The Qualia Problem, Part 2

I’m out of the United States right now, which is partly why I haven’t written anything here for a while. But I want, very briefly, to look at a short essay published in the Times this week. It’s called “What Bipolar II Feels Like”, and its adapted from “I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying”, a new book by Bassey Ikpi. I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know what the rest of it is like. I don’t even know what the original version of this essay is like—”adapted” is a vague word, and in a case like this usually means “cut together from parts of a larger essay.” But this short version, as it appears in the Times, is worth looking at for what it is in this form.

What it is, I think, is another good example of the wall we’re running up against writing about mental illness. It’s the qualia problem I wrote about before, and will write about again: If one goal of literature is to get a reader to understand and even feel the what-it's-like-ness of an experience, what do we do with experiences that are alien to ordinary life? Extreme mood episodes and psychotic states are not like anything you’ll feel if you’ve never felt those things precisely. They strain the utility of metaphors. It’s difficult to build a bridge from something you may be familiar with to something so unfamiliar: the ordinary “imagine X Y and Z experience, but with P, Q, and R adjustments” rarely suffices. And that challenge only addresses the descriptive problem of writing mental illness. What about mimesis? Is there a way to simulate the subjective state on the page?

Ikpi’s essay doesn’t do a bad job trying. This is a deft essay, and worth reading. But I’ve read it before. I think I’ve even written it before. Its descriptive content is a mix of metaphors, hypotheticals, and hypotheticals (or metaphors) which are actually the incredibly particular experiences of its author. Like this:

You know how you can get a song stuck in your head? Imagine hearing that song even in your sleep — waking you up in the middle of the night to ensure you’re aware of the lap it’s running in your head. Then imagine you have to find out everything you can about that song and its singer. Where it started? Who wrote it? What inspired it? Why? You have to do all of this before there can be quiet in your head, before you can rest, before you can sleep.

Now imagine you do this with clothes. You can only wear 7 for All Mankind jeans or Citizens of Humanity because they were both created by the same people until one of them left because of a falling-out and started C.O.H. You know this because you researched and Googled and Wikipedia-ed everything there is to know about them and those are the only jeans you can wear now so who cares if they’re two hundred dollars?

For mimesis—for qualia—Ikpi turns to form. The essay builds in a satisfying way. It gets more and more manic (it is talking about hypomania, mainly, although it doesn’t say so explicitly) in fits between crashes. The pace flows until it leaps, in a way that’s meant to imitate the sudden irrational leaps in a mood episode. As the content turns from hyped to exhausting, the essay tries to exhaust you. “And then the packages come because of course you did overnight express and you feel crazy and stupid and silly and irresponsible and you’re exhausted because you know this isn’t normal,” Ikpi writes. It says ‘exhausted’, but the point is the and and and and and. The syntax wants to get you running full speed and then say, Look, you’re running on fumes. Something is wrong here.

Again, this is all very well done, and again, I’ve read it before, over and over; I’ve written it before, over and over, this form and content trick for trying to recreate mania, right down to the way the very last line— “Imagine you don’t fit anywhere, not even in your own head”—manages to to sum it all up neatly, while also giving a sense of the constant agitated difficulty of these illnesses, while also slyly suggesting something interesting, something worth-writing-about about it (don’t fit is not fitting is not fitting in, the classic tragic-to-cool literary subjectivity). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what’s happening here, except perhaps wondering if this is really an essay about “Bipolar II” except in point-of-fact (you could say this was about classic mania in BP1, or even about a particularly severe kind of anxiety disorder, and it would be approximate enough to ring intentional and true). This is, I think, one of the best examples I’ve ever read of the current state of mental illness lit. It’s better than my own versions of precisely this essay; as good, at least, as some of the better installments which predate both Ikpi and me. But it’s still the current state of mental illness lit. And I want to see what the next step is. I want something that uses different tricks; that doesn’t rely on bizarre specific content deployed in mood-mimetic form. I’d like to write the next step, obviously, but I’d just be relieved to see it written by somebody else. Maybe the full book has what I’m looking for here. I’ll order it. And in the meantime, keep trying to think of something new.

In Which I Become Totally Incensed Over Something That Doesn't Really Matter

I don’t read twitter anymore, by which I mean, I don’t have twitter but people send me tweets they think I might find interesting and every time I follow one of the links I’m sent, I wind up clicking around for a few hours, and reading just as many tweets as I did when I had an account. This is fine. The posts are funny sometimes; more times, they are are a reminder that given five seconds of distance from that website, it’s inconceivable why anybody spends much time there voluntarily. Twitter is just a machine for snowballing a thousand small annoyances into a constant agitated, paranoid omnidirectional rage. It’s a machine for simulating the curse of Prometheus. A thousand little birds come and eat your liver every day.

For example, I’ve spent the last several days fuming over a tweet from a well-known media-and-culture fixture explaining why, actually, movies like Shutter Island are bad. Or, as the tweeter put it:

“Something I don’t love is horror movies where people are recently out of mental institutions and can’t tell if they’re delusional or if it’s ghosts bc this a real fucking struggle for my friends who have delusions! […] ESPECIALLY if the twist is ‘hahahaha, you’re just delusional’.”

A number of thoughts occur to me, roughly in this order:

  1. They’re called horror movies.

  2. “A thing I don’t like is cars where people go fast, because it’s a real fucking struggle for my friends who have motion sickness.”

  3. Is ‘hahahaha’ really the tone of any of these movies?

  4. If the point here is only that a movie (or any piece of art) might use something that has been difficult or even traumatizing for a subsection of the population as a narrative device, and that might be difficult to watch if you’re part of that subsection, then what, precisely, are we left with for plot devices? I suppose war movies are out, obviously.

  5. I don’t watch horror movies about serious mental illness much either, but I think if a friend denounced the genre in solidarity, I would feel more embarrassed than I do about having my hand twitch uncontrollably some days, and I used that hand-twitch as the basis for an entire essay about how embarrassing mental illness can be.

You can see what twitter does to you: as obnoxious as I find the original tweet, I’m also being obnoxious. I’m thinking of five different ways to roll my eyes at it, even though I know — I know! — that what the tweeter means, basically, is “There is a genre of movie that uses something my friends have a hard time with in order to generate a cheap thrill, and it’s not usually handled in a particularly sensitive way, and there’s a line, probably, between acknowledging pain and suffering in the real world, and exploiting species of pain as some kind of exotic dysfunction porn.” The tweet is cloying, sure, and soaked in the kind of performative solidarity where saying good is tantamount to being good, but even that isn’t the tweeter so much as the logic of posting (another definition: twitter is a machine for pushing JL Austen’s ideas about forms of speech which are actions, not descriptions, to its breaking point), and at any rate, it’s well-intentioned and trying to be nice and is ultimately harmless and I’d be a hypocrite to lather up my encounter with somebody trying to highlight an insensitive part of our culture into an instance of injustice by a fake ally who is actually getting it wrong and should feel bad. The tweet is wrong, I think, but there’s nothing really wrong with the tweet. Fine.

But what I’ve been fuming over is a mode of thinking which that tweet represents. A mode of thinking, The main problem with being mentally ill is that people might be insensitive about it. A mode of thinking that says, The main problem with being mentally ill is that people might judge you. Or, people might think you’re weird. Or, people might think your problems are Exotic and Interesting and kind of funny or cool, in a dark way. It’s a mode of thinking that says, the horror of mental illness is stigma against the mentally ill. I know this tweet isn’t saying that. But it’s a way to read it, and the culture that it came out of. Just let me riff here. It is a mode of thinking that treats mental illness as an identity marker with no predictive value except its ability to predict the fucked up ways people might be unfair about your bearing that marker. Discrimination against the mentally ill is real, and there are miles of misunderstandings and counter-misunderstandings muddling the discourse about it, and if somebody fired me for disclosing my diagnosis, I’d sue, but the illness itself is actually a problem. Being crazy isn’t like being black. It isn’t, there is no race but there is racism, i.e., there is no there there except a meaningless visible difference which people will kill you over. There’s stigma and discrimination and cheap cultural exploitation of the mentally ill, but there is also mental illness. The illness itself is a problem, not an identity. It’s right there in the world: illness.

There are, of course, mentally ill people for whom stigma is the main downside. They’re the people with moderate anxiety disorders and 21st century depression—with Anxiety and Depression(TM)—who do suffer to various degrees from the illness itself, but who are basically strivers and the drag, the real drag! I’m not beating up on this! is feeling anxious at parties or on dates and therefore maybe not being as cool or as well-liked as they’d like to be, which isn’t really fair, and is a kind of discrimination, I guess, so when they think about their illness, the biggest consequence they’re seeing isn’t the ways the illness makes them feel bad (although it does!), it’s the much larger and more life-impacting ways that their feeling-bad turns into acting-weird turns into social-consequences. The stigma is the problem. Unsurprisingly, these are the people who tend to be the most stable and functional and innocent of the mentally ill, and so they get most of the jobs writing and tweeting about Struggling with Mental Illness, and like any talented tenth, they purport to speak for the rest of us. Or they don’t. Maybe they’re clear about that. Some are. But they’re the ones speaking, so it makes sense that other people—the well-intentioned included most of all—come to understand mental illness in that way.

But I don’t know. There are a lot of us in institutions, and a lot of us in jail. There are a lot of us on the streets, or living with relatives, barely living, without access to good care, or worse, for whom good care still isn’t enough. I’ve been relatively lucky, but even I’ve never thought that the big bummer about all of this has been stigma, or judgement, or the occasional movie where it turned out Leonardo DiCaprio was just crazy the whole time. The bummer is the part where I lived in hell for years, and am sedated every day now, and in the process of going from hell to heavy sedation, I managed to alienate most of my friends, and blow most of my opportunities, and go from a life where I suppose I would have been a lawyer or something into a life where I am mad online, writing a blog about a tweet I don’t like between doses of seroquel. And I’d still take that over still being sick. I’d rather be sedated and poorly liked and lazy and barely employable than be back in the part where I put a knife in my neck to try to take the Holy Ghost out of my lymph node. Because that’s the horror movie. That’s something I don’t love.

Is It Still Gaslighting If You're Actually Crazy?

I’m writing from inside of what may be a manic crash. Or it may be incipient psychosis. Or it may be nothing at all. It’s so difficult to tell; it’s always so difficult to tell, even after all the therapy, and even with the medication, even when your symptoms are reduced, even when you’ve been trained to look out for and recognize the signs: it’s so, so hard to tell. People imagine that an “attack” of some psychiatric condition is like the weather, like a gale force wind blowing down, or a hurricane crashing into your life, but it isn’t. Insanity sneaks in the back door and wraps itself around your head and makes you different while making you feel like it’s the world that’s different. You don’t see the signs of the illness. The illness becomes your eyes and you see what it wants you to see, and if you’re lucky, you can tell that something’s off enough to not believe your lying eyes. But then: when you’re looking for the signs—when you’re worried about them—it’s easy to get a false positive. It’s easy to over-interpret blips and noise. It’s hard to say, am I paranoid right now, or am I just paranoid about the possibility of paranoia? I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m doing right now.

In theory, I should be alright. I can tell you a story that adds up to “I’m fine.” I haven’t missed my medication lately. I’ve gotten the work I need to do done every day. I’m not doing anything palpably crazy; I’m not high or gambling or sleeping with strangers or worried whether or not I exist. I think the people immediately around me don’t get the sense that anything is terribly wrong.

But I can also tell you a story that adds up to “something is very wrong.” I know that I didn’t sleep enough for a couple days earlier this week. That can cause problems. I know that I’ve been feeling off—agitated, a little bit scared, some elevated heart rate, some hyperventilating—not too much, nothing extreme—for a few days now. I think, although I’m not entirely sure, that I’ve been alternating between a blunted affect (not much to say, a hard time hearing what other people are saying to me, a feeling like my head is full of fog) and talking too much and too fast and without any focus. I say I’m not sure because from inside it all feels normal in the moment. But when I reflect with enough practiced objectivity, I know that it feels a little wrong. I know that I came to California a few weeks ago, and switching time zones and locations and routines can always be a little rocky; I know that I finished graduate school in May and don’t really know much about the future, and uncertainty doesn’t help my health much either. I know that I don’t see a therapist when I’m out here, and as dull as I find therapy when I’m in it, I know that a week-to-week reality check helps. I haven’t had a reality check in three or four weeks now. Maybe I’ve been drifting off course. It feels a bit like my whole body is buzzing with this low-tone, stifling fuzz sound. I know that I’ve been more sensitive to noise: to traffic, and loud voices, and the worm-writing slurp of people eating. I get that way sometimes, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m on the verge of a crisis—seroquel, even at my dose, can’t fix everything all of the time—but it isn’t necessarily a good sign either.

I know that in the last several days, I’ve gotten into serious fights with two people who I’m close to. I know that ordinarily I do not get into these kinds of fights, and that if there’s more than one going at a time, it can be a sign that I’m off and just can’t see it. But ordinary people get into disagreements too. Neither of these fights have involved yelling, or nasty insults, or anything like that: in both cases, I’ve felt like another person was deeply unkind to me, and I’ve said so, in what feels to me to be a frustrated but not bizarre or furious way. Ordinary people sometimes have inconsiderate friends; ordinary, even healthy people communicate when they feel hurt and then resolve the issue, and this doesn’t mean that they’re insane. I don’t want to talk specifics here—the specifics aren’t the point—but in both cases, I think I can tell a true and reasonable story that sounds like an entirely ordinary interpersonal conflict. The kind that happens all the time to everybody and gets resolved one way or another and then you move on. But I also know that in one of these arguments, part of the inciting incident was me coming to meet a friend somewhere and feeling immediately and inexplicably threatened and terrified by the place that we were. I felt that something I was being asked to do was a trap, that somebody (not my friend) might be trying to poison me. I didn’t so much think these things explicitly in the moment as I did feel them as kind of animal instincts, raw terror and agitation, and so I left in a way that must have seemed inexplicable and strange. That’s not what the fight was about, but the fact that it happened immediately beforehand is another sign: surely, something is wrong. Surely, I ought to reconsider what feels like an ordinary conflict in the context of a day when there’s clear evidence that I’m not thinking straight, that my feelings, as true and simple as they feel to me, might be wrong.

The second fight didn’t involve any overt bouts of paranoia, but as it has wound on into a third day now, it has begun to feel less and less like an actual fight where two people have actually conflicting feelings or interests or stakes, and more like something where I have no idea what is happening anymore. I say what seem to me to be very straightforward things, and am met with either confusion, or with responses which seem to be referring to a different baseline reality, with different facts than the one I’m talking about. Again: this might be nothing. Ordinary, sane people have arguments that seem to be going nowhere, where two people are unable, at least for the moment, to see anything from the other’s perspective, and so wind up talking past each other. Ordinary people fight about the fight, and seem to not be speaking the same language, and lapse out of anger and into mutual frustration and bafflement that the other person seems to be talking about an entirely different chain of events. There is a reason that empathy and mercy and conflict resolution are all hard-won and easily-lost skills. That might be all that’s going on here too. But in a way that’s difficult to describe, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like either I am being manipulated in a bizarre and out-of-character way by the person who I’m fighting with, or like I am, despite my sense that the situation is very straightforward, actually incredibly confused about what’s going on. The person I’m arguing with has started to say things like, “This feels weird” and “this feels different”, and that they don’t understand, or can’t follow what I’m talking about. That could be a sign that something’s wrong. It’s very, very hard to tell from inside of your own head.

I do worry about being manipulated. Not so much by this person, but in general. It’s happened before, with other people, and I’m sure it will happen again. That isn’t unusual. Other people, even well-intentioned people, will manipulate you because that’s often easier than admitting fault, or not getting what they want. One form of manipulation is what the woke liberal arts world calls “gaslighting”: in short, if you’re familiar, it’s when another person insists so strongly that your memories of what happened in some situation, or even your sense of what’s happening now, that you begin to believe you must be wrong, and if you’re wrong, despite your mind and senses telling you otherwise, then you must be crazy. It’s “Who are you going to believe: me or your lying eyes?”, applied so skillfully that you wind up believing that your eyes are lying. In general, gaslighting discourse can be a little silly—it’s come, in some circles, to mean any time that anybody tells somebody that they’re actually wrong, and I worry sometimes that there’s a point where “my truth is my truth” becomes an alibi for never admitting fault or failure. But the core idea behind “gaslighting” refers to a real phenomenon. Sometimes somebody is trying to get you to stop believing your lying eyes.

The trouble for me is that my eyes are frequently lying. I have a mood disorder. I have a psychotic disorder. The most basic symptoms of those disorders are that I feel things that are not reasonable or justified, and I believe things that are distorted and untrue, and I cannot always tell when that’s happening: it all feels entirely sane and reasonable to me. The idea that gasligthing is a form of manipulation is predicated on the idea that at least most of the time, if you’re very certain about what’s going on, then you’re probably right, and the person insisting you’re wrong—contrary to the evidence of your own heart—is probably trying to pull one over on you. But that’s not necessarily true for me. When somebody tells me that I’m confused, or overreacting, or imagining things, then there’s a decent chance that I am. Is it still gaslighting if you’re actually crazy?

One of the worst and least discussed features of insanity is that below the illness, you’re still an ordinary person with ordinary emotions and perceptions. Yes, you have clinical depression, but sometimes you’re also just sad for reasons that would make anybody sad. Yes, you’re given to manic bursts of energy, but sometimes you’re just in a good mood. Yes, you can get paranoid. But it’s possible that somebody really is watching you. Anybody who has ever been open with their friends or families about their illness is familiar with this dilemma. It’s wonderful to have somebody be understanding when you’re depressed and can’t help it. It’s less wonderful when anytime you’re sad at all, other people attribute it to your depression, and refuse to consider that you might actually have good reason to be sad. It may not be gaslighting if you’re actually crazy. But even a crazy person can be gaslit. The fact that I have to be open to the possibility that I’m not perceiving reality in an accurate way, that my moods, true as they feel to me, might be disordered; that I might, in short, actually be acting crazy makes me worry that I am particularly susceptible to this kind of manipulation. If I’m actually in the right, and actually being reasonable, but somebody who I’m fighting with tells me that I’m nuts, then they know that I’ll probably believe it. They might be right, after all. How would I know? From in here, it all feels the same. But it’s important to know. If I’m being manipulated, I want to know that. But if I’m not, and I really am in the middle of something, I need to know that too. I have destroyed relationships and ruined friendships and hurt people because I was totally unable to see that what felt true and real to me was actually delusion and that my reactions were completely out of line. I wish, in those cases, that somebody had told me that I was acting crazy, and that I’d believed them. But I’ve also been taken advantage of, and treated poorly, and abused by people who knew that I get confused too easily, and who told me that I was crazy to object. I believed them too, and I wish that I hadn’t. It’s so incredibly hard to tell.

I’m going to try to sleep for a long time, but if I still feel wrong tomorrow, then I suppose I’ll find a doctor somewhere here in California. Or I’ll call my doctor back in Iowa. I suppose that’s the fallback plan for all of this. The doctor, at least, can tell you when you’re being a mental hypochondriac, and when something really is going wrong.