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February 13, 2015
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Reality Check
by Sarah Hancock

Shortly after I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, the movie A Beautiful Mind came out. The movie is a biography of Noble Laureate John Nash and his experience living with schizophrenia in the1950s. It is an intense movie. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.

Anyway, at this point in my life, I was completely ruled by the symptoms of my illness — primarily auditory hallucinations and delusions. When I watched A Beautiful Mind, I learned a valuable lesson that altered my ability to cope with my symptoms — reality checking.

If you talk to a mental health professional, he might believe that reality checking is only used by people who live with schizophrenia (or another psychotic spectrum disorder), but if you think about it, don’t we all do it? Reality checking is a vital skill for people living with or without any kind of mental illness.

During graduate school, Sarah frequently checked in with a trusted professor, Marj Olney, to verify whether or not things were as they seemed.

Think about going to a party as a single person. It’s quite likely at a party you might have seen someone looking at you, maybe even someone you thought was cute. Many singles in this situation ask a friend: Is she looking at me? Do you think he’s interested in me? Should I ask her to dance?

Haven’t we all checked in with a friend at some point in our life to confirm a suspicion? Did you like that book? Did the Kung Po Chicken taste too spicy? If you’ve ever asked someone an opinion, you have “reality checked” a situation.

It’s likely you “reality checked” with someone you trusted — the more you trust the person, the more likely that you will believe (and take comfort in their response). Well, it’s the same for people living with mental illness.

The first step in reality checking is to find someone trustworthy. Trust is vital for several reasons. First, if a person is trustworthy, he will give a straight answer. Second, a trustworthy person will not make fun or light of the question.

Third, (and probably most obvious), if you trust the person, you have no reason to doubt what they say or think. A trustworthy person will not be motivated by ulterior motives to give you a specific answer, or to steer you in a specific direction.

Trustworthiness also allows the person asking the question to know that a person will take the question seriously. Making fun of someone or making light of a reality testing question is downright wrong and will instantaneously break the rapport with a person.

The second step in reality testing is being able to recognize things that seem out of place. If a person cannot recognize something out of the norm, he will not recognize the need to question the veracity of the situation. Recognizing abnormalities can be virtually impossible for a person in the thick of symptoms, regardless of how absurd the situation may seem.

Reality checking can be risky because a person must expose the fact that she has an illness. On the positive side, reality checking demonstrates a person’s efforts to take control of the symptoms. Ultimately, if a person is trying to gage their connection with the world around them, he deserves a good honest answer from you.

Before you think that reality checking is something you’ll never do, think of it from this perspective: we all need to take a personal inventory of where our lives are headed, how we’re performing at work, how to better meet the needs of your loved ones, how healthy we are or how fast we’re flying down the freeway. Regardless of the situation, regularly checking in with reality helps avoid lengthy life detours, allowing us to keep on the straight and narrow path.

Really? Yes.

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