Hearing voices is in our society typically regarded as unusual and only experienced when a person is said to have a “mental illness” when it is in fact very common human experience, and one that is both infinitely varied and deeply personal.
Three-in-four of us will have a period in our life when we hear a voice or voices that no one else hears, often around significant life events like loss of a loved one. Hearing voices regularly is about as common as left handedness. That’s about one in seven: a billion or more people hearing voices that no one else hears, right now. We don’t hear about that because – well, you know why or you can figure it out.
It is worth noting, especially in a city like Toronto where half of people come from elsewhere, that in many other cultures around the world it is those who do not who hear voices – or “spirits” as they may be termed – who are the ones regarded with some measure of concern for their well-being.
Most people don’t struggle with voices they hear, or else most people find their experience somehow useful to them. Often the bigger part of any struggle is not being able to share talk about it because it is taboo. But it is true that some people do struggle, and some struggle a great deal and hold within themselves a great deal of pain.
People who do struggle with difficult-to-hear voices tend to feel powerless, to believe that the voices hear have power over them, and are rendered more powerless because they have to deal with it alone…
…because when we do choose to share our pain, those we choose to share with don’t understand, don’t want to understand or don’t know how to even begin to understand, or are too busy just hanging in there with their own struggle to spare us any of their energy.
So, collectively we tend to resort to simplistic explanations and easy, one-word stories, calling names and dehumanizing us and demonizing those already in pain and struggling …
When that us we find ourselves cut off from and set apart from other humans, disconnected from discarded by a society that almost daily becomes more fragmented, caught in a spiralling cycle of pain and violence.
Yet, any sense of powerlessness a person feels with difficult-to-hear voices tends to be reflective of a larger powerlessness that they experience in other aspects of their life.
Sometimes the connection between the two is startlingly obvious, more often it’s more complex, buried deep and trickier to figure out, sometimes individual parts of the picture are obvious bit no one has enough to make connections and make sense of what is happening. But, understanding how the way a person is experiencing pain and struggle in context of their whole life, making sense of that and working to bring about some change can transform an individual’s private personal experiences with voices and other painful and difficult experiences of the kind that get referred to as “psychosis”.
Incidentally, we can also choose to understand that those who shout and call names also do that out of their own sense of powerlessness, seeking to impose themselves, their will, and their beliefs as their own way a coping with their own sense of powerlessness too… And, I’d further suggest, those who do that might, at some time, usefully reflect personally upon how they sound just like the very kind of difficult-to-hear voices that can leave people feeling so powerless and fucked-over by life.
Research shows over and over that the overwhelming majority of people who are told they have any “serious mental illness”, and especially those told they have “psychosis” , have lived with much pain within themselves for many years, often since early childhood, and that they have often sought help over and over but found over and over that the ‘help’ they were offered didn’t help much.
Lately, we talk a lot of “trauma” – and “trauma informed care” and yet we also throw the word around without really understanding it’s meaning. Trauma is not what happened but the effect left within us from how we experience whatever happened.
Many would have us believe we can’t possibly understand unless we have spent decades in college and have several degrees proudly displayed upon our office wall – but we can.
Trauma is easy to understand in very simple terms.
Trauma means wound.
Trauma is pain locked with in us, powerful energy that can leave us feeling trapped and trying to contain it, until we learn to harness it gently so we can heal.
Trauma is the pain we hold inside “in absence of empathetic witnesses”, in absence of supportive, nurturing, healing, connection with other humans.
If we learned to listen and to feel and hold each other’s pain then, perhaps, fewer of us would get to the point where we become convinced that acting in ways that cause yet more violence and pain is our best, or only option…