Only a robot would not gulp at the frightened angel who appeared online: “I have heard ‘voices’ my whole life,” Alexandra pleads. “I am twelve, so yes, I am still a child. When I was really little, I used to talk to them but I have grown out of that. Instead of the voices fading away, they have gotten louder. It's like being in an airport in my head! I have been too scared to tell anyone until recently. I haven't tried to make them out. If anyone has any tips, I'd love them!”
Swiftly came the reply from Paul Baker, a man who hears voices himself and runs the Intervoice self-help site for those who suffer from auditory, or verbal, hallucinations. He bounced the kid over to the section on children and voices. “Lots of people have told us that their voices get louder when they try to ignore them, so this is not unusual,” he reassured her. “The good news is that for most people of your age, the voices do go away after a while and there is help available too. I have passed on your message to someone who has done a lot of work with people of your age who hear voices. Hopefully she will be able to say something more."
My heart aches for Alexandra, but I'm so glad she found this site. Reading between the lines, I suspect the adult world has scolded her, insisting her voices are "nothing." That must be the last thing to say to a kid in the clutches of hallucinations. How sad that a child like this should spend her 12 small years on the sharp end of "it's nothing."
When a child is terrorized by voices—a hallucinatory nightmare more common than most would care to admit—then she suffers in silence. Were she driven delusional by the experience, which is like having five radios in your head, all blaring at once--an experience that would drive any of us around the bend--then society might dub her a “schizo” and forget her forever, a life gone before it is possessed. This is a human rights tragedy on a vast scale, vastly ignored.
Baker’s response is the exception that proves the rule. For the longest time, it was deemed irresponsible, even dangerous, to engage the voices. Now, led by the hearing voices movement, with a strong assist from the online community, the ground has shifted beneath psychiatry’s feet.
Not that psychiatry has ever denied the experience--it has not quite known how to handle it. Going back to Socrates, history is replete with examples of those who’ve heard disembodied voices, as opposed to the voices that we all hear, the first-person voices of the superego.
Until a millennium ago, this non-ordinary state of consciousness might have elevated your social position. In tribal societies it still accords shaman status. But today most of the “schizo” voice hearers are passed unnoticed, mumbling to invisible head friends, sleeping on heating grates, poking through rubbish bins for the meager rotten winter meal.
This is the sorry state for too many of America’s 2.4 million people diagnosed with schizophrenia—shunned and shamed and given wide berth by the rest of us. Alexandra was on her way to joining their ranks, a lifetime wandering the urban wilderness, or, worse maybe, slouched in the dark corners of some drab, lifeless institutional setting. This was her certain lot when an online lifeline pulled her back.
While supportive psychiatry once seemed to end, as a practical matter, at the far side of clinical depression, more shrinks these days are encouraging their schizophrenic clients to “dialogue” with their voices. The therapeutic technique has been ignored in the past, I suspect, because the phenomenon is beyond the ability of most psychiatrists to understand or to know.
You can't blame them for that. Yet voice hearers, together, know, and that’s why they are finding comfort together in meetings of the Hearing Voices Network, found through the Intervoice online clearinghouse. The appetite for answers, says Baker, is voracious, and they'd all much rather be known as voice hearers than schizophrenics. The label itself is disabling.
All but the most hidebound psychiatrist are now content more or less as sideline observers at these meetings. As part of the new psycho-social-spiritual medical model for recovery, psychotropic meds are being augmented and in some cases replaced by meetings.
Setting aside a place where voice hearers can speak to each other without judgment is the lynchpin of their daily recovery. Of course, there’s a big difference between communicating with others online and meeting in person to share experience, strength, hope and practical coping tips in the flesh. It knits trust and promotes fellowship, a kinship born of common suffering and mutual healing.
Voice hearers--getting to know each other in small meetings sprinkled throughout Europe and, in the last two years, America too finally--are taking their cues from the substance abuse recovery movement. Their "recovery" not their “cure” is the new watchword.
Back online there’s a Jason who has joined Alexandra’s Intervoice thread. Jason says he hears two little old ladies gossiping incessantly to each other. “When I try and concentrate and listen to what they have to say, they know I am listening and tend to "SHHHHH!!!" and stop talking. To me, this implies that they are talking about me, but of what and why, I have no idea.”
Ron, a middle aged man, has voices that claim to be dead relatives. “At other times they just gather around while I play games on my computer and have chosen teams to see if they can win.”
A woman named Holly says she tries not to let her voices get her down. “Sometimes I feel very angry about it because it makes me different than everyone else. Feeling like I have to ‘pretend’ I don't have a problem in the world makes my voices very angry.”
The new open-mindedness is encouraging. It’s also nice to see more professionals pushing more clients toward meetings, reaching less reflexively for the prescription pad.
A condition dubbed by the World Health Organization as the world’s fourth most disabling needs desperately to come out of the closet. Beyond America's 2.4 million schizophrenics, there’s tens of millions who hear voices intermittently and never develop full blown psychosis. They need to come out of the closet too.
If verbal hallucination is no longer a step beyond psychiatry’s comfort zone, then it’s likely to remain the twilight zone for most ordinary folks. They have no clue that this highly developed world of voices is out there.
Dr. Phil or Oprah Winfrey have no time for it yet, but they will. The movement is too ripe, the need too great, for voice hearers to be put in the corner forever. There is a place for them around our national campfire. Someday we might even see a 5K Run for Schizophrenia. Until then, it's a relief to know that one hurting kid has been caught in time. I wish her well on her journey. May she have a lovely, lifelong recovery.