Hearing Voices in the Normal Christian Life

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The Right Question: Who’s Talking and Will I Listen?

Trigger alert: Those with suicidal thinking may find parts of this post triggering. Support is available 24/7 by texting 741741 (Crisis Textline) or calling 800-273-8255 (Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

My brain is full of voices. Right now, I can hear a faint echo of Jim Bleikamp’s voice reading the 5:30 news on WCME, the radio station I was listening to during my commute home. The voice of this essay is running faster than I can type, and I type really fast. The voice that whispers “no one really cares what you have to say” is quiet for the moment. So is the musical soundtrack that accompanies all the hours of my day when I’m swinging high into a hypomania. In this quiet house, the hissing voice of my tinnitus is buzzing nearly as loud as the humming refrigerator. Even so, I can hear the out-of-sync ticking of two clocks, plus the rattle in the kerosene heater’s blower. If I stroke the lush black cat who’s just settled in beside me, his rumbly purr will add to the quiet cacophony.

Lots of voices. And that’s still a slow night in my brain.

I remember once when my husband and I were on a road trip together. “What are you thinking?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” he said.

He had to be evading, I was sure. It was not possible to simply think “nothing.” I pressed him.

“No, really,” I said, “what are you thinking?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just driving.”

I couldn’t believe him, because I had never experienced what he was describing. My head was pretty much always full of voices, ideas, urges. People with bipolar disorder can hear a lot of voices. So, too, may people with other diagnoses.

Bipolar mania hears, “This is the best idea anyone has ever had! Everyone needs to listen now! Hey, you! All of you! Wake up! Get on the bus or get run over!”

Bipolar depression hears, “That oncoming bus is really convenient … you can step in front of it now.”

Social anxiety hears, “Just stay home. No one will talk with you. You’ll look like an idiot if you go.”

Chronic depression hears, “It’s too much work to get dressed. And people will be happier if you don’t show up.”

Anxiety hears: “Don’t even try going. You’ll mess up. Like you always do.”

The popular psychology of my young adult years held that the voices in our head were just looping recordings of voices we’d known … childhood memories that we can turn off if we chose to. On the one hand, I wanted to believe that idea. It seemed so simple. On the other hand, I couldn’t figure out what childhood voice I would have recorded shouting Yiddish vulgarities at me and telling me that I was a f— up who f—s everything up. I mean, sure, I probably had heard the f-word at school. But “schmuck”? In 1960s Maine? Not very likely.

So where did that hectoring voice come from? And the voice that urged me to die? And the voice that said everything is worthless because eventually the universe ends and it all vanishes? And was there a difference between the voices that caused me so much discomfort – the ones that harangued and insulted me – and the voices that gave me useful direction?

Because there was at least one useful voice. At a particularly rough moment, that voice told me that if I didn’t have a reason to live until spring, I should plant bulbs. I did, and still do, almost every fall.

And while I could recognize one of the helpful voices as God, I wondered why was there more than one voice that knew what’s what and could accurately predict circumstances.

I had learned to recognize God’s voice during a year or so when I attended a traditional silent Quaker meeting. In a “silent” Quaker meeting, there is no preacher and no musicians. But if anyone among the congregation feels moved by God to speak or sing, they stand up and do it. After the meeting, the people who spoke, if their words have resonated with others – that is, if their words are believed to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit – receive affirmation from others.

In the meeting I attended, which held to some very old Quaker traditions, people would come up to me quietly after the meeting and tell me, “Thou speakest to my concerns, sister.” Sometimes one person. Sometimes three or four. Over time, I learned to recognize in myself what were the signs of God’s presence in the room to speak through someone, God’s presence to speak through me, and God’s presence to speak through me right now.

But there were still those other voices. The nasty ones, which I did my best to push away. And one day, an unfamiliar voice came to me offering seemingly harmless advice.

I was preparing to sell my 1978 Volkswagen Beetle, the well used and gratefully owned first car that carried me to my first job after college. I’d bought it privateparty from a classified ad, so taking a classified ad to sell it made sense.

Then a voice told me: “Take it to Al Guregian’s. Someone there will pay more for it.”

Well, Al Guregian owned the junkyard where I’d bought most of the parts I replaced over the years, so I knew the guy and the place. I drove up and walked into his office. We started talking.

An employee kept sticking his head in and interrupting our negotiation. Al kept waving him out. We finally settled on a price. He handed me the cash; I signed over the title; and it was done.

As I walked out the office door, the employee sidled up to me.

“How much did he give you for it?” he asked in an undertone.

I told him.

He gasped with frustration. “He won’t sell it to me for twice that!”

Hmmm, I thought. The voice was right. There was someone at Al Guregian’s who was going to pay more for my Bug. But the voice wasn’t God’s voice. How could a voice that was not God give me information that was true?

I let that conundrum drop into a back corner of my brain for processing. A couple of days later, the answer emerged.

God knows everything. God doesn’t just know truth, God is truth. He is the way, the truth and the life. (John 14.6). When we know God, we know the Truth that sets us free (John 8:32).

But a spirit who is not God can know our material world as readily as I can – more so, because without the constraints of a physical body, a spirit potentially has access to much more information. So a spirit who is not God can be in the room when one of Al Guregian’s employees is talking with a buddy about wanting to buy an old VW to fix up. A spirit who is not God can observe Al Guregian’s sharp business dealings and anticipate accurately how he will behave when a car comes onto his lot for which he knows he has a ready buyer. And most of all, a spirit of greed – who is most definitely not God – knows in what direction greed can push an ordinary series of business transactions.

So the spirit who knew someone at Al’s garage would pay more for the car … that was the greedy spirit that set the employee up to pay Al more than double what Al paid me.

And a spirit of greed had told me what greed was doing. Just because a voice speaks truly doesn’t mean the voice is God.

That recognition, in turn, pushed me to a startling insight about my mother’s remarkable ability to see future or remote events – bad events, exclusively.

I remembered in particular one day when she’d come home from shopping. She hadn’t gotten all the way through the door before she demanded, “What happened to my blue cup?”

She couldn’t see, from where she stood in the entryway, the fragments of her blue porcelain mug in the dining room. I can’t remember who knocked it over or how it was broken. I just remember that Mom knew something had happened to her blue mug before she even made it into the house.

Mom was, I came to believe, “wired” for hearing from the spirit world. And not having committed herself yet to Jesus, she heard readily from spirits who were not God. They spoke truth, but not on behalf of the truth that sets us free. Mom was like the fortune teller who truthfully told all the world that Paul and Silas were “servants of the Most High God”, but lost her special knowledge after Paul ordered the spirit who gave her information to depart from her (Acts 16:16-19).

My own ability to hear voices represents the same kind of spiritual atunement. When a Christian listens to God, we call it prophecy. But in my experience, this special ability to listen in on the spirit world, a gift intended for good, is usable in some measure by any spirit who might pass by. The responsibility I hold, as a Christian who has that gift, is to discern among the voices I hear and choose which voices I will attend.

This is what Jesus talks about when he tells us that his sheep know his voice and they will not follow any other (John 10: 2-5). He doesn’t say that we won’t hear any other voice. Just that we’ll refuse to follow it.

(Please note: I only acknowledge that Christians may hear from passing spirits. I am not suggesting that any unholy spirit has access to enter and hold the temple of God which is the believer’s life.)

The voice I have to ignore most frequently is the one that tells me that on any given day, I can choose to end my life. This voice dogs me. It pretends to be comforting me. “Today was hard … you don’t need to do tomorrow,” is its seductive message. “You can stop right now. Forever.” Although it has never spoken as gently as that. Nor has it made its separate existence evident by addressing me from the second person.

This unholy voice speaks in an urgent, first-person shorthand that sounds like my own voice. “I can suicide,” it says to me on my pillow as I try to fall asleep. Night after night, year after year.

And night after night, day after day, year after year, I choose instead to listen to God: “I set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life …” (Dt. 30:19).

It’s like Martin Luther said: “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” The thoughts come. It took decades before they finally (seem to have) stopped. But even when they came nearly every night, when they pretended to be my own thoughts in my own voice, I refused to give them a home.

In the 21st century, people like me who hear voices are labeled as suffering from psychosis. It’s considered to be a symptom of a very serious mental illness that creates dangerous life situations.

After hearing many different voices for more than 40 years, I would say – with Jesus – that hearing voices is as ordinary as seeing sheep follow their shepherd. The only danger is if the sheep pay attention to voices other than God.

As long as you choose to follow God, you will learn to know God’s voice. And, as Jesus promises (John 10:8-10), you will follow God, and God alone, into the fold and out into the pasture and you will be kept safe.

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Prevent Suicide by Finding Alternatives

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Terry tulips blooming in the park. Selective focus.

One way I stay alive: When I don’t know a reason to live till spring, I plant bulbs.

This weekend we mark Suicide Loss Survivor Day, which makes it a great time to learn from all three kinds of people who live beyond suicide.

Most of the people we call “suicide survivors” are people who lost loved ones to suicide deaths. These are the people who will be gathering this weekend. A suicide death often leaves relatives and friends not just grief-stricken but guilt-plagued. They fear they should have recognized signs and prevented the death. After my friend “Katie” hung herself, my other roommate and I weren’t even able to talk about her for maybe a decade. It was just too hard.

A second kind of “suicide survivor” is the person who manages to live beyond a suicide attempt. Kevin Hines, who survived his jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in the year 2000, is one of the better known of these. He’s focused his life since then on encouraging others to #BeHereTomorrow.

Add a Third Kind of Suicide Survivor to the Rally

A third kind of “suicide survivor” doesn’t quite fit the mix, yet has reason to be counted in this difficult company. The third kind of survivor are people who survive chronic suicidal thinking. We are the people who survive our suicidal thoughts many times a year, many times a week … some of us many times a day. And still we choose to keep moving forward.

At last count, I’ve wanted to die on more than 7,300 days of my life. I remember one bright autumn day when I was crossing my college campus, under the kind of impossibly brilliant blue sky that seems to have been created just to highlight the brilliant yellows and oranges of the changing leaves. My friend Loren, heading out of his fraternity house, hailed me.

“You are the happiest person I’ve ever known,” he said. “I never see you without a smile.”

And I kept smiling, even though I was actively considering — at that very moment — how best to die.

I didn’t die that day or that week, nor on any of the other 7,300 days when the prospect of death seemed a promise and a consolation in the face of crushing sadness, overwhelming challenges, or unsurmountable loneliness. Instead, I finished college. I got a job. I maintained a career over nearly four decades. I rebounded from job losses during two economic downturns. I even managed to get back up after the emotionally crushing revelation that my husband of almost 20 years was no longer romantically inclined toward women. I own a home, belong to a church, have friends, have retirement savings.

And the way that I survive chronic impulses toward suicide offers valuable lessons both to others like me, to those who worry about us, and to those who want to avoid yet another suicide death in their circle.

Wanting to Die is ‘Normal’ for Some

Wanting to die is, it turns out, not terribly unusual. People want to die because they’ve committed what they consider to be an unpardonable social sin, because they’ve failed in some way at work, because their spouse has ended the marriage, or they’ve experienced too many bereavements.

Wanting to die is a pretty reasonable reaction to lots of terrible life circumstances. I’ve been there, done it all, and I’m still alive. As are lots of people.

So the real question is why and how do some of us keep going when we frequently want to die. The answer lies in a mix of motivations and solutions that we practice. Over decades, I’ve amassed my own list of streategies. Others will have their own.

Some Things I Do Instead of Dying

Here are a few of the “alternatives to suicide” that I have used over the 40-plus years since I first wanted to die:

Escape: Binge watch television, binge read fiction, write revenge-themed novels, stare at the ocean, stare out the window.

Exhaust myself: Log intense time at the gym, on a trail, up a mountain, on the bike, in a kayak.

Become engaged in something: Use some creative skill; pet the cat or dog; arrange wildflowers into a bouquet; shop an hour for $5 worth of giftwrap and ribbon. Anything that’s not about the feelings inside of me.

Encourage myself: Mark every little step forward. Create a to-do list so detailed that I count it progress when I finish my shower … my breakfast … my commute. Remind myself during times when I feel without hope that the God in whom I believe has promised me “a hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11) … even if that comes far in the future, when I finally arrive in the country where God wipes away every tear (Rev. 21:4).

Extend myself: Extend myself for others, even when I feel like I have nothing to extend. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in “Option B,” her book about surviving the grief she suffered after her husband’s death, says one tool she learned was to log daily three ways she had influenced others for the good. For me, this works. I offer kindness. Volunteer. Show a colleague a new skill.

Remember: At one point, my best suicide preventive was recalling that I would have killed myself if I’d tried the particular overdose I’d considered at age 19, during that autumn when Loren thought I was so happy. Some years later, I held to the memory of a voice (that I know as God) telling me “If you don’t have a reason to live till spring, plant bulbs.” I still plant bulbs, lots of them, almost every year.

Walk through my rituals: Daily routines that never change can keep you going. For me, these include alarm at 6. Coffee. Oat cereal with milk and berries. The print newspaper. The chair where the Bible and journal and planner wait. They resume in the late evening, when 9 p.m. brings on hot tea, the buzzing electric toothbrush, jammies and a book by the bed.

Protect myself: At the worst, I just keep myself safe. I call the friend who is willing to come over, so I’m not alone. I text the person who will remind me that I don’t always feel this terrible. I check in with a suicide hotline or the crisis text service when I need to say things that even the best friend shouldn’t hear.

(And by the way, the hotline care strategy is to listen first, then help the caller identify any circle of belonging and choose even one thing the caller will do in the next 24 hours other than kill herself. That is to say: name notwithstanding, “suicide prevention” hotlines are designed not to prevent suicide, but to help us find alternatives to suicide that will allow us to choose life for another day. And the evidence is that they work.)

Suicide Alternatives vs. Suicide Prevention

None of these is a suicide “prevention” strategy. Suicide “prevention,” as we practice it today in the US, trains thousands of “gatekeepers” to peer into the lives around them for “signs” of suicidality. It urges them to push people like me toward professionals who hold the keys to locked wards, where we can be almost perfectly protected against self-harm.

Ironically, we have trained so many people to be on guard against “symptoms” that ordinary human supports have become much less available to people experiencing challenges. Today, I have to consider carefully any potential confidant. Is this a person who will (with or without professional qualifications) assess me to be a danger to myself, call police for a midnight “welfare check,” insist that I need to take a medication that time has proven doesn’t work for me? Will they shuttle me toward another locked ward?

Me, I’d rather hold my tongue than risk the professional suicide that an inpatient event provides. I’ve only just rebuilt a new career after my one-and-only psych hospital stay more than a decade ago.

People who have lost loved ones to suicide, professionals who have lost patients to suicide – even those who have temporarily protected family, friends, and patients from one episode of suicidality – don’t know even a percent as much about eluding suicide as those of us who have stood this battle for years. My friends and I don’t “prevent” suicide. But we each maintain our personal lists of “alternatives to suicide” that we put into practice when the urge hits. Even when it hits really often.

Why We Need to Focus on ‘Alternatives’ Instead

This year’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and Suicide Loss Survivors Day come at a time in our nation’s history when the suicide rate remains staggeringly high. We also have access to a number of multi-nation studies published across more than a decade demonstrating that as nations improve access to psych meds and hospitalizations, their suicide rates increase. Which is exactly what we’ve seen in the US over the last 30 years.

For more than 7,300 days of my life, waking up the next morning required me to make a conscious choice to diligently pursue something – anything – other than my impulse to die. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider our “suicide prevention” approach. Maybe the best teachers of how to avoid suicide will be, not the people who are afraid someone else will die, but those of us who can explain how and why we regularly choose to live.

Carlene Hill Byron is a nonprofit fundraiser who has worked as a writer, marketing communications specialist, or public relations officer for nearly four decades. Her paper, “Suicide Learning from Global Perspectives,” was presented at the 2015 NAMI-North Carolina state conference.

Finding Silence in a Run-On Brain

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Even when there’s no noise, there’s no silence for me.

I’m not one of those people whose brain is always running down the list of what’s next, what needs to be done, whose post needs to be liked, how to fit in all the many people and tasks that a day requires.

I have a brain that multitasks. All the time.

I’m typing this post while I’m listening (inside my head) to one of the songs from this morning’s worship set and (outside my house) to the cars passing by. My mother used to wonder how I could watch afterschool TV while doing my homework while (intermittently) crocheting granny squares. “I guess I just have an eight-track brain,” I told her.

My brain becomes more quiet when I have a task outside myself that engages more of its channels. The best is physical activity with a purpose. Gardening, for example. When I garden, one brain channel is deciding what needs to be pruned or raked or cut down or weeded, one channel is directing my hands and feet and maybe my huffing lungs (if the job requires heavy hauling, as the best jobs do). Another brain channel is measuring the project’s current status against some anticipated outcome: beds clear for winter, rose bushes free of strangling vines, lilac shrubs in beautiful bloom because I’ve taken down with a handsaw the five 20-foot maples that overshadowed them.

Work — hard, physical work — is where I find silence. With all my channels fully occupied in the task, there’s no place for my brain to run. It can focus on what it is doing and nothing more. Silence.

I suspect that others with a bipolar diagnosis have discovered the same thing. Silence doesn’t come with a meditation discipline. Thoughts that seem to run in four or five separate channels simultaneously can’t be quieted by trying to become quiet — or even by trying to follow the standard instruction and simply letting the thoughts pass. A brain built for radical multitasking keeps running on all five or eight cyclinders until it’s exhausted. That exhaustion can begin a serious downward slide. Other choices are essential.

Gardening works. Dancing works. Trying to play the piano — even just practicing scales — works. Playing music requires me to read the lesson book, to move my hands ways that are not easy for me, to keep track of each finger’s correct position in relation to the scale, to hear what is right and what is misplayed.

I don’t find silence in quiet. I find silence in big occupations — occupations big enough to require all the channels I can play at once and far enough outside me to make any of the yammering internal channels become irrelevant.

I am happy with the silence I find. I hope you find the kind of silence that suits you.

This post is part of the Five Minute Friday linkup: this week’s prompt is Silence.

Shania Twain: You have to feel the pain

You recover from a fall at your own pace.It’s been 15 years since we’ve heard from country star Shania Twain, who finally has a new album out. Turns out she’s spent the last decade and a half doing hard stuff, including bringing a marriage to an end and digging herself out of the emotional void that divorce typically creates.

In an interview with Alison Abbey, she says she chose to let herself experience the devastation of divorce:

“When you leave a long-term relationship, everything you know, everyone you know, and all of the dreams that you were building for your future — that’s all just gone …

“I gave up on fighting the way I was feeling … The more you ignore it and try to pretend that it’s not happening, the longer it takes you.”

It’s hard to let yourself experience that much pain! Especially at a time when the medical profession’s diagnostic bible, the DSM-V, says that 2 weeks is the outer window for behaving as if something terrible has happened. After a couple of weeks, employers start to urge a call to the EAP and friends start to say we need to see a counseling professional. And then the counseling professional tells us that we’ve been sad for more than 2 weeks so we have a “clinical depression” which requires weekly professional counsel and probably medication to get us back to “normal.”

I like Twain’s approach better. Big losses make big hurts. Big hurts force big changes. And when you’ve had a big hurt, my job as a Christian isn’t to push you away to a professional — it’s to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). God is the healer, and He’s got lots more than two weeks to hang out and  do the work.

It’s only recently, by the way, that clinical professionals have insisted on  treating major loss as major depression. Philip Hickey’s article on the recent history of this diagnostic trend is excellent, although very long.

 

 

 

Dorothea Dix Built Inclusive Communities for Mentally Well & Ill

 

Dorothea Dix Oval Frame

Maine’s Dorothea Dix created inclusive communities for the mentally ill in the 19th c.

As Dix Hill becomes Raleigh’s Central Park, we must stop to remember that this was once a place where mentally healthy and mentally ill lived together in community, much like the vaunted and admired communities of L’Arche.

 

The communities of L’Arche have always intrigued and humbled us. In these homes where able-minded and learning-disabled share life together, the intellectually challenged “least of these” are treated as peer – even teacher – to their “normal” housemates, including philosopher Jean Vanier, who founded the first household.

The nearest L’Arche is 150 miles away, but in Wake County we can still listen to the men and women who lived together on Dix Hill. Continue reading

Inspiration or Encouragement?

Not feeling so inspired lately. Slogging through things. Which is what I usually do at this time of year. It’s marked on my calendar: “Low.” Repeats. Early June to early August. Then, without a break, “High” pops in. That’s when I might (as I recall once from my teen-aged self) go to the library and check out a stack of self-improvement books so tall that I can barely wedge them between my outstretched arms and my upstretched chin, imagining that in the two weeks before they fall due, I will accomplish significant self-renewal.

When I’m low, I can’t hope for inspiration. All I can hope for is to actually follow through on responsibilities. And I’m grateful for people who pop into my office to remind me that I’ve promised them something soon … leaving me enough time to scramble it together in decent order.

When I’m low, you are my inspiration — what you expect of me, what you know I can do, what you believe I can achieve on our behalf.

When I’m high, you take a back seat to my own excessive energy and imagination. When I’m high, I barely see you.

God told us to “Encourage one another daily” (Heb. 3:13). Thank you for encouragement during the half a year I desperately need it,

In response to the Five Minute Friday Link Up “Inspire”

PS: And this is how little “inspiration” can matter … In the last 2 weeks, I have written and rewritten (on the encouragement of a writer friend nearby) an article that will be published in the August Redbud Post — my first time in that publication — and created from scratch (on the encouragement of a generation younger colleague) a radically different employment ad for our agency that is sparking both applications and social shares. For me, inspiration can be overrated, at least compared to the encouragement offered by people who trust me to do well.