Oct 01

Hearing Voices: Resources Outside Traditional Mental Health

Hearing voices may not always be a sign of pathology.

Take Daniel Smith‘s book Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity, which has an origin that’s personal. Both his father and grandfather heard voices

Today there’s more support than ever for those who hear voices, much of it largely outside the mental health system. Smith has also written, for example, about the Hearing Voices Network (H.V.N.), which aims to help those who seek info and support regarding their voices.

H.V.N., which openly challenges the standard psychiatric relationship of expert physician and psychotic patient, might be said to take the consumer movement in mental health care to its logical endpoint. Although H.V.N. groups meet in a variety of settings — from psychiatric wards to churches to the organization’s headquarters — all must be run by, or there must be active plans for them to be run by, voice-hearers themselves. What’s more, H.V.N. groups must accept all interpretations of auditory hallucinations as equally valid. If an individual comes to a group claiming that he is hearing the voice of the queen of England, and he finds this belief useful, no attempt is made to divest him of it, but rather to figure out what it means to him.

Gail A. Hornstein, a psychology professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, started one of the first U.S. branches. She’s the author of Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness (2009). Agnes (Richter) was a voice hearer and mental patient in 1890’s Germany who refused to be silenced: she managed to sew her story into a jacket she created out of the uniform she was made to wear. At the time, however, her text was deemed indecipherable.

H.V.N. believes that not all voice-hearers are always suffering from a mental illness. The organization takes two basic positions not in line with the thoughts of many mental health experts (New York Times Magazine): “The first is that many more people hear voices, and hear many more kinds of voices, than is usually assumed. The second is that auditory hallucination — or ‘voice-hearing,’ H.V.N.’s more neutral preference — should be thought of not as a pathological phenomenon in need of eradication but as a meaningful, interpretable experience, intimately linked to a hearer’s life story and, more commonly than not, to unresolved personal traumas.”

Click on this link for more info about the various types of voices it’s possible to hear. Sometimes, by the way, a “voice” is not so much even a voice, but something less clear than that.

Not everyone is bothered by hearing his or her voices. Part of the philosophy of H.V.N. is that if the voices are distressing, however, one can work on learning how to live and cope with them. In fact, the 2009 book Living With Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery, by Marius Romme, offers true accounts of those who’ve come to do just that.

Aug 02

“Monkey Mind”: Author Daniel Smith, Living With Anxiety

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith. A new book. Anxious to read it? Well, you can. It’s been out since early July.

First off, what is “monkey mind?” I first became familiar with this via one of Natalie Goldberg‘s books on writing. In an interview I found online, she explains her interpretation of this Buddhist term: “It refers to mental activity that creates busyness which keeps us away from our true hearts.”

Daniel Smith offers this definition on his website:

monkey mind (mung ke mind) n. A state of being in which the thoughts are unsettled, nervous, capricious, uncontrollable. [Chinese xinyuan, Sino-Japanese shin’en]

Also on his site is his personal introduction to his book in which he states, “It’s about anxiety so acute and chronic that it permeates every waking moment, affecting your body and mind, your friendships and relationships, your work and your will…”

Anxiety has been part of his life perhaps always. “The condition is genetic. My father was anxious. My mother was anxious. My grandparents were anxious. Probably my ancestors were all anxious…”

This excerpt from the publisher approaches the book’s essence from a more universal perspective:

In Monkey Mind, Smith articulates what it is like to live with anxiety, defanging the disease with humor, traveling through its demonic layers, and evocatively expressing its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. With honesty and wit, he exposes anxiety as a pudgy, weak-willed wizard behind a curtain of dread and tames what has always seemed to him, and to the tens of millions of others who suffer from anxiety, a terrible affliction…

In her article in Newsday, Marion Winik gives us the back story to Smith’s condition, starting with a brief statement from him:

‘The story begins with two women, naked, in a living room in upstate New York.’ In what is possibly the most awful story of losing one’s virginity ever recorded, 16-year-old Smith was on a road trip from his childhood home in Plainview to a Phish concert when he was taken advantage of while drunk and stoned by a pair of unappetizing older lesbians. This terrible experience set off a nightmare of despair and anxiety…

Fortunately, Marilyn Smith was herself a lifelong anxiety sufferer who had become a therapist. What she couldn’t do for her son with sympathy, hugs and conversation, she made up for by doling out Xanax and sharing a copy of the guided relaxation tape she had made for her clients. Sensibly, she found him another therapist but, unfortunately, the squat blond woman was a body double for one of his violators. ‘It was as if Esther had returned to help me sift through the confusion she had wrought, only now she wore long floral skirts and accepted Blue Cross Blue Shield.’

To say the least, not a good introduction either to sexuality or to young adulthood—whether the abusers were “unappetizing” or not. Also, not a good introduction to therapy—though it wasn’t the therapist’s fault, of course, that she so resembled one of the perps.

Oliver Sacks, author of The Mind’s Eye and Musicophilia: “Daniel Smith’s anxiety is matched by a wonderful sense of the comic, and it is this which makes Monkey Mind not only a dark, pain-filled book but a hilariously funny one, too. I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.”