When I decided to go off psych drugs, believing that they were not only far more dangerous than most people thought (the average medicated “schizophrenic” dies 25 years younger than most people) but also that they were depriving me of living a full and functional life (enormous weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, plus the so-called “negative symptoms” that included a lack of emotion, a lack of cognitive function, and a kind of social death one can only attribute to acting like a zombie all the time), I wanted a real psychiatrist who would not only not try to put me on drugs, but who would actively seek to find other solutions to the problems I had had in the past and any that I might have in the future.
Now, bear in mind that I had already safely tapered off all drugs, and that I was living what might be considered a perfectly normal life. In fact, now that I wasn’t impaired by “antipsychotics,” I was starting to live the life that I had left behind eight years before, when I had not yet been diagnosed a schizophrenic because of my “delusions” and hearing voices.
When I decided to find a new psychiatrist, I looked around very carefully — or as carefully as I could, given the limited resources that seemed to be out there for finding a psychiatrist in private practice — so that I could find exactly the kind of person I was looking for: a progressive, non-drug–oriented psychiatrist. I wanted to find a psychiatrist who would not only pursue my own “treatment” goals, but who would be able to protect me from “the mental health system,” if I ever had a problem again. I had read about these sorts of psychiatrists, but actually finding one in my area was a whole different story, and the difficulties of that process became immediately obvious.
Why? Well, for one thing, psychiatrists are getting kind of rare, actually, and a psychiatrist who is still in private practice is even more rare than the ones who work for hospitals or other institutions (like the “community mental health centers”). There seem to be a number of reasons for this.
Reason #1 might be that from Freud right on down to our own times, most psychiatrists have been looked on as frauds (I can’t help but agree) who either didn’t know what they were talking about or who simply weren’t to be trusted because of the fact that they would impose “treatment” on you whether you liked it or not, such as if you were locked up in a state hospital or, in these latter days of “civil outpatient commitment” and “assisted outpatient treatment,” if you were involuntarily involved with a “community mental health center.” Underneath both these problems is that psychiatry displays a grotesque lack of knowledge about what is actually happening in your brain (there is no proof that “mental illness” actually exists, for example) or whether their so-called “treatments” will ever actually work — and they usually don’t, after what what may seem to be an initially good result. Psychiatrists are caught in a bubble, an echo chamber in which the propaganda of the pharmaceutical industry and their paid shills have them all trapped, in which all they hear is what the Big Pharma companies want to tell them, which just about everyone else in the medical professional knows is ineffective if not outright fraudulent. In fact, if you’ve been in med school at any time in the recent past (the last few decades or so) and you’ve said that your intended specialty was psychiatry, you have very likely been looked down upon as being some sort of second-rater for even considering the idea of getting involved with a kind of medical practice that so many people view as being completely non-scientific or even some kind of scam.
Reason #2 that it’s getting harder to find a psychiatrist in private practice and in general (in hospitals and so forth) might be that psychiatrists are among the lowest-paid members of the medical profession, the lowest-paid kinds of doctors that is, which disincentivises people to go into that specific field. So you’re not only not respected as much as other doctors, but you don’t make as much money — not the kind of money that a plastic surgeon makes, for instance, who would be doing all kinds of expensive procedures for which they could then bill you a thousand dollars or more an hour. A psychiatrist doesn’t usually do any procedures. Mostly they just monitor “medications,” and that doesn’t make nearly the same kind of money as, saying, giving someone a facelift would. So the lack of money also keeps people away from going into psychiatry.
So psychiatry isn’t exactly thriving as a medical specialty, and for good reasons. Which made finding a new psychiatrist — and not only a new psychiatrist, but a progressive one — who practiced in my own geographical area very difficult.
The new psychiatrist that I found, not too far away — within a hundred miles or so — was through an internet site that published articles and so forth on psychiatric drugs and psychiatry. It had a list of “caregivers” in different areas of the United States, and after trying my own local phone book and asking around and getting nowhere for a while, I looked at the site and called the nearest person whom it described in a way that sounded vaguely like what I was looking for: a progressive, non-drug-oriented psychiatrist. I will be removing any distinguishing characteristic of this person so that he/she remains anonymous. This psychiatrist also happened to deal with some other things that I was interested in — trauma, for instance, which has been shown to be connected to people who later experience psychosis or “schizophrenia” — and he dealt with some other things that I did know about, like breathing (as a meditator and exercise nut I’ve learned quite a bit about breathing), and he dealt with some other things that I didn’t know about at all, like neurofeedback.
What I realize now is that this psychiatrist, if he had the choice to go back to med school and get a new degree, would probably have become a neurologist or what they are now starting to call a “psychoneurologist.”
If you haven’t yet heard of psychoneurology, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s a relatively new field, cobbled together out of bits and pieces of both psychiatry and neurology, and it seems that it’s rapidly replacing psychiatry. Neurology itself — the other half of “psychoneurology” — is actually a genuinely scientific field, one that works with the actual physical brain rather than a bunch of guesswork and myths about the physical brain, such as the existence of the purely hypothetical existence of a “mental illness” (which is an explanation of mental disturbance that says it’s a physical illness, such as a “chemical imbalance” or a “genetic susceptibility,” both of which any honest psychiatrist will tell you has no evidence at all to support them). So neurology and psychoneurology are pretty safe from competition — from psychiatry, at least.
I had my first appointment with my new doctor in late March of 2015. All I knew at that point was that I wanted to have a psychiatrist who was definitely my own psychiatrist, just in case I was ever hospitalized again, and I also knew that I wanted to explore something that this psychiatrist (or aspiring psychoneurologist) had suggested — something he called neurofeedback. I pictured neurofeedback as being something like biofeedback, which turned out to be not the same sort of thing at all, as I was to discover. I imagined neurofeedback as being like biofeedback in that it would teach you to read different signals coming from your own body, like your heart rate or your breathing, and how that might help one adjust what one’s mind or one’s body was doing and thus how one felt, but this was an assumption that turned out to be wrong. Completely wrong, in fact. But with the way I was thinking about it, I really didn’t question whether the procedure would be right for me or not. Because that’s what neurofeedback is: an actual procedure, not an exercise in learning how to control your body and your mind.
When I arrived on the day that we were doing neurofeedback, my doctor had obviously evaluated me — and obviously enough, as the author of Hearing Voices, selling thousands of copies and having had even more pirated from the internet, I had been more than enough of a psychotic for him to do the treatment on me, and he hooked me up.
First there was the cap on the head. That was kind of painful, as he dug in some kind of thin sensor that felt almost like a needle up against (and sometimes even dug right into) the skin of my head, before he squirted on some sort of conducting fluid or gel (I believe it was a conductor, anyway: I never thought to ask), all of which gave him the ability to monitor my brainwaves. There were maybe 25 of these sensors, each of which was a fairly painful experience as it dug into my skin. After hooking me up to each sensor he would check a monitor to see if he was getting my brainwaves, and then he would go on to the next one. There were probably a couple dozen different sensors, as I said, all around my cranium, and I imagine I looked rather odd with a cap full of these things on my head.
Then, after he was done with that, he started a movie for me to watch on a large monitor. The way the movie played was rather strange. It was a popular movie that I had seen advertised on TV. You could see all the images the same way as they had been filmed, except for one thing: the colors. It would go from being all black-and-white to suddenly being black-and-red. And then it would suddenly pale out, and it would all be white with a little bit of black here and there, and I believe there were even points at which it would go black-and-yellow. As this was going on, my psychiatrist was adjusting settings on a computer in relation to what my brain was doing in response to what was happening on the screen. It was a strange process, but I simply accepted it as part of what my psychiatrist (my own chosen caregiver, after all) was doing.
What I realize now is that your eyes, whether you realize it or not, are sort of like an open port to the rest of your brain — just like on a computer. Light is energy, and when it enters your eyes it doesn’t just do nothing. The images and the colors and how it all responds to your brain are very powerful stimuli. It’s like having an open port to a computer. You just put the lights in front of someone, monitor what their brain is doing, and you can either wipe out or reinforce whole sections of the brain. This is not an exaggeration. Neurofeedback is extremely powerful — far more powerful than one might think, merely observing it from the outside.
When it was over I just felt kind of rested and peaceful. And when I talked to my doctor a short time later, sitting in his office, he asked me how I was feeling, and when I told him that I was feeling a little tired and very relaxed, he said that I was in for a wonderful experience.
And it was wonderful at first. But what I didn’t know was how it would affect my brain later. Because it did affect my brain later, and it affected it profoundly.
For a while after that first treatment, I just wandered blissfully around my psychiatrist’s neighborhood. I just didn’t feel like jumping into my car for the drive home yet. It was a small, quaint New England town, and there were a couple of shops nearby, so I poked around those for a little while.
One thing I noticed, from the moment that I stepped out of my psychiatrist’s office, was how strangely blank and yet clear my mind was. There was no thought process that I was aware of taking place in my mind. I just wasn’t thinking. I seemed to just be there, just knowing what to do without thinking about any of it at all. The world had a kind of immediacy to it that I’d never experienced before. I was so present in the world that it was like I’d never really seen it that way at any time in the past. And my internal voice — the voice that I talked to myself with — was completely gone. I wasn’t talking to myself in my own head at all.
I just sort of ambled down the street to the stores and looked around. Everything was very immediate, very visceral, and kind of fascinating to look at, and it was all suffused with a calm that I hadn’t ever experienced before except during the most powerful kinds of meditation. I might almost have been stoned, except that I wasn’t feeling stoned. I was just extremely calm and peaceful, and I felt very light. Time seemed to have stopped, and I was just moving along with whatever was in front of me.
Obviously, the neurofeedback was having a pretty powerful effect.
It was when I decided to get back in my car and go home that I started to realize that there might be a problem. For one thing, I couldn’t find my way back out of my psychiatrist’s town. I couldn’t seem to really remember any of the streets, or what was on the other side of a building that I’d driven by just shortly before. It was like the world went as far as my line of vision and then it just stopped. I had no mental awareness at all that there actually was anything on the other side of that building right down the street, no ability to picture the world beyond it. And as I started to drive around, I realized that I couldn’t tell what the street signs meant. I could see the words, but I couldn’t really read them. It just didn’t register in my mind what they said. I could see the words, but I wasn’t realizing what they actually meant. I had to stare at them for a moment before I would finally realize what they were saying. I was living in a kind of world that had no real meaning or logic to it, with no words and only a kind of blank in my mind about it all. I was literally — quite literally — in a world where nothing had any meaning.
So then I tried to find my way back to the local highway that would take me home. It was about a five minutes’ drive away, under normal circumstances. But with nothing in my head — with no thought process that I was really involved with at all, and with no internal voice to guide me — it took me the better part of an hour to get there. I just couldn’t process the idea that I had to, for instance, turn to the right at that road up there ahead. I would just drive by it, completely engaged in this timeless world I was in.
About an hour later, after getting back to the highway, I woke up to what was happening. I was driving, at about eighty miles an hour — far beyond what I usually drive, since I’m an unusually conservative driver — with absolute confidence, staying perfectly in the middle of my lane, and without any real awareness of what I was doing. And with neither any internal voice or any thought process going on inside me at all.
When I had to go to the bathroom, I stopped in a town in which I had actually lived about 25 years earlier. Yet when I saw the streets, I had no real awareness of how they were all laid out — the stores and the buildings and so forth were unrecognizable — and I parked much farther from the main drag, where I had hoped to find a bathroom, than I would have under normal circumstances. I had no idea at all where it would have been intelligent to park. I was that out of touch.
When I did park, I walked toward town and found a bar — having no idea of who I really was, as I drifted along in this timeless, random, meaningless world, and certainly no idea about who the people were around me — and I went into the bathroom. Then I walked back outside, and as I was walking back toward my car, I saw a man crossing the street.
He was a young man, and if I saw him right now I would have to say he was kind of a hipster. I’ve lived in New York City, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon, before they were all overrun by the young and the rich, so I’ve been around a lot of very hip young people, and if I’m completely honest about it, I’m usually not very interested in them. I went to a very, very arts-oriented college, with aspirations of becoming a writer myself, and one of the things that I noticed at the time was that the people who looked the most like artists were actually the people who were least likely to be doing any art, while the people who spent the least time possible on their appearance, the very same people who looked like they were the most boring and average, were the very ones who were most likely to be working at their art every day, and I decided right then that rather than ever trying to look like an artist, I would simply be an artist, and never attempt to show it on the outside. And one of the results of that is that hip-looking people tend not to interest me very much. I even tend, I’ve noticed, to not like them very often. I’m just not interested either in being all that cool or in people who are all that cool. I want to do art, not just look like I do art. It’s just who I decided to be.
So I looked at this young man, whom on a normal day I would have just automatically judged a little bit (I’m just trying to be honest), and I realized that I had absolutely no judgment of him at all in my mind, which was odd, because he was about as much of a hipster as you could get. Instead of seeing the way he was dressed and the way he carried himself through the filter of my own prejudices, all I saw was a human being crossing the street. I was as detached from what I was seeing as if I were looking at an insect. And then I turned around and looked down the street at all the people passing by on the main drag. The town I was in was a college town, and there were actually a lot of very cool-looking young people walking around, as well as a lot of other people who had different kinds of appearances, and right then I realized that I had not a single judgment in my head about any of it. None. I had no reaction at all. It simply was.
This wasn’t just totally different from the zombie I had been when I was on drugs, and it wasn’t just totally different from who I normally was without them. This was… what?
This sort of non-thinking lasted for several hours, and when it was over I felt quite peaceful.
What I didn’t know is that life — which up to that point had been so safe and so secure and so reliable — all of a sudden started to become entirely different for me. After my normal thought process had returned once I was home, but during the time I still felt surprisingly calm and relaxed, I decided to go back for another treatment the next week. What I couldn’t have known then was that after that next “treatment,” life would be completely destroyed for me. It was as if every mental or neurological defense I had ever had was stripped away, and the whole world — the whole insane, crazy, out-of-control world that I’d been trapped in before, complete with voices that never stopped — came pouring back into my head. Up to that time, I’d been more or less normal. After that, my life was destroyed.
The voices started within a day or two after my second treatment. It happened that that very week, on April 17, 2015, Dr. Eleanor Longden was scheduled to speak in Boston. I had planned to go for a very long time, and I prepared carefully. After almost ten years of being trapped by drugs in a very small town, it was my first time driving into a big city again — Boston, which is notoriously difficult to get around. Yet when I started to drive, the voices became incessant. I can’t recall exactly what they were talking about, but it was all meant to distract me from getting there. When I finally got through the city and found a place to park, I walked the rest of the way and rested on a park bench for a few minutes to have a cigarette. Then I went inside the auditorium, and took a seat halfway down the theater and waited.
It was only when Dr. Longden came out to talk that the voices really started again. It was as though every mental defense I had ever developed against them had suddenly vanished. While she gave her talk and her presentation, I could hear the voices of angels and demons screaming in the background, telling me how wrong she was. I’m not sure that I understand everything that Dr. Longden talks about — how can one really be sure that one does understand what anyone is really talking about? — but what happened to me was that everything she said was subjected to a kind of scathing analysis, the voices screaming that she couldn’t be right about anything she was saying.
I, personally, do not have at all the kind of experience that Dr. Longden describes. I do not have voices that just insult me, or make me feel inadequate or inferior, or that cheer me up when I am feeling down. I have what I would describe as a much more cosmological experience. My voices talk about the way the world works, and when I say “the world,” I mean the entire universe. My voices talk about angels and demons and God, and they talk about how the universe was created. They talk about what my destiny is within that world. They talk about creatures from other dimensions, and from other parts of the universe. They don’t talk about anything that affects my feelings at all. They talk about the cosmology of the universe, the shape of it all. And as she was talking, they were screaming about how wrong she was about it all, that she really had no idea what she was talking about. Personally, what I get from what Dr. Longden talks about, I get the feeling that what she is doing is bringing back to life a sort of pseudo-Freudianism in which the subconscious/conscious/id are at war with each other. I don’t believe in any of that stuff at all, and apparently my voices don’t either. I don’t see any reason that one part of the mind is subconscious at all. Non-conscious, yes, but subconscious, no.
In the time since then — including two and a half years in which I was ragingly psychotic, in which a voice took over my own voice and spoke through me all the time — I came to believe that there is something much more powerful than we are in this universe, and that the different ways that people experience voices are all attuned to who we are as individuals. If you are someone who has had lots of problems in their life — sexual abuse, physical abuse — perhaps God puts you through an experience that will help you understand what you went through and, hopefully, go on to be a happier and more loving person. For others, like myself, voices are meant to teach us something larger about the universe, and that what happened in our own individual lives is not important to the process at all. God — or whatever you want to call it: aliens, spirits, our ancestors, or fairies dancing in the backyard — takes a form that is individual to each of us, according to what we have to learn, and that is all that matters.
With all that behind me now, however, I can tell you one thing: neurofeedback is far, far more powerful than most of us realize. It has the power to open us to outside forces that can more or less change our destinies. During the past three years, I spent seven months in psych hospitals, unable to control the voices raging in my head, and it all began when I decided to go to a new psychiatrist, one who I thought could help me, and what he did instead was unleash a horde of demons and angels in my head. It’s an experience I’ve only started to recover from in the past six months or so, but the life I had before then is gone. Everything is gone. I live someplace different, and the work I do is different. None of the people I knew before this, with a couple rare exceptions, even speak to me any more. It was really that drastic. And it all began with some lights flashing in my eyes. All I can say now is: Be Careful. Neurofeedback is not for everyone.
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.