One of the biggest barriers that people who are “psychotic” face is one of communication: other people often have trouble understanding what they’re talking about. The way that so-called “psychotics” describe their experience (their actual language) and their ideas are simply foreign to most people, and this lack of clear communication is what gets “psychotics” labelled as “psychotic” in the first place, and thus it leads to a breakdown between the “psychotic” and the rest of society. This is a loss to both groups.
The way to address this might be if everyone, or at least those who are in the helping professions, learned to Speak Psychotic. I am referring to Psychotic as a kind of language, then — almost a kind of code that is based on a metaphorical (or possibly even factual) system which, I hope you will see, is focused on certain relatively limited groups of themes once you learn to interpret them for what they mean.
1. The Nature of the Code
To begin with a story:
A little more than three years ago, in 2015, I was confined for about four months in New Hampshire Hospital, my state’s psychiatric facility (which I regard frankly as a prison). I was going through a “psychotic” period myself, characterized by all sorts of what they call “delusions,” a term which is entirely a misnomer — we will let that pass for the moment — as well as by hearing voices all day long, every single day.
Shortly after I first arrived I made the acquaintance of a woman who had long, dyed-black hair and all kinds of old scars all over her face (possibly burn or acne scars), and she wore black shirts and black pants and black boots and all sorts of little trinkets like bracelets and necklaces from the hospital/prison’s gift shop. She would stalk up and down the halls of the unit, and each time she passed me she would look at me in this blank way out of the blank mask that her face had become with an expression that said she was studying me, looking out of her prison of psychological Hell with a desperate expression in her eyes, and after I nodded at her in acknowledgment, she began to talk to me.
She spoke in what might have seemed like a kind of gibberish, a kind of word salad that was near impenetrable, but I kept listening to her and gradually, over the course of a couple of weeks, I began to see the outlines of what she was talking about.
She talked all the time about internet porn and how there were people out there who had robbed her, and I realized that she was probably the victim of sexual abuse and financial exploitation of some kind, and that she was being made aware by her “psychosis” in some strange way that the human universe was full of schemes for power and control and exploitation.
It seemed to me that this was a powerful lesson.
What did she personally stand to learn from her experience? I don’t know, but she was clearly sending a message, even if no one else in the hospital seemed to understand or communicate with her.
After that I became determined to listen to as many “psychotics” as I could, thinking that I would listen to them all until I learned to Speak Psychotic myself, to be fluent in both languages, both Normal and Psychotic, so that I could translate between the two and even understand what these people were talking about.
It was not long after this that I had the opportunity to listen to a friend of mine talking to his psychiatrist while I was sitting in the hallway of our unit. This friend of mine was as “psychotic” as they come. He had been in and out of various mental institutions for years. When outside this hospital/prison system, however, he would have episodes where he completely lost his memory and his awareness of what he was doing and he would get himself in trouble by doing something outrageous. Just previous to this present commitment, to this period of confinement, he had apparently gotten drunk while in his usual state of non-awareness and assaulted a police officer. He had no idea when he would be getting out, but it might be months or even years. He had a kind of hopelessness that was palpable. He had long hair, halfway down his back, that was matted in the back from all the time he had spent lying down in his room, his head on a pillow and staring up at the ceiling. He was a computer coder by trade, and he talked all the time in this very mysterious and Psychotic way about the technology of the internet and all kinds of computer systems that I knew nothing about. I once showed him a passage from the book of Revelation that talks about the city of God, and as soon I said that it sounded like a computer that ran on light, he raised his hand and made a cutting motion with one finger across his throat to tell me to shut up. He seemed to believe there were a lot of secrets that it might be dangerous to talk about.
To be honest, I couldn’t really understand what he was talking about when he talked about internet transmission and technology, as well as about satellites and different systems for directing the flow of different kinds of waves and of information, when he was talking about things related to the computer industry. He would stare at you with these deep, deep, dark brown eyes that were like two bottomless holes bored right into his soul as he droned on in this incomprehensible way.
One day when I was sitting with him in the hall, however, his psychiatrist came along and started to talk to him. He got up to talk to her, and they began a dialogue between the two of them that was completely outside my understanding. The doctor happened to come from Russia, and as the two of them talked I could vaguely make out that they were talking about some sort of conspiracy theory that involved Russia, and the two of them batted it back and forth, clearly enjoying themselves and making casual references to all sorts of other conspiracy theories that I knew nothing about, and they apparently understood each other perfectly. I was a mere apprentice; here were two masters of Speaking Psychotic, and all I could do was listen in non-comprehension.
Again, what I did was simply keep listening to him, and one day it occurred to me that what he was talking about all the time was the design and control of communication systems. In some way, he was obsessed with how the communication system of the world worked and how it was there to control people, or something like that: it was hard to make out exactly. But that was what he seemed to be talking about, and I combined this with my own experience of hearing voices. Yes, it seemed to me, there indeed seemed to be some sort of force out there, if you chose to look at it that way — someone or something or some government agency or some otherworldly being that was actually manipulating the whole human world in ways that were explicit and yet that were virtually invisible to most observers, and it was communicating with people.
Well, that was interesting. Both of these people I’d been listening to — the woman with the scarred face who talked about internet sex and exploitation, and the friend with the matted hair who programmed computers and talked about the internet — were both talking about power and control and communication systems, an outside force that was attempting to impose itself or had already imposed itself on their lives.
I had another friend that I became very close to for a while, whom I met on the same psych ward as the other two people I’ve already described. When you got to know this friend of mine well enough, she would talk all the time about the FBI and its plans to exploit her even more than it already had. Something had happened to her at some point — she would never come right out and say what it was, but she would drop hints about it that led me to believe it was some sort of sexual harassment or abuse by someone outside her family. She wore baggy clothes all the time so that people wouldn’t look at her body. What I think was happening for her was that she heard voices, and she believed what they had to say to her about the FBI spying on her and trying to exploit her. When it wasn’t the FBI that was actively spying on her, it was ghosts that were talking to her about something that was never quite clear. Perhaps it was getting a curse lifted. She had what would be considered a very unusual cosmology for a normal person, but not at all out of the ordinary for a “psychotic.”
So, once again, we had a secret communication system that was being used for exploitation. This was becoming a common theme.
And the end of the story is this: that eventually I began to realize that this was the basic theme to what almost any “delusional psychotic” was talking about, once you learned how to fit the pieces together.
2. The Structure of the Belief
So it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about God or aliens or some secret government agency or some secret international society or even the fairies dancing in your backyard or the ghosts and demons that haunt your second-floor closet: everyone is talking about something that has the same basic structure underlying it, which could most easily be outlined in four points.
1) something out there has some special kind of power and control in the world (God, the NSA, aliens, etc.);
2) either you have discovered it yourself or this something has revealed itself to you in some special and probably secret way that others may not have access to or insight about;
3) this something has some specific use or purpose for you, possibly as a victim of exploitation or punishment or experimentation, or possibly in some special mission or magnified role in the universe;
4) this power infiltrates your world, although there may be other powers out there as well.
Once you realize that this structure is there, underlying what just about every “psychotic” is talking about, it becomes very easy to decode what “psychotics” are saying almost all of the time. It seems to always revert to the same basic pattern, and each of the basic themes of the various kinds of “delusions” that have been classified are related in some way to this scheme. There may be pieces of this arrangement that are missing in what some people talk about, but the underlying pattern is still at work. Let me give you some examples.
There are a lot of different kinds of “delusions” — which are considered “false beliefs” by the psychiatric profession, but which are actually representative of very real experiences that the person has had, whether those experiences were mental (voices that convinced them of something, unusual beliefs that came out of nowhere) or physical (seeing something other people don’t see, having various somatic experiences). Some of these experiences — or “delusions” — are clustered in certain ways.
For instance, there is the large cluster of “delusions” around the idea that one’s thoughts are being read, that one’s thoughts are broadcasting to other people around them so that those people actually hear the person’s thoughts as though spoken aloud, that one’s thoughts are being inserted into one’s head by an outside force, or that one’s thoughts are being taken away. This is where the communication system comes in. You are being communicated with and/or controlled by some outside force. This is a very common group of “false beliefs” to encounter. (I myself fall into this category.)
This cluster of beliefs is really the foundational one. What it is basically saying is that, yes, there is something out there, some kind of force or power that is all-pervasive, unstoppable, and seemingly all-powerful, and it is communicating with you and controlling the world, or at least attempting to do so.
What does that sound like? Well, it sounds a lot like a description of God, or it sounds like some kind of super-advanced alien race that is advanced enough to take over the world if it wants to, or it even sounds to some people like the mind control systems that are controlled by secret government agencies. Any one of these, if you think about it enough, is plausible. But what they all share is that some sort of powerful entity is out there, attempting to do something to the people who believe these things or even to the entire world.
So: If the core belief system, the underlying structure behind what most “psychotics” believe, is that there’s what has to be described as some kind of supreme entity out there, then all the other so-called “delusions” are in some way related to that.
For instance, that one’s thoughts are being read and shared with others. In a world ruled by God, of course, this would be the sort of communication that beings would have with God — mind to mind. Or, when you think it’s the NSA doing mind control or the aliens making contact, it might be mental like that.
So what you’re talking about here is an underlying structural paradigm to Thinking Like a Psychotic, and thus learning to Speak Like a Psychotic.
As I said, all the other “delusions” grow out of the first one; it really all depends on what this outside force wants to do to you or wants to happen in your world. It might even choose not to let you know it is there.
We might call this the “interventionist” view. The sum of it is that there is an outside force intervening in your life and/or in the world.
Some of the more far-fetched of the so-called “delusions” actually become sort of reasonable if you think about them for long enough.
There is, for instance, the idea or “delusion” that people have been replaced by fakes who look and act just like the original people, but aren’t really them and they have some outside agenda. Well, if you want to look at it that way, it could very well be that, in a world ruled by the aliens or the CIA, there may actually be some fake people out there. In a way, our whole world is a fake, an illusion conjured up by the expression of our collective imagination. The news is staged, the newspapers are skewed when not full of lies, the government is covering something up, the election was rigged, the Illuminati are out there, there is a conspiracy, what are we going to do? So why not people who are fakes? It’s really not all that far out there, and in real life, all kinds of people are liars and thieves and false friends, so none of it is too much to believe. The government would definitely create fake people if they could get away with it.
And in a world ruled by God or by aliens? There would be fake people all over the place, believe me.
There is the “delusion” that you are a special person with a special destiny, such as a reincarnation of Napoleon or the second coming of Jesus. Well, in a world that really is ruled by either the karmic chain or by the being whom we call God, it’s going to happen that someone is going to be those people sooner or later. Someone has to be. All you are doing is accepting the Will of the Universe as you take on your role. Is that so unreasonable?
There is the “delusion” that you have had a device implanted in your body and that it is either monitoring you or controlling your thoughts or something. Well, the truth is that some people are getting heart monitors and even brain implants for deep brain stimulation even now, and we all know it’s coming: a brain chip that they will just plug in and control everybody. And there’s one in my arm right now — could you please get it out?
As a last note, I have also noticed that I could pick each of these beliefs apart with each person and find that somewhere back in the time of their “normal” life, in their life before their “diagnosis,” there is probably a hint of what is to come. You had a thought once that you wished you were a saint, or a hero. Now God’s showing you what it’s like to be that. God is asking you, “What do you think of this?” Or maybe the aliens are getting you ready to go up to the mothership and seize your destiny. Who knows? Pick a belief system and see what it yields when taken to its logical conclusion. In a way, God is fulfilling all your dreams and nightmares by making it all happen in some kind of mystical world.
Each one of these beliefs could be, on its own, quite reasonable, if you only take the time to explore it far enough — to Learn How to Speak Psychotic.
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.