Voices: How I channelled my hallucinations into creating children’s stories

·4-min read
Voices: How I channelled my hallucinations into creating children’s stories

I don’t say this very much because when I do, I am met with disbelief, stigma or judgement. But I have strange experiences; I hallucinate, copiously. I see and hear things that (I am told) are unique to me.

You probably can’t guess this. I am skilled at being “normal”. I’m even an academic. I teach on a radical master’s programme in creative health at University College London. Life is secure and stable.

We all have parts of ourselves we like to keep silent. Except my parts are not so silent. Twenty-two years ago, I was unresponsive and comatose after a brain injury. I lost everything. Life swiftly became torturous, as I developed the symptoms of numerous psychiatric illnesses. I was locked away, rocking, shaking, madly hallucinating, harming and starving myself.

Being creative helped me recover from many of the disorders. Writing and painting have always been medicinal activities, allowing me to make sense of what everyone else thinks is “real”.

My auditory and visual hallucinations have provided a constant, tangible presence throughout the many years of illness. Even now that I have a life, friends, a career, and seem so mended, the visions are gregarious. They will never go away, the doctors say, since they are caused by the brain injury.

I hear a percussion sound playing a never-ending orchestral suite. It is a bit like tinnitus, but always changing in tune and tone. I hear secretive whispering, my name being called, the radio playing (when it is turned off). I see strange, bright characters – mostly animals. They appear at random.

We have a deal (of sorts). If I give these characters time and space, they promise to only haunt the edges of my vision for the rest of my day. Early morning is owned by the visions. I see extraordinary scenes. Sometimes people are violent, or dead. They attack, poison or slash me to pieces. I am slaughtered, or a ghost. It can be very scary. The characters do strange, unexpected things. Sometimes they’re hilarious and make me laugh.

Yesterday, I suddenly became a round stone, called Joan. As Joan the stone, I had X-ray vision and superpowers. I helped a local, ambitious gust of wind metamorphose and change careers, so then he became our local milkman. A windy milkman.

I see, hear and touch scenes like these, as they grab hold of me. I paint the characters and I write down what they say. Being creative and turning what I experience into a story helps me calibrate and express its hold on me.

The first book of stories for children, Squawk: A Book of Bird Adventures, is being published this year, with Pegasus. It’s full of riotous, comical tales about extraordinary birds. I have 164 further stories (and counting), waiting in the wings. I can’t stop.

The doctors still argue about how to diagnose what I am experiencing. The majority say I have “Organic Psychosis F06.9” from the brain injury. Others say I am not psychotic because I do not have other symptoms – I just hallucinate. Since I have learned to distinguish between my experiences and public “reality”, they aren’t proper hallucinations. No one understands.

I am left alone, but never alone, with all my crazy-not-crazy visions. I wonder if my imagination is the source of all these experiences. Is the imagination a superpower, a force, which I can’t control? Whatever it is, I am constantly surprised, constantly captured.

For many years after my brain injury, I was frustrated, angry and lost – a shadow of my former self. But now, my damaged brain furnishes me, it gives me capacity (rather than taking this away from me). There has been so much trauma, but I am left with a pure, immediate sense of being alive.

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Psychosis (if I can call it that) is my making, not my downfall. The things I can see, which no one else does, define and liberate me. Even when the visions are torturous or violent, they hold and vivify me.

As I write, it is 7pm. I feel something knocking very sharply (“Rat a tat tat!”) on my forehead, from the inside. They want to get out. “You are breaking the deal,” I say. “I promise I will give you space tomorrow morning. Go away!”

“Don’t be silly,” I hear. “I’m in charge. No time like the present. I have an itchy beak and I am drilling a hole through your flimsy skull. I’ve been through your brain. It’s a mess. Very gooey in here. Nearly with you…”

There is a “wheeeee” sound, as a small, fluffy, adolescent bird with a red crown on his head breaks through my forehead. He falls out and lands with a wet “plop” on my knee. I have a moist, young woodpecker sitting on my computer, and a gaping, bloody hole in my head. Anything could happen next.

Dr Lorna Collins is an associate lecturer on the MASc creative health at UCL. Lorna’s book of children’s stories, ‘Squawk: A Book of Bird Adventures’, will be published in October 2023

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