The World According to Capgras

My excitement and fatigue had led me into the world according to Capgras. In this delusion nearest and dearest are believed to be impostors. Their physiognomy is registered accurately but no matter what is said and done there is no doubting their falsity. They are impostors and declaimed as such.

    hospital bed

    ”When you go, you go” Julie said to me last week.

    She was speaking of my tipping point which has lately become a plunging watershed of no return. Once reached there is no negotiation as I embark on a vertical slide into another state. When I go, I go… but where do I go?

    I am no longer sure but I can say this: it is not fun, it’s a weirdish place. I can make it bearable for others by being still, by not blurting out, by – best of all – shutting up. But on the inside I must be especially vigilant for the sharp cutlery is out. My business partner has just called to tell me she is not working today. A man she liked, she has known for a long time, jumped under a train last night. I have visiting rights to that ward.

    On Tuesday night the others were mostly seated when I took my place at the long table at Carluccio’s. Outside I could see the hospital entrance wet and washed with light. My forehead stayed clammy as cold rain was replenished by the seep of cold sweat. I counted the men: I had around me the apostolic number. Grimly I saw the fit. This meal with these men, the last before my marriage, was a last supper. Suddenly I distrusted them all, every one. That noise, that braying. These men were jackals – noisy, sly and uncouth. I wanted to flee and keep on fleeing. I had read these men wrong, all of them: these were beasts to be avoided. Why on earth would I want any them at my wedding? I was freaking out.

    ”All of them” was the tell of course. I could not be wrong about all of them for all of this time. Hope and belief need a fingerhold and this sliver of reason was it. I performed my breathing exercises, ate and relcaimed a little sanity. Nevertheless I left early. My excitement and fatigue had led me into the world according to Capgras. In this delusion nearest and dearest are believed to be impostors. Their physiognomy is registered accurately but no matter what is said and done there is no doubting their falsity. They are impostors and declaimed as such. Patients display cool anger and and, after a while, terror at this outrage connived at by everyone around them.

    I heard someone describe an incident at the very end of his drug using. From a high hotel window (behind him hookers, coke, pipes) he looked down, utterly disconnected, at the folk on the pavement, attending to cash machines, traffic lights, the casual interactions of the street. He had reached his jumping off point. That was interesting to me because I had gone in the other direction, I had gone down. My last email thread to my shrink spoke dramatically of a bathyscope in which I was descending further and further, the black enlarging, the sightings of other lights rarer and rarer. I welcomed the depths, I wondered (and read widely) on what it was like to drown (and I very nearly found out). My life was emptying: it was becoming an existence I did not want.

    Capgras ward is far down the corridor in the hospital of neurological syndromes and delusions. But there lies one further ward, that of Cotard. It is possible for a human being to see and process and interact with others, to go about their conscious business, but to believe they are dead. Nothing and no-one has any emotional content for them. The mind, scrambling to make sense of what it perceives (that after all is its job, that is what got it to its pre-eminence) concludes that they have died. The pull of this belief is so strong that it will adduce anything to its cause. A patient agrees the dead do not bleed. The patient is cut and bleeds. He exclaims ”I was wrong, the dead do bleed!” Neurologists see at work in Cotard, in Capgras, and in lesser forms of de-personalisation and de-realisation (in schizophrenia perhaps) a terrible short circuit. Certain parts of our brain attach emotional significance to sensory signals but through lesions, disease, or short-term shut downs from chemical assaults, these parts no longer label correctly and we do cannot perceive what is really there. In the ward of Cotard nothing and no one has any affect, so the only explanation can be ”I am dead”. Victims of rape and grievous assault report a similar disconnectness from the violence as it unfolds. Under extreme stress the mind plays ”possum” to protect its integrity. But play possum too long and you stop playing dead. You are dead.

    I find it helpful to believe that my wiring is a little suspect, a little frayed around the contacts, sleeveleless where it should be sleeved. When tired and stressed my neurochemicals spark and short and the chaotic weather system that is my mood becomes disturbed. I am not consulted before my mind is seized, restrained on a trolley and shot down – way down – the corridor. I shoot past the places where others go to recuperate and enter Capgras, and once (in my bathyscope) I lay outside Cotard. It is tempting to get off the trolley and lie down in the ward but this is very dangerous. Because then I will forget I am in a ward at all and believe there are no such things as other people and that whatever people are they have nothing for me. At that moment I am in no longer in a ward, I am no longer anywhere, I am utterly lost.

    Before Carluccio’s I had dropped by the house where my children live to spend an hour with Lucy. I thought that anyone gazing over my shoulder at my daughter could reasonably have thought her a basket case. Looking like an illustration out of Dr Seuss she was at work at her sewing machine making coloured felt hats, which once made she popped on her head. I counted sixteen. Cycling one day in the Portobello Road she had been hailed by a retailer who now pays her £4 per hat. She paints pictures, she is a bartender in Notting Hill, she is all about making money for her gap year travels.

    Periodically Lucy rolled her seat across to her other desk where her personal statement was in draft. This will accompany her application to read Human Sciences at Sussex. She wanted my input but not – she was clear – my edit. I helped formulate a couple of interesting questions as to what there was to study in this subject which was easy because it intrigues me, and now it intrigues her. I was astonished to hear her say: ”Your name is in this statement”. For many years, too busy at work, I had read little to my kids but once or twice I had settled down to the task. Lucy tells her future faculty that she dates her interest from the time her father read to her from The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. The eponymous patient is given a glove which he examines intently and utterly fails to see for what it is. He is eloquent but bewildered (like the man who reads this to his daughter). He describes a continuous surface with five outpocketings. Lucy loved this word and always wanted me to repeat it. Asked what the glove might be for the man ponders. ”Is it perhaps to hold coins of different sizes?”. I look up from her screen and say ”outpocketings” and under the sixteen caps her level grey eyes smile.

    With deep-down delight I see I have passed on something of my curiosity toward the world. Lucy’s curiosity is billowing and it will take her wherever it takes her. Very soon I will be left behind but I will look forward to whatever she brings back – until one day I am no longer there to receive it. We all crave transcendence and, in my view of things, this is the nearest I will get. And at that moment it is enough. It really is enough.