There are four people living in my head

I talk to my voices, I know what they look like, and it's starting to scare me.

Published May 20, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Well, I've got some stuff to deal with, so I'll be taking a few days off here. See you next Wednesday! If you miss the column, check out the archives. There are some oldies but goodies in there. And have a good Memorial Day!

Dear Cary,

This is the first letter I've ever written to an advice columnist, and in some ways I'm still unsure of why I'm writing it. There are problems in my life -- I'm 24 years old and still have no idea what I want to do with my life, I hate my job -- but those are normal, and I feel pretty equipped to handle them. Really, I feel equipped to handle life in general; aside from a period of black depression as a teenager, my mental health is stable.

Except in one way: I talk to the voices in my head. Not out loud, if I'm in public, but certainly in the privacy of my own apartment. There are four distinct people in my head, not including myself, and they have their own lives, their own likes and dislikes, their own personalities. I know what they look like, what they sound like, what their names are. We get into arguments sometimes, but it's usually over who gets to choose what we watch on TV, or what we have for dinner -- it's like having five friends living in one apartment. The apartment just happens to be my head. Sometimes one of them "controls" my body, and I take a back seat. We have rules about what they can and can't do in my body, and so far there haven't been any problems.

I know what this sounds like, believe me. I'm afraid to tell any of my friends about this huge part of my life because I'm afraid they'll shun me (at least) or have me locked up. I don't think I need to be locked up. Far from being a danger to me, the people in my head have kept me sane -- convinced me to break up with a boy they clearly saw was bad news (he ended up being arrested for assault two months later), helped me through that period of depression I mentioned earlier, and even just kept me company when I've been lonely or sad. They're not perfect, but they're not dangerous either. They're just boring, normal people who live in my head.

I could be wrong. I know that. Insane people don't usually realize they're insane, right? So I suppose what I'm asking is whether or not I should scrape up the money to see a therapist, or whether I should scrape up the courage to start telling my friends.

What Should We Do?

Dear What Should We Do,

If you can get into therapy and have a dialogue with these voices, perhaps you can discover what they are trying to accomplish.

When I first tried going to see a therapist and he asked me if I heard voices I said sure. Then he asked me if the voices ever told me to harm myself or others. I remember being offended by this and joking that no, they never did, except for the one voice that was suggesting I strangle him.

I was kidding, but he seemed to take it seriously. Subsequently, I discovered that I actually felt many things that I never shared with anyone, but instead split off into various voices. Now I understand these voices to be archetypes; rather than distinct individuals, as often pictured in dramatic accounts, they are personality forces that interact. They try to solve problems. They want things.

At first it doesn't make much sense what they want. Perhaps that is why they were shunted off in the first place -- because they could not find approval for their desires. For instance, why feign illness? Well, it may be that only through feigning illness and distress did this young little gremlin acquire closeness with a parent, staying home where it was quiet and there was no competition for the parent's love. It may be that the gremlin desired nothing so much as to lie in bed under the covers and have the mother bring medicine, crushed and combined with strawberry jam on a spoon, which he would take with a smile and then fall to sleep.

If you come to see how these things function, that they are actively trying to meet your hidden needs, and that they are often rooted in specific experiences, then you can perhaps become part of the creative process. You can learn to hear them and work with them.

I don't think you should start by telling your friends. I do think you ought to scrape the money together to start seeing a therapist. This could be the beginning of great insight, exploration and growth.

What kind of voices are you hearing?

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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