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4:29pm on Tuesday, 31st October, 2006:

The Madman


I spent the entire flight from New York back to London sitting next to a madman.

He really was a madman: he told me himself he was, and that legions of psychiatrists agreed with him. I wasn't about to disagree, but the moment he'd appeared I'd realised things weren't quite right with him, and that they couldn't fully be attributed to his warning that he'd quit smoking 15 minutes earlier.

We talked for about 3 or 4 hours before stopping to let people sitting near us get some sleep. He'd apparently been very clever in his youth, but not clever enough to figure out that an over-indulgence in the chemical side of the 1980s rave culture might have deliterious effects on his capacity to think. He'd gone to the USA to spend a few weeks at a Buddhist retreat near Monticello (he wasn't aware of its association with Thomas Jefferson), and was now on his way back. He'd been diagnosed schizophrenic for the past 19 years, and Buddhism was his long-term way of trying to get his life back on track.

It was weird talking to him; it was as if his brain was thinking at different speeds. I'm guessing that there was some rewiring went on after he burned out a few components with his ecstasy exploits causing other parts to take up the slack, but not at the same speed as the parts that hadn't been damaged. That said, he was perfectly rational the whole time, and although it was clear he had mental problems I wouldn't have called him insane.

He himself had a very strong vision of what insanity was, and one consequence of it was that everyone was insane. I pointed out that while this may be true, some people are insane two or three times over simultaneously. They may be insane (by his wide definition) in everyday life, but when manic depression (say) kicked in, they were additionally insane to a whole new order of magnitude. He was OK with that, but still insisted that everyone was insane, especially soldiers, businessmen and politicians. My response was that to judge whether a person is insane from their actions, you need to know their reasoning; if it is on a false or dangerous premise then you might consider them insane, but otherwise it's not an indicator. A person who signs up in the army in the belief that doing so will lead to a safer world in which their children will grow up is giving an understandable, rational explanation; someone who signs up because they get enjoyment from killing people is giving a rational explanation founded on a dangerous motivation; someone who signs up because they want to get away from the pixies is doing so on a false premise. As for what to do with people who exhibit signs of madness, well that depends: if they ask for help, those qualified to give them it should do so; if they are likely to be or become a danger to themselves or others, they should be given treatment (and perhaps kept away from other people); if they're harmless and OK with their situation, hey, let them carry on.

I realised after a while that my mad friend had constructed a consistent (and fortunately not paranoid) world view to explain his experiences. In this, reality has a spiritual aspect to it that is not perceived by most people, but to which some individuals are attuned. He's seen leprechauns and fairies, not because he was hallucinating or delusional, but because his mind is open to them in a way that most people's minds aren't. Thus, what he sees is real, but not part of everyday reality, because reality is only a construct anyway. Science, which can't address the mystical and the irrational, distances most of society from this spiritual world.

Well yes, that's true, but that's because science is concerned with experimental verification of observable phenomena. It's a bit rich to criticise science for attempting to understand the world in terms of what can be experienced when that's exactly what he's doing (only he experiences additional things that other people don't on account of how he's mad, so he has to extend his model of reality to incorporate this). Furthermore, he hadn't seemed to associate the fact that he's seen leprechauns with the brain damage he'd done to himself by taking too many drugs in his late teens. I probed a little, saying that some forms of madness can be induced — that caused by syphalis, for example — but he didn't associate that with his own condition. I wasn't going to push to hard, anyway, as I didn't want to risk doing some kind of harm merely to satisfy my curiosity.

It was quite an interesting conversation, overall, at least from my point of view (and I suspect his, too, as he liked the way I was open to what he was saying rather than just telling he was mad for saying it). I did mention virtual worlds, although I wasn't sure if playing one would help him, hinder him or make no difference. He immediately locked onto the notion that if you played these worlds you could come to understand yourself more, and he did so with no prompting from me (although I subsequently filled him in on the mechanism a little). I'm guessing that long, exhaustive sessions with psychiatrists over the course of many years had given him a better insight into such things than people who haven't given it a lot of thought.

I decided that when we left the aircraft I'd ask him for his contact details so we could keep in touch (if only to tell him not to start smoking again). This didn't happen, though, for a quite bizarre reason.

So, the plane is at the gate but we're not allowed to get off, and we're talking about how much kip we got and stuff, and this man in a uniform comes up and asks if the mad guy is Mr something-or-other. He confirms it, and is asked for his passport, so he shows that, and then the man in the uniform tells him to go with him. "Ooh, VIP treatment!" I say. The mad guy (whose name I don't know, by the way — I didn't ask and I didn't catch what the uniformed man said) got all his stuff together and his bags and fastened his shoelaces and so on, taking quite a long time to do so, all the while with the plane stationary and the seat belt sign still on. Then he gets up and leaves with the man in the uniform. After he's gone, the seat belt sign goes off and we all get to leave too.

Outside, I approached a couple of ground crew to see if they knew what had happened, and they said the madman had been taken away in handcuffs.


He didn't seem mad enough to me to merit that, but I suppose inconsistency is sometimes the nature of madness.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).