May 18, 2020

By Sarah Myers

What does it mean to “hear things” and “see things?”
This question has been one that has puzzled me for as long as I have understood schizophrenia. When I was a child and I met my aunt, completely taken over by schizophrenia, my father explained to me that she “heard” and “saw” things no one else did. For the rest of my adolescent life, I tried to understand what that meant. How could someone perceive something as real that others did not? 
The thought is terribly frightening. The idea of someone having the ability to see things that the rest of the world did not made me fearful of my aunt. What if she reacted to me in an inappropriate or unexpected way and justified her behavior due to a vision or sound that I could not access? I felt helpless, confused and scared — and I suspect these emotions are shared widely by society towards those with schizophrenia. To an outsider, the symptoms are just too hard to understand.  

What Hallucinations are Like for Me

Years later, I still feel perplexed by exactly what it means to hallucinate, despite no longer being an outsider. I am a person with schizoaffective disorder. I have symptoms of schizophrenia, like “hearing” and “seeing” things that aren’t there. But I also have rampant mood swings, leaving me ecstatic for an hour, perhaps several days, followed by hours or days of feeling depressed or suicidal. 
The imperfect descriptions made it incredibly difficult for me to identify as a person who hallucinates for a very long time. It never occurred to me to associate the word “hallucination” with my experiences. I am still not certain as to whether I experience the same phenomena as others who use “hallucination” to describe their symptoms.
In my case, I experience a tunneling, narrowing of my focus and attention from reality to the hallucination. I experience it like a camera lens focusing on its subject, where the background becomes blurrier depending on how lost in it I am. 
When it comes to auditory hallucinations, my word choice would not be “hearing” things. I perceive the voices as external characters communicating with me, but the voice is different from the voice of someone in the “real world.” In fact, I most closely identify them as very loud thoughts — except, as opposed to normal thoughts, I perceive them to be stimuli and characters that are not me. 
Regardless of whether they feel like they are coming from the “real world,” I often react to these voices as if they are. For example, if I have an abusive voice, I react as though it is my mother abusing me. Their realness to me is dependent upon my level of reacting to them as if they are real. However, I do not perceive them the same way as if my actual mother were talking to me. 
These experiences can occur at any time. They are uncontrollable, and only subside with medication. They are a part of me, and I view them as natural as my left arm. 

My Hallucinations Can Be Triggered

I was 25 giving a NAMI presentation to a group of ninth graders when the lead presenter spoke of her daughter’s schizoaffective symptoms similarly to how I experience them. She said, “When my daughter gets angry, she sees black creatures crawling on the floor.”
This was the first time I heard someone convey that the hallucination was prompted by a trigger. My hallucinations and psychosis often occur as a result of a stressful build up. For example, my hallucinations were triggered once while on a trip.  
I wake up in New York City feeling stressed and disoriented. I feel like I am two feet above, apart from my body. The Women’s March is today, and when I go outside, I am thrown into the action immediately. The women are shouting. Everywhere there is a body, a concrete structure, a storefront ready to interact with me. I am not prepared for these interactions. I find it thrilling and exciting, but at the same time uncomfortable and triggering. 
Faced with all these stimuli, I cannot pinpoint where reality begins. The cultural and historical significance of this event are too much for me to understand, though finding myself in the middle of it, I consider myself a part of history. My identity seems to blur. 
I walk away from the March and eventually get to the New York Public Library, where it is also crowded. I take out my journal, in which I begin to draw the very intense visuals that I see fluttering across my eyes. These images are a bright, colorful, engulfing overlay that takes me over. I become lost in them, and the only thing I can do is stand and watch them occur. 
I see spiders crawling everywhere in my field of vision. I see people chanting, and I am paranoid that there is a mob wanting to overthrow the government. I draw these things. I send the drawings to a friend, and he says they are cute. But, to me, they are really scary. 
When a hallucination scene is unfolding before my eyes, the scene does not interact with anything of the environment, rather, they behave within the reality, as if I am accessing two dimensions at once. My hallucinations never pick up objects or pay regards to any law of physics. They do not walk with gravity. 

Trying to Understand

Perhaps there are different degrees or types of hallucinations, experienced differently by everyone. I do not know, and it feels like no one else does, either. 
It is still difficult for me to understand the nature of hallucinations, even though they are a part of who I am. So I can imagine how difficult it is for society to understand. Especially as I was once a child confused and frightened by my father’s description of my aunt’s symptoms. However, it is important for people like me to work toward increasing that understanding, even if it feels strange to be writing about something so unique and personal. 
Hopefully, by taking the time to think about what it really means to be symptomatic, we may gain a more thorough understanding of hallucinations and the experiences of those who have them. 

Sarah works at the intersections of art, technology and science. She is earning a Master's degree in behavioral neuroscience, and she is a nonfiction writer who writes about mental illness, science, skepticism, and human rights. She has been published at Huffington Post, Free Inquiry, Eclectica Magazine, and more for her writings on mental health. Visit her website for her work and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @sarahanmy.

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