Symptom: Unusual Perceptual Experiences

This is perhaps one of the more insane-sounding symptoms, but also one of the hardest for me to correctly understand and identify. In fact, it took me many years to realize what they were.

Sometimes, when I’m really stressed, I see shadows, either flickering out of the corner of my eye or appearing and disappearing from one blink of an eye to the next. They were always so brief they weren’t really worth paying much attention to. Easy to ignore and forget. At most, they might weird me out a little, but I got over them quick enough.

Whenever I stare at a blank wall, more often than not it will begin to waiver, wriggle and squirm as if it were alive. This happens so often it hardly registers as unusual. I know the wall is completely inanimate and that it’s just my eyes creating the illusion, so I can just ignore it.

Sometimes I’d hear my mom calling my name in this really annoying voice, even when she wasn’t. But I haven’t heard her calling my name since I moved away from home.

Phantom noise or cries is fairly common and not necessarily a sign of insanity. Parents to infants might experience hearing their baby crying even when it’s not, or perhaps they’ll hear a random noise, like a bird call or the like, and it’d sound like their baby crying. I suppose the stress of too little sleep and too much awful noise can get to anyone. But knowing this, I never really thought of my ‘hearing’ things as anything unusual or a cause for concern. In the end, it was easily ignored and soon became little more than background noise.

I’ve had problems with neighbors playing too loud music because the walls are stupid-thin, but sometimes I felt as if I was just hearing things. As soon as I left my room to complain to my neighbor, I wouldn’t be able to hear anything at all. Usually, there’d be a window or door open and that’s what made the sound carry. Other times the music would be loud enough to hear from outside as well. To this day, I don’t know if some of the noise was created solely in my head just out of the stress created by the actual noise. But that period of about two years was the one period I felt the most insane in all my life.

The worst case of seeing something that wasn’t there, that I can remember was when I was still living at home. One evening I saw a girl sitting in the corner of my room. But it wasn’t exactly how I’d thought seeing things was like. I could see the empty corner clearly with my eyes and knew she wasn’t there. But at the same time, I had the feeling she was there and I could see her clearly in my mind’s eye. Even though I knew she wasn’t actually there, I just couldn’t get her out of my mind. I had to leave the room and go sit in the living room for a while. I was obviously upset and worried my mother, but I couldn’t explain why or what happened to me. How do you explain seeing something, but not really? I never saw it as “seeing things”. Because it wasn’t exactly at the level of A Beautiful Mind, now was it?

When I was first questioned by a doctor on whether I heard or saw things that weren’t there, I said no. Because the squirmy walls, the shadows, the strange girl, the phantom noises, those weren’t “seeing” or “hearing” things, they were just a trick of my over-active imagination. They weren’t the signs of a mental illness. I was depressed, not insane.

It wan’t until much later, when I attended a lecture by a woman suffering from Schizophrenia and she described hearing voices as very similar to having a song stuck in your head, that my view of my own experiences began to change. As she said, most people have experienced a catchy song continuously playing in their head. She said that the voices were like that, but talking instead of playing music. And a lot more oppressive, upsetting and disruptive.

She described how she learned to cope with the voices, identifying when they grew worse, which was usually when she was especially tired or stressed out. They weren’t just always there. Knowing when and why they appeared helped her overcome the negative voices. Then, instead of being a torment, they became a reminder to take better care of herself.

Hers is the best advice I’ve found to cope with unusual perceptual experiences. The shadows and phantom cries aren’t the first warning sign that I’m starting to get overwhelmed and stressed out, but they’re probably the most obvious and easily identified.
These days, shadows hardly appear in the corner of my eyes, but when they do, I try to pay more attention to what I’m doing and how I’m feeling.

Occasionally, when I’m really tired, I’ve also started to ‘hear’ a whole crowded restaurant in my head, full of broken pieces of conversations, fragments of sentences that make little sense. It makes thinking or focusing on things really hard. Luckily, it doesn’t last very long and it’s not something that actually keeps me from sleep.

The unusual perceptual experiences I’ve described here may not sound very severe and in most cases are fairly easy to ignore. But when they start to chase you out of a room, keep you from going out the door or drive you so much to distraction you don’t have any attention left for the things you need or actually want to do, they can become very debilitating indeed. Like a hundred little streams that become a large river.

In summary: Unusual perceptual experiences can be small, almost trivial and little more than a distraction. But if that distraction is actually really upsetting or disruptive, it may be worth it to pay more attention to the situations in which they arise. The nature and experience of the unusual perceptual experiences can vary greatly from person to person. Some may not be able to distinguish them from reality, which is upsetting enough all on its own, whereas others may experience them as a figment of an over-active and out of control imagination. The point is, it’s not something you can control.
Reducing stress can reduce the impact of unusual perceptual experiences significantly.

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