This essay was written December 24, 2016 for a now offline magazine called Queer Mental Health.
Eliezer Sternberg wrote an article in Salon on March 2, 2016 called, “When People With Schizophrenia Hear Voices, They’re Really Hearing Their Own Subvocal Speech.” Link here: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2016/03/schizophrenia_and_subvocal_speech_why_schizophrenics_hear_the_voices_of.html An excerpt from Sternberg’s book, NeuroLogic: The Brain’s Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior.
When I read that article a lightbulb rationale less destructive then any of the many explanations I had come up with before appeared. As a Schizoaffective I have auditory hallucinations with accompanying persecutory delusions. Thus is the nature of the beast of my genetic mental illness. Although I am well-medicated, psychiatrists have told me that the voices will never completely go away. I must learn how to live with and manage them.
I was diagnosed 22 years ago. Since I have come up with a fantastical myriad of potential explanations for the voices that I hear that no one else can: All at the time firmly believed. All in the end delusions. They range from:
Demons. Overheard art school classmates through the echoing long CalArts corridors. Reading the thoughts of people not in the room. Overheard conversations while in crowds or public places. Neighbors or visiting family overheard talking through the walls. Landlords. The FBI. The CIA. The police. Ghosts. Aliens. Stalkers. Spirit guides. God(s). Goddesses. Anything and everything possible as the delusions of the month came and went.
The delusion of perpetual persecutory surveillance is a hallmark of Schizophrenia. I have Schizoaffective Disorder, a combination of Schizophrenia and Bipolar. I also have anxiety and PTSD. Thus not only am I enthusiastically hearing surveillance voices for untold hours that I rationalize are supernatural or persecutory, I am hyper vigilant and terrified about it. Not fun at all.
Thank whatever God(s) or benevolent universe you prefer for the medication that makes all this tolerable. As the Golden Girls sing, “Thanks for the Medicare.”
Sternberg concludes in that illuminating article: “The brain is a master storyteller, designed to make sense of the chaos of our lives. It compensates for the presence of auditory hallucinations, caused by a defect in self-recognition, by writing a narrative to account for them. It’s no accident that schizophrenic patients reach for spy agencies, religious entities, or supernatural forces when describing the voices in their heads. These are theories that the brain concocts to explain how a foreign voice could infiltrate a mind, know it intimately, and torment its victim with relentless surveillance. Faced with such bewildering circumstances, the explanation the brain generates is surprisingly logical.”
For a while I entertained the delusion I was talking to the ghost of my wife. Dead ancestors. Dead writers I admired. Friendly supernatural was a much more fun delusion that allowed me to accept the manifestation as a psychic gift. It was fun to read the tarot when the voices in my head told me what the cards meant. Witchcraft became an amusing solitary nocturnal hobby to replace alcoholism.
Binge-watching American Horror Story: Coven, Asylum, Freakshow, Hotel, and finally most devastatingly Ronoake illustrated how dangerous both delusions, dreams of fame, witchcraft, antiquated forced psychiatry, the supernatural, good intentions and mental illness could become in a Hollywood worst case scenario. I am well-aware that even the most well-acted, gorgeously set designed and costumed cable TV drama is only television. Not real. Yet a cautionary tale to learn from. I would prefer not to live American Horror Story: My Reno Nightmare.
As a writer and artist I dwell most often in the world of the imagination. Thus far incorporating my supernatural neurodiverse spirituality into my writing has yielded a series of mostly unpublished and probably unpublishable novels. An excerpt from Diary of a Hollywood Hedgewitch where I talk to my wife’s ghost made it into a small press lesbian ghost story anthology. At least a few readers seem to find this sort of thing entertaining. I am quite willing to provide entertainment. If all I do is fill up my iCloud storage with the manifestations of my mental illness that seems like a safe, contained prognosis.
I told my last two psychiatrists I did witchcraft with the portal in my brain opened by my Schizoaffective Disorder. I understand what a dangerous yet intoxicatingly appealing to the patient delusion that sounded like to a medical professional. As a result, the first Buddhist psychiatrist excused my impossibly un-payable student loans on the basis of Total and Permanent Disability. She wrote on the government form, “Patient does witchcraft with bodily fluids.” Suggested Haldol and Thorazine. The second Christian psychiatrist asked me if I was scared of demons. Kept refilling all five medications. Agreed to do phone sessions when I moved out of state. I told her I didn’t believe in demons.
A condition of my Student Loan Forgiveness is that I must be on SSDI for the rest of my life. I am well aware I am unable to work, Before I went on Disability being in an office cubicle meant I hallucinated what my co-workers were thinking about me. Developed elaborate resentments of them made further toxic by inevitable office politics. I was fired often from pretty much every job I ever had. Thus the Disability went through in six months.
I accept I can never work again except writing alone on my laptop with headphones in. Thus now I write for free on the Internet. Occasionally edit Wikipedia. I would much rather do that without the previous incessant phone calls of debt collectors driving me to abuse my benzodiazepines. Seizures and psych ward stays are not fun either.
At this point I have given up on fun completely. Along with any hope of what passes for the respectable normal life of employed married childrearing that surrounds me.`All I beg for is solitude. A warm roof over my head. Wifi. Klonopin. Saphris. Trileptal. Prozac. Anything else is gravy. Coffee is nice.
Thus far my best mechanisms for coping with this illness are taking all of my medications as prescribed and multiple Spotify playlists on headphones when I don’t feel like listening to my subvocal speech. Sternberg’s article explains the voice in my head as another part of my own brain that my Schizoid brain is incapable of defining as separate. Latched not that explanation. Held onto it as hard as I hold onto my present high-functioning, cockroach-like survival and subsistence. With both hands. Claws extended.
On my headphones lately is a RuPaul/Dolly Parton/Elvis/RuPaul Christmas Carol cage match. I take my headphones out to listen to the voices of my mind in the quiet of the Nevada night. I want to write down what they say to me for this essay. My voices are quiet. The cat sleeps on her chair. The space heater purrs out warmth onto my blue velvet American Apparel leggings. In a few hours it will be Christmas morning.
I listen intently in the quiet of Christmas Eve. What will my voices say? Sternberg’s Salon article convinced me that whatever I heard was another part of my brain talking to me. Talking to myself in an intimate distinct interior monologue is a much less dangerous, terrifying or potentially risky idea then any of the other ones I have come up with in the past. So I will roll with that. At 3:47 am Christmas morning I listen intently. At 5:44 am. At 6:10 am. At 6:45 am. At 7:03 amm
The voices in my head slowly say, “Well…..I mean. You’re putting a lot of pressure on us to cough up something entertaining for you to write down. Okay. Passive aggressive snarking is about all you’ll get from us. Put your fucking headphones on and listen to your Christmas Carols, we’re not a performing act you can summon up at will to entertain the Internet with. Why do you think Ouija Boards provoke poltergeists, seriously. It’s a good idea you don’t do Seances anymore and just let the ghosts come to you when they feel so inclined.”
Back to Bing Crosby’s “Winter Wonderland.” I‘m on my own here. That’s okay.
My Schizoaffective Disorder is incurable. The voices will never go away. Yet properly medicated the voices stay within my brain. I chose to trust the scientific truth of what they are from an article I read on a reputable online magazine. That allows me to rationalize them into the manageable submission that allows me to function at the level that I do.
“Do you think the Kool Aid metaphor you so love to deploy would fit here?” my voice says. Well isn’t that adorable. My voices are helping me write. I’ll take it. They do that sometimes
Yes, I’m drinking coffee instead of the AA or Hollywood Kool-AId. Beats alcohol. Or the Kool Aid Lana Del Rey drinks in the “Freak” video. Pretty soon I’ll go upstairs and put some eggnog into it. Happy holidays from the voices in my head and the cat.
“It’s a Christmas miracle!” my subvocal speech says. I love the idea of Christmas miracles just as I love crying at Rent. Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors. Staying up all night writing essays. New projects. The Saccharine powdered sugar sweetness that descends at 7 am Christmas morning. I anticipate blundering my way in burgundy velvet through the yawning yuletide day ahead. Awkwardly endearing family togetherness I feel totally up for. This should be interesting.
“Slow down,” says the voice in my head. You’ve got to pace this so you submit it right at dawn. Well that’s fucking hilarious. Seriously. Didn’t you just have fun tonight saving something else. You saved yourself the humiliation of submitting that Orlando essay. That shit was terrible. So’s this but at least it’s more timely. Are you fucking seriously doing this?”
I think of the Youtube video I watched where Nina Simone said, “Artists reflect the times.”
“Aren’t we glad the aliens or nurse Ratchet haven’t taken the technology away yet? “ says my subvocal voice. “Try not to end up in the psych ward without your phone or the Internet anymore.”
I’m working on it. Day by day. I hear the first thump upstairs that tells me the family I must celebrate the holidays with are rousing themselves for a series of obligatory yet enjoyable rituals. At 6 am I hear a toilet flush. I take four pills because I must.
“All things considered that’s a best-case scenario,” the voice says. I wash down the Prozac with water from the sink.
”Control your enthusiasm. If you weren’t so endlessly entertained by your psychosis there might be some hope for you. Alright, wrap it up. Try not to fuck up your last chance. Or Christmas Day.” my subvocal voice says. Like so many things the voices of Schizophrenics say that could be interpreted as a threat. With the audacious hope of Obama or mistletoe I so hope I don’t.
“Don’t we specialize in the ominous.” I subvocally taunt myself. I firmly believe I am only talking to myself at this point. Soon I will have to go upstairs and talk to other people.
If you are a Schizoid reading this who Googled their symptoms and landed on this website. Please accept the Salon article’s explanation of your own brain’s subvocal speech being the surveillance voices that terrorize you as a contextualizing Christmas gift. It was to me. I love regifting!