Madness of Two: Shared Psychotic Disorder

Lex Chase

Humans are flawed. We know that. We admit that. Our skeletons pilot our meaty bits to do things that we’re supposed to do, and our meaty bits sometimes do things we don’t expect. Like our brains decide they’re going to succumb to ten hours of Tasty videos instead of say, go for a walk. Now, if we can go for a walk while watching Tasty videos on our phones? Aces.

But let’s get serious. Sometimes our brains are sick. Like any mentally ill person, like myself, our brains aren’t well. It’s like our grey matter has a flu that it can never get rid of. That’s kind of a simple, reductive, humorous way of putting it, but at least it makes it less gloom and doom.

Sometimes someone’s flu-ish brain infects another brain with the flu. And this this flu morphs into something nastier than pneumonia. This is what is called folie á deux, or shared psychotic disorder. My beloved show Hannibal called it “the madness of two.”

I want to make clear, for those of you who have happened upon my posts out of the blue, and reading along clutching your pearls…

Mental illness is not contagious.

But shared psychotic disorder is…interesting.

Shared psychotic disorder, you can read all about here, is fascinating as much as it is troubling. For the Cliff’s Notes version, you have the “primary case” or the person with the initial psychosis. The person may believe things like “the FBI is putting LSD in our water supply” or “I’m going to sue the government and win.” Or other things like “Skynet will rise up and kill all humanity.” Or “Alexa units are laughing at us like creepy ghost children.”

Oh. Wait. Skynet will probably happen. And Alexa units are definitely laughing like creepy ghost children. Nevermind.

But with this primary case, this one individual, they hone in on a more passive, susceptible individual with a similar worldview. They may be in constant close quarters, like a co-worker, spouse, best friend, roommate, professional and client, and in extreme cases, a cult leader and their followers. Soon this other individual buys into the delusion wholesale. This person goes along with the primary case’s beliefs like it’s gospel.

Yeah! The Commies are coming to get us!

Yeah! We’re going to win a million dollars!

Yeah! The Cylons have infiltrated the Galactica and have a plan!

(Spoiler Alert: The Cylons never had a plan.)

But once the primary case has a hold on it’s compatriot, and the longer the madness holds, the damage could be inconceivable. We’ve seen such a case with the Slenderman Murders where a pair of 12 year-old girls shared psychosis. This isn’t limited to just adults. This affects children. And this isn’t something people do for kicks out of mean-spirited manipulation, these people are genuinely ill. They don’t have the wherewithal to understand what they believe isn’t reality. The only reality that exists is theirs, and their reality becomes that of their follower.

Follower is kind of a harsh word, but let’s call a duck a duck here. Follower, zealot, foot soldier, believer, spouse, lover, what have you.

And if you want some true craziness?

I’ve done this.

I’ve been the primary case.

And I was a child.

Before I was diagnosed, in those confusing, terrible years, I struggled to make sense of how I saw the world differently than everyone else. I believed that everyone saw the world the same way I did, they were just better at handling hearing voices and seeing a different person in the mirror than yourself. (Yeah. That’s not upsetting.)

And then, one day in middle school, I got angry about this voices whispering to me about doomsday prophecies. I got angry about them telling me I couldn’t save everyone. I got angry at these voices making me have to choose who would be worthy to save when the time came.

I wish I was making that up. Seems so surreal doesn’t it? Ridiculous? I mean, I was a kid.

So, like any kid who was clearly of sound mind and totally not mentally disturbed, I wrote a manifesto.

Yuuuuuup. That’s likewise not upsetting. Nope. Not at all. Nope nope.

So, I wrote a manifesto—again calling a duck a duck—and I told my friends about it. A few of my friends were hesitant to get on board with my rantings of the end is coming. One of my friends, who I will call S, was experiencing problems at home and had expressed wanting to run away. I told S about this supposed end I absolutely believed in. I think it was nuclear holocaust or something. Something like that. Because the Gulf War had just gotten underway and it was a bit of a topic on everyone’s mind.

But S? She believed it. All of it. My manifesto, my psychosis, how I seemed to make perfect sense to her about the end of humanity. We had a plan (unlike the Cylons. Ahem.) we gathered supplies, we read up on survival guides. Well as much as any 11 year-old without an internet connection could read up on survival guides. As in not at all.

And then, bless my mother, she found my manifesto.

I wasn’t blessing her at the time, because you know, my brain wasn’t working. Like really wasn’t. But when I think back on it, my mother saved my life and my friend’s life, and how many others if S and I had run away to live in “our truth” that the end was coming.

It was truly a defining moment for me, when my mother realized I needed help, because I didn’t think I did. Like all with psychosis, shared or not, we believe with every fiber of our being we’re sane and it’s the world that’s against us.

It was a defining moment for my mother, and my family, realizing I wasn’t being “just a kid.” It was a troubling place to be for all of us. It was the early 90s, and mental illness wasn’t a thing just like cancer wasn’t talked about. No one wants to believe their child was sick. No one wants to believe their child wrote a fucking manifesto. An 11 year-old at that.

I didn’t see S much after that. Once or twice after I was diagnosed, medicated, and found stability. I explained to her “Yeah. That was fucking nuts, right? What were we thinking?” Soon after, I never saw S again.

I still live in the same town. And sometimes I wonder if S is still here too. But I hope she moved on. And to be fair, I hope she moved as far away from here, and from me as possible for the sake of her own mental wellbeing. We don’t belong in each other’s orbit. And it’s troubling to think of the possibilities.

I haven’t thought about it in over 28 years. And to be honest, it’s such a severely troubling part of my history that’s damn near disturbing. Even I only remembered it in hazy bits and pieces due to the level of such extreme psychosis I had blocked much of it out. Personally, it’s mind boggling to look back and see a kid so emotionally disturbed, and recognize who I am, and where I am today.

I am no longer that person, that kid, but in many ways, I still am. That’s my history. That child was not someone else’s child. That child was not on a news story. And every time I see something tragic in the news about some bipolar individual losing their battles to their illness and orchestrating something horrific, the subsequent outcry of not all mentally ill are monsters, and my voice is among them. But here’s the terrifying truth. We are.

I was that monster. I am that monster. I was capable of anything. I am capable of anything.

What I did as a child does not excuse me. And I live with that, and I all I can do is be better than I was the day before. Scars are a history we have all written on our bodies, minds, and hearts. They are reminders of mistakes, but they are badges of courage that we did not surrender to the wound.

I am bipolar. I have bipolar disorder. Call it what you will. It’s all semantics.

A duck is a duck. A spade is a spade.

But you know what, Dandelions?

A dandelion is a weed, but it is also a flower.

Do not forget who you are, and blossom despite of it.

2 thoughts on “Madness of Two: Shared Psychotic Disorder

    1. Lex says:

      Thanks for your comment Jeff. 😀 The purpose of this blog is for not only mentally ill individuals to be able to see themselves, and see they’re not alone, but also for those that do not have mental illness to better understand what it’s like.

      After all, the stigma associated it with mental illness is by the cultural perception of it and not the personal experience of those with illness. Therefore it makes people ashamed to come forward, share their stories, believing they’re “wrong” because society has told them so.

      1 in 10 people have a diagnosable mental health issue. Yet 99.999999% of the global population has been convinced that’s a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing at all. It’s the lens in which we see the world. We just all see it a bit differently. 😀

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