What’s it like to have hallucinations?

I experience hallucinations when I’m stressed, which is pretty common for folks like me who have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Actually hallucinations are pretty common all round. Technically a symptoms of psychosis, many people experience mild hallucinations during their lifetime. Voice hearing for example is extremely common, the stats vary between one study and the next, but a ballpark figure is one in twelve kids hear voices at some point. Like dissociation, one of the simplest ways to induce hallucinations in almost anyone is to deprive them of sleep. Hallucinations can range from very mild, minor experiences – glimpsing something in your peripheral vision that turns out not to be there, thinking the radio is playing quietly but discovering you already turned it off, reaching for your phone to discover it wasn’t ringing, through to more dramatic experiences where a person might seem so real that you converse with them without realising they’re a hallucination.

Mine tend to sit in the mild to moderate range, for which I feel pretty grateful. I don’t experience delusions or disordered thoughts, so although the hallucinations can really bother me, they don’t confuse my sense of reality. I’m well aware they’re internally generated and not externally real.

So what’s it like? Well, frustrating a lot of the time. You can hallucinate in any sense you have – and contrary to popular belief we have more than five senses. We can not only hear or see, but also have the ability to sense things like air or water pressure, gravity, the location of our own body parts (this is why you can close your eyes and still touch your fingertips together), and sensations such as hunger and pain. Dissociation and hallucinations can interfere with any of our senses. A common one I get is taste hallucinations. This can make life quite difficult, particularly as I live alone. I have to be careful when I am experiencing these because it makes it hard for me to work out if food is safe to eat. Sometimes I will experience persistent tastes even though I haven’t eaten that food lately. Sometimes tastes will be oddly swapped about. I once ate marshmallows that tasted of petrol, another time hot chips tasted only of honey. Not like honey flavoured chips, but like I was eating teaspoonfuls of honey. A common one I get is food tasting intensely bitter, when it tastes perfectly fine to everyone else. When eating alone this bitter hallucination can mask real warning tastes and make it hard for me to work out when food is spoiled. I tend to err on the side of caution. When these are happening a lot I also tend to eat less, which can quickly spiral into real problems for me.

Smell is another really common one for me. At the moment when I’m stressed I smell burning. I lived in a caravan for a year and had three fires in it during that time due to electrical problems (one of them was the electrical safety switch I’d had installed catching on fire!) so there is a strong stress memory of burning. It’s impossible for me to tell when I am hallucinating the smell of burning and when it’s happening for real so I always have to check that I’ve not left a pot on the oven or anything like that. I use my other senses to help cue me in, for example if the air is not hazy and my lungs don’t feel tight, there probably isn’t any smoke in the air.

I also get a fair amount of tactile hallucinations. In my case I get body memories, that is, the remembered sensation of something that has happened in the past. One of my common ones is linked to my history of having a needle phobia. Again, when I’m stressed, this one turns up, and I can feel needles in the backs of my hands or in my elbows where I have had drips in the past. I find this sensation really unpleasant and when it gets bad I will often try to override it with other sensations, such as by slapping at the inside of my elbows or laying a warm heat pack over the back of my hands. I’m sensitive about having the backs of my hands touched because sometimes this can set these off. Tactile hallucinations also play into some minor tics I get when I’m tired, my brain gets confused and tells me that when my hands are resting palm down on my lap, that really the backs of hands are touching my lap. Because I can feel that the insides of my wrists are resting on my lap, this creates the weird sensation that my wrists are broken and my hands have been turned upside down. Flicking my hands over and back gets rid of the sensation. If I try suppressing the flicking, the sensation builds to something quite unbearable, almost like a deep itch you can’t scratch. This only turns up for me when I’m tired, I use it as an indicator to head off to bed. Or, I ignore it and tic my way through the rest of the movie. 🙂

One of the most common types of hallucinations people report is hearing things. The things I hear are all tied in to the PTSD hypervigilence issues. So for example, I can be lying in bed trying to sleep and hearing the doorbell ring. I don’t mean faintly, I can hear it very clearly ringing. It isn’t ringing, but the hallucination that it is can be so loud and persistent that I can’t get off to sleep. Alternatively the phone will ring constantly. When I’m really struggling, I can hear people in my house. I will sometimes hear an entire event – a strange car driving up the street, turning into my drive, parking. People getting out, doors slamming shut, voices talking to each other. Footsteps, crunching on gravel. Keys jangling, the door unlocking, opening, a conversation between several people. Footsteps through the house, opening cupboard doors, the fridge, moving things around, turning on a tap, coming to my door. I check these things once, then having decided they are hallucinations I do my best to ignore them. There’s no point interacting with the content for me, it means I’m really stressed and feeling really vulnerable. So I write in my journal or read or cry or call lifeline and ignore the sound of these people trekking through my house. It’s not very nice, but it’s not the end of the world either.

The most severe hallucinations I’ve ever experienced have been when I’ve been put onto medications I’m allergic to. I have a lot of allergies due to liver problems, and we’ve had to work out the hard way what I’m allergic to and what I can tolerate. I’m not on any psychiatric meds because we haven’t found anything I can tolerate that helps. Allergic reactions are absolutely horrible and make me incredibly ill with liver issues and my skin blistering and peeling off or ulcerating, and in these instances I’ve had full-blown hallucinations that were really intense and frightening. Some of my friends struggle with intense hallucinations all of the time and I have so much respect for how hard they work to function despite people around them looking like skeletons or hearing stobie poles talking to them. Life’s complicated enough as it is!

If you’re looking for more information or some great suggestions about managing experiences like these, or supporting someone else who’s struggling with this kind of thing – there’s an awesome little booklet by the Voices Collective you can print out here, and a lot more resources on their website here.

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2 thoughts on “What’s it like to have hallucinations?

  1. Wow, I’ve only had a hallucination once, and that was when I was sick. I couldn’t imagine having them all the time. You are a strong person to be going through all of this. Hope you get better soon.

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