‘The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and that I just wouldn’t pay attention to them’ – Jean Paul Sartre.
I don’t like crisps that much, but at the market you can buy 10 bags of Monster Munch, marginally outdated, ‘flamin’ hot’ flavour, twenty per cent extra in each bag, for £1. Or for £2 you can buy a whole box (of 20). Or, for £2 you can get 48 bags of Marmite flavour. That’s unreal isn’t it?
Psychiatrists have dabbled with unreal experiences and created a few technical terms to describe them.
Depersonalization means a sense of unreality within the self. Derealization is a similar experience but refers to a sense of unreality outside of oneself, in the environment. Such experiences have been largely neglected, perhaps because no specific drug therapy is indicated, though an unusual coloured pill – ochre? – is surely needed.
Neither word really does justice to a situation where unlikely events seem to happen,so I propose we co-opt* a new word, Surrealization.
I propose we use this term to describe experiencing events so unlikely you tell yourself, ‘no surely, this can’t be happening’. Situations where you might have tried pinching yourself to check you weren’t dreaming, if you hadn’t seen Inception.
Surrealization is not an anxiety disorder. Unlike ‘Deja Vu’ (due a remake?) it is not a sign of complex partial epilepsy. Nor have I been sprinkling ‘Special K’ on my Special K. I think it’s just the world getting more peculiar. I can’t prove this yet, but I’m starting to keep tabs on the modern world, using a Surrealization Diary, in the best traditions of cognitive therapy. Here are some recent entries:
I don’t like opera that much, but I find myself at a performance of Carmen in Sheffield. The cast includes a donkey and a white stallion and there has to be an awful possibility of the animals misbehaving on stage. Backstage they probably have a ton of sugar lumps for reinforcement purposes.
I begin to hear short bursts of high-pitched noise and at first I assume the radio-microphones on stage are picking up feedback from local cab operators. Then I realise there is an older gentleman sitting right next to me, starting to fiddle with his two hearing aids, which is where the noise is coming from.
The whistling noises get more frequent and louder. But after a while my neighbour takes out both hearing aids and puts them in his pocket, looks relieved and closes his eyes. But the noise continues and gets louder and more screechy. People start to look round and shuffle in their seats, but I realise he is now completely unaware of the aids ‘going turbo’ in his pockets. I try and catch his eye and signal, I point towards the hearing aids and put my finger over my lips, but he takes no notice.
Clearly we are on the edge of an awful scene, until suddenly, the man’s equally elderly female partner shakes him and shouts in his ear: ‘Take the fucking batteries out Ian, take the fucking batteries out’, which, after quite a lot of scrabbling, he manages to do. I write the acronym TTFBO in my diary.
I don’t like literary occasions that much, but this is a good one. I’m standing in a field in Lincolnshire, next to a very busy main road, at a tree planting party, listening to a small female person reading out a chapter of Winnie the Pooh. She speaks movingly but very quietly and her words are lost between the northerly gale and the massive lorries on the road behind her.
I don’t like Health Secretaries that much, but I am reading about Jeremy Hunt’s plans for dementia. Mr Hunt said seven-day services will improve for dementia patients in hospitals, with patients in high dependency care seen and reviewed by a consultant twice a day, every day of the week, by 2020. What the consultant will do when he meets each patient is not explained. We all hope and pray there will be effective treatments for dementia one day, but until then the consultant will be stuck with discussing the cricket score twice daily.
As Bernie Taupin might put it, if he ever met Jeremy: ‘but, then again, no’.
Now I’m at a blood-doning session, standing waiting in the foyer of a community centre with the other donors, waiting for the staff to finish their break. No doubt it makes sense for the staff to have a break between sessions, but it’s a bit weird to keep everyone in the hallway while the staff have their tea and biscuits. They are chatting loudly and I hear one of them explain to another how to pull a sickie by pretending to have diarrhoea. Mrs EP is with me and it is her 50th doning session and she is pumped up expecting the gold badge. But she has filled her forms in with a gel pen and she is told off. Gel pens have joined the long list of things blood donors should be careful about.
I don’t like health screening that much, but at Specsavers there is often a voucher you can get for a free eye test. Sometimes the voucher is on the back of the pay and display car park ticket. If not, under a bit of pressure, the assistant will produce an eye test voucher from under the counter, in a free spectacle case. Today there is a free voucher online, so it’s silly not to have your eyes tested, isn’t it? This is probably the best value in all of health care. It includes a careful examination of the retina by a properly trained person who can see right into your soul with a special lamp. When I ask for my prescription the assistant says I can’t have it because the copier is not working. I offer to write down a copy for myself or just take a photo with my phone. No, she says, data protection. Stupidly, I begin a short discussion about some of the urban myths surrounding information governance. Luckily they don’t have bouncers at opticians, so I leave without my prescription, but uninjured at least.
Now in my diary I am recording an attempt to get to Springfield Hospital from Tooting Bec tube,using Google Maps, missing the entrance and walking all the way round the block. My phone, though I haven’t asked it, tells me I have walked 3 miles and it congratulates me.
Back to the government then, who have been rolling out a short series of surreal announcements under the loose working title in my diary: ‘It’s not going to happen’. On 10 January the prime minister announced he’d be transforming housing estates. On 7th Feb he announced the transformation of prisons. And in March he announced that the NHS will be helping to plan a number of Healthy New Towns.
Quite likely, Surrealization is a reaction to this kind of Orwellian propaganda and luckily there is a specific therapy in the form of observational comedy and political satire.
A word of warning: if you suffer with Surrealization, it’s not safe to say so out loud. You will be stigmatized as awkward, cynical, negative, old or grumpy. And you will quickly be told to TTFBO.
*Co-opt because the term has a limited meaning in the arts, such as creating drama out of dream material. That’s not a problem as a lot of technical words in psychology have a day job, such as Obsession, and many of them moonlight as fragrances too.