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.