Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

At age 55 I began to hear voices: My journey into and out of madness

by Greg Shankland

It was while living in New York City at age 55 that I suddenly began to hear voices, out of the blue.

How did a smart, accomplished businessman succumb to fear and paranoia, to mania and unusual beliefs, so suddenly and so quickly? Importantly, how did I break through it?

The first year was hell! I was bombarded by a constant stream of malign comments intruding into my thoughts all day, every day. I agonized over what those voices were so that I could figure out how to respond. Voices kept asserting dominance, confusing, obfuscating and adding layers of complexity as my emotions and perceptions became distorted and I lived the experience of every unusual hypothesis.

At first they were my neighbors checking in on me, then being nosy, then spying on me – a conclusion I reached logically based on the layout of my apartment. Later, a male voice asserted himself to be God, then proceeded to argue with me, bully me and threaten me. It is impossible to ignore. These were not idle threats – they were backed up with somatic and sensory effects that were terrifying. When I challenged him to show love and respect, he became the Devil. When I bounced that idea back at him, he became an evil God. The experience of accepting and living with that kind of belief, or even just hypothesis, was awful.

Although we call the experience “hearing voices”, it is an interaction at the level of thought, a little like you imagine telepathy might be. Given the uncertainty it provokes, the brain and mind are responding under conditions of threat. Since we cannot walk away, nor fight, we freeze – and the grip of terrifying special effects feels like it will last forever.

Quite early on in my experience of voices I realised that I was coping better than most. I was responding directly to the phenomenology as it happened, applying the neuro linguistic programming (NLP) skills I had learned as a business consultant. I was interrupting and disrupting the provoked reactions and my response to it, a really simple technique used in NLP to reprogram unhealthy thinking patterns.

Realising in a moment of sanity that voices could not be all of the weird assertions they made and that my attempts to hypothesise were adding fuel to the fire of my hell, I saw an opportunity. Fighting back was not enough. Each hypothesis was a result of my brain following a path of explanation – an unpleasant experience as voices jumped on it. I had to disrupt that natural flow.

I decided to name my voices, using diminutive names, inspired by Afrikaans and its love of the diminutive ‘tjie’ as an endearment. It transformed my relationship with voices in an instant. Suddenly, I was in charge.

‘God the Devil’ became Squealie. Every time he spoke I interrupted him, cutting him off at the knees. His tone of voice is mocking, hence the name Squealie. “Squealie, no, I am going to…” became my automated response. NLP teaches you that you can lock the new habit in by appreciating its value and stimulating your reward signals. I completed the sentences with humor and amusement to make the transactional experience one with a pleasant emotion. Squealie became ridiculous. Every question I asked him was met with “Greggieboy, you don’t understand” – as he avoided his inability to offer a rational reason for being a vicious bully. I dressed him a drab olive green suit. Then I added a pink bikini to reflect his utter ridiculousness. Then I gave him a pig face, to represent his personality. Good looking, isn’t he? Squealie is much quieter these days, seldom coming out to play. One day he will come out and surprise me, I know it, it’s happened before. Now, I have a plan for it and the risk is low.

Drawing your caricature of your voices, exposing their exaggerated manipulations will move you into an objective view without psycho-analysing yourself. This method will give you power over the voices. Have fun with it to reprocess some of the negative emotions associated with voices. Put it into practice, make it a habit.

Finding a way to fight back, on the go, anytime, anywhere, is liberating!

Caution: This is one NLP-inspired tool from my toolbox. NLP is designed in it and is easy to apply, if you create the conditions for success first. These include:

  1. Decide not to be bullied or to pay attention to what voices say – bring your attention to your physical and spiritual safety, if not mental. Have courage. This sets your frame of mind.
  2. Know that voices respond to how we react to them – they change their spots as they adapt. This means we have to persist and address the fear itself, so make it as easy as possible. Create a secure space to ensure physical safety and comfort. Get moral support – a friend who will ‘be there’ for you, supporting you through it. Knowing you are safe minimises the intensity of fear voices can impose and helps you push through it. This minimises the risk and intensity of it.
  3. Know that voices can and do impose very real consequences as punishment – one of my worst was five days of no sleep as a voice prodded me every minute or so to keep me awake, delivering a threat each time. I was a wreck. I took it on knowing that the worst that could happen was that I would go to an emergency room and be knocked out for two days. Minimise the consequences by planning ahead.

Every miner, every paraglider, every nurse makes a risky situation safe by preparing for it. This is the same. Think it through, have a plan in your mind so that you feel safe enough to break through the fear – and it dissolves.

Greg Shankland is a business strategist and voice hearer offering insights and practical approaches to break through the experience of psychosis and other intrusive phenomena. Services include seminars, talks, MAD Consulting for voice hearers and the clinical professionals who support them. Let’s make MAD sense together. His email is [email protected]

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