Vebha Gulati has been hearing voices for 20 years. Much like people, she says, there are some you get on with and some you don't.
The middle-aged woman from Sydney struggled initially to break free of the cultural paradigm that auditory hallucinations are bad – a message reinforced by decades of movies and TV shows of dangerous psychopaths tormented into killing sprees.
Gulati has developed coping strategies: playing music can dim the sound, art therapy helps, and if she's visited by a bad voice, she “calls” a good voice to counteract its effects.
She has found yoga and meditation helpful, and is an active member of NSW Hearing Voices, an advocacy group with the slogan: “For people who hear voices, see visions or have other unusual perceptions.”
The body, which has medical professionals and voice hearers, is part of the global Hearing Voices Network which is trying to redefine how we think about people who hear voices.
“As a voice hearer you feel you lack power in society because of the stigma of what you're labelled as,” she tells SBS. “You feel powerless. Hearing Voices Network helps you reclaim your power and your voice.”
As a voice hearer you feel you lack power in society because of the stigma of what you're labelled as. You feel powerless.
Adam Dickes, the treasurer of NSW Hearing Voices, explains that the group helps voice hearers acknowledge their experiences – something missing from the medical approach. They wouldn’t say that medication is wrong, he says, but listening to people is the first step, rather than telling them.
“All of the approaches and treatments are about trying to get rid of the experience… we've got to get rid of the voice, get rid of the symptoms, at any cost,” he says. “That's what has been less helpful than working with the symptoms and experience.”
He recalls one example given in a TED talk by Eleanor Longden, who graduated as a psychiatrist a decade after beginning to hear voices, about being told not to leave the house. Instead of taking it literally, she understands it metaphorically as being scared of going outside.
Her voices gave words to Longden’s pain over childhood abuse, she says, and she has learnt to live with them. One of them dictated the answers in an exam, she notes, which technically counts as cheating.
“It's about making meaning from experiences,” says clinical psychologist Bianca dos Santos, vice-president of NSW Hearing Voices. “Asking what experiences mean rather than seeing it as just a symptom which needs to have this medication to be got rid of. An entire, holistic approach.”
Another misconception is that you're permanently damaged.
The idea is to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach. Some people want to find out why they hear voices, others to find a way of getting on with their lives without enduring punishing drug regimens or hospitalisation.
Dickes says the mainstream medical establishment's reaction to this approach has been “mixed”. He's given talks at hospitals to clinicians: “They're curious to an extent, threatened and challenged but at the same time interested.” (The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists was unable to comment on the story.)
NSW Hearing Voices has even had referrals from within the health system, he says. “That's with voice hearers they think will benefit from being with other voice hearers – breaking their social isolation and sharing their experiences.”
A major stereotype that voice hearers encounter is that they're dangerous, while the data shows they're much more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator. They also suffer social isolation, though the advent of the mobile phone has made it easier for them to talk openly in public with their voice. They just pull out the handset and pretend they're on a call.
“Another misconception is that you're permanently damaged,” says Gulati, “that it's not a natural thing. I like to think of it as part of my being that I hear voices. It's not abnormal to me.”
World Hearing Voices Day is on September 14. For more information, visit the Inservice website.
Image courtesy of Flickr/SumAll.