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Everything you ever wanted to know about voice hearing (but were too afraid to ask)

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Eleanor Longden gave a candid talk about the fact that she hears voices at TED2013. Today, we also release her TED Book, which delves further into her experience of the mental health system. Below, all the questions you'd want to ask Longden but might be a little hesitant to. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Eleanor Longden gave a candid talk about the fact that she hears voices at TED2013. Today, we also release her TED Book, which delves further into her experience in the mental health system. Below, all the questions you’d want to ask Longden. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

During her freshman year of college, Eleanor Longden began hearing voices: a narrator describing her actions as she went about her day. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Longden began what she describes as a “psychic civil war,” fighting to stop the voices as they became antagonistic. Eleanor Longden: The voices in my head Eleanor Longden: The voices in my head What helped her was something unexpected: making peace with them. By learning to see the voices as a source of insight rather than a symptom, Longden took control.

What’s it like to hear voices? Read Eleanor’s FAQ below — where she tells you everything you wanted to know about voice hearing, with her signature honesty and humor.  

Want more? Longden first spoke during our Worldwide Talent Search; then told a longer version of her journey toward acceptance of her own mind on the mainstage at TED2013. And today, Longden premieres her TED Book, delving deeper into her experience. Learning from the Voices in My Head is available for the Kindle, the Nook and through the iBookstore.

Do your voices ever talk to each other (and exclude you)? 

Sometimes. In the old days they would talk about me a lot more, but now they usually speak to me directly. And when they do discuss me, it’s more likely to be compliments or positive encouragement. Or sometimes they’ll discuss something I’m worried about and debate possible solutions. There’s one particular voice that will repeat helpful mantras to the others. A recent one was: “If you can do something about it, there’s no need to worry. And if you can’t do anything about it, there’s no point in worrying!”

Do the voices sound like they are coming from inside your head or through your ears?

This is something else that’s changed a bit over time. They used to be more external, but now tend to be internal or outside, but very close to my ears. It can also vary depending on which voice is speaking.

What would you miss if you lost the voices? Would you be lonely?

My voices are an important part of my identity – literally, they are part of me – so yes, I would miss them if they went. I should probably insure them actually, because if they do ever go I’ll be out of a job! This seems extraordinary given how desperate I used to be to get rid of them. But they provide me with a lot of insights about myself, and they hold a very rich repertoire of different memories and emotions. They’re also very useful when I do public speaking, as they’ll often remind me if I’ve missed something. They can be helpful with general knowledge quizzes too! One of them even used to recite answers during my university exams. Peter Bullimore, a trustee of the English Hearing Voices Network, published a beautiful children’s book that was dictated to him by his voices.

Do your voices ever overlap? Could they harmonize?

They sometimes talk over each other, but don’t really say the same things in unison. I’ve met people whose voices do that though, like a chorus. Other people sometimes describe voices that sound like a football crowd, or a group talking at a party. At a recent conference, I heard a really extraordinary fact: that people who’ve been deaf from birth don’t hear voices, but see hands signing at them.

Do your voices happen all the time? Like, even during sex? Do you have to shush them during a movie?

No, not all the time! Although they’re often more active (and sometimes more negative or antagonistic) when I’m stressed. Even this can be useful though, as it’s a reminder to take some time out and look after myself. I relate to them so much better now, so if they become intrusive and I ask them to be quiet in a calm, respectful way — then 99% of the time they would.

Can you make certain voices pop up at will?

Yes, some of the time. Actually, this was something I used several years ago during therapy – my therapist would say for example, “I’d like to speak with the voice that’s very angry,” or “the voice that talks a lot about [a particular traumatic event],” and he’d dialogue with it.

Is there a time when you want to hear voices or are you always trying to get them to be quiet?

I sometimes discuss dilemmas or problems with them, or ask their opinion about decisions, although I would never let them dictate something to me that I didn’t want to do – it’s like negotiating between different parts of yourself to reach a conclusion ‘everyone’ is happy with. So, for example, maybe there’s a voice that represents a part of me that’s very insecure, which will have different needs, to a part of me that wants to go out into the world and be heard. Or the needs of very rational, intellectual voice may feel incompatible with those of a very emotional one. But then I can identify that conflict within myself and try to resolve it. It’s quite rare now that I have to tell them to be quiet, as they don’t intrude or impose on me in the way that they used to. If they do become invasive then it’s important for me to understand why, and there’ll always be a good reason. In general, it’ll be a sign of some sort of emotional conflict, which can then be addressed in a positive, constructive way.

Do you ever confuse your internal voice with ‘the voices’?

No, they feel quite distinct.

When you talk back to the voices, do they react differently if you speak out loud or just think your response?

I rarely respond to them out loud now, but they wouldn’t react differently to when I ‘speak’ to them internally.

What’s the difference between schizophrenia and voice hearing?

While the experiences that get labeled as symptoms of schizophrenia –and the distress associated with them — are very real, the idea that there’s a discrete, biologically-based condition called schizophrenia is being contested all over the world. While voice hearing is linked with a range of different psychiatric conditions (including many non-psychotic ones), many people with no history of mental health problems hear voices. It’s also widely recognized as part of different spiritual and cultural experiences.

Do you feel like other voice hearers understand you better?

They can appreciate what it’s like more precisely, but I’m fortunate enough to have met some really empathic, imaginative non-voice hearers who really want to understand too. In this respect, I think there’s actually more continuity between voices and everyday psychological experience then a lot of people realize. For example, everyone knows what it’s like to have intrusive thoughts. And most of us recognize the sense of having more than one part of ourselves: a part that’s very critical, a part that wants to please everyone, a part that’s preoccupied with negative events, a part that is playful and irresponsible and gets us into trouble, and so on. I think voices often feel more disowned and externalized, but represent a similar process.

What makes the voices talk more at some moments than others?

Usually emotional experiences, both positive and negative. In the early days, identifying these ‘triggers’ were very helpful in making more sense of why the voices were there and what they represented.

Do the voices ever make you laugh out loud?

Yes, sometimes! Some can be very outrageous with their humor, very daring, whereas others have a droll, Bill Hicks-like cynicism. Well, maybe not quite like Bill Hicks. Wouldn’t that be great though … having Bill Hicks in your head!