What Is It Like To Hear Voices?
Imagine you meet someone on the street. This person is holding a conversation with...the air, talking about their day, or maybe saying “I can’t talk right now, but let’s chat later.” Maybe they’re talking to someone on a Bluetooth earpiece?
But no, being somehow omniscient for this exercise, you know that there’s no earpiece. You’ve just crossed paths with someone who hears voices.
What did they look like? Race? Gender? General level of cleanliness? Are they wearing a tinfoil hat?
Jeannie Bass, pictured here, used to hear voices and believe that she was Mary Magdalene. Today, she hears voices and is the director of a peer support group at a psychiatric hospital.
Weird contrast, right? No, not really.
The Hearing Voices Movement has several chapters or “Networks” all over the world¹. Jeannie says that her childhood home “was a beautiful home on the outside and on the inside it was like the House of Horrors.” She had trouble sleeping and would stay up writing stories about a little girl in various situations. She moved away, but struggled with mania when she was 14 and would sometimes hear voices. “I started going in and out of hospitals ... for years,” she says, adding that her voices were “[her] partners in crime” and that she was very tumultuous and impulsive back then.
In her late teens and early 20s, Jeannie started hearing new voices, ones that didn’t go away if she took lithium. While in a Barnes & Noble in Peabody, Massachusetts, she suddenly heard a voice singing “Happy birthday, Mary Magdalene.” Despite being on Social Security, living in government-funded housing and being in poverty, she saw banners saying that she had billions of dollars. “Hearing that I was this important religious figure that I had been fascinated with for years was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” she says, “I’ll never forget ... that elation I felt. I cried. I was like, ‘I’m finally someone.’ It just made sense. And I was like, ‘This is what all the suffering was about.’”
Feeling out of control, she was okay with it when a new voice proclaimed his intentions to control her. The voices she heard throughout her 20s were related to varying “storylines” like the Mary Magdalene thing, the New World Order, an astronaut tapping a code on her back, etc.. They said that if she died, she would be reborn as Mary Magdalene. After several suicide attempts, Jeannie wound up in an ambulance heading to a hospital, thinking that she was going to be raped or murdered. “Nobody was telling me what was going on,” she says, “it was just me and my voices against the world; nobody was talking to me, the psychiatrist ... wouldn't meet with me alone, the door had to be open, staff had to be there. Nobody said, ‘Jeannie, are you hearing voices? Jeannie, what are they saying? Why are you praying on the floor next to the dining table? Is that important to you? What are you experiencing?’” She says that “One of the hardest things that people who hear voices have to deal with...is how they get treated by those who don’t.”
Once her commitment expired, Jeannie moved to a day treatment program after being told that the alternative was to go back to the hospital. One woman in her treatment group talked about hearing voices and alligators in the tub. “I don’t know why, I don’t know if the Holy Spirit was in me,” Jeannie says, “but I stood up and I said, ‘That’s me. I’m hearing voices.’ ... talking to other people that heard voices was really powerful to me. I was like ‘wow, I’m not alone.’” Jeannie was living in two worlds, one of “I hear voices, this is mental illness,” and the other of, “These are very powerful and meaningful to me; I’m not hearing voices, these are real people.” It was scary the first time she told her voices “no,” but in her 30s she “would start to work with them. [emphasis added]”
One night at home (the treatment group was day-only), Jeannie went on the computer and looked up things like “people who hear voices and are normal” and “people that hear voices and don’t want them to go away.” She found a lot about the Hearing Voices Network. “I was so shocked I pulled my first all-nighter ... and I was angry at one point. I went to day treatment the next day and I was like, ‘How could you not tell me this?’ And they were like, ‘Tell you what?’ And I said, ‘There’s people all over the world who hear voices, and guess what? These people are okay.’”
After going to a Hearing Voices Group meeting, Jeannie was at first resistant to their ideas about hearing voices, not wanting to give up her diagnostic labels of “schizophrenia” and “schizoaffective” (Jeannie described the latter as a mix of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder). She left that meeting, but kept getting involved in the Hearing Voices Movement little by little, until one day she joined the Board of Directors for Hearing Voices Network USA. She helped bring the first World Hearing Voices Congress to the US in 2017, an event attended by over 500 people.
Hearing Each Other's Voices
You might be wondering, what is the Hearing Voices Movement’s stance on medication, diagnosis, etc.? Hearing Voices groups serve mainly as a place for members to share their stories, with strategies and coping mechanisms as an indirect benefit of this. Hearing Voices training sessions have been attended by clinicians, and Jeannie’s co-facilitator David Greenleaf is a psychologist. This somewhat echoes the founding of the Hearing Voices Movement in the ’80s by psychiatrist Marrius Romme, his patient Patsy Hage and journalist Dr. Sandra Escher. Psychologists generally advise against enabling or indulging a patient’s delusional beliefs; the Hearing Voices Movement validates “out-there” or “delusional” experiences, but this takes the form of “That’s interesting. Tell me more,” rather than, “I see it too.” As opposed to trying to shut out or ignore the voices, the Hearing Voices Movement suggests looking for meaning behind the voice (for example, a voice that hurls insults at an anxious person could be meaning “push past your anxiety, push past me”) and negotiating with them (if a voice wants you to spit on a person, spit on the ground instead). There’s a relational element there, like a relationship with a flesh-and-blood person.
Hearing Voices, Making Friends
Studies in Europe suggest that 70-80% of voice-hearers have childhood trauma, that their voices could be called “traumagenic” (caused by trauma) in origin. Beneath any hurtful words, the dynamic between voices and their young hearer is protective and even companionate (acting as a companion).
But there’s another type of voice origin, “parogenic” (caused by intention, trauma-free). It might happen that someone is browsing the Internet, when they stumble upon sites about “tulpas,” describing them as “a mental companion who can think and act on their own”² or saying that “If you ... put a significant amount of time and effort into your tulpa, you will end up with a friend for life. ... it’ll be easy to understand them, and for them to understand you—almost guaranteeing a close friendship.”³ Intrigued by whether tulpas are possible, or perhaps seeking a companion who knows them better than a flesh-and-blood person could (since the companion shares the same brain-space as their “host”), they begin “tulpaforcing,” the process of envisioning things like how the tulpa looks, their personality traits, and
how they’d act in various situations. Whether they consider this a metaphysical or psychological practice, the result is the same: the envisioned being eventually responds of (according to practitioners) their own free will.
Despite how it might appear from the outside, this isn’t a psychological disorder, as hosting a tulpa doesn’t cause distress or impair functioning in daily life; if anything, tulpas have positive impacts on their hosts, such as encouraging them to go out and socialize or talking them through anxiety attacks. Hosts can train themselves to experience their tulpas as being “imposed” on their perception, like an augmented reality program that can affect all physical senses, and can also voluntarily grant their tulpa temporary control over their physical actions (if the tulpa wishes to interact with the physical world); this “imposition” and “possession,” respectively, doesn’t happen with voice-hearers. Unlike people who have “auditory hallucinations,” hosts know from the start that their imposed tulpas aren’t physically distinct from them, although both may view the voice or tulpa as psychologically distinct. Members of the Hearing Voices Movement might view their voices as something of a psychoanalytical tool speaking in riddles or metaphor and look for meaning behind them, whereas hosts don’t look for deeper meanings behind their tulpas’ existence.
Although there’s not much in the way of overlap with the Hearing Voices Movement, they share the view that being not-alone in one’s head is not inherently a disorder, and both deal with stigma against this state of being, whether that be “you’re a violent psycho” or “you’re just making up stories.”
We're All Stories in the End
Whatever it looks like to hear voices, there’s another, more important question:
What’s it feel like to hear voices?
You can read study after study, observe the behavior of people who hear voices or host tulpas in a natural or laboratory setting, but the best way to truly understand them and be able to answer the question of what it’s like to be them, aside from omniscience, is to ask them. Get the story straight from the person living it.
When it comes to disclosing status as a voice-hearer, Jeannie’s got some advice both for friends and family of voice-hearers and the voice-hearers themselves. For neurotypical friends & family, she says to “First, validate the person. That does not always mean acknowledging they hear voices. With the society we live in, it can be dangerous to share that even with those closest to you. And voices often are fearful and try to keep the relationship from outsiders. Validation sometimes means, early on, just being with someone, right next to
them while they are hearing voices; being curious and open to hearing things that might make you feel uncomfortable or challenge your own impact on the person’s struggles. When the trust is there, sometimes just asking the name of someone’s voices can help them see that these voices are unique to them; there is power in getting to know voices you hear that others don’t.”
Are you a voice-hearer wondering about telling your loved ones that you hear voices they don’t? “I would say go slow and really reflect on how you say it and to who. There can be consequences to telling the wrong person. The media has done an atrocious job of portraying voice-hearers. I would encourage people to attend an HVN group and talk to other people who have walked that same road. You are not alone. It may feel like it, it does for me all the time, but there are millions of us in solidarity all around the world.”
In the end, the best way to change the stigma is to spread stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, that break the media stereotype. In fact, I’m doing that right now with this article. The moral of this one is that: “You are not alone