With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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People are scared of people like me, except bill collectors. They weren’t afraid even when I told them they should have been. Perhaps they didn’t believe me, or they couldn’t imagine a woman could be a threat, or maybe they are simply the hardiest among us. Perhaps only they and cockroaches will survive a nuclear explosion.
To be honest, people have a right to be afraid, though I didn’t actually kill anyone. I just thought about it — a lot. Pretty much all the time, except when I slept, which wasn’t very often. A one-woman Armageddon. I called on the angels to start the killing, the murders I couldn’t bring myself to commit. My undoing was when I refused to pay a hotel bill because I believed I was the daughter of God. That got me cuffed and thrown to the floor and tied down naked on a gurney for hours. The authorities released me to my mother, who I thought should have been killed.
The people I knew back then won’t talk to me anymore. They don’t return my phone calls, are too busy to e-mail. From what I gather, I was the hot topic for a while: my downfall, my institutionalization, the eccentricities I had shown. But for the longest time I couldn’t figure out where everyone had gone, or why I couldn’t get a boyfriend. Those old friends stay away still, even though I appear “better.” They can’t pretend it didn’t happen.
I am getting better, slowly. I take hefty doses of antianxiety, antidepressant, and antipsychotic medications: my cocktail for wellness. Apparently, my neurotransmitters have run amok; that’s all. I should just take a pill, chill. We’re all just chemical processes.
When I was committed, the psychiatrists wouldn’t explain what was wrong with me. A “thinking disorder” is all they said. I think they should have been a little less cagey. I could have used some advice. Because they wouldn’t talk about what I thought I had experienced, I was left to sort through the events alone. My sister took over my bank account.
When I told my mother someone had broken into my apartment, scattered cat feces everywhere, ripped my pillow, and turned on all the lights and faucets, she didn’t believe me. She thinks I imagined it because I am psychotic. That’s what she told the policeman when they went outside to “talk.” She doesn’t understand why that scares me.
It makes me paranoid to imagine what my mother and sister, who’s now a psychologist, say to one another. I know they call each other to confer on my case. They also call my doctor, my new friends, even my credit-card company. Anything I say or do that might be considered abnormal gets them dialing. It is abnormal to them that I believe in God, go to church, think the world is ending, don’t wear makeup, don’t marry, don’t make a lot of money, don’t sit up straight, don’t wash my windows. I have to be careful what I tell them; they could lock me up. I do my best to appear normal. If you came to my house, you would not find any evidence of craziness, except on my grocery list: “Eggs, milk, trash bags, vitamins, take the mask off the great deceiver.”
Never mind that my mother and sister are both on some of the same medications that I am. They are anxious and depressed, like me. Unlike me, they don’t have God to lean on. Instead they have television to watch, scrubbing to do, emptiness to fill. In our game of chess, I have moved away from them, off the board.
To see how this game started, I have to go back to when I was four. It rained on the other side of the street one day, the line between wet and dry right up the middle of the road. It was a warm summer day, and the raindrops sizzled. I walked down the street to the baseball diamond. No one was around. My guardian angel said to me simply, “God made the world.” I looked at the trees and sky and felt amazement.
When I was five, after I had been tucked in at night, I would talk to my “voice friend.” We talked about my day, but he wouldn’t tell me about his. I asked him what school he went to and what games he liked to play, but he would never say. One day he told me to come in the side door of his house without knocking. He lived catty-corner to me, apparently. I did as he asked. He was there when I entered, and we stood and looked at each other. Words were unnecessary. Then I left.
That night my voice friend told me he was going to heaven and not to cry. I did cry. He told me to be happy for him, but I was not. The next day my mother gave me the birthday present he had bought me, but she didn’t say why he wouldn’t be coming to the party. It was a pink hippopotamus bank with little yellow flowers and LOVE painted on the side. I never talked to him again. He was gone. I don’t know whether this is an imagined memory or not. The voice could have been a hallucination. I could simply have scared the little boy whose house was catty-corner to mine. The hippo bank was real, though. It had weight and texture.
© Nancy Hill
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
— Isaiah 40:3
Unless I tell people about the voices, they don’t know. I’m not sure how this can be: that they don’t hear them, too. It’s suspicious, in fact. I want to crawl inside their heads and listen, see for myself where their thoughts come from. It seems to me they could hear the voices if they wanted to, but they don’t want to, and they don’t want me to either, so I don’t tell anyone anymore, not for the most part. Sometimes I let it slip, hoping for a connection, and out it comes, awkward. I try to find words that will keep the person from walking away. Finally I stop, stare, distance myself. It’s better not to tell.
I turned to the church of my girlhood for help. At my baptism, I stood in the water, and my pastor put his arm around me and said, “God can heal even the demon-possessed.” I wasn’t sure he was talking about me at first. And then I didn’t believe him; relief was unimaginable. Besides, I didn’t really think of myself as possessed. My head didn’t spin around or my eyes glow green. I laughed inappropriately, just like my dad used to. The pastor reminded me that this was a serious occasion, and I sobered, wanted to apologize, felt inadequate as he welcomed me into the fold. My pastor pushed my head down, and I breathed in water. After I’d emerged, I hacked and dripped my way through the congregation to the bathroom. Later everyone hugged me, and I hugged them back. I wanted to live there, to sleep on one of the pews.
There is an evil voice, too. The evil voice wants to know what I’m writing about him. He doesn’t want these truths to be told. He asks whether I think anyone is going to believe me, whether I am trying to get him in trouble, whether I am going to recruit others in the fight against his kind. He wonders: could I liberate patients from mental hospitals with a dose of God?
The evil voice doesn’t take chances. He pummels me into submission, starting with doubts and working his way up to lies: Maybe I am evil. Maybe God doesn’t care. Maybe evil always wins. I frown and hold the pen, unable to scrawl the word help. We’re caught in a standoff: he won’t relent, and I won’t surrender. He screams my name. He screams, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” (Not very mature.) He screams, “I hate you!” It would be easy to succumb. No more fighting then. Quiet. If I give him what he wants: my promise to abandon God. It’s tricky, this battle for my soul. My guardian angel silently wraps his wings around me, sits with me, gives me calm assurance. Together we are quiet.
The evil voice thinks I’ve been sinning again and runs down a list of possible transgressions. I say nothing, which makes him even more upset. If I won’t debate my sins, am I ready for the end, then? He yells that this is all my fault, that Christ is going to destroy the human race because of me. I don’t respond. To do so would be to lose this game he and I are playing. He thinks he can threaten and berate me longer than I can stand it. And he’s right; I am out of cheeks to turn. Once, years ago, he got me to run from my car by screaming it was going to explode. He can’t do that anymore. (Not much scares you after you’ve been raped by Satan and the spirits of all dead creatures have lodged themselves in your organs.)
Maybe I wouldn’t have suffered so long if someone had helped me with this, but the psychiatric community thinks the voices are the patient’s own creation. I believed this when I came home from the hospital the first time and I was so depressed I couldn’t brush my teeth. But now I know the evil voice is not mine. He employs tactics and has a personality. An intellect is doing this to me.
“ ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ ”
— Isaiah 40:3
I learn to hate the voice. I taste its blood on my lips; my mouth is full of it. I pray for Christ to come and destroy him. I tell the Lord, Hurry up. I’ve snapped and am momentarily unconcerned about all the babies and animals that might accidentally be harmed by Christ’s Second Coming. Because if the voice is an angel, it can be destroyed only by God at the end of the world. Still the voice doesn’t go away. I give up but remain unsettled. Maybe I was right: the end is coming. We’re racing toward our destruction, even if we do stop shopping at Wal-Mart.
I told my new psychologist that I honestly didn’t know what the voice is: a person, an angel, my own creation. He said it doesn’t really matter. I agreed with him at the time, but his words keep coming back to me, and I no longer think they are true for me. I want to decide what the voice is. I decide to decide.
“ ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ ”
— Isaiah 40:3
On still, quiet nights I can hear God’s voice. He pushes the evil voice out of the way. My forehead burns, and the back of my skull. Learning to listen is not easy. I must not rush. I must not run from silence and solitude, especially if I feel empty, especially if I fear the evil voice, especially if I am weary and my conscience pricks. I used to fear the quiet, because I worried another delusion might seize hold, but not anymore. I let go of thought until the calm desert stretches out. The wind whips the sand into rivulets and washes away my steps: no more painful past to endure. I see brown clouds against the blue sky and move forward toward the sea. I point myself, all of me, out my forehead toward God. I feel the energy filling me, lapping at my edges, pooling in my chest, spilling out and around me, so deep that I float. And then, for a little while, I have peace.
To be buoyant, one must live in earnest, the conscience finely tuned. Like Abraham, I feel a longing for God like a burning ache. God started slow, wooing me back with one word: “Safe.” Then “Trust.” My life was a sandstorm; the grains covered me, coated my lashes. My feet sank into dunes. It was a place where nothing could live. But God calmed the wind and directed my eyes, made me lift each leg until I was walking, then running. He stretched out before me, the bright blue. I was dazzled by the blue on blue and ran into it, leaving the dunes behind me. Now we have conversations without words, and for the moment I am safe and I am free and I am not crazy.
Today I go over to the answering machine, and the Holy Spirit tells me how many messages are on it. I press PLAY and listen and count. The Spirit is right. This has happened every day for about a week now. It doesn’t seem scary or odd anymore. It doesn’t make me sick or upset. What’s important is not that I know the number, but that I’m trusting the Spirit again. I used to think I was psychic, and I’d go to a shaman. I thought I had raised my kundalini too fast and blown the doors off some important neurotransmitters. I’d forgotten how it felt to be moved by the Holy Spirit. I remember now. It’s as familiar as my tongue in my mouth. I lick the words Holy and Spirit.
“ ‘Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth.’ ”
— Isaiah 40:4
Ten years ago I walked into a bar called the Cage and felt a presence that I knew was Christ. He said, “Choose: seek your happiness now, or follow me.” Simple enough. I’ll follow you, I thought. I believe he has led me all this time, whether I’ve realized it or not, because somehow here I am, still alive. I don’t think he meant for the ride to be quite so rough, but I was stubborn and cynical and had no faith in God’s love.
He is stretching out a banquet table in my head. He tells me he has prepared a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. It’s true: the evil voice can’t get a word in edgewise; oversized pillows in my brain muffle his screams. I have a good job, good friends. I have faith, peace, joy. The sun shines bright in the window, and my plants flower and shoot out new leaves. How has this happened? Psychosis occurs not when one hears from beings one cannot see, but when evil obscures the truth.
My sister has called my psychiatrist and told him I’m psychotic. When she and I were talking, I thought she was weighing the import of my words, but apparently not. My mother, coconspirator, let it slip that my sister had called. Mom usually does the committing. The first time, the third; no, the third was my sister.
My psychiatrist does not agree with my sister’s diagnosis. He doesn’t argue when I tell him God is real and talks to me. I ask my psychiatrist if he believes in God, because if he doesn’t, I know he will never believe me. He says he does. I tell him I am not psychotic. I tell him the voices are real entities who reveal truths to me. I tell him I think they are angels. He says there is no way to know for sure.
When I tell my mother that the Holy Spirit shows me things before they happen, she grows quiet. Who knows what she is thinking. I tell her God helps me against the evil angel, and she says that’s wonderful; if God will do that, she’ll put up with him. I tell her that praying helps, and she says, “Pray.” She also tells me to go to church, because she likes the way my voice sounds after I go. I would like to think she believes, but she does not. It’s simply that she will use any means necessary to cure me.
What have I been doing for the last ten years? Unraveling the knot in my head. Good and evil were intertwined in me. I had to comb out all the strands and find the good ones so I could hold on to them. And I had to let go of the evil.
After my sister called me “psychotic,” we didn’t speak for six months. But we feel each other’s absence, and now that we’ve calmed down, we have a talk. I point out to her that people throughout history have heard the voices of God and angels. She says my increased religiosity is a part of my illness. I tell her I don’t think of myself as ill anymore, just able to hear what most cannot. She still rejects my belief, but thanks me for sharing my experience with her. She says it helps her deal with her psychotic, deluded patients. People like me. I say I’m just doing my part for America, then decide not to talk to her for another six months.
“ ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ . . . The voice said, ‘Cry out!’ ”
— Isaiah 40:5–6
No one thinks I’m a prophet. I am discredited. My visions are merely delusions. I’m not a shaman: wrong culture, no training, no tribe. Sometimes though, for the hell of it, I’ll still tell people I hear God, angels, the Holy Spirit. My neighbor says the house across the street sold after a year. “I know,” I say. “The Spirit told me.” She smiles, and we go back to talking about weeds.
In the end, I am alone with this. It is up to me to cope, to draw conclusions, to reconcile my experience with others’ ideas about it. But I no longer believe this is mania, psychosis, imagined. My father spent the last part of his life in a room listening to voices. He died alone, obese, poor, with the TV blaring and a lit cigarette between his lips. I don’t want to be like him. And I don’t have to be. Thanks to medicine, and thanks to God, the evil voice sounds muffled, as though it were talking into a stack of towels. It can’t break into my consciousness. Maybe I’ve finally learned what I was supposed to learn, become what I was supposed to become, seen what I had to see. Maybe it’s all right to be this way, even though people are scared of people like me.
There is a presence inside me that whispers of gardens. It’s as soft as a kitten’s belly, warm as a down comforter, inviting as a lake in summer. Was it all worth it, for this fine moment? Would I go through it all again if it meant I could hear God? Yes. And so I listen, soothed, to a voice like water rushing over rocks. Can you hear it? He is out there: the still, small voice crying in the wilderness.
Carroll Ann Susco
I was moved by Carroll Ann Susco’s essay “Cry in the Wilderness” [July 2006] — particularly her beautiful description of God wooing her with the words safe and trust and guiding her out of a metaphorical sandstorm. When I struggle to follow the divine voice in my own life, I will think about what she wrote.
It’s wonderful to read about the many different ways we encounter God. Although I am a Catholic and very involved in my church, my relationship with God goes beyond my religious practice. Religion doesn’t own God. I prefer the vast, intimate, raw kind of faith often written about in The Sun.