All Ears

I find it striking that a person’s ability to balance is located in the ears.  In last weeks’ edition of the blog I talked about the importance of listening to friends and family who have mental health problems.  This got me thinking about the curious connection that there is between staying on your feet – or in the saddle – and what we hear, and how we listen.

 I think it’s fair to say that most people who read about people who hear voices that others
do not think that these people are seriously ill.  In fact I think that I’m being a bit soft here.  Let me re-phrase that:  most people think that people who hear voices that others don’t are stark raving mad  – and probably dangerous.

Some of you may remember the episode at a tube station in north London in December 1992 when a man called Christopher Clunis, acting on voices he was hearing, stabbed
and killed a man called Jonathan Zito.  The young widow of the victim went on to set up a charity called the Zito Trust that campaigned to work towards the reform of mental health policy and law, to provide advice and support to victims of community care breakdown,
and to carry out relevant research into services for the severely mentally ill and disordered. Jayne Zito was awarded an O.B.E. for her work in the 2002 New Year Honours List.

While the Trust did much good work in de – mystifying mental health issues – the case
thrust the idea that people who hear voices – men from ethnic minorities to be specific – are dangerous.

While this case was shocking and tragic for everyone concerned, it is important to realise
that most people who hear voices do not feel compelled to attack people.  More often than not people who are hearing voices are frightened by them, and may become withdrawn.  Plagued by disturbing messages they withdraw into their own world, neglect themselves and struggle to maintain independent lives.

Furthermore, I would contend that hearing voices is part of what makes us human.  We all hear voices, and we all struggle, to a greater or lesser degree with the messages they convey.  It might be a voice that says ‘I’m fat’, or I’m lazy’.  Or, more pertinent to the themes of this blog, ‘I am a Paranoid Schizophrenic’, ‘I am a Depressive’, ‘I am Bi Polar’.  The danger is of course that these persistent messages become embedded in our psyche and become a script that we may find difficult to deviate from.  In short, they become part of how we see ourselves.

That’s where listening comes in – listening to ourselves. How many of us who consider ourselves to be ‘good listeners’ actually  listen skillfully to what we tell ourselves?

 Recently I have been reading about an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  It’s an approach that I find makes a lot of sense.  By that I mean that it helps to make sense of a lot of my distressing and disabling experiences, and it also offers strategies for coping with, and managing voices that I hear.  Russ Harris*bases his approach to the unhelpful messages we all hear – to a greater or lesser extent –  from time to time – on the following.  He asserts that these thoughts do not belong to us.  He characterises them as independent thoughts that are simply passing through our minds.  We should not take responsibility for them, and we should view them as if they were passing scenery that we might see out of the window of a train or car.  Messages that go in one ear and out of the other.  He goes further and suggests ways we actively respond to these unhelpful messages.  So, for example if someone is troubled by a voice persistently telling them that they are not good at their job ( and these messages are not proving to be motivational in any way) then they should respond in the following way:  Try saying ‘Thanks Mind!’ as a response.  You may wish to say this to yourself to avoid others wondering if you are talking to yourself – which, I suppose, you are.  That way you do not expend energy trying to push them away or bury them, but just wave to them, so to speak, as they go on their way.  Another technique that he suggests uses humour, and a light touch, as its strength.  Try repeating what the voice says in a sing-song voice, to the tune, say, of ‘Jingle Bells’.  Try repeating tis several times, and most likely you will find that it becomes increasingly difficult to take such messages seriously.

In the meantime, here is poem that I  learnt by heart as a school boy; it ressonates for me now, as it did back then.

*Author of ‘The Happiness Trap’

The Listeners


‘Is there anybody out there?’ said the traveller
knocking on the moonlit door
 And his horse in the silence champ’d the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean’d over and look’d into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex’d and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr’d and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starr’d and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
‘Tell them I came, and no one answer’d,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Walter de la Mer (1873 – 1956)

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