I’ve spent the better part of the last week driving, from my apartment in eastern Iowa to my family’s house in California. I brought my cat with me, in a carrier on the passenger seat, but he isn’t very good conversation, and after after a few hours of protest on the first day, he spent most of the trip napping anyway. So I’ve spent the better part of the last week entirely alone.
I think of myself as the sort of person who prefers to be alone. I suspect most people who know me think of me as a loner too. I’m not social, or charming, or particularly fun; I have no conversational skill, or energy, and usually can’t even make eye-contact, even with people I know. When I do go out—to a bar, let’s say—I usually sit and keep to myself. I don’t speak unless spoken too, most days. At the very least, I feel less anxious by myself. Even on a good day, a group of more than a few people tends to send me into sensory overload. I talk too much, and too circuitously, with unclear associative leaps. Or, I get quiet. I let long silences linger without noticing that they’re there. I stop hearing other people. On rare and particularly bad days, I forget how to speak. I think most people just interpret all this as rude. He isn’t listening, he isn’t interested, he’s so bored he just stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and has been totally silent for like, five minutes already. Wait, now he’s going on about—what is he talking about? What does that have to do with anything? My cat isn’t a good conversationalist, but when I talk to him, at least, he doesn’t mind if I just stop.
Given all of this, I’ve wondered why it is that I’m rarely alone. Why I can’t be by myself in my apartment for more than few hours without getting restless and going out. Why I’m a relentless sender-of-texts and maker-of-plans, even with people I don’t particularly want to see and have no particular idea of what to do with. Why I go out, often by myself, nearly every day, just to sit anywhere with people. Like I said, it’s not that I’m going out to mix and talk and party. I just want the movement and the murmur and the white noise. No need for me to talk, just an opportunity to not-even-quite-listen.
Part of this is habit. It’s difficult to track, particularly in retrospect, when any given delusion began, or to remember every period when I believed it, and every period when it was in remission, but beginning perhaps during my last year of high school, and certainly persisting through much of college and the few years after, I believed that my thoughts were not my own. This is a fairly common delusion, although the details—are people sending thoughts into your brain? Are you reading other people’s minds? Are you dead, or an alien, or a robot, or in the Matrix?—tend to vary. In my case, I think that I believed that I was in some way a projection of the collective unconscious of everybody around me. An “intrasubjective hallucination” everybody was imagining together. I used to tell people this, although it was usually taken as a joke. But I believed, on a gut level, that I was made out of a little bit of input from everybody who could see me; the closer you were, or the better you knew me, the more influence your subconscious had on the kinds of thoughts I had, and on what kind of person I was. Years later, a therapist suggested that this was probably my baseline delusion: everything else I sometimes believed during far rarer and more acute periods of mania or psychosis (that I was Elijah, that I was dead, that the Holy Ghost lived in my body and was trying to kill me), was—if you accept the murky and incoherent logic of delusional thinking—a kind of elaboration on the mundane “there’s no barrier between my brain and all the other brains; they can read my thoughts, I can read their thoughts, all our thoughts are the same thoughts” premise which appears so often in schizoaffective and schizophrenic patients.
This delusion wasn’t particularly frightening, at least not most of the time, but there was one way that it could get scary: the fewer people I spoke to in a day, or the longer I was isolated, or entirely alone, the more likely it was that I could start to decohere. To flicker in and out of being. To not be able to remember what was going on, or form coherent trains of thought, or listen, or speak. I think it was a way to explain some of my negative symptomology to myself. But in either case, I spent years trying to physically put myself in as many places and situations as I could to receive a steady diet of mind-forming input from real people. And so I started going out all of the time. And meeting up with friends if I could. Or strangers if I couldn’t. Or, if all else failed, sitting in a restaurant or park or bar alone. The delusion is long gone, but the habit—and the irrational, vague anxiety which begins to form if I’m alone too long—remain.
I am telling you this because I don’t think it’s precisely right when I say “the delusion is gone”, but I’m not quite sure what would be accurate. It’s not that I still believe it. I know that I have my own brain and thoughts and mind. But what they don’t tell you, even about successful treatment, is that your symptoms don’t stop. It’s just that they lessen, and you gain a sort of detachment from them: you see them floating up, or affecting your behavior, but they feel far away and weaker. You don’t forget that these are delusions the way you do when you’re sick; if asked, you’d say, “yeah, it’s just some mild psychotic symptoms, nothing too serious.” But they’re still there.
I don’t think this odd liminal experience is exclusive to psychotic symptoms; mood episodes can present this way too, distant and muted but there. Just two days ago, a straightforwardly bipolar friend in California brought the feeling up in conversation. “Isn’t it weird when you’re like, you are manic, but you’re medicated, so, you’re kind of not? But you are?”, she said. Yeah, I said. Is there a word for that? We couldn’t think of one. It’s a strange and difficult experience to describe. There is, at any rate, not much use in having a word for it. From a practical standpoint, the idea is just that great, now you can recognize symptoms bubbling up before they take over or get too bad or fool you. Stop. Take a deep breath. Do a reality-check and perception inventory. Try cognitive diffusion. Get some sleep. If it feels like things are slipping out of your control, call the doctor.
During the second day of my drive, somewhere in Utah, I started to worry that I was coming apart. I didn’t have enough thoughts coming in. There wasn’t enough material to form a full projection of other minds. I knew this wasn’t true. I knew, in that strange a-symptom-you-know-is-a-symptom way, that this was a bad thought and I should remind myself that any fear or anxiety I might be experiencing was silly, and I should go back to focusing on the road. But that night, I reached Las Vegas, and I spent a few hours just walking around the Strip, filling up on all the bickering, murmuring energy of all the people thinking there. I hate the Strip. It’s loud and gross and dull and stressful and vulgar. But I stayed for a long time, knowing all along that what I was doing was silly, but doing it anyway, until I felt satisfied and I went home.
I’m good at saying “it’s a delusion”. I’m good at saying, “I suffer from a psychotic disorder”, or “I’m schizoaffective”, or “I have a severe form of mental illness.” I’m good at knowing these things too. But I don’t think that I believe it. Gut check, deep down, what-does-my-heart-tell-me, what-feels-true-in-my-bones? That it all was true, when it was. That it’s not true now. That I didn’t change. The world did. I used to live in a reality where I was just the amalgam of other people’s thoughts and dreams and fears, where I was just a fantasy that all of them were having from time to time, where all of this had something to do with God. And then, several months after I turned twenty-four years old, I found myself in a reality where I am just an ordinary person. Where it would be delusional to believe those things now. Where it’s unclear how, precisely, I passed over, from that old world into this one, and where I don’t think anybody else came over with me, and where nobody but me remembers all the years in that old world at all. Where I’m alone.