Creatively Managing Voice-Hearing Through Spiritual Writing

Luisa Castagnaro, MA
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I am a psychiatric survivor of over thirty-six years. Since my nervous breakdown in 1978, I have undergone multitudinous experiences ranging from the subtly humiliating to the horrifically debilitating at the hands of incompetent psychiatrists and psychopharmacologists who, in the name of medicine, did more harm than good.

I have a severe case of insomnia, which precipitated my nervous crisis, and without some medication, I cannot sleep; my life has consisted of a series of relapses from getting off medications completely or from being given incorrect dosages of different medications that should have never been prescribed. Most recently, from 2006-2010 I was forced to attend a state-funded assertive community treatment program (ACT) where I was subjected to biweekly haldol injections and worked with a cold, unemotional, stiff and unyielding psychiatrist who did not understand that my medication dosages should have been tailor-made to my needs, and instead proceeded to overmedicate me. As a result of this, I sent heated faxes and voice mail messages, which led to my being accused of being abusive by the ACT supervisor. In actuality, my complaints were justified: I was experiencing intolerable states of apathy and drowsiness, punctuated by evening bouts of insanity-inducing restless leg syndrome, often lasting three hours before falling asleep, and all because of being overmedicated on the wrong medications.

Fortunately, because I’d had so many years to develop a lack of trust in the psychiatric establishment, I finally found a good doctor who is not a dictator about administering medications and is quite understanding about what I have come to call my “paranormal experiences.” I state the word paranormal because as an experienced yogic practitioner and psychiatric survivor, I often find myself thinking and experiencing life as a series of strange synchronicities, often akin to what transpersonal psychologists call “spiritual emergency.”

I grew up as an ordinary girl in the Catholic school system in New York City, graduated first in my class in high school, and graduated college with honors despite four psychiatric hospitalizations. I pursued a graduate degree in ESL, which I taught for three semesters in the City University system all the while becoming increasingly incapacitated by too many of the wrong medications. Due to the horrific side effects of medication I was given after my first relapse in 1980, I became overweight despite my genetically thin frame and developed trembling hands, acne all over my face, chest and back, and cavities from dry mouth as a side effect of lithium. By 1986 I was walking around the city with a saliva pump to keep my mouth adequately moist. All of this, because the orthodox psychopharmacologist treating me was going by the numerical blood work results rather than how I felt or was individually responding to medication. Psychiatrists who treat their patients by ordinary protocols and cookie-cutter diagnoses miss the point and can harm their patients even though they think they are following the rules.

By 1986, I found a guru who gave me a “kundalini awakening,” which was followed by ten days of unforgettable bliss. In my 20’s I had been a two-pack-a-day smoker and could never quit, but after joining the ashram and undergoing a paradigm shift, I quit cold turkey, changed my lifestyle, and developed a “spiritual personality.” Unfortunately, after being overzealously indulgent about my new path and wanting to get off medications (as I had tried to do in college with consequent relapses), I stubbornly tried again with the help of a holistic doctor who was too extreme in his alternatives. As a result, I had a massive relapse at the ashram in 1987 and was sent home, hospitalized and underwent one series of ten shock treatments. My brain was fried and I lost touch with my feelings. So much for ECT, which to my understanding is almost always damaging in the long term, despite its alleged benefits.

I don’t believe in either extreme of orthodoxy or alternatives, but in a complementary approach to health. After a year in a day treatment program, I went back to my ashram for six months of spiritual practice. Unfortunately, the effects of ECT and my medication, along with deeply embedded psychological issues stemming from the broken-heartedness of my initial nervous breakdown in college, all resulted in a psychological problem that forced me to leave the ashram community.

I embarked on a healing journey in the 90s and started a health regime of green vegetable juicing, colonic hydrotherapy and under-eating while working on and off as an office assistant for eleven years. By 1996 I was a size 10, at 124 pounds and looked and felt great. But my overconfidence got the best of me, and once out of meds, without a refill and my doctor on vacation, I stayed off medication for six weeks and had a massive relapse which catapulted an eighteen-year downward spiral from which I am only starting to recover now. By 2000 I’d started hallucinating; this negative altered state of consciousness was exacerbated after 9/11, when I started hearing voices outside my window browbeating me all day.

My mother was inclined to “dump me in the hospital,” as the proverbial saying goes, if I stopped taking my “meds” for a week or two and thus manifested symptoms of withdrawal; the withdrawal effects were interpreted by psychiatrists as evidence my illness had “returned” since in those days psychiatrists refused to acknowledge that withdrawal from neuroleptics, albeit abrupt, often produced withdrawal effects. This suited psychiatric theory perfectly, which was based on the premise that once one received a psychotic diagnosis one could never recover. (At best one was given drugs to help cope while avoiding decompensation.) However, the rare psychiatrist who recognized that “psychosis” is an acute response to trauma would approach withdrawal cautiously and gradually, since the brain acclimatizes to dependence on neuroleptic drugs after one has been using them for weeks in a hospital setting, usually after one has had an acute psychotic episode.

In the 1970s, some patients were treated in experimental settings where compassion was used with little or no neuroleptic drugs. In these settings patients were able to wean themselves off of neuroleptics gradually and discovered their psychotic state did not “return.” This proved, as R. D. Laing and other innovators had argued, that psychosis was not a chronic illness but an acute reaction to emotional trauma. Thus the patient realized that psychotic states were often part of a natural healing process and not a chronic incurable condition. But I had not read R. D. Laing—thus I assumed that I was afflicted with incurable schizophrenia. Since I had no idea that neuroleptics produced withdrawal effects, my clumsy effort to withdraw from them in an abrupt fashion only convinced me that the doctors were correct and I would always need medication. Later after I met psychologist Dr. Seth Farber and read psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin, I learned that the only way to get off “meds” is gradually in a supportive environment. And I discovered that psychosis is a response to trauma not a chronic illness. But I resisted accepting this because it was too late to turn back the clock. And by then I was inexorably hooked on the drugs—and on the “psychiatric drug pusher.”

My initial mistake was in getting off meds in 1979 without proper supervision, which precipitated my first relapse in 1980, followed by the treatment of another horrid psychopharmacologist who overmedicated me with antidepressants which had the iatrogenic/paradoxical effect of making me suicidal. I did take three overdoses until I was hospitalized again, only to fall into the hands of the second aforementioned psychopharmacologist in 1981, who only had half the formula correct, namely one psychotropic that worked but also lithium that damaged my most subtle aspects of self, both physically and emotionally.

So after fourteen years of hearing voices, hearing people repeat my thoughts while walking down the street for the ten years that followed 9/11, and, until recently, experiencing negative subliminals bouncing off pedestrians, I live in a negative altered state totally unlike what I grew up with as a youngster when life was normal.

I live now in near seclusion, as I do not easily tolerate the outside world, generally venturing outward only to go to doctors’ appointments, to visit my mother or go to the bank. I am currently living with the long-term side effects of taking medication, including obesity at being over 100 pounds overweight, kidney insufficiency and high blood pressure. Nonetheless, I partake in a simple, vegetarian diet and take supplements, herbs and homeopathics along with my medications. I also recently self-published a poetry anthology entitled “Bittersweet Journeys” available at Amazon, and I am working on a memoir.

I hope this misanthropic state is only a temporary state of mind, for we humans are meant to be social by nature, yet everywhere I look I see a broken fractal of my mind staring back at me. It is painful, but I know I can shift my perspective as easily as one would change the prescription of their glasses. It is matter of volition and human will being aligned with divine will. I work at my computer during the day, and try to be friendly and civil with others. I am coping with being a casualty of neurochemical mismanagement and psychiatric carelessness. But I know about taking one’s power back and have plenty of books, tapes, CDs, DVDs and resources to sustain me throughout this journey. I am not alone, and I wish to share with anyone who is searching for company in this quest for Self in the midst of psychological turmoil.

In 2005 at the height of my voice-hearing reality, I wrote a poem, “The Sound of Madness” which won second prize (among twenty second prizes) in a national amateur poetry competition. I am including this poem as a description of how voices have affected me daily.

The Sound of Madness

Bellowing voices, caverns within
I, now expecting the acoustic attack,
Like little knives delving into my heart

My days are littered by outside lies
The mocking tunnel-vision Cyclops strikes
With judgmental utterances and breaking of heart

What is this to be deserved like this?
I think the unwanted, the taboo fodder
Which gives these voices so much room to wander in

Bickering back backlashes
I thus sit in alchemical response, not reacting
Hoping that this will keep them quiet while I die a little more each day

Waiting, sitting, reading, hearing Morse code sounds,
Pulsing with subliminals - I ask, what monster eats off
The inner conflict generated by hallucinations?

This world not accepting this illogical chatter, lost in vanity seeking 
expression
At once seeing my thoughts unseen, at once known, then unknown for their 
opposite
These voices unconscious, lacking remorse, futilely misinterpreting, lacerating me

Before, I proudly ranted a misdiagnosis,
Now living in bilateral cognitive versatility,
I walk in 3D consensus, hearing 4D nonsensicus

Each day a battle fought, either won or lost it matters not
Laughter cures the ridicule, for in effect, it is all too ridiculous
Wondering wither this leads serves hope for a quieter tomorrow

The synapse--collapsed, restored, lobotomized,
Too much medicine, not enough, cleaving combination,
Who would know there is no cure?

Choices constructed beyond time-space
Reveal the end of suffering, not so ending, only changing
Suffer not for the known…the extremity of flatland emotions

Brings me to reveling in nothingness.

It is now over thirteen years since I started hearing voices and I am fifty-five years old. The thirty-seventh anniversary of my nervous breakdown passed in March. The voices have quieted down, not because I am taking more medication, but because I have gone through inner stages and phases of spiritual growth and change after periodic dark nights of the soul. What orthodox psychiatry does not understand or accept is the spiritual dimension that permeates physical reality. I believe mainstream science has it backwards, and alternative medicine and transpersonal psychologists will attest to this.

Finally, I wish to say that I am in the unique condition and situation of being a yogini, someone who practices yoga, meditates, follows a dharma and also hears voices. Until last year, I worked with a certified hypnotherapist and shaman for ten years who said he also hears voices who form part of his ‘Unseens,’ though they are under his control for he can tune in and out of them at will. I, on the other hand, have experienced being at the mercy of such voices, though they have had less to say recently due to the leveling down of my ego from the sheer friction of inner work I have done over the last fourteen years.

I can say that there is hope for any voice-hearer who approaches this aspect of his daily experiential reality from a spiritual vantage point as a challenge to be overcome. Despite the discomfort, I have made the voices work for me in terms of reaching a deeper state of awareness as a human being. I am cognizant of how the forces of good and evil can co-exist on a more conscious level in the everyday world. Therefore, I have made the most of it, through the thick and the thin of it, and know that even if things could be better, they could always be worse, and so I choose instead to practice gratitude for the spiritual dimensions I have been privileged to explore, both in spite of and because of my condition.

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Luisa Castagnaro, MA
Luisa Castagnaro, MA, is a former teacher of ESL and psychiatric survivor since 1978. Author of Bittersweet Journeys, a poetic anthology, Luisa is working on a memoir about her harrowing experiences prior to and following an insomnia-driven nervous breakdown. Luisa experienced years of over-drugging, electroshock and three suicide attempts which she attributed to antidepressants. She is aware of how her thought process has been compromised by the drugs, but due to a paradigm shift that occurred in 1986 when she started a spiritual practice, she is able to access higher realities while staying grounded in this world. Luisa's personal blog can be found at https://psychiatricpassages.wordpress.com.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Luisa,

    I agree, your journey has definitely been challenging, although it’s also, no doubt, been an interesting one. And an intriguing life is much better than a boring one. Best wishes with your memoir.

    My journey resonates in many ways with yours, although you no doubt have more experience than I in numerous areas. I personally am a visual artist, but also found keeping a journal, helped me keep the voices I got after 9.11.2001 at bay. My initial symptoms were no doubt caused by the psych drugs I was put on just prior to, and my psychosis was due to the neuroleptic drug(s), I was put on shortly after 9.11.

    “neuroleptics … may result in … the anticholinergic intoxication syndrome … Central symptoms may include memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, hallucinations, psychosis, delirium, hyperactivity, twitching or jerking movements, stereotypy, and seizures.”

    It’s possible overmedication and miss medication with the neuroleptics is also what led to your voices. Since all people are different, and the psychiatric industry today is regularly overmedicating patients, and this does cause the central symptoms of neuroleptic induced anticholinergic intoxication syndrome, which is almost identical to the schizophrenia symptoms.

    I hope you’ve found your way out of the insanity of the US psychiatric system, and best wishes for your upcoming book. It strikes me God may have had the Holy Spirit denying psychiatric system defame, discredit, and harm a lot of creative intellectuals, so we could come back and point out their insanity. Or, at least, we spiritual people can all hope for a better and more respectful world some day.

  2. You have tried so many treatment protocols, maybe it is at last time for a tissue mineral analysis and personal diet and supplement program. Any health care professional can order one for you from Analytical Research Labs http://www.arltma.com. Orthomolecular Therapy might trigger a permanent “spontaneous remission” for you as it did for me in 1982.

    Several more useful diagnostic tests have been developed by the emerging “Neuroscience”. One psychiatrist on the cutting edge of this is Dr. Charles Parker of Virginia Beach, Va. who can be seen in many YouTube presentations.

  3. Kudos to you for never giving up on trying to wrest control of your body and your life away from the dangerous, deceitful, and deadly mental health system.

    I was consumed psychiatric medications religiously for three years. It took me another five years to completely quit the drugs. For the past four years, I’ve been out of the psychiatric system altogether.

    I haven’t been poisoned and butchered to the degree that you have been, but I do understand some of what you’ve been through and I am so impressed by your will to survive the horrors of the mental health system and by your talent as a writer. Thank you for sharing your story with us.