Perception is not reality: surviving individual and collective psychosis

A temporary illness gave me some insight into the nature of psychosis. I share the experience here, and three important lessons that I learned.

Perception is not reality: surviving individual and collective psychosis

I don’t want to write this article, but I feel I have a duty to share a difficult experience I had, and the valuable life lessons that came from it. To avoid any future accusation of being economical with the facts, I am going to tell just enough of what happened to make my point, and you will have to accept that the rest is my private business.

It was a Friday in late November — “Black Friday” if you are American — and I had been to a meeting in London in the afternoon. I had been feeling unwell and short of energy for a while, but just couldn’t locate why. There was no pain, and no obvious ailment, beyond a slight hesitancy in urinating. I had put this down to encroaching middle age, so made a note to check it out some time.

Roll forward 12 hours, and it’s the early hours of Saturday morning. I am at home and… wait for it… hallucinating that there are intruders in the house. What I hadn’t realised what that I had an untreated kidney infection, and that this is a very serious condition. A combination of misfortune and misadventure meant I discovered the hard way that a side effect of kidney stress is the sudden onset of paranoid psychosis.

To compress the next 48 hours into a paragraph, tick the following off: calling the police multiple times for imaginary home invaders, climbing out of an upstairs window onto the garage roof, hiding in neighbours’ houses (note the plural) in terror from invisible attackers, searching for people lurking in the roof space, making rather a scene in the street, and a trip to hospital — where they prescribed me antibiotics.

The weekend ended when I was finally delivered to some friends the other side of London for “care and calming”. To say that I have had better weekends in my life is to push the British tendency for understatement to its fullest extreme. I was traumatised by this sudden and embarrassing episode, and there have been consequences in my life that I am still dealing with.

There is a purpose to me sharing this with you, beyond the cathartic release of creative writing, and a salutary warning about the waterworks woes of forty-something men. Whilst sheltering with neighbours over the road, I had brought with me my laptop and camera. In retrospect what I did with these tools in rather interesting.

I convinced myself that what I “saw” was 100% definitely real, despite being 100% definitely imaginary.

Let’s take a look! Can you see the people dancing on the roof here? I did.

Can you see people dancing on the roof?

No? Goodness, you aren’t trying hard enough!

Now don’t tell me you can’t see the people climbing in this tree?

Can you see people climbing in the tree?

You must be blind!

What about these OBVIOUS people partying in the kitchen opposite?

Can you see people partying in the kitchen?

Grr. What’s WRONG with you stupid people!

I think you get the point. I hadn’t realised that my own processing of the world was (temporarily) “broken”. I was comparing what I saw directly with what I saw indirectly, and they matched perfectly. I had hard documentary proof! Therefore, I concluded what I perceived was absolutely real, since that fitted with my self-image of being a rational person.

The error I was unaware of is that BOTH suffered from the SAME distorted perception. If I had taken a hallucinogenic drug then I would have had a reason to doubt my perception. It was only afterwards that I learned of the deeply unpleasant consequences of a kidney infection. At the time I didn’t connect my physical symptom to my psychic one, since I was too ill to be able to care for myself.

There are three lessons that I would like to share from this regrettable experience:

  1. Perception problems can happen to anyone at any time, and we are not in a good position to diagnose our own delusions. There is no shame attached to this, as it is an integral part of being human.
  2. The same individual psychosis plays out in society collectively, where faulty processing means we compare our “perceived direct reality” with our “perceived media reality”. If they match we mistakenly assume we are “rational” — especially if others with the same psychosis agree with us.
  3. Good friends who gently challenge our faulty perception are important, and should be listened to, since they “triangulate” our beliefs. They may have our best interests in mind when they say we are “unwell” in terms of information processing — especially if they can show us the mechanism of our error.

I am pleased to report that I have made a full recovery, and that I am now back to the standard level of madness. I hope that me sharing this story will give people pause to reflect. I wish that everyone feels safe enough to accept our individual and collective vulnerability to psychosis.

After all, perception is not (necessarily) reality.