Got voices in your head? Me too

by Leah McClellan

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This morning, I didn’t have a clear-cut plan for my workday. I had three or four must-do tasks, three or four probably-should-do tasks, and three or four in-an-ideal-world tasks, but none of them had deadlines. There were a few other options—like go back to bed—that were infinitely more appealing.

“No. You just have to do the most important things. First things first,” I told myself as I scanned images in my head of what those tasks looked like. “Hmmm. What’s most important?” I thought, as I poured a cup of coffee.

“Pffft. Forget it. None of them are really that important. Go back to bed,” another voice urged.

“You really should take the dogs for a walk. They’re bouncing around with energy since it rained yesterday and they missed their walk. Get dressed and get them out.” Another voice.

“Get your blog post done early,” Ms. Earnest chimed in.

“Clean your desk off,” said Ms. Clean Freak.

“Get dressed. Wash your face. Get ready for the day.” I don’t know who that was. Mrs. Cleaver, probably.

“Write a list. A visual will help.” Ms. Wise Counsel said.

The voices all blurred together in mass chaos, and then I put my foot down.

“All right, shut up! I’m going to sit here and drink my coffee. I’ll know what I have to do in just a minute, depending on what’s most important. It will come to me. Just stop it.” That was me, most definitely.

Things got quiet as I looked around in my head while sipping my coffee. This one, that one, what’s most important? I mulled things over as I went upstairs to my office.

I leaned forward on my desk as my computer fired up. My big toe tapped a beat as I scanned various inboxes, and a sad, worried voice started talking.

“Why isn’t that client emailing me? Why haven’t I heard from so-and-so? Will I get paid for that by Friday? I need to get the dogs to the vet for their check-up. Can I afford that and get my hair trimmed? Crap. Oh, wait. I have to get my hair done—I have that big thing next week.”

I could easily get an interesting diagnosis and a prescription or two if I didn’t know all that’s totally normal.

Those “voices” are all my own. Just me, myself, and I doing my thinking, arguing with myself, going over things back and forth—and knowing I’m doing it.

A dear friend of many years has been going through a rough spot. He’s been drinking heavily (understatement), and it’s taking a toll. Not long ago, he told me about terrifying episodes of what sounds like paranoia, believing someone is outside his house prowling around. He’s heard voices, threatening voices, voices telling him to get out, stay in, make sure he and his wife are safe, run for his life.

I listened and empathized but didn’t offer any advice. I’m not a psychiatrist, after all, and he didn’t ask for advice. But I’m sure he’s hearing the same sorts of voices I do—it’s just his own voice, his thoughts, his brain—who else could it be? The alcohol will twist things around, for sure, but I know what his personal struggles are, and he’s got a war going on inside of him about what to do with his life, just like I had a silent argument this morning about what to do with my day.

The difference between me and my friend is that I know those voices and fears are just my brain firing off all sorts of stuff and I—whoever I is—am in charge. I don’t let it get to me.

One of the diagnoses I could easily earn is OCD—obsessive-compulsive disorder. During a few times in my life when I’ve been extraordinarily stressed (separation and divorce, for example) I tend to get a good ol’ case of “Did I forget to turn off the stove/iron/whatever?” And that voice turns into a very real fear of my house burning down as I leave.

Screw the house. It’s my dogs and cat that I worry about.

Lucky me, I know it’s a bunch of bullshit and tricks my mind plays on me.

Thing is, I have forgotten to turn off the stove. I have left the iron on. As a kid, my house did catch fire. In a way, it’s a realistic fear.

But I don’t let it control my life, and I don’t think in terms of “I have OCD.”

I don’t own those pesky thoughts. I deal with them and forget about it.

Before I leave the house, if I start hearing that “voice” (during stressful times when this sort of thing flares up), I check the stove carefully. I might even touch each burner to be sure they’re cool. I take a good look and say out loud, “That’s off, this one’s off, they’re all off.”

I mentally scan the house. Did I use the iron today? Go check. Look at plug on floor. Not. Plugged. In.

Anything else? No? Good-bye, house. Good-bye, thoughts. They might linger in my head for a mile or two down the road, but I pull up those images of the cool stove and unplugged iron, tell myself sternly that they’re off, and they go away.

The “voices” in my head are just that—voices in my head.

In my young 20s, as an extra part-time job while I worked my way through college, I was a gardener for some neighbors. Back then, I didn’t have the awareness or understanding that I have now, and I had a really hard time with the memory of my step-dad’s voice in my head, yelling at me. How did I know how to clean up a yard and do landscaping? From my dad, of course. Thing is, according to him, I broke everything I touched (rakes, shovels), I had to weed with two hands, not one, and never—ever—sit down on the job or I’d be yelled at, ridiculed, scolded.

I wrestled with that voice for a long time, and I even left work early once because I couldn’t stand it.

I couldn’t shut the voice of criticism off. After some time of intentionally doing things whatever way I damn well felt like, it went away. Most of the time.

For some people, voices in the head are a little more than just random thoughts. They’re voices actually heard as if someone else is speaking, out loud, as if heard with the ears, not just in the head. That’s a little different, even though it’s still coming from the same brain and still as a result of stress or previous trauma—sometimes severe, extreme, horrific trauma.

That’s when we’re getting into a serious situation. Not always. Just sometimes.

Multiply the “normal” voices that I have by 100 or 1000 or a million, add a dose of complete unawareness and lack of knowledge, and you might have someone who hurts or kills people because the voices tell him or her to do it.

With proper therapy and guidance, the mentally ill and criminals could probably learn how to manage their own thoughts just like anyone else, in some or many cases. Meanwhile, medication is usually the first choice, though it’s not always completely effective.

You know the homeless guy wrapped in blankets on the bench or steam vent who talks to imaginary people?

Only difference between us is a matter of degree and control: I have conversations in my head and he has them out loud. Oh, once in a great while a few words might come out or a particularly strong thought will form a sentence on my lips and be uttered, though rarely. When it happens I chuckle and smile and wink at that homeless guy in my head and say “Yeah I know, brother, I know. We’re not so different, you and I.”

This morning, I—me, myself, and I—decided to work on a rough draft of this post and, when that was done, I took the dogs for a walk.

That’s what was most important. Just when that was done, an editing job came in, so that’s what I worked on for most of the day. That’s what was most important. To heck with the desk, to heck with the list. I did wash my face and get dressed, though.

Some good reading on the subject:

Can You Live With the Voices in Your Head? (The New York Times)

How I tamed the voices in my head (The Independent)

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a psychologist. Please consult a physician, a therapist, a spiritual leader, or other trained professional if you’re concerned about voices in your head.

Comments are always welcome.

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{ 12 comments }

Cristina | Positively Beauty

Brilliant Leah! I could see myself so much in the description of your voices over coffee – mine are as annoying as yours :)
Cristina | Positively Beauty´s last [type] ..Watercolours- Spring- and a beautiful poem

Leah McClellan

Hi Cristina! It’s like getting everyone at a party or a meeting to shut up so an announcement can be made :)

Lisa H.

Ok, this is the second article that I have read about “voices in the head”. :-) This is so timely for me. I have so many of them in there right now that I can hardly think. What always works for me is to go to a quiet place, take out a pen and notebook and write out what is on my mind. The clarity that comes from doing this is indescribable. I love what you said about the difference between you and my friend is that you know those voices and fears are just my brain firing off all sorts of stuff and that you are in charge. We may not always be in charge of what comes into our heads, but we are always in charge of how long it stays. :-)
Lisa H.´s last [type] ..Your Prayers Do Get Answered

Leah McClellan

Hi Lisa! Must be that full moon coming on the weekend :) Writing things down can definitely help!

Barbara

Dear Leah,
I would kindly invite you and your readers to check out some reliable information about schizophrenia online. Nami.org is a great resource.

The voices of schizophrenia are not the same as the ones you describe in your post even though I wholeheartedly believe your written intentions are good. Despite proper medication and life-long treatment, those diagnosed with schizophrenia still struggle with the voices. Also, people may self medicate with alcohol or become homeless due to this disorder. There is no cure for schizophrenia but there is treatment. Together we need to raise awareness and reduce stigma and misinformation so that people and their families afflicted with this disabling disorder can get the help they need to live their lives to the fullest.
Peace in this moment,
Barbara

Leah McClellan

Hi Barbara,

Thanks so much for your input. This post is not about schizophrenia, though I had it in mind when I put the disclaimer at the end. It’s about “regular” people who “hear” voices. Schizophrenia is, however, the reason for some statements made such as “serious situations” and the paragraph above that. The New York Times article is an interesting one which does address things at length from a particular viewpoint (including schizophrenia and other disorders).

One of my reasons for writing posts like this is, in part, to reduce stigma. Like I wrote, I’m not different from (no better than) the homeless man on the street–no matter what mental illness he (or she as the case may be) has. Having worked with MH/MR folks in the past, having a brother with bipolar, and with an ex with a brother with schizophrenia, I’m well aware of the severity of the illness. But I also know that it’s all about brains firing stuff off to varying degrees–rather than demonic possession, evil, bad, stupid, lazy, character defects etc etc etc which is the stigmatization–and to point out that we’ve all got various voices in our heads is my angle on destigmatization.

Would you happen to have a more specific link to something good on schizophrenia, something that links directly? I’d be happy to add it to the reading material at the end of the post :)

Giulietta Nardone

Hey Leah,

I used to think I was the ONLY one with these voices in my head until I was 26 and a friend mentioned hers. If we don’t share these things, no one knows.

About 2 or 3 years ago, I wrote an essay about the voices up there in a neat format – it’s been one of the few essays I’ve been unable to sell. Maybe it’s a topic folks are not yet comfortable discussing because it’s not seen as normal when it absolutely is?

Thx! G.
Giulietta Nardone´s last [type] ..Deschooling Your Life

Leah McClellan

Hi Guilietta! Love your point about “maybe it’s a topic folks are not yet comfortable discussing because it’s not seen as normal when it absolutely is.” You’re probably exactly right. I used to think I was some sort of a split personality, and I even asked a therapist about it, but she had no clue (though maybe I didn’t explain very well). I somehow figured out that it was kinda-sorta normal, but it wasn’t until I got serious about meditation and Zen Buddhism reading as well as practice and then it was Eckhart’s The Power of Now that really pulled it all together for me (concerning the “observer” and all that).

Would love to read that essay! Any chance it’s on your blog somewhere? I’ll go take a look later on.

Rosemary

Hey Leah, Yup…I’ve got the floor saying wash me, the windows saying wipe me, the dogs saying walk me, the cats saying it’s time for a flea treatment, the grass saying it needs cutting, the…the…the…darned voices have left my head and are now manifesting as talking animals and inanimate objects…AAAArrgh! Seriously though Leah I think this is an important subject, and we all need to hear about someone else’s voices every now and then so we can stop worrying that we’re losing the plot ourselves. Also, bringing the voices to the fore-brain makes us aware of them so that we can shut them up rather than having the debilitating rant constantly going on in the background. My own personal KILLER voice is the guilty one…where I beat myself up for everything bad on the planet. When I start to feel guilty for earthquakes and other natural disasters I know that I’ve reached saturation point in my anxiety levels and it’s time to do something urgently to get myself back in balance. Thanks for this awesome post Leah.
Rosemary´s last [type] ..Signposts and Roses

Leah McClellan

Hi Rosemary, Crack me up with animals and inanimate objects manifesting lol I love how you put this: “bringing the voices to the fore-brain makes us aware of them so that we can shut them up rather than having the debilitating rant constantly going on in the background.” Definitely. It’s so good to know what’s going on in our heads rather than repress it but so easy to shut out and ignore with stuff and whatever.

Oh gosh on the guilt about the earthquakes etc. I’ve felt absolutely horrible about Japan–just awful. Not guilt exactly but it’s just awful and hard to find peace about it–maybe it is some kind of guilt, at least that I have no way to help directly. Such an awful thing. One way I’ve shut that voice off is by looking up how many people in the US die every year from natural and other disasters and it’s quite a lot–which only felt worse lol (not funny but sort of, what can you do?)

Randy

As it turns out I am a therapist and I have voices in my head as well. Of course, the questions we always asked at hospital I worked at was, “Are the voices inside your head or outside your head?” People with schizophrenia who are experiencing auditory hallucinations experience them as an outside voice. That is why they sometimes cover their ears in an attempt to quiet the voices. They may also hear more than one voice at a time.

I have discovered through my own therapy that the critical voice I sometime hear is actually protecting me from the pain attached to the criticism. The anger masks the pain. I am learning to deal with that pain (experience it, grieve it) to keep that “protecting” voice at bay. I also need to get on the cushion more and be gentle with myself alawys, but especially when I’m tired.

Leah McClellan

Hey Randy, I almost lost my coffee to the monitor with your first line lmao OK I wasn’t drinking coffee in the afternoon but you know what I mean :)

Very glad to have the resident therapist chime in. Good differentiation–hearing voices inside the head or out? That’s what I understood with my friend and why I wasn’t worried–too much–because I did ask him something like, in between sips of beer, “Wow, are you, like, hearing things outside of you, like voices? Or is it all in your head?” And he was like, “Oh for gawds sake no, I’m not hearing voices like some freakin nutcase. It’s just stuff I’m all ripped up about it but it’s freaky, I get all freaked out sometimes.” Something like that. I had a client who covered her ears sometimes, when I worked in a CLA. She was on medication but it was rough since she was dual diagnosed and had so many issues.

Very interesting what you say about your own critical voices. Sounds like some stuff I read, including the New York Times article I mentioned. Also having to do with my step-dad’s voice of criticism–I had to work on that much more than I wrote about and come to terms and peace with it. It wasn’t until I really understood how I felt about it–and all the hurt and pain and so on–that it finally got quiet.

Good point about getting tired etc and the cushion :)

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