As social creatures we rely on each other to stay sane. Yet modern life is separating us, encouraging individualism, self-determination, self-reliance and a sense of being in competition with your neighbour. Alongside this ‘be your own person’ ideology, there has grown its natural counterpart – ‘opinion’. As we are encouraged to be individuals, so we are encouraged to hold unique and individual beliefs – and if one is to consider the individual as sacrosanct, this leads to considering all opinions as equally valid – which is what is happening today.
I would argue that many of our modern day problems are the result of this individualism literally driving us mad.
I have a curious and unpleasant experience sometimes, where the world ‘explodes’ and stretches away until I feel like everything and everyone is unreachable. It’s a dissociation that can happen anywhere, and suddenly my happy afternoon playing music with friends becomes a vertiginous hell ride of a self-awareness so overwhelming that I’m sunk into unbearable paranoia and unable to connect with any thing or any one.
It’s like being underwater. Things seems to slow down, people’s speech is floppy and muffled and my ‘core self’ – the fixed point by which I understand what reality is – has become a tiny atom-sized voice struggling to be heard. Often I just have to ride it out, and do my best to pretend nothing’s happening.
I can ‘make it back’ to reality by carefully focussing on the tiny atom of self, and using the mundane things people are saying as ‘handholds’ to drag myself back. “Do you want a cup of tea” is powerfully ordinary, and so something I can grasp and use to haul myself along. These ‘obvious meanings’ I use as lighthouses to guide be home.
If I’m lucky, and I trust those I am with enough – and this trust can fight through the now howling paranoia that blurs everything around it – I can say what’s happening and people’s reassurances get me home much more quickly.
Perhaps I’m a small minority, but it’s my belief that a great many ‘mental health’ conditions are the result of certain ‘dampening affects’ going wrong. In reality, there is no meaning to being alive outside whatever stories we tell ourselves – there is no ‘core self identity’ that remains with us lifelong – our sense of ‘self’ is mostly illusory – we have many ‘inner selves’ that argue about what we should do… Yet we can manage most of this because we are in a permanent state of hypnosis. From birth to death, culture tells us what is real and who it is ok for us to be. Our friends and family model how ‘people are’ and what is expected of us. We form our identities through those around us, and we maintain confidence in those identities, in our sense of who we are, through a constant process of ‘checking in’ – using the people around us as barometers to see if we’re still on-track.
Severe trauma, a ‘chemical quirk’ or biological ‘mis-wiring’ can short-out this hypnosis, this cultural conditioning… and the brain goes back to it’s ‘unconditioned state’.
In my case, I become unable to filter sensory input – everything comes at once, forcing me back into myself – and the everything includes all my self-perceptions, both sensory and psychological. Bombarded with ‘me-ness’ I become hyper-aware yet with no reference anchor, separated from all paradigms of meaning in the world – leading to total uncertainty of self and chronic paranoia.
Not being a psychologist, these next ideas are just guesses, but it seems a reasonable step to suggest that multiple personality disorder occurs when the natural conditioning of having a ‘dominant self’ is broken. I want to hit the pub, but have little money, but am stressed and need a blow-out, but have to work tomorrow, but hate my job, but must pay rent… all these conflicting motives go round my head – and I pick the dominant. But what if there isn’t a dominant? We face far bigger problems, and need ‘different selves’ to argue from ‘different perspectives’. It’s not a big step to give those selves personalities, ‘my outrageous side’, ‘my quieter moments’ and so on. A lot of people are said to ‘become totally different people’ after a heart attack, or to behave ‘completely out of character’ in extreme situations. We are not singular or fixed. For most of us, our brain and our ingrained habits choose our ‘dominant character’ – but if that selection process breaks we may well be left with many characters all vying for top spot.
Autistic people are frequently said to have ‘no emotions’. In fact, they most often have too many, too intense emotions and are forced to shut-down to cope. This shut-down state is misdiagnosed as the condition, rather than a symptom of the underlying condition. There are many other ‘disorders’ where, if we examine what is actually happening, it is not a ‘different mentality’, it is only a very common trait amplified – like a personality type with no limiter.
The way out of my episodes of dissociation is to reconnect with people, to find in my interactions with them some solid meaning, realities I can trust. It had been a long time since I experienced an episode – but once lockdown started to ease, they returned – gentler now, but recognisable. Covid has meant extended periods alone, and being alone is being without ‘barometers’, without people to measure yourself against and check-in with.
Sadly I find myself returning to a world that is more separated and individual than ever. With much of the public kept powerless at home, politics and the media have run riot – and massively stepped up their project of individualism. There are arguments about vaccines, arguments for Covid being a pandemic and others that it’s just a regular flu ‘politically weaponised’ and used to disable people and protest, there’s MAGA, qAnon and a host of other conspiracy nuts. The people versus the state has been disassembled and now instead of moving as one against the powerful – we have split into black, trans, disabled, gay, muslim, women, royalists, republicans, socialists – all fighting in different directions and all fighting each other.
Where once governments stood for unity, now they allow, and often encourage, this factionalism. They both leverage nationalism for their own ends (like Brexit) and yet turn their citizenry against each other by demonstrating prejudice, or failing to recognise it.
As social creatures we depend on each other for our very sanity, and this rise in separatism, factionalism, the supremacy of opinion over fact, the deconstruction of experts and consensus – is all leading to us developing mass delusions. Whatever you want to believe – there is a website for it, an idiot spouting off about it, often even a president that says, yes, you should inject bleach – or whatever nonsense you’ve allowed to seep into your head. It’s a global loss of perspective as truth and fact stretch away and become unreachable – the whole world moving into a dissociative state where there is nothing to tell us what is real, what is certain anymore – and that way madness lies.
If we cannot remember how to connect, if we cannot find a project that unites us, we are doomed to insanity and – most likely – to wiping ourselves out. If only there were some global issue that could bring us all together again.