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What My Hallucinations Feel Like With Schizoaffective Disorder

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After 13 years of living with schizoaffective disorder, hallucinations are a somewhat normal part of my life. They are neither constant nor always terrifying, but they do occur even with my treatment regimen. Everyone’s experiences are different, but here’s a look into what my visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations are like.

Do you know when you’re hallucinating?

This is called insight, but it’s not universal to all with psychosis, and it also may come and go. For me, sometimes it’s easy to brush a hallucination off as just a symptom. But at other times there’s a tidal wave-like rush of emotions and my fight or flight instinct has me ready to go, just tell me what direction. In these cases, my thoughts clash. Logic calmly explains that the person made of shadows could not possibly be real. But the ill part of my brain counters, arguing that it is real and I should be afraid because of that rush of fear and first instinct. Even when logic wins, it’s hard to shake the fear.

Visual hallucinations enter my world as if they belong.

Some look as solid and real as you and I. Others appear hazy — almost as if they are made of thick smoke. It may sound odd that I could ever believe a person or animal could look so ghostly but be so real, but that rush of emotion can be so visceral and strong that the haziness doesn’t matter.

My first visual hallucination was early on in my disorder.

I lowered myself to my hands and knees to crawl under a desk and turn off a power strip, but when I looked up I froze. Larger than a normal cat, she sat in front of me, fluffy grey tail gently flicking. She was one of the hazy ones. She looked too real to be a ghost, but I was conscious of the fact that she was not. As she slowly blinked her pale eyes, I was flooded with a sense of calm and comfort I so desperately needed during that chaotic time when my diagnosis was still being determined. This cat has become an occasional companion, popping into my life at random.

Auditory hallucinations can sound like they come from any source or even no dicernable source at all.

At times, music came from the sky or perhaps just thin air. It can be crystal clear, like when I heard the sound of old-timey music you might find in a saloon, or just vague enough that I can’t put my finger on what song it is. The range of feelings it produces stretches from indifference to annoyance to simmering frustration. Though I have searched for their sources, I have yet to find one.

Then there are the footsteps.

Sitting at my desk, I hear the distinct sound of someone walking up behind me. It’s the gentle sigh of the carpet underneath their feet and the scuff of their soles when they stop near me. Fear shoots through my veins, putting my nerves on high alert. The footsteps may be joined by the rustle of clothing or the jingle of keys in a pocket. Sometimes I don’t look up because although I know it’s a hallucination, I fear the sounds will be accompanied by a visual hallucination, though they rarely are. Even when the footsteps don’t feel threatening, if I am alone, I may tell them to go away, leave me alone, you are not real. It doesn’t heal the fear, but it helps me feel more in control of the situation.

The voices I hear don’t fall in line with the stereotype.

They speak in hushed tones and it lights up my nerves. Are they talking about me? Do they know something that I don’t? Are they judging me? Sometimes it rolls off my back and I can let it go. But there are times where I can spin into a frenzy, straining to catch the words they are saying. On some occasions, it’s like a hard shot of anxiety in my chest, positive that I am the topic and not in a good way.

Living in an apartment building, there are times where these voices may in fact be real, which leaves my thoughts wandering in circles trying to determine how I feel. Should I be scared? If they aren’t real, then they are definitely a hallucination. But what if they are real? Am I just reading too much into things?

My tactile hallucinations always occur alone.

I cannot see the beetles that feel as though they are burrowing under my skin. Or the worms in my spine that make me twist and turn. It feels disgusting and violating — they have invaded my body. It always leaves me distressed and squirming in discomfort, often unable to focus on anything else. I want to crawl out of my skin or even out of my body as a whole. I have yet to find a way to make it stop beyond giving it time that always passes excruciatingly slowly.

Then there are things like the soft breath and gentle tickle of whiskers as a cat sniffs the back of my hand. Or the rise and fall of a dog’s chest as it laid against me on my bed. Though always silent, my tactile hallucinations are intricately detailed. When that same cat began to knead my arm, filling me again with that feeling of comfort and safety, I could feel every articulation of her toes. Hallucinations of these kinds radiate calm that rests warmly in my heart. If hope has a physical sensation, this is it.

Everyone’s experiences are different, but here’s what really matters.

Hallucinations are an addition to reality that can come in any form and bring any feeling, not just fear. And having positive or atypical hallucinations does not mean someone is any better or worse off than anyone else. But what we all have in common is that our symptoms do not strip us of our humanity. There is so much more to each of us than our symptoms.

Follow this journey on Not Like The Others

Originally published: August 30, 2021
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