As I read the dimensions around which the voice constructs were created I began to perceive similarities with my own experience.
To be clear, I had experienced very obvious psychotic symptoms, sometimes as a result of sleeplessness, sometimes brought about because of recreational drug abuse and in one particularly terrifying episode brought about by taking Citalopram, a chorus of continuous chanting ‘Kill yourself, die. Kill yourself, die. Kill yourself, die” that lasted a week and stopped me from sleeping, driving me to follow their instruction from sheer desperation. These I could very clearly identify as voices that emanated outside of myself, as there was an ‘other’ quality to them.
There were always the other voices though. The ones who had been with me since I was a child.
Multiplicitous conversations, involving people family members from my past with whom I had rocky relationships and even different aspects of myself as ages from times past, the present and projected back from the future into my present experience. In my mid-twenties I was subject to three years of domestic violence and abuse. During this period a host of voices emerged, all facets of me at different stages of my life who struggled with the life experiences they dealt with. The four-year-old bruised from her parent’s divorce. The eight-year-old struggling to come to terms with the sexual abuse she experienced from a visitor to her home. The fourteen-year-old, undiagnosed autistic girl-woman adrift in a sea of peer bullying and social distress. The seventeen-year-old with a cocaine habit, spending as much time as possible away from home because we/ she couldn’t hack the tension in the family. They were all joined by my current (then) self and future manifestations from an imagined future, where you weren’t living in daily fear of being raped, or beaten or made to feel more worthless than a piece of shit.
We got together and told each other everything would be okay in the end. My then 25 year old self would comfort the eight year old, explaining that everything would be okay and you/she would stop feeling so dirty. We all talked to our future manifestation about what being okay was like, as a life and an experience. The future self had a little girl with her, who listened and didn’t say much, but whose presence, as a loved and cherished being was obvious. Her comments frequently centred around just who all these other people, were and why the other little girls were so sad.
Mostly, my voices were familiar and friendly, supportive and provided a much-needed sense of solidarity. Even the critical angry voices, who I often identified with family members, were just part of my inner landscape. We conversed and I listened. They helped me to process situations I needed to prepare for or explore different scenarios that might happen. They helped me to develop the social skills I needed to deal with aggressive or confrontational experiences that happened in the real world – so the next time something similar happened I had more of the right words to defend myself with.
My voices have been with me so long that I barely even think about them, but I realised with horror this afternoon that if I had a negative response to these manifestations I would possibly have been in line for a diagnosis of psychosis, with all the joys of being filled chockfull of pills. Even reading the other accounts of individuals who reframed their own voice hearing experiences into something more positive jolted me. Their original perspective was so negative. Had I been wrong all along? Had the experiences I have had been latent expressions of mental ‘illness’ that had gone unaccounted for? Was I at risk of another relapse despite only being discharged from secondary services last month?
I guess the best way to describe it is like seeing trees or clouds every day for your life. Then one day you read that seeing trees or clouds is actually a sign of profound illness, a serious and stigmatising experience, only it never felt like that to you. Seeing them was quite nice a lot of the time, and even when it was harder like if there were thunder and lightning, it was never anything you couldn’t deal with.
Notwithstanding my total rejection of the medical model of recovery and all the self-limiting meaning it gathers around you, the power of the internalised stigma affects me still. I was worried, genuinely worried, that I was going to get ill again, and that this time I wouldn’t be able to cope. I am still feeling uneasy now, but have taken note of the narrative of fellow voice hearer Eleanor Longden, who described the initially benign voice becoming aggressive and confrontational when she began to experience their presence negatively. I have chosen to accept these emotional responses but not to allow myself to become caught up them.
I hope my voices stick around. I have thanked them on occasion for their help, genuinely and wholeheartedly. We have got through some tough times together, and I feel like my internal world would be emptier and less vibrant for their loss.
Perhaps the best realisation I had today was that the little girl I have heard was, in fact, a little boy with blue eyes and cheeky smile. He is loved and cherished, and his mummy, me, has become the women all her past selves had hoped desperately might one day come into being. I am able to hold, cherish and love each of them, as I do my own boy, and have healed or come to terms with the injuries of the past. In this way, despite their persistence, I instinctively know that they mean me no harm, because they are me in different forms.
Love is limitless, but its momentum can be stifled between and within us. As the Hearing Voices Network, and other diverse practices like the Open Dialogue Approach are beginning to conceptualise, those barriers can manifest in strange and abstract ways like voices or self-harming behaviours. Rather than administering pills we need to return to the humane qualities of empathy, respect and consideration of ourselves, our experiences and our voices.
We need to know them, if we are to know ourselves and in doing so return love to all quarters where it belongs.