We spent a lot of time talking. I asked her all sorts of questions about herself. She answered patiently to the best of her knowledge. She was not hearing “voices” but only one “voice,” that of her brother who abused her sexually when she was very young, and who repeatedly told her to harm herself by jumping in front of traffic or putting her hand into the garbage disposal.
Her brother left home years ago, and she and her family are not in touch with him. But her parents never knew about the abuse. She was in psychotherapy for years trying to address this trauma.
“I always hear it when I am alone, especially at night, when no one else is in my room.”
“This voice has been telling you to harm yourself for years yet you have never done it, right?”
“I was very close a few times.”
“What did you do then?”
“I called 911. They came and took me to the hospital.”
“So you have never actually attempted to harm yourself. You asked for help every time you got close to do what this voice in your head was telling you to do, right?”
“Right,” she answered, unsure of where I was going with these questions.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why what?” she asked.
“For people who have been abused and traumatized it is not unusual to hear the voice of their aggressor ringing in their head years after it happened. If this voice has been telling you to harm yourself, why do you think you have never actually done it?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, trying to make sense in her own mind about it. “I know, with some part of my mind, that this voice is not to be trusted. He was harming me for years. How could I give in to what he told me to do? I don’t want to obey this voice. I often fight with it. I tell it to go away. Sometimes it does. But it always comes back when I am tired or alone. I try to keep busy, be around other people and try not to go to sleep because that is when I hear it the loudest in my head. Both times when I was very close to taking a knife and chopping my hand off, I was all alone in the house.”
“And instead of picking up a knife, you went to the phone and asked for help, right?” I asked to make sure I understood clearly.
“Yes,” she said a little irritated at my over emphasizing a point that, to her, seemed irrelevant.
“I think the healthy part of your mind is what has always protected you from harming yourself. No matter how loud and obsessive your former aggressor’s voice got, the healthier part of your mind has been stronger and prevailed in protecting you from harm. It seems to me that it is your own strength that is fighting, even now, years after the trauma, to keep you safe. It’s just that, busy as you are dealing with this “voice” inside your head, you have ignored your own strength. You have not paid enough attention to the healthy part of your mind that was working all this time to keep you safe.”
“What are you saying?” she asked in dismay.
“This “voice” becomes stronger when you think you are alone, unprotected and vulnerable. But you see, if your own strength has protected you all these years, you are, in fact, never alone. You are never without your own protection. The voice of your perpetrator still rings in your mind. But also in your mind there is this powerful thought that you should not give in, that you should deny your abuser full access to your mind and your actions, that you should keep yourself unharmed and safe. You have always carried this strength within you. Which means that you are, in fact, never alone and unprotected. That is why you never actually harmed yourself physically.”
“You mean that my own strength and I are always together and that is why I am not alone?” repeated Alice with increasing amazement.
“Exactly. Your own mind is much stronger than you thought. You have just been unaware of it all this time. You had hoped that others, even through their mere presence, would protect you from this toxic voice, remnant of the old abuse, when, in fact, the true strength and defense you need is built into your own mind.”
“What should I do then? How can I use this strength?”
“Practice staying in touch with your own strength. Practice silencing the harmful voice by strengthening the healthy aspects of who you are. It doesn’t matter that you did not get in any of the programs you were hoping to get into. You can create your own program, based on your own strengths and qualities. You mentioned that you like writing. Join a writing group, for example. Stop idling. Be as productive as you can be. Cultivate your own strength and talent. And, when you are ready, make sure you go back and finish college. Do that sooner, rather than later. You came to Los Angeles to start on outpatient program—why not set up your own outpatient program?! You can pick and choose activities that are best suited for your needs rather than trying to adjust to a group treatment program that is not right for you.”
“Yes, I can help you. Let’s go over your medications again. Maybe we can find some alternatives to the current sleeping pills. And after that, let’s look at some of the things you would really like to do. We’ll start from there.”
“Oh, I am way too busy now to pay any attention to it. It comes back sometimes, but I am able to push it away,” she answered, without any trace of fear or pain.
The day she came to tell me she was returning, in a few weeks to her home town to finish her last semester of college, she was almost unrecognizable. She had a new, chic, hairstyle; she had new, fashionable clothes; but more importantly, she had a radiant face. She was feeling hopeful and strong. She was well. More than well. She told me she was happy.
Each and every one of us has the strength Alice discovered in herself. We need to know how to discover it within ourselves, pay attention to it, recognize and follow it. That is how we make our happiness come true.