My mother tells me — I do not remember it myself — that somewhere around two-and-a-half years into a two-and-a-half-year-long period of psychosis, a period of time that I mostly spent intoxicated because that was the only way to make the whole experience bearable, I walked out of the emergency room of the hospital where I was waiting to be treated, crossed into the parking lot, lit a cigarette once I thought I was hidden by the cars (the hospital was on a non-smoking campus), and then thought it might be a good idea to take a piss in the snow since I was hidden by the cars anyway. Apparently some people saw me in the parking lot and reported me to the authorities within, with the result that I was picked up by the local police and put into protective custody for a few hours, until I slept it off and my mother could come and pick me up.
As I say, I have no memory of this. All I can remember now is the part where I was smoking and then pissing. I have no memory at all of being taken into custody or anything after that, not even being taken home by my mother.
This is not the only thing I can’t remember from that period of time, but it is one of the most prominent.
As for the psychosis itself, it was so long and drawn-out and complex that it is hard to sort out the sheer variety of what happened. I will be sitting in my kitchen, having a cigarette in the morning with a cup of coffee to wake up and I will remember something that happened, something that seems totally unnecessary when you look back on it, and I wonder what the point of that particular experience was.
You see, I believe that psychosis actually has a point, and that it can teach you some things that you wouldn’t otherwise have learned. The hard part is to see what that point is a lot of the time, but once you do finally get it, you do get it.
But there are things which resist understanding.
I have no idea, for instance, why murder and violence figure so heavily in the “delusions” I have had. Every time I am psychotic, I become paranoid, believing that people are out to kill me. During this last period of psychosis I became convinced that a local café was in fact the site of the monthly meetings of an organization called the Cannibals’ Club, whose meetings were always on the weekend and to which a very select group of local and regional cannibals would come and have drinks and chat and then consume a human being as the main event. These human victims, I came to believe, were out-of-state young women from our local community college, who wouldn’t be missed like a local would be. I also became obsessed with all the murders that I believed had taken place in my town, and on memorable occasions, I wandered the streets, stopping to look at buildings and pointing out to strangers things like the bars on the basement windows and talking about the prisoners who had been held there. The strange thing is that I managed to sound quite plausible when I was talking about all this.
Now what, you might ask, is the point of this experience? I haven’t learned anything about real violence or murder because of this “delusion.” I haven’t had an epiphany as a result of it. (I already knew that our society had a history of a lot of violence in the past, even if it never took place quite on the scale that I was imagining it — at least not in my town.)
Casting my mind back a little farther, I find little to redeem the experience of walking into the office building of a major metropolitan newspaper and trying to convince the guards that I needed to talk to one of the news editors, because I needed to share with them that the world was being taken over by psychics and they needed to run an article, no, a whole series, on how this was happening and what the consequences were. What was the point of that? What was the point of walking into that police station and explaining that a gang was following me around, and that I needed to be taken into protective custody, only to be shown the door by a crew of more than indifferent cops? What was the point of walking through the streets that time, drunk and yelling at the top of my lungs, so that by the time I got to a location five minutes from my house the cops had already pulled up, and it is probably only the lucky presence of my “mental health counselor” that was enough to save me another trip to the clink?
What was the point? one asks oneself. What was the point?
It is almost as though whoever is planning your life is intent on destroying every last shred of your credibility, so that even at the same time as you are being shown amazing and mystical things and having all sorts of mysteries clarified in your mind, you are also being placed in a position where no one will pay any attention to what you have to say, or if they do, the results of that attention will be negative (such as being locked up). The mysterious and powerful journey you are on is almost invisible to other people.
There is no one present, for instance, when I write. I hear voices, and I am told to go to my computer and sit down and write. Then I have things sort of dictated to me. A moment before I type a word, it comes into my mind exactly as though some outside force is putting it there. I do not actually write any of my own work myself. All I actually do is transcribe what a voice, an impulse, is telling me to transcribe. I have no idea, moments before I write it down, what I am about to say. I have written many essays, poems, and even a novel this way. Yet this is something that I do on my own, and there is no one to verify the mystery of what I am going through. It is not public.
What emerges about me in public is only rarely anything close to the truth of the situation. The convenience store clerk does not know that I just spent three hours listening to a voice dictate a wonderful essay that will be published in a few weeks. All he knows is that I am drunk, once again, and that I will probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. He does not behold the wonders that I see everywhere I go.
The people who ought to know the most about what you are going through turn out to be the very people who know the least — your counselors and your psychiatrist, whom you have to see because you are on Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) and if you do not go and swallow their drugs or allow them to shoot you up then you will be sent back to the state hospital. These people, who seem so full of common sense to the public whenever they are asked to defend their practices, are the very ones who should be listening to you most closely, and yet you often find that they’re not listening to you at all. You can explain what you are going through all day long and they will never understand it, because they never give you credit for representing your experience as it really is happening. All they really see in the end is the hospital admissions and the paperwork and the drug prescriptions, and very little of what you actually say yourself ever enters the record, either the official one or the one in anyone’s head.
About the only time your own voice is actually documented is during court proceedings, which are of course recorded and transcribed, but even then you are constrained by time and the questions that the attorneys ask. If you are like me, however, and you are lucky enough to find an advocate who will put you on the stand and feed you softball questions like, “So just why is it that you don’t believe in ‘mental illness,’ Mr. Coates?” then you will use this moment to speak out loud and clear. I have sat there in the courtroom and lectured them all for half an hour about the non-existence of mental illness, freely quoting from Dr. Szasz, until it seemed that I might actually prevail and the opposing attorney, representing the hospital, got very jittery and flustered and tried to distract everybody from what I’d said by completely changing the subject to something the doctor had said about me and making a very flustered and probably impermissable speech about something the doctor had said about me, when what she actually should have been doing was cross-examining me.
I can understand the point of that experience. It was about teaching me the system, and about never ceasing to resist. In the end, though, speaking out got me nowhere. I was still sentenced to AOT in spite of the fact that I have committed no crimes.
Then there is what people say about you. He’s not right in the head. He’s crazy. Watch out for that guy, he’s nuts. Once the label is put on you it never really goes away. And it seems that everything in your life is conspiring to prove them right: your reputation precedes you or follows along right behind.
Most of the really memorable events of my public life, the kinds of things that people are likely to remember about me, have been, over the past couple dozen years, either terribly funny or terribly embarrassing, depending on how you want to look at it. When you tell someone the story of how you were on your very first psych ward and you were paranoid and you became convinced that a guy who was admitted a little while after you just had a knife smuggled in to him on a food tray and that he was going to try to kill you, and you not only made a scene and accused him of having that intention, but you actually called your attorney and told him that they had you boxed in and they were going to assassinate you, and your attorney actually sent the cops to the psych ward to find out what was going on just in time to witness you being given the option to lower your own pants for the needle or to have the staff do it for you… well, this is either a terribly embarrassing or a terribly funny story to think about, and it is the kind of thing that other people remember. The truth is that I have even done things that I have no idea about, about what exactly I did, because when the people who saw me do it see me again they shake their heads in disbelief and refuse to tell me about it.
To be mad in public is to have to deal with the fact that you are, in the end, kind of powerless over your own fate. You can do your best with what happens, and the miracles you see taking place are usually enough to restore your faith in what’s happening, but there is no denying that you are being bounced around like a ping pong ball at the mercy of an inscrutable God and that you have absolutely no control over the parameters of your experience. I am completely aware that there will always be people to whom I will never be able to explain just what I was going through at the time that I did something, that they will never understand it no matter how much I try to explain. All they can remember is how outrageous it was. There is no way for them to understand that for every time you slip and fall, there is another time when you take a step up the ladder of understanding; that you are actually making progress toward a distant and difficult goal, and that, given a choice, there is no way you would ever go back to what most people would consider a “normal” existence again. You do not actually want to be “normal,” no matter how simpler it may seem. People have no idea how much you have seen.
And so, though people may shake their heads and sort of pity me, the truth is that I pity them even more, because I know that I am the one who is lucky. They will never see what I have seen and they will never have the kind of experiences that I have had and they will never know what it means to have been granted this kind of opportunity to experience all the things that are possible in the world. And that is what leads to the ultimate truth about who I am in public, which is that while I may look and talk and even act like everyone else at times, I am actually a whole different kind of being, and though what they may see comes under the name of a madman, the truth is that I move through the streets like a spy on his way to ferret out all the secrets of the universe.
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.