Sunday, October 20, 2013

Banished Inner Voices

Untitled, oil on canvas*
Hannah Yata © 2012
(used with the artist's permission)

How we treat schizophrenia in America highlights two glaring deficiencies in our culture: The first centers on how we, as Americans, are loath to access or acknowledge our repressed, hidden parts and the second centers on the undeniable fact that we are the most violent people on earth.

By way of example, let us start by looking at how we treat schizophrenia in this country as opposed other countries around the world. First, we deny that such inner voices are “real” and, second, we are afraid of people who have them. We justify our fear because “schizophrenics are prone to violence” – although the vast majority are not – just as we fear people who are different because of skin color, religion, language or anything that feels foreign to us. 

Because we deny the reality of such voices and are petrified of them – fearing deep down that we might also have such voices lurking inside of us – we attempt to banish them with heavy duty drugs that may help some to gain a degree of control over their lives but at the expense of serious side effects. In the end, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy: By treating “schizophrenia” as a terrible disease – a lifetime incurable condition – that, indeed, is what happens!

Many indigenous societies use a different approach. They believe that the inner voices people hear are real, voices of spirits, and that when the spirit’s task is completed, the voices will go away. And they usually do, often with the help of the local shaman. In Europe there is a new patient-driven movement called Hearing Voices1 that uses a similar approach of treating the unseen voices with dignity and respect.

 Hearing Voices encourages people who hear distressing voices to identify them, to learn about them, and then to negotiate with them – just as the shaman does in indigenous societies. This approach so far has shown excellent results. Many of the people using the “Hearing Voices” approach have had “their voices diminish, become kinder and sometimes disappear altogether – independent of any use of drugs.”2

But the problem in American goes deeper than that.

Not only do we treat “schizophrenic” voices differently than other cultures, but the voices themselves are different: The inner voices Americans hear tend to be violent, often command hallucinations telling people to kill; whereas in other, more peaceful countries like India the images are more benign, telling folks to do domestic cores like cook or clean or rarely, at the worst, to do some disgusting act like drink out of a toilet bowl.

I firmly believe these two variables I have discussed are related on a society level as well as an individual one. The more our society denies its shadow side – the more we deny our negative inner voices – the more they mutate and metastasize, infecting us as individuals and as a society in pathological, and in our case, violent ways.

This topic extends far beyond how we treat schizophrenia. It offers a novel understanding into how we understand violence and war in our society. I wrote about this in two recent blogs.

A Terrible Love of War talks about, among other things, how we have increasingly normalized violence and war in Amerika, indeed, one can argue that WAR has become the leading metaphor of our times. Think how different our society would be if our leading metaphor was not war and survival-of-the-fittest but dancing?

A Terrible Loveof War: Another Loss, A Sequel makes the case for why we need to access and acknowledge our inner voices if we hope to live a conscious life of balance and harmony, When we start that journey, we find that the god of love and the god of war are both real and not mutually exclusive but in intimate relationship with one another.

2 The Violence in Our Heads by T. M. Luhrmann, 9/19/13, NYT
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