Well, at first it comes as an unexpected event, a surprising phenomena.
Suddenly hearing a voice can be a gentle flutter of experience, a little like a bird wing whispering by an ear. Alternatively, like a quiet explosion of sudden sound.
It is a disconcerting and puzzling human experience. How we respond to it can determine many outcomes.
Some people have an experience like this just once but, for others, it may be a continuing presence in their life. These are often the folk that seek suport and help and the most likely individuals to come into contact with medical professionals.
Regardless of theories as to why we sometimes hear voices, dealing with the onset of voice hearing can be an unsettling business.
Especially if the voices contain criticisms and negative content. A person may, understandably, become a little bit more withdrawn and self isolated as a result and might seem to be preoccupied with trying to quietly figure out what is going on.
They can cancel appointments, withdraw from social interaction and spend more time on their own. They may seem to be a little bit distant and lost in thought as they are hearing a voice that no one else is a witness to. They may worry that they are perhaps going a little bit mad. No surprise then that they seem to be "within themselves" or inhibited.
This is often noticed by sensitive family members or friends, so, of course, relationships can be affected, studies and everyday activities neglected, self care can fall away and daily routines suddenly don´t seem to be so important.
And because it is a confusing time , the individual may not be able to easily find the language to express what is going on. Consequently, isolation is reinforced for fear of being misunderstood or even that a person be considered mad if they try to share that they are having an unusual experience. One they struggle to fathom.
We really need to do better when having conversations around these kinds of human experiences. There is too much fear and stigma getting in the way.
Professor Marius Romme, a pioneering and thoughtful Dutch psychiatrist, began to listen to his patients accounts of hearing voices.
(See bottom of this blog for his inspiring and ground breaking books).
They took part in research relating to the onset of voice hearing, the content of their voices (what the voices actually said) and how they felt regarding these voices.
He was able to learn that there seemed to be three quite specific phases of voice hearing.
1. The onset or surprising phase
As outlined above, the sudden voice hearing experience can be unsettling, disturbing and confusing.
2. The organisation phase.
A voice or several voices may begin to settle into a rhythm or pattern. They may appear at specific times of the day for example, or they may be heard at certain locations and within certain social experiences such as meeting with individual people or having to undertake tasks that are stressful or worriesome.
If there are several voices, they can settle into a sort of hierarchy with one voice appearing more often than others. The voices may converse with one another and comment on a persons actions, thoughts and feelings.
Some voices may express more power in their relationship to other voices. There can be changes in the power relationships between the voices and fluctuation in the interplay of voices. This is where keeping a voices diary to make notes might prove helpful. We can look at the voices and safely figure out if there is some learning or meaning that may speak to us contained within the messages voices may embody.
Are these voices connected to pur life experiences? Do they speak directly or indirectly to unresolved traumas or unmet needs?
3. The stabiliation phase
After a while, fluctuations may disappear and voice hearing becomes more fixed and regular. A single voice can be ignored or explored, depending on the desire of the individual.
Multiple voices settle into a pattern and are regulated, often containing specific characteristics, i.e. criticism, praise, empathy, and speak to issues of power and powerlessness.
Sometimes a voice may embody and display the same range of emotional responses available to any human being with fluctuating feelings. Other times a voice may be rigid, repetitive and what we hear from this voice does not change at all.
And it is here that an interesting conversation can take place. Do we ignore voices that have arrived into our lives without our permission?
Or do we explore what the voices might be bringing into our consciousness space?
Clearly, it is better to do this safely and with adequate support but, before we can get to this place of exploration, before we can dig into the words that voices speak to us and find some relevant meaning for our lives, we have to become more able to have some ease and comfort in discussion.
Being able to say that we are hearing a voice, without being judged insane or dangerous is a start. What we do with this experience after that is up to us.
Below, CNN reporter Anderson Cooper finds out what the challenges are in concentrating and focusing when our thoughts are interrupted by unwanted voices.
See what you think!
In the wake of the tragic school shooting in Florida, it has been particularly galling and even painful at times, to hear some of the lazy language tossed around carelessly on cable TV, in newsprint and even from the President himself.
The words we choose to use are important. They help to frame the parameters of debate. They can inform and influence others and colour and persuade. They can help us to develop empathy for each other or they can separate and insulate us against one another. Words are a form of magic, which is why we possibly call it "spelling".
I wonder how it feels to be dealing or struggling to cope with mental health issues in this climate of blame and projection in the United States of America? Where all those with a mental illness are now suspected of being potentially dangerous.
When even a President casually uses words like " crazies, nutjobs or ""psychos" , he is using the limited language of a oorly educated teenager or school child who has no real empathy with or basic understanding of mental health issues.
The great majority of gun owners in the USA are apparently law abiding, responsible and normal. So are the vast majority of people coping with diagnosed mental ill health issues. The world is not filled with gun toting "schizophrenics" , armed with AR 15s, determined to do us all harm.
But you would find it hard to pick this fact up from the adrenaline fuelled discussions on American television in the days and weeks after the shooting. There was barely any measured discussion around the issues that were raised. Everyone had to sound like an instant expert and have a forceful point of view. It was fast and furious, leaving little time for rationality and the possible airing of different ideas. The parade of glib talking heads at Fox News were probably the worst offenders but the other channels fared only slightly better, in my experience at least.
Clearly, any individual who carries out unthinkable atrocities that kill or hurt others is unbalanced, unhinged and likely in need of urgent support or help. It also looks like many intervention opportunities were missed in Florida and this became clear as we learned more of social postings and threats that were disclosed after the event itself. They clearly need to review their procedures there. Join up dots more quickly and carefully.
A tormented individual who carries out this extreme a form of hatred towards others and society may well be said to be in a state of intense disconnection, from themselves and from others around them. But, in this radicalised climate of fear there is a reactive tendency on the part of interested parties to be rush to quickly apportion blame and here lies the danger.
Here is where the language of the debate sets the agenda, informs discourse and influences policy, whether that be on gun ownership and second amendment rights to bear arms or to look at better and more effective mental health policies that can be put in place for those who are deemed to be at risk, to themselves or to others. And this can begin if it comes right from the top with the policy makers, the deciders and the influencers of other peoples`thinking and beliefs. In this case, the current temporary occupant of the White House. I wasn´t hopeful.
As well as looking at the causes and who we can blame, we must look more deeply and more maturely at these recurring phenomena, events that leave unbearable pain and loss in their wake and an entire nation in a deep state of traumatisation. Here is when the words we choose to use can matter so much.
Statistically, it is interesting to note that people with a diagnosis of mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than those who have no established diagnosis. They are generally more vulnerable to being bullied or exploited by so called "well" people within their own communties.
Every day the law courts are filled with individuals charged with murder, assaults, battery, threatening behaviour etc and most of these folk will have no disorder or diagnosis attached to them. We regard their acts as moral or criminal behaviours that the courts will punish on our behalf. And this all takes place with very little by way of comment in the press, apart from the standard court reporting that every home town newspaper provides for its´ readership.
Readers sometimes use words like "evil" or "depraved" in the comments section on websites to describe these people in specific cases. If you suggest a person needed support or help you may find yourself being called a "do gooder" or a " snowflake liberal" and in this way the debate and discussion quickly take on the characteristics of a binary puzzle, where there is no middle ground available. Mad or bad.. You can decide based on your own feelings, your own individual unconscious prejudices, your own inbuilt bias. It is a very emotive experience and one which taps deeply into our anxieties, our primitive fears. So we tap out a comment on the forum..
And now we come to the President of the United States himself. An old man who avoided going to Vietnam but dreams himself as a brave hero. A man who claims he would have run into a building unarmed, where a young man was spraying bullets from a machine designed for high speed battlefield mutilation of enemies. He was using a fast firing assault weapon that can be bought easily by almost anyone. Maybe this is where the some of the "real" madness" lies......
Mr Trump had to go seek counsel from the NRA, which led him to quickly suggest that school teachers should carry concealed guns and that, if they had them, a teacher could have "shot the hell out of him", a statement that contained no real insight or thought into the possible risks and outcomes of this course of action. Teachers in classroom gunfights with armed and angry shooters? Clint Eastwood action movie fare and straight from a comic book for teenagers. A fantasy which I suspect will go nowhere very useful.
Fox News host Sean Hannity called urgently for armed guards on every school floor and that we should "secure the perimeters", turning places of learning into a sort of militiarised fortress. It reminded me of the panic induced responses on the same shows to the events of 9/11. Fear is a big factor on Fox and frightened people might believe almost anything.
Everyone on the panel discussion instantly agreed with Hannity, such was the grip of collective anxiety. The real psychosis was evident there and unfolding right in front of us. All we had to do to see it is watch the TV screen.
The suggestion was that school teachers will have weapons and armed ex soldiers to supplement the teachers fire power. There should be even more guns to keep everyone in school safer. To some it seems rational, to others insane, but I fear for the young of America who have yet to be schooled, with these people setting the cultural tone and leading the national debate, shaping the physical and emotional landscape of their future. A future where fear predominates.
So, now I say it. People dealing with mental health challenges have got enough on their plates.
They do not need or deserve to be spoken about collectively in ways that show no caring for truth, no connection to their lived experiences and daily struggles to keep on going. The unthinking use of perjorative terms on TV , such as nutjobs and psychos. No one in the UK has used these terms since I was at school in the 1960s! Then we began to learn to be mor nunaced in our language as we learned more about the realities of mental health, recovery based thinking and appropriate language to describe others who are struggling with their experiences.
These panellist did not realise it but they are reflective statements that unconsciously say more about themselves than the people that they were talking about. Shall we talk about narcissistic personality disorders now? Mania for power? Inability to reason? Believing your own bullshit? Because if we do, then we may have to start discussing you guys up there on the screen in your expensive suits and in the now beyond tarnished and possibly irrevocably ruined Whitehouse.
Folk battling with mental distress do not deserve to be collectively shamed or victimised by the press and media for the actions of a few sad and alienated individuals. They are a silent majority who can only watch and listen to this debate with growing sadness.
They do not have a unified voice or an organisation that helps to represent them in matters like this so, when the media says whatever it wishes to and with no consequences. They are easy targets for the lazy, who need to project their own fears and anxieties onto others and via the media, into the public domain. The space where we all try and live together and, for the most part, fairly peacefully.
Sadly, there was not one individual taking part in any of the discussions I witnessed to challenge the use of stigmatising and over generalised language, let alone the ideas that were put forward. People with mental illness were now a potential threat, it seemed, to add to all the other prejudices they must endure.
The ignorance, the lack of understanding. And all predicated on a rare, if tragic phenomena. One boy, a troubled life, access to a high grade killing weapon and fuelled by a ton of burning internal anger.
The kids from the school and others will do their best to keep the conversation going. They want to be safe. They do not wish others to feel their pain. They will march on Washington and be laughed off and sniggered at by the lackeys posing as reporters at Fox News. . But they will have a voice on that day.
I suspect that the NRA and some compliant elements of the mainstream media will do whatever they can to make that story also fade into quiet oblivion. All those tears and broken voices will be wiped from our screens. Until the next tragedy plays itself out yet again.
The young people of America are the futire of that great country and they deserve so much more from the political "elites". So do those dealing with fragile self esteem and challenging mental health issues.
But I do sometimes wonder, with a population increasingly reliant on pysychiatric medication in order to function or cope, if American culture itself needs examining more deeply? The extremes and excesses, its` over militarisation, its obsessive self aggrandisement and the ever increasing debt.
What about the constant flag waving appeals to patriotism which informs the manufacturing of consent for incessant foreign wars and condition the citizens into unthinking, unquestioning allegiance?
All in all in, a pathologising combination of energies that possibly drives many of its´ thoughtful and gentle citizens into deep states of hopelessness and despair. Hence the high prescribing rates. A better world must come, surely?
Perhaps these young folk we hear speak out so eloquently now will bring a change. Maybe they are the ones who will grow up to wrestle the wheels of control from the current crop of elderly white male dinosaurs and their followers.
May they do so and help steer the world power that is still America into brighter times. For all our sakes.
Well, we had it all. Strong winds and rain didn´t dampen our enthusiasm for individual and collective growth at the 2017 Mental Health Recovery Camp!
We travelled from far and wide to gather in a most spectacular setting and for five days, Barnutopia, on the border between England and Wales, and the surrounding hills became a home to over fifty individuals who wished to make fast progress on their recovery journeys.
Each morning began with breakfast, as people slowly awoke, showered and began to rouse themselves from sleep in clear country air. Clouds formed and passed overhead, horses cantered about on the nearby hills and sheep contentedly nibbled their way into yet another bucolic and pastoral day.
We were far from the madding crowd and didn´t we know it! No traffic noise, unpolluted air and just the quiet work of mother nature growing all around us. A perfect setting for a week of workshops, talks and campfire sharings, all designed to facilitate wellness and recovery.
The morning community meetings set the tone for each day, We greeted and welcomed one another into the big barn circle of seats with a Zen parable and a reflective reading to quieten the spirit and create an atmosphere of gentle expectation for a day of growth. The Zen bell rang, we sat in silence for a minute and off we went.
What did people wish for the day? Were there any issues that required support and dealing with? Who might care to offer a recovery related workshop or a round table talk?
The open hearted sharings and suggested ideas meant that we could be flexible and adapt to meeting the needs of participants. Plus we had a team of elders and guest speakers who all brought their own individual skill sets, many with lived experience of mental health challenges and now functioning and flourishing in their daily professional and personal lives.
As Recovery Camp participants often told me, we were spoiled for choice as to which workshops we would attend and which ones we had to miss out on. It was like being at a really cool music festival where all your new favourite bands are playing on different stages, but simultaneously...choices, choices, damn it!
Our hosts at Barntopia, Steve and Katrina, did all in their power to make us feel welcome.
If you didn´t want to cook your own food up in the little camp kitchen, there were tasty options available and endless refreshes of coffee cups. Evenings meant a home cooked meal, served with a smile through a stable door into the farmhouse kitchen.
The farm cats would turn up as if on cue and waltz their way around the dining rooms and open air spaces, no doubt hoping to find generous gifts if not occasional spillages and droppings of titbits. It was hard to say no but...we managed it.
As the days rolled by, I noticed something that always happens at these remarkable events, the development of a self-supporting community and the blossoming and flowering of supportive and empathic friendships. It was a lovely thing to witness and filled me with feelings of hope and optimism that what we were doing had great value and really did make a big difference in creating more self confidence and belief in individual lives.
Slowly but surely, people stopped describing their allocated "illness labels" and focussed more fully on what was possible in their own life stories.
And this process was accelerated by the many inspiring talks and workshops covering such diverse subjects as: working with voices, sexual abuse survivors groups, getting in touch with your bodies, Chi Gong sessions in the mornings, protecting yourself from negative energies from too much computer and phone use.
There were talks on Open Dialogue and self esteem as well as safer ways to express inner anger and much more besides.
I offered some stimulating workshops on finding the hidden treasures in negative labels, as well as an introduction to basic concepts relating to NVC - Nonviolent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg´s concept), which was eye-opening and great fun.
I laid out laminated cards with words describing needs that we might have and invited participants to take a walk and, on looking at these cards, decide on the need they wished met while at the camp. For me it was a first to be able to share this model of communication (NVC) and include it in my mental health work and I am so happy to have learned about it. This really is a model encouraging empowerment, personal growth, healthy communication with others and transforming painful inner dialogue into new strategies forward for each individual.
I was so pleased when someone told me they were witnessing lots of "NVC moments" outside the workshop where camp participants were asking each other "what needs do you have right now" or "could you make a clear and concise request?" as opportunities arose. It was like NVC magic gently permeating everyones consciousness in the most beautiful way.
We then regathered around the campfire and shared which needs we had chosen and why. This proved to be a useful focus on how we would strive to get those identified needs met on the following days and focussed minds more clearly on our intentions and purpose.
The good news on NVC sharing was that some folk were given fast chances to turn the principles of Non Violent Communication into practice when they visited a large and busy supermarket in nearby Oswestry and were amazed at how effective using NVC had been in helping to resolve a difficult situation really quickly. In fact they could hardly wait to return to the camp site and track me down to share their news!
In summary, Recovery Camps work well for a number of different reasons.
There are no judgements and everyone is treated as an equal. People are not their illnesses but they are unique and fragile human beings with potential that may not always be evident when we become trapped in a narrow medical, reductionist system that, accidentally or not, reduces people to labels and symptoms and leaves little room for growth and optimism.
The slow-cooker approach of working on your own recovery in a beautiful countryside setting gives a chance to escape the daily grind of life and live for a while in an oasis of calm and tranquility, all the more conducive to self-focus and personal development.
The workshops and sharings were engaging, inspiring and productive, giving folk much to process, think about and debate as we sat around the campfire at night and drank our teas. The sense of individual and collective growth became palpable as we worked our way inexorably towards the final days of the camp.
And then we were there.
Somewhat sadly, and as they say, all good things must come to an end.
We had a fun filled "No Talent Contest" on the final evening with songs and jokes, poems and even cabaret magic tricks. A few folk enjoyed a beer to celebrate a successful week. And so to bed.
The next morning the rain had stopped falling, the skies blue and clear and birds wheeled overhead, their cries called out as we started to pack up out tents, empty out the yurts and a final community meeting.
We gave thanks to the land, the site that had cradled us all for a week and the owners were presented with a thank you card and a small speech for their support during our stay.
Goodbyes and hugs were given as folk left for train stations and airports and slowly, the site emptied itself of Recovery Camp participants. We had memories of much laughter and occasional tears, escaped horses and wild, wild winds. The horse was easily returned to the stable and no harm done and that dear reader was that...Recovery Camp 3 was ended..Now we have to think and plan ahead for 2018 and number four!
I take off my hat to the others in the hard-working team of elders who strived to make everyone welcome and dealt with any issues as they presented themselves for resolution and, of course, to Karen and Ron of workingtorecovery.co.uk without whom, none of these camps would have been even possible.
Now they take a back seat to fpcus on other priorities and allow the new steering group (contact me if you´re interested in helping us organise) to grab the wheel and steer Recovery Camp 4 into being for 2018!
Meantime, I am still recovering from my exertions at Camp 3!
Care to consider attending or contributing in 2018? Get in touch to learn more about these amazing and inspiring events : email@example.com
So what´s new about the phenomenon of hearing voices?
People have been hearing voices for thousands of years in diverse ways, across and within different cultures.
This means that the ways in which we respond to voice hearing experiences change also, depending on the beliefs and predominant perceptions and theories that hold sway at any given time.
In some cultures, voice hearing, even today, is more readily accepted as a singular experience taking place within a continuim of lived human psychological or spiritual peak experiences. It is often related to stresses in life or intense states of psychospiritual activity which might be inviting a breakthrough into higher levels of awareness.
An example. Entering states of deep meditation, in Zen "Zazen" practice can bring a person into touch with deeper subconscious or buried feelings that may present themselves to the awareness of the individual in the form of visions and voices.
The Zen master will generally advise that the person or student stays calm and simply observes this phenomena while minimising emotional energies that are distressing but, it is not unkown for students to cry, laugh, shout and talk to their voices when they are in this situation.
Normally, the moment passes and the calm waters of the self regulate themselves, eventually restoring balance and harmony within. But the experience is allowed to take its natural course, in a safe and supported setting overseen by an experienced "elder".
The Western psychologist may wish to delve even deeper into these experiences and try to help interpret hidden meanings and how these voices might speak to unhealed traumas in the persons` individual life story.
If the individual is also curious to explore and learn more of the origins and meaning of their voices, this can be very empowering and liberating, often giving voice hearers some sense of ownership of their experiences. An experience of ownership that is missing from a narrow medical model that relies on a diagnose and treat scenario, whch minimises investigation and gets on with trying to suppress the "symptoms" of an underlying brain chemistry causation illness.
No single way is right or wrong here but does an approach, which relies on a bio-medical "illness" model to diagnose and treat the person who has these, sometimes troubling, experiences work better? Let´s question that.
The teacher of Zen advises passive observation of surface phenomena that arise from within the self.
The psychologist is curious to dig deeper in the search for hidden or disguised meaning and will work to explore metaphors and allegories that might make sense to the person in light of their life experiences, relationships with others and with themselves.
Hearing a helpful voice or guide - hypothesis or fact?
We should remember too that people often hear voices that are actually helpful in giving advice as well as sometimes warning against courses of action that may prove risky or hazardous to their own well being or the safety of others. Voices that protect and guide.
There are multiple accounts and anecdotes in case studies and research and plentiful evidence in forums and hearing voices support groups that speak to these experiences.
Of course, most of these folk rarely, if ever, need to ask for help from medical services as their experiences are not in any way distressing, even if we might consider them to be somewhat "unusual".
The people that doctors meet most regularly are those who have struggled to cope with critical and negative voices that are interfering with their quality of life and have asked for help from health professionals. And these professionals are generally trained in a singular way, that hearing discomforting voices is a symptom of an illness requiring medication. Medication that "rebalances" brain chemistry with a view to alleviating distressing experiences of the client. This results in voice hearers experiencing disempowerment and stigmatisation as a consequence. Is there an alternative?
Moving toward a transformative approach
What if we spent a little more time safely listening to what our voices say and explored the possible connections between the content of voices and what it might mean to us as individuals. Even if, as is sometimes true, the voices say hurtful, critical and destructive things?
This has been the inspiration behind some of the work pioneered by Marius Romme and Sondra Escher in Holland. They listened to voice hearers and created a survey that allows people hearing voices to map out their inner experiences and creates the condition where talking about voice hearing is not only permitted but actually encouraged.
The Hearing Voices Movement is now a world wide phenomena and continues to grow as people start their own self-help groups. Here space is given for the expression of stories, lived experiences and different theories and ideas regarding how voices begin, what conditions of living might help create them and how many differing ways people can learn to cope with or manage better with these lived and sometimes challenging experiences.
One step further: Embracing the voices within
In the world of NVC ( Non Violent Communication), inspired by the remarkable Marshall Rosenburg, people learn and are trained to look for the hidden needs behind behaviour that is sometimes difficult to understand or deal with. An angry individual, according to the practice of NVC is a person who has not been able to get his or her needs met and that unmet need is making itself known through the behaviour that we witness.
If we can see a person complaining about messiness and unwashed cups is not a bossy individual who is telling us what they want us to do, but instead embrace them simply as a person with an unmet need for orderliness, hygiene and ease, i.e. being able to find a clean plate when he or she needs one. Maybe thay have become frustrated at having to search the dishwasher or the cupboards while gazing at a full kitchen sink of unwashed crockery for weeks!
We can hear the complaint and witness the annoyance without owning the feelings ourselves. NVC teaches empathic listening without judgement so that we can be a witness to the other, fully present in their pain and unmet need. This allows us to ask empathic questions and to check in with them, showing our care, interest and presence. We might say "are you feeling frustrated because you need ease and you´d really like everything to be in its place in the kitchen?"
This might lead to more signs of frustration, like complaints, showing us that here is someone who really needs to be listened to. We can offer up our presence, our empathy and also potential solutions and arrive at agreements too. And then, identified needs can be met, like "how can we both increase ease for you in the kitchen and peace and harmony restored for all?" A simple example, but it illustrates the point.
Here is a little introduction to this concept, one that, just like the work of the hearing voices movement, is rapidly growing and spreading into all sorts of fields relating to fostering and co-creating better and more balanced human relationships.
In schools, businesses, communities and even political systems, a different way of identifying and addressing unmet needs for individuals, work teams, couples and communities is being seen as the way forward to a more peaceful world and all based the utilisation of more empathy. listening without judgement and developing understanding.
In my next blog, I will look at how we might use some of the helpful learnings from the field of Nonviolent Communication to try and hear and identify the possible unmet needs that are present inside the comments and statements that critical voices might make to individuals.
After all, if it can work as a communication tool for critical voices from other people outside of ourselves, might it also prove useful for interpreting the unmet needs that might be concealed within the voices inside too?
The basic structure of Non Violent Communication invites us to think a little differently when we hear criticism or complaints and not to react in the way we have likely been conditioned to, which is sometimes to criticise the person back in defence as we feel we are being attacked.
1. We witness the behaviour without owning it ourselves. We can accept that the person´s distress or annoyance is a feeling that they are having and these emotions do not belong to us. Each person being responsible for their own feelings.
2. We listen using empathy without judgement or evalution in order to get a sense of where the person is coming from.
3. We safely look at what feelings arise in them and in us when we hear complaints or criticism. We try to explore this in our shared conversation.
4. We can make empathic guesses to clarify what is the root cause of the persons distress if they are open to this process.
5. We can ask for permission to see if the person would like some feedback to see if we have heard or understood correctly what the person is expressing.
6. We can identify an unmet need with that person.
7. We can ask if the person would care to hear any suggestions that might be helpful or find agreements to get that unmet need met!
Of course, it sounds simple! Nothing is guaranteed but we find we are talking and not arguing, we are not attacking them or defending ourselves and the whole process pivots on developing a relationship based on identifying unmet needs and meeting them.
It does not have to become a raging argument or a " You said, she said, I said" debate which often gets us nowhere in finding concensus for achieving ease and contentment. And let´s be honest, isn´t that something we all welcome in our lives?
We are not really comfortable in hearing criticism. And we try to avoid conflicts or difficult conversations when we can, even if it means simmering tensions slowly build and at some point the kettle boils over and out it all comes. Then we might take it personally and we may brood or sulk or even try to avoid spending time with that person.
Using the tools and strategies of NVC helps us to co-create an atmosphere of geniune connection when we try to reach out by being present, even if it can make us feel vulnerable, because we are talking about feelings and needs.
However, when our discussion is focussed on trying to get unmet needs addressed, the process becomes one of honest, heart-centred sharing and co-creating comfort and ease, an entirely more positive ambition and one which does not require strategies of avoidance and denial. We come home, albeit temporarily, to our truths, our genuine emotions, our desires and personal and collective needs.
I have hopes that we can learn to apply some of these helpful ideas and strategies when it come to hearing critical and negative voices. Perhaps we can ask ourselves just what is the unmet need behind the things that voices sometimes say, whether they come from a person externally or we hear them in our own heads.
I worked for so many years inside mental health systems where there was very little interest in or time given to unravelling and understanding any meanings in the voices people heard. Here, I think we may have a useful tool that can help us do just that!
In my next blog, I will look at some examples of personal criticism and abusive voices and we will see what the hidden need might be when it comes to looking at some of these experiences more creatively and differently
Stay tuned! Best wishes. Ivan
Sometimes, I think mental health providers and psychiatric services have got themselves stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to hearing voices. Making more than a marginal difference to outcomes for individuals seems beyond our abilties and we settle for lower recovery rates as a result. Of course, this has implications and consequences for individuals seeking help.
If the long established belief system within medical services is that schizophrenia is a life long condition with poor outcomes, then what can we expect other than a focus on symptom reduction and some hope for functional recovery improvements at best? And that is what we, by and large, get. The lowest expectations for recovery and the longest dependency levels on the use of neuroleptic medication, with all the attendant benefits and risks.
Above, a fairly typical medical model map and you can see that the picture it paints is not an optimistic one!
Look at the language. used. Does this inspire a recovery focussed response from nursing and health professionals? Hard to imagine so.
This would explain why so many nurses I spoke to in psychiatric settings over twenty years held out very little optimism for folk diagnosed with schizophrenia when it came to discussions of recovery and qualitiy of life expectations. They were victims of their own training and restrictive beliefs in these matters. Recovery is not really possible for folk with this diagnosis. This was the unspoken and tacit "truth" in psychiatric circles and has been for too long.
It also fails to recognise that many of the "symptoms" it lists are direct effects of powerful and sedating medications given to reduce symptoms and bring relief to people undergoing sometimes extremely difficult experiences.
Health professionals would benefit greatly by reading these books by Professor Marius Romme. .Frustrated with poor recovery rates, he began to create opportunities for voice hearers to speak with one another and to share their stories with health workers.
This was very liberating for nurses and support workers as it encouraged engagement with the individual and not just treating symptoms, which can seem a bit impersonal. After all, if the doctor is focussed entirely on treating your symptoms, it is easy to overlook the story or narrative that is behind your admission to hospital or your request for help.
Consequently. this story is rarely heard, something patients used to tell me they found very frustrating as it mattered to them, and they were often keen to tell it, but doctors and nurses were often too busy to hear it. They wanted to be heard, a very important step in the healing ritual and a vital part of the process. But, too often, no space was available for this to happen.
When Marius Romme began to research and listen to his own clients he discovered quite a lot about their beliefs around hearing voices, that their relationship with the content of the voices and how they felt about the experience played a significant role in determining outcomes, levels of distress and coping abilities etc. This knowledge has been put to good use in " Coping with Voices" guide books and also helped in setting up many hundreds of support groups for voice hearers globally.
When U.K. Nurse of the year Mike Smith asked women who heard voices in English prison settings about their voice hearing experiences, he was the first to show an interest in their voices and their individual explanations. In many cases the voices talked directly to previous painful experiences that remained untreated or unhealed and yet, despite multiple admissions and long histories of involvement with mental health and prison services, no one had ever bothered to ask or listen before. I find this rather sad and also shocking as it borders on neglect. It leaves individuals stuck between a rock and a hard place, being treated for "symptoms" but with no real attempt to deal with the underlying issues or problems that lead to a person breaking down in the first place, It is a sticking plaster approach to mental health distress.
And now, with the belief that the problem is all about brain chenistry imbalances, why waste valuable time talking to patients? Finding their story? Helping them make sense of their lived experiences? Something old school psych professionals used to enjoy doing and now seen, sadly, as too time consuming and energy depleting. Who wants to actually listen to all that madness? That chaos? That distress and pain when you can just prescribe a pill?
Well guess what? The benefitsof listening outweigh the costs. All it needs is a little bravery from managers of health and psych recovery services and some local reinvention and creative thinking and we can adopt a better model of working WITH voice hearers and their voices and not against them.
Was there ever a group of people more trapped in service dependency and snared by the meagre expectations of others? I doubt it. If those who "support" you do not believe you have much of a future, even if they do not transmit this directly and openly to you, that limited thinking and restricted belief in genuine recovery will have a direct effect on you, your treatment, your hopes and expectations, even if silently and implicitly.
People deserve better from mental health services then to be labelled and written off because of erroneous beliefs in the minds of the medics.
People can and do recover from metal ill health and this includes those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Some learn to live with their voices and manage their experiences effectively, others struggle. Some are now voice free.
And some people manage to be free of reliance and dependency on psychiatric meds too. Although this takes time and proper planning and support to achieve, it has and is being done by many. Contact me for details of safely withdrawing off psych medications.
Not too long ago, in a land not so very far away, some very strange things were happening.
In an English country field, a small group of women reported that they had witnessed a remarkable event. High in the sky, and just after sunset on April 16th, 1651, they claimed that a "battle" had taken place, complete with strange sounds and roaring noises.
After its`conclusion, a procession of "angelic beings, blue in colour and with faces like owls" had appeared.
No one laughed at or mocked these reported experiences. Today, in less magical times, we might simply say that these women had shared a hallucination .
However, when we explore this historical period a little more deeply, we may see that there is much we can learn, of social attitudes and beliefs, of spiritual expression and the hopes and fears of a people that we can only strive to understand as we sit here in our scientific and rational 21st century techno bubble.
Were these kind of experiences rare? No. Were these women ill or mentally unstable? Probably not. Were they subject to the mind disturbing properties of ergot rye infection which was to waltz its`way through middle Europe in the form that came to be known as St. Vitus Dance? Unlikely.
This was an infection that caused whole villages to become communities of madness, the people unable to sit still, dancing and shaking with wild and wide eyes and which many suspected to be acts of devilish possession and withcraft.
I wonder how many women were falsely accused and punished for "consorting with devils" and how many communities were left scarred by these seemingly inexplicable events?
Of course, we know more about plants, infections and "psychedelic experiences" these days and can place confusing experiences into an understandable framework of reference that does not include, at least in the main, the possibility of demonic possession!
Life in the middle ages certainly wasn´t easy.
If a person reached thirty years it was unusual and the people had much to be afraid of: illness, warfare, strife, uncertainty, food shortages, poor social conditions and sanitation. Thirty per cent of children never made it past five years of age.
Is it any wonder that people held fast to their faith? That belief in a supreme being or God was the only consistent factor in a life bedevilled by change and riddled with so much earthly uncertainty?
No surprise then that the good people turned to prayer for protection from what they firmly believed were evil sources. Regular appeals to the saints of the past were believed to be able to ward off the possibilities of pestilence and plague, personal and collective damnation and to atone for acts percieved as sins and individual and collective moral failures.
In an age where many believed that judgements would also come in the afterlife based on a persons`actions in the current one, there was, indeed, plenty to be fearful of.
In the 15th century, shepherds, at the end of a day in the Wiltshire fields, would burn corn seeds and rake the sign of a cross into the ash, all the while calling vocally on St. Oswald to protect them and their flock of sheep through the night, that they might all awaken, safe from harm. They fell asleep, still praying and on awaking, would give thanks, baking in their little kilns and asking the Saint to bring them beautiful bread, so that they would have no hunger throughout the working day.
Saints also had their own "specialised" areas of responsibility and dedication and the worship of them was an integral part of medieval society. Individual churches had their own patron saints, as did trades and merchants. And many shrines dedicated to long gone saints were to become popular places of pilgrimage for the devout.
Over 500 "miracles" were to be associated with Thomas Beckett and his shrine, to which the sick and infirm made long and tiring journeys in order to obtain healing and cures for all manner of ailments.
And, as William Tyndale wrote in the early 16th century: "We worship the saints for fear, lest they should be displeased and angry with us, and plague or otherwise hurt us".
And many trades had their own dedicated patron saint too:
And, if we can understand a little more of the closeness people felt in relation to the presence of God and the saints in every tiny detail of their lives, we can see how important a role these beliefs played in daily life, sometimes to an astonshing degree, ushering in social change, radicalising a disempowered people and changing the very course of history itself, for example!
Meet St. Michael and Saints Margaret and Katherine. Oh what trouble their appearance would cause for a poor village girl tasked with simply looking after her fathers`sheep and doing her best to be a good and pious daughter. What a transforming journey they would inspire her to take on!
The visions and voices that she heard spoke to and of an ancient prophecy, one that would entail huge social change. This prophecy claimed that a virgin maiden would lead a country to its´ freedom from foreign domination and place a true born king onto the throne.
This was Catholic France, 1424 during The " Hundred Year War" with England and which had become a state of perpetual and exhausting struggle, with much of the country under the power of the English and their political and military allies, the Burgundians.
You only have to take a look at this map to understand the perilous state of French affairs. Could this situation ever really be changed? And by a young girl, Jean d'Arc, with no power except a belief somehow fostered in her by visiting saintly apparitions in her local Parish church? Surely hardly possible!
No doubt she was laughed at, scorned and initially ignored. She travelled to see the Dauphin at court to ask for men at arms to aid her quest, a task she understood as a holy one. She explained that she was on a divine mission and was aided by Angels and Saints, that she was assured of a victory and that he would, one day, be the rightful king of France.
To the consternation of some military leaders and court advisors, she was given a small number of soldiers, a horse and armour. She cut her hair short, in order to look more like a young soldier and a boy, the better to inspire the confidence of potential followers.
She even learned a little swordcraft, should it be necessary in close quarter combat.
A banner or flag was specially designed for her to carry with into action and to lead the troops.
She led the soldiers on to raise the sieges of several small towns and slowly, her reputation grew along with her numerous admirers. People flocked to the cause, to liberate France once and for all from foreign intervention and control. The divine adventure was truly under way.
She prayed fervently and constantly, having many dark days as well as bright ones. She took a crossbow bolt in the shoulder and still returned to lead her troops into battle.
Many French towns were laid to seige, surrounded by enemy soldiers and forced to survive within the walled enclosures while supply routes were cut off and food and water often running low.
Huge siege towers were to be seen being built in full view of the defenders, who could only look on in alarm, knowing that one day soon they would be subject to more than just deprivation of basic needs for survival but prolonged and bloody attack by catapult, fireballs of burning pitch and tar, flying boulders and then very likely be put to the sword by invaders.
The most famous of these battles was at Orléons, where the French forces under her control were able to force the seige to an end and to liberate the inhabitants who had suffered so much and for so long. Cue, much national celebration and relief as news travelled across the land.
Joan was, by now, fast becoming a folk heroine, an inspiration and a celebrated leader of men, throwing aside all sorts of preconceptions about the strength of women, their supposed and historically preordained role in life and what was possible when a person was filled with righteous self belief and determination to see through a project dear to her heart and to the hearts of so many others. She was an inspiration and a "godsend" and just when the country needed it most.
You likely know the rest of this amazing story. Captured by Burgundian forces, she was sold for a bounty to the English, imprisoned, put on trail for heresey and witchcraft and then burned at the stake, in public, in the market place at Rouen in 1431.
They raked over the ashes of Joan three times in order to ensure nothing remained that could be taken as a memento, nothing was left that might be treated as an heirloom treasure to inspire others or sustain more insurrections and keep her memory alive.
They likely hoped that the story of Joan would die there too, reduced to smouldering black dust in front of a wailing and watchful, stunned crowd. But they were wrong. Joan claimed that her reception of divine guidance and her trust in her voices and visions were true experiences and that she had, somehow, been selected to carry out this life changing (and eventually life ending) role.
But, the English did leave French lands. The Dauphin was crowned as a King and France was once again a united single entity in nation form and has been so ever since.
The old prophecy had, in fact, come true and no small thanks to a young girl who heard voices and saw visions. A girl that many initially considered to be mad.
Joan was subject to a commision of enquiry in Rome who, six hundred years later, found her "innocent of all charges of heresy".
She was canonised in 1920 and is the patron Saint of France, appearing on stamps, in songs, poems and stories and her liberatory tales of self belief, trust in divine providence and overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles is now woven into the tapestry of the national narrative, the story of a country regaining its` identity and its`freedom.
And all because of a girl who tended sheep. A liberator, a leader, a troublemaker, who upturned expectations, upset the odds and set a country onto a new trajectory. A girl who listened to her voices. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Joan of Arc!
Each year we have a Congress. Each year in a different country. Last time around we were in the birthplace of the writer of "Don Quixote", Cervantes, near to Madrid in Spain. This year it was France where, under grey and overcast skies, hundreds of activists, researchers, voice hearers and supportive family members gathered to explore and to co-create healing possibilities.
The theme was "Making History, Owning our Stories" and RevFrance were our hosts. They had worked so hard to put on a sequence of dazzling speakers and workshops designed to enhance recovery.
It was so difficult to choose where to go and who to listen to, choices were so many and not unlike being at a good music festival where bands are playing simultaneously on different stages. Inbetween, there were chances to mix together, make new friends and develop possible alliances. At night, groups took to the nearby streets and the many bars and cafés to carry out further vital research on the beers and wines.
It was a real pleasure to meet up with so many friends from the past twenty years. Of course, Marius Romme was there with Sondra Escher, who does so much brilliant work with children hearing voices. Karen Taylor of Working to Recovery and Paul Baker, so lovely to see both again. I got to hobnob with inspiring Olga Runciman and Uta Maria Kramer and to meet many new faces too. A good representation from Denmark and folk from as far afield as USA and Canada, Ireland, Italy and Sweden. Truly, the Hearing Voices Movement has begun to touch people from across the globe, a very pleasing development indeed.
Professor John Reid, Will Hall from Madness Radio and Richard Bentall prepare to talk.
My own small contribution? Getting there at all was a great adventure as I traipsed through the streets of Paris, into the Metro stations and found my way through the bustling and noisy underground to my room. A quick drop of of my bags, a last look at my notes and across the city again to the conference centre for my afternoon talk, entitled "Spinning the Wheel of Spirit" and a workshop for which I was told 70 people would be attending. I could feel my blood pressure rising ever so slightly.
My plan was to have some fun exploring the many ways that hearing voices and seeing visions had played out in individual lives. And I had a cast of characters and experiences to play with, from Joan of Arc and William Blake, Ghandi and Eckhart Tolle. We were going to co- explore a landscape of lived spiritual experiences, normalising voice hearing in the fabric of societal development and see how these experiences played out in shaping some aspects of the very lives we all lead today. The very first thing I noticed was the giant giraffe sitting ( or standing) at the very front of my room.
I am not easily put off by giraffes, even unexpected ones. And before long, the room began to fill with expectant and curious souls, no doubt wondering what they had let themselves in for. I was excited, a little nervous but looking forward to a talk I had been preparing for what seemed to be eons. The clock ticked down, the crowd filed in and when I next looked, we were full! So, a breath, a silent prayer that Mercury would guide my words and action and help me to be clear and off we went. And it went surprisingly well.
I told a Zen joke, we did a group exercise that put us in touch with our own sense of spirituality and had the added benefit of inducing laughter. We discussed the problems faced by mental health systems and individuals in the west in coming to terms with experiences that might be linked to spiritual transformation and journeys of personal growth but are reduced within a biomedical health perspective to mental illnesses. And treated accordingly. I had a few interesting tales to share from my twenty years of mental health recovery work. Somehow, again, we were able to laugh a little as we all recognised something of the experience, either in our own lives or while working with peoople in supportive roles.
We learned of the amazing spiritual traditions, borne from the very experience of voice hearing, the great Abrahamic faiths, shaped and changed by voice hearers, from Moses to Mohammed. And we looked briefly at "Fraxinella", the real burning bush and one which exudes a flammable odour, occasionally busting into desert flames and possiby the very bush that alerted Moses to the fact that he was about to recieve his brand new job description, to go and rescue the Israelites!
We concluded our time together with a look at cell phone technology and how the great inspiration behind making much of it possible admitted later in his quiet and humble life that nearly all of his great ideas had arrived to him in his dreams. And more amazingly, that he was guided by a scientist who had been dead for many years. His name? Alec Harley Reeves, inventor of Pulse Code Modulation and the dead scientist who visited with him? Michael Faraday, the "Father of Electricity". Isn´t life amazing sometimes?
We ended with a little quiz. Which three Beatles songs arrived to the Fab Four fully formed and with almost no advance preparation? Answers on a postcard please to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other highlights for me? Attending Will Halls`workshop on altered states of consciousness and spiritual experiences, which included lots of personal sharing and very inspiring and then getting a day or two to wander Paris in the gentle grey rain and drink coffees served up by seemingly surly waiters...perfect!
I wanted to bust a few myths that voice hearing is always a bad thing. I think I managed that. I wanted to show how hearing voices and seeing visions sometimes helps to build the very beliefs and fabric of the world we all live in. I think I managed that too.
And I want to thank all my GoFundme supporters who did so much to help me raise my funds to get myself to Paris and to this amazing Congress. It was great and ...so are you!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Next year Congress is in.......Boston, USA. I wonder? ...Ivan
A week of healing, helping and development of hope.
Five rain sodden and mist filled days on the Devon moors in South West England and one hundred people.
Twenty workshops and live music at night in the big white tent. Rolling fog and banks of clouds may have descended but could not dim the light we lit with our sharing and collective positivity.
Last year we had a camp in central Scotland and, to our amazement, five scorchingly hot summer days. We decided to head South in anticipation of guaranteed good weather (woops) and to bring to England some of the benefits and excitements of a recovery camp.
Folk travelled here from far and wide, all to be met by myself and a team of elders, tasked with welcoming new arrivals and guiding them around the site, helping them settle in.
What is it about camping out in nature that enhances friendships and a feeling of positivity? How is it that international "strangers" can bond slowly over days, form new friendships, help one another with problems and also work on their own individual recovery journeys?
That is what we were here to do. As Percy the Peacock greeted each new day with his piercing calls, perched on high up in his tree, we emerged from tents, camper vans and bunk houses, rubbing our eyes, and soon the smell of newly brewed morning coffee wafted through the air and across the fields.
Ron Coleman and Karen Taylor of Working to Recovery had a great idea.
Bring people out of their "normal" environments and to a stunning beauty spot, deep in the bosom of nature. Add in a team of inspiring speakers, workshop fascilitators, presenters and awareness raisers, all involved in actual recovery practice and see what might happen. Good food, live music and healing and relaxing activities were added to the mix.
We had such diverse choices for the week and often, it was like being at a music festival and having favourite bands playing on different stages at the same time!
"Safely getting off psych meds", " Reframing vulnerability", "Getting out of the Illness Trap".
We had sessions of Chi Gong, meditation, and mandala workshops.
"Five ways to Wellbeing", and others I have missed out on remembering. We shared narrative and storytelling sessions, late night campfire chats and games, walks on the misty moors and on the final night, a "Mad Pride" big tent event to help celebrate diversity and differences and let our collective hair down and where folk, often quite shy on their arrival, sang beautiful songs, rapped street poems, recited poems and even expertly played banjos. There was a hidden pool of creative talent lurking in our congregation for sure.
We had some top class conjuring tricks, performed by the amazing Jim Campbell, who worked so hard behind the scenes in helping to organise and pull this circus of possibilities together. Thanks Jim.
Marius Romme and Sondra Escher, such huge inspirations to all who wish to work in positive ways with voice hearing, attended. Glen Roberts and James Wooldridge represented Recovery Devon and helped welcome us to their beautiful county with talks and sharings of personal experience. The ups and downs of life, hard times and successes, the mosaic of temporary madness that sometimes affects us. All very inspiring.
The morning big tent meetings celebrated the previous days` endeavours and laid out the coming days`choices as well as providing a chance for checking in with everyone..
What was working well and what wasn´t? Who was doing fine and who felt they needed some help? There were always volunteers on hand to offer support and lots of lived experience in those who were present that could be called upon when needed.
Just like last year, we co- created a healing wheel, one with many spokes and the hub the stunning countryside itself. It was beautiful to see, as days went by, the growth of confidence and self belief as strangers from many lands got to know one another and became friends. Many stories were shared, of highs and lows, dramas and tragedies, comedies and farces and all of us had something in common, a desire to share ideas on recovery and to encourage ourselves and others to live more fully.
A wish to have more personal ownership of the lived experience and a determination to be able to do more in managing and maintaining better mental health in the weeks, months and years ahead.
My own role kept me very busy, often I was last to my bed and first person awake.
(let´s face it, who could really sleep in when Percy decides to greet the dawn in his inimitable style?) I didn´t know these birds call call so loudly and so regularly.
Along with others, I gave a couple of talks, the first, of famous voice hearers who changed our world and then a lecture on sacred geometry and the power of pyramids.
I spoke with folk who needed a little time or an ear to listen and cooked a huge vegetable curry in the mens` bunkhouse which was enjoyed by many, including the adjacent girls who, on smelling the sweet aromas drifting down the hallway, turned up and knocked the door, holding paper plates and bowls to ask, like Oliver Twist, for a serving and then back again to ask for even more!
I was asked to give a final Zen blessing to the camp and was honoured to end our week together with a short speech to send us all on with the lamps of hope and possibility lit and taken with us to our respective countries, continents and homes.
It was so nice to meet with people who came to last years`Scotland camp and made the journey south to reconvene. Lovely also to work with an amazing team of "elders", who, frankly, never stopped working and did everything and anything that was asked of them. Hats off to you all, you led by example.
I got to hang out and chat with folk from Thrive in Edinburgh who do great work and spent a happy fireside late night hour sharing tales of my travels and cosmic misadventures with Kermit Cole from "Mad in America" and am now asked to blog for that brilliant and provocative website in the coming weeks and months.
We are here to serve! The team of Elders at Recovery Camp 2016
Ron, Marius, Sondra and Luc leading from the front
Bluegrass boys with a slice of saucy Devon humour.
We had locally based holistic healing Angels on site too.
Reiki, massage and even Gong baths which all proved very popular. Below is a mass "bathing" in action and a very powerful experience for realigning and relaxing our energies. Thank you ladies!
My own takeaway on these camps? They work.
When folk come together, discard unhelpful and stigmatising labels and self limiting ideas, venture into a new space, meet others who treat them as equals in the game of life and share what has worked for them in recovering good mental health, something special happens that cannot happen in the same way in institutional settings mired in institutional thinking.
Recovery becomes more than just a word on a hospital document, more than a concept considered hard to achieve by folk who rarely witness it in their own daily practice.
It becomes a reality and that, dear friends, is the power of the Healing Wheel. See you next time around!
We won´t pretend it was easy. Making changes to the way you relate to voice hearing experiences and their impact on your life can be a challenge for sure.
Importantly, Katy wanted change. She was fed up being stuck in a cycle of service dependancy and personal despair and feeling that her life ahead was already predestined as a patient.
Initially, she didn´t have any real expectations of recovery and had a label of schizophrenia that even health professionals believe holds little prospect for improvement. It seems that managing symptoms via medication for life is the best "we" can do and this requires acceptance of a reality that, in my opinion, minimises options for any real and lasting improvements in the quality of a person´s life.
But, Katy took her time and thought about what she wanted. She read the books I had recommended on managing voices and looked at the coping ideas that have already worked for others. She grew her gentle determination little by little.
Making a voice profile and keeping a voices diary gave her some insights into her experiences and allowed her some power and autonomy to make decisions that no one had ever suggested were possible before.
She began to select times in the day when she told herself and her voices that she would not be available to listen. And during these windows, she booked herself into a yoga group and a mindfulness meditation class. When her voices spoke at any point during these times she asked them to go away, reminding them that she would make herself available at the designated time. And when that time came, she kept her part of the bargain.
If they persisted, she instructed them to leave her alone, and, if they still persisted, she ordered them away. In her mind she visualised the voices and even got a notepad in order to sketch out their faces. Then she could imagine them more easily and was able to visualise herself holding a ray gun that emitted a beam of light and she "zapped" them.
She also set herself some useful boundaries and determined to not pay attention to voices at specific places or when doing certain activities. And with this in mind, she began to take a little more control of her experiences, in turn growing her autonomy and self confidence. Katy still used her medication as directed but expressed a wish to reduce her dependency on drugs over time. She suggested a six month period of slow and subtle reductions and agreed she would discuss this with her doctor. She would self moniter her moods, thoughts and feelings and have regular contact with him to report in any difficulties.
The next step was to identify first an ally, someone outside the medical circle, and secondly, someone who might be available for an agreed weekly phone chat especially if there were moments of high anxiety. Katy had to think hard as she was somewhat isolated socially and hadn´t been in regular contact with family members but, she sent an email to her cousin in Prague, setting out her objectives and bringing her up to speed with events in her life and how she was determined to make improvements. She asked for some support.
She sent a guide to coping with voices and some useful links to websites and asked if her cousin thought she would be able to provide a little moral support in the coming weeks if it was structured as laid out above. Katy described her ambitions to have a fuller life and to be more in control of her experiences and she knew that this was likely more possible with some support. Her cousin was delighted to hear from her again and after so long and yes, she was happy to do this. They agreed to talk on Skype and it went well. She had an ally!
Negotiating and instructing voices came with challenges too. The voices did not like and were not used to being asked or instructed to go away, even with a promise of Katy being available at another time of the day to be present and to listen. Sometimes the cruel taunts and insults from her two negative voices simply got worse. One voice, named "John" constantly taunted her and belittled her efforts to assume more control. He used foul and sarcastic language and in this early part of her experience, he became angrier.
I advised the Three Ps : Patience, Persistence and Power.
If Katy could hear this voice and be patient in the knowledge that her lived experience and situation might change for the better. If she persisted, rather than surrender under pressure, we agreed she would have a better chance of success, however that might be defined. Finally, she recognised that she was growing slowly into a place of increased power.
By taking actions and putting together a tool kit of responses, by researching ideas that have helped other critical voice hearers and by tapping into her own reservoirs of determination and desire for change, she was letting the voices know that something was about to change and that this were definitely happening!
And this was the stimulus for the hostile reactions of her voices. It was a sign of progress and a recognition of a shift taking place in the power relationship that Katy had with her voice hearing experiences and by extention, with herself.
Let´s take a quick look at her most dominating and negative voice, "John". This was the most damaging and influential voice, the voice that had driven Katy to hide within her rooms and within herself.
When we looked at Johns comments and criticisms, I asked Katy where in her life history did this voice come from?
He was highly critical and sometimes very angry, often telling her how useless she was.
Katy once had a boyfriend who had been very manipulative and controlling and often used her emotions to make himself seem necessary and vital in running her life.
He used to read her phone records and emails and hacked himself into her facebook and bank accounts. It turned out that these were traits he had learned, partly, from his own father, who had found out that his wife had been seeing another man secretly for many years. He was always suspicious of women in general and intrusive from that point on to the point of paranoia.
But this was a trait that the father took on after he became divorced with other potential partners. When it became too much for them to cope with, Johns father would recall being badly hurt emotionally and get very angry, often saying that men "should never trust women" and that " they will always leave you".
And John, on growing from a boyhood without a mother, had absorbed this painful psychological energy filled with feelings of loss and themes of betrayal.
Getting the real John out of her life had proven very difficult. He was emotionally volatile and reacted to suggestions that they should think of splitting up by hardening his attitude, using verbal threats of aggression and turning up unexpectedy at social events and even at her house when she had guests, often sitting outside in his car and watching the house, who came and who went.
Sometimes her friends reported that they had seen him driving slowly around the neighbourhood and this made Katy feel very nervous and quite afraid. She began to recieve texts and messages describing her actions, where she had been and who she had been with. Friends advised that she consider calling the police. But she found this very hard to do and simply hoped the whole thing would somehow stop. Eventually, it took a court action and several police warnings to keep John from contacting her any more.
So, "John" was a voice like an echo from the past. We identified a healing opportunity and Katy did some reading on forgiveness and self-forgiveness too. She started using meditation and mindfulness practices and read several books on self-esteem and personal development. She switched from sugar filled drinks complete with artificial chemical flavours to a healthier diet of fresh fruit and more vegetables and started cleaning the kitchen so she could cook again. The microwave was placed in a cupboard, out of sight.
Katy was determined to regulate her life a little more, so with this in mind, she walked more during the day and bought herself a track suit. Within a week she had jogged in the park and consequently began to lose a little weight. She went to bed earlier, awoke earlier, treated herself regularly to a warm soak in a bath filled with relaxing herbal oils, listened to relaxing music videos and talks on Zen and spirituality. She bought a smoothie maker and her skin began to shine a little. She felt more positive and more powerful, so much so that, after six weeks on this regime, her doctor agreed to support a small and gradual reduction in medication use. To his mind, the visible changes were due to the effectiveness of the prescribed medication. Of course, this also may have been true. Katy didnt think so.
Katy was surprised that the lesser negative voices sometimes stopped on first request. Even if she had to reiterate her instructions to go away at times. And she always kept her part of the agreement to allow some time for listening but, we agreed she would reduce the listening time and expand the "no voice times" over the coming weeks and months.
When the voice of John kept nagging away one day and laughing at her efforts to make improvements she told me that she had finally had enough, that this voice always tried to ruin everything and saying she would amount to nothing and that she really ought to end it now and go kill herself.
"So I got really angry as I saw that everything else was starting to go really well in my life, and in my house while I was getting ready to go to meditation I shouted at him :
"Listen...Are you stupid or something?
If you want to be able to talk to me it means you must need me. You cannot talk to me if I am not here any more. If I look after myself and keep myself fit I will live longer and you will have your companion for longer so...I am going to my class and then to coffee with a friend afterwards so...SHUT UP!"
"And what happened next? I asked her. A pause. "He was silent. Just a deafening silence. I was elated and surprised because, you know, this voice is all the time chattering and moaning, calling me names. I could not believe I had made him quiet. I was a little shocked to be honest."
We agreed that this was a breakthough of sorts and worthy of celebration! Katy decided to go dancing for the evening and I poured a small glass of cold German beer.
I wonder how the weeks to follow will be....stay tuned!
Katy was very ill.
At least that´s what her email told me. And that´s what she believed to be true. And why wouldn´t she?
She had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2009 and was currently hearing multiple voices, some of them critical and wounding in their comments. Their impact on her life was quite profound.
She had a few nicer voices too but these were heard less regularly.
Until she became unwell she had been very active, enjoying yoga, meditation classes, and a keen art student , attending a local college and hoping one day to pursue a career as an artist herself.
She was talented and enthusiastic and looking to to build a bright future, a 23 year old woman living in a large Irish west coast town and with everything to live for and look forward to. But then things changed.
Her life became more difficult as her father died after a long illness and her first real relationship of importance was also taken away by an unhappy accident to her partner. And all within a few months.
Naturally enough she became sad and even quite profoundly depressed. Her studies fell away, she felt worthless and her self esteem sank to rock bottom. She became estranged from her mother, moving out of the family home after a huge argument and taking on her own apartment.
Now she was responsible for paying the rent and, without her supportive father to help her out and support her a little, she gave up her studies and dropped out of college for a part time job.
Yes, she felt anxious and even disappointed. It was a knock to her hopes but, temporarily, it was the way it was and would be.
She felt she had to prioritise keeping a roof over her head as it became clearer that her relationship with her mother didn't look like it was healing any time soon and going back home was no longer any kind of option.
She somehow knew that she needed to push on, regardless of where this path would lead her.
And that was when her voices first began.
In social isolation, in a new town, a new job and arriving home exhausted from a demanding day, she began to drink in order to decompress and relax a little.
The new job had its' built in stresses too, not least a somewhat bullying office manager who'd been there many years and who ran the place as something of a personal fiefdom.
She had a habit of projecting her stresses onto junior staff members and was very critical if they didn't get things right first time, a characteristic and quirk of personality that Angela remembered from her overly critical and emotionally cold mother.
A mother she had tried to foster a loving relationship with, but was too often repaid with sarcasm and cutting comments. Never a great incentive to keep on trying to fix things between them, it took the wind out of her sails and left her feeling worthless and unvalued and, eventually, she learned to withdraw from emotional contact in order to keep herself emotionally safe.
Initially, I knew none of this background story. I simply read an email asking me to help with hearing voices. I was careful to point out that I´m not a therapist and could not heal this young lady but...If she was willing to do some work, I would support her and then? Well, who knew what was possible?
She said she was in a mess, taking extended sick time off work and worrying about losing her job. On a combination of anti depressants and anti psychotic medication, none of which she felt helped very much, she had gained a lot of weight and hated her body, how she looked and how she felt about herself. She told her psychiatrist that her voices were gone in an effort to avoid further increases in medication. This is more common then you might think.
Katy often sat for hours in a darkened apartment, a radio and the tv both turned on in an effort to drown out her voices. The critical voices laughed at her, decried her ability to be a success in life and worse, they told her she was worthless and barely deserved to be alive. And it was at this specific point, considering suicide, with no one she felt she could talk to, that she came by chance across my website. We emailled and then Skyped and I wondered if I could help her to make some sense of her confusing experiences. If she was willing to try, well, so was I.
What Katy did next.
First of all, we kept it simple.
I asked Katy to make a list of her voices and in order of priority, depending on how often they were heard. I asked her to identify if voices had specific characteristics, i.e were they exclusively p.ositive, negative or neutral regarding content and if they gave mixed messages. Were they guiding or cautionary voices, abusive or demanding. Or just plain annoying?
Her email arrived and she realised that we were effectively mapping out her voices and externalising an internal experience. No one had suggested she do this before.
I asked her to identify which voices she cared to keep and which she would like to eradicate, if it was possible to do this. A question she had never been asked, as normal psychiatric orthodoxy discourages voice hearers from engaging with and exploring any possible meaning inherent in the voices that they hear.
She was able to think about her voices in a new way as we did a little analysis of the comments they made. Had she heard these criticisms before in her past? Who made them? Were they in any way related to her feelings about herself?
Katy agreed to keep a voices diary and to write a little at the end of each day of her experiences. What voice came forward and where she was when it happened. How did this voice make her feel and what did she usually do in response.
In this exercise, she was able to identify activities and thoughts and feelings that increased her stress levels so she agreed to look at simple breathing exercises to help reduce stress and decided to go to the stores at a later part of the evening when there was less busy traffic on the road, the buses were quieter and the supermarket only had a few tills open.
This meant fewer shoppers and less loud announcements on the store loudspeakers. In other words, it was a quiter experience and didn't trigger anxiety. It can be hard hearing voices and trying to focus and concentrate on tasks, so making some alterations to schedules and avoiding "hot spots" is very helpful.
We looked at dietary improvements, less sugary drinks and artificial additives in food, more fruits and vegetables. She had fallen into poor habits which she agreed to address. We all are beginning to learn that food affects our mood and we saw this as a part of building a toolkit for better health.
I recommended Gloria Steinem and her inspiring book on self esteem "Revolution from Within", so that she might work a little on self perception and increasing self love and acceptance. And that , if possible, she could choose an ally among her small circle of friends who might be willing and able to offer a little support and be trusted to hear a little of her challenges and efforts to recover some quality of life.
We agreed to skype once a week and that emails could be used as and when she needed to share further realisations or ask any questions. I sent her the rather brilliant "Coping with Voices" guide from the Hearing Voices Network and asked her to take a look. It's filled with insightful tips and hints on managing challenging voices that have proved useful for other voice hearers. She could read it and choose which strategies and ideas she would care to try.
This is also very liberating when a person can see that others have had these challenging experiences and that sometimes, something might be done about resolving them.
MAKING THE LEAP
It was time for action and Katy had made some decisions. After looking through the coping with voices guide, she chose a selction of tactics to manage her experiences more effectively. She said that she knew one thing for sure, she didn't want to go on as she was.
So here was her "battle plan", reviewable with me at the end of each week. Her cousin had agreed to be her ally locally and to check in with her on progress, challenges and feelings about how she was doing via phone calls at agreed times and a weekly visit. I sent cousin some basic info on hearing voices so that she felt prepared a little and not too out of her depth.
Week 1 : Asking the voices to go away.
Week 2 : Instructing the voices to go away
week 3 : Ordering voices away.
We thought she sould set some boundaries and try selective listening, telling herself to focus on listening more to the voices she preferred and ignoring the others. We would try to alter the pattern of voice hearing in this way and break up the total wall of voices that had become predominant. It would be a process and there would likely be resistance from the negative voices but, what did she have to lose in trying?
Also, she agreed certain times of the day where she would tell the voices to go away and come back later at a more "convenient" time where she was willing to pay attention. If they spoke during the times she wished to be voice free, she was to remind them of the allocated time and then use the requesting, instructing and ordering model of persuading them to be quiet and to go away. ( This started to become more effective in week three)
Slowly, and with determination, persistence and patience with herself and with her voices, Angela realised that she was starting to taking back control of her experiences and exercise her personal autonomy more effectively. That she had a tool kit of possibilities to dip into and utilise. And some allies to support her journey. This, in itself boosted her self confidence and she began to grow.
She tidied her flat, cleaned up and bought fresh fruit and vegeatables as well as a smoothie maker, She reduced her sugar intake slowly, drinking lemon water and mint teas. She began to think about wanting to get healty and get back to work so started looking to job vacancies as well as college courses. She started to do breathing relaxation exercises.
She ordered a brilliant and inspiring book by Marius Romme, "Living with Voices" (50 stories of recovery) and began to read of other individuals who had made a success of overcoming negative voice hearing experiences.
And of the annoying voices refused to go away? Well, she visualised a ray gun and "zapped" them out of existence.
Now, all this meant that she did talk to and engage with her voices at times. She decided also to keep two voices and wished to eliminate or reduce the presence of the two critical and cynical voices. We had drawn up a table or profile of her voices, the names they had and their general content and after some deliberation she made her decisions. One nice voice was her dead grandmother, who had often looked after her as a child when mom and dad were busy fighting with one another. This was a consoling and protecting voice and caused Angela no distress at all.
The other was an unnamed young girls voice and Angela felt on reflection that this was somehow an aspect of her younger self that spoke of her need to grow and flourish, even though it was sometimes critical and told her she was hopeless too.Maybe even this voice would diminish if she could get her life back on the tracks and feel more positive about herself? So, this one too was a "keeper", at least for now.
It meant that we were going to deal with managing the two hugely horrible and critical voices, both male and both related to real people she had known in her past. The work of recovery had begun!
Part two to follow...
Activist/ Health worker/ 20 years. Specific interests : wellness/ voice hearing/ coping/ exploring/ sharing/ stigma reduction.