If you sat next to me on my commute to work the only thing that might seem odd is my blue hair, yet there is so much about me that might surprise you. Wherever I go, I’m accompanied by around 13 different voices. You won’t see me speaking out loud to them, but they’re there. These voices are such a part of my existence that I find it hard to imagine what it’s like for those of you who don’t hear them. What’s it like to have such a quiet mind?
The voices I hear most often, named ‘The Three’, keep an ongoing commentary of my life which is punctuated by comments about how others will hurt me. Their level of knowledge about my life led me to believe, at first, that they were watching me through cameras. Now I recognise that they are there to, misguidedly, protect me from connecting with others.
Rather than take them at face value, I use them as a prompt to check in with myself and determine whether there’s a reason I might feel anxious or unsafe. By replying to them, in my head, and thanking them for their concern I’m able to remind myself that I’m strong and have more power than they do.
Another voice, ‘Blue’, is young and playful. I began to hear her after slowly withdrawing from the medication doctors prescribed me to quieten the voices. At first, she was incredibly sad. After a lot of work, things have changed. She has a sense of curiosity and fun that I value. It’s like travelling around with a three-year-old by your side. I’ve learnt a toolbox of strategies to settle her down when she’s upset, including watching YouTube videos of wombats. These are skills that serve me well as an aunt: my iPad is a treasure trove of youth-friendly gems.
It’s not all plain sailing. I also hear an intimidating group of voices I call the ‘Not Yets’ who talk about hurting me and tell me to hurt others. These kind of voices strike fear into the hearts of the general public; unsurprising, considering the stereotypical media depictions of mental illness and violence. I would never act on these commands, recognising that these voices also have a message for me to understand. However, learning to listen to them takes courage and is something I’m still working on.
Sow Ay illustration's on mental health - In picutres
I learnt this relational approach to living with voices through the Hearing Voices Movement. Prior to this I was completely overwhelmed by them, believing that I was at the centre of a conspiracy and watched by cameras 24/7. Despite the support of my family, I spent long periods of time in hospital and took zombie-inducing doses of medication. At my lowest ebb I tried to take my own life; the diagnosis of schizophrenia, and later schizoaffective disorder, seemed to symbolise a future with no hope of recovery.
When I started attending a Hearing Voices Group, however, the friendships I made were an antidote to the loneliness of living in a world others deemed as “delusional”, encouraging me to discover long-forgotten strengths and abilities. Most importantly, I began to understand my voices and beliefs as a meaningful response to trauma: the childhood abuse I had hidden from my parents, sisters and friends. I began to listen more metaphorically to the voices, as one might seek meaning in a bad dream.
My journey has instilled in me a passion for creating spaces where people in distress can feel heard, accepted and be supported to narrate their own story. I have worked to develop projects for children, young people and people in prison who hear voices at Mind in Camden. Now, as well as studying for an MSc by Research in Psychology, I work in the NHS as part of a new Open Dialogue Service in Kent.
Being part of this team fills me with pride. We are breaking new ground, working with families and social networks from initial crisis to recovery. It’s early days, but I’m hearing how valued my dual role as practitioner and survivor is to those we work with. My peers and I are part of a new movement that blurs the lines between the so-called “well” and “ill”. It’s a human response to a human issue.
You might think that I’ve survived, or still suffer from, a severe mental illness. That is not my story, and it’s one of the biggest insults you could throw at me. As difficult as my experiences have been, calling them symptoms of an illness strips them of meaning and places the problem squarely inside of me – not in the things that have happened to me.
Those of us who end up in the mental health system have often been subject to abuse, bullying, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, racism and the effects of living in a world that can be contradictory and crazy-making. Rather than address these social causes of distress, labelling them as pathological allows the status quo to continue. It’s an injustice we need to face.Reuse content