Bipolar hallucinations… Rick James ain’t even close with “cocaine is a hell of a drug.” And maybe, like my attending physician at Johns Hopkins some years back, you’ve come across a tab or two of acid or other “psychotropic substance.” This ought to give you a pretty good idea of what hallucinating feels like; but the experience doesn’t translate well to the sensation of hallucinating sounds, voices or even visions when completely sober.
First, if you’re diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and have never hallucinated, one of two things is true: Either A) You’re “Type 2” – the less severe version which lacks these specific symptoms – or B) Your doctor sucks at accurate diagnoses.
But if you’re Bipolar Type 1 (“Schizoaffective type”) like yours truly, you ought to be quite familiar with the ole auditory hallucination adventure – possibly so too with the odd visual hallucination, though the latter seem to be more rare (and thus more romanticized). Bipolar Type 1 hardly has a monopoly on hallucinations as a symptom; schizophrenics report a much higher frequency of said symptoms. But, in holding true to a priority in my writing – speaking only from personal experience – I can only speak to what Bipolar auditory and visual hallucinations sound, look and feel like.
In early 2012 I was working on an indie film project that crashed and burned; I had affixed a whiteboard to my apartment wall and put it to what I thought at the time was good use mapping a number of abstract elements of the plot – in retrospect it was more of a sandbox for increasingly manic “theorizing” that led to god-level wakefulness and energy (personal record one full week sober without sleep).
It’s hard to accurately describe the myriad delusions that were gaining a grip on my brain. I can say with certainty that the whole Mayan Calendar Doomsday thing had a fair bit to do with it, though I was never able to articulate this to any normies without evoking sincere concern (probably because it was nuts). The Mayan calendar (which is really the Olmec calendar) was combinatorial, meaning it was comprised of a series of interrelated cycles of days.
I was also manically obsessed with finding a way to visualize four dimensions of space – sort of like Salvador Dalí did with Resurrection (Corpus Hypercubus) – which is was the sort of thinking that I believe, to the best of my ability to ascertain, either gave rise to or preceded an already-certain first auditory hallucination.
I was doodling on my trusty whiteboard in the presence of a friend, constructing spheres within spheres and rambling about people are cameras attached to wires when I came up with a version that seemed to at last capture what was inside my head; I then heard (quite clearly not from my friend) the single word:
I think it’s important here to emphasize that the word – greeting, so it seemed at the time – co-occurred exactly as I completed the final stroke of the image; it was as though I had cracked some sort of uncrackable code that opened up an inner part of my brain in which resided a deeper consciousness that was very much not me. This was the beginning of increasingly bizarre delusions and hallucinations that culminated in the spectacularly common Bipolar symptom of thinking one has a messianic mission – that one is in direct communion with what one might call “God.”
But in short, my understanding is that these kind of clear-speaking “voices” are rather rare. This holds true with my own experience with auditory hallucinations, which aside from this single word consisted of a different variety that I’ve heard described by many individuals in much the same way:
Have you ever felt like you heard someone say your name in a crowd – or even in a breeze? Maybe even in the random percussive impact of a closing door or in the metal-on-metal ping of a dropped frying pan? It’s sort of there but not there, the latter in particular if you try to focus on it. I hesitate to use the phrase it feels like a whisper you can’t quite hear because that doesn’t truly capture the sensation – but it’s damn close. It’s most closely explained in tandem with that sense that you definitely heard it, but know you didn’t at the same time.
I can’t speak for schizophrenics (maybe one would like to leave a comment below to help us out), but as far as concrete words I actually “heard” my experience is limited to that single occasion. Afterwards – even as my other symptoms continued to get worse and intensify – all of my auditory hallucinations were of this more ethereal nature; things I heard but didn’t hear, whispers I couldn’t quite make out, sometimes with an absence of emotion or stress, sometimes with a sort of implied command or implicit feeling – I could sense that source was angry, or happy, or worried or calm.
At the homeless shelter where I’m currently staying, I was fortunate to meet and befriend a fellow bipolar diagnosee. This person and I got into a discussion about hallucinations, and they unexpectedly reflected back to me experiences that exactly mirrored my own.
Visual hallucinations are extremely rare, and (in my and this person’s experience) are nothing like the fictionalized, picture-perfect experience of concrete, actual other human beings as portrayed in films like A Beautiful Mind. I’ll relay what this person described and vouch for the information verbatim – this was my direct experience during the year or so during which I experienced visual hallucinations.
It’s a corner-of-the-eye thing; if you focus on it, it’s no longer there. Often the sense is that another person is present, and occasionally these visual phenomena accompany auditory and/or voice hallucinations or the non-auditory experience of some form of direct communication with another entity. These forms, for lack of a better word, are very much like silhouettes in nature; again, imagine seeing or feeling like you see something just on the periphery of your vision – this can happen even to normies. What’s there – you see it, but can’t ever really look at it – is something like a monochromatic shadow of a person; most of the time it’s nothing more than a shadow, but occasionally it can take on what is experienced as a certain sex (male or female) and may seem to manifest distinct limbs (arms and legs, a defined silhouette of a head to the point where its gender is apparent).
Speaking for myself, these entities are universally adult. If you asked me the age or facial characteristics, I’d have nothing to say – it was impossible to tell. What I can speak to is the emotional response engendered thereof, which varied from calming to encouraging to downright terrifying. Again speaking only from personal experience, these semi-phantasms tended to appear in either moments of extreme stress (read: depression) or moments of extreme elation (read: mania); they never manifested during normal, regular, day-to-day moods or routines. My thought herein is that they, like auditory hallucinations, are probably linked to states of delusion and/or temporary residence on one of the two extreme ends of the bipolar mood spectrum.
The most intense visual hallucination I ever experienced looked something like the featured image of this post. It came at the peak of my (now understood to be typical) messianic bipolar swing.
A FINAL THOUGHT
I’ve noticed a number of people, bipolar or otherwise, expounding a genuine curiosity or even longing for these types of experiences. All I can say here is that relative to the quote unquote Big Picture, I recommend against this impulse. While a minority of times auditory and visual hallucinations were interesting or even comforting, the vast majority were at best extremely disconcerting. It is incredibly difficult to maintain a grip on reality and sanity when voices or shadowy figures are popping up uninvited. At the worst times there is a strong, unconquerable sensation that they are outside of my control – and, coupled with a negative mood or even a manic one, the natural thought that follows is that this entity or person could harm me. At that point, you’re essentially done.
Hallucinations are ostensibly interesting, but ultimately really quite awful no matter from which angle you look at it. As someone who has endured both types, I can say with confidence that I would rather have lived without them.
If you’ve had similar experiences, I’d be curious to hear about them – but please don’t fictionalize or romanticize. While I’m hardly the final authority on what may or may not have happened to you, I won’t entertain posturing or posing. I will however openly entertain and engage with those interested in using these occurrences to provide a little stability to those who may yet experience the same.
All in all, hopefully you now have a little better understanding of what bipolar auditory and visual hallucinations feel like; I hope you also have a new appreciation for their seriousness and categorization as symptoms of something that is neither enjoyable nor facilitating. As always, please don’t use this information as an excuse to go full psychonaut or eschew nor use drugs that respectively do or don’t need. What will happen will happen – if it happens to you, hope you are strong and based enough to handle it.