Story one: Challenging our perceptions
Interview by Grant J Everett
Sometimes, it’s best not to automatically trust everything we see, hear, or believe, to question what we perceive. We asked Warren Heggarty about a personal experience to illustrate this.
Warren, could you share an occasion where you believed something that turned out not to be real? Perhaps one that could have had serious consequences?
WARREN: During an interview with a Disability Employment Service employment consultant I began to believe that she was mocking me because I was a nobody who wasn’t good enough to have a job. I also felt that having to go through all of this bureaucracy was part of a plan to wear me down and destroy me. I started yelling at the consultant, and I became so aggressive that I was asked to leave the premises, and I was still shouting at them as I left. I’d been feeling worthless one moment, and then BANG I was in a rage. I suddenly believed I was a god, and this led to me walking into busy traffic on the Hume Highway. I was going up to cars, and people were swerving to avoid me. I was lucky people didn’t get killed!
P: What did you do next?
W: After a few minutes, the godlike feeling left and I came to my senses. I decided I’d better hand myself into the police, because I felt I could be dangerous. I couldn’t find a police station, so I went to see a GP instead.
P: Did the doctor actually say, “I don’t think what you’re experiencing is real?”, perhaps in a more diplomatic way? Did she say or do anything that caused you to doubt your beliefs?
W: The opposite! The GP actually asked ME how I knew it wasn’t real- that I was a god, and wanted to know why I felt this way. Seeing as though the episode only lasted about 10 minutes, there was no need to challenge these beliefs. When it was happening, though, I was utterly convinced I was all powerful and nothing could have dissuaded me from it.
P: Were there any other factors at play with this episode?
W: I felt justified in going off my head because I was facing some major problems. I had been unemployed for the first time in my life and it had been 18 months I’d also just visited my terminally-ill mother that morning and she wasn’t doing so well. I’d only just given up drinking. As an alcoholic, I hadn’t developed any skills at dealing with problems that didn’t involve getting inebriated. I felt a great deal of resentment about not getting any help.
P: Was this the only time you experienced this sort of episode?
W: Unfortunately, this was just one among many over a span of five years. I think psychotherapy contributed to resolving this problem, but it’s still a bit of a mystery as to how I was able to stop having these episodes. It wasn’t medication; in fact, I suspect the medication I was on was actually making things worse, because it lowered my inhibitions.
P: Were there any other tips that you might have for other people who might experience episodes where they might act in ways that are inappropriate or even harmful?
W: I think that taking responsibility for my behaviour has gradually led to less and less of those episodes. Once I realised my actions might ruin other people’s lives, that was when I started to come down from the high. I was brought up to be accountable for my actions, and I know that screaming and terrifying people who are just doing their job, throwing things, and trying to cause car accidents is just not acceptable. I was behaving in a morally wrong way, and it was my responsibility to do something to stop it. Learning how to deal with problems constructively is very important, because chucking a tantrum doesn’t get you anywhere.
Story 2: The lessons of experience
Interview by Warren Heggarty
Grant is determined not to yield to the thought that has been nagging him to buy a lottery ticket for weeks now. He has learned not to have blind faith in his feelings. Experience has taught him to ‘fact check’ his thoughts.
‘I used to be an angry kid, always lashing out. There came a point when I was a teenager I was really unwell and began believing that I was a really important religious elder and I made prophecies about the future. These prophecies had no basis on any evidence or knowledge. They were ridiculous and I’m embarrassed thinking about it today.
‘I warned friends, for example of a terrorist attack in 2000 that did not eventuate.
‘Another time, I was staying in a hostel and I told people that I was Jesus. At the time I totally misread the reaction of those people. I just assumed they believed me, but looking back I can see that they were laughing it off. I was so stuck inside my own head!’
‘Later I came to meet other people who thought they were Jesus, too. Nowadays I don’t blindly trust my feelings.’
Grant suggests we should always question ourselves and others to some degree. We should speak with trusted friends to get a grip on what is really happening. We should try to learn about ourselves and get to know how other people might see us. If we are stuck inside our own heads, we need to get out more!