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People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back


The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back

One night, during her first year at the University of Sheffield, Rachel Waddingham struggled to fall asleep. She could hear three middle-aged men she didn’t know talking about her downstairs. “They were saying, ‘She’s stupid, she’s ugly, I wish she would kill herself’,” she remembers. “I was angry and went down to challenge them, but no one was there. They kept laughing and saying, ‘She’ll never find us.’”

The voices became a recurring presence, providing an aggressive, unsettling commentary on her life. Waddingham came to believe that they were filming her around the clock, and became paranoid. When she had a neck ache, she assumed a tracking device had been planted under her skin. At the supermarket, the voices would ask each other questions like “Does she know what she’s buying?” – leading her to reach sinister conclusions. “I worried they might have poisoned the food,” she says. “I’d come back with orange juice, milk, bread and cheese, because it’s all I could work out was safe.”


Waddingham turned to alcohol to cope, and avoided friends because she feared that  “The Three” would secretly film them as well. Months later, she dropped out of the university and moved into a bedsit, too afraid to eat or bathe. A doctor eventually admitted her into a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on a cocktail of drugs. During her eight months in the hospital, the voices faded, but the side effects of the medication made life intolerable.

Waddingham says her voices have helped her to confront past pain

Waddingham says her voices have helped her to confront past pain
Waddingham gained more than 65 pounds and developed diabetes. Her eyes would roll involuntarily, and she struggled with akathisia, an overwhelming sense of restlessness that caused her to shuffle from foot to foot. Suicide attempts followed, and she felt “like a walking zombie”. Because she was no longer hearing the voices, she was released from the hospital. And now, at 36, she is still on the meds (though she is slowly weaning herself off them).

Research suggests that up to one in 25 people hears voices regularly and that up to 40 per cent of the population will hear voices at some point in their lives. But many live healthy and fulfilling lives despite those aural spectres.

Recently, Waddingham and more than 200 other voice-hearers from around the world gathered in Thessaloniki, Greece, for the sixth annual World Hearing Voices Congress, organised by Intervoice, an international network of people who hear voices and their supporters. They reject the traditional idea that the voices are a symptom of mental illness. They recast voices as meaningful, albeit unusual, experiences, and believe that potential problems lie not in the voices themselves but in a person’s relationship with them.

“If people believe their voices are omnipotent and can harm and control them, then they are less likely to cope and more likely to end up as psychiatric patients,” says Eugenie Georgaca, a senior lecturer at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the organiser of this year’s conference. “If they have explanations of voices that allow them to deal with them better, that is a first step toward learning to live with them.”

The road to this form of recovery often begins in small support groups run by the worldwide Hearing Voices Network (HVN). Founded in the Netherlands in 1987, it allows members to share their stories and coping mechanisms – for example, setting appointments to talk with the voices, so that the voice-hearer can function without distraction the rest of the day – and above all gives voice-hearers a sense of community, as people rather than patients.

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