“But then I started thinking about the Buddhist practice, they have in Bali, where they leave small offerings of food out for their ancestors.” She started leaving out small plates of vegetables. Her voices let her sleep through the night.
“I thought, maybe my ancestors are just bloody hungry.”
Sarah has a decade learning to live with her voices, and a gift for metaphor and comic timing.
At one point, she tells the group, she called the marae, to tell them what was happening. “And they said ‘you’ve got a gift!’ and I was like, ‘ok, well can I return it?’”
The room dissolves into laughter.This is the Hearing Voices network, a long-standing group of New Zealanders who hear voices. Some have a schizophrenia diagnosis, some are sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and subject to compulsory treatment. Some have developed a kind of companionable truce with the voices they hear, others are battling to tug back autonomy from a cast of characters who are controlling or cruel. They meet in this small room, once a month or so, to support each other and discuss their voices: what they’ve been saying, whether they’ve been listening, how they’re coping with the various personalities clamouring for attention. They share the latest information on treatments, the possible side-effects of drugs they might be prescribed.
Sarah, the group’s facilitator, looks around. “How many of you are currently under the Mental Health Act?”A few hands raise.“You know, Samantha isn’t here tonight, but she just got off the Mental Health Act after five years,” Tracy says.“Oh she must be so pleased,” says Annabel. She’s wearing a blue beanie, a worried expression, and her support worker is here accompanying her. She raised her hand earlier—Annabel is still under the Act herself. Her voices can be cruel and controlling, and she’s been struggling for some time to keep them under control. This week she’s been making some progress at resisting their instructions.“Sometimes I hear them and think, I’m not going to let you tell me what to do!” she says. “Because if they’re not going to treat me properly, I’m not going to trust them.”Her knee jiggles as she speaks. The water in the glasses on the table trembles.“Other times I think God, I’m a bit scared.”
"Sometimes I hear them and think, I’m not going to let you tell me what to do! Because if they’re not going to treat me properly, I’m not going to trust them.”
“Hmmm,” Annabel says. “Well, you know,” she looks up. “If they’re not going to behave properly then I can’t trust them with my life. If they tell me to do something and my life is in danger. Then I don’t know what to do.”“Seems like you’re really finding your own strength. And how are your voices reacting to that, do they like that? Do they leave you alone, or?”“Sometimes they just won’t be quiet.” She sighs. “It’s just minor things I don’t do what they tell me. I heard a voice on the radio saying, ‘You’re always gonna do what we say, baby.’ And I thought, no I’m not. I’m staying at home.”***Hearing things isn’t such an unusual experience, really. Between five and 13 percent of adults will have an ‘auditory verbal hallucination’ at some stage in their lives.But despite this, voice hearers—who most often receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia—still live at the sharp end of New Zealand’s mental health sector. While conditions like depression and anxiety are the subject of extensive ‘talk about it’ campaigns, relatable internet cartoons, and first-person essays, those experiencing the less palatable symptoms of mental illness are still often alienated.In 2015, the NZ Health Promotion Agency surveyed a representative sample of 2500 New Zealanders about their attitudes toward mental illness, especially those who hear voices. Asked about a scenario of a young man who heard voices joining their local sports club, only 51 percent were comfortable with socialising with him, and less than half - just 41 percent would be comfortable having him for a meal. When given a hiring scenario, nearly one-third, or 29 percent of respondents agreed they’d hire the less experienced candidate with no experience of mental illness instead of a more experienced candidate who had experienced mental illness. 46 percent said they would be uncomfortable with a mental health centre opening next door to them.
He chuckles gently.“The thing is, it was me.”Pearson’s first voice wasn’t a voice, as such. It started as a gentle, insistent scratching. He reaches over and runs his fingernails gently across the table to demonstrate.“What is it? Maybe it’s a cat scratching at the door or it’s a possum in the ceiling. Could be a branch scraping on the glass.”
Imagine, he says, if you’d heard the sound, but his fingers weren’t there at the table, making it.
When it happened to him, he decided there were rats in the walls. He heard them often, in different places. The sound followed him around. One time, he was talking to a psychologist who asked, “So what do the rats say?”
“You’ve got a nice light blue colour.”
As well as hearing voices, Ana has frequent visions—colours, floating lights, large birds and creatures.Later, as I focus the camera to shoot her portrait, she startles slightly, distracted.“Oh you’ve just changed from blue, to having these amber sparks around you,” she murmurs. “Lovely.”The first time she told someone about what she was hearing and seeing, Ana was 11 years old. She told a school-friend, she remembers, and the girl just looked at her. “She just gave me the look like—are you for real? Are you all there? Are you serious? That sort of thing. Then she sort of distanced herself away from me and then started talking behind my back about me.”She didn’t have a language for it then, but it was her first experience of the stigma surrounding mental health, and from then on she vowed not to tell others. “I realised, okay this is what I’m gonna get. Shut your mouth, don’t say nothing, act like it’s not even happening. Don’t share, don’t tell anybody.”As she got older, her voices stuck around, and not all stayed positive, she says. She also has a group of negative voices that emerged as she introduced her mind to more adult concepts—sex, drugs, rock n roll, an abusive relationship. “I call them the mob,” she says. “Because either they come in a mob and mob me and literally bring me down, or they sneak up and surprise attack me out of the blue.” She laughs.
“It’s easy as ECT [electro-convulsive therapy]
Simple as DHB [District Health Board]
DBT [dialectical behavioural therapy], baby ECT now”
Steve unfurls a small piece of paper, crumpled from the centre pocket of his parka. He smooths it, stands straight-backed and reads:I saw things that were freaky before the voices started their games,
Legacy of winds, heard with drifting voices surrounding from all angles, to deafening inside their head when hands are over ears and they had no names.
Nearly going totally insane in hearing so many at one time.
Then all of sudden a big shut up and they were gone.
Still today it's hard to be normal with echoed voices.“I found it quite hard talking to people about it, because they would’ve thought I was lost, so I would write it in a poem where they would listen and they go 'oh is that what you were talking about!' He gives another small laugh.
“Using art as a therapeutic way to deal with my mental health issues has been awesomeness,” she says. “It’s the only way I can describe it. Being able to express myself through arts and craft have helped me understand what I’ve been through and what I’m going through.”She lays out her larger canvases, entitled Nga Whakawhitinga. It’s the Māori term for schizophrenia, roughly translated to mean standing at the crossroads.
“I like this Māori term better,” she says. “Because it’s about choices. I’ve got control. I have choices.”
Maria teaches her prayers which comfort her and keep ugly voices at bay. She is tiny with age, and sits with Ana at the small kitchen table, whispering a karakia, curtains drawn against the hot Whangarei sun.
“Matakite. That’s what we call it. When you hear things.”
Her voice is low and rough and she creases into a broad grin.
“Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes a warning.”
Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Samaritans – 0800 726 666*Names of Hearing Voices network members have been changed to protect anonymity