Learning to Live with the Voices

by Teri Newhouse

From Jamestown, NY, Teri is a poet and volunteer at Southern Tier Environmental Living (STEL); she works for the group home main office. She is a certified Mental Health Association in NYS Business and Employment trainer, and she is taking courses in Psychology and Art Therapy at Jamestown Community College. She has moved into an independent apartment.

I was working as a massage therapist in Philadelphia when mental illness struck me, filling my mind with “voices.” The voices were loud. They would say hellish things, cruel and violent things about my friends, family, employers.

My psychiatrist tried various medications to no avail. For two years I worked full time, giving good massages, despite the loud voices in my head. But I was coming home at night crying and drinking too much to combat the fear and disgust generated by what these voices were saying to me.

I tried three different psychologists to help me stop the voices from overwhelming me. One said, “See it as a sickness.” Well, I realized it was a sickness, but how should I deal with it? He said, “Banish the voices.” This was a good idea, but when I tried it, the voices sometimes came back stronger.

The next therapist wanted me to see the voices as a “psychic” purification. “Try not to judge what’s coming out of you. Think of it as the mind’s version of the stomach flu.” Because I’m very sensitive, it was hard for me not to judge what the voices were saying. And I continued to be torn by the voices that opposed my own beliefs, my feelings, my spirit.

Another psychologist would always say something about the voices that would make me stop and think about them, breaking my identification with them. I had difficulty doing this on my own.

She urged me to find absurdity in the voices. If the voices told me I was going to “take someone down,” she’d say, “Why don’t you blow up the whole building and get a lot of people instead of just one?” This approach helped sometimes because I could see how ridiculous the voices could be. I was never going to harm anyone. She’d compare them to a bad horror movie. This helped me the most. Still the voices were very frightening, saying cruel and violent things that were hard to see as absurd.

Despite this help, and use of these techniques, I was still terrified by the voices three years after they began. They became progressively worse, until everywhere I looked, a negative hallucination would be triggered. I entered a psychiatric hospital until, thanks to my friends and family, I was able to move home to Jamestown.

After a few months of rest, the voices calmed down, but they still interfered. I got on Social Security Insurance, pursued various classes, and did a little massage. Finally, five years after the voices came to me, a breakthrough with medications made the voices much better.

Unknowingly, I let good intentions put me in a stressful situation that resulted in a major relapse. One of the good things that came out of that was that I was able to move into a group home with counselors who helped me. Another positive thing that came from that experience was meeting the psychologist who would change my life. He had so many good techniques that really made sense, and that worked for me.

Disconnecting the voices

He said to be callous to the voices. This helped because it eliminated the struggle of trying to push them out. He said, “Don’t listen to them so sensitively. You listen to them like they’re your best friends talking to you. Listen to your friends instead.” I realized how much I really had been listening to the voices, and that I hadn’t been as attentive to my friends, which had caused problems.

He said, “The voices are nothing.” That really took the power away from them.

One time I told him that they seemed to know just what “buttons to push” to upset me. He said, “Disconnect the wires to those buttons so they can’t get through.” I practiced this technique and soon it began to work for me.

He said, “Try to see them as a biological hallucination.” If I could see them as a chemical imbalance rather than as some entity haunting me, they would bother me less. Even the word hallucination is more manageable than voices.

I told him that sometimes when I’m feeling love and care for people, the voices come up, filling me with their hate. He taught me to divide my attention, to focus on nature, reading, piano, poetry — the voices might not have as much to say about these things. This made it easier to distract myself from the voices.

He taught me to change my activity to break into voices coming up in a steady stream. “Don’t do an activity to get away from the voices, because that gives them too much power. Do an activity because you enjoy it.”

He taught me that the voices feed off whatever is in my mind, so if I have a caring thought, I might hear a cruel voice. As a spiritual person, I might have demonic voices. Everything he said made perfect sense.

I was beginning to feel less guilty over what had been going on in my mind. It had taken six years to learn that getting down on myself about the voices was a big mistake, that the voices were not my thoughts, not me.

A friend suggested that I focus on the thought I wanted to think after hearing the voices, something I had tried to do with minimal success in Philadelphia. The techniques I used in Philadelphia — humoring the voices, banishing them — did not enable me to focus on my own thoughts because they didn’t take the power away from the voices.

I practice these techniques faithfully. Like a counselor at the house said, “It’s like learning to ride a bike: you fall off and get back on.”

I was so overwhelmed by the voices in the first years that it was difficult for me to separate myself from them, whatever technique I was using. And separation is the key.

Finally, the voices were losing their power over me.

Another counselor at the house said, “Tell them to go away. Say: ‘I’m not interested.’” This helps because I can have the upper hand without force. And the voices really do get boring sometimes.

Sometimes, their cruelty still upsets me.

One night they were disturbing me and a counselor said, “If you let them bother you in one area, they can gain strength and take over in other areas.” This leads me to an important point: responding to the voices with fear, anger, disgust or any negative emotion can weaken you, and the voices can take over.

I’ve found it of utmost importance to keep myself in a good state in-between the voices. It helps me accept them as “science fiction” rather than as something I’m thinking. I know I could never think such things, but the voices can trick me into thinking they’re my thoughts. It is this kind of confusion that almost destroyed my life, and that took me so long to understand.

Recently, I told my therapist that the mind is like a tape recorder and you have to be careful what you allow your mind to concentrate on. I was referring to the voices as thoughts I was thinking. She reminded me that the voices are not something I have chosen to have in my mind. “Don’t get down on yourself because they’re there. And try not to allow them to become your only reality.”

When the voices are the only reality, it’s hell on earth.

I work on developing beautiful realities by playing and listening to beautiful music, writing poetry, reading books, and meditating. And I remember: “Let the voices have their own reality, but live in your reality.”

Meditation is so important because it relaxes me and I can actually experience a divine reality. I also try to turn the voices into poetic images or songs.

I pray to God unceasingly, even though the voices try to ruin this too. God can help me see how stupid the cruel voices are. And it helps to pray for other people, to take my mind off my own problems.

Lately I’ve been distressed by a new set of voices speaking against people I love. A counselor at the house said, “Let them be cruel.” I thought, yes, I don’t have to participate. Then I return to loving and beautiful thoughts. Sometimes I am able to blow off the voices, because I realize how I really feel.

I think I’ll use this article as a guideline when I’m having problems with the voices. I hope it helps you.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on November 12, 2009

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