By Mindy Tsai
No one, including family and close friends, has ever asked me about the first time I heard a voice. I think it’s a tough topic to talk about. Hearing voices isn’t considered normal. Regardless, I remember. Some voices are more memorable than others, just like real people.
On a sunny day, I heard “him” for the first time. Later on, I would name him Joe, because he reminded me of my secret crush at the time. I had just woken up and was getting dressed. Suddenly, I heard a man talking. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me, so I thought, “Let me walk outside of the house to see if I can still hear him.”
I stepped out of my front door and there was silence for about five seconds. Then, he said, clearly: “Can you hear me?”
I locked the door and start walking to work. “Yes,” I said quietly and smiled.
There wasn’t a single person on the street I could see. Still, I heard: “Don’t smile. You are going to look silly if you walk on the street, talk to yourself and smile on your own.”
“Okay,” I thought in response. I transitioned from speaking out loud to in my mind only. That didn’t bother me. Actually, I didn’t really notice the transition.
“You need to ask someone for help,” Joe said. I still can’t believe that my first voice warned me about the mental health situation I was in.
I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but I do remember I had a completely reasonable “conversation” with Joe. We did not talk over each other. No one yelled. He did not make me upset. He did not give me commands to hurt or kill myself. Just like people, there are all kinds of voices.
During the earlier stages of my schizophrenia, I was trying to make sense out of what I heard. The voices to me were very real. And they were! Because I did hear them. It was only later that I made the connection that I was the only person who heard them. Writing and talking about what I experienced helped me finally make that connection.
So, if you’re a friend or family member of someone who is hearing voices (otherwise known as auditory hallucinations), the best way to be supportive is to talk about the experience. Simple conversation starters are: What was the first time you heard something? What did the voice say? How do you feel about them? Are you okay? It never helped when someone argued with me about what I heard or told me that it was all fake. But it was very helpful when someone listened.
My psychiatrist recommended Hearing Voices, A Common Human Experience to me when I asked to learn more about my condition. The book covers many different perspectives on hearing voices—from mental illness to spirituality, from religious figures to cultural folklores, from the distant past to current times. It’s an insightful read; like all the different kinds of voices, I thought it was interesting that we also have all kinds of perspectives on how we interpret those voices.
Every time I think about my schizophrenia, I’m amazed at what my brain can do, even when it’s considered “broken.” My brain can create an entire alternative world that only I know about. Perhaps, in the future, we’ll find out that it’s not really broken, but just behaving in a way we don’t quite understand right now. Hearing voices may not be considered “normal” for now, but trying to understand is a good first step in making those who have their own Joe feel accepted.
Mindy Tsai is an aspired writer working on her first memoir about her schizophrenia. She also started blogging about her real and messy life at mindytsai.com. During the day, she is a project manager at a digital health consulting firm. She lives in Brookline, MA.
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