The first time I became aware that the voices I heard were about to change from being mostly bizarre, irrational and unaccountable, as they are for so many people — doing things like telling me that the world was being taken over by psychics, for instance, or that I was about to win the lottery — was one day a little more than two years ago when I was walking down the hallway of the psych hospital in which I was then being confined against my will.
I had come to be in that psych hospital as a result of how my “psychotic process” — or, as I think of it, my alternate reality — had taken off again following my decision not to take antipsychotics anymore, a decision that I had taken because I had come to believe that antipsychotics were far more harmful than the vast majority of people were aware of. I had also come to the tentative conclusion, based on what I was reading at the time (like Mad In America), that even as terrible as my own experience of voicehearing and of going into an alternate reality had been, it was still possible that I might be able get through it all and maybe even live without antipsychotic drugs. I do not, by the way, believe in rebound psychosis, even though that might seem to be what I was experiencing. I think it is simply that we live in a physical universe that God created, and that the spiritual world is simply a part of that physical universe, and thus it is possible that drugs can disrupt the spiritual experience. God, after all, as C.S. Lewis said, actually likes physical matter; He created it.
In line with this, I believe that after I came off antipsychotics I became vulnerable to so-called “spiritual forces” once again, and I entered a world that operates under different rules and principles than most of us are used to. I did this because I believed that if I ever wanted to live in freedom again, I would have to take the chance that this alternate reality might once again claim my existence. That had been my hope, anyway, even if at that point, walking down the psych ward hallway, I was once more held deep in the clutches of this alternate reality.
I believe that the greatest problem that we have with “psychosis,” voicehearing, and “schizophrenia” in the modern world is a simple lack of comprehension on the part of other people that what we experience is actually real, even if it might seem intractably bizarre from the outside. After all, it’s not that we’re any more dangerous than other people, or that we’re really all that different from other people in any other way. It’s simply that most people have no idea what we’re talking about most of the time because they haven’t encountered it themselves. Even when other people do listen to us, they usually want to reinterpret what we say into the kind of terms that they themselves can understand, into terms which make sense according to their own world views — such as the idea that what we’re saying is only some kind of representation, for instance, of some sort of “hidden conflict” or of a “buried trauma” that we ourselves somehow don’t know about or don’t understand — rather than giving us the credit for representing our own experience as it actually happens. And this is a problem for all of us who want to truly understand what is going on.
Is our experience sometimes bizarre? Are we taken on journeys that seem to conflict even with what we ourselves have to say about them and what the external evidence would seem to show? Most certainly — that’s often the case. But there does come a point at which the conflicts starts to disappear and the mysteries begin to resolve into an external reality that is clear, unambiguous, and powerful. That is the stage I am in now.
Let me begin with a sort of preamble. If Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed were here with us today, they would be considered paranoid schizophrenics by most people — paranoid schizophrenics with grandiose, religious delusions who also heard voices: a classic definition of schizophrenia if there is one. For all the temples and all the churches and all the mosques built to remember and to celebrate these people, they themselves would now be ignored and shunned by the modern world, and they would, most likely, be locked up or forced to take psych drugs.
This is not because the average person doesn’t celebrate and cherish their ideas. Quite the contrary: most would still celebrate what these people said — but they wouldn’t celebrate the people themselves. Most people just don’t know how to take otherworldly beliefs seriously anymore. It’s one thing to hear a story in church about how Jesus rose from the dead and redeemed our sins before he was taken up to Heaven, after all, and it is something else entirely for your neighbor or your co-worker or your son to tell you that God spoke to him last night.
I was once also someone who could not comprehend these things. That’s what I was like for most of my life. But now I am a voicehearer myself, and what I am capable of believing in has changed. And in order to explain how that change came to be, I would like to recount a simple story.
So a little more than two years ago, when I had again begun to enter my very real alternate reality, during a rather intense period of voicehearing and what they call “psychosis,” I was walking down the hallway of the New Hampshire Hospital, our state’s psychiatric facility, when a new kind of voice began speaking to me. At that point, there had been voices screaming in my head about God all day for several weeks, and, since I didn’t believe in God at all, I just wanted them to stop. After all, just yelling at you doesn’t convince you of anything. And in my case, I need to either experience it myself or have a serious, logical, rational reason for believing in some other in order to change my mind. That’s just how I am — or how I used to be.
But what this one voice said to me was very different. It spoke very calmly, and it spoke without other voices getting in the way.
And what it said was, “God’s going to prove to you now that He exists.”
It paused for a moment, and then the voice went on. “Humanity has been around for fifty thousand years,” it said. “In just the past five thousand years, you’ve gone from living in caves to building the Empire State Building. In just the last hundred years, you’ve gone from horses and carriages and the first telephones to cell phones and getting ready to build artificial intelligence and go off into space. That’s what you’ve done in the last hundred years. Yet the universe has been here for 14 billion years.”
It paused again for a moment, and then it said, “How powerful would something be that started evolving even a billion years before you did?”
This made my eyes pop open. If you really understand science and technology at all, and if you really understand evolution at all, this is enough to make your eyes pop open for real. And the first thing that went through my mind, immediately after I heard this, was a vision of myself — with long hair, dressed in some sort of white garment — running across some sort of plain and cutting off the head of the Beast as it came out of the Pit. It was not that I sat around and imagined it on my own: it was a vision that was put into my mind, exactly the same way that voices are put into my head without any conscious effort of my own, and as soon as I saw this vision I knew that I had been instantly converted — that I now had absolute faith in God. You don’t have to believe in some sort of ineffable Creator who just sort of floats around in some sort of dreamy spirit world. You can, like me, remain perfectly devoted to empiricism and to materialism and to science, and yet come to believe that there is some sort of Being — call it whatever you want — that has the kind of power that we would associate only with a God. Who cares where it came from?
A couple months later, when I finally got out of New Hampshire Hospital, I began to write every day.
This was not at all the same way that I had been used to writing before, however. When I sat down to write, having been told to do so by a voice, my fingers would begin to type. I would have no idea what was about to come out. I would not be thinking about what I was writing. I would not be planning what I was about to say. And I had no idea what the next word would be, or what the next sentence would be, or what the next chapter of the book would be about. I would simply type.
To tell the truth, this was often a tedious, boring, and frustrating experience. I have planned my writing my entire life, yet now I was writing books and essays and poems, often to the tune of tens if not hundreds of thousands of words, about which I had no idea. I was not doing the writing. I was simply the typewriter, and it could get tedious, boring, and frustrating. It was not the same thing as being the one who was doing the creating.
Yet the work was quite good. In fact, it was quite easily the best work that I’d ever seen come out from under my fingers, by far.
It sounded sort of like me, most of the time. It was as though someone had taken my mind, looked into it deeply and seen what I was capable of, and then decided to use it for His own purposes. I was like an instrument that a master musician had picked up and was playing according to His own whim and His own purpose. I was literally nothing more than a conduit for something larger than myself, something that was using me — with all of my strengths and all of my weaknesses — for exactly the tune that He wanted to play.
Now, one of the things about this voice, or this power, or whatever it is, is that it takes what you already know and who you already are and uses them to produce your work. In other words, if you have no idea what a decent poem is, then you probably won’t write any. I am not out there doing sculptures or paintings or rebuilding cars, for instance, because that’s not where my talent lies. I’m a writer, and I am used specifically for that.
I have experienced this writing process far too many times for me to count. I am told to sit down at my computer and simply type. I’ve had many essays, a complete novel, and lots of different poems in many different voices dictated to me. I have even gotten poems that were supposed to be by Shakespeare or Yeats, and several pieces of 18th century doggerel, and I have even been told to sit down and had to listen for two hours as a bunch of Scottish drunks dictated seventeen filthy limericks to me. Now, you might think that’s some sort of “delusion” I have, but I would like to share a few short pieces of writing that may persuade you that what I’m describing really is something that is coming into me from the outside.
Quite recently, I started to wake up and hear poets talking to me in the German language.
When I was in school, I studied German. This wasn’t for a really long time — just a couple of years. At first I took an immersion course — where all you do is study one subject all day long — because I knew, being as bad with languages as I have always been, that if I didn’t make it what I studied all day long I would never be able to keep up with it. I had to make it so that all my grades for the whole semester depended on keeping up, because I knew that if I didn’t make it my entire focus, other things would get in the way, and I’d drop out. That’s what I have always done, whether I was taking Italian or Spanish or whatever other language it might be. And since the one language they offered, that first year of immersion courses at Bard College, was German… well, then German it would be.
Twenty-five years later, however, I am not only not fluent in German, but I’m actually pretty bad at it. I never took the opportunity to go and actually live in Germany and become really fluent. To tell the truth, it would have been a hell of a lot of work and a hell of a long time to become fluent when I would be living in a country where I couldn’t really understand anyone. Besides that, I am far, far too committed, as a writer, to the English language. That was hard enough to learn all by itself.
So when I say that about a month ago I began to wake up every day and be told a new German poem by my voices, we’re not talking about a level of knowledge of the German language that could possibly come from myself. It can come through me, yes, but not from me.
The first morning I was woken up with a voice that identified itself as Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the great poets of the German language. This voice spoke in my left ear. At the same time I was given an English translation, which another voice dictated in my right ear, and this voice identified itself as the eminent but now deceased German-English translator Leila Vennewitz.
This became a pattern: The poet always spoke on the left, and the translator always spoke on the right.
Now, I actually know Rilke’s work, and I know poetry, and I know professional writing. I have worked in publishing, in one form or another, throughout my entire adult life. I got a degree in writing, I worked in bookstores and libraries as a young man, and after that I worked in publishing itself — principally book publishing. Probably ninety-nine out of a hundred dollars that I have ever earned has been from publishing. So I know writing. And this first poem was, as close as I can tell, actually the real Rilke. It’s not his absolutely greatest poem, but it’s good. It’s him, as far as I can tell. Really him.
I am going to share five poems: one from Rilke, one from Brecht, one from Trakl, one from Milosz (which is odd, since he wasn’t a German poet), and one more from Rilke. I’ll let you read them and decide. And I really don’t speak German that well. Composing any one of these is way beyond me. If they contain mistakes in the German, the simplest explanation is that, as I said earlier, all I really am is the instrument that someone else is playing, but it is limited by my own knowledge. In fact, I’m sure that the German must contain mistakes, because I am occasionally told to go to the internet and look up a certain word and then change something in one of these poems, so I understand that they are a work in progress, even if they are almost entirely the same now as when they were first dictated to me. I want to show you five of these poems so you can see that they are all entirely different from each other, depending on which poet wrote them. In other words, unless I have some sort of secret, genius subconscious at work (another myth if there’s ever been one), then there is no way a single person such as myself could have produced this wide range of work in a language that I really don’t understand very well. It is being sent down through me, not produced by me.
(auf Deutsch) Rainer Maria Rilke
Immer folgt der Winter auf den verlorenen Sommer.
Der Schnee ist wie ein Traum. In den Nebel ich sehe nichts.
O wie lang ist dieses Kalt, und wie kurz war das Hitze!
Jeder Tag würde ich noch mehr bleiben, aber alle vergangen ist.
Du anschaust; und als der Winter vorbei passiert,
Du fühlst dich ein bisschen langsamer werden,
ein bisschen älter, and nicht so streng als du warst.
Der Sommer kommt, ja — aber es wird nicht so warm als es war.
The winter always follows the lost summer.
The snow is like a dream. I see nothing in the fog.
Oh, how long this cold lasts, and how quickly the heat passes!
Every day I wish it would stay a little longer, but it’s all gone now.
You watch; and as the winter passes,
you feel yourself grow a little slower,
a little older, and not so strong as you once were.
The summer’s coming, yes — but it won’t be as warm as before.
Anyone who knows Rilke should recognize that voice.
The next day’s poem was, the voices said, by Bertholdt Brecht, best known as the author of the Threepenny Opera. This poem is the hardest to understand of the group because it isn’t immediately obvious what it’s about. Let’s just keep it simple and say that it deals with people who, in wartime, were left alone, without any help, when assistance was needed. Note that the style is completely different from the first day’s poem. These are two entirely different people talking.
Die Letzte Männer
(auf Deutsch) Berthold Brecht
Wo waren sie, wenn mann ihnen gebraucht?
Wo waren sie denn? Or haben sie uns vergessen,
daß nicht so wichtig als sie waren?
Wenn alles auf dich verläßt?
Ich erinnere mich als es war denn.
Ich erinnere mich, daß niemand gekommen ist.
Ich erinnere mich. Ich erinnere mich alles.
Und wir waren allein durch alles. Durch alles.
Vergessen sie nicht. Nie vergessen. Nie.
The Last Men
Where were you when we needed you?
Where were you then? Or did you forget us,
the people who weren’t as important as you?
When everything depended on you?
I remember what it was like then.
I remember that no one came.
I remember. I remember all of it.
And we were alone through all of it. Through all of it.
Don’t you ever forget. Never forget. Never.
The next day’s poem is from Georg Trakl, an Expressionist who died very young, around the time of World War I. Again, it’s an entirely different voice than those that came in the previous days. If it contains a somewhat dated and sexist view of women, well, that’s how they saw things in the time that he lived.
(auf Deutsch) Georg Trakl
Die Traurigkeit von dieser Luft
ist wie ein Mann der ohne Mantel ist.
In meiner Seele ich fühle mich frisch.
Die Traurigkeit daß mann fühlt sich jetzt
ist wie ein Soldat wenn der Krieg beginnt.
Er ohne Stimme ist, aber muß Kampf.
Die Traurigkeit ist wie eine Frau
die immer ohne Kinder ist.
Sie hat ganz Rechts, aber nichts zu sagen.
Die Traurigkeit von einem Freund
hat kein für dich etwas zu tun.
Mann einfach seht es, mit keinem Grund.
The sadness one feels from the air
is like a man without a coat.
In my soul I feel a chill.
The sadness that one feels right now
is like a soldier when the war begins.
He has no voice, but he must fight.
The sadness here is like a woman
who is always without children.
She has the truth, but no more to say.
The sadness you see in a friend
leaves you with nothing you can do.
One simply sees it. There is no reason for it.
The next poem is from Czeslaw Milosz, who, oddly enough, wasn’t a German poet but a Polish one, though he did live under the Germans during World War II. He was a master of several languages, so I’m sure that he must have known some German. However, this poem strikes me as strangely reminiscent of the work of the poet Constantin Cavafy, a Greek-language poet from Alexandria, who often wrote in the voice of someone speaking from the classical era, as he did in his world-famous poem “Ithaka.”
(auf Deutsch) Czeslaw Milosz
Es gefällt mir zu essen,
weil jeder Tag ich höre mich auf
als die Leute um mich intrigen.
Die Königsheit ist nicht wie etwas anders.
Immer siehst du alles, aber siehst du nichts.
Um weg zu fahren, das würde mir gefallen,
aber ich muß bleiben, bis sie kommen
mich zu ermorden.
Ich vergesse jetzt, warum ich habe dieses gewollt.
Ich mochte mich alles hinterlassen,
aber jetzt ist zu spat. Du kannst niemals das tun.
Sie vergessen nie.
Und eines Tages, jetzt or später,
sie werden kommen dich zu finden.
Warum nicht erwarten?
(in English) Czeslaw Milosz
It pleases me to eat
every day while I listen
as the people around me scheme.
To be a king is like nothing else.
You always see everything, yet you see nothing.
It would please me to leave,
but I have to stay here, until they come
to murder me.
I can’t remember why I wanted this.
I would like to leave it all behind,
but now it’s too late. You can never do that.
They never forget.
And one day, sooner or later,
they come to find you.
I might as well just wait.
The last poem is again Rilke’s. What happened in the last few days of having German-language poems dictated to me was that they took on a religious theme, as though God Himself were letting me know what to think about his existence and my own religious experience. It is as though He is shouting: Isn’t it enough by now for you to realize that I am here, how important I am? This poem actually uses my own experience, from when I was a very young person, sitting in church and all of a sudden realizing what the preacher meant when he said that God was all-powerful and all-knowing, and I was all of a sudden stricken with terror at the thought that this might be a real possibility. This is the last poem of the group that I want to share.
(auf Deutsch) Rainer Maria Rilke
Als du acht or neun warst —
oder elf oder zwölf, vielleicht —
du hast unvorhergesehen gestoßen
auf dem Terror von Gott.
Er hat so lang in der Kirche erwartet
für du zur Kenntnis nehmen.
Hoch von dir, auf der Wände,
du hast der breite Regenbogen gesehen
daß hat von Alles der Fensters gekommen,
und er hat sich für dir erscheint
wie das ganze Lichtes des Universums zu sein,
daß du könntest nicht verstehen.
Er erwartet sich noch auf dir.
Verschiebst du nicht länger.
Er erwartet nur bis Tot.
Denn wirst du ohne die Hoffe sein
er hat so lang erwartet für du
endlich, noch einmal, zu finden.
(in English) Rainer Maria Rilke
When you were eight or nine —
or eleven or twelve, perhaps —
you stumbled unexpectedly
upon the terror of God.
He waited that long in the church
for you to notice.
High above you, on the walls,
you saw the wide rainbow
coming from all the windows,
and He appeared to you
like all the light of the universe,
which you couldn’t understand.
He’s still waiting for you.
Don’t delay any longer.
He waits only til death.
Then you will be without the hope
that He’s been waiting so long for you
finally, once again, to find.
So those are the poems. And now I would like to return to something that I said a moment ago. Unless I have some sort of secret genius hidden in the “subconscious” of my own mind, which somehow no one ever noticed before, there is no way that I could have produced all this work. There are no hidden conflicts here, no buried traumas that you need to reinterpret in order to understand all of this. It has order, logic, reason. It isn’t about needing to reassure some other part of myself that is giving me a hard time. For a while I was seeing great German poetry, written with my own limitations in mind, come flowing out from under my fingers each morning. This is not something that requires reinterpretation according to whatever obscure psychological theory you might have. This is something else entirely. This is something that speaks to the existence of an outside force that can speak through us, regardless of what it might be.
And this is not at all the complete limit of my experience.
I have received commands to walk out of my apartment and wait on the street, just before someone I had been looking for for six months walked by. I am always told exactly how many cigarettes to bring before I walk out of the apartment, and it is always the exact number I will need before I return. I am told when to go outside, even when it has been raining, and the moment that I come outside the rain always stops — and it stays stopped the entire time I am outside. I am literally told when to cross the street, and it always appears that traffic stops at that moment. When I get sick, I am told in exactly how many days I will recover. Is it that the world revolves around me? I don’t think so. I think it is that I revolve around the world — that my voices tell me when to do things because that is when the world is lined up the right way, not because it is changing to suit me.
But when it comes to actual, factual, confirmable information about real places or real people or real things, it never happens. I believe that God wants to remain hidden, but that He reveals Himself in small ways by how He guides us, doing it in a way that only we ourselves will be able to see. I may be told to put my shoes on right before my mother arrives at some weird time, but I never get a voice that says, “Your mother is outside.” They just tell me to go out there, and then she shows up a moment later.
I was once outside my apartment when I began to hear a voice say, “Eric, come to my house. Eric, come to my house. Eric, come to my house.” It was repeated over and over and over. I recognized exactly who was speaking, and I walked to that person’s house immediately. This was in the middle of the afternoon, when that person should have been at work. Yet when I arrived, that person was sitting in their car, in the driveway, talking to herself about how she wanted me to come to her house and help her. She had been calling me, calling me, calling me, but I had left my cell phone at home. Was it God’s way of showing me that, yes, He can actually show you things in the real world that are important, valid, and real?
I’m not cherrypicking examples. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time. Every day it’s something else, something new, something extraordinary that no one could ever explain.
I have sat in my apartment and watched as thousands of spirits streamed through my apartment, destroying all my most valued possessions and then restoring them by the next day. I have had objects disappear and then reappear again, whether it was in my own home or in a psych ward. I have seen the sun go down, then rise back up, and then go down again. This is not the testimony of an irrational man. This is what I have seen happen, with my own eyes. I have heard myself stand up and give speeches in the public square, not knowing where the voice was coming from or what it was about to say and even what accent it was speaking in (and there have been some really wild accents, believe me). I have seen too much at this point to discount the reality of God. And I am only one of the millions who are having these kinds of experiences.
You should see the translation of the Bible that is being dictated to me. That is really something.
I would love it dearly if our allies, at least, could set aside their prejudice — that their own reality is the only reality, and that our strange experiences need to be reinterpreted into their own framework for understanding the world — and realize that we, the psychotics, the voicehearers and the schizophrenics actually are experiencing a reality that may be totally different from their own. It may very well be that as God looks down the avenue of Time, that He has seen a different destiny that He wants for those of us He has chosen for a different experience, and that it isn’t an offense against your reality that mine is different. I know it’s different. Just as you have trouble believing in it, I now have trouble believing that I ever had such a limited mindset. But that’s not a matter of intelligence, education, or reasoning. It’s simply that I’m chosen to experience something different than you are, and I hope you grant me the courtesy of acknowledging that. We are all important, but God has different tasks and purposes for all of us. Mine is this. Yours? I don’t know, and God bless, because I would never question it, except if it might help me help you fulfill that purpose.
And if psychiatry itself has an explanation for any of this, I would like to hear what it is. Maybe you can give me a drug to help it all come out even faster, because what I’m seeing every day are miracles by anyone’s standards — unless you’re a psychiatrist, when the only myths and miracles that you seem to believe in are the ones that you yourself did.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.