5 Bizarre Mental Illnesses That Turn Reality Into a TV Show
Let's face it: The minutiae of your day-to-day life would bore the absolute crap out of anyone watching it. The closest thing to a character arc most of us have is slowly learning how to use the popcorn button on the microwave. We are not Truman-caliber protagonists. But thanks to the wondrous misfires of the human brain, everybody can feel like the star of their own TV show! All the time! Every minute of every day, for the rest of your life. Whether you like it or not.
You See Subtitles When People Talk
Subtitles are a great way to make Sylvester Stallone movies intelligible for the English-speaking viewer. Of course, if you already speak fluent Stallone or think reading is for nerds, you can simply pull up the menu options, turn the subtitles off, and let the punches speak for themselves. But what if we weren't talking about movies at all? What if you saw subtitles during real-life conversations, like when Jason Statham starts flipping out in Crank? What if you could never turn them off?
"What the hell is this? No, I mean it, I'm functionally illiterate."
It happened to septuagenarian Dorothy Latham. When she has a conversation, the words appear as a brightly colored ticker tape in front of whoever's speaking. It is likely the one and only thing she has in common with the teen blogger known as Cath. They both have a rare form of synesthesia, a bizarre condition in which one of your senses becomes tightly linked to another. Seeing the color blue might make you taste cheeseburgers, or hearing the music of Nirvana might make you smell teen spirit (which is mostly old socks and stale semen, for the record).
In certain cases, the part of your brain that processes text joins the party and you end up with ticker tape synesthesia, which causes your brain to produce lines of text in your visual field whenever you hear someone talking. These real-life closed captions might scroll past your vision like a colorful marquee, or the words might spill out of the speaker's mouth like they're violently hurling a bowl of Alpha-Bits.
And only occasionally do the messages come with lucky numbers.
Sounds like fun, right? But unlike movie subtitles, it's of absolutely no use with a language you don't already know (it's not a babel fish, just a brain condition). And situations where many people are talking at once quickly devolve from pleasantly colored subtitles into a Sesame Street-style nightmare of furious letters rioting all throughout the room.
All of the Dialogue You Hear Is Out of Sync
Imagine yourself in a kung fu movie. Masters need avenging, honor needs restoring, jump kicks are a form of currency, and absolutely nobody's voice is matching up to their lips. Awesome, right? Now, remove all of that stuff but the shoddy dubbing. That's your life, 24/7. How long until you change the channel on reality?
Cutting your service provider isn't really the best option.
After undergoing routine heart surgery, a British man known only as "PH" noticed something strange: The voices on TV didn't match up with the people's lip movements. Then he noticed something stranger: neither did his daughter's. "It wasn't the TV," he said. "It was me. It was happening in real life." And, perhaps strangest of all, he heard the sound of the voice a fraction of a second before perceiving the movement of the lips, giving him the dizzying sensation of hearing from the future.
This bad dubbing effect happens because visual input and audio input take different lengths of time to reach our eyes and ears, respectively. In normal brains, this difference is resolved by a magical brain clock that basically just lies to us until we perceive sight and sound in peaceful harmony (we're only being slightly facetious there -- scientists have no idea how the brain accomplishes this neat little trick). But if that timing mechanism breaks -- in PH's case, a brain scan "showed two lesions in areas thought to play a role in hearing, timing, and movement" -- the audio channel gets all out of sync, and suddenly your entire world transforms into a poorly encoded torrent you cannot delete.
"At least it's the HD version."
PH may not be alone in his badly dubbed world: A Vanderbilt study revealed that some autistic children suffer from this same kind of audio/visual separation, to the point that they may even cover their ears to "minimize the confusion between the senses." That's a mighty depressing way to end an entry in a comedy article, but unfortunately brain disorders aren't always fun and games. Who knew, right?
Your Life Follows a Script You Did Not Write
Every once in a while, a fictional character breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges that they're on screen. It's mostly used as a one-off gag played for laughs, but if the camera didn't pan away quite so quickly, you just might have caught a glance of the inevitable existential breakdown that befalls every Mel Brooks character mere seconds after the audience finishes chuckling. After all, put yourself in that character's shoes. How does it feel to know that all the world's a stage, and you're the one gettin' played?
That's why you're still alive. They'd never kill off the main character!
Ask Louise Airey, who was only 8 years old when she first felt like she'd been pulled outside of herself. "All of a sudden you're hyper aware," she said, "and everything else in the world seems unreal, like a movie." At 19, a migraine triggered what felt to her like living through an 18-month-long movie (eat your heart out, Peter Jackson), and she's dealt with similar episodes ever since. Lucky her! She gets to experience all the sensations of starring in a movie without any of the pesky side effects like fame and fortune.
Welcome to the hell known as depersonalization disorder. It's a condition that can happen with no apparent cause, but often results from intense anxiety or extreme trauma. After a stressful situation, your sense of self can come unplugged from your own experience, and you end up with the deeply disturbing feeling that something else is controlling your actions. If you wave your hand in front of your face, it's not really "you" waving it -- you're just watching it happen. And maybe it's not even your hand at all, but that of a foreign body that you just happen to be inside of, like in Being John Malkovich.
The upside is you now have the perfect excuse for everything ever.
Then there's derealization, the pervading sense that the world you live in and the people in it are artificial, just props and actors on a stage. In severe cases, the whole world can look like the two-dimensional background of a low-budget off-Broadway show. And like many anxiety disorders, the fear of having a depersonalization experience can actually trigger one. So if you suffer from depersonalization disorder and your greatest fear also happens to be that your entire life might be a work of fiction, well, you're basically doomed to life as a fictional character. Your crippling mental illness makes for a pretty sweet narrative device, though. Try to take some thin comfort in that.
You Constantly Stop to Engage in Ferris Bueller-Style Soliloquies
The soliloquy is a device characters have used to secretly convey their thoughts to the audience since back before Shakespeare wrote his first terrible pun. And while it might be nice to pause the action and privately monologue your thoughts while oblivious supporting characters freeze in place, it would be significantly less awesome if they could all hear what a dick you secretly are (and every detail of your brilliant but malevolent plans). That's (sort of) what happened to a man we'll call Gary. Gary had recently switched jobs and noticed something strange: His co-workers were assholes. That in itself isn't exactly notable; every workplace is populated almost exclusively by assholes, because assholes are the world's most plentiful natural resource. What's strange was how Gary dealt with the associated stress of drowning in a sea of assholes: He started uncontrollably talking to himself. Out loud. Anything from what he watched on TV last night to complaining about his co-workers (who, again, were assholes) was fair game for Gary's little Ferris Bueller time-outs.
"And for fuck's sake, stop calling yourself 'the sausage king of Chicago'!"
Plenty of mentally ill folks speak out loud uncontrollably -- what's so weird about that? Bear with us for a moment:
Imagine you have Gary's soliloquizing disorder. And since we're handing out unfortunate behaviors, let's say you also have an intense sexual fetish for farts. You like 'em, you love 'em, you want some more of 'em. You have the good sense to be ashamed of your little fetish, and you're still in the early phases of a relationship where butt-air has not yet been exchanged. You're on your way to dinner when, during a lull in conversation, you suddenly blurt out, "Man, I want her to fart in my face so hard right now." You immediately slap your hand to your mouth and leap out of the vehicle ... but as the driverless car goes careening off the side of a cliff, your date is completely baffled, because she hadn't heard a thing.
Congratulations! You've just joined Gary as a victim of hallucination of soliloquy, a bizarre experience caused by a specific cocktail of malfunctions in the brain. The first layer is a classic schizophrenic case of your brain confusing your internal thoughts for a "voice" coming from the outside. And then the twist: Your speech pathways also get muddled, giving you the false sensation that your lips were moving.
Talk to your doctor, who won't respond, because you're not actually talking.
In effect, you just felt your mouth move and heard your voice talking, but in reality you never said anything at all -- the entire experience was only in your head. You feel as though you're constantly and involuntarily telling everybody your every filthy, depraved, and terrible thought, but you're actually entirely silent.
P-probably. Maybe this is the one time you're actually speaking out loud. How could you possibly tell? Ah well, looks like it's an Alaskan hermitage again for you.
Your Life Is Accompanied by Background Music
Can you imagine what real life would be like if a soundtrack followed you at all times, no earbuds required? Drifting off to sleep might be accompanied by a soft classical orchestra, punching your boss right in his asshole face would be accented by the jazzy horn section from Batman, and sex would obviously be scored by the opening guitar riff from "Eye of the Tiger" on endless repeat. Well, some people don't have to imagine it.
It basically makes every song on their iPod a mashup.
We didn't make up that example of a classical music soundtrack playing you off to sleep -- it's from the actual case of a 60-year-old woman who suddenly started hearing music "as if a radio were playing at the back of her head." Within months, it expanded from lullabies at bedtime to hearing music all the damn time. Perhaps the strangest part is that she wasn't even that familiar with the songs -- she had to hum them to her husband to identify them.
Her case is a particularly odd example of someone suffering from musical hallucinations, which is basically like the gypsy curse version of getting a song stuck in your head. The disembodied background music is often based on songs with close personal connections to the afflicted, and it sounds so clear that listeners swear somebody is playing it for them nearby. And yes, the playlist even changes to fit the situation, just like a movie soundtrack.
"Really? 'Everybody Hurts'? God, brain, you're so cliche."
Musical hallucinations can be triggered by anything from sleep deprivation to fever to mild hearing loss. The condition can sometimes be treated by medicating the underlying cause (that was the case with Lullaby Lady), although we're not sure we'd want to: We've always wanted our own theme music. This seems far cheaper than paying that mariachi band to break out into intense guitar strumming every time we make a pun.
Related Reading: Mental illnesses tend to be wildly misunderstood. Treatment can be next to impossible to get and the capgras delusion will convince you your friends have been replaced by aliens. And did you know some illnesses only happen one place on earth? It's a wonder Hollywood needs to make up all these myths about mental illness in the first place.