"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Visions, Altered States, And Epilepsy

Herm Lackey was an epileptic, and had fits in the classroom.  His classmates were too young to know anything about the disease, but the sight of their friend on the floor, his eyes back in his head, foaming at the mouth and banging and shaking on the floor like he was being electrocutes was very scary indeed. 

The teachers and administrators of the school knew all about Herm’s issue and had been given permission by his parents to follow the standard protocol – force a rubber tube into his mouth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue off, hold his head so he wouldn’t knock himself out, and restrain his legs so in his wild thrashing he wouldn’t bruise his heels.  In those days there was no concern about privacy or personal dignity, so all allowed to watch.

“How could he bite his tongue off?”, wondered Melanie Gelb. “Your tongue is in the middle of your mouth and your teeth are on the side”.

“I wonder if they can reattach it?”, said Peter Billup. “And what he would sound like if they did.” 

Billy Baxter stuck his tongue as far back as he could and held it on to the roof of his mouth and began to recite the Gettysburg Address.  It came out all deaf moans and groans, and everyone chimed in.

“Stop it!”, yelled Miss Cundiff, the teacher, as she tried to stop Hermie from kicking her. “Can’t you see he’s having an attack?” 

By this time Herm had settled down and was beginning to come to. Miss Cundiff gave him a glass of water with some drops in it while the principal held his head.  Hermie looked around and grinned. 

“Circus act”, he said.

“It depends”, said Herm, talking about his epilepsy years later. “I still get seizures; but I don’t want them to stop.  I have visions.”

He saw God who appeared in many forms, none of which conformed to the usual melodramatic stereotypes.  No Biblical, bearded God speaking from on high.  No angels, St. Peter, or babbling brooks in Paradise.  No music, no heavenly choirs.  Nothing that was even faintly reminiscent of what he had been taught in Sunday school about God, Christ, and Heaven.  Not a trace of Hollywood or TV.  The visions, he said, had to be real.

Louis Bayard, writing in the New York Times (11.19.00) wrote the following in a review of Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, the story of a Carmelite nun who has seizures during which she sees God:
Cloistered in the heart of secular Los Angeles, Sister John of the Cross has spent most of her life laboring toward God but has only recently found an entry point: a series of blinding headaches that leave her ''splintered like broken glass . . . all edges and points,'' until a strange light burns through and all heaven breaks loose. ''Pure awareness stripped her of everything. She became an ember carried upward by the heat of an invisible flame. . . . She could see forever, and everywhere she looked, she saw God's love.''
“They are not exactly visions”, Herm said when told of Salzman's book.  “Just a feeling of completeness.  There are no more any fragments to me, no bits and pieces.  I no longer have a body or a brain.  I don’t have Uncle Billy’s eyes.  I am not intelligent or ugly.  I exist but I don’t exist; but I am completely and absolutely happy.”
These divine visions have inspired Sister John to write a popular volume of poems and essays and have earned Sister John the awe of her peers. But when her headaches begin interfering with convent duties, Sister John's mother superior sends her to a doctor -- a creature of modernity who gives her the worst possible news: she has temporal-lobe epilepsy or, in the classic parlance of clergy, ''holy madness.'' The diagnosis leaves Sister John poised between two equally unpalatable options. She can let surgeons remove the small menangioma that triggers her seizures and, in the process, lose her visions. Or she can go on living with her epilepsy, knowing that her encounters with God may well be biologically induced delusions.
Sister John was very much like the revered St. Teresa of Avila, the Catholic saint who had ecstatic, almost erotic visions. If her visions were anything like those of St. Teresa, it is no wonder that she didn’t want to give them up.
Herm took none of the few medications on the market that might reduce the frequency of his seizures.  He refused CAT scans and MRIs that might have found physical anomalies that might be causing or exacerbating the seizures, and denied any offers of psychological counseling to help him deal with the psychological traumas that often result in the aftermath of violent fits.

Herm’s visions were so real that a few years after our lunch, he decided to be more open about his experience.  He now knew beyond a doubt that there was a God, and he was anxious to tell others about his revelations; but he found that doing so was more difficult than he thought.  He didn’t want to preach to the faithful.  The atheists, he knew, would laugh at him; and the man on the street would dismiss him as a loony.  His pride and sense of personal dignity stopped him far short of street evangelism.  No matter how much he wanted the world to know about God’s existence, he could not possibly bring himself down to the level of caricature. 

At the same time, it seemed petty to wait for his periodic visits with God and to share the experience with no one.

“These televangelists are full of shit”, he said. “Anybody can see that.”

Herm had gone through a period in which he went to church, something he had never done before.  He wanted to see if the priests, pastors, and rabbis made any sense at all.  He started with Southern Baptists, for they were the most explicit about forming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the moments of divine epiphany when the Messiah himself became a personal savior.

Pastor Hibbert of the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Calesville, Mississippi was renowned throughout the South, and his small church was filled to overflowing every Sunday.  Hibbert had been saved, had been taken by the hand by Jesus and been given a glimpse of the eternal paradise which awaited all repentant sinners. 

Hibbert created the moment of his salvation every week, for that was what the faithful came for; and they were never disappointed.
“It was a dark and rainy night”, he began, “and the Devil was by my side. He was my mentor, my best friend, my partner, my accomplice.  We lusted together, fornicated together, defied God together. He put his arm around me and said, ‘I am yours forever’. I felt power in his embrace – a terrifying power that made me shiver – and his eyes held me with an unearthly stare.  I could almost see the flickering fires of Hell behind them.  I had made my pact with Satan, and he had fulfilled his promise. I had women, wealth, fame, and fortune because of him.
“But then the rain stopped, and a serene glow filled the room.  The Devil cringed and backed away. ‘Out Satan!’ said a deep, sonorous voice. “Be gone, Beelzebub.  Remove thyself from my sight’; and in an instant Our Holy Savior appeared to me, bathed in a celestial light, shining goodness and compassion.  ‘Love me and only me’, he said, ‘and yours is the Kingdom of Heaven’.  He waved his hand and before my eyes I could see the tortured, tormented lost souls of Hell, and I could hear their agonized screams. ‘Come to me’, said Jesus, and be saved.’”
Herm went on to hear Jesuit, Franciscan, and store-front Latin Mass Catholic priests harangue their congregations with versions of the same story – Heaven, Hell, Sin, and Salvation.  Catholics never talked about personal salvation because the Church, founded by St. Peter, would always be the official interlocutor between God and Man, but the sermons were the same.  The Jews never went on like the Baptists and Catholics, and took a more measured and intellectual approach. People of the Book, the rabbis said, were observant of God’s law and moral authority, and following his way would lead to righteousness.  They never claimed to have ever seen God.

Muslims repeated the name of Allah many times a day and stressed the importance of total obedience to him; but Allah was such an august and respected presence that no Muslim ever claimed to have spoken with him directly. In the many sermons he heard preached by mullahs, imams, and minor clerics, he never heard any of the peculiar intimacies of Pastor Hibbert.

Herm began to lose interest and never bothered with Hindus and Buddhists; and besides outside of Queens it was hard to find places of worship.  He concluded finally and easily that the charlatans who preached from the pulpit had no clue about God, religion, or faith.

All of which left Herm in a quandary.  His epileptic visions if anything were becoming more intense and complete; and he found himself deliberately trying to provoke an attack.  He bought a used strobe light from a music store in Silver Spring and stared into it until his eyes hurt.  He tried cocaine and E, got drunk on Saturdays, stayed awake all Friday night – all no-no’s for those who wanted to avoid seizures. Since he was doing so many drugts, there was no telling what if anything precipitated his seizures.  He kept a log and after six months decided that his attacks were random.

Then he had a minor epiphany.  If God appeared to him during his seizures, then God must have decided when to appear.  It was only logical.

Then Herm began to wonder why he had been chosen.  Every day he went to work on the Metro with secretaries from Gaithersberg, lawyers from Bethesda, mail clerks, low-level federal employees, and bad boys from Anacostia, all of whom, he knew, had never seen God.  How did he know? Because he had a visible aura and they didn’t. 

Whether the seizures had finally interrupted all the electrical synapses in his brain; or whether his early dementia finally became full-blown; or whether his latent schizophrenia finally took hold of him, he was committed to St. Elizabeth’s and there he stayed.

Image result for images bedlam

There are so-called visionaries in every generation and in every culture, and the line between religious clairvoyance and insanity is shaky and grey indeed.  No one has ever been able to conclude whether spiritual visions are in fact unique glimpses into the Other Side, whether these visionaries are as venal and self-important as Pastor Hibbert, or whether they were simply as completely insane as Herm Lackey.

It was never clear exactly why Herm was committed; and his family never spoke about it. For all one knew, he is staring at the walls completely neutralized by electro-shock treatments with none of his demented visions of God removed from his brain for good.  This is the way ‘visionaries’ in modern society always seem to end up – locked in a psycho ward.

In traditional societies, however, things are very different.  The shamans of the Jivaro tribe in the Amazon are revered.  They take ayahuasca, have hallucinations in which they see the Angel of Death, and intercede to keep her avenging fury away from the Napo.

The story goes that anyone who takes ayahuasca sees the Angel of Death; and if the story is true, then the Angel of Death must be real.  How could it be that California hippies and naked spear-throwing natives both saw Her?

A few close friends had been meaning to visit Herm, but were advised against it by a psychiatrist who treated patients there.  After hearing Herm’s history, he said, “You don’t want to go there”, hinting that no one would want to see the conditions inside DC’s version of bedlam; and more importantly suggesting that after 15 years of voltage and drugs, Herm would be unrecognizable.

Herm was never forgotten by his classmates who often thought of those early days when they watched him foam and bang around on the floor.  “A circus act”, he said, but few knew about his very real brushes with God, his deepening psychosis, and final dementia and commitment.  If this was the way to spiritual epiphany, it was a costly one.

The only real lesson of the story of Herm Lackey - other than great sympathy for him - was that one should never dismiss altered states.  We all live in them at least some of the time.  Distortions of time, memory, and space are part of psychological perception.  We see things and hear things that are not there.  We dismiss them.  Herm adopted them until only they existed.  What's the difference other than degree?

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