While at Chautauqua Institution last week I took advantage of attending worship services each morning with Rev. Amy Butler, the first woman to be senior pastor at storied Riverside Church in New York City. I wanted to hear the preaching of the woman who restored a nearly moribund Calvary Baptist Church in D.C., known for her commitment to tolerance, diversity in the church, social justice and her inspirational sermons. I was rewarded.
One morning she spoke of the silence surrounding the feminine voice in much of the Bible. She recounted the story of Jacob in the Old Testament as he labored 7 years for his Uncle Laban as part of a contract to obtain the bride of his choice, Rachel, only to be tricked into marrying Leah instead of his chosen beloved. It took another 7 years of labor for Jacob to be granted his heart’s desire. Rev. Butler wondered: what was Leah’s perspective on the matter? What were Rachel’s feelings? What did the women say? What did they do? The biblical scribes are silent on these points.
The theme of the week at Chautauqua was “war and trauma.” Not an expert on war, Rev. Butler chose to speak about peace, and peace within oneself and within communities. There is no peace without a pluralism of voices within and across communities, she reminded us. Silencing any parties to conflict will not bring lasting reconciliation. The “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in South Africa that provided the healing transition between Apartheid and Democracy in that country operated on those very principles.
As I listened to this I thought: pluralism applies to our internal lives as well. Mental health requires a tolerance of the multiple sometimes conflicting voices within ourselves. The more we recognize and heed all of the complexity that we each contain, the more likely that we will find stability and harmony.
The New York Times (August 9th, 2016 “An Alternative Form on Mental Health Care Gains a Foothold”) recently reported on a self-help movement among dissatisfied consumers of mental health services ― specifically people who hear voices. The “Hearing Voices Network” or HVN includes individuals who might otherwise be classified as psychotic, schizophrenic, and delusional by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. Seeking alternatives to the medications that are not always helpful and that come with intolerable side effects, these groups seek to understand the voices as metaphors. They do not intervene to mute or extinguish them but rather to listen, understand, and open a dialogue with them. HVN emphasizes moving away from “what’s wrong with you” to an inquiry into “what happened to you?” In the one example reported in the news story a crying voice within one member was both acknowledged and sympathetically responded to by the group. They spoke to the “inner voice” seeking to understand the torment. A history of trauma emerged. This woman who had been plagued and frightened by the voice now said “it altered her relationship with the voice….sometimes the child now laughs, whispers, even sings.”
What struck me most forcefully about this report was how much this was like the treatment recommended for individuals diagnosed with dissociative disorders, who indeed hear voices, the voices that represent segmented identities within themselves, memorials to trauma. In an individual with a dissociative disorder forgotten or sequestered memories of extreme childhood abuse leads to a disconnection within consciousness and segregated identities. This is the way the mind can adapt to extreme circumstances, violence, sexual abuse, torture.
All of our minds are multiple. How often do we say “I’m of two minds about that,” or I’m “beside myself ”or “a part of me…” feels this or that. In an individual with a severe dissociative disorder those “minds,” these inner voices, start to feel like “not me,” they are disavowed. They become intrusions, sometimes very frightening intrusions. Reconnecting and owning the disavowed is the royal road to function and some degree of peace within. The way of the Hearing Voices Network is a grass roots response to suffering that is often poorly understood, misdiagnosed, overmedicated, and undertreated by the psychiatric community.
It seems likely that a significant number of those benefitting from the “hearing voices” groups are individuals who are not psychotic, not suffering from schizophrenia, but are survivors of significant childhood trauma and properly diagnosed as DID or some lesser forms of dissociation. The
“treatment,” a respectful acceptance that there is meaning in the voices, an attempt to meet these dissociated aspects of self and respond to them is profoundly healing.