Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Thursday, 3 September 2009 13:32 UK

Embracing the dark voices within

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Peter Bullimore explains how he deals with the voices in his head.

By Chloe Hadjimatheou
BBC World Service

British psychologist, Rufus May is taking an unusual approach to schizophrenia by encouraging his patients not to battle against their voices - but to embrace them.

"The voice in my head says: 'You have to kill yourself because it's the only way you'll be free,'" explains a young woman.

I have been invited to a meeting of the Hearing Voices Network, a group that encourages people to come together to share their experiences.

It is a bit like a meeting of Alcoholic Anonymous: people sit in a circle on plastic chairs; there is tea and biscuits.

FROM BBC WORLD SERVICE

The man chairing the meeting is Rufus May, a psychologist who has dedicated his career to helping people who hear voices.

"Did anyone ever ask you what the voices in your head were actually saying?" he asks a newcomer.

She has just recounted a story familiar to many of those here, of spending years in and out of mental institutions.

"The doctors told the other staff not to pay attention to me when I spoke about the voices; they said it would be playing into my delusions," she says.

Quirk of nature

Traditionally, the psychological community sees voices as a symptom of mental disorders such as schizophrenia or psychosis.

Rufus May
Voices are symbolic messages about things that have happened in someone's life
Rufus May

But Dr May belongs to a new school of thought that considers hearing voices as a naturally occurring human difference, such as left-handedness or homosexuality - something to be understood, not cured.

"Many people who hear voices never come to the attention of the mental health services," he explains.

"But when someone has a traumatic experience, the voices can turn against them, and become frightening."

Even then the voices are still worth listening to, according to Dr May.

"Voices are symbolic messages about things that have happened in someone's life and if we decode them, they are usually trying to tell us about an issue needs to be addressed," he says.

Dr May has been called a maverick and even labelled "dangerous" by the psychiatric community for the methods he uses to treat people who hear voices.

He is keen to show me how he works and so I am allowed to sit in on one of his therapy sessions.

His patient, Jackie (not her real name) hears two distinct voices, one male and one female.

Dr May ignores Jackie sitting opposite him and addresses the voices in her head directly, a little like he is invoking spirits at a seance.

"Is anybody there? Who wants to talk to me today?"

Before long Jackie responds, by repeating exactly what the voice in her head says.

"I hate you! You're always trying to mess things up by telling her she shouldn't kill herself," the voice tells him.

Not all the talk is aggressive, although it is often surreal.

Dr May asks the voices how they enjoyed a recent holiday Jackie took, and while one responds that she quite enjoyed it, the other claims he stayed at home.

Jackie seems drained afterwards but she is convinced she benefits from these sessions.

"I used to be afraid to leave the house but in the last few months I've reduced my medication and I feel much better," she tells me.

Harnessing the voices

One of the chairs of the Hearing Voices Network, Pete Bullimore, is testament to how effective these methods can be.

Pete Bullimore
I wouldn't want to get rid of my voices now, they're part of me
Pete Bullimore

Pete heard his first voice aged seven, after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a child minder.

"I heard a child's voice telling me to keep going, that everything would be OK. It was reassuring, a bit like an imaginary friend," he says.

But as the abuse went on the voices increased in number, eventually turning sinister and aggressive.

"They told me to set myself on fire, to slash myself and destroy myself, often 20 or 30 voices all shouting at me at once," he says.

By his mid-twenties Pete had lost his business, his family, his home, everything.

"The voices just encompassed my life; I curled up in a chair and didn't wash or eat.

"I was locked in a world of voices, paranoia and depression, and it was probably the most frightening time of my life," he says.

Pete spent more than a decade after that on heavy medication, but the voices never went away.

It was only when he came off the medication and met people who share his experience that he was able to stop being so afraid of the voices and actually start listening to them.

Life isn't easy. Pete still hears up to 40 voices at a time - it is worse when he is tired or stressed - making it difficult to concentrate and impossible to drive a car.

But he has rebuilt his life and has even been hearing a more positive voice recently, which is dictating a children's book to him.

He has already written several chapters, and there has been some interest from publishers.

"I wouldn't want to get rid of my voices now, they're part of me," he says.



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