After the launch of HVI in 2006 Tony Bates of Headstrong wrote the article below for the Irish Times.
Mind Moves November 14th 2006 – Listening to our voices.
When Brian spoke openly about the challenge of living with “voices”, his insights were inspiring and full of hope. The personal story he shared – on the occasion of the inaugural meeting of “Hearing Voices Ireland” last Friday in Cork – was not so much about madness as about what we all need to do to discover a mentally healthy way of living with ourselves.
The launch of this new support group was triggered by Brian’s concern for the great number of people who live with “voices” that speak directly to them. People who are confused and frightened by the experience and who endure years of misery trying to cope with it alone. Their voices may be benign, but they can be tormenting and threatening for much of the time.
Brian first experienced his voices in 1991 in London, when “things began to unravel” for him. This “breakdown” followed a period of experimentation and misuse of drugs. When he sought professional help five years later, he was diagnosed as having “drug induced schizophrenia”. During the five years in which he was “untreated”, Brian’s life was miserable and lonely. He tried to deny his voices at first but found there was nowhere to hide from them. There were times when his voices were “nasty” and drove him to feel paranoid and isolated. In 1996 he began a course of medication, which helped to “lower the volume” on his voices and gave him “space and clarity to think about them in a new way”.
He accepts the diagnosis of schizophrenia but feels it is a condition which needs to be “looked at in a much more holistic way”. There are aspects of the condition that cause pain and distress but there are many ways in which it makes sense and reflects the character of a person’s life. For example, Brian’s voices came from people of diverse ethnic backgrounds – reflecting his multicultural experiences in London; they could be intrusive and distressing, but the same voices also spoke to him intimately about key concerns in his life. They had encouraged him to face problems and helped him to find answers.
His breakthrough in coming to terms with his voices came for Brian when he stopped trying to run from them. He described how he had a moment of insight where he decided to listen to them and try to understand what they were trying to say to him about his life. This was difficult at first, he said, “like trying to tune into a short wave radio station. Until you really tune in properly, all you get is noise. Then you find the precise wavelength and you hear the message they are trying to communicate.”
Since choosing to relate to his voices rather than react to them, Brian feels a lot stronger. He believes that many of them emanate from people who have known pain, and may still be in pain, and who want to be heard. He talks of his relationship with them being “like any marriage or bunch of people who live together in the same house.. There are times when we fight and times when we get along.”
Asked what he would say to someone disclosing for the first time that they heard voices, he replied he would ask them three things: Do you recognize them? What are they saying? How do they make you feel? He emphasized that people can very easily feel bullied by their voices and need a lot of support before they can build up the strength to engage with them. Hearing Voices Ireland wants to offer hope and self-belief to people who have “been through a lot of crap” in their lives, and who need a listening ear.
The key to Brian’s message for me was the importance of finding the courage to open to our inner lives and working with whatever we find there. And to be allowed to give meaning to our unusual experiences in ways that may or not seem “reasonable” to others. Brian has no particular explanation for voices that he wants to impose on others. Some people, he acknowledged, may chose to explain their voices as aspects of their own inner mind. That’s fine by him. What’s important for any of us, he said, is that we can be open to ourselves and not keep running from our demons.
Tony Bates is CEO of Headstrong. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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