I’m fascinated by the way in which illness affects my brain, especially anything that leaves me feverish. Having had a round of this over the last few days, it’s been one of the few things reliably on my mind. Brains are of course a heady mix of biology and chemistry (plus inexplicable consciousness) and the limits of what it’s possible to do with them has all kinds of implications.
Monday night there was a scary thing. The kind of thing that in normal circumstances, would have given me a panic attack. I felt fear as a more intellectual thing, and then my body just didn’t. There was no spare energy with which to panic, no means of working up a rush of adrenaline, it just wasn’t happening. The ill state of my body neatly cancelled out the ill state of my brain, leaving me with nothing more dramatic than an ‘isn’t that interesting’ and a desire to try and sleep it all off.
Various fevers have convinced me (temporarily)that I know the secrets of the universe, am dying, that reality is just lots of little boxes blending together, that the bed is a boat, that the bed in a boat is not in a boat after all, and all manner of random things. Recognising feverishness, it is important to check these things with kind, non-feverish people who can confirm or deny as appropriate. It’s useful, when hallucinating for example, to know that that the faces in the curtain are not, really speaking, there. Knowing I’m ill and being able to ask and get a check on where consensus reality is saves me from getting on facebook and announcing that I’ve seen how it really is… when really it’s the flu speaking.
Various bouts of depression and anxiety have convinced me (also temporarily) that I am doomed, ought to die, that the universe is innately hostile, that nothing I do can ever work, and a whole bunch of other profoundly unhelpful things. However, depression and anxiety do not show up with overt physical symptoms that alert other people to the problem. It’s still brain chemistry miss-firing though. A check-in with consensus reality is just as valuable in this context as it is when there’s fever conjuring little green men into your sock drawer.
I have a lot of questions about how real reality really is. Not helped by recently listening to Brian Cox on radio 6, talking about the infinite possibilities of the multiverse. I was feverish at the time, but am reliably informed he did say things that suggest Douglas Adams was right, and therefore somewhere there really are sentient mattresses… but I digress, which is easy when the mind is a bit wobbly. What enables us to get by passably from one day to the next is having some agreements about what reality is, what is real and how to think about it. Illness can distort and change it – whether we get more or less real when out of our heads is really secondary to the certainty that we do get less functional. Checking that gravity works, and that the conviction you can fly may be flawed, is, for example, a good investment. I regularly dream I can fly, and fever can break down the clear lines between awake and asleep.
If you don’t test your impressions, then you keep your own private take on reality locked safe inside. No one can see it, comment, ridicule, or deny it for you. This may be fine right up until you jump out of the window. The person who can be trusted to recognise when you’re ill and out of tune with the consensus, is a very good friend to have, especially if you are prone to an unwellness of the head. Not the person who calls you stupid and deluded – thus actually confirming your fears whilst making it impossible to talk about them. The person who can say “it probably looks that way because you’ve fallen down a hole, other realities are available” is a great help. Keep silent and it is much easier to believe that the hole is real, and all the people acting as though they are not in a hole, are insane. If you mention, and it turns out everyone else is stood in the same hole after all, you know it’s not you, and you’ve got a team seeking an escape route, and that’s better. It gives you unions, pressure groups, revolutions…A bit of consensus reality can go a long way sometimes.