Sleeping Wide Awake


This started with a voice.

The threat of voices have long threatened my adult life.

Going through my cluster of panic attacks and anxiety as an 18-year-old, I regularly saw a psychiatrist at a public hospital. One particularly horrible day, he told me I was heading for a nervous breakdown. Mental hospitals are full of authors who lost the ability to distinguish fiction from reality, he told me. Among other things, he asked if I’d heard voices. I told him I hadn’t but, terrified, asked him what I should do if I did. He told me not to listen to them.

Around the same time, I had a friend who was schizophrenic. He went through one terrible episode where he thought the devil was possessing his friends, and where he was hearing voices trying to drive him to do hateful, destructive things. For as little as I knew about mental health, I thought he was a preview of my potential future.

I would lay awake some nights, and whenever I heard something my anxiety would accelerate and I’d tense up, listening. Listening. Listening. I needed to confirm whatever I heard was real – like it might be the neighbours, whose house was adjacent to my bedroom. The moment I heard confirmation, I would relax until the next thing I heard.

IDIOT PSYCH treated me for over a year. When he was gone, I saw a rotation of other psychs – this was a public hospital, after all. One dismissed the possibility I’d hear voices. When I asked why the previous doctor had asked me about it, this one was bemused, and speculated (unconvincingly) perhaps it was a checklist his predecessor was going through. I think he was just trying to cover for IDIOT PSYCH’s ineptitude.

Another psychiatrist years later told me hearing voices was a symptom of a psychosis, not a neurosis. That’s what I had: a neurosis. Neurotics build castles in their heads, he told me. Psychotics live in them. It was temporary assurance. I just didn’t know enough. IDIOT PSYCH had inflicted wounds that festered for fifteen years. If I could go back in time, I’d sue him for malpractice.

Evidence of his maltreatment arrived six or seven years after he treated me. I had to return to the same hospital for a consultation about something physical. Halfway through my appointment, the doctor exclaimed, “You’re not schizophrenic.” I told him no, I wasn’t, and asked him why he thought that. He said my file said I might be – undoubtedly IDIOT PSYCH’s handiwork.

I don’t want to hear voices. I couldn’t shoulder the responsibility of what that means. But – as a writer exploring possibilities – I wonder if voices could be something more. I’m sure there is a medical rationale for why people do hear voices but, equally, I wonder if those circumstances allow people to tap into a spectrum the rest of us can’t and don’t access.

But I have heard things, heard words just as I’ve drifted off, rousing me into wakefulness. There are the medical justifications (like the hypnagogic hallucinations), and I’m able to compartmentalize these experiences, as rare as they are, and ultimately dismiss them.

Maybe, though, my unconscious wants to delve into some realm that consciously I don’t want to.

I don’t know.

I don’t know what else is out there beyond (as the cliché goes) what we can see, hear, and touch.

But I think there’s more than this.