Once, I saw a young, blonde-haired boy in a blue and orange swimsuit floating motionlessly near me at the bottom of the pool. I panicked, yelled “Help!” and dove down to grab him and bring him to the surface. When I reached out to grab him, he disappeared. I returned to the surface with a pounding heart and told the lifeguard that I was mistaken, nothing was wrong and thanked him for coming to help. My whole body was shaking for the next hour.
Finding out you’ve had a hallucination is comforting because the problem presented is not really there, but your adrenal system will continue to flood you with panic chemicals long after you’ve found out.
I’ve had doctors who were surprised that I can distinguish most of my hallucinations from reality, so I’m led to believe it’s not common, but I do have a relative with schizophrenia who does it, too. So it’s not just my invention.
I can use logic to detect most hallucinations. I call it “fact-checking”. That’s how I know when I’m in a psychotic episode.
If I’m in the car and I hear the driver (I don’t drive. I have a license, but it scares my family. It’s disheartening at times.) singing along with the radio, I look at the driver’s mouth to see if it’s moving. Sometimes it is, and I’m hearing them singing. Sometimes it isn’t, and then I realize I’m just hallucinating.
I frequently have visual disturbances, the most common of which is smoke or bent light in the air. Imagine billowing smoke, and then take the same curves and lines you would see and turn that into light. It’s a lot like the refraction of light at the bottom of a swimming pool. It doesn’t obscure my vision, it just passes over it. This is usually the first sign I’m having psychosis.
Following the billowing light, I usually become very frightened, with the cause being some vague danger, a threat to my loved ones, or my safety. I frequently ask if we’re safe (anyone in my life knows to expect this, and fortunately the answer is always “yes”) and I sometimes ask loved ones to search the house for strangers on my behalf. This fear is paranoia. I actually consider myself lucky for not having more specific fears. The more specific the fear I’ve had in the past, the more intimidating it was. Sometimes, if I’m in public during a psychotic episode, I will believe that I can hear everyone’s thoughts and that they can hear mine. I’m afraid I’ll think the wrong thing and everyone will hear me and get upset. That’s a great example of a paranoid delusion. In this state, I know I’m in an episode, which allows me to continue to move through the world looking a little bit normal (with the guidance of a loved one) even though I’m inside of an absolutely insane situation. I can experience it as real, the way I’m being forced to experience it, but pretend that nothing is happening and just do the things I’m told to do, like walk next to someone, get in the car, or stand in a line. This level of coping with psychosis is ninja-level. I cannot express how hard I have worked to get to the point where I can actively fear for my life and stand in line at the grocery store at the same time.
Being 15 years into my treatment for bipolar, nothing now is nearly as scary as it used to be. I used to be entranced by horrific hallucinations and believed completely that they were real. I once sat next to Satan on an American Airlines flight (I really was on an airplane). He had a little boy in his lap, and I was trying to figure out how to signal to the stewardess that the boy needed help, but I was nearly paralyzed by fear. I looked down between my feet so he couldn’t see me crying (which would give me away), and the floor of the aircraft disappeared. I was sitting 40,000 feet above the earth with nothing between me and the tiny lights below but air. That was real to me.
By 5 years ago, I’d come around to being aware of almost all my hallucinations. I once saw a flock of black angels/bird people flying over the car I was riding in. I knew it was a hallucination, but it still mattered to me. I wasn’t at all afraid. It was awe-inspiring and utterly breathtaking. I watched them swoop and dive around each other. They were swift and graceful. I watched until they disappeared. That memory will always special to me. That experience was only mine. No one else in the world can possibly have that memory, not even the people who were there.
Paranoia and delusions are less tangible. If I believe I’m not “safe”, for whatever vague, paranoid reason, it is very hard, and sometimes impossible, not to trust my gut. Instead, if I’m with someone, I ask questions, sometimes repeatedly, about the nature of actual reality as they are experiencing it. If I’m alone, I recite the rules (no knives, fire, or posting on social media) and just sit down and watch something, intentionally doing nothing. The only reason I get up is to use the bathroom. In the past, I have declared to myself that the bed will keep me safe, so I just have to stay on the bed. Stay on the bed. Stay on the bed. It’s safe on the bed. No fire, knives, or posting. It’s safe on the bed. Stay on the bed. No cooking. Stay on the bed. Stay on the bed. It’s safe on the bed. I much prefer hallucinations. They, at least, can sometimes be fun. Paranoia, so far, has never been fun for me.
I am self-aware enough now that I know when I’m in an episode almost every time. Sometimes someone else will point it out before I’ve figured out what’s happening, but as soon as I realize it, I am able to stay grounded in that knowledge. Knowing that I’m in an episode and that I can’t stop it sometimes feels like falling, only I never land. It just goes and goes, without my permission, and I can’t change it. The intensity of it can be ridiculous. Humans shouldn’t be able to manufacture that level of intensity, especially with no external source. It can be quite incredible, in the original meaning of the word. In fact, that incredibility is part of why fewer people understand or validate mental illness. It sounds made-up.
Fact-checking is a skill I’ve developed over time. Now, I can stay on the bed, watch for moving lips, or use breathing to recover from the shock of trying to save a drowning child. It makes my life a lot more liveable to have one foot in reality.
Sometimes I go far away, but I always come back.
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