“The thing with Brandon, you know, he’s a good guy, but he needs to stay away from those drugs. He’s seeing things that aren’t there.”

Jeff and I were talking about one of the guys who works for another business in the building. Last week, one of the contractors called me over to let me know that Brandon has been having visual and auditory hallucinations. He wanted me to know about it so that I wouldn’t be shocked by any unexpected bizarre behavior. The consensus is that he’s back on drugs, but maybe it’s some kind of preexisting paranoid schizoid tendencies too. He thinks there are people on the roof talking to him. He waves at nonexistent people across the room. He stares unsettlingly at people “with a Joker smile,” as one woman put it. He talks about being stalked and chased by shadowy figures whom he can’t describe or name. Oh, and he apparently thinks the Lady and I are undercover cops. Or FBI agents. I’m not clear which, and I’m not about to ask for clarification.

I admit this gives me pause. Many things, presumably, are different in Cloud Cuckoo Land, but I imagine undercover cops are not considered benevolent figures there either, especially to drug addicts with guilty consciences. But aside from the pressing self-preservation angle, I’m curious about how, exactly, this all works. How does his brain function well enough to allow him to get up at the right time each morning, operate a motor vehicle, and perform his job (which he reportedly can still do with no problems), but fail him in other ways? What keeps him from hallucinating a Deep State hitman or a shapeshifting alien in the passenger seat of his car, causing him to freak out and lose control of the steering wheel? When he asks someone in the office about an activity last week, an activity that never happened, and they tell him so, how does he process that? Does he think, “Why is she lying to me? I know that happened!” Or does a glimmer of self-awareness appear, causing him to think, “Wow, maybe I should stop snorting elephant tranquilizers”? Or when the owners of the building tell him he’s not allowed to be there after a certain time because he’s making people uncomfortable when they’re alone with him in the building — why isn’t he confused, wondering what he’s done wrong? How does his internal narrator fill in the increasingly-large gaps in the plot?

Yesterday, we were talking with the Lady’s cousin via Zoom. Among other topics, we talked about Covid denialism, anti-vax fanaticism (a fanatic being one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject, as the old quip goes), and epistemological relativism in general, i.e. why do so many people seem to believe so much crazy shit? I mentioned Brandon’s story, and compared it with the social-media derived lunacy of some of our common relatives. Brandon’s problem, I suggested, was perceptual. He’s literally failing to perceive reality accurately, even before he starts theorizing about it. Jim’s problem, on the other hand, is more conceptual. He perceives events accurately enough, but he builds logical chains of reasoning that arc out into the void, and before you know it, he thinks that there are child sex-slavery rings being run out of Walmart, and there’s going to be a civil war soon because Trump is about to be reinstalled as president, and in Australia, the police are literally tackling people in the streets…yes, but wait for it…and injecting them with the vaccine. Also, everyone who got the vaccine is going to die. (Fact check: missing crucial context in the form of a clear timescale, but technically true.) These beliefs are slightly more abstract, and therefore more expendable. Brandon gets irritated when people suggest that he’s deluded, so they’ve stopped arguing and started humoring him. If we survive several more years despite being death-injected, Jim won’t have an epistemological crisis. He’ll probably improvise an excuse on the spot, shrug, and move on. Likewise, when someone pointed out to him that the picture he saw of Justin Trudeau handing an oversized novelty check, Ed McMahon style, to a terrorist, was just a Photoshop job, he waved it away with a “Bah!” It didn’t sway his opinion that Trudeau was still the sort of knave who would have done that, even if he technically didn’t. The perceptual infrastructure in his mind is sound enough, even if the maintenance man is taking psychedelics. However, if he informed us that the cows had told him that he shouldn’t get vaccinated, it would be time to worry. As long as it’s just Facebook telling him that, eh, whaddayagunnado.

Then again, I know a woman who thinks she communicates telepathically with her cow. I started this post to flesh out my thoughts on the difference between ordinary-crazy and crazy-crazy, but the more I ramble, the less sure I am that I know anything at all.

The writer Bruno Maçães talks sometimes about what he calls the “metaverse.” As far as I know, he hasn’t fleshed it out into a full concept or anything, but in context, you understand that he means the shared fictions, especially those which are media-derived and disseminated, that increasingly crowd out the real world. In the metaverse, we just barely escaped a fascist tyranny, or maybe it was a patriarchal theocracy. In the metaverse, the Associated Press complains that the Taliban “failed” to appoint any female ministers, as if they ever intended to do so. In the metaverse, the “mostly peaceful” riots of last summer were both righteous uprisings of the oppressed and false-flag operations of the radical right, depending on the day of the week; the horrific shambles of the Afghanistan evacuation was a glorious success; and the mass hallucination of Border Patrol agents wielding nonexistent whips against Haitian migrants spreads all the way to the White House itself. Truly, we’ve come a long way from those superstitious, irrational days when Goody Proctor could be denounced for cavorting with the devil in the churchyard at midnight.

So, yes, Brandon, poor guy, is “seeing things that aren’t there.” Immediately afterwards, Jeff told me what he thought was really happening. “He’s seeing our ghosts.” It turns out, he honestly believes there are ghosts in the building. The contractor who originally warned me about Brandon’s erratic behavior backed him up on this. “Oh, yeah. I’ve been working here late at night, and you’ll see something out of the corner of your eye, or it’ll get real chilly all of a sudden…”

“Or your dog will start barking at nothing you can see!” Jeff piped up. “Then there was that time when this guy had this big old flag that started moving by itself, with no fans being turned on…I thought he was gonna piss himself!” Because the building was built prior to the Civil War, he speculates that it may have been used as a hospital during one of the nearby battles, so, Q.E.D, really. Civil War ghosts. It’s the only plausible explanation.

I have no grand conclusions. All I know is that my operating assumption is that everyone is a delusional nutjob once you scratch the surface, and this is why all conversations should be superficial and brief.