Over the last 12 years, I’ve been struggling to find ways of dealing with the voices I hear. For much of that time I’ve been taking enough neuroleptic medication to knock out a horse. Meds are a bit like putting a giant mattress over the voices – I find it dulled them and often supressed them altogether. The problem with this, though, was that whilst I was spending 10 or so years squishing the voices out – I never needed to actually work things out with them. I could stick my head in the neuroleptic sand and wait for them to give up and go away.
After withdrawing from the medication in 2009, I’ve had to take a crash course in voice relationship management. This hasn’t been an easy process, but it’s much more true to life than me pretending they’re not there and/or that what they say is irrelevant to me.
This post contains some of the ways I have approached communicating with the voices I hear. I’m no expert, and I certainly don’t have all the answers – but I hope you can find something here that is helpful to you or someone you support.
Change starts at home
Be the change that you wish to see in the world – Mahatma Gandhi
It’s often acknowledged that we can’t change other people, so if we want change to occur we need to start with ourselves. The idea is that by changing the way we interact with others, we can provide an opportunity for them to follow suit. Certainly with my voices, I recgonise how easy it is to get stuck in destructive cycles of communication. They speak, I ignore. They shout, I turn the music up. They scream, I cover my ears. They throw commands and obscenities at me, I take a pill. All I wanted was for them to leave me alone, forever.
I didn’t believe that the voices had anything useful to offer. Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder I was brainwashed into the idea that they were merely meaningless products of my wonky brain chemistry. Equally, I didn’t believe that the voices would listen to me. I was so used to them shouting over music and ignoring my pleas for them to leave me alone, that the idea I could engage them in conversation seemed ludicrous. Most of all, I was scared of them.
Before starting to build a more helpful relationship with the voices, I had to overcome my natural resistance to the idea of this. I was lucky enough to meet other voice-hearers who had successfully managed to speak to their voices. This gave me some semblance of hope, even if I thought that their voices must be different to mine. The turning point, for me, came when I recognised that the voices carried messages about my past and present experiences. This process began in the Hearing Voices Group I attended in my 20s, and was built on a plethora of conferences where the links became too obvious to deny. I became skilled in decoding the voices and looking for the metaphorical truth, rather than getting caught up in the surface message.
When “The Three” (a group of male voices that have talked about me since my late teens) discuss how I’m not safe here and that someone is waiting outside the room to abduct me, I take it as a sign that part of me isn’t feeling safe in this environment. This isn’t unfounded – being a survivor of trauma I have many historical reasons to feel unsafe. This simple recognition means I no longer need to panic, scream at The Three or shut myself away. I merely speak to myself and say ‘I know I haven’t been safe before, but here and now there is nothing to be afraid of’.
The art of the one sided conversation
It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak and another to hear – Thoreau
When I finally felt ready to open up the lines of communication with The Three, The Three weren’t so eager to reciprocate. I remember talking internally with them, asking them who they were, why they were with me and what they were trying to tell me. I tried to be as respectful and open as the Voice Dialogue method suggested, but still The Three carried on talking as if I wasn’t there.
Initially this lack of response discouraged me. I felt a bit like a failure – even my own voices didn’t think I was important enough to talk to. Still, I persevered and tried to reassure myself that it takes time to change a relationship that has been running in the same way for over a decade.
The Three still haven’t talked directly to me, but I am now much more skilled in the art of the one sided conversation. For the first six months or so, I tried to ask them direct questions with no luck. Recognising I needed to change tack, I instead responded to what they were saying. I reasoned that some people, especially those who have a point to press, are more engaged when you talk with them about things they are interested in than your own agenda.
When The Three talked of there being gas on the tube and that I was being poisoned, I simply stated (as calmly as possible) ‘Thank you for reminding me I don’t feel safe. There have been lots of times in the past where I haven’t been safe, but I’m ok here at the moment. The other people on here don’t smell gas, and they are not afraid. There’s nothing here to be scared of’. This wasn’t a magic trick, and The Three didn’t suddenly skip off into the sunset. They carried on talking over me. I felt safer, though, and – in time – The Three started to respond to this approach and became quieter and less insistant.
I’ve used a similar strategy with ‘The Scream’ a female voice who alternates between screaming loudly and screaming silently so that the only trace I have of her voices is the pressure you feel when someone is shouting close to your ear. When she screams, I try to be as calm as I can and reassure her that I’m sorry she’s upset, but that I am here to listen to her if and when she’s ready to talk. Until then, I tell her I will keep us both safe.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free – Michelangelo
A year or so ago, I began to hear a new voice – Blue. Blue is a very young child and, hearing that she was distressed, I wanted to understand why she was so sad. When I listened to her, and looked inside, I could see a small blond haired child in a silver grey dress. She was huddled up in a dark room, completely alone. This image haunted me. I felt very sorry for this isolated and frightened child and, quite naturally, wanted to find a way of reaching out to her and finding something that would give her comfort.
One afternoon, with my husband sitting my side, I tried to concentrate on Blue and imagine myself going inside to meet her carrying a blanket and a teddy bear. I put the gifts in front of her and waited to see if she would take them. She looked at them, but didn’t move. I told her it was ok, that she didn’t need to take the blanket and bear if she didn’t want to – but that I would leave them there just in case.
A week later I tried again. Again, she didn’t take the blanket or hold the bear. This may seem, again, like defeat. It wasn’t – I was actually finding ways of interacting with parts of myself that I had spent a lifetime blocking out and denying. It was no surprise that they didn’t trust me enough to reciprocate. The mere fact I was trying, though, was a start.
The breakthrough moment came when I was walking round the children’s department of a store. Surrounded by blankets and toys, I hoped I could draw some inspiration for something that would help Blue. Nothing seemed to stand out, though, and I walked around in circles for about 10 minutes hoping that other shoppers would think I was buying something for a niece or nephew rather than myself. Eventually, I saw ‘Bunny’. I reached out and touched her fur and felt Blue react to her. I felt sure this was something she wanted, rather than something I naively assumed would be suitable. When I got home, I tried again – this time imagining Bunny instead of a blanket and a bear. This time, to my surprise, it worked. Blue still carries Bunny when I see her, and holding Bunny when she sounds upset often helps to calm her.
Since making some links with The Three, The Scream and Blue I have found some more direct ways of communicating with the voices I hear (or aspects of my self, as I now think of them). Sometimes this has involved spoken conversations, other times I have had to be more creative and use art or writing. I’ll share these in the second part of this article in case they’re of use. The take home message is that there isn’t one way of communicating with voices – for me it has been individual. Different voices respond to different approaches. It makes sense, really. We’re all unique and a one size fits all approach rarely works.