What is insanity and what is normality? Often we understand insanity as the opposite of rationality. Here we meet Sophiya. She is an accomplished consultant, but when she loses her job, she also “loses herself”. What happens? We will try to take a closer look at the border between mental illness and good mental health.
Sophiya is a bright executive – reliable, competent, smart. Her only problem is her continuing need to bring up the flaws of her colleagues in front of their bosses. When confronted, she replies simply, ‘I was merely voicing my opinion’. Before long, most of her colleagues (including the managers) dislike her. A slip-up on a project is attributed to her and she finds herself with no friends. At a high-powered meeting, she casually refers to a minor error made by a senior manager in the company. ‘I was merely using the event as an example,’ she said when asked about why she had brought it up. One day, she is asked to leave the company.
Bewildered and angry, she puts up a fight. ‘Why has everyone turned against me? They are jealous because I am so good at my work. How can they tell me to quit?’ She finds no support from her co-workers and returns home, heartbroken and forlorn. Her husband, always aloof, takes in the news of the lost job without a flicker of emotion. He finds her emotional outbursts a massive disruption to his work as a researcher. He shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘If you want to, you should find another job or you can wait till the kids grow older and go to work again.’ Sophiya is adamant; she craves recognition for her efforts. At home, she is nobody but at the workplace her personality transforms, people ask about her, people in high positions depend on her – she is important. She is someone.
She starts her job search and is disappointed to find that the recent recession has left companies unwilling to recruit more people. Days turn to months and Sophiya feels more and more isolated. Her children go to school but need her attention for a few hours before they get busy with their homework and friends. Her husband is away at work from morning to night and likes to have the weekends with the kids. They plan outings but Sophiya feels separate, alone. They have lunch together and Sophiya feels that everyone has a reason to laugh except herself. Her husband recommends a few internet sites that will allow her to connect with old colleagues and friends. She goes online and soon finds people she knows who welcome her into their fold.
But something is wrong!
Sophiya accepts a few strangers as friends and is shocked to receive abusive messages coming her way. Upset, Sophiya logs off. ‘Why did this stranger insult me like this?’
She talks about it with her husband and he shouts, ‘We tell our children to be responsible about strangers and an adult is behaving like this!’
A few days later, she joins some of her ex-colleagues in online banter, she smiles at the ongoing exchange when she suddenly goes cold within. ‘These people are making fun of me – the meaning behind that statement was a barb at me.’ As Sophiya watches the exchange, she comes to the chilling conclusion that she is actually going through a set of coded messages – all the messages are barbs at her and one or two threaten public exposure and shame for her. Public exposure about what, she wonders. What have I done that I should get this type of treatment?’
In a sweat, Sophiya calls up Ruby, one of the people who is online and asks, ‘What did you mean by that last comment?’
Surprised, Ruby browses through the chat messages and replies, ‘Oh you mean the one about the clothes? That was a joke in reference to our last picnic, remember? The time when we had gone to the beach and Jed had worn floral pants…’ Ruby laughs as she recalls the time.
At the end of the call, Sophiya is convinced that Ruby is part of a conspiracy against her. The joke about the clothes was a statement about her personal style or something, that detail is fuzzy. In a panic, she calls up her sister. Her sister is not home. Sophiya starts to weep bitterly as she holds the receiver. She breathes deeply and suddenly becomes aware that someone else is listening in on her calls. Unable to fathom that the sound of breathing is her own, she drops the phone and runs to her bedroom and locks herself in. The conspirers have now started tapping her phone! That would have to mean they knew when she lifted the phone, which meant that they were watching her every move.
She pleads loudly, ‘What can I do? I’m innocent. I haven’t done anything wrong. I have always spoken my mind, always spoken the truth. Why is this happening to me? Mercy is after me. She is behind this. She has ganged up with Raoul and is actively trying to spread rumours about me. They are doing this because…’
The phone rings and Sophiya jumps in fright. She refuses to budge from her room afraid that someone has heard her or worse… she’s fuzzy about what that could be.
What is happening to Sophiya?
Thinking is a necessary cranial function. Our five senses are constantly alert to changes in our surroundings and relay messages to our spine and brain to allow for appropriate reaction. But what if the brain gets into a mode of excessive thought? Excessive thought that distorts perception and leads to a different view of the happenings around us. When thought is excessively focused on a single thing – like death, fear, suicide, sex, love, illness – we see manifestations of an uncontrolled mind. When perception is warped to a point that a person feels alone, endangered and unnecessary fear ; it is seen as a sign of insanity.
Is there something inherently wrong with Sophiya?
Thought mishaps happen to all of us. Sophiya does not deserve this and neither should this be written off as some unknown inherent problem. Sophiya craves attention – she derives a sense of identity with it. This is quite similar to the identity that people place with being married or having a partner or friend or money or status – there is no inherent right or wrong.
In the case of a jilted lover, the mind is maddened by feelings about and images of the person who has caused the pain. In the case of a missed prize and adulation, the mind is filled with justifications of how one is ‘actually’ better than the prize winner and is overwhelmed by pain and jealousy. Painful events and wrought emotions are numerous – hind sight tells us whether we were temporarily insane at that time.
Sophiya’s first need is attention. Now to a lot of us, attention involves hearing a person out, being there, listening. In Sophiya’s case, if her husband tries to engage in conversation, it will set the existing thought cycles in motion and Sophiya will speak incessantly without saying anything new.
There is an alternative form of attention – that of giving a person some concrete responsibility to handle and recognizing the work done. Sophiya’s sense of identity comes from her work, she likes being looked up to, needed and noticed. She would like to be the ‘belle of the ball’ while utilizing her own set of skills.
If Sophiya is a good cook, she can hold cooking classes. This work will keep her gainfully employed and keep her at the center of a group of listeners. If she likes to teach she can help kids with their studies. The essence is to find the talent that is within the person and allow its expression. This form of attention will go a long way in helping Sophiya to manage the self-hurting thought cycle that has set in place.
A disinterested spouse who finds himself trapped in a dramatic marriage must reconsider his priorities. The children must be involved in helping her back to normalcy. The family may well take professional help to identify the right way to help Sophiya. Professional help and family support can go a long way in helping her to find her way back to living, albeit with a new career. Left to herself, Sophiya is unlikely to find a suitable solution. Displays of anger and irritation at her odd behavior will only make her feel increasingly isolated and accelerate the descent into uncontrolled thinking and insanity.