Often I get asked what schizophrenia is like. I mean, people are curious and actually want to try and understand the illness. Unfortunately the major problem is that schizophrenia isn’t really like anything. If you have never questioned the assumption that what your brain tells you is by and large correct, which is most people who never had a mental illness, then you lack a major reference point to understanding what mental illness is like.
So today I’m going to grasp for some words to describe what a visual hallucination is like. I think that the best place to start is what it isn’t like.
I may rant a lot about Hollywood here on this blog but (for the most part) even in the most positive portrayals of schizophrenia I’ve seen, they tend to give a big misimpression as to what a hallucination is like.
While A Beautiful Mind has some excellent parts to it (and the scene where Dr. Nash is seeing patterns from his wall full of newspaper clippings is, well, in my well completely based on my own experiences opinion, quite good at capturing the essence of the chaotic thinking processes going on), the hallucinations (by and large for the purposes of telling a story) are represented a real event that felt and seemed real it just didn’t actually happen.
And here’s the problem. That feeling that it is real IS true, but the shape and dimensions of the hallucinations are more chaotic, more disjointed. Looking back on my hallucination after being medicated, I recognize their jumbled, nonsensical nature. They still felt real at the time.
In order to bridge this gap, I’ll try and use an experience we all have (“normies” or not) had and try and argue by analogy. Ever have a bizarre dream? That when you woke up and maybe for a quick few seconds wondered if it was still happening until you wondered what it was you ate last night?
I don’t know, maybe you were surfing with Elvis on the Cheese Seas of Paris and then next moment you were Queen of the Pudding People. Even though you were suddenly in the Throne Room of Gooey Goodness instead of jailhouse rockin’ it with the King on a killer Gouda wave, you probably didn’t question it. Maybe sometimes you have realized when you are dreaming that you are dreaming (and boy isn’t that awesome to lucid dream) but for the most part, you don’t question the dream. It just simply makes sense while you are doing it.
Similarly a visual (or for that matter auditory) hallucination feels real to the one experiencing it (though with it is possible for one to learn to recognize when the illness is affecting your thoughts). It isn’t though (at least in my experience) coherent. It is a jumbled mess of images and thoughts and sounds that crash upon the person that just seems like it is happening.
Now here’s where the analogy starts breaking down. A person who is experiencing a visual hallucination experiences it in real time with well, living and functioning in this world. If you daydream something silly and nonsensical, reality can wake you up and force you to pay attention to it. While reality may intrude on a hallucination, it doesn’t necessarily snap you back to functioning within reality.
I’ll try and extend the dream analogy by integrating another element of dreams. I’m no crazy fan of dream interpretation, but I think everyone knows that sometimes if they are focusing a lot on something or someone, it can intrude on their dreams. I found myself thinking about a friend a lot recently and how much she really helped me and that I find I miss her a lot. Needless to say I had a dream one night after just seeing her. It made little sense, I think we were selling hot dogs together or something. But that thought and worry influenced my subconscious.
In perhaps a similar way, reality can intrude on a hallucination. Since the person experiencing the hallucination is quite rightly not, for lack of a better word, processing reality correctly, how they would integrate someone or something interacting with them may not make sense to an outsider. So someone may have been talking to me while I was hallucinating something else, and my brain may integrate it not as the person talking to me, but it could be, well anything. From psychic powers, to a magical talking frog, to a memory of it happening at another time, the sky really is the limit, much how your dreams may take I am worried my team won’t win the next game and translate it to well, who knows.
I will say that on the whole, many of mine were unpleasant and I still have nightmares from them even though I haven’t had one in over ten years. Hopefully this helps, but as I said, it isn’t like anything. You don’t want to experience one. You don’t want to feel that jaded disconnect from reality. Maybe though it might help you understand somewhat what someone who is experiencing a visual hallucination induced by their schizophrenia is experiencing.