I’m in my kitchen, heating a pan of water, about to throw in some noodles. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I have the urge to plunge my hand into the boiling pot. I think to myself, “I can’t be hurt, so what’s the big deal?” Then I put my hand in the pan and scorching pain surges through my body. I instinctively pull back and rush to the tap, holding my hand under cold water. My hand is raw and red and later starts to blister. But I ignore the pain, carrying on as though nothing has happened.
Why would I do this to myself? Because I was in a state of delusion, and truly believed I was immune to danger and pain.
Psychosis is a symptom of several mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, which I have. And one facet of psychosis is delusional thinking. I, and many other people with this type of thinking, experience delusions of grandeur—a belief that you are extremely important in some way; that you’re president of the world, or superhuman, and impervious to harm. In the midst of a delusion, your beliefs cannot be challenged. Even with all the logic and facts in the world thrown at you, it’s simply not possible to see your reasoning as flawed.
Manic episodes fill me with elation, hyperactivity and confidence, which tend to merge with my delusional thinking. That's called "mood congruent psychosis", and means my feelings of power and energy influence the very nature of my delusions. Cue: delusions of invincibility. And real-world danger. Take driving. I’m generally a responsible person. I don’t drink and drive, I indicate with plenty of time. But that all vanishes with delusional thinking. Thoughts that would otherwise seem ludicrous now seem plausible. Irrational beliefs fix like cement in my mind.
I’m at work and bursting to escape. I race to my car, jump in, and tear down the gravel road, away from monotony. I haven’t been mentally well, but I’ve been ignoring it, and enjoying how mania makes me feel. The elation is better than any drug I’ve ever taken. A thought develops in my mind: wouldn’t it be wonderful to drive in the middle of the road? At this moment I truly believe that I can’t be hurt. I’m too important; other drivers will just move out of the way. Obstructions will magically disappear.
Soon I'm driving down the middle, and there’s a car driving toward me. I don’t swerve, because the car will move for me. I speed up, instead. I can hear a car horn and see the flashing lights of the car, and wonder what the fuss is all about. We collide. I scream with excitement as the other car bumps and scrapes against mine. My wing mirror breaks off. I squeal and laugh and continue driving. The other car has come to a halt, meantime, and I can see a figure frantically waving at me as I drive away.
Now I’m at a junction, but I don’t stop. I see a car hurtling toward me. I stamp on the accelerator and drive into a bollard, puncturing the driver's front tyre. The other car hasn’t slowed down in time, and hits the back of my car, sending me spinning. Somehow, unbelievably, I’m completely unhurt. A man opens my door with a frantic look in his eyes and I say, “I’m fine, I’m fine!” Which to me is completely obvious, and I can’t understand why he looks so worried.
With delusional thinking there is no deliberation—I simply can’t see the world or myself in any other way in that moment. From the outside, of course, this might just look like an incredibly rash or impulsive decision. Or one a child with no sense of danger might make.
Like crossing the road: in a state of mania, the idea I could be hurt is absent. Except I’m an adult, and the people around me don’t realise they need to hold my hand or grab my arm to stop me stepping out in front of cars. I have a habit of walking out into the road without looking. In my deluded state, I believe cars will either stop for me, or if I’m hit I won’t be hurt. I can't be. I'm immune. People shout and swear at me to get off the road; my partner grabs me away from harm at the last second.
I’ve been knocked over twice. Both times I was alone, walking down a busy street. The first time, I was launched onto the bonnet of a car. Then I was on the tarmac. I was more concerned with whether anyone had seen up my skirt than the possibility I had been seriously hurt. But somehow, both times I came away with just scrapes and bruises. I’ve been extremely lucky.
Delusions are difficult for people on the outside to understand, especially when they come face-to-face with someone having a psychotic episode. I tell them it’s important to not feed the delusion, whatever it might be. As in, don’t ask for more information about the ideas, or play along. But also don't do the opposite and tell the person their belief is ridiculous, because in that moment, it feels as real as anything they’ve ever experienced. Instead, be gentle and calm, and empathise with what they’re saying. Focus on the feelings behind the facts and the story they’re telling you. Most importantly, ask if there is anything you can do to help. You don’t have to understand to give support—or to help someone stay safe. If you or someone you know is experiencing psychosis or delusional thinking, a resource guide can be found here. If you need urgent help with psychotic symptoms, visit the nearest emergency department or see this urgent help page. Alternatively, check out the mental health crisis number in your state.