Hearing Voices

by Marija Peričić

In my ideal world, I’d live alone in my own apartment, which would be in a small block, filled with books and houseplants and perhaps a cat. The apartment would have large windows, be on the first floor, and look out over a lovely garden. This pretty much describes my current apartment, minus the cat and plus a partner,[i] so I am very lucky to be so close to my ideal. I am by nature an apartment-dweller. I am an introvert (89% so according to Myers-Briggs); read and write a lot, for which I prefer silence; and am partial to casual nudity, so solo apartment-living is just my cup of tea.

Despite my 89% introvert status, however, I am not a total hermit. I once tried temporary hermit-dom, in a deserted off-the-grid cabin in the bush, outside of Castlemaine, but it wasn’t for me. This was unexpected. At the time I had been living in a share-house, and was desperate to get away for a while. To me, share-house living is an inherently stressful state of existence. It is a perpetual feeling of people, not even ones I particularly love, being there in my personal space every day, around the clock, able to walk in at any moment. It fatigued me. I felt I could never quite relax. So I was relieved to get to the bush house, and at first I revelled in the quiet. It was so very quiet. There were not a person in sight. Not one. The house was surrounded by trees and I couldn’t even see the neighbouring house. The only sounds were the trees swishing in the wind and the call of birds. Heaven!

Or so I thought. Until it began to get dark. The day-time quiet in which I had basked became first slightly ominous, and then downright spooky. It was so very quiet. Too much so in fact. As if in the pause before some horrific disaster. The sun went down. I noticed that the house had no curtains, but a great many windows. The night came and it got even darker, more dark than seemed possible, and the outside loo seemed suddenly very, very far away. I realised then that it is possible for one to be too alone.

So apartments are perfect for me, one is alone, but not totally. Other people are close by, but, crucially, they are kept at a necessary distance. The neighbours are always there, but not too much in my life. I know them to have a quick chat with, maybe to share a cup of tea, or collect parcels for them while they’re out. Mostly though, my neighbours are present to me as a chorus of disembodied voices and sounds, each with their own characteristics.

It is these sounds of the apartment block that make me feel at home. My apartment building is in an L-shape. There is one neighbour, in the adjacent part of the L, who leaves the house at precisely 7:40am each day, clicking along on high heels. I follow her progress in my mind’s eye as she walks first down the concrete steps, along the garden path, and then out of the gate, which squeaks to open and clicks shut behind her. I have never seen this neighbour, but the sound of her precise heels conjures an image of a smartly-dressed Italian woman, perfumed, with perfect hair. Robert, [ii] who lives below me, has a very deep telephone voice, much deeper than his normal speaking voice. In the apartment building next door lives a jazz pianist, who practises every night, which I can hear from the bathroom if I leave the window open.

But the neighbour I hear most often is a woman who also lives adjacent to me. The first time I heard her was one night shortly after we first moved in. We were woken very early in the morning by the most awful screaming and banging. It sounded like a domestic violence situation, but then it quickly stopped. My partner, who is a very responsible citizen, went down to investigate, while I got ready to call the police. At first my partner wasn’t sure from which apartment the noise had come, but there was only one apartment with lights on. He got no response when he knocked at this door, but the blinds were partially open, and through the gap he saw a woman sitting slumped against the wall, looking tired, but not injured. He waited around outside for a little while more, but the noise didn’t start up again.

The next day we asked Robert whether he had heard the commotion. He was unfazed.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “that’s Susan. She has auditory hallucinations sometimes; she hears voices. And she’s deaf, so she can’t hear herself.”

I knew Susan to say hello to, and I often ran into her while walking around my suburb. It was hard for me to reconcile the gentle and polite woman I had seen to the originator of the fury that I had heard. Over the next months, Susan’s episodes became more frequent and more extreme. We worried about her, but didn’t know what, if anything, to do. Should we call the CAT team? Should we talk to her about it? We were worried that if we talked to her about it, she would be ashamed or upset. We didn’t mind about the noise, we just worried that she would hurt herself. We were also concerned that someone else might complain, which might lead to her being kicked out of the apartment.

Hearing voices is still hugely stigmatised. It is generally considered to be synonymous with schizophrenia, but although it can be a symptom of serious mental health disorder, it isn’t always. For many people without any serious mental illness, voice-hearing is just an ordinary part of life: actually, as much as 10% of the population, hear voices at different times of their lives. I myself am one of these people.

For as long as I can remember, every night before I go to sleep I have heard a chorus of different voices. Most of the time they are not addressing me, they are just carrying on a conversation amongst themselves. There are usually a lot of voices, which fade in and out, so I hear bits of one conversation or monologue, and then another. I am very fortunate that my voices are just an unremarkable part of my life. They are no different from the voices of my neighbours filtering through the walls of my apartment. It has only been recently, after I moved in next to Susan, and began talking to my friends about it, that I realised not everyone experiences such voices. I was surprised to find that some of my friends, who, like me, also do not suffer from serious mental illnesses, experience this phenomenon, and, like me, thought nothing much of it.

I also hear voices in a very positive way when I am writing. Sometimes, but not always, a character’s voice emerges for me in a very real way, if I give it space to appear. It turns out that hearing voices is quite common among creative people. Charles Dickens’ characters, for example, all came to him very strongly as voices. He would hear these voices even while he was not writing the stories in which they appeared, and their jokes and teasing would at times provoke uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times, like during church services. Virginia Woolf, Philip K. Dick, William Blake and Allen Ginsberg were all voice-hearers. Interestingly, one of the voices that Allen Ginsberg heard was William Blake’s. Some of these voice-hearing writers did suffer from mental illness and extreme distress, but not all of them.

I am so very grateful that my voices are helpful, or neutral, unlike my neighbour Susan’s voices, the horror of which I cannot even imagine. Voices can ruin lives, those of the voice-hearers, and those of their loved ones. Unfortunately, even though my voices are normal to me, and not the symptom of an illness, I am hesitant to tell people about them. I’m afraid of being thought of as a “crazy person”. Luckily, public perceptions of voice-hearing are slowly changing, thanks in part to a large-scale cross-disciplinary research project being run by Durham University and the Wellcome Trust.

Breaking the taboo around voice-hearing and being able to discuss it freely is important because it emphasises how much we all share with each other. All of us are forever locked inside our own heads, but we all experience the world so very differently. Being aware of voice-hearing is a reminder to meet people with compassion: they might have a very different thing going on in their world than you have in yours.

[i] This does not mean that I don’t love my partner, but in an ideal world, he would live in the apartment next door.

[ii] I have changed people’s names in this post for privacy.