I interviewed a federal employee recently about her experiences working on a public complaint hotline, so that I could write case studies for a training program I’m developing. She told me stories about crazy people who call the hotline. There was the man who said someone had given him a penile implant without his permission and he had to go to India to have it removed because no one in this country would help him, and then there was the woman who called and said her cigarettes were laced with LCD and some kind of aphrodisiac that made her go to Las Vegas and get married against her will. She wanted the cigarette company to be punished.
We had a good laugh about these stories. But later I was watching a Ted talk by Elanor Longden called The Voices in My Head, and I thought about the way the western world stigmatizes and/or makes fun of mental illness without even giving it a thought. Laughing about someone who hears voices in their head is really just a reaction to being afraid of it, isn’t it? It’s like the gallows humor that emergency responders develop.
Longden tells the story of how she began to hear a voice in her head when she was in college. Mostly it was an impersonal voice narrating everything she did in the third person, but sometimes when she was under stress the voice would take on the emotional tone of what she was feeling. After a long period of therapy, hospitalization and drug regimes which she describes as being “diagnosed, drugged and discarded” she came to realize she could not only live with the voices but actually make use of them. Longden had always been one to bury her feelings, and the voices helped her recognize, process and cope with her emotions and the painful events in her childhood she had blocked out. Eventually she learned how to collaborate with the voices rather than get rid of them.
Longden talks about her work with an organization called Intervoice (an acronym for International Network for Training, Education and Research into Hearing Voices), whose stated mission is to educate society that hearing voices is a normal, although unusual, variation in human behavior and is only a “problem” for those who can’t cope with it. I visited their website and found a list of famous people who heard voices; just to name a few, Charles Dickens, Anthony Hopkins, Socrates and Sigmund Freud. If hearing voices is responsible for Great Expectations and the Socratic method then perhaps we should all wish to hear them. Perhaps it’s a little harder to see what you might gain from a voice that told you to go to India to have an imaginary penile implant removed, but who knows how that actually plays out inside someone’s head. I remember a friend I had in Colorado who was on medication for schizophrenia, and who used to complain that he hated taking his meds because they made him “boring.” In my mind they didn’t make him boring, they made him coherent. But perhaps in his mind they made him alone, and took away his creative inspiration or his sense of belonging to something larger than himself. We can never know what that kind of experience feels like without being inside it ourselves. But we can certainly stop trying to stigmatize or marginalize that experience.