In our contemporary world of North America, hearing voices is the only "symptom" that immediately and single-handedly qualifies one for the DSM (Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) diagnosis of psychosis. We could qualify this as more correctly referring to the acknowledgement of hearing voices to a professional empowered by the State to make diagnoses in a context in which diagnosing occurs. Thus, Moses could not have been psychotic, for no psychologists or relevant State laws existed to diagnose him. A famous quote says, "When we talk to God, it's called prayer; when God talks to us, it's called hallucinations."
Throughout recorded history, people have seen visions and have heard the voices of Angels, Gods, or others. Only recently have these experiences (or the reporting of them) become pathological. With the emergency of modern science and the ascendency of materialism, anything smacking of spirits or of the supernatural is suspicious or pathological. In Arizona, a recent archbishop for the Roman Catholic Church definitively declared that the Virgin Mary is no longer seen. Hundreds of Mexicans didn't read enough English to disagree with him. Divine communication and contact was sought, cultivated, and treasured until very recently, and is still desired within many indigenous communities.
However, today, many people live on the shadow side of hearing voices and having visions. These people constantly hear berating, deprecatory voices, who won't leave them alone. These people suffer tremendously. They become unable to function, so much so that relatives or well-meaning friends take them to the emergency department or to the mental health center for help. In another time and place, a traditional healer might be asked to cast out a demon or remove a curse or retrieve the soul that has wandered away, causing the soul to be stuck in spirit world and the body to express its urgent cries for help. Today, the contemporary interpretation centers around people with defective brains that need medication.
In his book, Crazy Like Us: The Americanization of Mental Health," Ethan Watters writes about the damage to people in Zimbabwe when hearing voices and having visions became medicalized. Prior to that, people were taken to healers who had a consistent explanatory story about spirit contact. Participation of all parties in this story and its prescriptions for enactment often resulted in resolution of the problem, with greater honor coming to the hearer of voices and the deliverer of visions. With the replacement of this idea by the defective brain story, the quality of people's lives deteriorated and recovery became much less possible. The traditional Zimbabwean explanations included the possibility of recovery and wellness. They also included dignity and respect for the person brought to the healer. The new biomedical stories did not include recovery from defective brain conditions; nor did they fail to stigmatize those whom they described. People were not better off following the Americanization of mind and mental health in Zimbabwe.
The voices that my diagnosed clients hear are not kind, for the most part. They are not uplifting or transformative. They convey no positive messages. What do they say? One client related some of the continual litany chanted by her voices:
"You're going to hell."
"I'm not going to stop tormenting you until you're a corpse."
"You're fat and ugly."
"You should kill yourself so you can stop taking up space."
"You don't even deserve the air that you breathe."
"Why don't you just hold your breath until you die."
The list goes on and on. Her voices were always female (Later, over weeks, we would discover that they were the voices of her female relatives which she had internalized.)
What differentiates my "patient" population from the rest of us who hear voices? Is it the uniform inclusion of negative, mean, unkind voices? The exception to this occurs with people who are diagnosed as manic, some of whom only hear joyful, celebratory, elated voices. That would be fine, except that they often lose judgment about how to report their elation and what to do about. A well known movie shows a man in a state of elation, going to a symphony concern, and getting up onto the stage to take over conducting, because he was guided to do so to produce more spiritual music. Admirable, but not condoned.
I suspect that the people who are diagnosed begin with the gift to tune into other dimensions and to be extra sensitive to other states of consciousness, but that trauma causes their reception to get stuck on the negative. One of my clients hears the voices of racism. These voices are social stories that she has internalized due to her great sensitivity, but it would be better for her if she were to leave combating racism to those who are stronger than she is. The stories overburden her and cause her to collapse. She ends up believing that everyone is making negative, racist comments about her, which is actually not happening, at least as far as I can determine. Nevertheless, if we bracket for the moment the materialist paradigm in which their voices are the product of deranged brains, we arrive upon some very interesting ontological questions about the dimensions from which these voices arrive and the ontological status of the beings behind these voices. These questions become practical when we begin the work of reducing the influence of the voices upon people or the suffering that they experience from these voices.
Elders have told me that the suffering of modern people from voices and visions exist because modern people have lost the stories needed to manage such experiences. Two Huichol elders told me they would not give a modern person peyote for at least a year and only after that person had learned all the stories and songs deemed necessary by the elders to manage the visions that might be offered by the Spirit of Peyote.
Stories work that way. They tell us how to interpret experience. Without such stories, we could be overcome by the power and intensity of the peyote experience. Then we could really get into trouble if we fell back into our own American cultural stories of heaven and hell, angels and demons, and we might either require extensive babysitting until we came out of it, or we might get noticed by the authorities and taken to hospital or jail.