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What It’s Like to Hear Voices in Your Head Every Day

Rai hears roughly 13 different voices, but she doesn't let them get in the way of her life.

Louise Donovan

(Illustration: Joe Bish)

The first time Rai Waddingham heard a voice it told her to kill herself. Except, well, it wasn't just one voice – it was three. "I was staying overnight at a friend's house and I heard these men talking about me, saying things like: 'She's stupid,' 'No one likes her' and, 'She should kill herself.' I initially assumed it was my friends, because three guys lived in the house, so I went down to confront them but they were all asleep, which was really weird. Plus the guys I heard sounded middle-aged."

Waddingham was 19 at this point. The voices didn't stop, and she swiftly came to believe someone was watching her through cameras. Who has the resources to put surveillance in her home? The government. And aliens, of course. A twisted logic sprouted from her mind and she progressively became more overwhelmed and paranoid, fearing the people around her. A doctor eventually admitted her to a psychiatric hospital, where she was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia and ending up taking "a huge amount of medication" to cope.

Two decades later, Waddingham now hears roughly 13 voices – more than she ever has done. The original trio still exists, and still talks about her, but others pop in and out regularly. Like Bunny, a funny but curious five-year-old ("she's constantly cracking jokes".) The big difference in all of this is that Waddingham no longer sees herself as having a mental health problem. Or rather, it no longer gets in the way of her life. "When I was in hospital I was absolutely terrified of my voices because they etched away at my self-esteem and confidence," she says. "I hear the same voices I heard several years ago, but they don't crush me in the same way. I don't believe the voices literally any more, I believe them symbolically."

People who hear voices often instil suspicion in the imaginations of those who don't, but it's more common than you'd think: between four to eight percent of the population experience what's known as "auditory verbal hallucinations". That's potentially 600 million people worldwide. And while 40 percent of us will hear voices at some point in our lives, many affected, like Waddingham, lead fulfilling, healthy lives. A common misconception, perhaps fed by the kind of "drug-crazed schizophrenic" headlines you see in the Mail, is that people who hear voices have a form of psychosis. It's one of the most common features, granted, but the majority of voice-hearers aren't diagnosed with schizophrenia. For them, voice-hearing is an everyday experience that isn't associated with being unwell.

Take Nikki Mattocks, for example, who heard her first voice aged 14. Five years later she currently hears up to 20 different voices a day. "It's very confusing," she says. "They say things like, 'You're ugly,' 'You're fat,' 'You're stupid.' I used to be terrified – I'd have panic attacks and tried to kill myself just to get rid of them. But I'm used to it now. I function as anyone else would. I'm hearing them right now and I'm still chatting to you because I've learnt how to manage them."

Sometimes the voices are so intense Mattocks can't hear her friends chatting, but she'll simply sit there in silence until it passes. "I've got very patient friends," she laughs. Drinking is also unpredictable. "The other day I went clubbing and for the first two to three hours it was great," she explains. "But then I started to sober up and felt shitty again. The voices don't get nicer when I'm drunk, just a bit weirder. They can change to noises – I'll hear random bangs, like they're trying to scare me." To cope, Mattocks never leaves the house without her headphones. She uses the analogy of putting a plug in the sink to stop water from escaping: the music holds the incessant flow of sound in place, and at bay, if only for a short time. For Waddingham, she finds that writing things down or talking directly to her voices is useful. In her head, though: "People look at me funny if I talk to them out loud, which is sad, really, isn't it? I should get some Bluetooth headphones. No one would know the difference."

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At her lowest, the English Hearing Voices Network (HVN) was also a huge help to Waddingham. It's a charity that supports a network of peer support groups and gives people the opportunity to talk freely about their experiences. While traditional approaches aim to suppress symptoms with medication, HVN encourages people to explore and change their relationship with the voices. It's an approach that worked for Waddingham: "What I do now is reassure my voices. So I'll go: 'Thanks for letting me know I'm a bit anxious – I think I'm safe, but I'll keep an eye out.' If I acknowledge them, they get quieter."

The HVN is part of the much larger International Hearing Voices Movement (HVM) that's spreading its message across the world. Founded in the Netherlands in 1987, through a partnership between a psychiatrist, voice-hearer and journalist, it sees itself as a civil rights movement. So rather than the experts defining what's going on, the person who actually hears voices makes the choice about what help they need. It's about opening up the conversation, rather than closing it down, and despite the well-established link between hearing voices and traumatic life experiences the HVM accepts all explanations for hearing voices and regards them as a meaningful – if sometimes painful – experience.

Waddingham, for instance, had suffered years of sexual abuse as a child. She knows the abuser was outside of her family, but kept it bottled up until she started university. People who have survived trauma are far more likely to lose touch with reality, hear voices and feel fearful. "All my voices are split off parts of myself," explains Waddingham. "I'd spent years squishing all those feelings and emotions down, and that's what caused me so much trouble. I'd internalised so much badness about myself which didn't belong to me."

Looking forward, it's something she'd like to see changed. At the moment we tend to talk about the diagnosis as explaining the symptoms: someone is feeling low because they have depression. But we're not so great at asking: why do they feel low? What's going on in their life? And while we've got better at speaking about anxiety and depression, there's still a significant stigma attached to voice-hearers. "It seems to be a step too far for some people," explains 31-year-old Jaabir, who heard voices for roughly six months last year. He's suffered with mental health problems since a teenager, heightened by the death of his father at a young age. "It's fine if you've got anxiety, depression or borderline personality disorder – people can kind of understand that. But voices? That's pretty messed up." Removing the misconception that people who hear voices are violent is also important, says Mattocks. "I hear a fucking lot of voices, but I have never, ever heard one that has told me to physically harm anyone else. Even if I did, that doesn't mean I'm going to do it."

Despite the good intentions behind Theresa May's plans to "transform" attitudes to mental health, we've clearly got a long way to go. But if you've ever heard a voice, the answer isn't hugely complicated: let's talk about it. If more people come forward and say: "I hear voices, so what?" we might just begin to tackle, and unravel, the "mad person" stigma. 

The more radical change? That one might prove harder to fix. "Distress from voices can be linked to lots of stuff that happens in our world: trauma, sure, but also poverty, racism, victimisation and bullying," explains Waddingham. "I just want us to have a society that doesn't mess people up."

@louisedonovan_