Jamie was the epitome of the girl next door. Blonde and wide-eyed with a smile that shone bright enough to light her face and yours, she was a good student, a decent gymnast, and only a little bit shy. She’d lived all of her life in the same house in a small northwest Chicago suburb, and her family was Midwestern to the core. They drank milk with dinner and took walks in the evenings together.
To look at Jamie, you’d have thought she was healthy and happy. Maybe you’d have wondered about her eating habits—she counted every calorie and each gram of fat and carbohydrate, and she did seem just a little on the thin side. But worrying about body issues and self-esteem may have simply been Jamie’s reaction to the pressures of teenage life, and no real indication of what would come next. She was an American teenage girl, after all, and it isn’t easy. Everyone expects you to be perfect.
When Jamie started college, things began to change. Her normally charming self who’d so easily breezed through high school AP classes began to withdraw. No one noticed at first—no one really knew her well, and she and her roommate weren’t close—but soon she wasn’t returning her parents’ calls and they became concerned. By the end of her first semester, Jamie was failing all of her classes; she wasn’t showing up. Then in late November, she was discovered by an RA out in the snow in the middle of the night, wearing only pajamas and cutting herself with a razor. When asked later why she’d chosen to harm herself, she’d explained that the voices had demanded it.
Jamie was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. It took several months of in-patient treatment for a team of doctors and staff to find anything that worked for her, and in the meantime, she suffered. Sometimes she experienced grandiose delusions—that she was an angel sent by God, for example—and other times she was tormented by terrible voices. Jamie explained to staff that the voices wanted her to harm herself or others and that they often sounded demonic.
She spent several months living back at home with her parents and attending group meetings and solo therapy sessions each week. She’d been doing relatively well and had learned to call her doctor whenever her medication appeared to no longer be working so that he could adjust the dosage or switch her prescription and try something new. But Jamie’s medication and therapy didn’t have time to work. She committed suicide in April of her 20th year. Her sister explained that she’d been fine for several months but the delusions and voices had returned, and Jamie believed something was “too wrong” with her to be fixed. She’d believed there was no hope of recovery.
Hearing Voices Movement
More than 25 years ago, a movement by and for people who hear voices was founded. The Hearing Voices Movement broke ground as a result of the work of two researchers, Professor Marius Romme and Dr. Sandra Escher. Romme and Escher’s work called for a shift in the way psychiatry dealt with the phenomenon of voice hearing; rather than asking “What is wrong with someone who hears voices?” the question became “What has happened to someone who hears voices?” and what can the voices show us about how to help them recover?
Rather than viewing voice-hearing in the traditional way, as a genetic and biomedical anomaly (and hence, as a problem), their view was to change the direction and to conceive of voice-hearing as a natural phenomenon arising in most people as a result of trauma. Their research showed that the majority of people who hear voices have experienced trauma they connected with their voice-hearing.
A Story of Recovery
Eleanor Longden, a member of the Hearing Voices Network, has given a popular TED Talk on her personal experience with schizophrenia and the phenomenon of hearing voices. When Longden was a young college student like Jamie, she began to hear voices as well. She told The Independent, “My family mourned me as if I were dead. They were told that I had a degenerative brain disease and they should prepare themselves for the worst as I might end up in a care home. I was told there was no hope, that there was nothing I could do apart from take medication.”
Although Longden’s voices were accompanied by delusions that she found just as distressing as the multiple voices encouraging her to act in ways which were harmful to her, with the help of many good doctors and her own tenacity and courage, she eventually discovered a way to see her voices as healing rather than harmful. When Longden learned that hearing voices was likely due to childhood trauma, it resonated with her. So she began to listen to the voices—not with what they were literally saying, but with the emotion behind their words. She believed the emotion present, such as the aggression and anger in a particular dominant male voice she heard, was really her own anger at things that had happened to her as a child and which she’d had no control over. She’d suppressed that rage and it had come out the angry voice of someone she believed would be more able to take control.
Longden went on to receive an honors degree in psychology from the University of Leeds, England, and is now working on her Ph.D. She uses what she’s been through to help others who hear voices.
Changing the Conversation
What made a survivor out of Longden was her willingness to attempt to change the conversation with her voices. Instead of battling her voices or running from them, with the help of Dr. Pat Bracken and others, she came to see them as forces for recovery. They could help her acknowledge hidden emotions and situations in her past that she needed to overcome, as well as to access her true feelings in the present moment. When the voices began to berate her as she studied, for example, telling her she could never do it, that she wasn’t good enough, she thanked the voices for giving her a sign that she simply needed to take a break. She’d been working too hard.
Choosing a way to honor the voices without conceding to them allowed her to overcome her diagnosis, and as a result, Longden no longer requires the medication she once needed to control her schizophrenia. Although her success in this area may not be easy to attain—she admits that it took a great deal of work—reframing the conversation in order to see hearing voices as your body and brain’s way of helping you through trauma, rather than as a “problem” or a “disease” you will have to live with forever, is a positive step.
No matter the type of mental illness, we can all begin the process of recovery. There is always hope. The voices may be telling you there isn’t any, but don’t believe them. Instead, ask yourself why you fear failure in the first place? What happened to cause you to give up too soon? Listen for your own answers, and keep going.