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April 6, 2011 11:58 AM   Subscribe

How can I verify my own sanity without talking to a shrink?

Let's say I'm seeing things that shouldn't be possible. I'm not in any position to talk to a therapist or a shrink. What can I do to verify that I'm not losing my marbles?

I'm writing a story about someone with an invisible friend. People can't see the friend, so she is worried that she's going insane -- yet the actions of those around her are consistent with the friend being real. If he puts a cup on a table and walks away, other people see the cup.

Are there ways to check oneself for paranoid schizophrenia & such? Or are you basically just stuck hoping that your reality isn't all in your imagination? Are there stories where anyone deals with this and assures him/herself of sanity?

(Before you ask, yes, I'm perfectly assured that I'm sane it's everyone else around me who's nuts. :) )
posted by scaryblackdeath to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do people see the cup floating in mid-air? Or is there all of a sudden a cup on the table? Would this be caught on camera? Recorded evidence would go far.
posted by amicamentis at 12:00 PM on April 6, 2011

Talk to friends and *listen* to what they say.
posted by QIbHom at 12:03 PM on April 6, 2011

I don't understand the part of your question where you talk about writing a story.

Are you wanting help coming up with a plot for a story containing an invisible character, or are you asking for help figuring out how to judge your own sanity when questioning things you see?
posted by fritley at 12:06 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

In A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe (as John Nash), didn't respond to somebody who was knew to him and asking him questions. He turned to somebody else in the area and just asked him/her "Do you see that person?"

Seems like a pretty direct way of handling stuff like that.
posted by MustardTent at 12:06 PM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

The only problem I see is that if you really had a problem (ie. paranoid schizophrenia) you probabaly cant see outside of your "world". So if you beleived in this imaginary friend, you wouldnt believe or hear or see evidence to the contrary unless it re-inforced your belief.
posted by Busmick at 12:06 PM on April 6, 2011

In A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe (as John Nash), didn't respond to somebody who was knew to him and asking him questions. He turned to somebody else in the area and just asked him/her "Do you see that person?"

Seems like a pretty direct way of handling stuff like that.

Important note: that other person had been established as real previously.
posted by MustardTent at 12:08 PM on April 6, 2011

Recorded evidence is really what you're going to have to go with here. The big deal about paranoia is that the paranoid mind can bend the facts to fit whatever's being seen to happen. So the larger question is whether the paranoid schizophrenic person would, in any way at all, want to challenge what they basically know to be true. So I know you're asking for a story, and I don't know how accurate you want it to be, but someone with paranoid schizophrenia is unlikely to be in a real fact-finding relationship to the situation, though their non-invisible friends might be. This is worth understanding.

So, put another way, there are things that are real are actually real. So you can follow yourself around with a camera, or you can follow yourself with a recording device, or you can get an associate to help you. This will determine what's really there, but whether the paranoid mind will accept this data is a different and more complicated question.

So it might help if you can clarify who exactly is seeing the things and who exactly they're trying to convince about the nature of reality.
posted by jessamyn at 12:08 PM on April 6, 2011

i think you could make a 'cogito ergo sum' type argument: if you are capable of posing the question of whether you yourself are sane or crazy then that implies you are sane.'
posted by at 12:20 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

catch-22?: "There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."
posted by anya32 at 12:30 PM on April 6, 2011

I would disagree with the 'cogito ergo sum' argument. It's entirely possible to experience hallucinations and question their basis in reality. The crazy/sane binary definition is a little misleading. You can have mental disorders without complete obliviousness to them.

Hopefully someone who has more knowledge about this than I do will step in, but I believe that visual hallucinations in schizophrenia are much less common than auditory ones (hearing voices, etc), and I would think that fully-formed hallucinations of specific people with long-lasting continuity are even less frequent. It would be very unusual for that to be a person's only symptom of schizophrenia. Storytellers love to use it for the drama, but I don't think it's a very likely situation.
posted by the jam at 12:33 PM on April 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

A friend in college had a breakdown. The way we (her friends and she herself) knew that something was going on was that she began asking after people who were characters in the play she was writing as if they were real and present. Not "What do you think [Character A] would do in this situation?" but "Have you guys seen [Character A]? We were supposed to meet for coffee an hour ago but I haven't heard from her."

I'm also unclear on the part of your question about "I'm writing a story" - are you? Or are you experiencing this yourself?
posted by rtha at 12:37 PM on April 6, 2011

The trouble with asking someone is always whether or not you believe them. If the character is suffering from any kind of paranoia, that would become an issue. God knows there are times when I have to make a conscious choice to believe [trusted] people around me, even though my brain is insisting they're wrong. My issue is anxiety, not paranoia, but you can see where that gets convoluted.
posted by Ys at 12:38 PM on April 6, 2011

I don't think recorded documentation could be relied on absolutely because you could still imagine you were seeing the invisible friend on the photo or video. I mean that in the sense of it being a possible story point and not from any psychiatric knowledge.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:39 PM on April 6, 2011

Didn't Descartes say that sense impressions can't be trusted, even by those who believe in their own sanity?
posted by L'oeuvre Child at 12:39 PM on April 6, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry about the lack of clarity. I'm just writing a story. I'm totally not worried about my own sanity (I'm a teacher; I'm sure I went nuts years ago).

In the story, the "invisible friend" is totally real. The reader is in fact introduced to the invisible friend before the main character. However, if one had an invisible friend, it would surely cause one to doubt one's sanity, wouldn't it? So I'm looking for reasonable things that the main character might do to prove to herself she's not going nuts. It's a lighthearted story and sanity/insanity isn't really the core of the plot at all, so I'm looking for what she might do to settle her own doubts...

...though of course she realizes it's possible that she's gone so completely nuts that she's imagining everything and she's just trapped in her own head. But in theory, you or I could be just imagining all of this, too, and we're really just plugged into the Matrix, but at that point you've just gotta go with it.

Psychology has never been a burning interest of mine, so I figured I'd ask. Also, I have seen "A Beautiful Mind," and while I really, really like looking at Jennifer Connelly, I was pretty pissed off by that movie. It was depressing as all hell and it would've been much cooler if his delusions had been reality.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:51 PM on April 6, 2011

I actually knew a guy, a friend of my father-in-law, who had an imaginary invisible friend. In fact, at first I thought the friend was real; D. had come out to visit my FIL, and had brought a friend to share in the driving, who was staying with him at the apartment, but who was just never around whenever anyone else was. He had stepped out, or was in the bathroom, or whatever. It was all 100% believable. Then about a week into the stay, D. started talking about the OTHER friend who had also come out with him, whom nobody had heard any mention of before. And then the next day D. said "I thought I came out here with four other people, but now I'm not sure any of them are real." And sure enough, they weren't, D. was having a psychotic break.

In that particular case, there was zero interaction between the invisible friend and the rest of us. No coffee cups, no nothing. D. was completely non-defensive about this; he had explanations, but he didn't offer them any more than you would about a real friend who really had left the apartment minutes ago. Honestly if the friends hadn't begun multiplying I don't know that any of us would have twigged to it. Once we did, though, D. was very agitated about what was shared reality and what was real only to him, and was very driven to seek out a mental health professional in order to figure out what was what.
posted by KathrynT at 1:05 PM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

It might help for you to have some understanding of why your character is hallucinating - is s/he schizophrenic or did s/he lick the wrong toad? This will probably help you make your decision about how your character needs to proceed in determining what counts as reality. The Wikipedia page on hallucinations is a good starting place for search terms.
posted by aniola at 1:35 PM on April 6, 2011

Response by poster: She's not hallucinating. The invisible friend is really there. It's magic.

Thing is, he does appear after a traumatic event, and she is in the hospital...but she's sane, so naturally she is worried that she's hallucinating or going nuts. Honestly, I'd like to put the sanity question to bed fairly quickly and move on with it, but I think it needs to be addressed at least briefly.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:40 PM on April 6, 2011

Macbeth, testing his sanity by trying to touch a bloody knife that he sees, Act 2 Scene 1:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.

posted by jasper411 at 1:47 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

To be more on-point: I think hallucinations frequently order themselves so that there's no cognitive dissonance, or else the hallucinator's brain quickly retcons reality to prevent cognitive dissonance. If cognitive dissonance is present, I would take that as evidence that something besides straight-up hallucination is going on.
posted by KathrynT at 2:02 PM on April 6, 2011

So this happens while she is in the hospital? Could she already have had an MRI ot CAT scan on her head, so that she is at least able to rule out a brain tumor right away? That would be my first thought if I was seeing things--maybe I have a brain tumor!

So, then, suppose she mentions to a nurse how nice it was that some other patient stopped by or something and the nurse is confused because she never saw anyone come in, but shrugs it off. But this keeps happening, so nurse worries. Patient might have been in ICU earlier when this first happens and there's a camera going to monitor patients there (your main character doesn't have to be super sick or injured-- hospital might have run out of rooms in regular wing so she was put in ICU. I actually had this happen to me once). Nurse shows doctor camera footage of the hospital room, shows patient talking to herself (apparently)and explains her worries that patient is hallucinating.

Doctor shows patient footage, gets her to agree to psychological screening, leaves the room, patient watches film and sees what no one else has paid attention to--mystery visitor left a mug or pen or other item behind!

She goes over to desk in room or something, picks up item to verify it is real...and mystery visitor appears and takes it from her. Patient checks out of hospital immediately, AMA (against medical advice). This makes other people doubt patient when she explains what is going on, too.

That's one way it could go down, in my plotting scenario.
posted by misha at 2:12 PM on April 6, 2011

You know, I've known several people over the years who have told me, "oh there's a ghost who lives in my house." It doesn't seem to bother them, they're perfectly aware that most people won't believe them, but they'll generally offer "concrete evidence" of the ghost in the form of activities (I'm always finding X on the floor under Y conditions & I know it wasn't me or the cat that did it), or they'll show me pictures (see that white spot in the middle of the picture? Yeah, she really doesn't show up, but would you believe it, EVERY ONE OF THESE PICTURES has that spot, & that's right where she is!).

The human mind is stretchy. It can reject/edit out odd input, or it can just adjust the rules to include odd input. Or they make themselves nuts over the failure to reconcile or about what other people think about their perceiving the anomoly. Still other are just...totally accepting; it's like they've built a rule that it doesn't matter if other people can't observe/don't believe that particular phenomenon.

I'd try looking into accounts from people who believe in ghosts/angels to try & broaden your feel for how people "prove" these things to themselves & explain them to others.
posted by Ys at 2:14 PM on April 6, 2011

Well, if there's a chance of getting someone else to help out, you can say 'Hey, buddy, go stand in the next room over and write a random 10 digit number on a piece of paper', then have the invisible person go check out the number and relate it back to you. Write it down on your own and then compare to your buddy's - if an explanation is needed, you can pass it off as mentalism magic tricks, but you'll know that you weren't actually doing anything crafty, you just had an invisible spy.
posted by FatherDagon at 2:42 PM on April 6, 2011

Or hell, any wide number of magic and card tricks that would be perfectly explicable to observers as 'a neat trick' and be personally informative as to one's own sanity.
posted by FatherDagon at 2:43 PM on April 6, 2011

I'm writing a story about someone with an invisible friend. People can't see the friend, so she is worried that she's going insane -- yet the actions of those around her are consistent with the friend being real. If he puts a cup on a table and walks away, other people see the cup.

That seems to be a fairly straightforward way out of the "am I crazy" bit. The protagonist might not be able to understand how or why invisible friend is invisible, but if they're creating empirical changes in the observable world that others can register, invisible friend can't "just" be a hallucination.
posted by Errant at 3:09 PM on April 6, 2011

Would the invisible person gladly co-operate with any requests to prove their existence? Are there any limits on their physical interactions with the normal world other than not being visible?
posted by RobotHero at 3:52 PM on April 6, 2011

Response by poster: No limits. Friend would be happy to prove he exists.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 4:07 PM on April 6, 2011

When I was studying philosophy this totally blew my mind: the fact that you know "x" when "x" is the case does not imply that you know "not-x" when "not-x" is the case.

As a trivial example, you are presently alive, and you know that you are alive; but if you were dead you would not know that you are dead. Similarly, you can't be sure that just because you know that you are sane when you are in fact sane, you would know that you are insane if you were insane.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:49 PM on April 6, 2011

Invisible friend or TRANSPARENT friend? Can the friend be touched? Is their skin warm?

Thermal infrared cameras see objects in total darkness because room-temperature surfaces are always glowing with IR light. To such a camera, a sheet of glass and a sheet of wood look about the same. Your invisible friend might show up on security cameras if they're the $5000 see-in-total-darkness kind, such as L3 'thermal eye'.

A similar problem appeared in Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" comic. The invisible man is very invisible. But unfortunately for him, Mr. Hyde sees thermal IR (see #3)

Or a bit less ghastly, your invisible friend would leave footprints in grass/dirt/snow, trigger some types of burglar alarm, and step on rubber mat-switches causing electric doors in shopping centers to mysteriously open. In a noisy room they could be heard moving around as they block or reflect the environmental sound. And they'd cause bullets in flight to suddenly halt in midair, only to move erratically around the room and then come to rest a few inches above the floor.
posted by billb at 8:30 PM on April 6, 2011

I think you're thinking about this in the wrong way, and the waters have become muddied with the sanity/insanity bit. Since you (as the author) know that your character is sane, and that the invisible person is real, for the purposes of confirmation you should have the invisible person confirmed by one of the main character's friends in a very straightforward way. Have the visible friend hand the invisible friend a coffee cup. Have the invisible friend call the visible friend on the phone sitting on the table. Have the invisible friend slap the visible friend across the face when they persistently refuse to recognize them.

Hallucinations and delusions that are "proven" true are simply partaking of psychotic logic. In other words, one cannot reliably prove delusions and hallucinations true from within the delusional space. In the case of people who have ego dystonic hallucinations, that is, hallucinations in which they do not believe, or that they are trouble regarding the "actual" existence of, the source of discomfort is that those things seem real even when they should not. In either case, your character would not be in a position to reality test herself into convincing quiescence .
posted by OmieWise at 5:25 AM on April 7, 2011

I have heard of service dogs who are trained to bark at people (or specifically new people) so that their owners who have hallucinations can have an easier time of determining who is really there and who is the product of a psychotic episode.
posted by corey flood at 7:56 AM on April 7, 2011

That's a cool point Billb makes about the sound reflection: A completely blind person would have *no* trouble "seeing" an invisible person.
posted by Ys at 8:02 AM on April 7, 2011

In Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, the protagonist begins seeing very strange things and wonders if he's going crazy, so he devises a series of manual calculations whose results -- if he were actually insane -- would fail to match certain measurable natural phenomena. His decision to approach the problem this way is thematically important, so it may be that the actual test he uses is just technobabble, but I remember it sounding fairly convincing when I read it.

All I could find online is this synopsis:
Kelvin invents a sophisticated method for checking if he is mad. It’s the "See if I am mad" experiment. In the context of problem types, Kelvin develops a kind of puzzle, solved algorithmically through calculations using the right formulae. It is a well-structured problem by definition (above) and in reality the kind of human thinking that is the antithesis of Solaris.

"I was not mad. The last ray of hope was extinguished" (51).
posted by hayvac at 12:57 PM on April 8, 2011

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