Engaging Voices, Part 1: Validating The Arrival of My Wife’s First ‘Alters’

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The following is the third excerpt adapted from Healing Companions, a book by the MIA author Sam Ruck (his pen name) that describes his life with, and love for, his wife and her “alters.” His earlier installments addressed the problems with “delusions” and “paranoia” and “psychosis.”

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he  summer after my wife started counseling sessions, she began to hear voices. When she first told me about them, I asked her what they said. She learned to listen to them, and then repeat what they said to me. And then I would respond in a way to engage and validate the voices. It was kind of like having a conversation with someone on the phone, but someone else was holding the phone and relating the other person’s responses back to me.

This was 16 years ago. Since then, a group of seven other voices have emerged, each of them a dissociated “part” of my wife that sprang from an aspect or incidence of abuse she suffered long ago. They all have different personalities, ages, abilities, and names: Amy, Tina, Jenny, Sophia, K.A., Allie, Shellie, and Ka’ryn, my wife’s host. Over the years I’ve worked to welcome them into the family one by one, understanding and loving them as best I can, and making them feel more at ease in this outer world rather than the inner construct they built to protect themselves. As I’ve written in past excerpts for Mad in America, in the process I’ve also worked to understand my wife’s “delusions” and “paranoia”; I’ve listened to her and come to see the term “psychosis” as problematic; and I’ve shared my insights with others striving to help their loved ones.

The first voice that emerged, all those years ago, seemed to be young. Since I was trying to engage this voice, I decided to do things that might interest a little girl. I began to play some of the childhood games we still had at our house from our son’s childhood with my wife. Sometimes our son would join us. I also watched a number of children’s shows with my wife, like My Little Pony and Jem and the Holograms

But I think I really connected with this voice when I suggested she put makeup on my face. I remember seeing my wife’s own face transform as the little girl inside her came out and delightedly glammed me up.

It wasn’t long after that party, after months of validating and engaging that voice and near the end of that first summer on our healing journey together, when the voice in my wife’s head decided to come out and engage me directly. I had heard about various “parts” when a person has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), but this voice didn’t feel safe to tell me her name when she introduced herself. For my part I refused to say “hey, you,” and so I gave her a name based on my incorrect understanding of my wife’s DID. But she loved the name I’d given her and embraced it as her own even later, when she told me her original name: Amy.

When Amy first came out, however, my wife, Ka’ryn, “disappeared.” Amy took over with a voice and demeanor change, but more than that, Ka’ryn lost all track of time. She went “inside,” and that was when we began to learn about dissociation. We had unknowingly “uncorked the genie,” and once out, Amy didn’t ever want to go back inside and be trapped there again! She had never had the love of her own parents, and she quickly asked me if I would be for her that loving daddy figure she had never known. We had opened Pandora’s Box, and the chaos was about to begin!

The Concept of Voices, and How To Engage Them

If you notice, unlike “paranoia,” “delusions,” and “psychosis,” I have not put this aspect of my wife’s experiences in quotes. The concept of voices is  the first thing in our common wisdom about mental health distress that I have found to be helpful. And yet, our common wisdom belittles this phenomenon and often pathologizes it. Instead of embracing voices as something many of us naturally experience when properly understood, too many in our culture twist and shroud hearing voices in shame, fear, and ignorance.

So, what are voices and how does one engage them in a way that is helpful and healing in our loved ones? What do you believe about the voices that some people hear? I remember wrestling with that question when my wife and I first started the journey. How I answered that question would determine how I engaged them—or whether I engaged them at all.

I remember some of the options I considered. As I already said, the usual attitude  typically views voices as inherently pathological. They are a sign of mental illness. They are a sign that the person is crazy or going mad. They are a sign of delusion, and not real in any sense. And, supposedly, they can make people do scary and dangerous things that are uncontrollable. Because this is the prevailing “wisdom,” so much of our mental health industry is centered on stamping out or controlling those voices. They are seen as forces to be actively opposed at worst or begrudgingly tolerated at best.

Another option is that these voices are real, but they are coming from an outside source. As someone with a deeply Christian background, the idea that God or angels or even demons could be communicating with a person is something I can’t dismiss out of hand. Neither can I dismiss the possibility that beings from outer space or other dimensions could be communicating with a person. Universal negatives are simply unprovable.

Though I sought those kinds of experiences my entire life because of my religious background, I never experienced them. I often watched people around me in charismatic and Pentecostal churches seeming to have supernatural experiences with God and angels and wondering what was wrong with me that I never did, too. If the outside sources of voices are real, more power to the hearer, but based on my complete lack of success in that regard after decades of trying, I decided it was unlikely the voices my wife was experiencing fell into this category.

So I landed with the last option that I thought was most viable: that voices, no matter how they express themselves internally or seemingly externally, are just a part of that person’s mind. And if these voices my wife started to hear were part of her own mind, then they were a part of my greater wife that I wanted to engage, especially as she urged me to do so. Much later in our journey, I believe this option was fully vindicated as we learned about dissociation and how it works in all our minds.

Parts in Search of a Safe ‘Space’

In my memoir, I tried to paint a picture of mental dissociation and the voices that easily fit into it. All trauma that causes overwhelming pain and fear is sequestered (i.e., dissociated) by our mind no matter the nature of said trauma. If the person continues to experience trauma, then the mind continues to try and find “space” to sequester the trauma within its framework. And when the trauma is not quickly resolved with the help of someone trusted, preferably the primary attachment figure, then the dissociation becomes systemic and permanent unless someone comes along to later help undo it.

Now imagine a house that is filled with disconnected rooms, and in each room an occupant is trapped. If one occupant makes noises or speaks, another occupant in another room might be able to hear it, but that sound or voice might feel frightening, scary, foreign, friendly, etc., depending on each one involved in that limited interaction. In fact, if the occupants are put in these rooms at a young enough age, children have fertile imaginations, and the sky is the limit for what these noises and voices could represent to others trapped within the house—but with no way to discover the other occupants.

This image of the house is a very, very basic analogy of what my wife and I have found extreme mental dissociation to be like. We have found that those voices were just lost parts and pieces of her greater self which were forced to sequester because of the unbearable pain and fear each held from the trauma she suffered as a little girl, and the lack of a loving and affirming relationship with her own parents. And because of how early she experienced the trauma, the “doors” in her internal house were nailed shut, unlike the more mild and moderate forms of dissociation most of us ignore in our own lives.

At the very beginning of our journey together, my wife declared: “I might have DID, honey…” She and I began to engage the voice she started to hear—even though we were told we would make things worse by engaging my wife’s voices. Engagement is not what our culture believes should be done, and yet these voices were desperate for engagement with me, whether for love or security or to validate anger. One was so heartbroken when she read an article about getting rid of “smaller alters” (called splinters) like herself, her desperate plea was: “I don’t want to die. Please don’t make me go away!” I replied to her, “Honey, I have fought too hard to find you and make a life with you. I love you, and I would never let anyone get rid of you!”

From the perspective of each of these voices they are real, and they are distinct from the one I had always recognized as my wife, Ka’ryn, because they are part of my “greater wife,” Ka’ryn Marie. Ka’ryn is my wife’s ‘host’, the public personna most people know. But in reality, Jenny, Sophia, Tina, Shellie, Amy, K.A. Allie + Ka’ryn = Ka’ryn Marie, the woman I married 35 years ago. Each one wanted to be valued and validated for herself. Each one was desperate for the loving, safe relationship with me and our son of the type that she had never known because of her childhood trauma. 

The General’s Arrival

Amy and Sophia were the first two “alters” to join my marriage and family. Then, in the second year of our healing journey, Ka’ryn and Amy began to tell me about “the General,” an angry voice of the sort that drives so much of our cultural fear of this phenomenon. 

This voice was still inside, and it was enraged! It hated me for some reason. It said vile things about me that neither my wife nor Amy would relay to me. So, what do you do when someone hates you? I asked my wife why I was hated so much by this voice, and right away my wife produced a list of a number of offenses this voice accused me of. Now, I had a choice: would I defend myself or would I accept these accusations as valid even if I didn’t fully agree with them?

I was reminded of a quote that “apologizing doesn’t always mean you’re wrong and the other person is right. It means you value your relationship more than your ego.” Moreover, to be honest, many of the accusations had merit.

We’d had a stressful marriage for 20 years. I wasn’t perfect no matter how hard I had tried to be a good husband. I had failed many times to live up to the Christian ideal of sacrificial love. And so, I began the process of repairing my relationship with this angry voice. Whatever “the General” accused me of, I would first make sure I understood the extent of my offense in her opinion, so that I could make full and unpatronizing apologies. I never gave “my side of the story.” The first time I apologized to “the General,” my wife said the angry voice got quiet and didn’t know what to do with my apology.

For the next six months I worked through “the General’s” grievances she had against me. With each sincere apology from me, her anger began to lessen. I never defended myself. And sometimes she accused me of things I knew I had never done, but I realized that the voice was expressing anger from past trauma, too, and it had no access to confront her abuser as he was long gone in the past without name or location. So I allowed myself to hold the anger she had for him as well (and just in case any are wondering, a few years later, when this part was in a better place, she came to me and apologized to me for accusing me of things she knew I wasn’t responsible for during this time). Little by little her anger was extinguished. No lie, this was an emotionally painful and draining process for me, as I’m sure it was for her, too.

During this process of apologizing, “the General” decided to come out and directly deal with me one night. The first time she did, I freaked out. I thought I was in the Exorcist movie as this sullen, gravelly-sounding, venom-filled voice suddenly sat in our bed. I said, “Who is this?” She spat, “It’s Me!” Once I calmed down and realized what was going on, I began to engage her. She had come out to inform me that a meltdown I was having at that moment was not helping Ka’ryn and Amy feel safe. Sigh. And so, my feelings be damned (because my overarching goal was for us to make it through this journey together), I tried to pull myself together and get back in control of myself.

The Defender, ‘The General,’ Becomes Alexandra

That began the engagement I had with “the General.” But another rule I had was: I never, ever talked with these voices without a personal name. “The General” refused to tell me her name, and so I gave her one. I made it clear that if she didn’t like the name, she could change it at any time, but I refused to call her “hey you” or “the General,” which was a derogatory name my wife and Amy called her. I knew how important it had been to Amy and Sophia, the first two voices, for me to engage them as real and develop a personal relationship with each one. So I named “the General” Alexandra, and we began an alliance in which I helped her protect and keep the others safe.

She is my wife’s “warrior” voice or “defender” voice, as it is called in the DID community. I would regularly ask Alexandra how I could protect and care for the others better. I let Alexandra know, “I will help you, if you let me. You aren’t alone anymore.” Slowly, Alexandra, who saw me as an adversary, begrudgingly accepted me as an ally and continued to let go of her anger. And then I remember the day she accepted a little Webkinz “love froggy” (stuffed animal) from me just like a delighted 8-year-old girl would do, wrapping it up in her arms and looking at me with absolute love and adoration in her eyes. It’s a moment that still brings tears to my own eyes, because that transformation was so hard for both of us to achieve.

But that was just the beginning of her transformation. When she accepted that gift from me, she wanted to change her name to something she preferred to express her newfound freedom to be the little girl she truly was. See, she had been forced to be the lonely warrior, desperately trying to protect the others inside my wife since her own parents had been too self-absorbed and broken to protect their daughter from her neighborhood abuser and other threats during her childhood. Alexandra had no hope of winning against any adult abuser in the future other than to puff herself up like those little lizards that inflate their necks to appear larger than life to scare off would-be predators. 

And so “the General” was a combination of bravado and desperation as she attempted to do an impossible job she simply couldn’t do on her own. As I saw past her projection of bravado and engaged her on her terms, but with an eye toward a better relationship, slowly she was released from her past and wanted to join me in that better relationship.

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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.

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6 COMMENTS

    • Hi Someone Else,
      thanks for the offer. I wish I could prevail upon her to meet with others, but she is terrified of losing her rights if she comes out. I try to assure her that with me on her side, I don’t think that would happen, but I don’t know if you have noticed when you/we renew our driver’s license here in Ohio, it asks if you dissociate…They don’t even understand what dissociation is, but someone felt the need to put a question about it on the form, sigh…
      Anyway, I really do hope one day you, she and I can meet.
      Sam

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        • Yes, she has a driver’s license. Maybe they took the question back off the renewal form. It was there a few years ago when she and I both renewed our licenses. But there was no explanation of the consequences…other than we were left to assume they wouldn’t be good.
          Sam

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          • I ran into a really weird – but good – situation with the DMV, when I was renewing my license … years ago … when I was healing from psychiatrists’ egregious anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings.

            The seeming manager of the DMV that I went to renew my license, kind of followed me around, as I went from checking in with her, to being called up to renew my license with her.

            And she, seemingly intentionally, neglected to ask me a question about whether I had any symptoms which could be problematic when driving.

            At the time I did have quite severe, and not yet controllable, “brain zaps” … so I was grateful she neglected to ask me that question. And I was easily able to renew my license, without lying.

            Hopefully, your wife won’t run into any problems with the BMV either.

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