National Empowerment Center - Articles
Hearing voices that are distressing: Self-help resources and strategies
The National Empowerment Center has a complete curriculum where participants have a simulated experience of what people who hear voices go through on a daily basis.
I have been a voice hearer since childhood, but it was not until my adolescence that I was hospitalized for hearing voices that were distressing. For many years I felt isolated and stigmatized for carrying a label of mental illness and for hearing voices that continued to be distressing for me. Psychiatric drugs did not make my voices "go away" although there were times when I was so drugged I didn't care about anything, including what the voices had to say. Therapists showed little interest in my voice hearing experiences. In fact, during the seventeen years that I was labeled and treated for schizophrenia, my therapists called my voice hearing experiences "auditory hallucinations". They seemed to view my voice hearing experience as nothing but the random fluctuation of neurotransmitters in my brain. In essence they viewed my "auditory hallucinations" as evidence of some sort of "neurotransmitter meltdown".
This attitude of ignoring voice hearers' experience is quite prevalent in the helping professions. For instance, when I consult to programs that provide services to people who hear voices that are distressing, I find it remarkable that staff know so little about the individual's experience. For example, I recently consulted with staff that work in a residential program with a man who hears distressing voices for approximately 80% of his waking hours. This man has been hearing distressing voices for over ten years. Yet if you look at his record all it says is: "Has auditory hallucinations that sometimes command him to hurt himself". In ten years of treatment no one has explored the voice hearing experience with this individual. No staff person has thought to inquire if the voices are male or female. Do they speak English? Are there helpful voices as well as distressing voices? How do you understand the existence of these voices? Are there one or many voices? When do the voices come and when don't they come? Do you have any personal power in relation to the voices-i.e., can you communicate with them, can you reason or bargain with them, can you turn your attention away from them and get involved with another activity, can you tell them you will talk with them later in the evening, etc.?
Indeed, hearing voices seems to be stigmatized not only in the wider Western culture, but also within the mental health community as well. It seems that as a general rule, most mental health staff feel it is taboo to inquire into the voice hearing experience of the people they work with. Of course such stigma and taboo only serve to further isolate those of us who hear voices that are distressing.
The good news is that voice hearers themselves have begun to organize and speak out about the voice hearing experience. Two excellent books:
Hearing Voices: A Self-Help Guide and Reference Book (1993) by John Watkins, Melbourne, Australia. Available online.
Accepting Voices (1998) by Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, MIND Publications, London. These authors have done pioneering work in the areas of listening to the experiences of voice hearers and helping to bring them together to share life strategies. Available online.
There are self-help groups run by and for voice hearers in Europe and now the United States. These groups hold regular meetings to share experiences, publish newsletters, hold conferences, share information and educate professionals and the general public. Hearing Voices groups do not pathologize the experience of hearing voices or experiencing other altered/extreme states, instead they ask what does the experience mean to you?
Through these resources and networks voice hearers are beginning to let the world know that not all experiences of hearing voices are pathological or indicative of mental illness. Many people in Western Judeo/Christian culture have heard voices, including St. Paul, Joan of Arc, St. Francis, Socrates, William Blake, George Fox (founder of the Quakers), the classical music composer Robert Schumann and the psychiatrist Carl Jung. Hearing voices does not automatically mean you are "sick". However, there are clearly voice hearing experiences that can be very distressing and can disrupt our lives and ability to work, make friends, reach our personal goals, etc. Voice hearers are beginning to learn from each other how to creatively cope with and/or eliminate distressing voices. We are learning that we do no have to be victims of our distressing voices. Some self help strategies include these:
There are many, many other self-help techniques for helping to control or eliminate distressing voices. Perhaps you have found some things that work for you. If so, please feel free to write to me and let me know what works for you. I'll keep publishing self help ideas as they come in. Just write your ideas to: our contact form located at www.power2u.org/contact.html.
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