Woke up this morning to one of my sisters having an emotional moment over a class discussion of psychosis. She was really disturbed to find that the whole discussion centered around violence, with the teacher reinforcing the idea that people experiencing psychosis are unsafe, dangerous, likely to harm others.
Like I know that to some extent, talking about my own experience of psychosis makes people really uncomfortable. Most of the time I won’t use clinical terms like psychosis, delusion, etc because it does not feel accurate to what happened in my mind. When I do describe that instance as a mental health crisis, I do it for this reason — so that anyone who really hears me will have a chance to learn that public perception of psychosis is largely incorrect. That’s why I’m so open about it in the first place. It’s a big part of why I wrote Love & Semiotics.
I mean literally everyone has seen a headline about a person who Went Crazy and killed someone. It’s become this very convenient scapegoat for acts of violence that may have roots that are more difficult to face. “You’d have to be seriously disturbed to take human lives this way” — or, you know, hate crimes exist. But we keep trying to paint the Dylan Roofs and Elliot Rodgers of the world as bonkers because really looking at the racism and misogyny of our culture is not comfortable. It’s easier to say that you’ve gotta have a broken brain to do something like that.
Because this gets reinforced in every aspect of culture that relates to extreme states like psychosis. People with a different relationship to reality are constantly used as killer characters in fiction. At one point, Mychal and I tried to make a list of all media with schizophrenic characters that are portrayed as human, complex, nonviolent. We came up with only one example. This is a spectrum, of course — some movies etc get closer to the truth, but with psychotic people often being killed with abandon simply because nobody gets what it’s like unless they’re on the inside, closer doesn’t cut it anymore.
So maybe you want to know the truth, maybe you are a cool woke person who doesn’t conflate Shyamalan films with reality? OK, then I’ll tell you.
One of the defining characteristics of psychosis is fear. The idea of a total break from reality is absurd, we still see and hear and touch the world around us. But at the same time, you have these things that you Know. The thing about delusion is that you cannot fight it off by denying it. It sweeps you away and pushes all other truth to justify itself or become irrelevant. It is so strong and perfect in its certainty that the rest of reality has no choice but to mold itself around the unreal. My main thing when I was in it was the idea that I was finding secret messages everywhere. Like that scene in A Beautiful Mind where John Nash believes he’s breaking codes for the government? That’s somewhat accurate (but don’t get me started on how bad that movie is).
I would be reading a book and it was like the book I was reading had a second meaning hidden underneath the text. I could read a page, find the second meaning, it made total sense given the words on the page, and I’d try to talk about it and get blank stares. Or hey, that isn’t real. It’s not real. But in those moments, the absolute, vital, profound truth was that I had stumbled on this vast thing, and so the rest of reality had to bow down. Clearly if this other person doesn’t understand the messages, that must mean that I either have special abilities, I am a genius, or my apartment is haunted by the novelist’s ghost, right? These are the only options, because the messages are real, they’re right in front of my eyes, they connect, nothing has ever been this real before. And reality bows down.
But you get enough people telling you it isn’t real, you see the way they look at you, and maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of how your eyes look, and the fear sets in. Because look; these are not circumstances with low stakes. I saw visions of suicide triggers embedded in viral videos, infections of evil in every piece of media, the inescapability of Darkness, the world coming to an end. And reality bows down. How can someone live in that world? They can’t. So obviously I have to learn to time travel. If nobody will listen, if I’m the only one who can see that this is happening, obviously everyone around me has been programmed to the point of sedation.
It’s terrifying, yo. And oh my god, these robots are some of the strongest and smartest people I know, so that means that eventually there might be something that reprograms me, so obviously I need to stay away from any media created before, like, the 1900s. Classical music it is! I listened to a lot of Vivaldi during that time. And the fear sets in. I knew with total certainty that unless I figured out how to time travel and fix things, I was going to watch every person I’d ever loved as they died. I was terrified of like, seeing a candy bar commercial and being triggered to kill my father because I looked up the word “patricide” once. I tried to isolate myself, because I never wanted to hurt anyone, I would have rather died than hurt anyone, and Knowing that the next few weeks would involve more death and blood and pain than anything you can conceive of…I was a wreck. Just terrified all the time. Hiding and weeping and shaking.
Reality shifts and bends. Truth becomes fluid, what’s True is what’s Real, or is it the other way around? If I wear a hat, it will protect me from Them seeing my thoughts. Twenty minutes later: if I wear a hat, it is a marker, which signals to Them that my thoughts are accessible. Take the hat off. Wait, I have something I want Them to know. Put it back on. Take it off. But now I’m unprotected. Hat on. Hat off. Rinse, repeat.
These examples may not make a lot of sense on the surface. What I’m trying to say is: it is the scariest thing, you can’t fight it, it is Real.
I never felt the urge to hurt anyone. Ever. I was horrified anytime the thought occurred that I might be told to do that. Because the violent psychotic person image was told to me too. I cried for hours thinking that I’d be commanded to harm a human. I called my mom one day and sobbed on the phone saying that if I appeared to have killed myself, it was that I was murdered. I swore I would never kill myself. I never will. It’s off limits.
But reality bows down and the fear sets in. Once I came out of it, I had a year of terror, wondering in random moments how much of it was Real, if I’d died in my bed during that point where I blacked out, if I had damned myself somehow, if They had only backed off as another test and at some point I’d be back under the black sea. If I was the only thing holding reality together. If objective reality is a lie and we’re all in the God-Matrix and every person I love is just a projection of my mind. Because if none of that was real, if the realest real, the truest true was neither real nor true, what did I have left to hold onto? I spent that whole year afraid. Some of you knew me then, you remember me falling apart in conversation, you remember the fear.
Time doesn’t exist according to the Rules, but it does heal. It’s been four years and I don’t get afraid like I did anymore. Now the fear is different. Now the terrifying thing is, if I trust people with this knowledge about that time, even if words existed that could accurately show what it was that happened, even if I could entirely pin down what happened, god, you tell people this stuff and watch their eyes change as they do the math on exactly what are the odds that you’re gonna snap again and this time you’ll show up at their door with a sharp object. Because psychosis is violence as far as public perception goes, and as long as I’m open about that, there’s always gonna be a certain measure of being marked as crazy, dangerous, this unknown factor.
And this summer two people I love had similar experiences and I watched as they were quarantined and chemically lobotomized, and I saw the fear in them as they tried to piece together what Real is, and if Real even exists, and I never felt at risk. Because I know. I know that the reason your eyes look different when you’re psychotic is that you’re seeing into a different dimension and that requires a totally different kind of focus. I know that when you steal a sheet of patient photos from the nurses’ station it’s because it deeply bothers you that y’all are under observation. You just want to protect all of us who can’t see the danger. You’re afraid, you’re so afraid because you see the flames that everyone else denies, and it’s an incredibly heavy burden to carry, because you know that if anyone is gonna survive this, it’ll be because you personally carried them to safety.
A few weeks ago a completely innocuous bar conversation about TV led to a stranger with a gift for knowing the right questions getting a really rough outline of that time in my life and I felt that fear again, like how am I being perceived, and usually I try to dismiss it, but I got this flash of the fear I felt when I was half a continent away from my friend and someone called the cops on him while he was “out of touch with reality” and I just had this blind panic because cops kill my people all the time. Because y’all think we’re killers, that getting reality kind of scrambled automatically unlocks some kind of primal craving for violence.
I need you to know that you’re wrong. That what healthcare providers are being taught is wrong. That the truth is a person experiencing psychosis is far more likely to kill themselves than someone else. The fear is so overwhelming, guys. You’ve never felt existential horror like this, ever. And it feels like forever, and nobody understands, and everyone you’re trying to save just sees you as a threat. Suicide looks like a good exit strategy when faced with the idea that you might never come back from the fear. The professionals I saw during that time were a joke. None of them had any idea how to communicate through the fear and the darkness. They repeatedly asked, in different ways, if the people in my life were safe from me. My safety was not a factor.
I’m telling you all this because if you believe me, if you know me and see this newfound stability I’ve achieved, I need you to help out a little and start telling people to go fuck themselves when a new mass shooter gets a postmortem diagnosis and someone clicks their tongue and asks how insane do you have to be to take human lives this way? I need you to see through the bullshit of Criminal Minds and CSI. I need you to recognize that states like this are complex states of being, and what we’re treating as a fast track to mass murder can be one of the most profoundly healing experiences a human being can have. I would be dead if those books hadn’t started speaking back. I can say that with total certainty.
I need you to know better and to help other people know better as well, because it’s not like what you see in newspapers and on TV. I’ll swallow whatever you think of me personally, I know at this point I’m a total mad pride loudmouth who’s maybe got a bit too much of a bug about drug treatment. I don’t care if you don’t like me, find me abrasive and uncomfortable. But fuck you, teacher in my sister’s class, I was never violent, and all the people I’ve known who have had experience with psychosis would be horrified at the idea of harming someone, especially in that state. Hashtag burn the goddamn stigma to the ground, or whatever. My sis had to walk out of class because she was so upset about the discussion she heard. I’m asking, since you’ve got less of a dog in this race, even if you just speak up quietly and mention you know this one person and their experience was nothing like that, if you can find that courage, it would be nice.
Who knows, maybe once we quit blaming the crazies for all this violence, we can start getting to the roots of why people actually kill each other, and maybe we’ll live in a better world.

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