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Hearing voices

I've just been watching a new documentary on BBC3: "The Voices in My Head." The programme follows three young people, Kyle, Chaz and Emmalina, and uses a novel audio overlay track, created with the guidance and help of the contributors, to recreate the soundtrack of the voices they hear, and give us a flavour of what it's like for each of them as they go about their daily lives.

Kyle started hearing his voice about a year ago, after losing his girlfriend, his job and his home in quick succession. Chaz started hearing her voice at university, and gave it a name, Victor, to make the experience easier to talk about. Emmalina has several voices, which have kept her company since she was a child, and all but one of whom have been a great comfort to her through traumatic times. Listening, on the soundtrack, to what each of their voices has to say, I'm struck both by the abusive way the voices often speak to their hearers - and by the protective function that the voices also often appear to have. Emmalina's voices all want her to stay at home, out of harm's way. Even when Kyle's voice is trying to lure him to harm himself, it warns him to be wary of strangers.

It makes me think of auto-immune disease, where the body's natural defence system becomes compromised, and instead of keeping out potential causes of infection, it turns on itself, mistaking its own tissues and processes for a source of danger, and attacking them aggressively.

Although the people who explicitly hear voices in this way are a minority (estimates suggest between 3% and 10% of people in the UK hear voices that other people don't), I know that many of us have a kind of "inner voice" that functions in a similar way. I'll bet many of you know what I mean: the wordless monologue that tells you you made a fool of yourself back there; or asks who you think you are to imagine that that lovely person you met could possibly be interested in you.

It may be that there are significant differences in origins and experiences between people who hear voices speaking to them, and people who have an ongoing inner narrative - hearing a voice might feel more disturbing, more not-me, for example. But I believe both from my own experience, and from working with other people, that this dual characteristic is common: that the voice/ narrative seeks to keep us safe, and that it goes massively overboard in its efforts to do so. At one point in the documentary, Kyle describes his voice as "like living with an abuser," and it reminds me of the evening 5 years ago when I started really listening to the things I habitually said to myself in my head, and realised that if a friend had told me her boyfriend spoke to her that way, I'd have told her it was an abusive relationship.

In that moment, my relationship with myself began to change; I started to compare how I "talked" to myself with how I talked to other people, and try to be as kind and compassionate to myself as I would effortlessly be to others. In the documentary, both Emmalina and Kyle describe how engaging with their voices, entering into relationship and dialogue with them, changes the power that the voices hold over them. (For Chaz, talking with Victor hasn't helped in the past, but she thinks it might be possible in future).

I firmly believe that engaging with our voices; talking with them; seeking to understand them, and asking them what it is they're wanting to do for us, is on the whole much more productive than trying to silence them or fight with them.

Our voices bear a message to us, often from the past; a message that we owe it to ourselves (then and now) to hear. It doesn't mean we have to do anything as a result. If a part of me says I shouldn't publish this blog because people will read it and think I'm mad, or dangerous, or foolish, I don't need to react to that message. I don't have to publish and be damned and fear retribution, nor must I delete it and pretend I never wrote it. I don't have to do anything. Having listened to the warning, I feel free that I have a choice. In this case, I choose to thank my inner voice for looking out for me; for trying to protect me. And I choose to tell it that I'm a big girl now who can cope with a little criticism if it comes. And I choose to press the "publish post" button.

The Voices in My Head is available to stream on BBC3 and the BBC iPlayer (48 min).

Eleanor Longden's moving TED talk about how she survived a schizophrenia diagnosis, and came to an understanding with her voices is available here (14 min).

The Hearing Voices Network offers information, support and understanding to people who hear voices and those who support them.

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