Think of a dark tunnel, dead of night, all those reflector lights along the roof and side walls, like the yellow line on the road below, whizzing by as you drive through. Now increase your speed by 1,000 miles per hour, and the number of lights by 100,000 — maybe like the “to boldly go” opening of “Star Trek,” when the galaxy turns into a blur as Kirk and the team hit hyper-speed and take off.
Next, picture those lights/stars, instead, as millions of voices racing past as you stand, unable to move. Frustration soon turns into anxiety, anxiety into overwhelming fear, all of which are frozen in a realization that you cannot, whatever you do, understand what is being said. As each voice passes, it slows just enough for you to understand it is dark in nature, the situation all your fault, and you perhaps do not want to know what is being said. A hopeless feeling of not being able to recognize what you’ve done washes over as you figure out you are being punished for it. Add to it an emphatic, sudden awareness of those voices relishing in the fact that you cannot comprehend their words, but if they wanted you to, you would. As each voice slows and passes, a sense of being confined to this state of despair forever, understanding nothing, turns to reality.
My next memory is of my wife slapping my face, “Hey…hey…Babe? Babe? Can you hear me?”
I open my eyes, her face a foot from mine. She has me by the collar, shaking and staring at me.
“Babe? Come on, wake up!”
After coming back, I realize immediately I have been somewhere I never want to go again (even writing this stirs up an enormous amount of anxiety). There’s relief, too, because I have been allowed to leave. It is all at once horrifying and troubling to think I had gone there to begin with. No color. No sound other than the voices. No aesthetics. No sense of time or place. Just a trip into a space I never knew existed.
My daughter, an EMT, is on the phone, calm as a nun, explaining my vitals. An ambulance is on the way to the house.
I look around. I see my wife has a sense of calm that I am alive.
“You are pale as paper,” she says.
I feel more like glass.
Inside your head
That 2016 Thanksgiving morning began at 5 a.m., the time my body wakes up, like clockwork, every day. As I stepped out of bed, eager to put my turkey on the grill, trying a new cooking technique I had seen on television, I knew something was off. I felt different. Not sickly, in a flu-like way; but unnerved, shaky, strange. Something had happened to me over the course of sleeping that night. Whatever it was felt big in scope. My body hurt. Walking down the stairs toward the kitchen, my legs were rubbery, as if they might give out at any moment. Think of Pinocchio, or a baby giraffe, trying to walk for the first time.
I sat down in my chair in the living room. I began to sweat, a cold, internal chill stirred. I felt dizzier and colder in each moment. I gripped the chair, stared straight ahead. I vaguely recall my wife walking up to me, asking, “Are you okay?”
Then I was out.
The incident with the unintelligible voices happened, it seemed, as soon as I left the world.
My wife and daughter said I was out for several minutes, head titled back, eyes open, mouth agape, as if waiting to catch something in my mouth dripping from the ceiling. They thought I’d had a stroke.
I should say here that I had a strong spiritual foundation then, which in the months leading up to this day had experienced serious cracks. I had been, for the past 12 years, a daily Mass attendee. Nuns and priests were friends and came over to the house for barbecues and dinners. I volunteered at church as the funeral altar server/lector. I went to Eucharistic adoration bi-weekly. I studied religious history as a hobby. I had also written dozens of books (mostly about murder) and had made hundreds of television appearances as an expert on serial killers and murderers. (The dead seem to follow me wherever I go.) I had also just turned in a manuscript for a book based on interviewing serial killer Keith Jesperson, the Happy Face Killer, a seven-year project. Not once a week, or here and there, but hundreds of hours of audio phone call interviews, personal visits to the prison, 8,000 pages of letters he’d written to me, on top of dozens of hours of Skype calls. Leading up to that Thanksgiving, on top of it all, I’d had a crisis of faith and had all but stopped going to daily Mass. I was struggling to believe.
I wanted to think — in those days after — that what happened was a chemical reaction, or something along the lines of brain activity gone wrong. That perhaps my brain, firing back up after fainting, was the catalyst for the event. It was a logical explanation. Was it a seizure? Or some sort of schizophrenic incident, the beginning of a mental illness? Any number of medical/psychological reasons existed. The problem when I kept going back to those explanations, however, this after doctors could not tell me with any confidence what happened, was how real it felt and how deeply imbedded in my daily life it became afterward. The way I began to describe it was to ask people — and I was careful who I told — to picture all of the anxiety in the world swallowing you up as though you’d walked into thick fog, but you have no idea why, what the nature of the issue is, and you cannot escape from it. Then add millions of voices you cannot comprehend whispering all around you.
“Any idea what that was, Father?” I asked my priest not too long after.
He stared at the ground, balled a fist up against his lips, his other hand tucked inside the pocket of his black slacks. Then, looking into my eyes: “I cannot say for sure. A warning, perhaps?”
My instant reaction, standing with Father in the narthex, went to what a forensic psychologist friend had said to me before I began interviewing the Happy Face Killer: “Phelps, the Devil knocks on your door, you invite him into your home, you had better be ready to dine with him — or he will get inside your head.”
Acclimating myself to my surroundings as I came back, I’m told I was passed out for longer than just a few moments, which was not what I’d assumed. My face was wet, cold, clammy, my head throbbing. I recall seeing the lights from the ambulance coming up the driveway.
I sat back down. Dizzy, but feeling better as each moment passed.
“You back here with us?” my wife asked. My daughter stood over me, her EMT skills kicking in, and placed two fingers on my pulse, stared at her watch. Her calmness in the situation was a trait not any human being could have managed. Only a select few have this ability. Her capability of taking herself, as my daughter, out of the situation to help me was beyond courageous, an enormous expression of love. The gratitude I feel to this day, having taken part in raising such a kid, makes me cry. Ice water had surrounded me. I was sinking. Her hand was there, reaching for me, as was my wife’s, pulling me out. They were determined not to lose me. Unbeknownst to any of us at the time, however, I was already gone. The abyss had consumed me.
EMTs rushed in and my daughter began rattling off EMT-speak regarding my condition as they set up medical machines and got to work on me.
Blood sugar was fine. Blood pressure normal. Vitals had been disrupted but all were fairly normal, too. The only anomaly was my pulse, which was in the low forties. A standard “resting pulse” doctors like to see is about 60 to 100 beats per minute.
“We’d like to take you to the ER,” the medic suggested. “We just don’t have an explanation.”
“Not happening,” I said with all the male pride I could muster. I had my daughter there. She could look after me.
“Well, get to your doctor after the holiday.”
That dark tunnel
The only thing on my mind as Thanksgiving Day commenced — something that would wake me up at night and stay lodged daily in the back of my mind — was where I had gone. That dark tunnel, millions of voices thrusting past, anxiety so intense I knew that if I had stayed in that space, the torture would have been akin to Dante’s Hell and the image we summon when going there in our minds, save for the fire, brimstone and gargoyle-like creatures. The idea alone that death was not an option in that space, or serenity was never again available (no matter how hard I worked at it), tormented me. I saw myself stuck in a Parthenon, surrounded by a physical form of fear, voices (every one of whom, I felt, had something important to tell me), the immense columns like bars keeping me confined, but somehow allowing the voices in at will. The worse feeling of all? That I’d done something wrong. That I deserved this. I embodied these thoughts as they grew in intensity every day after, finally drawing a conclusion that each one of the voices knew something I didn’t (but needed to) and each was pleasantly and mockingly punishing me for some reason unknown to me.
Was it spiritual, psychological, physical? Was the wiring in my brain actually firing back up as I came to? That is one reason scientists give for NDEs, near death experiences — though I do not consider what happened to me an NDE. Was it a combination of all four? Could it have been a paranormal experience?
I don’t think so.
Doctors could never tell me why I passed out or what happened. It was not a seizure, I was told. Fainting, perhaps, they said. “Low pulse led to your body shutting down. Let’s do some tests.” My pulse, for the next six weeks, remained somewhere between 41 and 63. I was dizzy most of the time. A pacemaker was discussed after weeks of tests, a heart-rate monitor strapped to my hip, a few stress tests on the Stairmaster. Everything, however, came back normal.
Then my pulse shot back up within that accepted norm. It’s been the same since.
People and doctors will have an opinion of what happened. As I look back, evaluate what was such a transforming experience, all I can conclude is that it was very real. Those voices, whatever they had to say, wherever I had gone, have stayed with me. I can hear them speeding past whenever I go back (which I stay away from as much as possible) to it in my mind. And the fact that my personal life took such a downward spiral afterward leads me to believe that whatever those hushed and whispering voices were trying to tell me, I most likely wasn’t ready to hear — and perhaps never will be.
I did get our turkey on the grill and fully cooked. It was one of the best we’d ever had. I had prepared all my side dishes in advance. Thanksgiving was different that year, but salvaged. Regardless what anyone in the scientific/medical/psychological community opines about the place I’ve been, it doesn’t matter. It was as real to me as a sunrise. Since that day, I have not felt like my old self — who I was before it happened. I was diagnosed 18 months later with Adjustment Disorder (with depression and anxiety), along with Persistent Depressive Disorder. I’d had an emotional collapse of the highest order in between. I’m not embarrassed, as much as society wants to stigmatize mental illness, nor am I discouraged about the diagnosis. I’m actually pleased there is some sort of explanation for the way I was feeling after the incident and how fast and far my life had sunk into the sewer. I had acted out in the days after, which, had I heard someone else behave in this manner during my daily Mass days, I would have vehemently condemned and judged.
I lost something in those moments. A part of me. I want it back. Those days in between the event and now, a lot of which is a blur, I truly feel as if I lived someone else’s life; that some thing took control of who I was, my behavior and thoughts, and had replaced my moral values with someone else’s, while laughing about it and whispering in my ear what to do next.
My old self
I attend Mass again. I am getting my old self back a little more each day. I will not stop until the old self is fully restored and my life is exactly where I want it to be. The most difficult part of it all is getting people in general — especially those I love and respect — to understand that mental illness is an all-encompassing, all-consuming reality, 24 hours a day. Not a crutch. Not a hook to hang a bag full of immoral behaviors on. Not some vague, social delusion millennials have kidnapped to use as an excuse for extreme narcissism, entitlement, or adolescent misbehavior. What hurts more than anything, I feel as though at a time when I became ill and needed those around me most, I was abandoned because my illness was not packaged as something seen on an MRI, X-ray, or in a blood test. It affects and effects people. It hurts people. It puts you in a position where you seem like yourself and the decisions you make are voluntary. When, in actuality, untreated mental illness has the power to turn you into a submissive caricature of who you really are, powerless to comprehend what you are doing and, finally, not allowing you to hear the voices making the most sense.