“Even in the wizarding world, hearing voices isn’t a good sign.” Hermione Granger, speaking to Harry Potter.
I hear voices. As in “I’m hearing the voices” type voices. And no, I do not admit this very often. Why? Hermione said it beautifully. Even people who know I’m mentally ill will give me “The Look” <tm> when I mention hearing voices. You know, the nod, smile and don’t make any sudden movements look? That look.
The specific psychiatric term for hearing voices is “auditory hallucinations”. In other words, you register a physical sensation that isn’t actually there. There’s two main types. If you experience physiological hallucinations, sometimes called “sane” hallucinations, you may not suffer from any other mental health issues. It’s thought that 1 in 25 will “hear voices” at some point in their life.
I suffer from experience pathological hallucinations. In the past, conventional wisdom associated pathological hallucinations with a severe mental illness – usually schizophrenia. With time the diagnosis has gradually extended to include such disorders as bipolar.
Auditory hallucinations usually mainfest in one of three ways. The first is very dangerous. Called a “command hallucination“, this is a very clear, distinct voice that offers a specific direction. The command can be very simple, such as “stand up” or “sit down”. However, they can also be threatening, such as “kill your boss” or “burn the house”. Sometimes the threat becomes personal. “Stab that guy, or I’ll stab you.”
Then there is “Exploding Head Syndrome“. For example, I’ll hear a gunshot, or a rocket taking off, or sometimes impacting. It’s not distinct. Let’s say there’s a tv on in the next room. There’s a cartoon on and it features rockets and a gun. That’s pretty much what it sounds like. I can hear it, but it’s not alarming.
Generally, I hear crowd noise – the sound of a large crowd at a distance. Imagine that you’re approaching a large room full of people, but you’re not quite there yet. You’ll have a subconscious awareness of the sound of many voices, but none are distinct.
In addition to the “crowd noise” I can hear people speaking. They don’t talk to me, or about me. They’re just having a conversation, and none of them are in English. There are two women who speak Japanese. Maybe they’re out shopping. I have no idea – I don’t speak Japanese. I also hear two men talking. These are older gentlemen, and they speak Russian. My mental image is of two guys in a park playing chess, but again as I don’t speak Russian I couldn’t tell you what (if anything) they’re really saying. They seem friendly, and they’ve been with me as long as I’ve been aware of “me”.
The study of voices has come a long way since I was diagnosed. In 2001 there was only one reason to hear voices – severe mental illness. A very dangerous kind. But recently, the “Hearing Voices Movement” has taken off. They reflect the new understanding of mental illness – while illness of this kind can be dangerous and harmful, there may also be aspects that are beneficial.
This is a very welcome trend! No illness should be treated in absolute terms. Here’s why.
It was a normal night, I was in bed, asleep. Then, around 1 am or so, I was startled awake by a voice. At first I thought someone had turned on the television, or the radio, or an alarm had gone off. But then I heard it again. This was the only time I ever heard a Command voice. It was male, but strangely flat and devoid of emotion. It said one single phrase.
“Children are a nuisance, and you should be rid of them.”
My therapist had just started a 24 hour “hotline”, which he encouraged his patients to use. I talked it over with my current partner. We reasoned that I might need to increase one of my medications, and I should ask sooner rather than later. So I called. We spoke for a while, then she asked me to call my current partner to the phone. That was weird, but I handed it over. They spoke for a time, then she frowned and covered the handset. “Hey,” she whispered, “I think she called the police!”
I couldn’t believe it. Not even 10 minutes later, two cops walked in. They asked what was going on, and if any children were in the house. I said no, there were no kids anywhere around us – the community was mostly of retirees.
“But you’re planning to get rid of them?” the cop insisted. I had to admit, that was what the voice said, but I had no plans to act on it. At all. None. No children lived with us. None of my friends had kids. None of my relatives had kids. See? NO kids.
After 45 minutes they explained that I needed to come with them to the hospital. We’d sort it all out there. Which was how, at 3 am, in front of a few curious neighbors, I was led out of my home in handcuffs and placed in the back of a police car.
They took me to the hospital ER. They took my purse and my clothes. It was around 4 when we arrived. I didn’t see a doctor until 8am. I was not given any food, I was only allowed to drink water in the presence of a guard. I was not allowed to move even when I explained I had ruptured disks in my back and I needed to walk every so often.
When the staff psychologist arrived I told her what had happened, and I was sure that finally, with a qualified professional present, someone would see reason. After I told her my story I waited for another 2 hours. When she returned she informed me that I would be taken from the ER and transported to a secure facility. I was being placed on a 72-hour involuntary hold.
I went ballistic. I was so mad I’m pretty sure I was turning colors. I demanded to see my own doctor, who was on staff at the hospital. But he wasn’t scheduled to be there until the following day. And that was that.
At the facility, in a group therapy sessions of 30 patients, the doctor asked me why I was there. I told him “I don’t know”. He looked at his clip board and said, in front of everyone, “It says here you attacked a child.”
From that point forward it didn’t matter what I said or did. Every patient heard I had attacked a kid, and I was given a wide berth. If I lost my temper again it would get even worse. So I gritted my teeth and just stopped talking. I stopped moving. I sat still and waited.
My doctor arrived the next day, 36 hours after I heard The Voice. I told him what had happened and demanded to be released or explain why not to a judge. This is not something a patient on a 3 day hold can say. I was released within 2 hours.
My bewildered parents came to pick me up. I had no idea how to explain any of it. I’m still at a loss.
The mentally ill are the most stigmatized members of our society. Within this group, those who hear voices are even more isolated, as it’s one of the least understood symptoms. But I’m pleased to discover that through the efforts of groups such as the Hearing Voices Movement, attitudes are slowly changing.