July 23, 1993


The way it is now, the asylums can hold the sane people, but if we try to shut up the insane we should run out of building materials.

Mark Twain

I have just finished watching a particularly disturbing episode of Star Trek the Next Generation. Commander Riker is rehearsing for a play in which he is an inmate of a mental institution and is either being treated by a psychiatrist or is being brain washed. The plot thickens and soon no one knows what is real and what is induced fantasy.

It seems strange that I would be touched by a fantasy within a fantasy within a fantasy etc. Since nothing in Star Trek is real, why does it bother me? It bothers me because there have been incidents in my life where it was hard to maintain my sanity; when it was a struggle just keep my mental balance.

During WWII, I joined the infantry in the middle of a troop movement, after dark. The vehicle in which I was riding stopped occasionally and we all ran into the fields and hugged the earth, while low-flying aircraft fired tracer bullets at something that I couldn't see. I was dropped off at an Aid Station. The staff asked me if I was the new medic. When I said "yes", one of them said "you're in charge" and they all left to go to sleep, leaving me with no instructions and no way to contact anyone. A rifleman came in and said "where am I?" I told him that he was in an aid station.

"Which aid station?" he asked flatly.

"Blue," I said, because that was all that I had been told.

He walked out, only to return, saying "They sent me back." I managed to persuade him to give me his rifle and to lie down and get some sleep. I have no recollection of what happened after that. I knew that the soldier was crazy --they called it "Combat Fatigue" -- but what about me? I had little more idea of reality than he did. What I have told you is all that I remember. The next day I was taken to the infantry platoon that I was to be with for the rest of the war. Was I insane? Was the world insane?

Have you ever had a dream that felt so real that it took a minute or so after you woke up to realize that it was only a dream? That is part of the fabric of madness, except that a person who is really out of his mind doesn't wake up; at least not right away.

Joseph Heller's book Catch 22 is about a soldier who is trying to get out of the army, but can't because of the Catch 22 which says that if he is insane, he can get out; but if he wants to get out because he doesn't want to be killed, he is obviously sane and therefore can't get out. Somewhere past the middle of the book, our hero goes mad, but his madness is so much like the real world that the reader has a hard time knowing when he goes off his rocker.

I know that I have had moments of madness in my life. I don't know if anyone else had felt that way, but I suspect that these experiences of madness are not uncommon, particularly in adolescence and in times of extreme emotional stress.

As I sit here writing, I know that I am as sane as I have ever been. How sane is that? I can never be sure.

Next column

Return to the Psychology Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page