Schizophrenia doesn’t make a man gun down 12 people in the nation’s capital—voices do, but even they can be tamed.
No doubt these voices, every bit as real as the voices we hear in real life, badgered Aaron Alexis into firing his weapon.
Trust me, I’ve seen them at work first-hand in our own family. They can be very bad actors–they badgered my sister into a knife attack from out of nowhere.
First flash back fifty years before to when my grandmother had all of her teeth removed, because her voices urged her on.
Then flash forward to my one sister in the seventies who was convinced by her voices that she was the wife of Christ.
Then a second sister, my closest, who never had a harsh word for anyone, much less a murderous thought, goes after a guy with a knife out of nowhere.
Again, the voices made her do it.
It happened one summer on Cape Cod. We had just arrived–myself and four sisters–at a seaside cottage belonging to my sister Elaine’s new boyfriend at the time. We were all bantering in the ktichen when I noticed Austine taking an unusual interest in a set of carving knives poking out of a storage block by the toaster.
She was transfixed by them. That much was clear. What was not at all certain was what she–or her voices–had planned for them.
Then, and with uncharacteristic speed, Austine grabbed a large carving knife from the block. Since John’s back was more or less turned, he never saw it coming.
Fortunately, I was able to tackle Austine in the last second before the blade could sink.
It was a shocking thing to witness. I took Austine out for a walk on the beach near Provincetown to interrogate her about it.
“Why?” I asked her. “Why would you even think about doing such a thing?”
“I don’t know” was the only answer she could muster.
Frustrated, I addressed the voices themselves. I demanded that they show themselves, but they would not. They never do–until fairly recently in brain scans.
Today, thirty years later, I understand that Austine could resist her voices no more than the gunman who went on the Washington Navy Yard shooting ramapage could keep his at bay.
These are very chatty, they are heard in the second and third person (not the first person inner dialogue we all have.)
Beyond that Austine’s motive, like this highly armed psychotic, remains a mystery.
It is clear that Aaron Alexis was one of the 3 million Americans who suffer. His father had said his son had post traumatic stress disorder, but PTSD does not cause people to hear voices.
Meanwhile we learn from police in Newport, RI, that Alexis had asked for help. In a recent incident, he told police he was hearing voices and even changed hotels to elude them.
Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, who has this illness in his own family, weighed in on the evening news, telling various news outlets that Alexis is “a typical case of paranoid schizoprhrenia, late onset. This is a brain disease like Parkinsons or any other brain disease. In his mind what he was doing it based on delusions . . . This episode makes no sense to us, but to him it makes perfect sense.”
For the longest time psychiatry assumed that people with negative symptoms–such as Austine’s near catatonia–did not hear voices. Now they know that’s not true.
What’s changed is hard data. Today in expensive brain scans they can see the auditory cortex of the human brain lighting up like a video game with lots of activity, just as ours does whenever we hear the sounds of a baby crying or a bus passing or our iPod shuffling. .
Until this hard evidence in brain scans, the advice of psychiatry was simple: don’t talk about your voices. In fact the medical protocol, known as “colluding with delusions,” advised psychiatrists simply to change the subject if patients complained of them. This has made the big S alone among illnesses where the chief symptom is actually ignored by the people trusted to treat it.
Today there is much more but still not enough of an appetite for engagement with these voices, partly owing to the assumption that people who hear them have no awareness of their disorder.
That assumption may turn out to be hogwash too. Carl Jung, a man of impressive self-awareness, famously heard voices and thought there was a lot to them. Freud, however, felt it was all nonsense on stilts.
Today we know from anonymous polling data that one in ten people has heard voices at some time in their life, far more than would care to admit. Usually the experience of audition, as it was once known, is intermittent and undisturbing.
Fir every one who’s driven mad by voices, there’s nine that more or less co-exist with them. The effort being made in Europe through the Hearing Voices Network does seem to be making the greatest strides in normalizing the experience and giving people the tools they need to manage their own voices.
A bridge to normal living, it’s based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model where an anonymous and judgment free zone is set up for people to talk about their voices openly.
Let’s hope these meetings catch on. They are not a replacement for the meds, but they are the good therapy. They flourish in England, with the explicit support of the country’s National Health System–with remarkably good results.
To start one, our friends tell us, go to the Hearing Voices Network USA website at
http://www.hearingvoicesusa.org and click on “Find a Group” within the menu bar for the local groups available in some states. If there’s nothing in your area, they provide training to start one.
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Last reviewed: 18 Sep 2013