Challenging Voices

How I wish that the terrible things which I will describe herein had never occurred, and yet they did. While an element of the imaginary was present in how I perceived the voices that began to speak to me in the summer of 2012, the fact is that I did not simply conjure them from nothing but imagination and ideas; they were real and still are.

I read the beginning of a book entitled Living With Voices which is written and edited by Romme, Escher, Dillon, Carstens and Morris, which features the stories of many who hear voices that others do not hear. In that book, one of the authors stated that we should not act as though the voices are not truly there. I agree with that idea, a very important proposition.

How can the voices I hear be real? Are they from God, the Devil or some other invisible being? I certainly thought they were, but where I think they come from is somewhat irrelevant because they are still there. They still bother me, usually on many occasions day and night, and have been there at least once a day, without fail, I believe, for over three years. They are, whether you like, loathe or do not even consider the fact, a part of my life.

So, now that we’ve established that they exist in some way or another, let’s try to look back to the initial stages of these voices’ appearance on my mental landscape in order to clarify my description of what took place initially. In his 1997 novel Enduring Love, Ian McEwan says, “The beginning is simple to mark.” One of my English teachers, who helped me study the novel, doubted that this statement was true. Regardless of whether or not my teacher, when he voiced this doubt, spoke of all beginnings of tragic events or just the one in the opening of Enduring Love, I agree with his challenge, and the beginning of psychosis – something which has varying definitions, but is defined by Oxford English Dictionary as a “severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality” — is, at least in my experience, not easy to mark. I cannot even tell for sure whether the voices are a psychotic symptom or the result or something like obsessive compulsive disorder, with which I have been diagnosed.

However difficult it is to define the beginning or cause of the voices’ presence, I considered the episode’s starting point to be when I asked God for wisdom according to the biblical verses now known as James 1:5-8, and apparently received an answer from God in response to each request. That, one might argue, is a clear beginning and attribution of the voices to a particular source, and yet within my complicated and troubled psyche lay something of a history of delusions and unlikely events, which probably could also be called psychotic symptoms, including theories about a vast, systemic conspiracy, which I often believed was demonic and/or state-sponsored in nature. These happenings blur the lines of my chronology.

Added to these perhaps more obvious delusion was something that many may contend is very much not a psychotic belief: the idea that God speaks to us through feelings. However, some would see this belief and maybe even belief in the existence of God as signs of mental illness because some would argue that these ideas go completely against evidence. Therefore the fact that I held such a belief certainly demonstrates that it is not easy, at least for me and likely for many others as well, to identify when I first experienced psychosis, whether the belief about God speaking through feelings is actually a psychotic symptom or not. The beginning is not the only thing which is not “simple to mark”; the middle and end are also difficult to define or foresee.

One thing that was not hard to identify, both at the time for those that knew about the voices I experienced and also for myself in hindsight, was the extremely negative impact that the voices were having upon my life. They often told me to kill myself, and have, because of this and for other reasons, led to several hospital admissions and periods of serious illness, or maybe one continuous period lasting until the time of writing. While much of what I believed or did was probably not approved by the authors of the Bible, I still thought, for most of a long period of time, that the voices I heard were indeed giving me the words of God. This was, I was sure, in line with biblical teachings, no matter how insane the content of the command hallucinations I experienced would sound to a person more rational than myself.

My story is not unique in the history of humanity. Beliefs regarding very negative or unhelpful voices, and the terrible impact of them, whether they are caused by psychosis or something else, are a constant threat to others as well as me. Although I am not a scientist, I would like to make a recommendation based on my own experience and the thoughts of others who are more qualified than I am in the field of psychology. Talking about or, more specifically, challenging the negative voices, whether it be the voices you hear or the voices of others, is crucial, as is the even more important process of looking at the foundation that they are built upon.

To use another illustration from my journey, it is only after my religious convictions about the Bible on which I based my beliefs about the voices were challenged by friends (and not for the first time) that I began on the road to recovery and freedom from the voices’ grip. That is not to say that the Bible or Christianity certainly justified or necessitated my beliefs about the voices. On the contrary, some might say they speak very much against many of my ideas which I held at the time of my psychotic experience. I mean that, like all things, those beliefs should be challenged as part of rational inquiry, whether or not the entities or beliefs under scrutiny support such logical activity or not.

It is important to avoid the propagation of irrational beliefs about the voices, but we should not altogether cease talking about the voices or the related beliefs. It is no use knowing on some level that the voices are real, but acting as though they are not real by refusing to talk about or challenge them appropriately. In my case, such a battle certainly was essential, whether I liked it or not. The process of recovery and the rebuilding of my mental well-being was and still is a hard quest, but I believe I am winning it, despite suffering many setbacks and knowing that in reality the voices are still here. The end may not be in sight, but light is coming into view.

Yes, as the proliferation of wars and detaining demonstrate, attempts to rationalize with some individuals often fail. However, that does not mean that we – even those who experience voices most painfully – should give up.



This essay is nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Submissions deadline Dec 5. Contest Rules.