When I was writing that yesterday, I remember feeling very on edge, agitated and excited. I think that I was thinking about things I would normally think about. I have control over everyone and can manipulate people for my own benefit. I don’t need to eat ever again. This morning, I’m in a low. The only thing I want to do today is die. My body is completely drained of all energy, like an empty shell that is unkindly being forced to exist in suffering. I don’t want to compose. I don’t want to eat. I just want to die. If I had a gun right now, I would shoot myself. I’ve just eaten, and I’m too drained to even pull a trigger.
I wrote that down in 2017 on day 32 of my 5-month admission into a psychiatric unit. One year and myriad of medical opinions later, I finally received the news. Matthew, you’ve got schizophrenia. I’ve been hearing voices on and off since I was fourteen years old, but it was only when I started at University that these voices began to impact my day-to-day life. They would shout at me when I was trying to listen, talk over me when I was trying to speak, or just tell me that “Today is going to be a bad day”.
At the end of my hospital diaries, I wrote a short note to myself. It said, “You’ve got no choice other than to hear voices, but you can choose how you listen to them”. Over the few years of psychological treatment that followed, many therapists seemed to echo the same thing; there’s nothing you can do to stop the voices in the moment, but you can change how you react to them. Now, there is a parallel here between mental health and physical pain treatment. If you suffer from an excruciating pain in your elbow, you can become frustrated by the pain, or you can focus deeply on the pain, noticing and being mindful of every element
of the pain, how the pain may pulsate, or ache, or radiate up your arm. Focusing on the elements that make up the pain can often help you in dismantling the internal structures that cause your initial frustration and anger towards the pain. Now, for me, it’s the same with hearing voices. I might be hearing a voice telling me that “You’re worthless”. It might be repeating that short phrase over and over again like a mantra or fire alarm. But, instead of getting increasingly frustrated with the voice, I try and dismantle the individual elements of that sound. I won’t hear the words as words, I’ll listen to the pitch, the speed, the texture, how it’s articulated and pronounced.
As someone with schizophrenia, I felt that I could deal with voices better. But, as a composer and musician, I still found listening to music really difficult. Maybe if I listened to music in the same way I listened to the voices, I might hear sound in a new way. So, I tried it, and I did. I began listening to music I never thought I’d ever listen to, focusing intensely on dismantling the specific qualities of each sound I heard. The more I listened, the more self- aware I became and, subsequently, the better my mood was. This doesn’t just have to apply to music you don’t like, or music you do like. It can be the sounds around you when walking through a woodland, waiting in a queue or sitting on a bus.
Growing up, my only real exposure to the word schizophrenia in the media was through criminality. I’ve experienced first-hand the stigmatisation of people suffering from conditions with psychosis. Perhaps, by listening to people who suffer from these conditions, we can not only understand better what it means to live with schizophrenia, but we may also take away coping mechanisms that can be brought into our own lives. Because, after all, it’s not about just hearing our stories, it’s about listening.