“…what is usually called hypnosis is an experimental model of a naturally occurring phenomenon in many families. In the family situation, however, the hypnotists (the parents) are already hypnotized (by their parents) and are carrying out their instructions, by bringing their children up to bring their children up…
I consider that the majority of adults (including myself) are or have been, more or less, in a post-hypnotic trance, induced in early infancy: we remain in this state until – when we dead awaken, as Ibsen makes one of his characters say, we shall find that we have never lived.”
The flight from Massachusetts to Georgia creeps along grey and shrouded in clouds. At several thousand feet there is a brief moment of sunlight: best wishes from a kind angel soon very far away. I am going to visit my family for Christmas.
Two hours in a car in downtown Atlanta with my father, mother, and brother, the first time we have been together in more than three years. There, there, that was open. No it wasn’t. Let’s turn around. Ok so keep going. Should we go back? I think I saw lights. Look what about that place? Closed. Ok keep going, there’s got to be something. I manage to text message a friend. TRAPPED IN PSYCHOTIC FAMILY VORTEX. DRIVING EMPTY STREETS LOOKING FOR PLACE TO EAT. My family and I ride in circles on Christmas day. Keep going, there’s got to be something.
By the time we find a table at a Chinese by-the-pound buffet, I am in – I still don’t really know what to call it – one of my “dissociated paralysis states.” My mind and body are seized by an overwhelming force, and I am acting and feeling the way that earned a schizophrenia diagnosis more than ten years before. Every month a disability check is still deposited in my account, reminder that recovery is still elusive. In the car on Peachtree Avenue, it is impossible.
The words of my mom and dad and brother claw at me. Coded tones of voice and a secret language of gestures and glances grab and pull me down. I stare blankly from farther and farther away, trying to resist, but across the growing distance something makes me listen closely. They talk about my father’s work, they talk about our farmhouse, they talk about relatives. Between gaps in sentences and pauses in eye contact, voices in my head begin to yell and taunt. Nasty, cruel, and vicious. With each shouted accusation and whispered insult I wince and withdraw deeper.
How did I suddenly become suicidal? Why do I imagine jumping from a bridge or hanging by a rope to escape the screaming in my head? Why have my own life, values, friends, work, interests… all evaporated a few hours after stepping off the plane? A small part of me speaks up, in defiance of the clamor inside: This is ridiculous. It’s just a conversation with my family on Christmas, there is no reason to be like this. And as soon as I’ve formed them, these words fall away. They begin to repeat over and over, more and more loudly, This is ridiculous, this is ridiculous, you are ridiculous, it’s your fault, why are you so stupid. Now they are mocking me, swept up with the rest of the angry and contemptuous hammering words. It makes no sense. It’s your fault. You are a grown adult man and you are powerless. Stupid.
This is my family. They have the diabolical power to entrance me.
Sunk beneath a thick wall of ice, voices shouting and whispering in my head, I watch all this unfold. Is my withdrawal a shield from my family? Or is this altered state of mind, pinned down and not responding, is that the trap too? Am I protecting myself? Imprisoning myself? Am I no longer normal? If I could say anything, would it be listened to? Or am I now just crazy? Yelling, cutting words condemn my failure to solve this puzzle. A whispering, sickly sweet voice reminds me how easy it would be to just end this, to find one of my father’s guns or take a bottle of pills from the bathroom cabinet. Yes, that’s it, that’s what makes sense, just wait until you get home…
The television screen says: A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. That’s the whole point, Captain.
Back in the car and all I can do is smell everyone around me. I’m frozen, silent, and hearing voices, and now I’m beginning to gag. I become more withdrawn, avoiding eye contact and not replying when anyone speaks, but even this is not enough; their odors are seeping into my body. My coping mechanism, if that what this is, is so bizarre that everyone is reacting, visibly uncomfortable, turning away. They won’t ask me directly or try to understand, they are afraid of me, and the trance prevents anyone from talking openly about what is happening. So I sit there, paralyzed, and I am the full proof on display: Yes, I am the person trained by diagnosis and institutionalization. I am the lost soul mental patient, the ostracized outsider who is not like us, not participating, not part of the family, unreachable.
I am not responding to my family’s craziness. I am crazy and my family is responding to me.
I watch my father’s secret gestures as he speaks with more coded messages. Now he is copying my text messaging: I have never seen him text message before. He has hacked into my cell phone and reads what I wrote. He is talking with step-children somewhere, his backup family, another sign of my own irrelevance and failure as a son. He reads my thoughts and he replies with a cypher: talk of his world and work, intellectual property rights, infringement lawsuits, a biography he authored, his lawyer – it is all cunningly directed at me, to harm invisibly. He is a writer, my father, and he is reading my thoughts so that he can control me. He is the judge, he is the law.
I’m not going to make it. On the drive back they ask me questions: how are you, how is work, how do you like where you live. I don’t answer. At least we tried, they will tell themselves, at least we tried. I am not in control of my own body, my mind, or my speech. I try to phone friends, but did I reach them? It is Christmas. Did I dial? I’m convinced that anyone I call will try to hurt me. I think, If tomorrow things aren’t better I will hitchhike to a hotel. The plan is comforting, like all my plans to crawl away and hide. It is a better plan than suicide, maybe. When we finally arrive at my dad’s farmhouse, I collapse onto a 28-year-old mattress in the back bedroom. My father’s wolves and dogs penned in the yard howl at the crescent moon. I pass out, and dream I am facilitating a support group and my friend announces she has quit heroin. I wake up. It is a vivid image, but is it a prophetic riddle? Or ridicule?
The next day I manage to eat a bowl of fruit, and then I spend hours trying to be in whichever room of the house no one else is in. I’m like those numbered tile puzzles where you can only slide one piece at a time into the empty space before the other tiles can move. My father, mother, and brother talk with me, but I can’t say anything or look at their eyes. I want to eat more but the stench is overpowering, so I spend the morning cleaning out cat litter boxes that haven’t been emptied in a month. It is the day after Christmas and my dad has invited people over to work in the kitchen, so we can’t cook. My brother sleeps until one.
From the television, Dennis Weaver scares me.
I manage to find a hiding place playing a video game on the Internet and checking my email. I am still not able to reach any of my friends, or at least the ones I don’t think are trying to hurt me. Or did I try? Then I take a nap. There is no cooking oil that is not rancid so I head to the gas station to buy some for my falafels. I am using a boxed mix that says it expired eight years ago. In the kitchen I exchange words with my mother. She sends something into me, poison wrapped in secret messages. I dissolve and disengage, and the conversation ends.
At this point my body is something else, owned by someone I don’t recognize. My thoughts are not mine. I am locked in the schizophrenia factory: trapped with my anguished family, with its confusing mixed messages and tangled dynamics, it subterranean flows of trauma and its history of violence and abuse. Who I have become, the pain and disorientation and madness I go through, cannot be understood without seeing where I came from. I don’t blame my parents. Blame wouldn’t do anyone any good. My madness is a mystery I bear and wrestle with, a life’s work unchosen, an unspeakable affliction. This Christmas vacation visit of just a few days has brought the family mechanisms and my reactions to them out into the open. This context is a hypnotic field as tangible and overpowering as a storm wind, tearing and pushing and sweeping my being away. My mind is spilled, debris. I am strewn between invisibility and explosion. It is happening, I am watching, I recede.
I get out of the house on the pretext of finding good cell reception and sit in the car. I stare at my phone. I know the people on the other end told me they are my friends. They told me to call them if I have a crisis. I am looking at their names and each one is a secret sign like the ones inside the house, a trick of language, a smiling cruelty, a promise to hurt me. Did I call someone? On the other end is my poor friend’s voice mail, and now all I can manage is to unleash my voices, a ventriloquist speaking through my mouth, a spite-filled disoriented outburst about how I need to hire people to comply with my treatment plan. I hang up, trembling, shocked that my effort to help myself has only made things worse.
Charlton Heston is white trying to pass for Latino trying to pass for white.
And then, just as Orson Welles‘ police captain Hank Quinlan is going to die in this shadow and crime infested maze of dusty streets and corrupt lawmakers, my own role as a stunted monster in the family drama reaches a climax. Someone answers the phone. Is it wrong to reach out to friends who say they care about me? No, that is not my voice telling me that, it is a trick. There is no allegiance and there is no love and I am selfish. Did I say that? But is that someone different, someone there, on the other end of the phone, who is not part of the hypnotist’s trance?
The clammy gray mist starts to burn off in the warmth of that voice. There is someone there from my other life, my real life, my chosen family. I’m not crying or raging from the emotion buried inside. I am still and frozen and lost, but now I can feel that warmth somewhere. Simple words: take a risk, you’re not alone, remember who you are, remember that your whole world is not as crazy as your family.
Back inside we are watching the 1958 film Touch Of Evil. Film noir, dark misanthropy, shadows within shadows, claustrophobic and horrifying. It has always been one of my favorites. We sit silently in front of the television set, plates on laps, eating leftovers. My brother, my mother, and my father. And me. I watch them as they watch, transfixed on the screen. Their faces dance with faint shapes of light. My family.
A feeling in my chest surprises me, a sensation that is my own. Mine, not from somewhere else.
I know this moment. My father looks at me and says five words, five mean, hurtful words, and I am crushed. They are familiar words in a familiar tone, raw, acid, etching deep. They are unrepeatable. I stand in front of him and I know his eyes, but I can imagine only shadows of what he’s seen in his life. Soldier in the Korean War, gunshot wounds, self-inflicted injuries, prison, torture, psychiatric wards, electroshock… and his violent father, my grandfather, standing over him. To this abusive moment with me he brings his own history of abuse.
This time is different, though. I look into my father’s eyes and something within me stays within me. I feel myself to be both part of this drama and also outside of it. I remember my phone call. I speak back to him. I defend myself simply and clearly. I tell my father to not degrade and belittle me; I tell him I deserve his respect. I tremble. I stand instead of collapse.
And does the fog burn off, and do the dead awaken? We’ll see. Now I’m in front of the television again, eating junk food, but the film is starting to be kind of fun. The director’s cut is even better than the other version I have seen – there are more lines and angles, more depths of brilliance shining through. That night in a dream I am struggling to walk, stooped over like my father. Hanging from a scar on my right side there is a flap of unhealed flesh, but it isn’t bloody and gaping, it’s dry. Like molting skin, as fragile and easily torn as paper.
Will Hall is a therapist, teacher, and schizophrenia diagnosis survivor. He hosts the FM show Madness Radio.