Experiencing schizophrenia: hearing voices

Bethany Yeiser’s mental illness resulted in her living homeless for four years and ultimately being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Now a motivational speaker and advocate for those with mental illnesses, here she talks candidly about what it is like living with the disease, which affects about one in 100 people at some point in their lives.

I get questions all the time about what hearing voices is like. The experience is extremely difficult to describe. I often tell people it is like experiencing a dream. People do not actually see or hear things in a dream, but may remember what they saw, heard and experienced, as though it were real. Nightmares are not real, but they are terrible to experience.

I became mentally ill and homeless during my senior year of college. I had just spent two months in Nairobi, Kenya. On my return, I could think of nothing but Africa. I attended classes and purchased text books. Despite my best efforts, I went from an A student to failing all of my courses. Soon after, I had my first psychotic break. I demanded that my family sell everything they had and send the money to Africa. When they did not, I vowed to never speak to them again. I left my university dormitory and began staying with friends, in libraries and, eventually, in a churchyard. Four years went by where my mind was clouded and confused. I had an obsession with the poor overseas, and I was unable to work the easiest job.

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in March 2007, but I first began hearing voices in January 2006. I had been homeless for several years, and was sitting on a park bench alone when I began hearing a chorus of children’s voices approaching me from the distance. They made fun of me and insulted me, but somehow still seemed friendly. Over the course of more than a year, they became louder and more irritating, and the children’s voices were joined by the voices of other characters in my mind.

On the morning of 3rd March 2007, after I had spent the night in a churchyard, I began to loudly yell back at the voices in my mind. A neighbour called the police, and I was finally picked up, forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Though I began taking medication in March 2007, it took until February of 2008 to find a medication that eliminated the voices. The effectiveness of the medication was amazing, and led to my full recovery. Although I received limited counselling with a therapist, my psychiatrist devoted many hours to helping me understand my disease and rebuild my life.

The phenomenon of hearing voices has been experienced by many people throughout history, and in some cultures it may even be seen as a normal part of life. Lots of famous people from the past are said to have heard voices, including Joan of Arc, Socrates and Sigmund Freud.

“Some people experience non-verbalised thoughts, mental images and visions, tastes, smells or touch – all seemingly generated by an external force”

 

There are lots of ways to ‘hear voices’ and in some people, this doesn’t adequately describe the experience. Some people experience non-verbalised thoughts, mental images and visions, tastes, smells or touch – all seemingly generated by an external force.

For me, having an auditory hallucination is like seeing a mirage. A driver may see a puddle of water on the road in front of the car, though the water is not there in reality. The puddle is an optical illusion.

Communicating what this experience is like is very difficult. Then, last summer, I found this link on CNN called ‘Exercise in Empathy: Hearing Voices’. A journalist named Anderson Cooper spent a day wearing headphones that served as a schizophrenia simulator. Watch the video here.

From my own experience, I can confirm that the schizophrenia simulator is remarkably true to real life. My voices were as irritating as they are in this video, and sometimes even worse. Cooper notices that the voices can be whispering, aggressive, or even comforting. The schizophrenia simulator created a chorus of voices that were watching Cooper and commenting on what he was doing, all the time, which is like my own experience.

For me, the longer I went untreated, the more characters I heard in my mind, and the more evil the characters became.

Some people who hear voices are able to live with them, and learn to manage them as part of their lives.

But for me, I’m very grateful for the medications available today that can take away voices. Personally, now, I never hear them anymore.

When I remember how horrible hearing voices was, I believe that I could best compare the experience to suffering with pain. After seeing Cooper suffer from simulated schizophrenia, it’s obvious that a moderate level of pain may be easier to tolerate than the experience of continually hearing voices.

By teaching audiences that schizophrenia is a treatable brain disease, I hope to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

About the author:

Bethany Yeiser is a motivational speaker and the author of Mind Estranged: My Journey from Schizophrenia and Homelessness to Recovery (2014). Before she became severely mentally ill in 2003, Bethany was a scholarship winner, researcher and violinist.

In 2007, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was later found to be treatment-resistant. Bethany recovered from schizophrenia in 2008 after beginning a trial of the antipsychotic medication Clozapine, which many psychiatrists consider to be underutilised.

Bethany holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology with honours from the University of Cincinnati.

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