John Sterns is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (a co-diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), chronic depression and chronic anxiety. He describes a lifetime of fighting demons in this incredible essay:

I.  I hear voices (“auditory hallucinations”, technically). They come from all directions and fill my mind with hateful, self-destructive demands. One comes from above the crown of my head and commands, “You must die”. Another rests on my left shoulder and says, “You should be dead”. A third whispers insidiously into my left ear, “Kill yourself”.

But the most persistent and long-standing of my voices, which began when I was eight years old, pounds on my left shoulder like a jackhammer, repeating, “I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself.” It never ends. My response to this particular voice was to develop a permanent cringe in my right shoulder. I am now spending thousands of dollars to correct compressed discs in my neck that have caused me chronic pain for nearly 30 years.

Before my treatment, hospitalisations and incarcerations, these voices were all separate and distinct, with individual sounds, tones, rhythms and pitches. Now they are one voice—my voice. Once a chorus, they have become a soloist, though attacking me with the same message. Treatment has meant that I have finally found a “self”, a “me”, after four decades. But the me I’ve discovered is now my enemy.

II.  Not all voices are demonic. I once met a man who heard happy voices. I was walking down the hall of the locked ward in the hospital’s inpatient facility (“Club Head”, we called it) and a young man with dark curly hair approached me, staring into space, smiling, giggling, laughing. He turned his head to whisper to someone who was obviously not there. We passed each other and I heard him chuckle and say, “That’s very funny.” I knew he wasn’t talking to me–I hadn’t said or done anything–and I knew he was psychotic (I recognised the symptoms). At dinner that night I asked my roommate about the young man. “Oh, that’s Kevin,” he answered. “He hears happy voices.”

I immediately hated Kevin. I have been tormented with psychosis and delusions since I was four years old. To meet someone decades later who apparently relished the very same symptoms that have haunted me all of my life felt unfair, an abomination. I avoided Kevin. When I did run into him I wished him the worst voices—the kind that would finally push him over the edge. I wanted him to fall into the endless pit of suffering and pain where I have spent nearly every day of the last 40 years. This is wrong, I know, but I do not yet understand how to be both crazy and compassionate.

III.  During one hospital stay, we were encouraged to use art to express how we felt about ourselves, our illnesses, our pasts and futures. As a child I hated art classes. I was a disaster: my chronic anxiety led to constant sweating, which caused paints, pens, crayons and coloured papers to smear my young face, hands and clothing. The result was often a sickly green-grey mess, a melted miasma. By the third grade I received a free pass from all art classes through the remainder of my school years.

Art therapy required me to sit around a table with seven other inmates and a social worker, and stare at a blank piece of paper and a torn box of broken crayons. I didn’t want to draw anything. In fact, I didn’t want to think about my illness—not my past, my present and certainly not my future. After an hour the social worker announced that art therapy was done and we had to hand in our work. I turned in my blank sheet of paper and walked to the cafeteria for lunch. I told myself I had made an existential statement. Blank was as good as it gets.

The next day brought another art therapy session and once again I turned in a blank sheet of white paper. That afternoon I was called to meet with the social worker who guarded the art therapy class.

“John,” she began ominously, “you are failing art therapy.”

I misheard her, clearly. How can one fail art therapy?

“Unless you make more of an effort,” she continued gravely, “you will not pass. You will not be released.”

The conversation was obviously over.

I returned to my bedroom and considered this exchange. Being called a failure did not surprise me. I am a failure—that I already knew. It was the “You will not be released” part that grabbed my attention. I wanted to be released. Club Head has its advantages: shelter, a bed, meals and the suspension of disbelief for all the problems I’ve caused, the troubles I face, and the remorse, disappoinment, disgust and fear I will feel for hurting others. But I missed my wife and son, so I resolved to make more of an effort during art therapy over the next few days.

So I draw. And draw, and draw some more. Colours fill the pages and I am the most prolific crazy art-therapy inmate ever to grace the hospital floor. Over the next two days I draw and colour geometric shapes, which I had calculated would be safely “meaningful”. My favourite drawing was a rough outline of the state of Alaska that I call “All-I-Ask-Ya”. It has the city “Nome” plotted on the map.

But at the end of each class, I felt sad. The drawings meant nothing to me. I was not using art to express myself. I didn’t even know what that meant.

After three days I was told that I had passed art therapy and would be moved to the open ward. A victory. I didn’t tell them that I still had auditory, visual and kinesthetic hallucinations, paranoid delusions and daily thoughts of suicide. That would mess things up.

John Sterns lives with his family in California, takes five psychotropic medications daily and works as the marketing manager for a leading American commercial real-estate brokerage firm


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