertained for hours with my inane stories. But my experience of myself is altogether different.
I experience myself as worthless person, as undeserving of any kind of love or friendship or kindness. I experience myself as the worst kind of person you’re likely to meet – as cruel and malevolent and selfish. Deep down, I feel as though I’m a terrible person. There’s this kind of conflict in me between my perceptions of myself. On the one hand there’s the evidence of me being a good person, a good friend, a good brother and son. And on the other hand, there’s this deeper sort of knowledge of me knowing how truly miserable of a person I am. So what’s the reality?
I suppose somewhere in the middle.
It’s difficult to try to resolve such conflicting depictions of yourself; it’s difficult to intellectually know the truth about yourself but feel in your gut the exact opposite. It’s enough to drive a person crazy. It’s enough to make a person not want to seek out love and companionship. But if I’ve learned anything from having a mental illness it’s that sometimes you have to act contrary to how you’re feeling – that sometimes the opposite of what you’re thinking/feeling/perceiving is what’s actually happening.
It’s a tall order to ask someone to deal with these kinds of world-shattering, gestalt-summoning perceptions. To have a split mind, to be torn asunder is not a pleasant thing by any means. But it allows me to confront things very directly. It helps to keep me in balance – this conflict of opposites means that I can keep myself walking the straight and narrow path. I can list all kinds of evidence for why I’m a good person and I can list all kinds of reasons why I’m a bad person – the same is true for anyone.
But there’s a certain kind of advantage in having to confront such literal bipolar aspects of yourself. To perceive yourself as a good person and a bad person all in the same breath. It forces me to recognize that neither is the truth and so too is it with knowing something. To experience something isn’t necessarily a better form of knowledge of it. It depends on the situation. How does one experience a math equation? How does one intellectually understand the color purple?
Knowledge, particularly of mental illness, depends on perspective. Which is why I stress so often the value of a good support system. I don’t see the complete Chris, I only see the parts I reveal to myself, I only see the parts my subconscious allows me to see. Other people see different things – they interpret my behavior; how I treat people, how I speak in a different way. And it’s important to have both to get a complete picture. Not in a narcissistic sense of having everything always be about myself. But rather, in the sense of truly knowing myself.
I don’t believe in objective reality. Everyone perceives reality differently. Because reality must be interpreted. Our eyes don’t do the seeing, they’re just a lens. It’s the brain that flips the image and turns it into something meaningful that we can understand; such that, when we see a vase of flowers on a table, we recognize it as such. But every brain is unique just as every person is unique and so every perception of reality is unique. So how could reality be an objective thing? And if even our perception of reality isn’t an objective thing, how can we really know anything?
It’s a limitation of Western Logic to be sure. I think the key is to be able to hold both perceptions at once. I don’t deny that I’m a good person, I also don’t deny that I’m a bad person. It’s similar to how I don’t deny the creatures I hallucinate their right to exist as constructs in my brain. Treating a mental illness doesn’t necessarily come down to denying certain parts of your experience while promoting others. It’s about living in balance, achieving some kind of harmony with everything you experience. When I hear voices in my head, taunting me, I don’t yell back at them; I don’t taunt them back, I accept them for what they are and give them the space they need at that point and usually they go away. When I see those horrific creatures, I don’t freak out and go back inside, I accept them for what they are and go about my daily life as though they were any other feature in my life. I treat them as I would anyone else walking down the street – just out for a stroll or perhaps trying to get to work or else on their way home. They have their own agenda and I have mine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t share space on the sidewalk.
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