JOHN K: Hearing Voices – My story
Everyone has a story, my story is just that – my story – different in that it is unique to me, the same in that everyone has a story to tell.
I’m 53 now and am voice-free. My first experience of hearing voices was when I was 23, while I was living and working in France. I was experiencing difficulties at the time with the language and the culture and as a result slipped into a state of unreality. I don’t, at this long remove, have a clear memory of my experiences – in the words of the poem these memories are ‘old, forgotten, far off things and battles long ago’, but I do remember believing everyone could read my thoughts and my mind was a babble of voices in French and English. The voices often led me on missions where I walked miles out of the city I was living in, looking for signs which only made sense to me. My route was decided by random events and chance happenings such as walking until I saw a person with red hair then turning right or left as the voices told me.
On one occasion I walked at least ten kilometres outside the city limits, trusting completely that I would be safe even though it was about 2 AM in the morning and I had absolutely no idea where I was. An empty bus approached, travelling in the opposite direction, the only traffic which had passed in at least half an hour, and I raised my hand to stop it. It halted, as I had fully expected, and I got in without saying a word – after all, this was my bus, especially sent out to bring me back to the city! I stood in silence next to the driver and he drove into the centre of town. I got off the bus without thanking him, after all he was just doing what I expected of him and I safely returned to my flat without any appreciation of how lucky I had been! Looking back, I can see many other instances where reality has conspired with my distorted thoughts, making me believe even more in them!
I was brought home and spent a brief time on medication in a psychiatric hospital, where I made a rapid, if short-lived recovery. I did not return to France. About a year after coming back, in May 1984, I was off on another mission, this time to travel the coastline of Ireland within a month on a minimal budget of £100. I believed if I completed my mission successfully I would help to bring peace to Northern Ireland. I wasn’t hearing voices at this time but I was emotionally troubled. A week into the adventure, I was sitting on a sand dune on a beach in Co Clare in the beautiful sunshine (May 1984 was a month of spectacular weather!). I was brooding about the mess which was my life and equally, the mess this island was in, when a male voice I didn’t recognise ‘appeared’ in my head and said loudly and clearly and obviously in some pain ‘I hurt’. As I understand it years later, I believe this could be interpreted as my higher self expressing its anguish. However one accounts for it, biological or spiritual, it was an accurate commentary on my state of mind at that time.
I successfully accomplished my ‘mission’ with a few other experiences of different voices ‘appearing’ in my head, though these were more random in content. I had many adventures, endured much hardship, and, as with that French experience, had some incredible luck at the very finish! My Guardian Angel has been kept busy over the years!
My twenties were marked by a succession of hospital admissions, occasional experiences of voices, and unemployment – not a recipe for success! Two other vivid experiences of voice hearing from this period came one Summer, the first when I was walking in my home town. I stopped to buy strawberries from a street vendor when the voice of someone I knew appeared in glorious stereo in my head and said ‘Strawberries have problems’. This voice was the voice of a friend I respected tremendously who had gone to England and had pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a producer in the BBC. Again, the voice was accurately reflecting my situation but, as one does, I chose it to mean that I had geopolitical problems to solve. I could solve these problems, I thought, by dealing effectively with any issues which I might have to face. The enormity of the responsibility I had on my shoulders got to me, however, and, initially, I was utterly paralysed by fear in the doing of the simplest task. After a while, I reacted to this fear by becoming increasingly more reckless (as I thought) having coffee when I should have had tea, for example, or eating the peas on my plate first instead of last (peas = peace!)! You might be wondering why the world is in such a state of chaos – well, now you know, I take full responsibility!
I heard this friend as a clear voice in my head on another occasion shortly afterwards. This time it puzzled me, saying enigmatically ‘Drowned! – I Survived’. At the time, I took this to mean that I had drowned in the deep spiritual waters where I was fighting my geopolitical battles, while my friend had swam to the surface. I became depressed as a result of hearing this message, and felt a sense of loss and failure which was hard to shake off. Over the years I have come to interpret it differently. In actual fact, it could be said that I had ‘drowned’ in a sense – unable to swim a foreign culture, while my friend had ‘survived’ by making a life for himself in England. Other possible explanations also spring to mind, but in each, the essential truth of what the voice said, remains.
I don’t claim to have experienced voices as I understand other people sometimes experience them – as a constant barrage of comment, abuse or inanities. My voices manifested themselves later as a running commentary in the back of my head – as audible thoughts rather than voices. Often when I would be carrying on a conversation, I would retreat into my mind to hear what my thoughts were saying, leading to confusion, and sometimes, anger from those I was talking to. However, I looked for the reasons why I would be hearing those thoughts i.e. the thoughts which gave rise to what I was hearing in my head and this seems to have worked as after a while the commentary subsided. I’m not saying that this is something that would work for others as the danger is that one could get totally absorbed in one’s thoughts. I know that for a while, this was the case for me!
Another factor which probably helped was suitable medication. I am aware that this doesn’t work for many voice-hearers and, to be quite honest, I don’t know whether my own approach to my voices is the reason I no longer hear them, or whether it was due to medication. Perhaps it was a combination of both, but whatever the reason, I think I now have an ordinary relationship with my thoughts. I found the experience of hearing voices disturbing at first, but found later that there was, for me, a meaning to be gleaned from them. My explanations may be totally wrong but I have learned much about myself as a consequence, so they have served a function.
John Farnham, the Australian singer had a hit with the anti-war song ‘The Voice’ in the 80’s which resonates with me on a number of levels, not least as a result on my hearing voices. It goes:
‘You’re the Voice, try and understand it!
Make a noise and make it clear,
We’re not going to sit in silence,
We’re not going to live in Fear…!
Be not afraid!