August 14, 2023

By David Lane

Illustration of a person inside the silhouette of a head
I was about five years old that night, in 1989, when I thought I heard “something scary” talking from the Lego box in my closet. I recall that the voice sounded deep, masculine and muffled. I couldn’t make out the words, but the whole experience incited a deep sense of panic. I was frozen in fear for what felt like an eternity; I just laid there trying to decide what to do. Eventually, I found the courage to get up and confront my fear. Obviously, I found no monster in the Lego box. My parents chalked it up to a nightmare. Yet, I remember being completely conscious during the entire experience.

At age 28, I was diagnosed with bipolar type 1. Then, five years later, with schizoaffective disorder. During 2019, I began to regularly hear voices from no apparent physical source. This bizarre phenomenon became a daily occurrence for me. Every waking hour of my day was filled with unwanted, and intrusive auditory irregularities. I call it an auditory “irregularity,” but from my perspective it felt like a horde of uninvited guests had set up shop in my mind.

They were frequently judgmental, malicious, vindictive and passive aggressive. I had no idea how to talk about this experience. I’m not sure I could have explained it if I tried. I eventually opened up to my family about it, and they tried their best to understand. With my condition out in the open, it was much easier to find a path through this difficult period.

The Strain of Hearing Voices

I figured out that if I could keep my mind completely focused on a task, or totally absorbed in an activity, I could catch a break from the intrusive auditory irregularities. This strategy was effective, but quickly left me feeling completely burned out and depressed. I felt as though I was constantly under observation — being judged, criticized and gaslit.

Even when everything else was ok — and I could catch a short break from the constant stream of negative, intrusive thoughts — I still always carried a sense of anxiety, bordering on panic. I had a hard time determining whether the intrusive voices were coming from a source in the physical world around me or someplace buried deep in my subconscious mind. Living in this constant fight or flight mode, I began to believe my tormentors were always just one thought away. My terror eventually turned to aggression. This mentality bled over into my relationships, and I drove away most of the people that cared about me.

Coping Through Meditation

Medication, talk therapy, journaling, music, art, exercise and meditation are all effective therapeutic tools. But the tool that has given me the ability to turn the voices off and find relief is meditation.

When I told my psychiatrist the voices were intensifying, he suggested some alternative medication options. While the antipsychotics were great for ensuring that I slept at least six to eight hours per night, they didn’t seem to improve the volume or frequency of auditory intrusions. I had a working understanding of how to adjust my current medications, based on my fluctuating sleep cycle, but I wasn’t willing to lose that stability by introducing a new chemical into my body. Instead, I decided that I would rely on my meditation practice to cope with the auditory hallucinations. I believed that I could use meditation to train myself not to react to the voices.

I made the same decision as my five-year-old self did — to summon the courage to confront this monster head on. I took a leap of faith, and I had no clue how difficult this struggle was going to be, or how long it might take to develop the skills required to overcome this challenging symptom.

I’d used meditation in the past to cope with other difficult mental health symptoms, but this time, it felt like my life might depend on my ability to remain calm and centered. I found that through dedicated meditative practice, and maintaining an attitude of indifference toward the negative voices throughout my day, I could reduce their volume and frequency.

Changing My Relationship to My Condition

During early stages of hearing voices, I would become rigid, defensive and, eventually, fully pissed-off at the unwanted intruders in my head. It took me years to recognize that getting angry, confused or fearful only magnified their intensity and duration. Once I learned to maintain my attitude of indifference for longer periods, I was able to turn them down to zero.

I didn’t develop this skill overnight. It took practice just focusing on my breath, while allowing all other thoughts to pass. This included the thoughts I perceived to be coming from an external source. Surprisingly, I also noticed how often I repeated negative thought patterns that inhibited my ability to function.

I’m not a Zen master, and I can’t make any claims regarding the effectiveness of meditation for treatment of auditory hallucinations. I can only speak to the positive effects that I, myself, have experienced. I know that my struggle is not over. I still battle with social and general anxiety in public when the voices arise. However, it’s becoming more manageable as I continue to practice my meditation technique.

Now instead of letting them redirect my thoughts, I can choose to just hear the voices as desperate cries for attention as they dissipate back into nothingness.

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