By: Greg Walshaw
I first experienced psychosis as a child. I would see ghostly apparitions that would show up at night. Not believing in ghosts, I would try to convince myself that they were simply a visual effect from a streetlight, except that they would move around the room at times. I was frightened by these hallucinations, but I couldn’t tell anybody about them since I was afraid of getting in trouble.
Once I was a teenager, I would start to hear voices. Yet, they were not voices speaking to me, or if they were, it was in a language I did not understand. At other times, the voices were too far away and indistinct to hear clearly. The hallucinations would come often, but not in predictable patterns. I would have an auditory or visual hallucination more days than not, but might go for a week without seeing or hearing anything strange. But then the sky would start to fall – a recurring visual hallucination where the air became visible and would fall to the ground like rain.
After my hospitalization and diagnosis (bipolar I) at age 20, the hallucinations disappeared for years, only coming back when I was 42. It was, in fact, when the sky began to fall again that I knew I needed to be in treatment again. Very soon after, I was hearing voices again. My brain would play tricks on me. Sounds that were far away, like a car door closing, sounded as if they were coming from the next room. Any strange noise would leave me trying to figure out it if was real or a hallucination.
Visually, I had the same falling sky hallucination I had so often as a youth, but had new experiences as well. Buildings would move when I looked at them – not every building, only certain ones here and there. At times, ordinary objects such as mail boxes or cars would seem like they were too large, as if a balloon that was over-inflated. Trees would sometimes seem as if they were, well, just…wrong. This particular hallucination is always hard to describe because there was nothing objective I could point to. The tree was there, looking normal, yet I perceived it as abnormal in some way I could never put my finger on.
When I saw the psychiatrist, she prescribed an anti-psychotic medication. Over time, the hallucinations lessened and eventually disappeared. While I did experience some delusional thinking when I was younger, most of my experience of psychosis is in the area of hallucinations. And, most of the time, I am aware I’m hallucinating.
It is a disturbing feeling to know that what you are witnessing is not real. You know that what you see is not reality, yet all you can do is ride out the experience. For me, hallucinations do not last all that long, but they can be debilitating when they are present. I can’t focus on work, and social interactions are difficult. I know I have to calmly wait for the storm to pass.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, has an informative page on psychosis. Psychosis is common in schizophrenia and in bipolar disorder. In bipolar, it can occur in either the manic or depressive episodes, although it may be more common in mania.
While I am glad that with treatment I am free of hallucinations, I do sometimes miss them. Even while they are disturbing and disrupting, some of the visual hallucinations I have had carry a strange type of beauty that I may never see again. But I know that hallucinations in bipolar never come on their own, they are always part of mania or depression and a marker of a mood episode. Psychosis is serious and can be scary. But it doesn’t need to be scary to talk about it, and it can be treated.