On Hearing Voices

0920OPEDnegley-popupMadman or shaman? It’s a long lived debate whether those who hear voices are tuned to another realm or just plain nuts. Where my son is concerned, I have always erred on the side of shaman. It’s been more than mere error–I have long taken pride in his sensitivity and otherworldly interests.

Since he was quite young–five even–Sean has been fascinated by what is felt and conjured and intoned. I remember a little seance he once held in my bedroom, his sweet face so earnest in the candle light as he cast his spells. One of his favorite books was a picture book on shamanism; it was dog-eared by the time he was 10. And once Harry Potter hit the scene, we were utterly lost.

I saw we because I was his companion in these yearnings. When his study of  Wicca became very serious, around 11, I took him to a celebration of Imbolc at a friend’s coven–a jolly gathering of large women who embraced him warmly. He had me as his “flock” for his own ceremony in the woods near our house–I can’t remember which Wiccan celebration it was, but a little green snake hung on a bush nearby and we both thought it a good omen.

I didn’t especially truck with any of the stuff myself, but I could see it was important to him. It was his spiritual life and it was a place of much learning and empowerment to him. He really was impressive: He taught himself fluent Pictish–the written alphabet of the ancient Celts–and wrote pages and pages in a little notebook. He acquired all kinds of knowledge of herbs and plants, of history, of anthropology. As he got older, he became fascinated with psycholinguistics (whatever that is) and philosophy–and poetry.

But when–several months before he left for California to lead a life on the streets–he told me he was hearing voices, I began to feel uneasy. At first I wrote it off as his flare for the dramatic. Then I started to wonder if there might be some truth in it–that he really did have some psychic abilities that allowed him to tune into vibrations from “beyond.” It was possible. And such viewpoints are part of my DNA: I come from a New Agey kind of family where psychics are regularly consulted, energy healings can take place over the phone, and where we were encouraged to guzzle great quantities of green algae to preserve life and limb.

The fact is, I wanted to believe that Sean was psychic. It explained a lot of things in his childhood, which was unduly fraught with anxiety attacks, social otherness, and a pervading sense of being “unsafe” in the world. I envisioned him harnessing these powers to help himself and others, to heal and bring hope. His psychic powers would bring him a much-deserved sense of identity and belonging. He might even connect with other psychics, strengthen his skill through psychic mentors who would help him grow into the shining man I know he’s capable of becoming.

But that is not what happened.

Sean’s voices didn’t offer pearls of wisdom from beyond the grave. They chuckled and growled. They argued with each other. From what he told me (back in the day when he still spoke to me), it was a motley chorus of spirits that inhabited houses and rooms, department stores, and even natural places. At that point, I don’t think they were telling him to do anything, but sometimes their aggressiveness scared him. He reported several times that he was held down by spirits as he tried to sleep. They haunted many of the abandoned houses where he squatted in Maine, and later San Francisco, forcing him to flee.

A couple of times I casually asked him, “Do you think it might be a sign of schizophrenia?”

“I thought of that. But no.” He was definitive. Even when I pressed tenderly on the idea that it might be more than coincidence that the voices appeared just at the time he stopped taking his long-time antidepressants.

The voices began to be a casual part of conversation between us. I’d ask him as if mentioning an acquaintance of long past, “How are the voices doing?” “Oh, they’re still talking,” he’d say with a tinge of sarcasm. I asked if he had ways of controlling them, or turning them off, or protecting himself. He mumbled something I can’t remember.

In any case, I felt it was important to accept them even if I didn’t believe in or understand them, because, in a sense, we were both his companions: I have always been the one person Sean can talk to. I am the person he calls for the pep talks, the long-distance money wires and plane trips home, I am the person who will laugh with him about his bungling, swashbuckling attempts at independence. I believe I have been, most imperfectly, the voice in his head.

You can make the case that it was high time he cast me out to find his own voice. As we all do–or think we can when we are young (before we realize we are haunted forever by those we have loved). But by the time I found him sleeping in the gutter, I believe they had overcome him. His own voice didn’t have a chance.

I still send my voice out to him every night. I keep hoping it will drift through the tangle of chucklers and demons who have encausted his reason, perhaps reaching him as he sleeps. Like a whisp of smoke, so light it can enter undetected. It says to him: I’m with you Sean. Hear me, trust me, follow me. You are not alone.

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