It is said that ideas have the potential to grow in our minds until they appear as truth. They linger for such a length of time that they grow bigger and stronger, fill our consciousness, and in the more extreme circumstances, become something terrifying enough to destroy one’s sense of self.
So when I awoke on a Saturday morning almost six years ago, mind racing and connecting ideas that had floated around in my consciousness for years, I was convinced that I had discovered some great secret: the truth about consciousness, perception, reality, and the self. I had discovered how they worked together, and I was the only person on the planet who knew it.
That was in the beginning of September 2009, but it’s worth going back to when the problems began in February of 2001, halfway through my 8th grade year. I awoke in the middle of the night, my mind racing, one thought streaming into another. I was raised in a rigid, highly religious family, in an even more rigid and religious community. There was a certain way to think and act, and if you didn’t adhere to it, well, those were the terrors that were crossing my mind. What would happen if I suddenly turned gay, plainly effeminate and everyone could see what I was? My friends would abandon me. My family would disown me. Then another terrifying thought: what if I grew suicidal? I would go to hell and my friends and family would think of me as cowardly after my death. What if I turned evil, a hidden, violent part of me that would suddenly take over my personality and dictate my actions? I would be one of those killers always profiled on T.V., and I would go to jail and be thought of as a monster. And the thoughts went round and round. Either way, suicidal, gay, or violent, I would be all alone.
At the time, there was no way to make sense of these thoughts. I was 14 and not-so-comfortable in my own skin. I hadn’t formed a solid sense of identity. The scarier the thoughts though, the more truthful they seemed to become. From my journal entries at the time, I wrote that “sometimes I can keep the thoughts out of my mind, just don’t ask any questions” but other times, I would express concern that aliens were “getting in my head,” before adding “At first it seems far-fetched, but the more you think how possible it is the more it seems true, even though it really isn’t true.” I kept a small notebook where I would write down the fear and then attempt to reason through it. If one was to look at this notebook, they would have deduced that I feared the worst possibility of every aspect of life, real and unreal. Everything was uncertain, an abyss I couldn’t escape. Although this suggests that my mental state wasn’t in a great place, it was that awareness of not being right, deep down, that probably kept me together.
Then there were the drastic mood changes. My thoughts would race and I would talk faster to friends, be highly optimistic, and then experience a crash. Every facet of my life, most of all myself, would take on a highly negative aspect. A voice in my head would endlessly remind me of my weaknesses, and it would dig at my flaws, real or imaginary. So what choice did I have but to withdraw? I knew something was wrong with me and the only way to keep others from finding out was to stay away. I became less social which I had never had issues with before. I limited my contact with friends, despite the fact that they seemed to not notice anything. I was a master disguiser of secrets, and as I was to learn, secrets lead to extreme loneliness. This silent suffering went on for two years, but in the middle of my sophomore year of high school, things changed.
One benefit to punishing myself for years is that it led to increased self-knowledge. I had been forced to work through the inner accusations, and recognize that I wasn’t some killer, that I didn’t have some monster inside of me waiting to take over. I recognized fellow sufferers in the characters I encountered in fiction. Holden Caulfield’s mood swings in The Catcher in the Rye confirmed that I wasn’t the only one who could go from happy to depressed from one moment to the next because of a single piece of stimuli. Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar confirmed that I wasn’t the only person with that accusing, abusive inner voice, following me around wherever I went. I felt less alone, and as a result, regained my sociability that I hadn’t enjoyed in years. I thought my pains were over, but unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.
Back to September 2009, two days before I began my senior year of college. I had been diagnosed as bipolar by a psychiatrist whom I had secretly seen when I had transferred schools one year before. My thoughts had begun racing again at unusual times, and they took an increasingly more abstract and metaphysical form. The psychiatrist prescribed a mood stabilizer, but a girl I was dating said it “will make you feel like a zombie.” Although I had the pills, I never took a single one. It’s difficult to say whether taking the medication would have prevented the episode, but something tells me it was due to happen anyway. I just didn’t know it at the time.
I awoke early in the morning, but unlike in the 8th grade, this time I seamlessly slipped into a delusion that my mind, which had always been able to catch these sorts of things before, failed me then. I didn’t give it a second thought. Abstract, metaphysical thoughts connected together, and in my disorganized, manic mind, made perfect sense. I had finally discovered the “secret” to existence, to consciousness, to self. And it was exhilarating!
I told everyone my theories. It was the annihilation of the self; that was how one could reach true transcendence. Consciousness could extend forever: Outside of the body, amongst the trees and sky and universe. One needed to negate the emotions and sense of self to achieve clarity of consciousness and the awareness of ultimate reality. And I was the only one who could see the reality. Everyone else was weak. They pulled ideas from the world to suit their own self-view. They shaped others, twisted and manipulated words and feelings to protect themselves from the true reality of themselves. It was the self that was to blame—that weak, inferior, fearful self that had followed me around for so long. If I could only eradicate it, then I could finally be free.
For the first part of the following week, I walked around in a haze of philosophical thought. It was sad that people didn’t know true reality, that they were afraid of it, that I was the only one who could survive the truth of myself. But there was dullness to it as well. I had finally discovered the truth, what was there to be uncertain about now?
It became terrifying on Wednesday, four days after I became ensnared by the barbed hook of a psychosis. I was in the school cafeteria with friends, my mind ruminating over secrets and my own importance: then it hit me. If I destroyed myself, I might not be able to make it back. I would disintegrate into nothingness, be part of everything. I envisioned myself as a god figure, and it scared me. I would be all alone with my unique power.
I drove to the nearest grocery store. Then another terrifying thought. I held a secret, a great secret, and it had the potential to destroy other people, to cause the end of the world. Their minds would never be able to take the truth of themselves. I held the secret that would cause the apocalypse. At this thought, I felt my mind bend. It was a physical and mental sensation, and I dropped to one knee. People watched as I mumbled to myself. “Structures,” I said aloud, gripping my head. “The world exists according to structures, layered on top of each other. Know these structures and remain human.” My notebook was with me, and I walked around the store, writing objections to the terrors that were going on in my head. Despite the visceral craziness I felt in those moments, I believe that notebook, full of unintelligible nonsense, was probably keeping my mind intact, my thoughts from complete disorder. My mind had already bent, and it was slowly slipping away.
The next day I found a philosophy professor and told him I had found the secret to consciousness and perception. In his office, he listened calmly to my rambling, and said he didn’t quite understand. If I could draw some kind of diagram to show it, then maybe he could make sense of my thoughts. He recommended philosophers to look over—Sartre, Camus, Schopenhauer. I went back the next day with pages of disorganized notes. He glanced through them, but said little. I told him that I had overlooked the emotions, that we needed the emotions to remain human. I remember leaving his office feeling disappointed.
Then it was Saturday, one week after it began. I was meeting my family on the Washington coast. My older sister had picked me up and I hadn’t slept the night before, instead had been scribbling in my notebook—crossing out portions, declaring myself as stupid because I was overlooking the true nature of my discoveries. My mind kept going faster, jumping from one half-formed idea to the next. I was able to act normally at first, walk the beach with my family, but my thoughts were continuing in their terrifying fashion. The end of the world was upon us, because of me. I needed to take a nap. I bought Nyquil, and lay down in my dad’s trailer. Of course, Nyquil doesn’t slow down a manic brain. My older sister eventually checked on me and asked if I was alright. I began to cry.
I told her I had discovered a secret that could hurt people—the line between our individual perception and true reality. Consciousness could extend forever if the self was eradicated. We couldn’t escape the reality of our own selves. My dad soon joined us, and I explained the same thing to him. He thought I was on drugs. Finally, that part of me that had saved me for years sent up its warning flag. I needed to go to the hospital, and my sister promptly agreed. Never had I been more uncertain.
I rode in the car with my father for the two hours it took to arrive at the nearest hospital, babbling all the way. However, babbling did keep my equilibrium intact. My mind felt slippery when I kept quiet. It was only when I spoke my thoughts out loud that my mind felt sturdy.
At the hospital, I slept for 2 ½ heavily medicated days. I have vague memories of speaking to a social worker, telling her I had lost all sense of self. A grandmotherly type, she told me that I was a smart kid who would figure things out. I was released after four days, loaded with heavy doses of anti-psychotics.
My psychiatrist also worked with the school, and she exchanged notes with the therapist, trying to come to a diagnoses. My diagnoses fluctuated between bipolar 1, to schizoaffective (a mixture of schizophrenia and bipolar that my psychiatrist told me was better than just schizophrenia), and once, to my horror, schizophrenia. I told her that I needed to know—not knowing was killing me. Would this rule my life? I had read that certain people were in and out of hospitals throughout their lives, one delusion after another, even with medication. Their entire lives were shaped, defined, by their illness.
I had panic attacks often. In a movie theater, in a car, at a family get-together. Any situation where I was in a room full of people, and I knew a departure would draw heavy notice. I kept a baggy of anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety medications inside my wallet “just in case.” And I went to this baggy often.
The uncertainty was eating me alive. I was constantly afraid it would happen again. I couldn’t make sense of what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. I would go into week long periods of depression, drinking myself to sleep with cheap wine and clonazepam.
It took me a year to recover from the psychosis, and in retrospect, I recognize that it took several months before I had fully exited it. There were several instances where I had almost slipped into a delusion again, but as it was, I didn’t. I still wonder about when I felt my mind bend. What happens when the mind bends too much and finally breaks? There is no way to ever know, and I accept that.
As painful as it was, I gained self-knowledge I had never possessed before. I had spent a majority of my teenage years and into my twenties looking for truth, some certainty I could cling to and call my own. But the truth can be hard to pin down. Sometimes the truth doesn’t necessarily exist at all or at least, isn’t worth looking for. Not every feeling or thought we have should be broken down and analysed. Our existence forces us into inescapable uncertainty, but it doesn’t have to be a burden. Instead of searching for some great secret, some question to be answered, I had to accept that there may not be an answer.
There is always the possibility that I might have another psychotic episode. I may again depart from reality. There are no signs of it now, and there hasn’t been for some time. But there is that possibility. One fact I’ve learned with my illness is that by embracing that abyss of uncertainty, we can accept the elements outside our control, and learn to live without being afraid of that unknown part of ourselves.