The Stigma of Hearing Voices

By July 27, 2017Blog

I was standing in a semicircle with three other friends, enjoying a chat, when a voice from behind me said, “Over here!” I turned to see who it was, only to discover that there was no one there. My friends saw the shocked look on my face and asked if I was doing all right. I explained what had happened. They made me swear that I would call my psychiatrist the following day. I didn’t, and I’m not sure why. Or I am and don’t care to admit it. There’s a reason for that.

When I hear voices, I am usually alone. I’ve heard them in public, but only on a rare occasion like the one I described above. It’s primarily a private occurrence, and one I’m embarrassed to tell anyone about, even my psychiatrist. I want to blame his “bedside manner” so that I don’t have to be accountable for not talking with him about it, but that excuse annoys me, so I cop to it. I’m ashamed that I hear voices because that’s a symptom which virtually everyone associates with being mentally unstable. I may as well hang a sign around my neck that reads: “Crazy”.

It feels like an admission of failure to say that I hear voices, like it’s a personal flaw in my character, that I somehow have a modicum of control over the experience. I don’t. It’s an involuntary response to stress. At least that’s what science claims. I actually have no idea, even with all the research I’ve done, but it makes sense.

Hearing voices is its own phenomenon, unlike anything else. It’s jarring to hear them, even when they aren’t being condescending, cruel, or commanding. It’s like my hearing is failing me, betraying me, outing me to the rest of the world as the schizophrenic that I am.

I know that I shouldn’t care what others think of me, but this is different. When I can’t discuss the situation with a psychiatric professional, I know that something is wrong. I work hard to manage my symptoms and control the outcome. Discussing the voices with my doctor seems to highlight my weakness as a human being, illustrating that I am somehow “less than” for having heard them. Logically, this thinking is errant because it’s his job to help me analyze these experiences, and try to help me understand what’s happening, so that together we can to come up with some sort of solution. Maybe I’m afraid of the possibility that my meds will need to be increased or changed, furthering the stigma that I already feel. And that’s the real sticking point in all of this—the stigma that hearing voices carries with it.

I’ve had sessions with my therapist where all we talk about are my symptoms, and I’m comfortable telling her when I’ve heard voices. Perhaps it’s the therapist-client relationship which makes me feel more comfortable telling her about them, but I never feel as stigmatized when I do. Telling my friends is challenging because I assume they’ll respond with indifference, ostensibly to protect themselves from how bizarre the situation might appear. They may think I’m lying or seeking attention by telling them something as seemingly outlandish as, “I’m hearing things.”

This entire conundrum seems to be riddled with stigma, especially self-stigma. I beat myself up over it. I try to tell no one when I’ve heard voices, just to avoid feeling stupid. The paranoia that’s triggered when I experience an audio hallucination spreads itself out over my entire life, making relating to others nearly impossible. The question of “What if?” becomes concrete and I have no answer other than to isolate myself and not speak of it. Except that isolation begets more paranoia. It’s not the safe, controlled, environment I wish it to be. It’s a trap, and when I’m isolating, the voices take the opportunity to beleaguer me like a maleficent force bent on dismantling my mind. They embody all that is wrong with me, everything I despise about my diagnosis.

This recent uptick in symptoms has given me pause to reflect on managing my mental health and continuing to practice openness, honesty, and willingness where all angles are concerned. Natural circumstances can temporarily derail my self-care. It’s something for me to remember and keep in mind—that this is only happening now, that it will pass, and that I’ll be all right when it’s over. To trust in the doctors, the medications, and the healthy life I live when I’m not experiencing symptoms. To remember to tell my closest friends and my therapist. To remain transparent in times of duress. And to tell myself that this is the way it is to be me, and that I’m not simply “crazy”.


  • smileandrelax says:

    HBJ, I could sit here and give you a list of coping mechanisms I have witnessed in myself or others that are more mainstream and less likely to stigmatize one… say, for example, drinking excessively, promiscuity – or others that are actually advantageous in various ways , such as workaholism. But it wouldn’t matter because even if I fully accept you and don’t stigmatize you, the worst form of oppression you endure is at the hands of your own self.

    One way I handle self-recrimination is to settle down, take a few minutes for deep breathing, and then to faciltate a kind of inner dialogue between divergent aspects of my own personality. I have conflicting character traits – parts of me are more selfish, parts of me are less selfish, parts of me feel justified in being angry, parts of me do not, etcetera. I aim to create a meeting of different aspects of my own being, internally. I started doing these when memories of myself as a child began to emerge and it dawned on me that the scared child I once was still lives on in my psyche. I realised I could introduce the more mature parts of myself to that scared child within, and could self-soothe.

    I also use faith in a benevolent higher power or universal goodness to self-soothe.

    Anyway, the more I depend on my own self to manage my own self, the less importance I attribute to other people and what they think or do. My need for them to relate to and with also diminishes. The empathy I show towards myself is available to show others if I choose to, but I do not have to do that if I would prefer not to. I also experience less psychosis because I am more integrated.

    I am highly emotional and sensitive, and it can be overwhelming at times to allow myself to become aware of what is really going on within myself. But I practice all the time and my health improves according to my effort to bear my own inner experiences with respect for whatever they actually consist of.

  • Kathy says:

    Here’s to the day when it’s as easy to say “I heard a voice” as “I have an itchy rash.” It’s not right that it is so stigmatizing to say you have a symptom. I’m sorry you feel like you have to go it alone, but I’m not judging you for feeling that way at all. As always, I’m so thankful that you share your story.

  • Kiki says:

    Insightful as always, HBJ. You mention something at the end there that I have to remind myself when my brain does spiraling crap: this is temporary. Everything is temporary. Thanks, again for sharing your journey with us who want to understand.

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