I was in the Gateshead Pets At Home store when I saw two VERY cute lionhead bunnies and I immediately felt so appreciative; because I knew that everyone could see them. It wasn’t just me. They weren’t hallucinations. I wasn’t hallucinating (for new readers, to find out more about the rabbit hallucinations, read this post). To verify this, I asked a Supervisor; Joanne, if I could hold one of their bunnies and as I stroked its fur, I told myself to take in every single hair and be grateful that I could do so. It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve had to use my own lop-eared, Lionhead bunny; Pixie, as a grounding technique for the hallucinations so when I saw these bunnies I realized that I could still use her, but as a way to make myself more thankful and appreciative that the hallucinations have finally stopped.
It made me think about how much I wish I’d had a fellow service user give me tips on coping with hallucinations - it was all well and good having a professional teach me healthy and safe coping strategies but how could they really understand what would work? Their advice was based on studies of how others have responded to their tips, and not their own experience. I hate the thought of others feeling this way, so I thought about what I could do to make a difference and to help stop at least one person from thinking those things… So, here’s some tips and tricks of methods I’ve used to help me cope with my hallucinations; I’m not saying they’re going to work for everyone but if one of them works for one person then writing this post was worthwhile.
(I hope that you can use these tips for all kinds of hallucinations!)
I’m naturally quite a creative person; I love all things arts and crafts and – obviously – I enjoy writing, but it still wasn’t easy for me to come up with creative ways to cope with the hallucinations. I think that the two biggest ways I creatively coped, were: 1. When the rabbits were dirty (which I usually saw as a bad omen), I’d take a shower, and 2. When the voices were loud, I’d write down everything they were saying so that it wasn’t floating around in my head. If you struggle to be more creative with things, maybe you could try just thinking outside of the box by thinking of the feeling that the hallucinations cause and doing whatever it takes to make yourself feel the opposite. If there’s any Harry Potter fans out there, then it’s a bit like using the ‘riddikulus’ spell as inspiration. The spell is all about confronting what you’re most afraid of and imagining as something that’d make you laugh or smile. In one of the Harry Potter movies, someone sees a spider and instead, uses the spell to add roller-skates to it!
A key skill in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) was distraction but it was all about finding a balance between using it as a coping skill and using it as an avoidance strategy. It’s unhealthy and unsafe to do that because eventually, whatever you’re running from will come back to bite you. And it’ll be a whole lot more painful than if you’d used distraction to cope and not to block things out. Immediately after the abuse, the memories were so intense that I was struggling against all of my reasons not to tell someone and the fight between the two was so tiring and painful that I was desperate to make it stop. So I tried putting all of my attention onto different things; school work, alcohol, restricting my diet… really, it was inevitable that my mental health would deteriorate because I wasn’t balancing distraction; I was using it to ignore the real issue and not to cope with it. Sometimes, I found distraction very difficult and would argue with anyone who told me try it, feeling that they were being patronizing in them thinking that it is possible to distract from something so powerful.
The first thing I need to say about this one is that it’s not meant as a patronizing insult. I think that people reading this who have never hallucinated might not understand why this tip could be interpreted in such a way but if you have hallucinated? Then maybe you’ll appreciate the assurance. Being told to accept your hallucinations can seem really blunt and demeaning, as though a person is saying that you’re ignoring them. As though someone thinks it’s possible to ignore them or deny their existence. So, this isn’t about accepting that they’re there; you know that. You know they’re real – no matter how many people tell you that they’re not. So, this is more about accepting that there are ways to cope with the hallucinations and that just because you haven’t found the right one for you, doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that the right one isn’t out there. Accept people’s advice enough to actually try it out.
In mental health, perseverance – like hope - is an incredibly essential aspect to recovery. Without battling your hardest through the roughest of times, how could you possibly make it through them? In coping with hallucinations, it’s important to persevere with the advice professionals and others (like myself, in this post) are giving you. I mean, you might not find any of these tips helpful but if you don’t persevere in striving to find a coping strategy for your hallucinations then you might never find one. There might be skills that you find you need to persevere with or professionals where you need to persevere in building a therapeutic relationship with them in order to fully benefit from their potential to help you.
Probably one of the greatest skills I learnt from DBT was the art of self-soothing. For so many years, I punished myself for the abuse in deeply believing in the thought that it had been my fault; so, it took me a long time to learn how to appreciate myself again. I took it slowly at first, started with allowing myself a chocolate bar or full fat cake because after three years of restricting my eating – to the point where I would’ve been diagnosed with Anorexia had my menstrual cycle stopped – those little things were actually a huge struggle but I knew that it’d be even harder to stop from self-harming or to allow myself to develop the belief that I deserved to be alive. How does self-soothing help with hallucinations – I hear you ask! Well, the better you feel in - and about - yourself, the less challenging it will be to fight against them. If you can recognize that you deserve a better life and are worth more than this, then you’ll be that bit more motivated to try as hard as possible to give yourself a better life.
This is something that can be done with a lot of different aspects of hallucinations and mental health in general. It takes bravery to ‘take on’ the hallucinations and battle to silence them or make them disappear and it takes courage to open up to professionals and allow them the opportunity to help you. You have to be fearless in making yourself vulnerable in order to make yourself stronger. I think that no matter what your diagnosis, what the hallucination, or what you’ve been through; there’s an aspect of fear associated with your hallucinations. There has to be. This doesn’t mean that brave people don’t hallucinate; it’s not about that. It’s about being afraid of your hallucination. Being scared that it is going to change and destroy everything you’ve ever known. Your entire life. And that’s a very real and valid fear because they can. And sometimes, they do.
As someone who has found a huge improvement in their mental health after being on medication, I couldn’t miss this one out; but I also don’t want to put too much stress on it because I know that it isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, medication is seen as the ‘easy way’ around things because swallowing a pill could just get rid of your hallucinations. Like it’s a simple, quick, and easy answer to the question ‘how can I cope with my hallucinations?’ But nothing in mental health just be underestimated. Taking medication can be a huge struggle in itself - even knowing that just doing so might get rid of something that’s destroying your life. You immediately open yourself up to all of the possible side-effects (from psychiatric medication these can vary from gaining weight to suicidal thoughts) and have to entertain the thought that this could be your life from now on. That you might always be relying on medication to stay happy and have a peaceful life. It’s actually a scary thought – as I’m learning currently with my medication slowly being reduced now that I’ve been stable for a little while. I’m terrified that by every 5mg one of (I take four psychiatric medications) the drugs are decreased, there’ll be five new commands from one of the auditory hallucinations I used to experience. It’s so important to find a balance with medication in ensuring that you acknowledge when it’s necessary but also don’t become reliant upon it.