Some years ago I took a sabbatical from my usual occupation to spend a few years working for a faith-based charity at a day center for mentally ill homeless people. I’d never taken a psychology course in my life, but here I was interacting every day with people who suffered from major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, drug-induced psychoses, substance abuse issues, and every sort of personality disorder. The pay was awful, but it was one of those jobs where you went home several times a week thinking, “I saved somebody’s life today.” That pretty much never happened in the computer business.
That is how it came to pass that one day a woman walked into my office to ask me if I knew why the Postal Service was following her and tracking her movements. The story with this woman is that she was in her early 30’s, homeless, and schizophrenic. Not too many years before, she had been an up-and-coming assistant buyer in a department store chain, a fact which probably accounted for her remarkable ability to always look as though she had just walked out of Nordstrom, when in fact she was homeless and penniless.
It might seem to you that being tracked by the Postal Service is most likely one of her paranoid delusions. I’m not going to tell you that the thought didn’t occur to me at the time. But this was a day center for people like her, and my job was to hear her out.
It all started that morning when she awoke in the park — she had a semi-private sleeping area in a clump of bushes — to find a mail truck parked at the curb not two hundred feet away. At the time she didn’t think anything of it. As part of her daily routine, she gathered her things and headed off to the Rescue Mission for breakfast. (In this particular town, breakfast was at the Rescue Mission, lunch was at Vinnie’s — AKA the St. Vincent de Paul Center — and dinner was at a different place every night of the week. She would be going to the Rescue Mission virtually every morning.) The Mission is about a twenty-minute walk from the park. On this particular day, she was only about halfway there when she realized that that was the third postal service truck to drive by her in the space of only a few blocks. What was going on? There had been a mailman watching her when she got up that morning, and now here they were tracking her as she made her way to the Rescue Mission. She decided to alter her route; she went a block North, out of her way, to avoid the surveillance. Yet not two blocks later, there was another mail truck. Sure, it went right by, and the driver didn’t even look at her. But she wasn’t fooled. They had somehow figured out her new route, and now they were following her again.
What really proved it, and the reason she was coming to see me, is that when she got to the Rescue Mission there was a mail truck parked right in front. They were already there! How could they have possibly known where she was going?
Do you see what she did there? Schizophrenia is a really interesting disease. Her sensory inputs are working just fine. It’s unlikely she just made these trucks up or hallucinated them… she doesn’t have to. Mail trucks are everywhere, and all the time. And if you follow what she’s saying, she is being rigidly analytical in trying to make sense of what she sees. All those parts of her brain are working perfectly. And yet what she says… is nuts. (See, I warned you that I have no training in psychology; I don’t want to fool you, so I am not going to use any medical terminology).
The reason that you and I know it’s nuts is that there is another part of the human brain that is supposed to come around behind the analytical engine and subject its results to a kind of sanity checking using accumulated background knowledge and what we usually call Common Sense. If the analytical engine tells us that we are being followed around and tracked by postal service trucks, this part of the brain stamps the result “stupid” and throws it on the floor. We aren’t even consciously aware this happens. If this part of the brain fails, we might end up like this poor woman. And we might even end up sleeping in the bushes.
Perhaps you are wondering why I am telling you about this unfortunate schizophrenic woman that I knew twenty years ago. It’s because Jamie Lee Curtis came into my Twitter feed and told me that she saw a mail truck being hauled away on a flatbed. Next thing I know, Postal Service sorting machines are being moved from where they are to an Undisclosed Location. And just yesterday somebody saw a streetcorner mailbox in Portland being packed up and hauled off to parts unknown. Maybe you could let the first two slide, but that third one proves it: Trump is gearing up to steal the election by hiding all the mail trucks and sorting machines and stuff.
It was nuts then, and it’s nuts now.