Hear No Evil

By November 3, 2016Blog

I listened intently as the man told his story of homelessness and his struggles with mental illness. I had suspected that his indulgence in alcohol and drugs had taken him to some pretty dark places, but I hadn’t heard his whole story. As he wrapped it up he said, “I no longer hear voices…and I don’t talk back to them either.” The room broke into peals of laughter, as if what he was saying was meant to be funny when clearly his intent was the opposite. Was the group just expressing relief at the end of a harrowing story, or was this stigma at play? Judging from their response, I’d have to go with the latter, and that made my heart sink. I had to speak up. How do we still consider the torment of mental illness to be a source of humor?

When a normal person says something like “A little voice in my head said, ‘Go to the grocery’,” that “voice” is their own internal dialogue. It is not a product of psychosis.

A “little voice” tells you which toy to pick out for your niece or nephew; another tells you to check your watch to make sure that you don’t miss the bus. These are your thoughts. They aren’t actually manifested as concrete voices—it’s a manner of speech as you relate your story. You’re demonstrating that you were absentmindedly going about your day when you suddenly realized that you had something important to do, something that you didn’t want to forget. But you’re not hearing voices.

I have schizophrenia. When I’ve heard voices come from outside my head as if someone were speaking directly to me—only there’s no one there— that’s the kind of voice one hears in an auditory hallucination. There’s nothing funny about that kind of voice. It’s a jarring experience, one that never feels commonplace. These are voices that belittle, voices that badger, taunt, and demand. I have no control over them organically; anti-psychotic medication has helped to suppress them. And yes, I have often talked back to them, as I would any other voice coming from a person standing next to me. But is that something worth laughing at?

Why is this symptomatic earmark considered a thing of comedy when it is clearly disturbing and sometimes harmful to the person enduring it? Is there any other symptom of mental illness more commonly ridiculed than the hearing of voices? I can’t think of an equivalent in the medical world that garners the laughter and demeaning cruelty of auditory hallucinations. Do we universally laugh at a concussion? Does hilarity ensue at the mention of cancer? Absurd to consider, yet we don’t think twice about giggling at a person beleaguered by voices.

The stereotype of the person talking to themselves is a common trope in theater, film, and literature. Why is that? Perhaps it’s meant to signify that one has lost touch with reality; the audience’s fear of losing control is so ingrained that they need to laugh to show their discomfort. Maybe the screenwriter inserts the scene into the movie to guarantee a few well-timed chuckles. Is this an irresponsible perpetuation of stigma, or merely pandering to a crowd already primed to mock? It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario, but should be considered a source of outrage either way.

Some might say that I’m being “too sensitive”. Maybe I’d do better just to let the laughter continue, passing it over as if nothing’s really happening, you know, call myself an advocate in word only. Not likely. If I have to fight back against the voices that have plagued me since I was a child, then I have every right to speak out against the stigma and discrimination inherent in the public’s use of ridicule of the mentally ill for entertainment purposes.

Am I taking umbrage a bit too far? I think not. I wouldn’t belittle a person for the color of their skin or their sexual preference, and I don’t stand idly by when someone else does. How is this any different? Hearing voices is no laughing matter. In fact, in some cases it’s dead serious. When command voices were telling me to kill myself, you can bet I wasn’t laughing, and neither were the hospital staff or my friends when I went inpatient for attempted suicide. Make no mistake, the unconscionable laughter can be as denigrating as outright prejudice.

Let’s work together to end this inexcusable behavior. There’s plenty of wonderful ways to generate laughter without having to make fun of a person caught in the talons of mental illness. There is no debate here. That laughter is a form of bullying. When it begins, open up a conversation. Share your story. Create the solution.

17 Comments

  • Eric Heia says:

    Good read. Much love.

  • Suzanne Lea says:

    Thank you for sharing this! Even as someone who lives with mental illness, you have given so much to think about!

  • Linda A says:

    My son hears voices and believe me it is not a laughing matter. He has no self confidence or self esteem because of this disease. I fight for him and it breaks my heart to see the stigma he and others have to endure.

    • Henry Boy says:

      Thank you for your comment, Linda. I understand what your son is going through with regards to the issues of self confidence and esteem. Voices can render those very basic blocks null and void, and stigma only reinforces that. My heart goes out to him. Bless you both.

  • Elizabeth says:

    My daughter just turned 25 and is struggling with calming her voices, unfortunately she turned to drugs because of them and is in treatment but has relapsed a couple times while on meds. She isn’t anywhere near as articulate as you are and I know her path is very challenging being dual diagnosed. Thank you for sharing, your words speak volume, and a truth that should be told. I wish you the best.

    • Henry Boy says:

      Thank you for commenting, Elizabeth. I am sorry for your daughter’s struggles—a dual diagnosis is a challenge, but one that can be managed. I have one, too, and find the tools of talk therapy, meds, and treatment to work for me. I hope they will for her as well. My best to you both.

  • Marc Rios-Klein says:

    You are NOT taking umbrage too far. We must stand up and take issue with these offensive and insultive uses of mental illness for comedic relief. Thank you for being the consummate advocate that you are!!

  • Catherine says:

    People laugh when they are uncomfortable and without knowledge sometimes. I think your article is going to help people understand it isn’t appropriate at all to laugh in this instance. Infact once they know this they would likely feel embarrassed they were laughing in the first place at a person who has suffered.
    Keep writing, you have a gift!

  • smileandrelax says:

    Hi HBJ,

    This is probably a very complex issue; I’m thinking humor is only harmful when it is used deliberately to hurt someone, but if humor is used to provide relief then it is okay with me. We humans are always constrained by our perspectives and in any group, a “joke” may allow some to find relief from tension while others find their pain to be trivialized or ignored.

    I know that personally, at the family support group I attend and in other settings, I’ve needed to remind people on MANY occasions that people are *suffering*. Family members use the support group legitimately as a safe space in which to vent and gripe about their frustrations, but in doing so, it is plain for me to see that they are often oblivious to the real distress experienced by the person – often their adult child – who is sick. I have been struck repeatedly by what I interpret as a lack of empathy in the parent; often times, a parent of someone who is sick describes the behavior of their child exclusively, without any mention of the feelings s/he may be experiencing.

    Because this is a support group, though, and the person with the mental illness is usually NOT present, I’ve had an opportunity to listen closely and offer feedback to these parents that attempts to express that suffering. Speaking of hearing voices, have you ever felt like you are talking to a wall? Some parents seem perfectly sane, and have careers, spouses, mortgages, and friends, but zero ability to relate to their own child’s emotions or suffering. It’s not hopeless, though. I understand when speaking to someone like that, someone who may have pronounced narcissistic traits when it comes to their kids, that s/he is at this meeting out of desperation. More times than not, such a person tries desperately to receive what I saying, absorb the feedback, and carve out a new space internally from which to better connect with their loved one who is ill.

    This process can take a long time but I have seen it work and seen families change their usual routine and learn more effective ways to manage their situation.

    So what does this have to do with humor? It is definitely an entry-point, a point where intervention can begin, and also a point where all of us can heighten awareness of ourselves – the places where we are indifferent to others’ pain, where others have been indifferent to our own pain, and ultimately, where we have to take responsibility for the authenticity of our connections with others by acknowledging either our INSENSitivity or our SENSitivity, whichever the case may be.

    In my studies of recovery from schizophrenia, I have read that those afflicted with this illness are ultimately hostile towards themselves – specifically, to awareness of their feelings and thoughts. (It is suggested by some psychiatrists that the developing self in this disease became suicidal and then totally repressed whole aspects of emotional response.) Familial patterns that also fail to acknowledge emotions are obvious reinforcers of the disease. So are “jokes” that are only funny in the absence of acknowledgement of the suffering of others.

    • Henry Boy says:

      HI, smileandrelax –

      When humor is used to provide relief, I consider it the best medicine available. When it is used in harmful ways, to belittle or denigrate, then it’s no longer humor, in my opinion. I sense we’re of like minds there. Keeping life in perspective, complicated as it is.

      I grew up in a family where humor was put to good use in combating the most difficult of life’s situations. If someone inadvertently crossed the line, we worked through it. The safe space you speak of in your support group would be an equivalent to our family dynamic. Naturally, I would sometimes misconstrue the humor, as my symptom set often got things confused as a matter of course. It took work to find my way out of the entanglement and into the light.

      You ask if I have ever felt like I was talking to a wall. Boy, have I! I had an acquaintance who accompanied me to the hospital on two occasions and both times spent the ride there shouting at me, “Henry, it’s not real!” rather than empathizing or allowing me to live with the terror of voices and delusions. Over time I gave him the benefit of the doubt, realizing that he was probably scared or shocked by my behavior. I ran into a similar challenge at one hospital, where the orderlies treated me as if every word I uttered was nonsense (although I must admit, there’s a chance that it was – word salad being what it is). It’s harder to remain objective when one is in psychosis. Nature of the beast and all. Hindsight teaches me to practice tolerance and love.

      I like the point you make about the authenticity of our connections. I feel the same way. With respect to feeling hostile towards myself (as a person living with schizophrenia), my thoughts and feelings, there have been times in my experience where this has been true. I refer to it as self-stigma, and I find that I need to work very hard at keeping it in check, despite my diligence in recovery.

      Thanks for your insights, smileandrelax. Much appreciated.

  • Julianne K says:

    You’re inspiring, Thank you

  • Carol S. says:

    As always , Henry, you add the personal touch. For too long we have never heard the story from those affected . Thank you, my friend!

    • Henry Boy says:

      You’re welcome, Carol – and thanks for your comment. Hearing voices is one of the hardest symptoms to explain. It’s terrifying, too. That it gets minimized in popular culture is a real shame. My best to you and your loved one.

Leave a Reply