I Hear Voices — This Is What I’d Like You to Know
If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.
If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
Late last year, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type one with psychotic features. For multiple reasons, this diagnosis was life-changing. Before I received help from the home treatment team, and I saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar and recommended I take some type of antipsychotic and mood stabilizer, my life was a mess. to put it bluntly, I’m very lucky to be alive.
Before my life-changing diagnosis, I was extremely paranoid to the point I wouldn’t leave my flat or answer the door because I had delusional thoughts that people were out to cause me significant harm, including my friends and loved ones. I now know this isn’t true, but delusions of persecution have a vice-like grip that seems so hard to escape. At the time, not only do they feel real but with psychosis, they are part of our altered sense of reality, which means to us they are real. An analogy I like to use for those with a psychotic disorder is how it feels like you’re wearing a t-shirt that you know for a fact is blue, but everyone around you is telling you are wrong and that your t-shirt is, in fact, bright yellow. It is confusing and terrifying, to say the least, feeling like you are in a different reality to other people when, with all the evidence our brains perceive to be as true and factual, we aren’t the ones in the wrong.
Psychosis and psychotic disorders cover many symptoms, but with the aim of keeping things relatively concise, in this post, I will be talking about my personal experiences of bipolar type one with psychosis, and more specifically, what it feels like to hear voices.
1. What is psychosis?
Everyone with psychosis or a psychotic disorder will have different experiences, but on the whole, psychosis is an experience where people experience a different reality to other people. This can include sensory thoughts or beliefs that are not shared by other people. Psychosis can also include delusions, hallucinations and disordered thinking or speech.
2. What it means to hear voices, and my experiences.
One aspect of psychosis, that I have experienced since I was around 13 years old, is hallucinations. This means I hear voices, as well as seeing and feeling things that aren’t really there. This may be difficult to understand if you have not experienced it, however, this is very much as tangible as hearing someone speak to you in real life. With my own experience, when I started hearing voices at a young age, I was incredibly confused and distressed, especially as at the time I didn’t have the words to explain what I was feeling. I had tried to explain this to a psychiatrist when I was struggling with severe depression symptoms. I was incredibly distressed with what I was experiencing, but I was told that I was making it up for attention, completely ignoring the issues at hand and the fact that psychotic disorders are very stigmatized. At the time, I was 15 years old, I had no idea what psychosis was in all honesty and for years I pressured myself to think that maybe I was making it up.
Late last year, in November, I spoke with an incredibly supportive doctor at my GP practice who really listened to me when I was explaining the symptoms of bipolar disorder and how I was hearing voices that narrated my actions, that taunted me and told me I shouldn’t tell people about them. And, for many years, they were telling me I should hurt myself. For someone without psychosis, this may be very difficult to understand as people may assume this is essentially intrusive thoughts or depression symptoms, however as someone who experiences intrusive thoughts and depression as part of my bipolar disorder, I would like to explain that these are not the same.
In my experience of hearing voices, it is exactly like having several bullies or abusers walking around with you and demeaning you. Although everyone with psychosis has different experiences of hearing voices, their voices can be positive or negative. As someone who has experienced abusive relationships, these voices are very much as tangible and as demeaning as the voice of an abuser. They are not the same as intrusive thoughts for me, as they can completely interrupt my train of thinking. The voices I hear do sound very much as real as a friend speaking as they are sat right next to me. Whenever I hear voices, I perceive them as an external sound, as if somebody is right there next to me. If I ever hear a voice speaking into my ear when I am alone in a room, I am able to tell that I am experiencing a hallucination as although I can hear a person talking as if they are right next to me, there is no one there physically. These voices sound as if they are coming from different distances, such as murmuring in the corner of the room, or whispering or shouting in my ears. My medication and different types of reality-checking that I have used have reduced the intensity of the hallucinations that I experience, making it easier for me to figure out whether I am experiencing a hallucination. They are also less intense, which allows them to be easier to cope with and so cause less distress.
3. What hearing voices is like.
In all honesty, I find it difficult to explain what hearing voices is like, as I only recently started tackling my psychosis head-on, as well as the fact that I have experienced hallucinations since I was 14 years old. I am now 21, so these experiences are very much part of my daily life that I am learning to manage with medication and community mental health support.
Initially, when I started hearing voices, I was incredibly confused and distressed at what I was experiencing, especially as I was very young and even though mental health awareness is increasing, there are still very few spaces which discuss more severe and stigmatized conditions that involve psychosis such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder with psychotic features and other mental illnesses.
My experience of auditory hallucinations began in my mid-teens and included hearing voices such as people mumbling in the next room, and hearing footsteps out in the corridor even though nobody was there. Over the years, as a result of trauma, breaking my sobriety, taking antidepressants and my general progression of untreated bipolar disorder, these symptoms progressed and came to a peak in 2019. At this point, I was hearing voices internally, where my general thought pattern was interrupted, as well as mainly external voices, where I experienced hallucinations that felt and sounded like they had an external source. For example, I was hearing clear-cut voices who narrated the actions I was doing, as well as voices that criticized me, degraded me and told me to do harmful things to myself.
With my voices, they all have different accents, tones, genders, personas and intentions. My voices tend to be more intense in the morning and in the evening, as well as when I am stressed or in a depressive episode with my bipolar disorder. With my experience of hearing “internal” voices, this usually happens when I am going about my day and I have intrusive voices that interrupt my train of thinking. This could be with them criticizing me or with random words and phrases that happen out of nowhere.
One of my common experiences with this is dropping something or making a mistake, and a voice calling me a “stupid b*tch.” This is one of my most long-lasting hallucinations, to the point where when this hallucination was reduced in intensity as a result of medication, I was genuinely surprised as this criticizing voice had become a huge part of my life every time I made a simple mistake. This definitely made my depression symptoms worse as, along with experienced low self-esteem from my depression symptoms, I also felt like I had an abusive person following me around, critiquing my every move. As a survivor of domestic violence, I would never want to come across as if I am misusing the term “abusive.” However, with my experience of receiving emotional abuse and hearing voices, the emotional effects felt very similar.
I have also heard random phrases interrupt my train of thought, such as hearing the word “lightbulb” or “train” repeating in my head despite not being relevant to my current situation or thoughts. In terms of external voices, I hear voices of all ages and accents. A common voice I hear is the voice of a young woman telling me I am worthless or that people hate me; when you hear this on a daily basis, it can become pretty convincing. In addition to this, I can often hear overlapping critical voices such as the chanting of taunting children and multiple voices at once, which can be very overwhelming and overstimulating. This can be quite stressful to cope with, especially as when I am hearing voices, it can be very difficult to hold a conversation with another person, as well as the fact that listening to music can be difficult because the voices can distort the lyrics of the song, or I experience sensory overload from hearing multiple voices at once from different sources.
4. Hearing voices is more common than you think.
When I started hearing voices at a young age, as well as when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder late last year, I felt very alone with my experiences as, at the time, I did not personally know anyone who had the same experience as me, especially as the stigma toward psychosis is an issue. Since then, I have become much more open about my experiences. Through being honest about my own experiences of psychosis, I have found that several of my friends have experienced auditory hallucinations, in addition to one of my support workers.
Since my diagnosis and when my mood became more stable as a result of mental health medication, I attended a local Mind group for support for people who hear voices. The group was relatively small, which allowed us to talk to each other in-depth about our own experiences. The group facilitator also heard voices. By taking part in this experience and speaking to others with similar conditions to me, this helped me to feel less alone. In the past, I used to think that psychosis was a very rare experience, however, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 100,000 adolescents and young people have a first episode of psychosis every year. These statistics alone show how common psychosis, and the actual numbers may also be higher than this because it can take a while for people to be diagnosed with conditions which may involve psychosis, and some people may not have access to the necessary medical care for a diagnosis.
Given this, it is important for us to continue to educate both ourselves and our peers about psychosis and psychotic disorders, as well as what we can do to support those in our community having these experiences.
5. Recovery is possible.
As I have been experiencing psychotic symptoms for as long as I can remember, and the fact that bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, I remember feeling incredibly daunted and depressed at the fact that, most likely, I will be experiencing delusions, hallucinations, and disordered thoughts and speech for the rest of my life.
I received my bipolar diagnosis in late 2019, and since then I have begun to flourish and I have truly started my mental health recovery journey. Through the support of my community mental health team — including my nurse and my support workers — my incredibly supportive friends and loved ones, community support and antipsychotic medication, I am now on my way to recovery. Before my diagnosis, I was incredibly reckless, suicidal, self-destructive and low-functioning, unable to work for long periods of time. Although my bipolar and psychosis will always be part of my life, thanks to community support and my mood stabilizer medication, I am now able to be functional and productive on a daily basis, such as managing my own tenancy and bills after being homeless, meeting up with friends (before COVID-19 lockdown began), working and furthering my income and studying an Access course with the intention to start my Bachelor of Science with Honours in Social Psychology in October this year.
Although I still struggle with psychosis, my condition is now much more manageable. Around February this year, I stopped hearing most of my voices for the first time in almost a decade, which has been a huge stress reliever and has significantly improved my quality of life. I am by no means a medical professional, but if you have any concerns about yourself or a loved one, it is important to seek medical advice or assistance if you or someone you care for is experiencing psychosis.
Photo by Samuel Dixon on Unsplash