4. How to zap voices
How do you zap a voice?
How to zap voices you don’t like
What do you do about voices that are not on your side, which denigrate you and insult you, or interrupt your thoughts, or pander detrimental advice and tell you to do stupid things? The first thing to realise is that although the voice may be intruding on your consciousness, that does not mean that you should blindly do what it says. Would you rush off and commit murder if someone told you to? Absolutely not. People who hear voices have the same right to self-determination as anyone else and you can tell the voices exactly that.
If some of the voices are pleasant and friendly, then clearly you chat to them, and not to the ones who are not. You can tell the unpleasant voices that you find them neither pleasant nor useful, and that you have no reason to tolerate them unless they are both.
What about malevolent voices who can cause acute mental pain and can order you to do things (like staying in and avoiding people)? One solution is to remove as much stress from your life as possible. Not only does stress increase the voices, but it makes them say more unpleasant things. Secondly, do not ignore the voices as they tend to get more aggressive, however at the same time do not let them get away with running your life without your permission.
Why should you listen to this advice about zapping voices, especially as this view of voices is not shared by most psychiatrists? You should listen for two reasons, firstly the advice has been developed from over twentyn years worth of research into the experience of voice hearers by psychiatrists and psychologists in the UK and the Netherlands and, most significantly, the lessons learnt have been consumer tested by voice hearers (see Some facts about voice hearing: 3).
5. The movement
Professor Marius Romme gets a shock and founds a movement
An unusual patient
The starting point for this new way of thinking about hearing voices came at the suggestion of one of Romme’s patients, Patsy Haagan. She said to him: “You believe in a God that no-one can see, so why don’t you believe in the voices that I at least can definitely hear, and are real to me?” Patsy had got her ideas about voices from the theories of an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes who wrote a book called ‘The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bi-cameral Mind’.
The voices talk to the ancient Greeks
The Iliad is a book written by the ancient poet, Homer. It tells of the Trojan Wars, a war caused by the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. She left her husband and ran off to Troy with Paris. Her husband pursued her with all the armies of Greece and Homer wrote the Iliad about the war that followed. Homer frequently describes some Greek god or goddess appearing to a warrior in the middle of the Trojan War and telling him to do something.
Julian Jaynes argues persuasively in his book that, when that happened it was not a metaphorical experience but a real one. The warrior really saw the goddess and heard her words. Jaynes believes that up until about 1300 BC, and before the development of written language, hearing voices was common to all humanity and the experience was all but eradicated by what we now know as consciousness. The people who hear voices today are carriers of an evolutionary residue from this ancient time.
Romme accepted Patsy’s voices and as a consequence invited other people to talk about their experience, and found that although they could talk about their experience they could not help each other. Then Marius and Patsy appeared on a Dutch television programme and talked about voice hearing, asking for people who heard voices to phone in. 450 people rang, and of those 150 people said they were able to cope with their voices without assistance from psychiatry, indeed in some cases were happy to hear voices.
This finding was most surprising and it led to a crucial question. Perhaps the techniques employed by those who coped well with their voices could be used by those who did not? Marius began the study of voice hearers experiences, which continues to this day. He did two more things. He assisted the founding of a movement of voice hearers and organised a conference in order to encourage a broader discussion to change the attitude of society and to try to change the way the voice hearers were treated by the medical profession and especially psychiatrists.
6. What does this research mean for voice hearers?
The implications for psychiatric treatment and a hope of recovery
The traditional medical view about voices
Psychiatrists, nurses, and other professionals have been taught to regard voices as an auditory hallucination, it is usually thought to be part of the symptoms that make up illnesses like schizophrenia. The treatment for people troubled by their voices is most often drugs (like neuroleptics), which can in some cases reduce the anxiety caused by the voices but at the cost of making the person feel sluggish or restless; drugs which may even, it is said, leave the taker with permanent brain damage if taken in high doses over long periods of time.
There are many theories held by psychiatry about what may cause voices, many of them presume that it is part of a psychosis and that it might be caused by some kind of genetic flaw. Generally though, it is presumed that there is not a lot an individual can do for themselves to cope with the voices. Indeed, professionals are taught not to engage voice hearers about the content of their voice experience as this is thought to be “buying in” to the patients delusions and not helpful. Most often professionals will seek to distract the voice hearer from their voices. As you will realise by now this is not a helpful approach. To be told that the voices are just a symptom of an illness, when those voices are as real to you as anything else in the physical world is very disempowering. For example:
George hears voices continuously. The voices are sometimes pleasant, but at other times they say unpleasant things and they interrupt him when he would prefer to concentrate on something happening in the purely physical world, such as an interesting meeting. Often he tries to discuss these voices with members of the medical profession. He wants to discuss what the voices say and the significance of the voices, but he is told they are just a symptom of his illness, to be ignored as best he may. However, he does hear voices that talk about things deeply relevant and meaningful to him. How can he believe that these voices are part of an illness and of no more significance than a sore throat? In an environment where there is active discouragement to talk about the voices from the medical advisors, George is being asked to accept that his own experiences are not relevant.
What Romme says
Romme’s research has come up with a very different answer than the traditional psychiatric view described above. The reason for this, is that Marius developed his understanding of the voice hearing experience by talking to voice hearers themselves and asking them the basic and obvious questions such as: When did the voices start? How many voices do you hear? How often do you hear them? What do you think the voice represents? What do they say? What helps? etc.
Amazingly, these questions had never been asked before in a systematic way and the direct subjective experience of the voice hearer had been largely ignored. Romme came to the conclusion that to regard hearing voices as part of an illness and to ignore the content of the voice hearing experience is largely unhelpful and counter productive – in that ignoring the voices (and long term use of psychiatric drugs) can make the voices worse. It may also be an inaccurate analysis, for outside the world of psychiatry, there are many people who hear voices and manage to live with the experience. Marius concludes that it is not the fact that you hear voices that is the problem, it is the way you deal with them – and further that psychosis, like neurosis, is firmly related to an individual’s life history.
Some facts about voice hearing: 4
Implications for mental health workers
It would be extremely worthwhile for people working in the mental health professions to examine in greater detail which frames of reference and coping strategies seem to be the most useful to patients who hear voices; we might, by doing so, be able to support and assist voice hearers much more effectively in their attempts to deal with their experiences.
The main steps in this process are the following:
To accept the voice hearer’s experience of the voices. The voices are often felt as more intense and real than sensory perceptions.
To try to understand the different languages used by the voice hearer to describe and account for their experiences, as well as the language spoken by the voices themselves. There is often a world of symbols and feelings involved; for example, a voice might speak of light and dark when expressing love and aggression.
To consider helping the individual to communicate with the voices. This may involve issues of differentiating between good and bad voices and of accepting the voice hearer’s own negative emotions. This kind of acceptance may make a crucial contribution to the promotion of self-esteem.
To encourage the voice hearer to meet other people with similar experiences and to read about hearing voices, in order to help overcome isolation and taboo.
For mental health workers these steps may demand a considerable enlargement of clinical perspective, and should broaden the generally accepted theories within the profession.
8. Talk about it: a hearing voices checklist
Talking about voices can really help. The following key points provide a useful guide to opening up discussion about the voice hearing experience.
1. Open discussion
People who hear voices find themselves having to deal with an other world that may overwhelm them and claim their attention to the exclusion of all else. As a result the power of reason may be virtually extinguished, at least initially, making it impossible for those concerned to go about their daily lives without being affected by such a penetrating and confusing experience.
Open discussion with others offers the most important means of creating some kind of order in the attempt to come to terms with these experiences. In particular, communication helps people to accept their voices; as a result self-confidence is improved, freeing them from isolation and reaffirming their sense of involvement with those around them. Mutual communication between voice hearers gives the opportunity to share similar experiences, using a common language and to learn from one another.
2. Recognising patterns
People who hear voices say it is very important to discuss voices in the same way one might talk about disagreeable relatives. In the process, it is possible to learn to recognise their games and tricks, as well as their more pleasant aspects, and to identify patterns that are specific to given situations. Such knowledge can help the voice hearer to be better prepared for any subsequent onset of the voices.
3. Easing anxiety
Most people who hear voices initially imagine that they are alone in doing so. This can make the experience anxious and unpleasant and also produces feelings of shame or the fear of going mad. Anxiety often leads to the avoidance of situations which might trigger the hearing of voices, and this avoidance seriously blocks self-development. Thus some voice hearers cannot go to the supermarket or socialise at parties. Such levels of anxiety severely restrict freedom of movement, and strategies of avoidance often seem only to exacerbate the problem.
4. Finding a theoretical perspective
Like professionals in the field, voice hearers themselves look for a theoretical explanation to account for the existence of their voices. A personal approach to understanding or a specific frame of reference can be helpful and there are many disparate perspectives used by voice hearers. These include psychodynamic, mystical, parapsychology and medical models. Whatever the perspective adopted, some kind of explanatory theory does appear to be essential to the development of a coping strategy. Unless some meaning is attributed to the voices, it is very difficult to begin to organise one’s relationship with them in order to reduce anxiety. Generally speaking, perspectives that discourage the individual from seeking mastery of the voices tend to yield the least positive results. Interpreting ones voices as the manifestation of electronic influences might be one such example. The explanation offered by biological psychiatry may also be unhelpful in terms of coping strategies, given that, it too, places the phenomenon beyond one’s personal grasp.
In the process of developing one’s own point of view and taking responsibility for oneself, the essential first step is acceptance of the voices as belonging to me. This is of the utmost importance – and also one of the most difficult steps to take.
6. Recognising meaning
Voices can express what the voice hearer is feeling or thinking, for instance aggression or fear about an event or a relationship. When voices offer information in this way the challenge posed by their presence is often less significant than the reason for the anger or fear. When the voices express such views and feeling it can be valuable to discuss the nature of the messages.
7. Positive aspects
When people hear voices that are truly malicious – ridiculing or belittling others, or even abusing the hearers until they are driven to injure themselves – it may be difficult to persuade them to accept the existence of a positive, helpful dimension to the experience. Contact with others can lead to the surprising discovery that positive voices do exist, and to the realisation that these may arise, or be detected, as a result of a proper acceptance of the hearer’s own negative side.
8. Structuring contact
Imposing a structure on the relationship with the voices can help minimise the common feelings of powerlessness. It can be extremely valuable in helping people to see that they can set their own limits and restrain the voices from excessive intrusion.
9. More effective use of medication if required
Sharing experiences also enables people to get to know what medicines others are using, how useful these are, and what their side effects may be. It is important, for example, to know whether a particular medicine has been found helpful in reducing the hearing of voices or in easing the associated anxiety and confusion.
10. Family understanding
Sharing knowledge about voice hearing with families and friends can be very helpful. If a person’s family and friends can accept the voices they can be more supportive, this can make the life of the voice hearer easier, improving their sense of confidence in social situations.
11. Personal Growth
Almost all voice hearers who have learned to adjust to their experiences report that, with hindsight, the process has contributed to their personal growth. Personal growth can be defined as recognising what one needs in order to live a fulfilled life, and knowing how to achieve these ends; it could be described as a process of emancipation.
12. Watch out
Communicating about voices does have its disadvantages, exposing oneself can make one feel very vulnerable. Some voice hearers find great difficulty in opening up about their experiences, though it can be easier with other voice hearers. In particular, voice hearers who have never been psychiatric patients need real courage to face a world that will all too often call them mad when they talk about their lives. It can be hard to see what would be gained by doing so, and often their only motive is to help others who are unable to cope with their own voices. Another possible drawback to disclosures is that the voices may occasionally become temporarily more acute. All in all, though, the advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages. Finally, one must always be wary of advice and explanations that are purely personal convictions and make no allowance for any other interpretation. It is most important to be fully aware of the wide variety of individual situations and circumstances. The least hazardous advice tends to be that which may serve to increase the individual’s own influence over their voices, rather than intensify powerlessness.
Self determination and self knowledge are the key words