Voices in the Dark
Nathan started hearing voices when he was 16. Alan’s began much earlier, when he was 6, and Sandy’s started after a psychotic breakdown as a young adult. Recently they talked about their experiences and the exciting new change in their lives at Gateway Counseling Center in Chester. All preferred to be identified by first names.
The tormenting voice that Nathan heard regularly belittled him, told him he was worthless, and urged him to harm himself. Nathan did, cutting himself repeatedly in response to the commands. For Nathan, who is now 42, what followed combined years of therapy with medication and with desperate individual efforts to quell the voices by turning to the sense-dulling relief of alcohol. But now Nathan, Sandy, Alan, and others who suffer from perceptual and auditory hallucinations have something else to help them: the Hearing Voices Network (HVN), a new approach to dealing with the mental illness form which they suffer.
Nathan, Sandy, and Alan all recently attended a three-day Connecticut workshop sponsored by HVN in the United States to train those who suffer from disturbing voices and sensory illusions as facilitators to run their own self-help groups. The three are now the backbones of a HVN group that meets Wednesdays from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Congregational Church in Deep River. Anyone wanting to share problems relating to disturbing auditory and visual perception is welcome.
The discussion group is not a substitute for therapy and medication, but rather another tool to help people cope with the confusion of mental illness. It is non-denominational, free of charge, and, most important, confidential.
“What happens in the group stays in the group,” Nathan said.
Before his illness made working impossible, Nathan, his alcohol abuse now long behind him, spent 22 years as a pipefitter. He would like someday to return to work, once he has conquered his internal demons sufficiently.
Dave Norman, a social rehabilitation counselor at Gateway, also participated in the facilitator’s training. Gateway is a part of Gilead Community Services, a mental health facility headquartered in Middletown with inpatient and outpatient services. Norman works with Nathan, Sandy, and Alan at Gateway, but he doesn’t attend the group meetings in Deep River. The philosophy behind HVN is that those suffering from the problems have, with proper training, the particular insight and sensitivity to manage group discussions and to bond with other participants.
“I can’t go, but I realize what people get out of it. It brings people together. Everyone there has heard voices and been through all types of treatment,” Norman said.
It is the realization that all the people attending the HVN sessions are fellow sufferers that makes the group both different and meaningful.
“It’s, ‘Here I am, in the same boat as you are, so let’s talk about what works for us.’ It’s about what issues people have and what they are doing about it. When somebody talks about a problem, we can ask what they have been doing about it and make suggestions,” Nathan explained.
Sandy, whose auditory hallucinations are accompanied by multiple personality disorder, welcomed both her facilitator training and her participation in the HVN meetings.
“I have individual therapy, but this group is needed. I would have loved to have had it 20 years ago. I held a lot inside, and HVN changed that,” she said.
Ultimately, she explained, her disorder caused her to give up her work as a nurse. She said her shifting personalities were triggered by a traumatic and abusive childhood.
The group has given Alan, 54, the opportunity he needed to work on his own issues.
“It’s put me on the right track, given me a way to trace memories,” he said, referring to the issues he thinks may have contributed to his condition.
“I’ve seen Alan take the reins, and he has never missed a meeting. In his own personal way he is getting what he needs,” Norman said.
He has also seen changes that attending the HVN group has made for Sandy—”She is blossoming. I see her smiling. She is content with herself.”
As for Nathan, Norman noted that his wide smile and charisma have found a ready outlet in the group.
Nathan explained the strategies the group facilitators can suggest for ongoing problems— things that are familiar in other self-help groups: positive self-talk, proper sleep, proper nutrition, physical activity to shift attention away from the hallucinations, and learning meditation to modify stress.
“You can’t do anything unless you get a good night’s sleep,” Nathan said, adding that for those suffering from hearing voices sleep is often particularly difficult because voices are often more insistent and malevolent at night.
“When somebody says they have had a bad week, we ask them what they have done, what they have tried, and we suggest things,” Nathan explained.
Still, there is more at work at an HVN session than coping strategies. What participants communicate to one another is the sense that at last they are free to talk with a sympathetic audience about things they are afraid to express to others.
“I didn’t like when people called me crazy or retarded. They say that you’re nuts; just lock ’em up,” Nathan said.
“People are so bigoted about mental illness, and people are ashamed,” Sandy pointed out, adding that shame makes coping with the underlying disease even more challenging.
HVN began in England in 1988, taking its inspiration from the work of Dutch psychiatrists Marius Romme and Sondra Escher, who pioneered the concept of a community network of the afflicted to deal with auditory hallucinations. HVN groups have now been formed throughout the United States. There are three other HVN groups in Connecticut, in New Haven, Hartford, and Manchester.
The Deep River HVN meeting is not, technically, part of Gilead’s program of services, but is organized with its assistance. According to Norman, the Deep River group is eager for more participants, whether those who come on individual initiative or those referred by medical professionals. For more information on the local chapter of HVN, call 860- 526-2624 or email email@example.com. For more information on HVN in the United States, visit www.hearingvoicesusa.org.