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Voices

18 May

I studied schizophrenia this year at University, and wrote a fairly lengthy literature review on the subject. I learned about auditory and visual hallucinations that fall under the umbrella of psychotic experiences, and it made me wonder how some of my experiences sometimes resembles those of people with schizophrenia. The idea is that mental illness is not something you either have or don’t have, like a switch on an electrical appliance turns it on or off, but that your mental health is a dimension or continuum, and your symptoms vary from one end to the other. How far you are along that dimension determines to some extent how well you can cope in daily life. If you can’t cope, you tend to get diagnosed with a disorder and receive treatment.

The rest of us have some symptoms that can sometimes be a bit unsettling, but with which we tend to live quite happy lives. Having just experienced one of these psychotic experiences, and realising that it happens quite often, I thought I would write about it.

Jonathan Keegan -- audio hallucinations

Oh no... Must have forgotten my tablets again!

Sometimes when I’m really tired and trying to concentrate on reading something, I tend to doze off to sleep. This usually happens gradually, and sometimes I become aware of “noise’ starting to crowd my thoughts. Sometimes the noise is made up of conversations I’ve had during the day, which I’m either replaying in my mind or continuing. Sometimes there’s some music as well. I never experience them as coming from “outside” my mind, so in this sense it’s quite different from what people with schizophrenia go through.

The unsettling part is that the noise sounds quite confusing and sometimes gets a bit overwhelming. The nice part is that I can snap out of it very easily. About 5 minutes ago I did just that. I was dozing off again, I became aware of this internal noise which included some annoying conversation or negative thought, and I woke myself up with the thought: “that’s enough, quiet now”. Instantly the noise disappeared, and I could once again hear the soft sound of my computer’s fan, the peaceful snore of my 18-month-old boy in his bedroom, and could feel the tranquility of the night.

Another interesting thing happening while I doze off is that I tend to think about what I just read, then my mind goes into a sort of autopilot, approaching what I just read in novel ways, problem-solving, exploring alternatives etc. Sometimes, the things I did or heard during the day become new problem-solving strategies, and this can result in funny combinations when I become aware of it.

For example, every Tuesday I play badminton for 2 hours straight. During the rest of the day, if I’m reading a book or something else and I doze off a bit, I’ll have vivid images of badminton situations flash into my mind. Sometimes they are so vivid that I get a nervous reflex causing me to flex my arm. At other times, as it happened tonight, I’ll be thinking about what I’m studying in “badminton” ways. I might be having an internal argument with someone from Church or University, and each retort will show itself as a raquet hit on the shuttle. I usually win the argument by smashing the shuttle really hard and feeling quite good about it 🙂 It’s very difficult to put into words, because it doesn’t make much sense to the conscious mind.

The same thing used to happen when I used to play chess. In my semi-conscious state I would often approach newly learned material with chess strategies, even if the two were completely unrelated.

This has even happened quite a few times with music, but in a reverse way. I would be listening to a piece of music in a comfortable chair or in bed, closing my eyes, when I entered into this semi-conscious state between wakefulness and sleep. Then, the music would start taking a meaning related to the events of the day, and my thoughts would start organising themselves around the music. At times I would have a feeling of sudden insight, or a strong emotion, but as soon as I woke up from that state, I could no longer make sense of it, even though the pleasant feelings linger for quite a while.

These kinds of experiences are difficult to share or even to think about, because our mind tends to shut them down or push them away as “silly” or embarrassing. That is a healthy mechanism to help us stay psychologically balanced, but every once in a while it’s good to be able to reflect on the kinds of experiences “healthy” people have that are in common with those of people with severe mental health illness. However, one thing I do not share with them is the suffering, distress and sometimes horror through which they go. I had a brief taste of this recently in one of the very few nightmares I have.

I was dreaming about my son Joshua, and suddenly his teeth grew long and he started snapping his jaws at me with a sort of evil look on his face, while I was holding him at arms’ length. It woke me up, and although I wasn’t particularly horrified by it, I did find it quite scary. Then I remembered having watched a video of what people with schizophrenia potentially experience (through sight and hearing), and I shuddered at the thought that I might experience this kind of “living nightmare”, not being able to discern between reality and the hallucinations. Truly frightening and sobering!

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