What It's Like Experiencing Hallucinations You Enjoy
Hallucinations are a complex subject. I know the neuroscience behind them. I know exactly what’s going on in my brain when I start to see or hear (or sometimes smell) things that aren’t there. As a science writer, that’s part of my job.
But it’s one thing to write about something that, while interesting, bears no relevance to your own life. It’s another thing entirely when you’re smack down in the middle of it. I would also like to point out that while I appreciate my own hallucinations, I acknowledge they are a symptom of my illness, and need to be treated. I also know not everyone has the same experiences I do. There are people who will disagree with me, and while it may sound like I’m romanticizing the experience, I simply wish to share what hallucinating means to me.
I have a complicated mental health history. Officially, my Axis-I diagnosis is bipolar disorder type II, and I don’t argue with this. But the interesting thing is, for the most part, people with type II rarely experience full-blown mania. And most doctors will argue that if you’re psychotic while “hypomanic,” it’s officially “mania.” But here I am. Why am I not diagnosed as type I? You’d have to ask my doctor. Possibly because, despite having a full-on manic episode at the age of 25, and a few, unrelated psychotic episodes (long story), my “mania” tends to fall within the realm of hypomanic symptoms. And, probably most importantly, despite seeing things, I am still lucid. I know what I’m seeing isn’t real to the people around me. But it’s very, very real to me. I say “seeing” because the majority of the time, I have visual, not auditory hallucinations. I have heard voices before, and the experiences ranged from thoroughly unpleasant to downright terrifying.
My visual hallucinations are normally not disturbing, and, as I previously mentioned, I tend to be lucid while experiencing them. I consider myself extremely fortunate, as many people with mental illness who hallucinate are often swept up in the experience, and it can be horrific. My heart goes out to anyone who has had to suffer through that. That being said, I tend to think of my hallucinations as anything from amusing to inspiring. Some are extremely beautiful. Once, I saw liquid, melting rose gold cover trees and cars in an incandescent glow, magnified by the sunset. It was one of the most exquisite things I’ve ever witnessed: this gorgeous, pink metallic sheen on everything around me. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish others could see things the way I do.”
I’ve noticed I also tend to experience a form of synesthesia when seeing things. Synesthesia is a condition where in which one sense (i.e., smell) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as touch. An example would be tasting chocolate when seeing the color red. When I listen to music while hallucinating, the beat of the music causes me to see pulsing lights, like stars, all around me, flashing in time to the rhythm. A crescendo makes the colors of whatever’s around me grow brighter and richer in detail. I can feel the blood coursing through my veins, and my sense of sight and hearing grow sharper, if only temporarily. Different types of music evoke different responses, most of which are beautiful to behold. This is extraordinary to me. I’ve tried to capture the sensations I experience through writing music and painting, but it always seems to pale in comparison. And again, I’m lucid the whole time.
I know other people aren’t going to sense what I’m sensing, which is sad to me, as these types of hallucinations make me happy. I’m always sorry to see them go, and it makes me reluctant to take my antipsychotics, which is a dangerous thing considering they keep my other symptoms at bay. I tend to develop a false sense of control, which is also dangerous, as it can potentially cause an escalation into full-blown psychosis. This is why taking medication is so important, and I force myself to do it.
I decided to write this piece in the hopes that there are other people out there like me, who can enjoy what they experience rather than suffer from it. I am not advocating that people stop taking their medications. I’ve done that, and the results are always disastrous. I also know how difficult it can be to find a drug that works for you. When I was first put on an antipsychotic, I started hearing voices and seeing terrible things, so unlike my other, more benign visions.
Unbeknownst to me and the doctors treating me, I fall into a rare, but documented subcategory of people, who, when given certain types of antipsychotics, actually become psychotic. This made for a miserable Russian Roulette trying to find a medication that would take the edge off my “highs” without making them worse. Fortunately, I was alerted to a type of gene testing that allowed my doctor to see which types of medications (antipsychotics and mood stabilizers) were most compatible with my genetic makeup. This helped significantly, and now I’m on an antipsychotic that actually works for me.
I have also found that learning about what goes on in the brain during a hallucination helps me come to grips with my experiences. There is a wonderful book by Dr. Oliver Sacks that goes into great detail about different types of hallucinations and how they occur. Although Dr. Sacks tends to focus on hallucinations caused by non-psychiatric conditions, I believe the book is worth reading, if only because you get a better sense of the science behind this strange phenomenon. There are also websites out there than go into detail about the physiology of schizophrenic and bipolar hallucinations.
Whether you experience visual, audial or other sensory hallucinations, and whether they be frightening or benign, I hope this article can bring a sense of peace to the people out there who live with this condition.
Follow this journey on Grey Matters.
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