Originally published in the November 2011 issue of the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read, even though not all of it is about Batman.
Time is a mighty river, and I am an ominously unpiloted rental kayak floating past the picnic area.
It’s my first day at a new job, writing the content for a website that helps young people who’ve had an experience of psychosis. I’ve blagged my way into the job through a psychologist friend, and as I run down my hill past a bubbling, mooing foam of quantum farm animals to the train station, I am increasingly possessed by the belief that when I get to the office I’m going to be immediately fired for not knowing anything at all about psychosis.
On the platform two minutes early, I pull out the thick sheaf of academic papers my boss sent me. ‘Just give them a quick scan,’ he had said. ‘No problem,’ he had said. He had also said, ‘They shouldn’t give you any trouble.’
The first one is called ‘Non-Orthogonal Factor Analysis Of Something You Can’t Even Pronounce Because You’re A Fraud And Also Ugly’. It’s full of tables, Greek letters and that symbol that looks like ‘less than’ but has an extra line underneath because it hates me.
I’m a Film Theory graduate. Right now, sat on a bench on a windy train station platform staring at the exposure of my deception, I see myself in a very long shot indeed.
Another figure enters that shot, sees me and my papers and walks over.
‘Hello,’ he says.
He is standing one millimetre too close to me. His smile is one millimetre too jolly. He is wearing one too many scarves. Oh God, I think, I’ve got a ninety-minute train ride between me and failure and I’m not going to be able to read all these papers on mental health, which are my only chance of bluffing my way through the day, because here, to accompany me, is a nutter. I don’t believe in a higher power influencing our lives, but if I did I’d be cursing its perverse sense of poetic justice right now. Curse you, Batman.
There’s really nothing I can do. I can’t just stand up, look around with surprise and scuttle away, as if I’d only at that second realised that this is a train station platform and not the Upwey branch of Charcoal Chicken. It’s a train platform and the only reason to be there is to catch a train, so when the 8:55 to Flinders St arrives in about sixty seconds I am, in the face of an increasingly insistent impulse not to, going to have to get on.
I mumble some sounds that aren’t quite a greeting. I don’t make eye contact. He smiles again and for the moment seems happy to just stand there. A millimetre too close. Looking at me.
He boards the train with me and sits in my peripheral vision, still smiling amiably. I make a theatrical show, for both his and my benefit, of being completely engrossed in reading. I desperately shuffle the papers, looking for something comprehensible enough that my eyes could at least convincingly follow the words.
The paper I start reading is about delusions and hallucinations, the two keys symptoms of psychosis.
The man comes over and sits opposite me. ‘Are you a psychologist?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I mutter, ‘but I’m about to work with some psychologists, and I need to read this.’
‘Ah,’ he says and goes back to beaming.
Delusions, I read, are strongly-held beliefs that don’t accord with reality. Hallucinations are false sensations, especially in the auditory and visual—
‘I’m schizophrenic,’ he says.
This is just the worst luck. I’m trying to obtain a deep understanding of the psychotic mind and I can’t because one keeps talking to me. Batman is really after me today.
‘But it’s okay,’ he says, ‘because Jesus is looking after me.’
I fight the urge to ask if I could have a lend of Jesus and concentrate on reading. Delusions are most commonly manifested in paranoid beliefs, I read, though this can vary widely. Sufferers frequently believe that secret forces are arrayed to persecute them.
Hallucinations most frequently take the form of voices making inappropriate, impulsive and especially self-attacking statements. These voices are not imagined but neurologically indistinguishable from actual auditory sensation.
‘Jesus talks to me all the time.’
Oh God, I think. That’s me. I’m experiencing a strong, privately held belief frequently characterised by paranoia and self-loathing. I’m always hearing a voice telling me I’m a twat, and up to half the time it’s not coming from someone else. This is like one of those Twilight Zone episodes where a scholar finds that the ancient text he’s reading is describing him reading the text, and in the text there’s a monster sneaking up behind him. I’ve been having delusions about not having read papers that prove I’m delusional.
My skin starts to crawl. I can feel myself blushing and I think I might be sick. I’m having a panic attack in front of a schizophrenic man on my way to being fired for not understanding schizophrenia. This may be the first instance of a panic attack going meta.
I search my mind wildly for something to say. ‘What does Jesus say to you?’ I ask.
‘He tells me lots of things. He told me to talk to you this morning, for example.’
Oh great, I think. Now I’ve got Jesus on me too. He’s obviously teamed up with Batman in some sort of bizarre brand-crossover Justice League. I wonder if I should run off the train at the next stop.
‘Mostly, though, he tells me to keep taking my anti-psychotic meds.’
What is the next stop, anyw—
I stop. ‘Hang on a minute. Jesus talks to you, and what he tells you is to take the medication that stops you experiencing hallucinations and delusions?’
He nods. ‘Jesus needs me to stay well. He reminds me to go to my psychotherapist, too. And to sleep and eat well, and to see my friends. He keeps me healthy, because he knows I forget sometimes, and then I get sick.’
I’m not sure I should ask what I want to ask, but I can’t resist. ‘When you take your medication,’ I say, ‘… do you hear Jesus less frequently?’
‘He’s happy with me then,’ says the man with a broad smile. ‘He helps other people for a while, then comes back to remind me if I forget again.’
I’m no longer panicking. It’s hard to find room for emotional eccentricity in a conversation with a man whose psychosis manifests as a delusional urge to treat his psychosis.
We get off the train together at Flinders Street.
‘I’d like to give you this,’ he says. ‘I make them to give to people.’ He reaches into his jacket and hands me a small slip of paper, cut into an octagon. There’s an emoticon smile in the centre, and around the edge is carefully written, in biro, ‘DON’T WORRY! REMEMBER TO BE HAPPIER!’
‘Thank you,’ I say.
‘You’re welcome,’ he says. A passing commuter bumps into me and I drop the token. I can’t see where it’s gone. When I look up again, the man has gone too.
I check my watch. I was supposed to be at the office half an hour ago. I decide to go sit by the river and spend a couple of hours thoroughly reading all these papers.
I’m going to be late, but that’s alright, because sometimes a higher force sends you a message. Thank you, Batman.