Do You Think It’s Real? Responding to Alternate Realities


Everyone has beliefs that seem too bizarre, illogical, or fantastic to someone else to accept. Religious views, paranormal interpretations, political convictions, interpersonal conflicts — all can put us in a category where other people consider what we think to be incomprehensible. Just spend time with someone from a different culture than yours, and you are likely to encounter things that don’t make any sense to you at all, yet the other person is living with them as if they were true.

We’ve learned to co-exist with different beliefs as one of our most cherished values of tolerance in a multicultural society. That lesson can be key for encountering the different realities in situations where someone is being called psychotic, delusional, schizophrenic or mentally ill. Respect and support may stretch our thinking, but can be vital to recovery. Cross-culturally, we accept that even the most strange or unfamiliar belief has value, meaning, and purpose in the person’s life. We give it the benefit of the doubt. The same is true of bizarre beliefs that get called psychosis. And using diagnostic language instead can amount to the same kind of put-down that goes with cultural supremacy and racist insult.

Arguing to convince someone to change their belief rarely works under the best of circumstances. And it rarely works in times of high stress, conflict, and desperation — when someone is in extreme emotional suffering and their belief might be a part of them defending themselves. Pushing someone to change their belief, especially in the context of power differences and a history of argument and struggle, can just inflame a situation and drive people into greater isolation. Families and mental health professionals commonly forget this, undermining the relationships of support that are so crucial to recovery.

We forget this partly because of the ideology of mental illness as brain disorder. Strange beliefs, we are told, are symptoms of mental illness, nothing more and nothing less. Broken brain computation. But the biological ideology is only part of why we challenge strange beliefs. We also have common sense experiences of strange beliefs turning out to not be real. When people are feverish or intoxicated, for example, or distraught after a breakup or betrayal, they may start to believe something very unlikely or strange. Extreme sadness can color our thinking so that we start to believe very dire, and untrue, things about reality. We then reasonably expect the belief to pass and we can be confident in our insistence it isn’t real.  And people often do want to be reassured about reality being “real,” that the feverish vision is a result of their high temperature, the rage they feel is from the wine they just drank, their suspicion is just a sign they are upset at ending their relationship, and their predictions of failing at work are just signs they are depressed. We often appreciate challenges to our mistaken ideas from people we trust. When someone is afraid and emotional, they can start to conjure impossible realities, and having a friend dispell those beliefs and get us back in reality is often a very useful way to respond.

But not always. I do sometimes work with people through “reality checking,” and I have even said “Is that real, or is that part of your altered state? Might this belief change later?” to people. But only if that kind of questioning is useful to the person. In my own life I might have a worry or fear, and want my friend to say “Will, that’s just not true.” It can be enormously relieving – sometimes. Other times, someone challenging my reality is the worst thing they can do. It all depends on what kind of internal dialogue I might be having, what kind of needs I have, and the power of the emotions caught up in the belief. And if you get it wrong I am generally going to let you know pretty quickly, and our friendship then requires you to listen and respond in a new way.

Generally I don’t challenge a person unless they are themselves in a dialogue of challenging themselves. I’ll help them explore both sides – but crucially I will suspend my own judgment, helping them discover their own belief and the best way for others to engage with them. Through getting to know the person I learn what is helpful to them.

Typically people I work with have strange beliefs held strongly because they have so often been challenged by the very people they need support from. A common scenario in family counseling is to explore the possibility of accepting, rather than challenging, the belief. I often ask “how is it going to tell your son he is delusional? Is that effective?” If it isn’t, it is time to look at other approaches. And a belief held 99% can quickly become a rigid 100% belief when it is under attack – stopping the challenge may paradoxically make someone more open to change.

Telling someone they are mentally ill is one of the most extreme kinds of challenges imaginable, because it essentially says the person’s belief system — and their very act of thinking — should be completely discounted and ignored. This is why it is often so vitally important to drop the effort to convince someone they are mentally ill — not just because the science isn’t solid behind the biological and diagnostic model, but because dropping the challenge helps defuse the power struggle between who is right and who is wrong. It establishes mutuality of respect for different views, which is the foundation of any true relationship.

But what if the belief is just too strange to be true? Defies logic and reason and even the laws of physics? Personally I may have an advantage in these situations, because I have experienced some pretty strange things, and as a result I have a very spiritual perspective on what is “real.” Demons, telepathy, synchronistic time travel messages — my world has visited alternate realities. When someone tells me about theirs, I can relate. I may say “I didn’t witness this, but I believe it is possible,” and I feel very comfortable saying this, because I know that reality — or multiple realities — are much stranger than things might seem. I’ve experienced that truth myself.

Often it is possible to find some parallel experience to help people relate. A good question to help defuse conflict is to ask, “Was there ever a time in your own life when everyone around you didn’t believe something vitally important to you? Do you think this might be parallel to what is happening to the person you want to support?” “Were you ever hurt terribly – and have the pain become even worse because people didn’t believe you?”

I also often encourage people to listen to the feelings and emotions around a belief. Someone who has survived violence wants to be believed because they want to be accepted and supported emotionally. They want to not be alone with their terror. Sometimes it can be very useful to set aside any doubts or challenge and instead focus on the emotional need for support, connection, and validation. If someone asks if you believe them, you can say you know their experience is real because you can see how it affects them, how hurt they are. You can acknowledge that you were not there and can’t be a witness, but at the same time you are a witness the reality of their suffering. And you can ask them what they are experiencing now, and tell them that you believe 100% that it is real – because you trust they are not lying and you know that whatever they are experiencing is real. You might not know how to interpret it, but you know it is real, because they experience it happening to them.

The logic, objectivity, and debates about what is “real” generally start to have less and less importance once a relation of support, respect, and listening is established. The issue of “reality” is put in a different light. The real focus can be on the person’s life, their needs, and their experience of suffering – not whether they are in touch with “reality” or not. People can get on with relating with each other, and move beyond the narrow power struggle. Scientists and philosophers have been debating for millennia what is reality: there is no need to answer that question now. Instead we can focus on caring for each other.

My colleague Tim Dreby is a living example of this different approach to alternate realities. Parallel to the Hearing Voices Movement Tim developed his own methods that I find deeply inspiring. His personal ‘messages crisis’ is an extraordinary story that would make a great Hollywood film, full of intrigue and drama. Today he works with people in support groups and private practice by sharing his own experiences and how he manages them, and comparing with what others have been through.

I just interviewed Tim for Madness Radio, and you can listen to our show here — it’s free, so please support Madness Radio by leaving a comment and spreading the link:

Special Message from Tim Dreby | Madness Radio

What if coded messages, covert realities, and elaborate plots can be seen only by you? Does that mean you are out of touch with reality — “paranoid” and “psychotic?” Or could it be true that you really are a target – but you are so upset that everyone thinks you are the problem instead?

Tim Dreby, a psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area and author of an upcoming memoir, is a survivor of a schizophrenia diagnosis who endured a life threatening — and real — encounter with gangsters, police, and political conspiracy. Today he leads support groups for people facing overwhelming intuitions, coded messages, and mind control, helping them regain control and heal from trauma.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Very interesting topic and article on this last day of the year. I think how we react and respond to each other’s own personal reality is key to our universal sense of compassion, healthy boundaries, and personal freedom.

    We all have different goals and processes, so I imagine we all have our own unique blend of foci, beliefs, and perspectives as we journey through life. This would make up each of our highly diverse realities, from our subjective experience and the conclusions we draw as we go along–shifting over time for some, and for others, perhaps not. To me, that is neutral; who is to judge one reality over another?

    As far as how we address each other and interact, I would say that the level of respect, honesty, and self-ownership we each display toward each other would proportionately impact the well-being of the community at large, and therefore, make its individual members feel safe, valued, and unconditionally supported. I believe this is the bar we are looking to raise.

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  2. Absolutely terrific article. I was so mean when I was a kid cuz I told some neighborhood pals that Santa wasn’t real. I told them that I am a Jew and we don’t have Christmas or Santa at all. Santa wasn’t real to me. They told me what they’d learned, that Jews killed their Jesus and I was a very bad girl. I went home feeling rather confused.

    Each society has its own mythology. In “eating disorders treatment” we are told that if we don’t get rid of our bathroom scales we’ll never “recover.” We’re told the only acceptable exercise for the rest of our lives is “gentle yoga.” We’re told that the only answer to ED is to be a slave for the rest of our lives to forced “blind” weigh-ins, meal plans, three or four obligatory appointments per week where we are bullied regularly and threatened over our weight. Thus, unusual beliefs are formed and this might be why these vulnerable young people can only exist socially within that sphere. Outside of it, none of that belief structure exists.

    Thanks again Will,

    Julie Greene

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  3. Hi Will
    This is fantastic, I didn’t get it exactly till I listened to the radio description. All the parts seemed to come together.

    I was quickly into anxious preoccupation when I came off strong psychiatric drugs myself. Everything seemed okay though if I detached (when a person is terrified detaching is not easy).

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  4. ” If someone asks if you believe them, you can say you know their experience is real because you can see how it affects them, how emotionally hurt they are. You can acknowledge that you were not there and can’t be a witness, but you do witness the reality of their suffering. And you can ask them what they are experiencing now, and tell them that you believe 100% that it is real – because you trust they are not lying and you know that whatever they are experiencing is real. You might not know how to interpret it, but you know it is real.”

    This sounds like word dance bullshit to me, but if I know the person has had some of the same alternate reality experiences as I have, I might trust them.

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  5. “We’ve learned to co-exist with different beliefs as one of our most cherished values of tolerance in a multicultural society. ”

    Oh how I wish this were true. Still, you did say you had struggled with reality yourself later in the article Will lol.

    Non compliance with the collective moral values of our mainly white Christian public sector will get you detained and brain damaged where I live. Still, I live in hope.

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    • Thanks, Will, interesting topic.


      “Compliance with the collective moral values of our mainly white Christian public sector will get you detained and brain damaged” in the US today.

      According to my family’s medical records, I was defamed and drugged based upon lies from my pastor who wanted to cover up the sexual abuse of one of my children and the denial of my other child a baptism, at the exact moment the second plane hit the second World Trade Center building on 9.11. According to my medical records, I was drugged for having concerns my child was abused, belief in the Holy Spirit and God, and thinking 9.11 was disgusting. The psychiatric industry apparently thinks all thoughts, concerns, gut instincts, and dream queries are “psychosis.”

      I was eventually handed over the medical evidence of the child abuse, I still believe in God and the Holy Spirit, and I still think 9.11 was disgusting. Antipsychotics do not change people’s “delusions.” And interestingly, everyone I’ve met, other than psychiatric practitioners and those within my child molestation covering up ex-religion, thinks 9.11 was disgusting and child abuse is grotesque. I do so hope the psychiatric industry will get out of the business of covering up child molestation for the mainstream religions some day.

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      • I often think about you Someone Else, and the coincidence of the 9/11 attacks. I had a strange coincidence when I was being detained, Anwar Al Awlaki was having his chemical imbalance corrected with a Hellfire missile in Yemen at the same time. First of the extra judicial killings by the American government I believe.

        There are a lot of people who are using the psychiatric industry for nefarious purposes. I do not believe they will escape justice forever. Kudipuchi may be needing a little more than anti anxiety drugs in prison. I won’t say more for fear of offending others.

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          • You know Someone Else I recognise the pattern with what you say. It is like we are two black guys who know how the police use their positions to commit corrupt acts and gain wrongful convictions, and the rest of the community responds with “oh the police wouldn’t do that”.

            The con artist uses poise, the white collar criminal position. They rely on people trusting them because of their position. In fact when I explained to a psychiatrist how one hospital worker had used her position to commit a criminal offense, that was exactly what she said. It is a dangerous position to take, and one that enabled sexual predators to operate with impunity in the church for a lot of years.

            Rather than look at what I know to be true, and examine the evidence objectively, it is just easier to ignore and not look at the ugly truth.

            So the psychiatrist is happy to assist me with recovering from the trauma of being subjected to repeated criminal offenses by her colleagues, but is not prepared to do anything to ensure that this person is never in a position to do it again. The Good Samaritan likes to help the man bleeding by the side of the road because of a beating by robbers, but is not prepared to do anything to stop the flow of victims.

            Oh well, they don’t have to answer to me in the end.

            We have both been very fortunate in many ways. So many do not survive the vicious response to the possible exposure of gross criminal negligence by public officers. I know I’ve tried on more than one occasion to kill myself, because the crims don’t have the courage to finish me off and silence my truth.

            In solidarity

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  6. Will (and others),
    Thank you for this post and interview.
    Do you have comments on how to respond when others are brought into the belief? I have been involved in a number of situations where family members are accused of having knowledge that they will not confirm. The person at the center of concern believes that others see the signs but will not – or are being kept from – admitting that they see them. This can make it very hard to listen in an empathic way because the person presents the only empathic response is to admit that one is in on the plot or scheme or other events.

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    • I don’t know if I am misunderstanding your question Sandra, but I think that police often find themselves in the same type of situations, where everyone is lying to them and they must make a decision.

      I know how this was resolved by mental health services in my instance, present hearsay as observed fact. An example, my wife said I had made a threat to harm her nephew, and I confirmed that yes three weeks before I had been angry with him and said some things that I shouldn’t have, but that this matter was resolved, and I had no intention of doing any harm to him.

      The mental health practitioner made the observation that I was having “thoughts of harming others”. Singular to plural, and a communication becomes an observed fact. Or do mental health workers have the ability to travel through time and space to make these observations? Police do the same all the time, take the lie that works for them and present it as actual observations, and if necessary commit perjury in court. Results in lots of wrongful convictions, but hey, who’s watching anyway.

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    • According to my medical records, I was drugged based upon a pastor’s lies he “thought she was the second coming of Jesus.” I never thought I was Jesus. But, according to my child’s medical records, that pastor wanted to cover up his best friend’s and / or his child molestation hobby.

      I will confess, I agreed to see a therapist, after that pastor called and told my husband I should, and since I was hoping the therapist would help me understand the insane behavior of the pastor who had denied the granddaughter of the investment committee of the board of pensions of his religion a baptism, at the exact moment the second plane hit the second World Trade Center building.

      I don’t think the psychiatrists will ever actually be able to help people until they get out of the business of participating in the “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions,” covering up sexual abuse for the religions and easily recognized iatrogenesis for the mainstream medical community.

      Sandy, I’m quite certain the trick to understanding reality is to not believe the lies of those who profit from telling them. Neither my abused child, nor I, profits from telling of the crimes committed against us by my ex-religion. But they profited by having me defamed, poisoned, and tortured. You have to look at the big picture, to understand the real truth.

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  7. Couple of thoughts about the corrupt practice of “verballing” and Mental Health Services.

    I was shocked at the level of this practice in the area, and then realised that it is actually better suited to mental health than police work. Police have a requirement for actual physical evidence whereas a mental illness can be fabricated from anything a person says. (Good reason to exercise your right to silence). I met numerous people who had been verballed up and had been ‘treated’ for illness that they didn’t have before being subjected to the brutality of detention and restraint as a result of their frustration over being wrongfully detained. The attitude in the area seems to be one of “better we drug a hundred people who don’t have an illness, that let one slip through the net”.

    I also note that when a group of activists tried to inform the public of this corrupt practice that the authorities threatened them with prison if they continued to do so. It is the case here that if a police officer is not very good at the practice, they are sent to our community colleges for a course in creative writing (professional development). Is this the case for mental health workers also?

    Advice to the vulnerable. Exercise your right to silence with all mental health workers (they will verbal you up anyway), and cross your fingers that the ‘gatekeeper’ psychiatrist applies logic and reason to the information you provide. It’s your best hope.

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  8. Thanks. I was referring to a kind of situation where, for instance, a person sees messages (that others might call coincidence) that indicate he is under some type of surveillance or in harms way. The messages are so obvious to the person that he can not accept that loved ones do not also see them. He believes, therefore, that anyone who denies seeing them is lying and part of the problem. When I meet people like this, the crisis is not so much that he has the belief that he is being watched but that he has accused his family of being part of the plot, is very angry with and/or frightened of them, and is acting towards them as if they were his enemy.

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    • Hey, I’m a great example of this. As a result of the above mentioned conflict, my wifes family responded by threatening me with a home invasion and assault, by the family meth user. After three weeks of verbal abuse and concern on my part about this, I told my wife I was leaving our home (family lived next door). She then attempted to stab me with a large carving knife while I was laying on the couch. This failed so she then drugged me with benzos and had police and mental health services jump me while asleep.

      My concerns about living next door to people who were abusing me and had threatened to home invade were seen as being paranoid. Our home computers connected by a modem router and the fact that they were in a position to set up the assault were listed as

      “guarded but concerned re internet, being observed by neighbours”. Remove the context of family conflict and it does sound that way doesn’t it? Drop the fact that my wife had told the MHS that she had drugged me with benzos, and my “agitation” also appears to be a symptom.

      In fact, as a result of my agitation with the next person who examined me, the Dr didn’t even bother with the assessment, and just gave me a provisional diagnosis of “psychotic”, and prescribed more benzos. They were going to give me more of what caused the agitation in the first place lol.

      Don’t get me wrong, I can see how this system could be used so easily to destroy a persons life with a phone call. Great for divorce lawyers to know how to do this stuff, and I guess my failed suicide attempt as a result would in many cases get rid of the evidence.

      I think Sandra if you consider how it is normal to be suspicious, even paranoid in situations of conflict (family, combat etc) then it becomes obvious how from the outside it may seem to others that this behaviour is abnormal. My wife for example saw my response to her families abuse as being irrational, but it wasn’t her who was going to be bashed by 4 thugs in a home invasion.

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      • On the flip side, something that made me laugh was when I studied behavioural science and the Mental Health Act, part of our course was to visit the large psych hospital for a tour.

        In the forensic unit I was interested in the way the person conducting the tour opened doors and was checking behind every one, and knew all the ‘lurk lines’ around the ward. I considered that a little paranoid, but she had possibly seen the result of staff being attacked by some fairly violent individuals.

        Paranoia is in the eye of the beholder? Certainly in the documents from my detention and assessment it was. The whole way through the documents are comments like “potential for violence, but no actual history”. They have documented their own paranoid ideations and called it my mental illness lmao

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    • I will confess that after doctors misdiagnosed the adverse effects of a supposedly “safe smoking cessation med” as “bipolar” and “hyper sexual behavior,” defamed me to my husband, destroyed our sex life, majorly tranquilized me, poisoned me with massive major drug interaction laden cocktails, then finally weaned me off the drugs, resulting in a drug withdrawal induced super sensitivity “manic psychosis.” I was a tad angry at my husband since he had promised to “protect and provide” for me when we took our wedding vows, and he hadn’t.

      Although my husband used to believe doctors were respectable people who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, too. How embarrassing for both of us to learn that the medical community covers up medical evidence of child abuse and easily recognized iatrogenesis with psychiatric misdiagnosis and drug poisonings. We eventually were handed over the medical proof that doctors project their own “paranoid delusions” (due to fear of non-existent malpractice suits) onto their patients, and the medical evidence of the child abuse, by some decent – but disgusted – nurses. I even had friends who were nurses at other doctors’ offices calling me and expressing disgust at some of the doctors in our community.

      But I will say that until my husband saw the medical proof of my former doctors’ crimes, he was confused. He had delusions “bipolar” was a “life long, incurable genetic mental illness,” rather than a completely iatrogenic illness. Ultimately, however, we both ended up losing respect for a medical community that rapes the entire economy for their malpractice insurance and is still utilizing their “dirty little secret” way of unjustly defaming, discrediting, and trying to murder innocent and trusting patients to prevent legitimate malpractice suits, while also aiding and abetting child molesters.

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      • Project their paranoid delusions onto their patients. They certainly do Someone Else.

        I’m having to explain to a psychiatrist why I have concerns about a threat from a meth using home invader? When I explained to him that I am a crack shot with my 10 shot lever action 44 Magnum, and can take the head off a kangaroo at 200 yards, and know where his kids go to school, his paranoia made him believe I was threatening him. I just thought it was information he might like to consider before making a decision to force mind altering drugs down my throat against my will.

        Just kidding, but you get my point lol.

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    • Hi, Sandra,
      I don’t know how these conversations reveal themselves in your office, but I wonder if the conversation should be steered away from the “delusions.” I don’t see any purpose being served in family members bringing up the “delusional” thought process and I wonder if perhaps these accusations are introduced by the family rather than by the patient, who ends up “defending” his or her beliefs. I have had great success with my own relative by not burrowing into their belief system, merely saying them “yes, you make a good point.” If the patient brings it up on his or her own volition, then wouldn’t the same principles apply? The key, IMO, is to share with the family in advance the best way to respond. No professional ever shared with me this key information. I had to learn it all by myself. Sorry, probably not making much sense as I’m a bit rushed right now.

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  9. “I was referring to a kind of situation where, for instance, a person sees messages (that others might call coincidence) that indicate he is under some type of surveillance or in harms way. The messages are so obvious to the person that he can not accept that loved ones do not also see them. He believes, therefore, that anyone who denies seeing them is lying and part of the problem. When I meet people like this, the crisis is not so much that he has the belief that he is being watched but that he has accused his family of being part of the plot, is very angry with and/or frightened of them, and is acting towards them as if they were his enemy.”

    Quoted the text from above for convenience.

    Ever read the Qur’an?

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  10. Believe me when I tell you they are erasing things right off my screen as I attempt to type! It Isn’t an alternate reality! It is the intrusion of mentally detective persons consciousness onto one that isn’t! It is called demonic possession! The Puritans who fled England and founded the United States believed in the reality of Demonic Possession. And they also believed that they were Godly! How else does one compare themselves to mentally defective and therefore mean people?

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