New York Magazine

Listening to Estrogen

Hormones have always been a third rail in women’s mental health. They may also be a skeleton key.

WHEN SHE WAS 45, at around the same time her menstrual periods became irregular, Janet developed an obsession with a man at work. Now 61, Janet has the same job she had back then, managing the chemistry-department stockroom at a small northeastern college. But at the time, she was studying for a master’s degree and living in a suburb with her husband and teenage daughter, and Jim was a new addition to the chemistry faculty. He had a quiet, sensitive nervousness that appealed to Janet, and she felt from the outset that they had a bond.

The first time Janet began to feel seriously off was in the spring of 2001, when she was taking Jim’s inorganic chemistry class. Sitting in the lecture hall, listening to Jim talk about metals and compounds, Janet would feel a pain in her head, on the left side, slightly above and behind her ear—she indicates the area as if she were brushing away a fly—“like something was trying to get out of my head. And I knew it wasn’t right. Like a tumor. The weird thing was I would rub it and go, ‘Oh, I wish that would go away,’ and it would go away for about two minutes and then it would come back again. I’d say, ‘Well, a tumor wouldn’t go away if you rubbed it. So it’s not a tumor.’ ”

1Janet first heard the voice—male, about 30 years old—while she was out with Jim and a group of co-workers at a TGI Fridays near campus. She was gazing at Jim (whose name, like some others’ in this story, has been changed) in the bar and thinking about how nice it would be to put her head on his shoulder. The voice said, “Go ahead!” It wanted her to snuggle up to him. She didn’t. She knew that would be ridiculous.

But the voice—which Janet decided sounded like Jim’s—persisted. Within a couple of months, Janet was conversing regularly with it, a telepathic communication she started to imagine was emanating straight from Jim’s brain. “I thought he really loved me and cared about me but couldn’t say anything out loud,” she says. “The voice was talking to me just like it was Jim. It might as well have been Jim, as far as I was concerned.” So real did Janet’s conversations seem that she went to Jim’s house one evening to confront him about his feelings for her. He refused to answer the door, though she could see through the window that he was home.

The voice became Janet’s best company. It was Jim, but it also became more than Jim. She says it sounded exactly like him, but maybe it was God or Jesus or a spiritual guide. Speaking now, Janet sometimes uses the singular, voice, and more often the plural, voices. Together with the voices, she would go on adventures. Janet lives in a small town surrounded by forest and winding highways, and one evening when she was taking a walk she saw glowing orbs floating before her, about the size of grapefruits and at waist height; the voices told her that if she danced between them in a specific order, she could save the world. “So I danced all the way down, about a mile, and all the way back, and then I came home and danced in my apartment, all around the apartment, some more.”

As the months went on, Janet started to feel scared. The voices could be threatening. They always made a big deal out of little things. They yelled at her. During one of our conversations, we are sitting together in the chemical stockroom, a dungeonlike space with concrete floors and walls that is strewn with fast-food wrappers, old textbooks, and barrels of solvents. Janet is perched on the very edge of her swivel chair, leaning forward, and she points to my sunglasses, which are facedown on a long table. The voices, she says, were frequently harsh and critical about unimportant things. If they saw the sunglasses facedown, for example, “they would say, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to move the glasses! They’re on the table the wrong way! It’s an emergency!’ ”

Janet realized she was barely functioning. She was getting herself to work every day, but she wasn’t eating and couldn’t focus. “Filing was almost impossible,” she

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