It was a sunny September afternoon, one of those days that trick you into believing that there will never be another winter. As I stood on the doorstep with the approved social worker and GP, the sun’s warmth beat down on my back. The last place I wanted to be that Friday was doing a mental health act assessment, but the duty social worker had contacted me that morning, and there I was.
We had been knocking at the door for five minutes. We knew he was in there; the keys were in the lock on the inside. But he refused to answer. We tried phoning his number, and that brought him to the door. He told the social worker to ‘fuck off’, and that was that. He went back in, locked the door, and wasn’t going to budge.
And there we were, standing on his doorstep, on a beautifully warm September afternoon, meekly knocking on his door, and asking him to talk with us.This went on for a further five minutes or so, and all the time, I had the feeling that I was being watched. I looked around. Was he spying on us from behind the curtains upstairs? No.
No sign of anyone up there. I looked around nervously. Why was I apprehensive? We were in control. The police were in a van tucked away around a corner, discretely out of sight. I looked around again. Nothing…but no, I was wrong. There, in the shade of a dusty old privet hedge, a pair of topaz green eyes boring into mine.
The ginger tom from next door had me fixed in his gaze, and as my eyes caught his he came out into the open, tail erect, tip turned over to the right, the universal feline sign of welcome. ‘What do you think you’re doing here? Let me in!’ he demanded. ‘I’m bloody starving.’ (He had a Bradford accent) ‘I’m bloody well going in there to eat’. ‘Aren’t you beautiful’ I replied, as I always do when I see a cat. I bent down to stroke him, but he twisted away, avoiding my outstretched fingers. ‘Stuff that you toffee-nosed bugger, I want to eat.’ came the reply. ‘Do you live here?’ I asked. ‘No, but he feeds me now and again, and I’m hungry. So piss off and either let me in or leave me alone’ ‘I see’ I said. At this point I suddenly remembered my colleagues. ‘Oh!’ I exclaimed ‘What a lovely cat. I love cats, don’t you?’ There was no reply. They looked at me. The doctor coughed nervously. ‘Yes’ he said ‘I have a dog. It is such a good companion. But it doesn’t talk’
Perhaps they wondered who they had actually come to section. Was it the guy who’d locked himself behind the door? Or was it the psychiatrist who carried on a conversation with the cat from over the road? You see I really love cats, all cats, and I have always spoken to cats, and they have always replied. It started when I was a child, with our first cat, Chips. At first I found I could only communicate with cats that lived with me, but as I got older I found that this is possible with most, if not all cats.
Communication is only possible if the cat wishes it, but if this important condition is met then communication is possible. At first I couldn’t hear words. It was more that I could sense a cat’s disposition towards me, whether it liked me, was indifferent to me, whether it wanted me to pay it attention, or whether it just wanted me to admire it with my eyes. Then, as I grew older, and I got to know cats better, and especially when we had our first cats (we have always had more than one – they are highly social creatures), and they began to fill the interstices in the fabric of our day to day, mundane existence, we began to be aware that they were really talking to us. I say ‘we’, because my partner has exactly the same experience (perhaps this is Folie a deux!).
As we became more aware of each cat’s unique personality, its foibles, likes, dislikes, and mannerisms, each cat developed its own voice, quite distinct, with which it would address us, making its opinions known on every matter, making its needs known. There was the Major, an alcohol-sodden, ex-Colonial retired military Burmese cat who was a dear companion for 19 years. Nelly was a slow, dim-witted, adorable tortoiseshell who was a kitchen maid in the Major’s country seat. And so, all our cats, including the four who share our lives at the moment, have distinct personalities. They talk to us when it suits their purpose, and we reply. We have conversations just like you have conversations with people. They may be about ordinary, every day things; they may be about family matters or domestic affairs. They tend not to pass comments on world affairs, but they are interested in popular culture.
Now intellectually, it is perfectly simple to construct an explanation of this. I could, for example, invoke the mechanism of ‘inner speech’ after Vygotsky to account for the personification of my feline companions. Others might say my experiences are anthropomorphism run riot. This isn’t important.
The thing that is important, as I stood there on that warm September afternoon, waiting to section a man who almost certainly heard voices, was that fundamentally, there were few differences between his experiences and mine. What differences there were concerned the amount of distress his experiences caused him. His voices were almost certainly malign and abusive. My cats’ voices are neutral. They occasionally say unpleasant things to me, but I can dismiss it. We are both likely to act on our voices. For example, if one of my cats tells me that it is hungry, then I feed it. If it asks me to go out, I open the door. But my cats have never asked me to do anything that would harm myself, or put others at risk.
The point here is that the neat distinctions we make between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’, are deeply suspect. They are social, not scientific, distinctions, which hang on convention and the need to protect autonomy of others. The seeds of ‘irrationality’ lie within all of us. The potential for this to be unwrapped lies in our social environment, upon the happenstance of people’s lives. Most people would never contemplate admitting that they heard animals talking to them for the simple reason that animals don’t talk, and so to hear an animal talk means that we must be insane.
But how many, I wonder, actually do hear their close companions? How many not only hear them talk, but also have close companions who are well personified, that is have well-established, distinct and unique personalities? I don’t know the answer to that, but I am fairly certain that the number is larger than you would imagine. If I reflect on my own experiences it is clear that I hear more than one voice, located in internal subjective space, which address me in the second person, and pass comments on my actions. In other words I experience a first rank symptom of schizophrenia. The fact that these experiences have been present for more than 6 months confirms the diagnosis in DSM 4. So there we are. According to the rules of my own game, I’m schizophrenic. I wonder what the guy behind the door would think about that!