Acting like a “nice, compliant” individual has seriously harmed me for most of my 67 years. Due to my economic privilege, I received the best medical and psychiatric treatment available and, for most of those years, I accepted the “official” narrative, the dominant explanation for my ongoing suffering. That narrative is a limiting belief that harmed me and continues to damage all of us—not just we who have been diagnosed, but entire societies.
Many people identify the proliferation of psychiatric drugs as the root of our harm. I see neuroleptic drug use not as the root but as the fruit of the destructive narrative upon which most of our industrialized, “developed,” societies depend. And without deep transformative change, the damage from that dependence may be irreparable.
The people I depended on as an infant and young child did and said things that both helped and harmed me. My early life felt confusing and terrifying, and it was my connection with animals that sustained me. I lacked basic trust and hid my vulnerability.
My identity was forged in powerlessness. My parents tried and failed to save relatives from Nazi concentration camps and my birth coincided with my mother’s grief and rage at the death of her own mother. My older brother who had been a caregiver for our maternal grandmother, was reassigned to take care of me and his care for me included sex. I grew up worshipping my mother and brother, absorbing a mixture of learned helplessness mixed with exceptional power. Our family bore a burden of having survived, and I especially absorbed that guilt through every pore in my body.
When I was an adolescent my disconnection was palpable, and the psychiatric system labeled me psychotic, my voices “auditory hallucinations.” My verbalization didn’t work; I spoke little and when I did speak or write, it was mixed up. Words meant different things to me. I didn’t speak directly—my thoughts and beliefs were dangerous, embodied in terrorizing voices. I connected in code with the people I encountered and my voices used their own codes to both command and obfuscate. For over forty years my voices echoed and amplified the harsh and intrusive messages I received in childhood. I believed that I wasn’t human. It was declared by my voices and also confirmed and reflected in the objectifying way the psychiatric system conceived and treated me.
Well-intentioned psychiatrists tried to shut down those voices without considering or acknowledging that the messages might mean something to me. I was told that my experience was not real and the psychiatric system would help me by annihilating my “symptoms,” the messengers. Dominant professionals battled dominant voices and my relationship with all was subordinate and powerless.
Much treatment unwittingly reenacted hurtful experiences from my childhood. I voluntarily accepted huge doses of neuroleptic medications but, even with that treatment compliance, I acted on the commands of voices to do violence to myself and others. My body was held down, stripped, injected, restrained, and kept in seclusion rooms. I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom and, when in cold wet packs, I had to lay in my urine. At intervals my breathing was monitored and no one spoke to me for hours. I was denied the experience of being held as a human being and acknowledgement of my right to be. At first I was grateful that the psychiatric system fought to control my dangerousness and tried to protect me and others. I did not want to hurt anyone. I considered psychiatry’s aggressive tactics ethically warranted.
In the decades that followed, the psychiatric system’s solutions for my “behavior” have remained essentially unchanged. They stopped using cold wet packs with me, sometimes provided bedpans, and continued advertising new generations of miracle medications and promising treatments. I have voluntarily used most of their tools. Conventional psychiatry continues to judge my experience as not real. They see my “symptoms” as random, arbitrary effects of neurotransmitters and genetics, and their well-intentioned goal is my adherence to medication treatment, avoidance of hospitalization and “maintenance.”
I no longer accept such invalidation. I have chosen a different path.
For over 40-years I accepted the conventional wisdom that the experts carried answers to my situation. I was given Thorazine, Stellazine, Haldol, perphenazine, Prolixin, Zyprexa, Geodon, Abilify, Seroquel, Clozapine, a host of older and newer anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and psychotherapy.
When I finally discerned the limitations of depending on experts to fix me and began taking and expressing responsibility for my own life, newer experts declared that I couldn’t have been diagnosed accurately; therefore, my views lacked validity for those truly seriously, persistently, enduringly ill. The psychiatrist who treated me with kindness for many years and helped me against his “better judgement” to wean from the medications which he had prescribed, predicted that I will decompensate. If I don’t, then the only explanation his belief system can accommodate is that my diagnosis must have been wrong—wrong for half a century, yet it is I who lack capacity for insight!
It was only after struggling to combat fierce voices for over forty years that I discovered the World Hearing Voices Network Movement. By assertively changing my relationship with my voices, I moved from feeling powerless and disconnected to discovering and affirming their meaning and learning to accept acceptance.
In recent years I have learned to meet and engage with “other,” to befriend my whole self and open opportunities for building a more compassionate, inclusive community. I believe that a similar process of “being-with” to understand “other” is a process by which we can effect both individual and social change—a way to change our relationships with dominant voices/powers within our cultures, to embrace diversity and take steps towards sustaining our relationships with each other and the planet.
Judi Chamberlin’s admonition, “Nothing about us without us” taught me and countless others the importance of finding and using our voice. I have been trying to make sense of my life for as long as I can remember. I have either received, used, provided, or connected with mental health services for over fifty years.
When Judi Chamberlin was dying, she wrote that her experience in hospice was the closest to the person-centered “being-with” and accompaniment that she had advocated for in mental health services. Today I declare that we need not wait for hospice: we can create spaces that honor our individual and collective journeys—no matter how painful or frightening. We do this together by practicing presence with courage, curiosity and love.
Today we have an opportunity and responsibility to end the perpetuation of the harmful consequences of identifying human beings as “other,” as objects requiring expert interventions even if such interventions violate our civil and human rights.
Experts-by-experience and experts-by-training can collaborate to increase understanding and knowledge about what helps and what harms our healing, growth, and wholeness. We must all be ready to learn from one another, even if it counters our prior presuppositions, learning and beliefs—whether it means that we must endorse social change that reduces some of the imbalance of power that benefits some of us at the expense of others of us, and whether it means discovering individual differences that impede our living most fully.
The Hearing Voices Network Movement is deeply personal to me. My learning about and involvement with this movement marked a sea change in my life. I moved from an individual trying to live “as-if” I were human, to fully embodying and embracing my humanness, including the rights and responsibilities that I discern as necessary for claiming and sustaining my identity and role in human community.
When I found the Hearing Voices Network Movement, I was invited in as a human being to walk together with curiosity and compassion to discover and create paths to freedom, wholeness, and unity in diversity.
I found a movement of listening and hearing, learning, unlearning, co-creating meaning. We created and held space strong and flexible enough to hold tension, ambivalence, ambiguity, contradiction, paradox, and uncertainty. We met as mutual questions, trusting the space between us to hold our connecting: human being to human being. By listening we could recognize, acknowledge, and honor our mutual integrity embedded in our cultures and environments.
The Hearing Voices Network Movement is a partnership, and yet we each begin at different social locations. As we seek to ally with others who may have been devalued and harmed, we need to recognize the presuppositions that are built into our thinking, language, and behavior. If change is desired, then we must become learners together without assuming that a particular outcome makes “sense.” This is the sort of radical humility that Marius Romme was able to access in listening to Patsy Hage. It is deeply challenging as we have all been taught by dominant knowledge brokers.
We need to support each other with mutual accountability in order to stay teachable and open to learning and growth, individually and communally. My hope is that we each meet at the level of our being-ness, to journey together in not knowing. When we form our “kin-ship” vessel, our journey becomes our co-creation, our movement towards, not a finite destination. As Vaclav Havel said, “By perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we take responsibility for the river as a whole.” I invite you in. Now is the time.
Berta Britz is a consultant and trainer for Berta Britz Consulting in Pennsylvania and serves on the board of the Hearing Voices Network USA. Berta is also a member of the Transforming Research Through Participation collaborative.
She is strongly committed to promoting acceptance of the experience of hearing voices; and her ministry, “Hearing Voices and Healing,” is supported by Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Her commitment to developing different responses to early anomalous, or “psychotic” experiences, stems from her lived experience of psychiatric treatment since 1967, when she left her senior year of high school for many hospitalizations, two of which were lengthy.
Berta earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, and worked primarily with young children, adolescents, and families. After many years on disability Berta reclaimed her power and connection by accepting and making sense of her voices by using a World Hearing Voices Network approach. She helped develop the Montgomery County Hearing Voices Network which offers systems and community education and Taking Back Our Power Hearing Voices self-help/peer support groups, two designed specifically for young people.