“Happy Birthday, Dear Mary Magdalene, Happy Birthday, to you.”
I didn’t know life was about to become a timeless, magnificent, yet terrifying, and, overall, an endless mission to embrace a birthright I had never known existed. It all began as I stood staring out the window of a Barnes and Noble listening to the sweetest, most angelic voice I had ever borne witness to in my “mortal life” or any other reality. It didn’t matter that to the rest of the world I looked like a disheveled mess, unshowered (but with a TON of makeup on) and wearing the same black outfit I had worn every single day without washing it for at least the last 6 months. This would be the most put together I would appear for close to a year. But none of that mattered, not today, not on the day I was to be reborn. I can honestly say I’ve never felt a more intense flow of pride and purpose wash over me. I was about to find meaning in the vast pain and suffering I had been enduring my entire 20-something years long life. Finally, it made sense that my whole life sucked so colossally; because God was preparing something bigger for me than the excitement I felt when the Social Security Administration made a mistake and let me be my own rep-payee again. I got to go all by myself to cash my monthly disability check at the local Walmart each month and up until then it was one of the highlights of my existence.
In that moment, upon hearing the sweet melody proclaiming me as Mary Magdalene, I was initiated into a twisted, dark version of the gnostic mystery school (delivered via the sanctity of the voices I hear that others don’t) where I would give up earthly concerns to embody my new life as a high priestess and yes, Jesus Christ’s wife.
Mary was, after all, one of the most misunderstood figures in the history of the world, certainly an identity I shared. I may not have spent my afterlife watching as the Catholic Church framed me as a harlot to further their agenda of oppressing women and keeping them out of church leadership (which they publicly but ever so discreetly apologized for in the 1960’s), but I definitely did know what it felt like to be the black sheep. Forget black sheep, I had spent much of my life being the psychedelic sheep.
But standing in that bookstore, as the misfit I was, I would finally belong. The mission was just beginning, and it would take me on the greatest journey of my life, where there were highs, lows, exploitation, magic and a lot of sacred phenomena that is hard to replicate on paper.
It all ended with a bang on a busy bridge in Boston when my car began to run out of gas and a voice commanded loudly, “You will get out of this car and walk in front of the cars coming at you and yes, Mary, they will hit you, but you will finally bestow the world with proof that Mary has been reborn and you are here to rule in your rightful place, as queen. I promise you Mary, you will not die, you will rise to the heavens and be placed back in the mortal world to lead with your husband Jesus. Now go and destroy yourself to create who you were meant to be.”
I watched visions of Jesus on the cross and myself in burgundy, kneeling below him weeping. I knew there was no other choice but to obey. After all, for months it had been just me and my voices. They had proven themselves worthy of loyalty. I stepped out of the car and into the busy traffic on the bridge and heard cars beeping and people screaming about a crazy lady in the road. I smiled, knowing they couldn’t possibly understand; they were not chosen. I probably lasted about two minutes in that scenario before the ambulance showed up.
I don’t even remember them speaking to me or asking my name. I do remember the police, firefighters and paramedics forcefully throwing me on a gurney and handcuffing each of my arms to it. It only got worse from there. They took me to a large Boston hospital where I begged them to listen to my story. I pleaded with them to understand that I had incredible, spiritual work to do. I wanted to heal souls, even souls as black and filthy as theirs.
About the time that I mentioned the hospital staff’s black souls, I found myself tied to a bed being injected with what I can only guess may have been the ever-popular hospital cocktail of Haldol, Ativan and Benadryl that I had the misfortune (and sometimes blessing, due to the environments I was often trapped in) of being forcefully injected with until I was but a shell of a drooling person.
I remember the ER doctor leaning over and whispering that I would forget all about Mary soon. With that confirmation of invalidation, I clung tighter to my beliefs, voices and fears as if my life depended on it. After the institutional traumatization began that would last many months, my voices increased to a magnitude that was hard to hold. There were varying storylines — some protective, many holy and important, a few frightening and evil, and others commanding me to create mischief in the psych hospital. It also left me with more comical, unabashedly fun beliefs such as those that would lead to a marriage with an astronaut at the smoke shack after days of reading Anais Nin’s Diary to one of my fellow patients.
My voices taught me to stop thinking and stop responding and started transmitting all the thoughts and interactions I would ever need through them. They had all of the control because it was me and them against the world.
One common theme was the hospital staff’s lack of interaction with me about my experiences. Never once was I asked, “Are you hearing voices?” or “Can you share with me what you’re experiencing?” or “What are they saying?” or “Wow, that prayer sounds really meaningful to you, can you share it with us?” Forget trying to help me out of the rabbit hole, what about at least acknowledging that what I was experiencing so intensely was very much a real experience for me? Instead, they strategized how to medicate the voices out of me, and beat me into submission through the use of mental and physical force every chance they got. As I’ve since learned, this approach is sometimes called “a show of support.” But who were they supporting? Certainly not me or my voices.
We were caught in a tug of war. They wanted my voices gone. I was not going to let go of my voices, my confidants and protectors, regardless of what they did to me.
Probably scarier than anything in my own unique realities, or even consensus reality, was the day I became aware that I was “hearing voices.” I was at a program after being discharged as a complete disaster. While sitting in a group therapy session with an old dirty winter coat that possessed magical powers draped over me and rocking to the tune of my voices’ chants, I would somehow absorb a woman’s story — that she heard voices that others around her were not hearing. I don’t know why, or if the holy spirit really was in me, but much to my own surprise, I stood up and started screaming, “That’s me, I’m hearing voices too, I hear voices!”
An existential crisis was about to begin; the threat of my voices leaving me was almost too much to continue on with. I ran the four flights down to the smoking area of the program, shrieking and crying that I didn’t want anyone to take my voices away. That day I became very lucky more than once. Not only did the program staff take me back upstairs and try to convince me I was strong enough to get through this fear instead of admitting me to the inpatient unit next door, but later that night, when my breakdown continued and I begged my mother to take me to the emergency room and have me admitted to my safe zone, I would meet an ER doctor who quite likely changed the entire course of my life. He told me that hearing voices was okay and many people heard voices and stayed out of the hospital. He suggested I go back to the program and figure out a way to live with voices instead of hiding out in a hospital, where the problem, my voices, would still be waiting for me upon discharge.
I was experiencing severe akathisia (a feeling of needing to move nonstop) from antipsychotics, and I was desperate for water from the ridiculous dose of lithium inhabiting my body, but despite my terrible physical state, I took in what the doctor had to say.
I paced, sucking on ice chips, and allowed myself to have an independent thought for the first time in months. I asked myself, “Is this true, it’s really okay to hear voices?”
I don’t know what his motivation was, but that doctor planted a seed in me that I had never thought possible, and that none of the professionals managing my life had ever presented — that hearing voices was normal and didn’t mean I needed to be locked away.
I chose to go home that night. For the first time in the history of my life, I was evaluated in an ER and got to walk out by choice, with my civil rights intact. For the next several months I spent every waking minute working with my voices. It all began with a shred of hope that I could find some common ground with my voices, an idea someone would later call grandiose.
The drive to never return to another inpatient hospital after all the atrocities of my last admission was propelling me forward despite the fear that things would never change. And what a lonely road it was, thinking I was the only one in the world trying desperately to survive in a world where hearing voices was shunned and feared by those around me. Still I kept on, but never dreamed I’d create a life with meaning, passion, and purpose. That wasn’t something people like me could have.
It would be a long road that involved a totally new and foreign concept in my life, peer support, after a friend who I had gone to a day treatment program with introduced me to the Northeast Recovery Learning Community (NERLC) in Eastern Massachusetts, one of 6 organized “peer” communities across the state of Massachusetts. There I unlocked the life-changing wisdom that I was not trapped as a passive victim like I had been made to believe. Granted, it would take quite a while before I would find some type of collaboration with my voices, but the NERLC truly gave me hope that I could not only survive but thrive outside of the programs and treatment that had become my existence. I saw all the people who were working there doing it which gave me hope that I could join them.
Then the random day came when I decided to get back on a computer. I sat there staring at the screen and wondered what to look up. Then it popped into my head and I started typing “people who hear voices and are normal,” “people who hear voices and aren’t crazy,” “hearing voices and not wanting them to go away,” and on and on it went. Every phrase I typed brought up Hearing Voices Networks around the world and the umbrella organization that oversees every HVN on the globe, Intervoice. I pulled my first all-nighter since before my last hospitalization.
Throughout the nocturnal hours I stayed up reading everything I could find. I couldn’t contain my excitement; I WAS NOT ALONE. How could this be possible? As much as I still heard my voices almost constantly and had learned to collaborate and find power with them, I walked around with a scarlet letter feeling shame that this was my reality. I did secretly fear that I was not “recovered” enough to be part of this movement, but would soon learn that accepting my voices as a part of my unique reality did not mean there needed to be an absence of struggle. Life as a voice hearer isn’t always light and love, but instead is sometimes messy, dark chaos that would scare even the most avid lovers of horror or science fiction. And yes, both ways of surviving were okay.
I begged the Northeast Recovery Learning Community to send me to an HVN-USA facilitator training in Western Massachusetts. I ended up taking the training twice. The first time I went, I wasn’t totally prepared for what they would ask of me. They didn’t say I wasn’t schizophrenic or schizoaffective or any of the other diagnoses people threw at me. However, they did ask me to suspend those labels (and other language the medical model uses to box my experiences up) for the duration of the training.
I could be normal for hearing voices, but I could not, under any circumstances, give up seeing myself as broken and mentally ill. I had to flee back to the safety of my so-called “illness,” but the time I had spent with the amazing trainers from the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community stayed in my bones. And I had slowly moved away from seeing myself as fundamentally broken and helpless through immersing myself further into the world of “recovery” (or whatever you prefer to call the journey of finding out you weren’t who they told you you were) and peer support with the Northeast Recovery Learning Community.
The next time I returned to Western Massachusetts, things were different. My heart was open, and I was free to be myself. I went on to facilitate an HVN group in my community and later found other ways to get involved in the hearing voices movement. Later I would join the Hearing Voices Network USA Board of Directors and have the opportunity to be part of planning and bringing the 2017 World Hearing Voices Congress to United States soil for the first time. Living the dream doesn’t even begin to describe how the last 6 years of my life have been.
The most important lesson I learned from all my years in hellish treatment, and in my current position as a full-time Peer Specialist in a psych hospital, is that hearing voices is seen as fundamentally wrong and something that needs to be diminished or even more so eradicated as fast as possible. And sure, there are voice hearers who want their voices gone. But living trapped in that cycle of wanting to push my voices away while simultaneously guarding their presence with my life was like burning in hell while also watching it rain just out of reach to experience the cooling relief of the raindrops. I had come to realize, though, that as soon as I accepted my voices with all their fundamental flaws and idiosyncrasies, the process of accepting myself began.
As the 10th annual World Hearing Voices Congress gets closer, which is set to take place in the birthplace of the hearing voices movement, The Hague (Netherlands), I can’t help but reflect on this year’s theme “Living with Voices: A Human Right.” It immediately calls to mind how vital this movement is, and also the degree of madness that the mental health system goes to in order to convince us we do not have the right to hear voices. No one should be trying to take that away from us, especially without our consent. Instead of trying to medicate the voices into oblivion, the world would be better served by raising awareness that hearing voices is a normal yet highly unique experience — one that, if necessary, we can and should work to take our autonomy back from and find power “with” rather than “over” voices. What a wonderful world it would be if voice hearers were free of shame and fear of arrest or hospitalization if they chose to walk down the street negotiating with their voices instead of feeling compelled to obey. As I’ve found out, the struggle to collaborate with voices may always exist, but the misery of feeling all alone and helpless can be alleviated.
I facilitate an affiliated HVN group at the hospital where I work, and I often say to people when they are deep into the struggle with their voices that there really aren’t any guarantees or promises I can make about their path — and often struggles — as voice hearers, but I can look them in the eyes and promise them that I know, with absolute certainty, that they are not alone. There are millions of us all over the world; we aren’t going anywhere. Denying our reality is the same as threatening our existence.
And, in my experience, labeling my reality as wrong resulted in me holding on even tighter to the visions, voices, beliefs and other unique experiences that had taken over my life. For many of us, that means we are robbed of the right to change our minds and explore what’s happening; effectively we are kept stuck as prisoners to alternative realities. However, the grassroots hearing voices movement has been going strong for 30+ years and will continue to allow others to step into their own power and regain the freedom lost from our fractured society that sees us as the problem.
Our movement, right from the beginning with Patsy Hage, Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, has paved the way for voice hearers to finally be “seen” as wholly human. Creating a community that would accept us and the voices we hear, fully. We do not have to live at the mercy of a world that only accepts what it can personally understand. We have the right to hear voices and no longer be hidden away in the attic of taboo and misunderstood experiences. The freedom to hear voices is truly a fundamental human right.
To learn more about the 10th annual World Hearing Voices Congress happening September 13th & 14th (with Intervoice Day on the 12th and a public event on the 15th) in the Netherlands, check out http://10thworldhearingvoicescongress.nl.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.