When I was 22 and developed schizophrenia it was more confusing than anything else. It started out as voices. It was not so much what they said as the fact that I heard them.
I felt my mind was playing tricks on me. I never connected it with hallucinating, much less with mental illness. Gradually I began to hear them more often. I got the impression my movements were being tracked. Once when I was driving I stopped at a service station on the motorway and the voice said, “Huh, southbound”. So I got back in my car and thought I should change direction. At the next service station I heard a voice saying, “northbound”. I ended up driving up and down the motorway, but there was no escaping the voices. It wasn’t long before I heard them everywhere I went.
I also kept hearing the neighbours banging on the walls, trying – so I thought – to play on my nerves. My response was to run not just out of the house, but as far away as possible. That meant getting away from everybody. I wandered around the countryside at night trying to avoid towns and villages. No matter how far I went I could still hear the banging noise.
Always assessing what the voice says and challenging it can focus one too much on the voice. It may be best to try to ignore it. When I write I am so focused that, even when I hear voices, I do not listen or worry about them so much. I am so absorbed in what I am doing it would take an earthquake to catch my attention. Perhaps the trick has been for me to find something I really enjoy so I don’t get down about what the voices say.
My voices are not critical about my personality. They try to convince me that I am responsible for things like war, famine and disease. Voices can get you to believe anything. Sometimes people who hear voices say they get messages from aliens or transmitters. Some people even think they are hearing God talk to them. What I get from them is worry about what is going to happen to me. To quell the fear I become more involved with college and writing.
Why am I still hearing voices after all this time? Medications are not always effective for everyone and often in these cases the illness can be prolonged until the right drug is found. Sometimes the illness can be life-long. In many ways I think I have been lucky, as I went to university before my illness. I do not feel bad about not having the chance of a career. For me something else has come along instead that has filled my time and much of my life as well: writing.
Fifteen years of hearing voices has not been the end of the world for me. I think people in general are adaptable, though it took me a long time to get used to the illness. I now live in a sheltered accommodation so I can talk over my illness with others who understand it. This is not always a formula for coping, but it is how I have changed my own life.
Mark Ellerby uses mental health services and is a writer