I responded to Hearing Voices Research request for blog articles, initially thinking of writing about my second-hand experiences of voice-hearing and psychosis (a concept defined in the dictionary, when you can get away from ‘mental disorder’ terminology, as “broadly speaking, loss of contact with reality”. This definition begs the questions, of course, “what is reality?” and, is loss of contact with the version of ‘normal life’ that’s inculcated in us in the West necessarily a negative phenomenon?). Writing about my experiences has always been cathartic for me, and I do so in the hope that themes and thoughts will resonate with, and in some, way comfort and help others too.
Over the years both my mother and my brother, Andy, at times each thought they were privy to cosmic truths being transmitted directly to them through the television screen; they each felt they alone, at times, had a direct line of contact with God who wished to communicate through them; they were being hunted by terrorists or underworld figures and each entertained various, ever-changing beliefs of similarly expanded, and contracted, thought and vision.
With hindsight I both recognise that these experiences are as likely to have been drug-induced as they were symptoms of ‘mental illness’ and, following years of independent research, now know that they were each desperately trying to make sense of the way living had made them feel, at a point in time at which ‘playing the game’ had become just too painful for them.
I don’t know whether it would have made dealing with them and the practicalities of our shared lives any easier if I’d known this. It most definitely is disruptive and frightening when someone close to you temporarily changes his or her personality, body language, stance and manner, using different vocabulary too. For instance, Mum – exhausted with the necessity to perform and behave impeccably, in her role as an RAF officer’s wife – took to adopting a swagger and swearing profusely at times when altered perceptions removed her from the exacting, constrained existence in which her spirit was usually trapped by convention and her strong sense of duty.
I realise now quite how much the prevalent fashion for pathologisation of emotional distress imposes a prejudice that underpins our response to all behaviours that are unusual or challenging in any way. This deterred me from even attempting to understand my close relatives’ pain and distress (I accepted unquestioningly what, I now realise, was merely a hypothesis being promoted with powerful sponsorship: that they suffered from a congenital, and therefore hereditary, condition).
It’s been strongly implied for more than fifty years* that scientists have been on the verge of confirming chemical imbalance theories; to the extent that psychiatric diagnoses have been imposed, and widely accepted, as if they described something real and incontrovertible. My great fear was that I was next: I’d lose all the control I’d painstakingly managed to wrest from unpromising circumstances, where it felt the odds were stacked the other way, and would myself become consigned to a lifetime in and out of mental hospitals.
So I would keep some distance and effectively endorse the standard ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking – interestingly, adopting the ‘carer’ label allowed me to do that. In my mind I was aligned with the professionals; we were collectively trying to address ‘the problem’. I saw all of us working desperately hard to try to resolve situations which, nevertheless, kept repeating and repeating incessantly. In reality, nothing was being addressed: medicating and monitoring was the name of the game; that, and the reinforcement of social control over what – in both Andy’s and Mum’s case -was viewed as an aberrant spirit. Each soul embroiled in the drama was hurting, feeling helpless and trapped in a relentless cyclical drama – it was our own family Groundhog Day – and authentic communication was minimal.
No one was interested in exploring what was going on, to any great degree, and friends and neighbours were often kinder than I was, I’m sad to say. But each time Mum changed into this other version of herself, even into my fifties (her seventies), I was transported right back (in mind and emotion) to being the child of eight whose concept of normality was rocked to its roots by observing the adult usually in charge, and utterly relied upon, terrifyingly transformed – one moment turning into a stranger who was talking gibberish and imparting frightening predictions, the next returning to being my known and greatly loved mother … but for shorter and shorter periods, until they took her away.
No one told me where they’d taken her, and I didn’t see her again for a long time. In fact I was told I’d see her later that day yet, it seemed to me, it was weeks before we set eyes on each other again. My dad was away with the Air Force. Andy and I were looked after by different sets of relatives. This was in 1969, when it seemed as though there was no conception of child psychology or thought about how affected a youngster might be by adults’ words and actions, or separation from parents. I began to have a sneaking suspicion that I couldn’t trust people to tell the truth or trust that they would necessarily be looking after my best interests after this. I think my sense of impotence when faced with ‘the system’ began back at that time, too, together with a childlike trust and need to believe that the professionals must know better – know what they’re doing, and have an overview of my relatives’ individual predicaments and future prospects. Wrong! I was have that discovery cemented progressively.
On a positive note, my terror that history would repeat itself and I’d end up incarcerated in psychiatric units – or, anyhow, with what I described to myself as a ‘drug-regulated personality’ – fuelled my high-school love of literature, contemporary music and alternative culture. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s was a gift; the counter-culture was strong and, although I was young and grew up in a middle class bubble, its flavour percolated down to anyone with a questioning mind. We tend to take for granted the relative freedoms we enjoy in Europe compared to some parts of the world (although subliminal manipulation, through advertising and deliberate misinformation, abounds and our civil liberties – including freedom of speech – are progressively under threat). I discovered role models, inspiration and fellow spirits to save me from feeling alone.
But, as the years went by, the world started feeling less and less like a safe place to be. When I was 18, Andy took his own life – just before his 20th birthday. I didn’t see how I’d ever be able to look at a flawless blue sky without scepticism, or view anything as straightforward again. I visualised a blood splat superimposed, as if on a microscope slide, over any conceivable expansive future image and couldn’t imagine I’d ever be able to entertain a sense of safety, magic or beauty again.
My parents’ relationship was volatile – my father was often demanding and hypercritical; my mother could switch from Stepford Wife (as she’d pretty much become) to resemble Charlotte Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Everything that had been bottled up would come flying out, with no holds barred. As I write this, I can see more than ever that that made perfect sense as a response to the unendurable pressure she habitually laboured under.
But I now realise how much my father suffered too, as I did my best to try to support Mum through her fluctuations of spirit after he died and felt ultimately challenged at the times when she began to look and sound, as well as behave, like some entirely different person – an intruder, an alien presence, to whom I had no tie of love or loyalty. We can each only do our best, constrained by our unique circumstances, personalities and the limits to our understanding.
I guess in the end the bottom line for each of us is the imperative for personal survival … if, indeed, that proves possible. In Van Morrison’s words:
“You’ve got to make it through the world – if you can”.
* Source Dr Terry Lynch 2010 Depression Delusion: The Myth of the Chemical Imbalance