A few months after I left the hospital, a voice dictated this poem to me, meant to describe my fate.
Heaven and Hell (My Fate)
Your sorrow will be
to always come back
exactly the way you were.
Never to have any freedom.
Never in anything but the same body.
Never to have your own voice.
Always there — to never escape.
God has spoken.
That is all.
I’d started having things dictated to me a couple days before I got out of the hospital. I’d been scheduled to get out soon, and as part of getting me ready my psychiatrist had suggested “community visits,” which was Psychiatric Speak for letting me leave the hospital and go out somewhere in town — for dinner with Mom, or whatever the particular excuse for being out might be, to see if I could handle myself amongst people. So I was out with Mom, and the first thing I’d done was to buy a pack of cigarettes, and I was out in the street, smoking my brains out and roaming the free streets for a minute, looking around at the first architecture I’d seen in three months that wasn’t designed for containing someone and that actually had some beauty and grace and style to it, when all of a sudden a voice started dictating a poem to me, a poem which I have since lost among my things but which described — and which was composed in the same kind of poetic voice that I used when I wrote poetry at the age of maybe 25 — a woman that I had met in the psych ward.
I had actually seen this woman once many years before, when I was a college senior and she was a young girl, a teenager, and she came to check out the school I went to and we passed each other on the hill outside the dining commons. I looked at her just for a moment, but for some reason the picture of her had stuck in my memory. Twenty-five years later she looked exactly the same, and it turned out that she had, in fact, gone to the same college that I had, and we became very good friends, and the truth was that I had a little bit — just a little bit — of a crush on her. So the poem was about remembering seeing her that day.
The really significant things about this were that 1) it was my first poem in more than 20 years, a period in which I had not consciously been engaged with poetry at all; 2) it was dictated out of nowhere by a voice, with no planning or preparation on my part, exactly as it was supposed to be, and 3) this whole experience was something I was to get used to over the days and months that followed. More than used to. This whole writing process would become the basis of my life.
* * *
The way I see things, psychosis — not the same thing as schizophrenia, which is only one of many different experiences that involve psychosis — has to be defined as a kind of spiritual experience. Spirituality, for me, can be connected to just about anything. It might be about God. It might be about aliens. It might be about spirits, or about collective consciousness or about some sort of universal archetype or the consciousness of the planet dreaming us all. Who knows? All it takes for something to be “spiritual” is to have some weird thoughts and experiences, and maybe those thoughts and experiences give you some deeper thoughts about how everything works, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
Does it matter that my version of being saved is that I’ll be taken up by the aliens? I’m still saved, aren’t I? And any reasonable examination of what I’m going through indicates that what’s making me act so funny is not some sort of brain disease or genetic defect or so-called “psychosis,” but some sort of weird contact with something, some outside intelligence, a mind so vast that it can reach right into our minds and alter our perception of the way the world works. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed — all of them had these kinds of experiences, which today we’d call psychosis. These experiences and perceptions are not some strange thing. Millions of people have them all the time.
So lots of people experience psychosis — that weird, freaky, electric feeling as you realize what bizarre truths underlie the world in some mystical way, whether it’s that the CIA is watching your every move and using you to study mind control, or that the Grand Cosmic Consciousness itself is talking to you through microwaves — but don’t end up as schizophrenics. Assuming, of course, that you believe in “schizophrenia” at all.
Schizophrenia, to me, is nothing more than a word. All it really means is that you experience psychosis on a regular enough basis that it’s a factor in your life and that you actually do, as the word “schizophrenia” indicates, have a mind that you share with some sort of outside presence. “Schizophrenia” means “split senses” or “split mind,” because it was clearly recognized at the time that your senses and your mind are essentially the same thing; you sense your own mind thinking, observing, and so forth. When you split them, permanently, you get two minds in one body: a schizophrenic, a split consciousness. So the really important question is whether you believe that the psychosis is actually a problem, as most of society does, or whether you might see it as an opportunity, a positive, as I do: one of the rare chances for a normal human being to see and feel and experience what some other kind of conscious entities — gods? aliens? — have chosen to show you.
I suppose that there could be “former” schizophrenics, but that would be strange. Once you’re in, you’re in, I figure: You’ve seen the magical mystery tour itself, and you’ll never be the same. But is there anything else really strange about it? Not really. Schizophrenia is common, and “schizophrenia” itself just a word that someone made up to try to connect some of the bizarre things he saw happening as a result of that divided consciousness. He was most likely just trying to help out and clear up a confusing situation — someone who wanted to “help” who might not have realized that his “help” wasn’t needed. Unfortunately, he was a medical doctor, and he and his friends tended to try to blame what they saw as a person’s “problem” on that person’s biology, like their neurology or their brain chemistry or their genes. So the label stuck, and I’m tired of sitting around waiting for someone to come up with another term for it that doesn’t get someone offended.
So I’m neither offended by the term nor really worried about what it’s defined exactly to mean; the problem is simpler than that. What do people really say? Well, I want to communicate with more people, and while it’s offensive to define me only as a so-called illness, “schizophrenia” does convey some information about what it’s about. It’s what most people say, so I say it too, and I’ll keep saying schizophrenia until everyone reaches a common consensus and chooses another term. It saves time, like when you need to fill out a form, and there’s no box to check for “hear the voices of entities which he believes are either alien and/or God,” but they do have a box for “schizophrenia.” I see my use of this term as simply taking it over like some sort of hermit crab crawling into some other kind of creature’s shell. Which is, interestingly enough, an apt metaphor for what is happening in my own schizophrenia, which is that another kind of intelligence has somehow crawled its way inside of me, and it’s there all the time.
What do I mean by “another intelligence”? It might help if I told you about some precursors to the poetry-dictation experience.
One day, only a few weeks before, when I was still living a normal life, having had psychotic experiences, been medicated for them for a few years in which I didn’t have them, and now drug-free and living normally, I was on the elliptical one day at the gym when I suddenly had the feeling that a killer was staring out through my eyes. I could feel its mood: dark, menacing, alert. I could feel it moving my body, flexing the muscles, stretching them like an animal ready to pounce.
But the feeling passed, and I didn’t worry about it again.
By a few days later, circumstances had changed. Voices had begun to take over my life, threatening to kill me, and I was having all sorts of visions and other experiences, such as looking out over a gym full of people one day in the sunshine and seeing it all transformed into a field full of blooming flowers materializing, ghostly and pale, like dust in the sunlight. One day I was at the gym again, where I’d gone to take refuge from the storm that it seemed was about to take over my life, or even result in my death. Voices were talking incessantly, and from what they said I believed they were the members of some sort of an international conspiracy of psychics — a kind of universal consciousness and power in my private cosmology.
As I stood there that day, terrified and weakened at what I assumed was about to happen to me, I listened as a committee meeting of voices told me that my body would be taken over by a writer who would use me for the rest of my life as his body, and they went on to deliberate about what kinds of books they wanted me to write, and I knew that it meant that I would be trapped inside while some Other was the one who lived my life and wrote my works. They talked about things that I had never thought about before: stories I hadn’t even imagined yet, stories that were striking and different. And then, just for a few moments, I felt this endless, ages-deep disgust and boredom fill me as the writer’s presence filled me, and he walked around in my body for a few moments and then was gone.
It was a couple days after that that I went to the emergency room, thinking that I was about to die and that maybe someone could help me, and that’s how I ended up in the hospital and having this whole adventure to begin with.
So there are two things I imagine anyone might want to know at this point.
1) What does the voice write about?
2) What is the split consciousness like?
So what does the voice write about? Well, there’s a wide range of material. On the one hand, I am slowly — agonizingly slowly — having a novel dictated to me, and it’s a nice enough, mass-market kind of thing that kids and old people might read. It’s a fun, fantastical story. Who knows? It might even get a real publisher. But that book won’t be appearing soon; like I said, it’s moving along very slowly. The voice is also slowly dictating a translation of parts of the book of Genesis, if not the whole thing eventually, where what I do is simply look at a few versions of the Bible and go back to the Hebrew for a sense of the original and then listen as the voice dictates its own version.
It’s a very interesting translation, actually. It makes sense out of sections that don’t seem to make sense at first because of the way it was first written and then translated without taking the time to get it exactly right. The voice also dictates translations of the poet Rilke in much the same way — I look at a translation or two, just to get a sense of it, then go back to the German. I have no idea how much Rilke the voice intends to translate, but I have to say that they are the best translations of Rilke’s work that I have seen.
There is a lot of poetry. Some of it is supposed to be “mine” — it’s written in what used to be my own, Eric Coates’, original voice — but some of it is dictated in German and then immediately translated into English. Some of these poems are supposed to be by other authors, including some very famous dead German poets. In addition to liking poetry in general, the voice apparently likes traditional forms of poetry in particular, such as mostly forgotten forms like sea shanties and drinking songs and limericks— the dirtier the better. The voice once got me out of bed at 10 p.m. and, over the course of exactly two hours, dictated 17 filthy limericks in a row. That’s one limerick every seven minutes. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t write a limerick once every seven years. I challenge you to produce a good limerick every seven minutes, or even a bad one.
One of the milder examples is this:
There once was a man who liked farts
almost as much as his darts.
He liked to bend down
and act like a clown
right before he practiced his arts.
These are the kinds of things that make you question what kind of Higher Intelligence or what representation of the Cosmic Experience might deem it necessary to include filthy limericks in its glorious array, but these are apparently the kinds of things it finds indispensable. For me it’s no longer surprising what it might talk about, or who it might say is talking.
The first time I realized that I actually was dealing with something that clearly had to be from the beyond was when I was dictated a rhyming poem, a sort of Shakespearean ditty, about taking a shit. Which might sound odd, but once you think about it you will realize that if any classic poet actually had written a poem about taking a shit, of course it would have been Shakespeare. When I first saw this poem as it was dictated to me in two minutes or so (it has never been changed), I was rather confused and disoriented. What was this? I can’t rhyme, I don’t think in meter. It’s a completely different mind that produced this. It was only when the image of medieval paintings, with their portraits of devils poking their snouts out of sinners’ rear ends, that I realized just how far back this sort of indulgence in filth really is. What made me realize it was more than earthly, however — that it could not possibly be a production of my own “subconscious” — was not only that I am both unable to rhyme and unable to write at all metrically, let alone come up with some of these phrases, but also that it’s just so obviously an intelligence possessed of its own individual and dexterous turn of mind. This one goes:
A Shakespahearing Moment
Oh, foul beast, what rude production!
I dare not look at what reduction
My gut has made of what I ate
Yesterday from off my plate.
What thing just slithered from betwixt my legs?
Not the thing in front, although that begs
For some excuse for what it’s done
When it has finished with its fun.
No, what troubles and disturbs my mind
Is the nasty thing I’ve left behind,
For crueler much than you would think
Is this thing which surely stinks.
I don’t know, I just leapt up
And hit the lever that sticks up
Waiting for to be removed
This thing which has surely proved
How rude a beast a man must be
When he does that and stops to pee,
Not satisfied with what he’s done
When surely, surely anyone
Would be ashamed to just look back
At that monster, thick and black.
But Bible translations and dirty poems aren’t the limit of what the voice writes. At times, it talks about the way the universe works. According to one of the voices’ stories, the universe is all contained in a game — a simulation that is essentially a glorified video game — being played between the members of two cosmic species we would describe as being highly evolved moths and flies in their battle for intergalactic dominance. At first this story might not seem plausible, but when you consider evolution and the fact that in some universe at some time somewhere, it might very well be that two species evolved and played a game called Universe wherein they agreed on the rules of a whole new universe every time and then fought it out in that universe for dominance. A universe in which they are taken for gods, and if you’re me, you end up saying, Hey, why not? It’s no stranger than the stories most religions tell about the origins of the universe, although, like most cosmologies, it doesn’t really answer the question of where it all came from, of why there even is a universe to exist in. God created our universe; Who created His? Does even He know why we’re here?
So it’s interesting, in all, listening to what the voice has to say. It’s not what you’d expect, anyway, although I have no idea what one would rationally expect a disembodied voice to dictate under normal circumstances.
• • •
On to question 2: What is the split consciousness like?
What my voices told me is that reincarnation is the connecting of one living person in a living body with other spirits who may or may not be dead, so that mentally they are all linked to one another and become able to use each other’s talents and strengths and so forth via the person through which they manifest, and even to share experiences. My voices also told me that I myself was being reincarnated, and that everyone I was being connected to in this way — becoming, essentially, a sort of hybrid being or consciousness — would all sort of meld together in my writing. And because each of these people was also connected to twelve others of their own, and those to twelve others, and so on, it all became a vast network of minds. In some way, they conveyed, this was how humanity united into the consciousness of God or some sort of god-like being. A great, universal consciousness of everyone coming together was the ultimate goal and purpose of it all.
I didn’t know this at the time it started. At the time it started I thought I was going to die, or be tormented, or something. Nothing was clear. All I knew was that I was sitting in my car across the street from my mother’s, with no place to go for the night in this freaky town where everyone seemed to be running on some sort of freaky automatic defense system that was keeping me out, and I could feel this hellish sense of the night opening up. Voices had begun hissing in my head, heightening the sense that I was doomed. They were going to kill me, I believed. And then, as I sat there paralyzed, I felt something like a kind of hook enter the back of my head, in the hollow just above the bone where the neck muscles connect to the back of the skull, and a pain went through my head as the hook passed through and came out the other side, and I knew that I had died.
I’ve heard other people in psych wards say that they had died, and knew the date. There was a woman I knew, a sort of fiendishly minded little psychotic, very devilish sense of humor, who once cackled out loud: “I sold my soul to the Devil in 1979.” I told everyone right then that I believed she had, because that’s just not the sort of specific thing you go and make up. Another man said he’d died in 1969, but he never said what the circumstances were, only that he had died. He would come up to you, smile, start talking pleasantly, and then, as soon as he got going, would suddenly go from whatever he was talking about to screaming about the Psychiatric Genocide That’s Killed Five Hundred Million People, so he did have a clue.
So when I say that May 17, 2015 was the day that I died, that the old Eric Coates ceased for all intents and purposes to exist as a solitary individual and was reborn immediately into a new, different kind of existence — well, I can only hope that you realize that that is not the sort of thing you just make up, and it was quite the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced.
So what it’s like to be the conduit for The Writer?
Well, there’s the body. It’s his. He walks, talks, writes, goes to the bathroom, reads articles, laughs, goes for walks with Mom, smokes pot, has a cat. While he’s doing all this, I am looking out through his/our eyes in a way that is very similar to how being inside someone was portrayed in the movie Being John Malkovich. I mean, there’s no cinematic shadowy tunnel you’re looking down, but there is a sense of viewing everything from a distance, from far behind the eyes. There is also no sense beforehand of when I am about to move or pick my nose or get up and go for another cup of coffee or something. That is, I am not the one doing it. There is no volition involved. He just gets up and does it, and I’m along for the ride.
Now, you know he’s thinking, because he says things to people all day long. He writes essays, and little poems, and works on books, and posts on Facebook, and talks to his mother and all that sort of thing, and it’s almost always pretty interesting to see what he’s got to say. He doesn’t bother too much with domestic details. No, he wants to talk about genocide today. Later on, let’s look at that novel about the two kids in the concentration camp. Why not work in a children’s song in German? Oh, let’s go for a walk, and, surprise of surprise, you walk by an old friend and have a good laugh.
To tell the truth, it’s sort of entertaining.
But there is no face-to-face meeting. The face I see in the mirror is the old Eric Coates’, and it’s still me looking out through the eyes. But it is he who is looking back in, and the grim expression on my face is his. The strange thing is that slowly, more and more, he is coming to mirror me. When I feel a little depressed now, he seems to feel it too. He seems to notice that getting older is painful. He smokes pot to make life more interesting for me, I think, but it also seems to relieve his boredom at being human. He tends to neglect things like exercise and eating when he doesn’t feel like bothering. Otherwise, living with him is like living with a neighbor you never see but whom you know is around all the time. You walk down the street and it is your street, but the one walking down it is him, the one who does everything now but who never thinks in a way that I might share, in our thoughts, although he knows what mine are. There is only what he writes to really know him by, only voices in my head that describe what he is saying, what he means, what he intends to do about it all. He is nothing more than a will really: a ghost, a presence, sort of a faceless government bureaucrat, expressionless as stone.
• • •
There’s one last thing you might want to ask about, which is: Why you?
What the voice tells me is that I made a sort of promise to God as a very young man. I was about 19 years old and very interested in religion and spirituality. I had come to believe that religion was essentially a psychological need of some kind, and that if you could somehow find the common ground of all the different faiths, it would show you how people’s minds worked. I felt so strongly about this idea that I had applied only to colleges with a religion department. The sole reason I didn’t pursue either formal academic religious studies or the priesthood is because, even if I believed in the power of religion itself, I didn’t yet relate to any specific religious tradition or know where my own spiritual inclinations lay. What God tells me now — or what a voice says God says — is that one reason I was chosen for the whole voice-hearing and visions and revelations thing was because you have to have the experience yourself to really understand religious experiences had by others.
My other interest at the age of 19 was learning to write well, and I resolved right then that, even if I had to work for 20 or 30 years to become a really good writer, then that was what I was willing to do. That’s the other thing my voice says God took notice of. God looked at that, the voice says, and said, “All right, We can work with that.” That’s a promise God’s willing to make: Put in your 30 years and I’ll take care of the rest. So that’s what The Writer gets for Eric: the chance to produce a lot of decent work, even if it really isn’t his, even if it’s the work of writers who never had a chance to tell their own stories or who died a long time ago.
It’s a very interesting experience, and I have no doubt it was worth the trade for “normalcy,” since from what the voices tell me, it’s an eternal situation. I’m stuck with The Writer, and The Writer is stuck with me, not just in this life, but in the next. Always there — with him. As the poem said:
Your sorrow will be
to always come back
exactly the way you were.
Never to have any freedom.
Never in anything but the same body.
Never to have your own voice.
Always there — to never escape.
God has spoken.
That is all.
It’s both a reward and a punishment.
And that is how I became schizophrenic.
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.