"Many people hear voices when no-one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing." ~ Margaret Chittenden
Little did I know when I first read that quote how true it is, or how the voices of mental illness and creativity would come together in my life.
Rodger heard the voices of mental illness. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a young man, they often spoke to him. I hear the voices of my characters. As I write our story, I rely on his voices and mine to bring it to life.
I knew Rodger was a bit odd long before he came to live with us. His life centered on meals and his three daily walks. His social life was almost nonexistent. He would attend weddings and funerals if pressed to do so by his wife and he barely tolerated visits from family. Other than that, he spent his days in front of the television, watching news programs or reruns of old westerns.
I liked him but I didn't know him very well. Even years after becoming his daughter-in-law, we never had anything more than a very superficial conversation before he turned inward again.
"Hi. How's everything? How are the kids? How is work? That's good."
He was the same with everyone, no matter how closely related or long it had been seen he'd seen them.
Married for over 40 years, my in-laws always had a contentious relationship, yet it worked for them. I believed that once the worst of Rodger's grief over losing his wife eased, he would like living with us. Mike and I would provide a loving and safe home where Rodger would finally be able to relax in peace and quiet.
What I didn't know was that the voices were already working against me.
One day, while putting the last touches on dinner, I called Rodger to let him know it was almost time to eat, when he suddenly ran out of the house and down the street in a panic.
"She's trying to kill me! I can't trust her!" he told the sheriff's deputy, who happened to live nearby. Seconds later I arrived beside them; out of breath from running after him while praying I'd be able to catch him before he had a heart attack.
That was the beginning of years of playing cat and mouse games while I tried everything I could to save Rodger from himself, and he did everything he could to resist my efforts.
I tried to understand what was happening.
"What do the voices say?" I asked.
"They say what they say."
"How do you feel when they speak to you?"
"Nervous and suspicious."
"Suspicious of what?"
"Suspicious. That's it."
He refused to say more. Eventually I started to be able to tell when the voices returned.
"The others are active today," I would say to myself. Although he got his daily medication on time—crushed and mixed into applesauce—more and more often it seemed it wasn't enough to keep the voices quiet.
"Is this food any good?" he asked one day, before lowering his head to sniff his plate. I thought he was concerned that something had spoiled after the power was knocked out by a severe storm. I assured him it was fine.
"She's poisoning me slowly," he told the nurse on his next visit to the hospital. "It's not her fault. She has to do what the boss says."
"Who is the boss?" I asked.
"The boss is the boss. He controls everything. Don't let her kill me." After taking antipsychotics for over 60 years, Rodger's medication was losing its effectiveness. "There may come a time when it doesn't work at all," his doctor warned.
As much I did not want to lose him, I prayed God would take him before that happened. Rodger often said that, when the time came, he wanted to die at home. If there was a way to make that possible we would.
"Did he ever tell you what they say to him?" Roger's doctor asked.
"He won't talk about that."
"Based on his behavior when off his medication, they are not saying anything good. Often they are screaming at him while you're talking to him. If he doesn't respond to you, or refuses to believe what you tell him, it could be because he's been warned not to. It could also be that he doesn't understand what you are saying because he's hearing several voices at the same time," the doctor said. I can relate to that last part. I tune everything out when a new character starts clamoring to have his or her story told. It's never frightening, but it can be very confusing when a multitude of ideas start coming more rapidly than I can sort them out. It may take my husband several tries to get my attention when this happens.
"Earth to Bobbi," he'll say.
"Hmmm? Did you say something?"
"Okay I get it. The others are here again."
Mike copied me referring to the voices as ‘the others,' but it's true. The voices of my characters are often as real to me as Rodger's voices were to him. And now, Rodger's voice is one I hear as I write our story.
Sometimes what he says is not very nice, reminding me of the difficult days we shared, and sometimes his message is a touching reminder of why our time together was such a gift.
"Welcome back," I whisper.
When Rodger was hearing voices, I was careful not to confront him. As long as he didn't act out in way that could be dangerous to him or others, I didn't interfere. If he became restless or combative, I followed doctor's orders and gave him a prescribed sedative.
When I hear the voices in my head, I sit at my desk and let the story flow, just as I'm doing now. I hope you find it helpful.
Does your loved one suffer from mental illness or any form of dementia that causes them to be delusional, have hallucinations or hear voices? How do you handle it?