Jan Holloway & J. Thomas
This article appeared in Openmind 103 May/June 2000:
Voice-hearing experiences and ways of coping are different for every individual. Jan Holloway and J. Thomas describe their voices and how they manage, and the Hearing Voices Network outlines its work
‘At first, the voice was barely audible. But as time passed the whisper became louder. I was 33 years old and had never before experienced the plaguing presence of disembodied speech circling around me. Initially, I couldn’t hear what the faint, intermittent voice was saying – yet soon it became harsher in timbre and increasingly menacing in content. I did not speak to anyone about it, not even my partner of fifteen years, although I felt a pervasive sense of alienation and confusion. I became tormented by its continuous criticism, and, in a bid to silence the voice forever, I attempted to kill myself by taking a cocktail of prescribed drugs and alcohol. When this failed, I voluntarily admitted myself to hospital, but remained mute about my voice, ashamed of its presence. On my return to work, the voice began to taunt me again, this time commenting that I was no good at my job and wasn’t fit to be a manager. It also told me I ought to drown myself. With my self-esteem eroded by perpetual criticism, I tried to take my own life for the second time.
Again the attempt failed and I was admitted to hospital. Treatment with medication and therapy helped, and the voice was silenced, but only temporarily. As the stress in my life mushroomed due to family and work pressures, the voice fought its way back into my head. And this time it was not alone; the original voice was joined by a second, and I became a reluctant eavesdropper to their many conversations. Their dialogue concentrated on my laziness, selfishness and worthlessness; and I was, of course, privy to all these debates but always spoken about as if I was an absent third party. In the face of such persecution, I became paranoid. On the brink of suicide I admitted myself to hospital and, again, improved a little. Talking about the voices with others who had similar experiences helped and the medication I was prescribed gave me a palpable sense of distance from my voices. Their presence, however, was still audible.
Yet tentatively and reluctantly I have learnt to live with them.
At times, it is difficult. When at work, I have to remember not to respond to the voices with any sign of recognition. During times of stress, they become louder and more insistent. I have to learn to remain true to myself, the more I compromise for others the more troublesome the voices become. And now that I have found I can indeed function despite their presence, sometimes the voices can be helpful and even bring insight.
In fact, the more I talk about them, the less caught up I become in their opinions about me. The more I use my experience to help others, the more empowered I become. Perhaps paradoxically, it is in listening to the cries of our psychosis that we can begin to find a pathway through the convoluted maze of our own particular distress.’ Jan Holloway, with Elaine Craig
Jan Holloway uses her experiences both as a mental health worker and a service user in Learning from Psychosis, a new approach to training using experiential exercises and visual stimuli to give a deeper understanding of the experience of psychosis.
‘I was 21 and had been at university for a year. I was back home for the summer holiday when my first breakdown hit me. I was labelled with schizophrenia. I blamed the voices for my plight, voices discussing me and, worse, voices commanding me to do idiot things.
To secure my release from the terrible locked hospital ward that held me for so many months, I had to move from blaming voices to accepting them, and then from acceptance to concealment.
Then, as far as the outside world was concerned, I was able to deny and hide these symptoms. I was able to return to university, complete my degree, and hold down a job. Or rather a succession of jobs for, in my case, ‘accepting voices’ was by no means foolproof. I kept slipping up, and often these failures would lead to further detentions in hospital. Detentions became more frequent, and for a while the outlook was dismal.
Then, during my last hospital stay, I met another patient called Fred. Fred told me about time-sharing. He claimed it was ‘the only well-known, tried and tested way of getting shot of schizophrenia without the drugs’.
I was sceptical: ‘If it’s that well known, why don’t I know about it?’ I asked.
But Fred kept on: ‘Time-sharing simply means letting in the other side of your brain, the side that is bugging you. It’s bugging you because you never let it in to share power to share control of your own, and of course its own, body.’
‘What do you mean by letting it in?’ I asked.
‘I mean you invite the other side of your own brain to take control of your body for a short time each day. All you have to do is to relax and allow it to take over. It’s a sort of self-hypnotism. In return you make your other brain side promise to stop spooking you.’
Eventually I did try time-sharing. I told my carer about what Fred had said, she thought about it for a long time and then said that it could well be true. She told me to tell my other half that I was prepared to time-share with it, that I would let it in and give it control.
It wasn’t easy but gradually it began to work. I used to hate getting up. Now I leave it to my other half. I only need take over when I have to meet someone. I now have a working relationship with my other half. It no longer sends me voices or bugs me in any way. Since I do not have to fight to prevent my other half taking control, I have much more energy left to live my own life. I have now been completely well and without need of medication for over thirty years.’ J. Thomas
See Thomas, J. (1994) ‘An open Letter to a worried friend’ Openmind 72, Dec/Jan p. 14.