Ron Coleman was sitting in his office doing some calculations when a voice behind him said, "You've done that wrong." He looked around, but saw no one.
"I put that down to stress and went out and got really drunk that night, thinking that would get rid of it," he recalls. "Then it continued and then I started hearing other voices, and before very long there were about six of them going on at different times... sometimes all together."
The voices, he says, were a manifestation of various traumas: Coleman was molested by a Catholic priest as a preteen altar boy, then lost his first wife to suicide when he was 17—just one year after their wedding. He was then "locked up in hospital for years," until a support worker convinced him to go to a Hearing Voices support group, where "the first thing I heard in that group was, 'Your voices are real.' "
That shifted his perspective entirely. "It made a lot of sense, because if they were real I could do something about it," explains Coleman. "Up until then I'd been told that they weren't real, so therefore I couldn't do anything about it."
The Hearing Voices Network (HVN), where Coleman is now a trainer, is an informal yet influential collective that aims to empower people who hear voices. Members of the group believe hearing voices is a normal variation of human existence, and, notably, one that needn't always be diagnosed as an illness—unless that is how the voice hearer chooses to see it. The collective also teaches that the voices should be validated as a means to seeking meaning, even if only metaphorical.
In short, the HVN is an alternative, non-medical approach. Voice hearers, as they are known, are taught how to talk back assertively to their voices, and how to negotiate downtime from them, too. "It's a self-help movement," Coleman says. "We don't just discuss hearing voices, we discuss our response to hearing voices."
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