“Don’t tell them you hear voices. They won’t understand. They don’t believe in the spiritual,” my mother whispered in my ear as she hugged me tight. Those were her last words to me before she left me at the mental health center after I had attempted suicide. I was just sixteen years old.
I knew from her words and the strength of her embrace that she was afraid of letting go, afraid to leave me there, afraid of misunderstanding— and ultimately afraid of misdiagnosis due to the differences between the communities of faith and communities of science.
I was afraid too, so afraid.
I did hear voices.
In the darkest moments of my depression they would come — terrible and taunting whispers, calling my name, telling me over and over “You are going to die.” Though they were whispers they were insidious and inescapable. My radio turned to the highest volume couldn’t drown them out and a pillow over my head could not muffle their sound.
My faith taught me these voices were demons, the forces of evil sent to torment, and I accepted this as true. I did not understand that these auditory hallucinations were a symptom of severe depression, rather I saw them as evidence that I was wicked. I did not see myself as someone with an illness, but as a moral failure.
So when my doctor asked me, “Do you hear voices?” I remembered my mother’s warning, looked at my feet, and shook my head no. I did not want be diagnosed with an illness when I believed that the reason I heard voices was that I was being punished for my sins.
And when my pastor came to visit and asked me, “How are you doing now?”
I looked at my hands and mumbled, “I’m fine now. Thank you.” I did not want to acknowledge how weak my faith was in the face of the torment I was living in.
I left the hospital with another set of medicines that didn’t touch the depression. Over the next four years the voices would leave for long periods when I was not depressed only to return as the depression returned. Mercifully, these hallucinations were not an all the time thing for me. They were rare, but intense and terrifying– often driving me to hurt myself.
Then gradually as I learned to live without harming or starving myself, my depression became milder, and I never heard voices like that again. It was once I had stopped hearing voices for a few months that I connected how the voices came only when I was severely depression. I stopped blaming myself and refused to consider the voices I had heard as a sign of spiritual failure.
But I kept lying about how I was to my doctors and my pastors.
I kept up my pattern of not admitting when I was feeling depressed, of hiding my illness, of not disclosing my symptoms even when asked directly. I kept saying, “I’m okay,” even when I was not okay because I did not trust that doctors would respond to my mental health concerns with empathy. I felt ashamed of admitting when I was not coping with stress and emotions effectively and I was afraid they would judge me or push me to try another medication. In church I did not trust that my pastors would respond with belief in the validity of my illness. I was afraid they would blame me.
Ultimately I lied about my condition because knew the labels that often come along with admitting to seasons of depression, to fear of relapse into eating disorders, or to a history of auditory hallucinations. I did not want to be seen as weak— I wanted to be seen as strong and stable.
The problem is that lying left me to face an illness alone. If I had told the truth about the severity of my depression during my teenage years, there might or might not have been more effective treatments available to me; but there certainly would have been more emotional support available to me when I was experiencing auditory hallucinations.
It is hard to admit to the things we have been taught to feel shame about, but telling the truth is often the key to change. I no longer lie about mental illness or downplay my symptoms. I have come to a place where I allow myself to recognize the strength it takes to reject shame and reach out for help.
For so many years I lived sure of the fact that if people really knew the extent of my depression they would reject me, but when I finally opened up my experience was the complete opposite. Transparency about how mental illness affects me has brought into my life deep friendships. I know now that I am not alone and I do not have to face depression alone. When depression comes instead of feeling trapped in my own fear and shame I am surrounded by people who care about me, people who challenge me to keep reaching out.
So when I feel ashamed and I want to hide I tell myself, “Don’t let fear of stigma be what keeps you from telling the truth. Don’t live alone with mental illness. You matter to so many people. So many people want to help, but only you can tell them how.”
And I pick up my phone— and make a call— and tell the truth about mental illness.
Wow, what a moving story! Thank you so much for sharing it.
I have always said, the bravest and most courageous people that I have known, have struggled with a mental illness. I make the aforementioned statement after working as a psychiatric nurse, growing up with a father diagnosed with schizophrenia and through my involvement with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
I have had the privilege of supporting many clients on their recovery journey, which in turn, helped me to come to a greater understanding and appreciation of my father’s journey with his mental illness.
I am grateful for the clients who trusted me enough to share their darkest, most scary thoughts and feelings brought on by symptoms of their illness. The insight and empathy that I have gained from working with clients and families over the past 20+ years is a treasured gift.
By brave clients, like you, sharing their stories, the STIGMA associated with mental illness can no longer flourish in the dark. Your story puts the spotlight on the amount of courage it took for you to share your truth with those trying to help you. Thank you!
Are you able to live in peace now? Are there more people like you do you know of? What would you say helps or helped most when you hear voices and you don’t know how or where to turn for help but it’s like the whole world has changed and how do u ever get away or peace of them?
I don’t feel brave for sharing that an evil voice torments me in my mind for 18 years now & that I have had to fight suicide as hard as I can for the past 18 years because of it & that no kind of drug or therapy or religious intervention of any kind has helped me at all in any kind of way & that nobody cares at all about me or my problem & that after suffering for many years with this I finally got to the point where I had to go on disability & now I’m living below the poverty level. I have completely isolated myself because of this problem & feeling that nobody can relate to me nor I to them anymore because of this problem. I only leave my bedroom to minimally take care of my personal needs, take care of my 2 pets that are forced to live outside & to go to doctor appointments as I also have health problems , psychiatrist & therapy sessions which do not help me at all except for the medication that I cannot sleep at all without. I thought that I would share this in case there is anyone else out there who is also in my situation who might stumble across this and read it. If this is you- my heart goes out to you.
I’m so sorry this haunts you into your adult life and you cannot find peace. I wish I could help you somehow. My 14 year old son is hearing awful voices and they’re tormenting him and I feel so helpless. I pray for you to beat this and live a happy and healthy life one day. You are not alone and there are people, even strangers, who really do care.
My heart goes out to you, Vi. Thank you for sharing your story. It reminds me of many of my visits as a hospital chaplain to our facility’s 70-something bed behavioral health center. These are some of my best visits as a chaplain. Almost all of them report auditory experiences and suicidal ideations. They are not to be shamed. Nor labeled psychotic. I attempt to leave them with three thoughts (from an article I recently wrote and which I leave with my patients): “One, God loves us. He absolutely delights in us. He sees us as people of worth and immense human significance. Most of us have been rejected by others in one way or another throughout life, ‘but in the sight of God we are chosen and precious.’ This is our true identity. Our Creator delights in us and finds us to be people of incredible worth.
Two, there is hope for our lives, regardless if we have entertained thoughts of ending it or not. As Betsie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who died in a German concentration camp for helping many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, once stated, ‘There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.’ Yes, there is hope for everyone that has found him or herself in the pit of emotional and mental despair.
Three, investigations in neuroscience in recent decades have revealed that the brain can be reprogrammed. Peace and joy can be experienced as new pathways of thinking, feeling, imagining, and acting are established.” Vi, I cannot say how and where and when these thoughts might be fleshed out in your life, but I believe as you open yourself to the “God-reality” something life-giving just might slowly begin to happen!
Thank you for sharing your experience. Thank you for being transparent.