The morning after my first round of psychosis, I was transferred to locked ward in Richmond. It only took me a few hours to talk and hassle my way out and back to freedom, but others were and would be there far longer I was. When I arrived, I was assigned a room and sent of to wait. There were no private rooms, so when I arrived at the room, there was a woman inside, sitting on the bed, staring at the wall. She only glanced at me when I entered.
“Hi,” I said, taking a seat on the free bed.
“My name’s Elanor.”
“Hi, Elanor,” she answered, but didn’t offer her own name.
I tried to think of something to ask her that might break the ice, but before I could, she asked, “What are you in here for?”
“I had a bout of psychosis last night and scared everyone,” I answered. I wondered if it would be polite, but then returned, “You?”
“I’m here to get better,” she said. “They’re going to help me get rid of the things in the walls.”
I glanced at the wall where she stared, but saw nothing.
“I don’t know where they came from,” she said, “But they’re after me.”
“What’s in the wall?” I asked.
“The spine men. They are so skinny, you can see their spines through their bellies, and their faces are covered with little spikes. The follow me in the walls, and wait for their chance.”
I watched the wall, but sensed nothing, then glanced to her face. It didn’t seem right for me to tell her the spine men weren’t there. How would I know? For me, Lask stood in the doorway clear as day, but no one else would see him.
“The spine men can’t hurt you,” I told her. “You’re stronger than they are. They’re scared of you– that’s why they haven’t come out of the walls yet.”
She looked at me then, with the hint of a smile. “Do you believe me?” she asked. “No one thinks they’re in there.”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I don’t have any way to know they’re not in there. You might be the only one who can perceive them. But I do know you shouldn’t be scared of them.”
“They want to pull me into the walls with them. I’d be trapped there until I starved and became one of them.”
“Don’t worry about them unless they come out of the wall, and if they do, you’re big enough a few skinny spine men won’t be dragging you anywhere. My rule of thumb is: if no one else can see it, then it can only hurt you if you let it.”
“How do you know that?”
“If no one else can see it, it’s not from here,” I answered, “That means it can’t actually hurt you here. It’s just here to scare you, like a ghost, and scaring you is how it can get in your head and mess up your life. Make sure it knows you aren’t scared, and tell it to leave you alone. The spine men may never go away, but you’re stronger than anything that might be in that wall. If nothing else, they might lose interest once you’re not scared.”
“Hm.” She seemed impressed by the logic, and went back to staring at the wall.
I’ve thought about her, and others I met in that ward, since I left there. To me, the place seemed a carnival of idiocy– why on earth would you take some of the most vulnerable or volatile people, lock them in an enclosed space and let them just mill about together? And when they aren’t being given drugs or taken to therapy, there’s nothing to do but sit on your bed or wander the halls. Because that seems like a healing environment.
While I’ll concede there are some individuals’ whose illnesses or behavioral challenges make it impossible for them to safely integrate into the “real world,” there are many others who don’t belong in locked wards. I believe my roommate was one of them. There’s no pill to rid her of the spine men. There’s little in the way of therapy that doesn’t ultimately tell her “that’s not real.” Taking pills, being in a hospital, going to therapy… those things aren’t going help her, and here’s why: you can’t eradicate thought, and you can’t change another’s reality. It doesn’t matter if there are spine men in the walls. What matters is that they are part of this woman’s reality, and they frighten her. She is simply a scared human being. Sure, the spine men might be representative of some trauma that haunts her, or symptoms of a brain condition, but even if those things are treated, she’ll always be afraid of the spine men. Even if she stops seeing them, she will remember the time when she did, and it will always be a black blot of fear in her brain– whether for fear they might return, or fear she’s crazy after all.
Reality is subjective. “Normal” people don’t like this idea– makes ’em squirm. However, no people are the same, no two experiences of life are the same, therefore what is real to one person, may not seem real to another. While science can tell us a lot about the natural world and physiology, there is a lot about our own emotions, mental states, and spiritual existences that we don’t understand. Our bodies and brains are the only tools we have to explore and experience the world around us, and when those tools give us conflicting information, what are we, as a society, supposed to do about that?
We allow people differences of opinion and belief in many spheres– politics, religion, economics, sexuality, to name a few– and we accept these things, even wildly different concepts of God or His agents which no one can see, as personal differences, which should be respected and mostly tolerated. Why then, is it such a knee-jerk reaction to close ourselves off to people who purport to experience reality differently? Why are we so quick to say, “that’s not real,” “you’re just having hallucinations,” or “you’re crazy”? I can’t see your God. I have no way to know whether your God is also my God, and whether or not either is ultimately there or whether they’re they same (as I hope they are). Neither of us can prove the existence of that entity. I can’t prove Lask is next to me. My roommate couldn’t prove the spine men were in the walls. And don’t you dare say, “God is different!” Because it’s not any different. Not until or unless we can prove or disprove the existence of God or anything else unseen. All we have is the word of people who claim to experience similar things or believe in similar beings. The number of people who report an experience is not indicative of the “realness” of that experience, nor does a community’s consensus on an entity make that entity “real.” That entity is real to those people, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that entity is actually out there, or if it’s all in our heads. (I believe egregores are very real, but that’s another conversation entirely!)
That said, I believe the first approach to any “mental illness” should be to assume the person is telling the truth about their reality, and interact with them on the terms of their reality. It doesn’t matter if their reality is the same as mine. There aren’t spine men in my walls, but there are in my roommate’s. That’s a fact of her life she has to live with, even if the spine men are not “real” to me. Lask is part of my reality; his presence is a fact of my life I have to live with, even if he’s not “real” to other people. Telling me he’s not real doesn’t change the fact that I look to my right and see him sitting on the other end of the sofa. For people who see things, we can say “that’s not really there” all we want… it’s not going away. The handful of times I’ve doubted Lask’s “realness” and tried to “wake up” from seeing him, he’s waited quietly nearby until I’ve had a few minutes to concentrate, then asked, “How’s that working for you?” Spoiler: it doesn’t.
I imagine that’s true of my roommate with the spine men, and many others. Instead of medicating people into stupors, locking them in medical prisons, or subjecting them to the undermining doubt of most therapists, we should be helping them make peace with their own realities, and develop strategies to productively integrate their experiences into the rest of the world. Sure, it probably wouldn’t be the best idea for that woman to go out and ask her landlord to reinforce the walls so the spine men can’t get through. But if she instead sat down and faced them, sketched them, wrote about them– that’s some A++ horror shit right there; I would read that. Likely, we’ll never get that book or see that movie, and she’ll never learn a Spine Man’s name and befriend him, or craft herself a magical weapon to kill them if they ever do break free and come for her (whatever that might mean)– because it’s more probable she’ll spend her life trying convince herself they aren’t there, and seeking help to make them go away, which may never happen. There are many forms of denial. Sometimes we have to embrace our inner demons, weirdness, and broken edges in order to live our truest lives.