Illness can be described as an abnormal functioning of the body due either to infection or some other failure in the system of organs and processes. Naturally, we associate illness as unpleasant, as it is usually accompanied by physical suffering, restriction from normal activity and death.
It’s the suffering—or, more specifically, how to get rid of the suffering—that we emphasize. What we think less about is the idea of perspective. This is particularly problematic in terms of mental illness.
We tend to view mental illness either as a “chemical imbalance”—a physiological malfunction of neurotransmitters that distorts moods and emotions, or psychosomatic—that is the experience of physical or emotional suffering undetectable by medical examination. Even the most experienced psychiatrists cannot determine with any real certainty the distinction between these two categories and objective diagnosis is further complicated by a cultural preference of pathological explanation and the power of the pharmaceutical industry.
In the world of Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip (1964), autism and schizophrenia are viewed plainly as a failure to engage with reality. There is no physiological explanation. The afflicted are seen as experiencing a world different from the one they physically share with everyone else.
Dr. Milton Glaub runs a clinic for these unfortunates and has a breakthrough when he hypothesizes that in fact, autistics experience the world at a much faster pace than normal. We eventually see through one of his patients, a mute autistic boy named Manfred Steiner, that in fact autistics simultaneously experience the future and the present. Manfred’s paranoid hyperactivity is not a result of sped-up time. It’s a result of experiencing all of time at once. He sees the decay of everything and everyone around him. He sees his own miserable, lonely death.
What Dick is exploring here and in much of his work is the principle question of literature: How can we relate to the other people when what we feel and how we understand ourselves is so impossible to adequately express? If Dick is right, than the extent to which we are trapped in our personalities is what truly determines whether we are mentally ill.
When you feel anxious or depressed you see a psychiatrist or cognitive behavioral therapist and they ask you questions to determine if your anxiety or depression is adversely affecting your life or the life of people around you. They ask if you have trouble concentrating or sleeping or eating. They ask if you think about doing harm to yourself or others.
On the surface, these questions are meant to determine a diagnosis and treatment, but what they also determine is the patient’s ability or inability to live in and abide by the rules and expectations of the real world—that is, the world everyone else lives in and theoretically experiences and perceives in the same way.
Psychiatrists would argue that people seek treatment on their own volition because they are suffering and want to feel better. No one is trying to control their minds. But of course anxious, depressed, bipolar and schizophrenic people are suffering. They’re forced to live in a world that doesn’t see what they see, that tells them what they see is wrong. The world is calling them a liar for daring to express their own reality and expects them to believe on faith in what they’re told, not in what they see and hear on their own. That dissonance would make anyone psychotic.
The law of our capitalist world is that every person must be responsible for taking care of his own needs. The greatest sin is failing to satisfy these needs at the expense of others—to be a burden to society and a burden to those who love you. A schizophrenic cannot dress himself in the morning, cannot feed himself, perform an employee’s duties or pay bills. But a schizophrenic didn’t choose to live in the infinite complexities of 21st century America. If he were alone and hungry in the wilderness would evolutionary instinct not tell him to eat if he were hungry and saw a piece of wild fruit on a vine? If he were tired would he not find a comfortable place to sleep?
No one chooses to live in the world he’s born into. No one chooses to live at all. Perhaps it’s necessary take a look at the world around and ask yourself what do people do here? How do they manage to get through life? What makes people happy? Then figure out how to do those things yourself. After all that’s what everyone else does. Maybe there are only two choices, participate in and contribute to the accepted reality of life or be an insane liability to everyone else.
20% of Americans take prescribed psychiatric drugs while 25% suffer from diagnosable mental illness, and over 9% self-medicate compulsively with illicit drugs, alcohol or misused pharmaceuticals. Other people alter consciousness through spiritual beliefs. They accept, in the most general sense, that there is a guiding force that governs the universe including their own lives. These numbers are at first staggering, until you consider that they are probably little more than a modern day articulation of a situation that has existed throughout human history. There has always been religion. There has always been some form of conscious-altering substance imbibed to escape or transcend ordinary consciousness.
At the very least, a substantial minority of us feel the need to alter our every-day reality in order to make it through the day. The world we live in is not one to be accepted blindly as a singular reality, we have to bend it to fit our, unique perception of it.
Maybe we’re all insane.