An interesting article was brought to my attention recently, a feature called “Voices Carry,” published by the Boston Phoenix. It’s a long piece, well worth reading. The general gist is the changing treatment of “hearing voices.”
While I don’t know a lot about psychiatric or religious history, I do know that people who hear voices have been praised as holy and vilified as possessed, sometimes simultaneously. Hearing voices is a sign of divinity, of devilry, of madness, and of illness. It has been hailed as a blessing, fought by exorcism, or subjected to psychiatric treatment.
I heard the voices of imaginary friends right through my freshman year of high school – hundreds of them. It stopped for a while when I started attending a Word church with neighbors; I spoke in “tongues” instead (that lasted less than a year). Around the age of 20 I started hearing them again – here and there, not very often. For a while I had a guide (a ferret I called Tess) who used to chitter in my head, and occasionally I’d hear a clacking beak (Raven). It wasn’t until after I went through therapy and treatment that I started hearing the voices of Cernunnos, Danu, and the O/others.
I don’t think I ever mentioned the voices to my therapist. I spoke of my spiritual path; I discussed my kink. She was delightfully open-minded about both. But I don’t think I ever even considered mentioning the voices – not because of what I thought she would think, but because it just didn’t strike me as any kind of problem.
They’re distinct, these voices. They don’t always use words – sometimes it’s a feelings, sensations, or images. And they aren’t my own subconscious speaking. Cernunnos’ thoughts are very different from my own, both in tenor and content; Danu’s are very different from His, and so forth. I even “hear” them in different parts of my head (He is on the top left; She is on the top right; Ganesha is at the nape of my neck, and so forth).
Sometimes it’s distracting having my head inhabited by Something Other than me. I still live and work in the everyday most of the time, after all, and sometimes T/they want my attention at inconvenient times. (I wonder sometimes if I look strange when I’m listening, or if I just look like I’m thinking.) Having a partner and friends who also Hear helps in more ways than I can say, especially when my brain becomes a pinball machine.
If I had to go back to therapy, would I mention it? Probably not. It’s normal to me, has been with me for more than two decades in some form or another. The voices I’ve heard throughout my life have never wished or put me into situations that have caused me harm. Pain? Yes. But pain is not the same thing as harm in the world in which I live (which admittedly is a different world than the general population, and is a discussion for another day).
Am I crazy? Probably not. Studies from as far back as the 80s show that people with no psychiatric disease go through periods of hearing voices. The article talks about support in a more formalized context than friends or family – groups monitored by therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists, full of people who are learning to live with the voices without medication. In this world of “throw a pill at it,” it’s kind of nice to see the alternative exists.
I’ll still occasionally ask myself if I’m crazy. It’s how I know that I’m at least partly sane.