Compassion and the Voice of the Tormentor


I’d like to share some personal thoughts on the nature of the Hearing Voices group method, and the insights that this kind of support generates. Through these groups, a tradition of mutual healing is being created that honors subjective experiences, and sharing our stories with each other in this way propels this exciting movement forward.

In the UK, Hearing Voices group organizer Jacqui Dillon has demonstrated that the experience of hearing voices can be transformed through cultivating a compassionate relationship with them. Softening feelings toward the tormenting voice can be reflected back to the voice-hearer, bringing a starting point for the alleviation of suffering and spurring movement through the path of recovery. This is powerful. However, compassion can be the hardest thing to ask of a person who has spent years under the verbal abuse of angry voices. How do we generate such compassion? Is it possible to turn to an abuser and say, what happened? What has happened that made you so angry? Yet this question can open doors. If we look at examples throughout history we find that this compassion is exactly the tool that kept the tormentors from overcoming us.

In 2009 I was at a crossroads in life that brought multiple losses all at the same time. After moving twelve times in eight years in a sort of existential trial, I lost my career, moved 1100 miles leaving 6 siblings behind, watched another man move into my children’s home, and was penniless. I also was trying various religious practices, one after another, looking for a new way of being and a new community.

So losing the markers that defined me as a person was the practical truth of my experience, and eventually the symbolic truth began to emerge. At the time I was staying at a campground that offered classes with themes of self-exploration and creativity. While I was there, the top of my head began to tingle and then opened, leading to events that are associated with so-called psychosis: possession states, reincarnation feelings, communicating with animal spirits, messianic states of being, synchronicities, and an encounter with a deceased ancestor.

But this was not the crisis. This was my mind and spirit attempting to heal the situation. The crisis was the development of what had been building up objectively in the years previous. And the subjective truth that is symbolized through surreal phenomena is just as real as the objective, practical truth. It is real in the way a born-again experience is real, or the way falling in love is real. No doubt all of these experiences stimulate the human brain, but would we dissect a human brain to look for evidence that a person has fallen in love? Of course not. So how absurd that we look at the brain to see “psychosis” and we keep funding projects that search for DNA that can predict what is essentially a broken heart, or we search scientifically for genetic evidence of trauma and grief.

Eventually, the Hearing Voices group method became my way to explore the subjective truth. I was lucky to live in a place where people are actively learning about human consciousness, and several non-judgmental friends with their own lived experience steered me to groups at the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community. The truth of those extreme states was all I wanted to learn about for two years. Who can look at the practical truth when it has all come crashing down? I was lucky to find myself among compassionate people. I was heard. I was not told to ignore what was happening to me. Most people encountering these states are medicated within twelve to twenty-four hours. For me, the states continued for three months, gradually diminishing. No one urged me to get to a clinic. No one got scared.

All of those extreme states were trying to help me. The animal spirits were recreating a family, the messianic states were providing a new religion, the reincarnation feelings were helping me form a new self. I was very much in a supernatural reality, and gradually I learned that these are states that are sometimes mirrored by people who have been hospitalized and labeled as “bipolar” or “psychotic.” It took me a long time to realize that, and to get the vocabulary to discuss it, but I kept reading and learning and finally came to my own conclusions. I started a group called Living With Spiritual Emergency, and I learned from people who came to the group. I asked them, what are these states of mind in which you’re seeing birds in sort of a divine fashion? And they taught me. Often they said, “We don’t know what it means for you, but we know it happens.” We shared our stories by taking a posture of compassion and asking “What has happened?” and more than anything we found that this is an eternal human experience.

Now I co-facilitate a Hearing Voices group and at times a person will join who has a voice that has become visible. A tormentor that arrives in their apartment or is seen on the sidewalk following them. And through my reading I found that there are centuries-old traditions in other cultures in which people can create a kind companion of the mind rather than an angry tormentor; a voice that gives counsel and who arrives in times of need. I imagine this creating was done centuries ago by someone who was perhaps a monk or a meditator or a lonely person. Today there are online groups dedicated to this practice. So we know that the mind is capable of doing this from a whole variety of perspectives, and maybe, sometimes, it is forced upon us through grief. This might make for a rockier experience, when the nature of the imagined person becomes a representation of that grief or that anger from trauma.

This happened in the Early Modern period when people were accused of witchcraft. For example, a Scottish woman named Bessie Dunlop was quite poor and felt a lot of torment from two children dying and a young one very sick, all while her husband was on his deathbed. Eventually she began to see an imaginary person she called Tom Reid who would appear along the roadside and give her information on where to find food, how to make small amounts of money by retrieving lost or stolen objects for people, and how to make healing potions from roots. In essence, she created someone who came to her aid. She created medicine for herself. She then began to see people in the village who had died years earlier, and when the word got around about this, she was burned at the stake as a witch.

So it happened that I eventually saw my own deceased grandfather, and luckily I wasn’t burned at the stake! But I was creating healing for myself in some way. I saw a man float across a campground, flying like a witch. At the time I thought he was someone who could give me a new career. To me, he was bringing the possibility of medicine.

We keep looking to the future for our answers in things like scientific research while ignoring these lessons from our past, and the wisdom of our indigenous cultures. Let’s go back to listening to each other face to face with open and supportive discussion, and let’s look at what people have done in other countries in different eras. For example, what happened in that Early Modern period in England, when people saw fairies and beings created with the mind, these helpers bringing medicine? They knew that the fairies could get out of line and become tricksters, or even cruel tormentors. So they went into the forest and found a tree stump where they would leave treats and snacks and gifts to help the fairies feel happier. Compassion was used to keep the beings of this other world from becoming tormentors.

This is how to turn around torment, whether it’s torment in the hospital, among coworkers, or from a voice. Compassion can turn the world around. And of course it can be the hardest thing to ask of someone. I don’t want to underestimate the amount of pain that people are going through, but sometimes the way out of pain is to demonstrate kindness to a tormentor.

And what have these experiences of “psychosis” brought us throughout history? They’ve brought us medicine and advances in knowledge. The person Bessie Dunlop saw gave her accurate information so that she could survive. We know this realm brings us great lessons. Even Descartes himself, the father of modern scientific thinking, attributed his work to visions from an extreme state.

I saw a man fly across a campground and he was trying to bring me medicine when I needed it. PJ Travers, a young girl in Australia with a father on his deathbed and a mother who was suicidal, grew up to write stories about a woman who flew around with an umbrella and slid up banisters. This was Mary Poppins. And what did she bring? Medicine to a family who needed it. Not to be confused with medication.

These inventions of our mind are important. And what happens to people today? They go to the clinic and the first thing they are told is, “Don’t pay any attention, just ignore it, it’s illness.” The whole subjective truth needs to be honored, not ignored.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that what’s happening to you is not important. If this is happening to you, this is important. If it’s happening to your neighbor, it has to be important also. Don’t let anyone tell you to ignore the healing messages from your own mind.

Let’s create places for people to be heard and supported and taken seriously. Let’s tell them, we will not try to fix you, and yes, what’s happening is real and it’s happened to people before. The current mainstream ideas around extreme states are just a myth and countless people over thousands of years would disagree with this current thinking that is being pushed onto us.

Let’s learn from other cultures who can teach us what is not understood in the general modern, white, Christian/European, developed world. Let’s listen to the priest from West Africa, Malidoma Patrice Somé, who can tell us what these states mean. Let’s listen to Emma Bragdon, who is doing great work in Brazil working with spiritual healing. We are made of more than bones and tissue. We are made also of spirit. And at times it is murky and dark and scary, but it doesn’t mean that it is deviltry. It is part of who we are as human beings.

[Editor’s note: due to personal circumstances, the author has chosen to publish under an abbreviated version of his name.]

Previous article“The Fight Over Transparency: Round Two”
Next articleA Network Meeting in North America
Timothy N.
Timothy N. is a Team Counselor with Windhorse Integrative Mental Health, and he co-facilitates an Unusual Beliefs group and a Hearing Voices group. He recently joined the Hearing Voices Network - USA Board of Directors, representing the Colorado area, and is happy to be part of the movement to raise awareness among healthcare professionals.


  1. Exquisite story of an important life passage and how our life challenges lead us to higher consciousness, to know who we are as spirit–our authentic nature from which our truth becomes evident. This is transformative personal growth and spiritual evolution, and is what brings us inner peace and a sense of purpose in life. Indeed, it takes a trusting and self-loving heart to face our trials with grace, something we learn along the way of the dark path to light; and, indeed, this changes our entire perspective, creating a new and improved reality. Excellent!

    Report comment

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, I went / am going through a similar spiritual journey. And I agree, when one goes through a “psychosis” / spiritual awakening, it’s completely relevant to the person’s life, and seemingly helps to enlighten the person as to who their “id,” or spiritual self, is. Today’s psychiatric theology is completely incorrect. And I too find it amazing that we’re wasting billions trying to find a cure for, or trying to prevent, spiritual awakenings.

    Thankfully, I only had evil “voices” while being drugged (my psychiatrists created anticholinergic toxidrome with numerous drug cocktails), so my evil “voices” went away once I was weaned from the drugs. And, as I’m reading my journals from back then, I’m realizing I did have kind “voices” that supposedly harassed the evil “voices” eventually. And, I found ignoring the evil “voices,” joking with them or mocking them, and even psychoanalyzing them was the approach I took to dealing with them. My evil “voices” were people I actually knew, the people whose lies to a therapist caused me to be drugged and who allegedly raped my child and denied my other child a baptism on 9.11.2001. And since I eventually learned the child molesters in real life had been negligent in the death of their first born child, and their pastor friend was a psychopathic idiot, that made it pretty easy to psychoanalyze their issues.

    My drug withdrawal induced super sensitivity manic “psychoses” / awakenings (I had 2, one in 2006 and one in 2009) were actually quite amazing, staggering serendipitous, and it was during these that I was awakened to the seeming reality that we are all connected. I even had strangers come up to me and talk to me about what was going on in my “psychosis” (I still don’t know how they knew what I was thinking about), several people commented they could even “feel the power” (I did have problems with cell phones and key cards during these as well). And my new pastor even told me “some people can’t pray in private” during my 2009 “psychosis” / awakening.

    I’ve been left with the realization I’m “of the bride,” which is the supposed goal of Christians, so I guess mine is a “born again” type tale. The psychiatric drugs were what made me sick. And the Chicagland area has a seriously deranged child abuse covering up system, that includes doctors, the police, lawyers, judges, DCFS, and even the head bishops of the ELCA religion, as confessed to in this book:

    The rather pathetic thing is my former psychiatrists are still claiming the real people associated with my evil “voices” are “fictional,” despite the alleged child molester having also published a book. And the “conspiracy theorists” are all talking about this man’s Bohemium Grove friends being child abusers / sacrificers.

    I do hope our society goes back to investigating and arresting child molesters some day, rather than continuing to have the psychiatrists defame and tranquilize the victims of child abuse. Although my ethical pastor did confess to me that I dealt with the “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions,” so apparently psychiatric defamation and poisoning is how the religions and wealthy have been covering up their “zipper troubles” for decades.

    Report comment

    • Oops, I forgot to mention the IL politicians, too, seem to be involved in this Illinois child abuse covering up ring. This one was recently arrested:

      But, according to psychiatrists child abuse never happens, nor is there ever cover ups of such, and my concerns, everyone I’ve ever met, everywhere I’ve lived, and even the universities I’ve graduated from are all apart of a “credible fictional story.”

      Really? The mere existence of unproven “mental illnesses” lead to abuse of power, thus should be abolished. And the psych meds can and do cause the symptoms of the DSM stigmatizations. What a pathetic state our society is in currently, and it is once again the psychiatric industry’s fault.

      Report comment

      • Thanks for the encouragement, GetItRight, I’m working on my tale. And it’s a story of the posibility of this wonderful world of connectivity and love amoungst all of humanity, that possibly already exists within our collective unconscious. Albeit combined with the reality of living in a real world controlled by psychopaths trying desparately to bring about a U.S. “empire,” controlled by themselves.

        But, of course, psychopaths try to bring about empires with force and injustice, despite the reality that a worldwide peaceful empire will never be brought about by anything other than love and justice.

        It is a tale of good vs evil, but one with hope the decent will all eventually awaken, and our world will evolve into a society more spectacular than any one of us could dream up alone; one only all of us together could conjure up in our collective wildest dreams, fantasies, hopes, and prayers.

        Report comment

  3. Mr. N’s story is a shining example of why avoiding the trap of overpathologizing Mad people’s extreme states is so important to the restoration of our health and the preservation of our futures. He has exited his extreme states as a smarter, stronger, and more spiritual man than he was before he became “sick”. Tim may well have become a psychiatric zombie if had he not been cared for by a compassionate group of people who gave him the freedom and support to feel his feelings, learn from them, and eventually create tangible improvements in his life with the lessons his madness had taught him. Going against the psychiatric status-quo took real grit and ingenuity. Mr. N should be very proud of himself for taking his life into his own hands even though he was mentally, socially, and financially hanging on by his fingertips.

    Report comment

  4. Thanks Timothy. It’s helpful to hear this kind of human, qualitative, subjective writing about “unusual” severe distress and how it can be healed. Reading this is so much better than perusing tired, dead, static reports about diagnostic labels or control of symptoms via medication. Keep up the good work.

    Report comment

  5. Timothy,

    thank you for this piece, it helped me place a few things in a useful context regarding both my own journey and that of friends who suffered massive emotional loss and the resultant turmoil that engendered.

    A gentler, more open and compassionate way of thinking is, I believe, inherently more healing than the current dominant paradigms which tend to be rather brutal and punitive – about “power over” and winning, rather than embracing and understanding.

    The age old battle being played out yet again and in another context perhaps…

    Report comment

    • Hi Kim,
      Thanks so much for writing. Your response seems to connect with this quote I found from the Center for Applied Jungian Studies:

      “Just as the love experience is the real experience of a real fact, so is the vision. Whether its object be of a physical, a psychic, or a metaphysical nature does not concern us. It is psychic reality, having the same dignity as the physical. The experience of human passion stands within the frontiers of consciousness; the object of the vision, however, lies beyond. In the emotion we experience known things, but intuition leads us to unknown and hidden things, to things that are secret by nature, and which, if they are ever conscious, are intentionally hidden and secreted away; for this reason there clings to them, from time immemorial, mystery, strangeness, and illusion. They are hidden from man, and he hides from them with Deisidaimonia, seeking shelter behind the shield of science and the armour of reason. The cosmos is his day-faith which shall protect him from the night-fear of chaos.”

      C.G Jung.

      Report comment

  6. Hey, Tim.

    I’m really excited to see that you took your talk from Cooper Union and turned it into such a powerful article. This is awesome.

    Through our many discussions, it had never occurred to me that you never went through a psychiatric hospital. I’m happy to see there are some people in the US who make it through their awakening without entering the system.

    I find myself writing and rewriting my responses to your story. I’m not sure what I’m trying to capture in my response. I love that you’ve captured the idea of mental illness as being a spiritual awakening very effectively. The language needed to convey these topics is challenging, if it exists at all. You articulated your experiences and interpretations impressively. Well done 🙂 I like the way you have pointed out that there should be a “reason” for these voices. I’m reminded of this quote: “Either things happen for a reason or they do not… it’s impossible to prove… so the choice is our which we want to go about our day believing… its a whole more fun to believe things happen for a reason.” I think when that “logic” can be applied to why one hears voices that progress can be made in coming to terms with them, addressing them, and maybe even benefiting from them. Like you, I can’t say I have experiences with traditional “voice hearing” but my “episodes” have always benefited my character in some way – their purpose was served. If only I’d been more fortunate to go through them in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. I was at least fortunate enough to be supported by a loving and caring family, I usually consider that the only reason I’ve made it as far as I have without being locked in permanently.

    I have been wanting/thinking/planning on writing some articles myself for a while now. I’ve wanted to write for a long time. There is always this barrier that I put up because of “public image” – hence writing here and doing standup under my pseudoname. The frustration always falls on the idea that, if you are in the mental health field, publishing about your personal experiences has professional benefits, while if you are in a different field, it can have more negative consequences. Or at least it feels that way. Eh, writing this reply becomes more uncomfortable as I write it since we know each other off-the-web. I guess I’m trying not to make any promises that I will post things publicly soon, especially under my real name, but I want you to know that seeing your story here provides me with some inspiration to start sharing my own story more publicly “sometime soon.”

    Report comment

  7. Reading this took me back to the many things that my grandmother told me when I was a small child and lived with her and my grandfather. She was Native American and a healer and the people of the various tribes where we lived in New Mexico revered her as a Wise Woman. She taught me that there was nothing wrong with seeing dead ancestors who visit to bring you important information for your welfare.

    But then the system got hold of her and drugged and shocked her until she was a zombie and a mere shell of her former self. But at least I still have all the things that she shared with me and taught me, things that no one else received from her. But rest assured that I do not talk about them at the state hospital where I was once held and now work. She and her teaching are not appreciated there at all.

    Thank your for sharing this.

    Report comment

  8. Mr. N, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your words. I have the greatest respect for someone who managed to get through what you described without being trapped by the system and who has actually managed to come through it all, to disavow none of it, and to actually find words to say plainly what they felt they experienced without making any excuses for it or trying to redefine it or hush it up or squeeze it into some paradigm they either don’t believe in or would find artificial. I can only express my greatest respect for managing all of that and doing it with such seeming grace and wisdom that I can do little more than gesture toward it and say it’s there.

    I recently went through a very similar experience, in a very similar geographical area (southwest New Hampshire), but I was not able to find the kind of community you are talking about, though I tried desperately to find one, and I was swept up in the “mental health system” (I hate to even use the words, but they have yet to be replaced, so that I feel like I am using the words of the oppressor to describe the very experience I am talking about in an alien, evil, and misleading language), and all in spite of my best efforts to avoid it. I was trapped, literally, at the New Hampshire Hospital for several months while going through what I think are very similar experiences to what you describe, as best I understand them, and I can only wish I had been able to reach someone like you and the groups you facilitate. Again, I tried, but failed to find anyone like you, failed to avoid the system, and now I am more or less trapped again, on a conditional discharge that denies the validity of my experiences and that forces me to take drugs, which I regard as poison.

    In the coming days I will begin pubishing a regular blog for MIA in which I will describe my experience of this horrible “mental hospital,” and I will attempt to address the same sorts of issues you raised so eloquently and gracefully in your article. I can only hope that you will read it and contribute something to the discussion that ensues. I have the greatest respect for your points of view and for the Hearing Voices Network, and I remain, once and always, an admirer of the words you put down.

    Eric Coates

    Report comment

      • A “conditional discharge” is New-Hampshire-speak for saying they can haul you back in any time they say. Technically, it means that 1) if you don’t take the meds, and they check your blood or your urine or whatever, and if the drugs aren’t there in the right levels, or 2) you, say, disagree with a social worker (“case worker”) or a psychiatrist, or, hell, the receptionist, I guess, then . . . you can be hauled back up to the state “hospital” and confined, with NO DUE PROCESS OF LAW, until they say.

        This creates an interesting situation where, for instance, you could be hauled in if your “psychiatrist”, say, decides they don’t like you having a beer now and then. One of the most menacing aspects of the collusion between all the “health professionals” who think they know something about the mind (without ever having studied it, according to the syllabi of the psychiatric schools) is that now, with it all combined into one institution, with “mental health” and “substance abuse” all paired into one system, the pharmaceutical companies now control the whole ball of wax. If you’re distressed, say, from the loss of a loved one, and you have a couple drinks down at the local bar, they can now haul you in for having had that drink. What this means in practice is that, while charging you loads of moolah for a prescription for Attivan or Lorazepam or whatever they call it, you can now go to what is more or less a jail if you dare to indulge in a non-prescription, non-pharmaceutical company drug.

        One of the most interesting aspects of my experience in the state institution was how nicotine was handled. I swear that 90% of the problems were caused by locked doors that no one could leave to go outside and have a cigarette. Rather than hand out some good nicotine gum, they handed out what was clearly some sort of substandard “polycrilex” nonsense that had virtually no impact, did it AT MOST every two hours, and then stood back and watched people scream and pound the counter for more.

        That’s the new Psychiatric-Neurological-Pharmaceutical-Prison Complex at work. Watch and see what it does next. They just installed ARMOR on the front of the building. I’m not kidding.

        Report comment

  9. I look forward to reading your work, Eric, and you will have much more to offer as your story progresses (certainly more than I can hope to add to the discussion). As hard as it may sound, you could write about what happens when we offer a hand of friendship to those who make our lives difficult. You’re in a great position to make it happen! At some level we are all participating in “the system,” and we will only change it one heart at a time.

    Report comment

  10. I think the matter of voice hearing is complex, and is likely not all the same. I have mental connections with other minds, too. It’s called telepathy. In my case, I can prove my telepathy. In addition to telepathy, I also have visions (precognition and sometimes retrocognition) and kinetic states (mostly pyrokinesis). I also have eternal memory (pre-existence, the big bang, previous life times and more). It’s normal that we can hear and see, mentally. The sickening, life-destroying, murderous crime against humanity is how SOME people have decided to brainwash others to believe these things are not real or are abnormal disease. Mental activity can be quite distressing but that it distresses, confuses, overwhelms, alarms, frightens, etc. does not mean that it’s a disease.

    Voice hearing is most likely to be fusion with other minds (telepathy) but some forms of voice hearing could likely be non-spirit related internalized abuse. Mental space is not limited to beneath our skulls or behind the walls of buildings. Our minds are atmospheric and have no boundaries. Like the atmosphere has multiple layers (exosphere, troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, ionosphere), the mind is just as vast (even moreso, actually) but instead of calling it layers, it’s called dimensions or planes. The higher, the better. The lower, the worse.

    Life on the inside of ourselves is interconnected. There are no boundaries. If somebody has connected with a tormentor, there’s likely some sin going on in each person. If somebody gets angry and refuses to admit their sin, they put themselves at risk for even greater suffering. People hate divinity, hate the bible, hate the truth. But if they actually read the bible, and comprehend it, they’ll find that quite a bit of it is about that very thing (the unbelievers, the unrepentant). Hatred is a sin. In today’s world, the war has gotten so bad that people like me are deemed to be violating some sort of right of the unbeliever. Or, if I discuss the truth, I’m “forcing religion on them” or “shoving it down their throat”. That’s their small-minded, brainwashed, deluded, conformity of ignorance (unknowing) talking. If I fall silent and cease to speak the truth, evil has gained a victory.

    People of psychiatry and the mental system attend support groups. People of spirituality attend seminars (some are educational and some are for healing). It’s basically the same thing but different houses, different focus, different understanding, different application.

    Ever hear the phrase “go to the light”? Most people think it refers to what occurs in death but it very much applies to the life we live, here on earth. Psychiatry and the mental system is the house of the dark. Spirituality and religion are the houses of the light.

    There are people in the world called “channelers”. They literally channel the minds of others and communicate with them. Those people, the channelers, are CLEAR channels. They have no confusion about what they experience. The difference for “voice hearers” is that they don’t know what exists beyond the mental illness brainwash system, and so when they go looking for information and support, to understand their experience, they arrive at the mental junk yard (psychiatry). Either all channelers are mentally ill schizophrenics, or all so-called mentally ill schizophrenics need to go to the light.

    In religion, this phenomenon of mental communication is called Holy Communion. Communion is another word for communication. Holy indicates that the communication is happening temporally (mentally). The mind is the kingdom of God, you know.

    Anyway, here’s a video about channeling and spirit communication. It might be beneficial to some voice hearers.

    Report comment