Have you ever, after engaging in a conversation with someone, sudden choked on the growing realization that the person you’re talking to is not completely sane?
It’s always a shock, because we just don’t expect to be face to face with crazy, especially if it’s someone we know.
The worst instance was a telephone conversation at work, decades ago. OK, not face to face … thankfully. A salesman I knew, someone I’d gone to lunch with, called me and began to talk about his sister. How she’d been the victim of a crime, a brutal, sexual attack. His voice broke; he cried, apologized, and then went into the details. Graphic, gory details, until I cried, “Stop! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for you, but I can’t listen to this!”
By then, a friend had come over because he could tell by my face that I was hearing something awful. It took a few moments to realize what had just happened. Then it took a few hours to sink in. I’d never heard the term “mind fuck” before, but add a scoop of blood-drenched shock and that’s what I was served up. I felt like a fool, because I’d let the man talk.
My friend called the boss, and we called the police. They didn’t treat me like a fool, thank goodness. The guy never came near me again; we learned from his boss (eventually) that mine was not the first complaint.
Like I said, that was the worst instance.
I’ve been creeped out by strangers who sat next to me, pointed out their former co-workers there, on the dance floor, and told me how they dreamed of getting a gun to punish them for the way they behaved. That happened twice, when I was young and went to dance clubs. What weird karma is that?
I was getting to know a friend who told me about her childhood in the south. Fun times, great conversation. Six months later I brought up an anecdote from that talk because it seemed appropriate. She stared at me like I was nuts. She’d never been to the south. She grew up in Arizona. Her partner, a long-time friend, told me later that such things happened to him too. She had alternate personalities that came out at times to tell stories about their lives.
A fellow writer, who was finally getting her magnum opus published, moved because of one neighbor who stalked her, stole her mail, and frightened her. Her friends heard about these incidents as they happened, every few weeks. Then the former neighbor showed up at her new place. She called the police, who referred her to a private detective. The detective made her a hat of sensors and wires to deflect the stalker’s probes.
At some point, you blink and realize there is no stalker, no stolen mail, no detective. What do you do then?
A smart, clever woman called to tell me she would no longer join our group at a restaurant because she’d heard us all talking about her, condemning her. It went round the table, those hissing rebukes. I tried to calm her, tell her that hadn’t happened. No one condemned her, but she wouldn’t believe me. A year or so later she was hospitalized with dementia and she died the first day of this year.
Last night I listened to an elderly woman, a casual acquaintance, who has been telling everyone for months about her computer viruses and problems, and who has blown off every suggestion that made sense. She told me about the sneaky hackers passing themselves off as Paypal investigators, about Microsoft ripping her off, about the bank lady telling her to take her accounts elsewhere because my friend keeps closing and opening new accounts as she’s hacked. The FBI is investigating, she’s been told. Has she called the police about this identity theft? No, because the FBI is handling it. She was told that. She never said by whom. Meanwhile, she’s cancelling all her plans for the weekend because the computer people may call her then and keep her on the phone for hours.
What do you do? When you’ve been listening to a woman talk for 45 minutes and never answer a direct question, but go round and round about these bad people who pass themselves off as good people, what?
We like to believe that the folks we know or meet see the same world we do, more or less. We seek common ground and build on it. When the person across from you begins to sink into quicksand, when their moaning and groaning crosses a line into paranoia, when their stories become confused and there’s no logic to the drama that keeps growing and expanding, it’s a threat, in a way. Crazy is close, it’s just across the table on on the other end of the phone.It’s grabbed hold of someone I know. How long has this been going on?
I no longer feel like a fool when someone fools me. It’s not about me at all. I also don’t often cut and run, unless the person speaking is a total stranger and getting away seems imperative..
I guess the answer to “What do you do?” is you listen and try to think of a way to help.