Peace be with you. I thought I would introduce myself first, tell you a little about myself and then tell you the story of how one day I began hearing voices. I am now 43 years old, male and had a relatively normal life up until four years ago. Although I am not a UK native, I had lived and worked in the UK for many years and had a fruitful career in IT, quite high flying even, until a physical illness forced me to take some time off. While I was recovering I started to hear voices. I used to be very career-focused, so losing work was a very stressful event, and I was also going through a spiritual crisis, no doubt this all contributed.
It happened very gradually. There were odd, vivid dreams, and snatches of conversation heard through the walls of a flat. It seemed very normal, except the contents were strange. Why were my neighbours discussing my previous employer? Then when I was walking in town, I heard my phone starting to talk to me. It dawned on me that I was hearing things outside my usual experience. I started to speculate, dreaming up scenarios about what could be happening, thinking about telepathy or alien technology. You don’t know it is called “hearing voices”, and since it is so outside of your experience it is easy to fall into the trap of building what-if scenarios.
It took me a long time to go see a doctor. First I wandered by train from town to town for a few days, all the while being told by my voices that I first destroyed, then saved mankind, over and over. Sometimes other stories would play themselves out in my head, like being followed by secret agents on the trains who I had to escape. I was borderline delusional, even though they were always “scenario’s” and I would keep in mind that perhaps it was all in my head.
There comes a point where you tell your close family. I was single, and so went to visit my mother and her husband. The initial conversation was a bit awkward. There was a period of adjustment, they noticed I was acting differently, my attention was not all there. I spent hours just sitting on the couch. What they couldn’t hear was the storm of voices around me, like small mini-plays, little stories that play themselves out over the course of a few hours. Eventually they contacted a crisis team, who visited but basically said, if he doesn’t take medication we can’t help him. They left behind some documentation when they departed, and that was all.
My subsequent experiences with mental health services were very mixed. They followed up one time to visit me when I was back home, and eventually after a year or so I was given a place in group therapy to help me process the experience. I saw a psychiatrist just once. I had regular medication from my General Practitioner (doctor), and that was about the best that could be said for it. My GP even said to me, “it’s like a broken leg, except it takes two years to heal”.
For many sufferers accepting the medical standpoint – the psychiatrist’s standpoint – that it is all caused by an illness in the brain, is a moment of relief. After all you are not held responsible, what the voices say is just the illness making things up, you are free to curse and scream at them inside your head. And an illness should pass, no? Take the medication and see if things improve. For some people they do, and for others they don’t. And then you reach the limits of this approach, rarely do the psychiatrists provide more than just pills.
It was only two years later, after I moved back to my country of origin, that I became a member of the online Mental Health Forum, and started a deeper investigation. First of all I found out that the antipsychotic pills I was taking had very significant side effects. I had already noticed that I had put on a lot of weight, about 25 kg, and that I seemed to be suffering from some sexual dysfunction as well as a general lack of motivation. But there have also been studies that show that antipsychotics shorten your lifespan. What followed were numerous attempts to get off the medication, which all ended up the same way, with severe insomnia lasting weeks and semi-psychosis, most probably due to lack of sleep. I had no choice but to go back on the meds, although I did switch to a different antipsychotic with fewer side effects.
During this time I attended a day centre for three days a week over six months, where I was part of a larger therapeutic community and did things together with a group, such as opening the day with singing, cleaning the centre, cooking, washing up, and a meeting to close the day. Alongside those activities there was work in a woodworking shop, and also various forms of therapy in short sessions. It was a godsend, providing an occupation for hands and mind as I could concentrate on learning and doing simple tasks such as fixing broken chairs or making children’s toys. I certainly would not underestimate the value of simple, concentrated labour in taking the mind off things and bringing you to rest. I made some good friends here too.
Meanwhile the whole online experience was giving me exposure to streams of thought that were more critical of psychiatry and gave me a lot of food for thought. Could psychiatry do more? Was the kind of treatment I was getting at the day centre effective? It certainly seemed to have contributed a lot to my wellbeing, and it was a place that my father had found. These kinds of thoughts changed my relationship to psychiatrists, certainly, seeing now that they had responsibility for our treatment but in fact did little other than prescribing pills that were of dubious value.
So what do you do with what remains of the voice hearing experiences? I still hear voices, very softly, occasionally, and have more complex experiences on the edge of sleep consisting of sets of voices and even tactile hallucinations. I am unwilling to change my medication now that I have found one that leaves me with good mental energy, willpower, sexual function, and zero weight gain. In effect, you learn to live with it.
First there are coping mechanisms. I find that when the voices upset me it is good to sing, I like gospel songs such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Focussing on the throat and my voice helps me stabilise. Showers also work really well to change your physical energy and focus you on the reality of your body. Sometimes when I am in bed I use YouTube videos of rain sounds and distant thunder to relax, or music concerts. These are the kinds of things that can help you take the edge off when the experience becomes a bit much.
Second, there is how you relate to your voices. Early on in my experiences I had a lot of polite voices, then there were voices that cursed me a lot, later a series of very threatening encounters with mixed good and evil characters, and during the last six months they seem to have focussed on trying to heal me. During each of these phases I had different reactions and strategies to handling them.
In the end I think it was trust that made the real difference. I always tried to be truthful to the voices, find the best solution for them and me, and even after I knew they could be hurt by humiliating them verbally I only did so on two occasions. Mostly I would try and form a relationship with one voice and appoint him to intercede with the other voices on my behalf. The trick was to find a sane voice that didn’t think of you as insane or evil to act as your agent, but in my inner world my faith and trust seems to work as a kind of empowering agent. But once you acknowledge that the voices are better at operating in their world than you are, then this kind of cooperation becomes possible.
My voices were always quite varied, male and female, soft and normal volume, some with a threatening, intense hiss. Some had very little emotion, while the females always seemed to have a good emotional range and would look out for me. The tone of the voice would usually give a clue about its intentions. Excited was usually a bad thing, those voices thought they had something to gain. Emotional range was a good thing. Quiet and well-spoken was the hint of a good agent, someone who could speak on your behalf.
I think it has also helped that during the last year or so I have become very interested in Buddhism, and have been undertaking to show more kindness, more compassion, and learn to know myself better. This started with doing mindfulness, which I found was a kind of meditation that I could tolerate in short bursts. But I think the Buddhist learning about the way the mind works, focussing on kindness, and short meditations have helped me reach a greater level of understanding and purity. Perhaps that has penetrated through to the voices, and encouraged them to try and help fix me. Certainly things like the Buddhist teaching on emptiness seemed to affect them.
Of course, the last time when I started getting a severe bout of symptoms it was noticeable that even though the different experiences were usually experiences of healing and being made whole, it never truly seems to last. It is a theme that we return to again and again, and so it makes me wonder what exactly is being healed. Perhaps my subtle body, the field of energy that surrounds me and which some people hold plays a strong role in ones mental wellbeing, has a flaw or hole, and the energy leaks out again after they make it whole. It ultimately doesn’t matter so much, as long as I have a civil relationship with the voices and they bother me as little as possible.
I am still often on the edge between treating the voices with respect, as if they were at least partially real, or dismissing the whole thing as ‘auditory hallucination’. I don’t think that is a question I will ever totally resolve. But if there was one thing that I could point to as being a critical factor, it would be sleep. If I don’t sleep well, even just two or three nights where I don’t get at least 4 hours of consecutive sleep, then I know there will be trouble and things might flare up again. So my advice for anyone hearing voices is, if you do one thing to care for yourself make it monitoring your sleeping hours carefully.
It certainly helps to know the Hearing Voices community. There was a famous study by the Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme, where he participated in a radio programme and invited people who heard voices to phone in. To his surprise he discovered that many people hear voices, and only a small proportion went on to become psychiatric patients. Many more just lived with the experience. So for any new voice hearer that can come as a revelation, it is a clear indication that while it can be severe you don’t have to treat it in all cases as a dangerous condition, but more a property of your mind, something you can learn to cope with.
And lastly I’d recommend to anyone who suffers from this to get involved. Become a member of the Mental Health Forum, go to local Hearing Voices Network groups, educate yourself online so that you can play an active role in your treatment. A condition like this is not simple, and likely won’t go away, and you would do well to prepare yourself to take part in the process in full.