Voices in my Head
by Martin Ellis
I’m writing this article to talk about some of my personal experiences with schizophrenia. I suffered seriously from that illness for a few years and during that time I constantly heard voices in my head which I thought would never go away. I also had a lot of extremely paranoid thoughts about everything around me, about people I knew, strangers, the government, what’s on TV, and so on. In the time since then I have gotten much better and I haven’t heard any voices for years, and I no longer have such paranoid thinking. If nothing else then I hope I can tell others who hear voices or know someone who does that the voices can eventually go away and you can get back to normal. I don’t know a surefire way to fix things, but I do think that one important part of the solution is knowing that it takes time. People don’t generally gain mental illnesses overnight, it’s built up gradually over time, and similarly it takes time to gradually go away.
Like most mental illnesses schizophrenia is not very well understood by many people. In fact I knew nothing about it before I was diagnosed with it myself. Since I have recovered I have been able to recognize what a serious problem it is for so many other people out there, something that can ruin lives. There is a lot I could write about relating my experiences with schizophrenia, but for the purposes of this article I will try to give a brief overview of myself and what it was like for me as well as share some ideas that I have had since recovering. I imagine that people who read this may have different questions based on their own experiences, I will be happy to respond in the comments section.
Schizophrenia is ultimately a word to describe a complicated mental illness which can vary in cause and effect, it’s not the same for everyone. Some of the serious effects of the illness include hearing voices in your head and having serious paranoid thoughts. In fact, when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia I was suffering from the effects of the illness (obviously) including intense paranoia, so I did not believe that my diagnosis of schizophrenia was accurate. I imagine this problem frequently comes up with others who have this illness and are diagnosed with it. It wasn’t until much later when I had been able to think clearly for some time that I was able to understand that I had been suffering the classic symptoms of schizophrenia.
I’m 32 at the moment and I suffered serious effects of schizophrenia such as constantly hearing voices in my head and believing many paranoid thoughts from around the ages of 21-24. I was a healthy child with no signs of mental illness, in fact I was intelligent and was fortunate to have nice parents and a happy upbringing. I think that’s important to note because some people think that people who are ‘crazy’ have always been that way, I know that in my case I was not crazy growing up and then went through a time where I could definitely be described as crazy. The fact that people who seem ‘crazy’ can often be normal people with normal backgrounds who are suffering from serious mental illness is something I learned firsthand by going through my experience.
There are two things I want to discuss when it comes to the symptoms of my experience with schizophrenia, and those are Hearing Voices and Paranoid Thinking. First off, what was it like to hear voices in my head? What did they talk about, how often did I hear them? Hearing voices was very much like hearing disconnected thoughts in my head. Another way to put it is that they felt like thoughts that I hear in my mind the way I hear normal thoughts, except the voices never felt like they were of my own making. They would just happen in a way that felt like they were ‘next to’ my normal thoughts, and they were often random and felt disconnected from what I was doing or thinking at the moment. I heard voices often, sometimes I would hear many voices or words from one voice in the span of minutes, other time minutes would go by without me hearing any. I don’t think an hour could go by without me hearing at least one voice. What the voices said could vary a lot but a lot of the time they were extremely negative and mean toward me. This could range in intensity from simply making fun of me to being excited and taunting me about my impending death. A lot of the time they would say paranoid things like someone is watching me or people are spying on me or reading my thoughts. This would increase my paranoid thinking, which would in turn give the voices more power by making them seem more reasonable, a vicious cycle.
This leads me to the other major aspect of schizophrenia that I suffered which is severe paranoid thinking. In fact you could call most of it delusional thinking however the root cause of it was often paranoia. I believed in some crazy and terrible things, which got much worse as I continued to live with the disease for a long period of time. I believed that I was being spied on by the government and having thoughts beamed into my head. Eventually I thought I was on some type of demented 24 hour television show like ‘The Truman Show’ and somehow people were being tricked and things were edited out. Then I thought that people who were watching this show hated me and enjoyed seeing me suffer, and my reality was an illusion for their entertainment. I started believing that my family and friends were in on it, and that they hated me and wanted me dead. The voices would tease me that I would be executed and that everyone would watch and celebrate. It was awful, terrible stuff, and many times it felt like I was living in a nightmare. I still remember times when I would have an actual nightmare and wake up and not feel reassured because the voices and paranoia would immediately set in. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I could believe any of the things that I did when I was sick, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to explain to myself why I heard voices and believed what I did.
One way I try to describe what it was like to slowly start believing in paranoid and delusional thinking is to use an example. Let’s say that when my mind was working normally before I was ill, that 99% of my thoughts were ‘rational’ and 1% of my thoughts were ‘delusional’. (for the sake of this argument I will use these terms generally to represent my point) As I got sick, it was like the delusional portion of my thinking slowly began to increase. Perhaps a couple of times my delusional thoughts made some type of sense to me so I listened to them, then they became 2%. Once they were 2% I was a bit more likely to listen again, and so on. With the voices I heard reinforcing, or even causing, such thinking, it continued to gain ground. At some point the ratio was reversed and my thoughts were mostly delusional with only a small percentage of my thoughts being rational. However because this change happened gradually over weeks and months, say just a one percent difference each day, I never recognized what a change was coming over me. I went along believing what I was thinking the whole time. I never woke up one day and all of a sudden everything was different, it happened gradually. By the time I was very sick, there was still a tiny rational voice inside of me, like my old self, saying “None of this makes sense. Why do you believe this?” But that voice was insignificant and drowned out by the majority of my other thinking and the other voices I heard.
Living in such a state for years seriously affected my ability to function normally. I had trouble getting along with people and went through many jobs where I would eventually quit or be fired. After a while I couldn’t hold any job and was living off of my parents. Believing in the types of paranoid thoughts that I had led me to feel like I was constantly being persecuted. This made me feel angry a lot of the time and I had trouble controlling my emotions. I would try to explain to myself why I was being persecuted and the reasons ranged from the idea that I was somehow special to the idea that I was somehow terrible and deserved punishment. None of my explanations were reasonable outside of the belief that I was somehow being persecuted as part of some vast conspiracy that I didn’t quite understand.
Ultimately the support of my family and close friends helped me recover. After some time my mom took me to an interview at a Social Security and I qualified for disability. At the time I didn’t think I was sick and thought the whole thing was part of the vague conspiracy surrounding my life. In the end I was very fortunate to have the support of my family and also the government through the disability payments and medicine to slowly recover. It was ironic because while I was sick I thought my parents and the government were part of the conspiracy surrounding my life. But after years of living with the illness and believing such terrible things and yet not actually being physically harmed somehow or finding hard evidence that I could show others and prove I was right, the little voice inside of me that had been quieted over the years began to gain strength again. The more I doubted and questioned the voices and paranoid thinking the more it went away. Once I started seriously doubting many of my paranoid thoughts, I was slowly able to start gaining control of my mind again.
Living on the other side of schizophrenia has opened my eyes to a lot. One of the worst symptoms of having schizophrenia is a paranoid belief that everyone is persecuting you and against you somehow. Living in that mind state 24/7 can be impossible to deal with and it makes you want to get revenge on the people who you think have made your life so bad. Sometimes I would think, how can I get revenge or seek justice against what’s being done to me? I’m not a violent person and never came close to actually hurting anyone. But now when I see on the news people who do violent or crazy things and there is no discernible motive, I think, did they have schizophrenia? To be clear I don’t think that having mental illness means you are going to do something violent, most people don’t and I don’t want to make that connection. I never came close to doing anything violent, but since I’ve recovered I have thought to myself at times and especially after seeing a mass shooting or something like that, what would it be like for people who had similar symptoms as I did but didn’t have the support I did? What if they lived with a similar illness as I had but had far less support and didn’t recover? Also I would think about the type of personalities people have before they become mentally ill and how that could affect their experience of mental illness, for example I never liked guns or violence growing up and having mental illness didn’t really change that. But what if someone who was used to guns or violence then went through mental illness? My point is that one of the dangers of severe paranoid thinking is a belief that most or all of society is against you, because this reinforces a feeling of being wrongly persecuted and needing to seek justice for yourself since no one else will. There is a lot of human behavior that used to make no sense to me, but after living with schizophrenia for a few years I can see how going through years of severe psychological stress can make people believe and do things that don’t make sense to anyone else.
I’m not a scientist so my thoughts on these matters are based mostly on personal experience, I am not saying I am right, these are some ideas I have come up with to try and explain what I went through to myself and others. I hope that people who read this can gain some new understanding about mental illness and schizophrenia. In my opinion mental illness is curable and preventable but it is much easier to prevent it than to cure it. Prevention starts with being educated and informed on what it is and what causes it. I don’t have all the answers because mental illness and schizophrenia are complicated, but I can be honest about my experience and hopefully that may help someone. If there’s any questions I will respond in the comments. Thank you for reading!
I use the terms mental illness or mental disease to describe schizophrenia sometimes, but that doesn’t always seem like the most accurate way to describe it. Diseases and most illnesses are something physical that you catch in the environment, a foreign entity that gets in your body and makes you sick until your body can fight it off. Mental illness is not something you catch from one external source but from a combination of sources, many internal, and some of it has to do with the wiring of your thoughts. Your body can’t fight mental illness off the way it does a disease. Part of beating it is rewiring your thoughts to not keep repeating particular negative ideas.