Years ago, long before I had thought to become a therapist, I witnessed a rather curious scene on the London Underground. I was going to catch the lift after leaving my train and had come up behind a man who stood by himself, speaking rather loudly and excitedly, seemingly to no one at all. Instinctively, I kept a distance, for though his agitation was obvious, I could see no reason for it. Seeing mentally disturbed people on the Tube is a common enough sight, so I thought he might have been schizophrenic. But when the lift arrived the man turned around, revealing that he had actually been speaking into a mobile phone. Ignoring me, he closed his conversation with a rather theatrical flourish. "This is my life and I don't ever want to speak to you again!", he declared. He then switched off his phone and got into the lift with me and a few other people and stood quietly throughout the ascent before alighting onto Edgeware Road. Perhaps he isn't mad after all, I thought. Still, there seemed something distinctly odd about his phone call which remained in my memory, even though the incident itself was quite trivial.
Years later, when I was training to be a therapist, I found a likely explanation for what I had witnessed long ago on the tube. Caroline Brazier and I attended a talk in Leicester, which featured speakers from a remarkable organization called the Hearing Voices Network, which is an association of self help groups that provide advice and emotional support for people who "hear voices, see visions or experience other unusual perceptions." The organization, which has chapters all over the UK, is part of a world wide movement to help people who suffer from disturbing perceptions find support and fellowship with others who have similar experiences. While HVN is careful not to describe its mission as therapeutic, there is little doubt that it can be profoundly beneficial to people who often find themselves terrifyingly alone in their unusual experiences. Started in 1987 by a Dutch psychiatrist named Marius Romme and his partner, a psychologist named Sondra Escher, the movement began after Romme had been treating a patient who had discovered a way to deal with and make sense of the voices in her head after reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by the American psychologist, Julian Jaynes. Drawing evidence from ancient literature such as the Homeric epics, the book argues that seeing apparitions and hearing disembodied voices were once common in human experience, even quite recently in human history. Romme's patient inferred from this that the private voices she heard needn't be regarded as symptoms of a severe mental illness. They could instead be interpreted as the voices of independent agents--gods or disembodied spirits-- whose influence could either be ignored or heeded by her volition. Her realisation proved so self-empowering that both she and Romme went on Dutch television to discuss her discovery. What followed was an overwhelming public response from thousands of people who had had experiences like her's and led to the formation of the Resonance Foundation, which became the first group in the Hearing Voices Movement.
While HVN does not regard voices and visions as symptoms of mental illness, it does recognise how disturbing such experiences can be. As a self help and support group, it gives members the opportunity to exchange a wealth of practical advice so that they can help each other cope with the difficulties of having unusual perceptions. Hearing the testimony of one member I found a strong clue about the mobile phone conversation that I overheard years ago. He had been advised that whenever the voices in his head became so overwhelming that they demanded a response to pick up a mobile phone and pretend to speak into it, thus transforming his seemingly bizarre behaviour into an apparently normal public act. Everyone in the audience laughed at this and the speaker himself was well aware of how amusing his account was. But there was a horrifying pretext to his using a mobile phone as a prop to hide his conflict with the voices inside his head. It was his childhood of physical and sexual abuse, which included broken bones and hours spent locked up in a dark cupboard. Indeed, he first began to hear voices during such a confinement and at first he found them quite benevolent. Later, though, the voices began to echo the cruel phrases of persecution that he heard throughout his childhood. Those voices are still with him constantly and he could hear them even as he was addressing us. But they no longer dominate his life as they once did.
Given experiences like the speaker's, it may seem curious that HVN does not regard such unusual perceptions as symptoms of a mental illness such as psychosis. Romme himself takes a strong line against pathologising unusual perceptions and the organization in general seems to frown on using the term hallucinations to describe the unusual perceptions that its members experience. Some also argue that hearing voices and seeing visions have provided humanity with some of its greatest mystical and artistic insights, as such phenomena appear to spring from the deepest layers of transpersonal consciousness. Jesus, the Buddha, the Prophet Muhammed and William Blake are a few of the most famous figures whose lives were deeply affected by their unusual--indeed, their extraordinary--perceptions. Without romanticising such experiences, this does raise questions about the phenomenal nature of unusual perceptions. Mainstream psychiatry dismisses them as hallucinations, mere symptoms of pathological conditions. By and large, this appears to be true. But what do we make of those exceptional cases of unusual perceptions that prove to be valuable, perhaps even transcendental or visionary? Could it be that unusual perceptions provide evidence for a faculty of the imagination that becomes roused by a great experiential pressure--either psychological or spiritual in nature--which may, in Blake's famous phrase, "cleanse the doors of perception", revealing a metaphysical depth of experience that ordinary perception does not reveal; or, alternatively, casts the percipient into a hell realm with little hope of escape? We can only speculate. But the speakers we heard that night in Leicester said nothing about Blakean visions of the eternal. It was all about the voices--sometimes menacing, sometimes mocking--addressing them from within a heavy fog of depression that they all said they suffered.
Whatever the ultimate nature of unusual perceptions, HVN provides invaluable assistance to people who must cope with their immediate experience of suffering such perceptions. It also helps sufferers reclaim their dignity as it insists on regarding unusual perceptions as entirely human. Romme likens hearing voices to homosexuality which also once suffered the stigma of psychiatric censure before it was seen as just another variation in human nature. The speaker who told us about the clever use of his mobile phone, shared another incident with us, which seemed to give supportive evidence for Romme's idea. One afternoon when he went to his lounge for his usual afternoon rest he found himself in an unusually pleasant mood. And when he sat down he found something he never thought he would be able to experience: the voices in his head were silent. The caesura did not last long. But it was the first time he was free of his voices since childhood. Strange, he admitted with a laugh, but his brief period of silence was not as blissful as he might have expected. For he actually missed the voices as a normal feature of his internal awareness. But thanks to the support of HVN, that normal feature of his experience is no longer as hellish as it once was.