ZOOMING & HALLUCINATING (January 31, 2023)
One continuing objective of this Agile Aging blog is to promote communication among fellow elders on subjects of shared interest. A welcome opportunity arose on January 20 when my Yale classmates kindly invited me to give a Zoom presentation on writing my memoir and blog. Nearly 50 old friends tuned in from Maine to California, with outliers in London and Auckland. In today’s post, I thought I’d try to recapture and report for you some of the highlights of our lively discussion.
Simultaneously but independently, I’ve been experiencing frequent hallucinations that appear to be sparked by my new heart-repair medications. Having given a pass to recreational drugs in our youth, I’m an uninitiated novice when it comes to altered states! I’ve been intrigued but also a tad disconcerted by this steady stream of intrusive images, which is still in full flow. My journal notes are set out below. I wonder if blog readers have had similar medical reactions and might offer feedback. Let’s start a conversation and learn from each other.
ZOOMING THE WRITER’S CRAFT
Yale 1964 dynamos Edward Massey, Sam Francis, Tony Lavely and Joe Wishcamper have launched a national Book Club to showcase classmates’ publications. With invaluable technical support contributed by Jennifer Julier of the Yale Alumni Association in New Haven, these periodic Zoom conclaves rekindle fellowship while discussing writing process and products. For our January 20 program, with the help of Moderator Owen O’Donnell, I divided the discussion into two components: memoir and blog. For each component, I introduced my writing impetus and goals, approaches, challenges and solutions. After reading aloud a sample passage, we opened the discussion to Q&A.
The program organizers asked me to lead off by sketching my international career, in order to put the memoir in context. Participants’ questions followed that same sequence, so I’ve retained it in in the recap that follows. I’ve kept questions anonymous to respect the spontaneity of the give-and-take.
Questions and Answers about My International Development Career
- Since you worked for two or more years in each of a half-dozen foreign countries, did you have to master a basket-full of foreign languages?
Thankfully not, since languages are not my strong suit. India, East Africa and Sri Lanka are all members of the British Commonwealth. Their leaders, my principal clients, were all English-speaking. In Laos, my Yale training prepared me to work in French. China and the Russian-speaking Central Asian Republics presented my chief linguistic challenges. Clients there supplied interpreters and translators. But I could have been more effective with stronger language skills.
- Looking back on your career, don’t you feel that Western development assistance was an arrogant failure?
This is a complex topic. Certainly, much foreign aid was arrogant and unsuccessful; bilateral assistance in particular was politically motivated. However, at its best, development assistance was a practical channel for transferring technology, constructing infrastructure and generating foreign exchange that boosted dozens of countries’ economic development. I was working primarily at the “macro,” national policy-making level. Some of the most valuable aid was rendered at the micro, local level. Since the 1960s, global poverty has been halved. In my case, while not “saving the world,” I can fairly claim to have touched multiple lives, having a positive influence on host-country counterparts, clients, staffers and trainees.
- How well was the Ivy League represented in the ranks of developing-country advisors like yourself?
Disproportionately high, at least in the early days. Many of us were idealistic Sixties Generation helpers, inspired by President Kennedy. I got my start in international work as a recruit of The Ford Foundation and its “Law & Development” program called the International Legal Center. Of a dozen or so young lawyers initially sent abroad under ILC sponsorship, at least half came from the Ivy League. (We are still personal friends, more than 50 years later.)
- My wife and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Nigeria. Who do you think were the Corps’ main beneficiaries, host-country clients or the Volunteers themselves?
My wife Nancy was also an early Volunteer, in Afghanistan. Who most benefited probably depends on the individual placement and project. But in general, my opinion is that the American Volunteers benefitted at least as much as their hosts. By having their minds, eyes and hearts opened through extended living and working experiences in developing countries. Most returned home with hugely enhanced cross-cultural awareness and humility.
Questions about Memoir-Writing
- [This one from a spouse.] My husband also has fascinating stories to tell. I want to write them up and publish his memoir. How can we get started?
Without intruding on your writing relationship, you might want to start by confirming that the two of you have the same goals and expectations for this joint-venture project. The same vision and commitment. If your memoir project ends up like mine, it’s going to be an intensive marathon. A second initiative might be to float some of his stories by friends and relatives. Which ones spark the brightest and broadest enthusiasm? It’s essential to discover which features make your project most distinctive. You’ll be competing for attention with hundreds of other non-fiction story-tellers.[At this moment, another classmate chimed in with an additional suggestion for the couple.] To further help you get started, you might care to take a look at William Zinsser’s WRITING ABOUT YOUR LIFE. He was a brilliant teacher of Creative Writing and a Master of Branford College.
- For your memoir, did you find it useful to have journaled?
Definitely. Nancy and I also kept copies of monthly letters we wrote to our stateside families. International postal service was spotty from many of the locations where we were living and working. Those backstopping copies later became invaluable, fact-checking archives. Ditto, scrapbooks of photos. Even today, Nancy is drawing on these accumulated materials for her blog on her international life, “Where in the World?” on https://nancyswing.com .
- How did you get your memoir published?
I tried to interest commercial agents, but they were more in the market for celebrity memoirs and misery memoirs. [Nancy recently reminded me that a major British publishing house expressed preliminary interest in my memoir. But they insisted I “kiss and tell” by revealing my confidential interactions with foreign-government leaders. I rejected that proposed marketing hook as unethical and the publishers’ enthusiasm promptly waned.] After we returned to the States and became residents of the Monterey peninsula, I signed a contract with a leading local publisher, Park Place Publications.
Questions about Blogging
- Has blogging improved your writing? If so, how?
I like to think so. Practice makes perfect, composing a 2,000-3,000-word post every month, working against a deadline. I probably devote 1/3 of my waking hours to this writing project. Typically, three drafts for each post, aided by Nancy’s discerning feedback and editing suggestions. As the sages say, “The best writing is rewriting.”
I’ve also steadily learned to take risks in my posts, putting my feelings on paper instead of keeping readers at arm’s-length. The more personal my jottings, the more readers seem to appreciate my candor.
- Your recent posts advocating a positive Agile-Aging approach to hospitalization was moving and innovative. But I’m finding myself increasingly depressed by the number of my friends and relatives who seem to be dying every month. Could you consider devoting one or more posts to elders’ death and dying?
I share your discouragement, even though I’m aware that dying is natural and inevitable. Here at our retirement community, losing friends and neighbors is a weekly occurrence. But writing about letting go takes empathy and restraint, respecting the feelings and privacy of surviving spouses and grieving friends. So far, I’ve attempted two examples: describing how I felt about the passing of my younger brother; and reproducing a contribution I read out loud at my next-door neighbor’s Celebration of Life. His widow was appreciative, so I hope I struck a respectful note.
Sincere thanks again to the Organizing Team of this lively Zoom circle. I was especially gratified that several participants emailed me afterwards to say they’re now inspired to tackle writing a memoir or a blog.
Every two or three nights since my discharge from Stanford Hospital’s Heart Failure Clinic three months ago, I’ve experienced a hallucination. These images have common characteristics. They always occur in the transition period between deep sleep and pre-waking drowsiness. Mostly at dawn but also after mid-day naps. They’re almost always stationary images. They appear when I think I’m already awake with open eyes; but in fact my eyes are still closed. The images are vivid, in bright colors, and sharply focused. They appear suddenly and then decompose and disappear after five or so seconds. (Sometimes I literally reach out with my hands and puncture them, like a child’s blown bubbles.) Their frequency never exceeds one per night. Visual sensations only; no smell or taste.
These are not narrative dreams or scary nightmares. I find the images intriguing, not distressing. Most fascinating for me, I have never seen any of the subjects before. And there have been no repeats; each image appears only once.
Categories and Examples
To brief my cardiologist but also for my own learning, I’ve been taking notes on this steady stream of visions. I can group them into three categories: people, documents, furniture and furnishings. The people and furniture images appear in my real-life bedroom. But the subjects within that space are always unfamiliar.
Here are some illustrative human figures. A Caucasian man stood right by my bed. With long, white hair and a scruffy beard, wearing a white shirt, white pants, and a red cloth belt, he reminded me of a Pamplona bull runner. On another occasion, a short, broad crone in a cloche hat stood on the other side of my bed. When I spotted her, she turned, waddled away and disappeared. Still another woman, this one smiling and bending at the waist, tiptoed along the far wall of my darkened room, heading for the door to slip away. The door handle was wrong, like a lever on a fridge. In still another image, five figures posed for a photo portrait before a weathered brick wall. They seemed like a 19th Century frontier family: a mustached man in suspenders; two teens, a boy and a girl; two young girls. Let me reemphasize that I had never seen any of these figures in real life.
The documents in my visions usually appear as a single sheet, sharply legible with typed or penned English-language writing. One was a brief note, hand-written in a stranger’s script, angled upside down on a rough-edged scrap of paper. Another was a legal-sized, ruled yellow tablet. It contained some sort of data table, including the word “cartography,” not in my normal vocabulary. A narrow-ruled document like an address directory let me move my eyes down a long list. I spotted the words “Charles III” which could mean a recent reference. Yet when I strained to read, the text faded, as if resisting my deciphering. (This is a consistent development with my documentary images.) Both pages of an open journal were filled with penned entries. A horizontal sheet with green typing read like a commercial flyer: the top half named a dry-cleaning firm and announced a sale; the bottom half posted rave reviews of the cleaning services. A laptop screen and keyboard floated directly in front of me, the screen filled with text. A tabletop map of the U.S. was rotated away from my observation, with few detailed features inside state boundaries, though I could make out “North Carolina.”
The furniture and furnishings appear in my recognizable bedroom, but the pieces themselves are unfamiliar. A red-medallioned Oriental carpet and antique wooden chests, where none exist in daylight. A hand-woven fiber placemat, with freshly minted coins bunched on top. Bright yellow wallpaper with twin sconces, replacing my actual mirrored closets. A horizontal plywood panel with swirling circular designs, creating a false ceiling five feet above the floor. Through my room’s front door, a giant pot in the hallway topped by silhouetted tropical fronds.
The single change of subject and venue occurred this morning. I visualized a cropped hillside meadow with widely spaced, symmetrical young conifers. Like a successful Christmas-tree farm after harvesting.
Feeling unsettled by this parade of images, I reached out by email to Bob Collins, a friend and retired neurologist. Bob researched my list of heart medicines and found that my beta blocker, Metoprolol, has been reported in the medical literature as occasionally causing visual hallucinations. Bob also introduced me to a relevant adjective. “Hypnopompic” means “the state immediately preceding waking up,” the precise timing of my hallucinations. One article that he referred me to specifically mentioned human figures standing by a patient’s bed. My cardiologist concurred in this finding and switched me to Atenolol. No change, however; the hallucinations continue with the same frequency.
A bit of my own Google searching turned up additional details. Beta blockers decrease the activity of the heart and reduce high blood pressure – in my case, to give the impaired heart time and opportunity to recover. But they can also cause side effects affecting the central nervous system. These medications can block the release of melatonin, a chemical made in the body to regulate sleep. Less melatonin may contribute to sleeping problems including insomnia, vivid dreams, nightmares and hallucinations.
Loose Ends and Unanswered Questions
Dr. Collins contributed some stimulating follow-through comments and questions:
“Dear RBS: you have some work to do! It is a rare and lucky thing to have these visual hallucinations upon awakening. Study them. Experiment with them. Many have written nonsense about hallucinations – Freud, Oliver Sacks, others. Now you can bring your mind to study your brain! A Blog on alternative mental states of aging?
- Do you recognize [the hallucinations] from your memory?
- If they are not ‘verbatim,’ are they a composite?
- What is your cognitive and emotional reaction to them?
- Do they change, like a movie?
- Are you annoyed because they are an unwanted intrusion? Or can you enjoy them for what they are/are not?
- And can you use your own mind to interact with them, direct them, control them?”
My own reflections are comparably expansive and open-ended. I am totally baffled by these hallucinations and keenly curious. Where do these images come from, how and why? Is my brain reacting to medicinal chemicals? If so, is there evolutionary value in the brain’s response? If not drug-induced, what is prompting this performance?
These images are definitely not summoned by my conscious mind. To the contrary, they always take me by surprise and are beyond my control. It takes me seconds to notice them, focus and try to decipher. If their source is not conscious, why is my subconscious marshalling them?
Is my subconscious storing and then retrieving this archive of unfamiliar, unprecedented images? Or is it creating them spontaneously? Are they “figments of my imagination”? Doesn’t all of this sound like Stephen King?
Why is the sensation of seeing these images so peculiar and consistent: with falsely opened eyes and sharp visual acuity? If my real eyesight is markedly myopic, how is my brain restoring 20/20 for these viewings? And why, if I can make out these images so clearly in a darkened bedroom, do the image texts blur and then disappear as soon as I try to read them?
Why do my images fall into three mundane categories? Why not erotic fantasies or operas or invading aliens? And if that’s too exotic for a sedentary octogenarian, why not reworked encounters from the previous day or provocative themes from bedtime reading?
The documentary texts are highly detailed, sometimes voluminous. Yet my glimpses convince me that I didn’t compose a single word of these messages. Is my brain being invaded as an AI experiment? Or if my brain itself is the sole source of this prose, what is it tapping for sources?
Who and what are the bedside figures? If medical research suggests they are typical hallucinations, could drugs be a partial explanation for ghosts and haunted houses?
I’m hoping that more experienced readers can diminish my visionary ignorance. Whether you’ve encountered medicinally induced hallucinations yourself or know of them through professional or personal study, I’d love to hear from you. Please drop a line. In daylight!