Back in September, I had the opportunity to sit down with Berta Britz. Berta is a peer specialist at Creating Increased Connections, an organization devoted to expanding recovery supports and mutual aid groups in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She is a facilitator of Hearing Voices groups and is one of the founders of the Montgomery County Hearing Voices Network, which she will discuss later in this interview.
I could rattle off an impressive list of Berta’s titles, credentials, achievements, awards, and honors, but I know that would only embarrass her — and besides, I’m reasonably sure the designation that matters most to her is “Friend.” I am honored to be able to call Berta Britz my friend, and it was in the spirit of that friendship that we enjoyed a wide-ranging, honest conversation over take-out and tea. Berta’s perspectives on mental health, hearing voices, relationships, recovery, and, yes, friendship are all explored in this two-part interview that I was proud to conduct, and that I hope you will enjoy.
Gabriel Nathan, Editor
Listening, Trusting, and Being Human
Gabriel Nathan: So, Berta you know that I love creative writing, and you know that I also love the writing exercise, “Six Word Memoir.” I thought maybe we could start by seeing how you might describe yourself if you only had six words.
Berta Britz: Passionate, listener, talker, mover, lover — and hurt.
Gabriel Nathan: Could you talk to me a little bit about the listener in Berta? There is so much talk about active listening, and we have all these “active listening techniques” like paraphrasing and saying “uh-huh, yeah, right” to show that we’re listening, verbal and non-verbal cues and all of that, but it’s hard to really listen to someone.
Berta Britz: You keyed right in on what I think is so important. The stuff you described about how we’re taught — as helpers, or parents — to be active listeners, that’s one approach. It’s a purposeful approach and has value, and I also value another way of listening, which takes a kind of openness to receive, where the sole purpose is to fully be present and here, and not to impact or change, or direct, or influence who one is listening to.
If I think to the person who helped me, the therapist who helped me when I went from feeling that I was totally without hope, his name was Martin Mayman. He had an ability to listen in the way that I’m talking about where he seemed to be so concentrated on taking in what I said or did that I felt a connection. When I first started with him I didn’t feel a connection with anybody. I had just gotten out of the hospital, and I was taken out against medical advice, so he probably wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea to work with me. I don’t remember a whole lot about that first meeting, but he told me later that… he was really surprised at how resilient I was. From having read about my past, he was expecting something different than what he took in when he met me.
And then we worked together for a long time, I didn’t really understand that I was choosing to work with him, I just felt like he had agreed to take me on. I had a sense of myself as being very limited, and not having a sense of having choice, or the ability to impact my own life, or anyone else’s. I had to develop my whole self, so that I could say yes. At that time I only really knew how to say no, and it was a reflexive no, like a two-year-old.
I would greet the world with no, and then slowly open to see if I could get convinced that there was any other answer. This is way off the subject of listening, but it has to do with openness, and I would feel him trying to take in my reality, or my experience. That was a tremendous gift, and it made for an intimate connection, when I hadn’t had any positive, intimate connections.
I felt like one of the things that I did was developing basic trust with Martin Mayman. This was a trust that I didn’t develop in my infancy and toddler-hood. I had always been an observer, because I had tried to make sense of the world by observing like a detective from my childhood on.
But, at the same time, if one listens knowing what the best ending is, one doesn’t take in the full story. So when I see people do active listening I see them — professionals, or people who’ve learned that this is how you help your child learn. With active listening, you go from an assumption that you know some pretty good endings to stories and you’re going to help the person see them, or articulate them.
This gets to my own view of being human, because I grew up not believing I was human. All through my early hospitalizations for many, many years I had an unshakable understanding that I was not human — that I was this alien detective putting together the clues of how to make sense of the universe.
So now I look back at what I know about life — human life and other animals, and I know how interdependent we are, and how we are listening when we’re still in the mother’s uterus, we are responding to whatever her body is responding to, and that we start out as open listeners responding to our environments, and we continue that way.
And my whole idea about “mental health” is that it’s just one of the terms that got developed to talk about human beings who are different, and try to make an explanatory framework for how to deal with their difference. I explained to myself as an adolescent, that I was different because I wasn’t human, and my voices and beliefs were all around that.
So what does this all have to do with listening? I think listening has to do with being open, and responding; both to what one hears and who it’s coming from.
See — I told you I talk in circles!
Messages, Trauma, and the Journey toward Acceptance
Gabriel Nathan: So I want to ask one more question about listening. The idea that you were something other than human, that belief came from listening to the message that you were something else other than human. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Berta Britz: Absolutely.
Gabriel Nathan: So how did that evolve into believing something different?
Berta Britz: The message that I absorbed in infancy was that I was bad; I caused trouble, pain, distress. As an adolescent, there were things I doubted, but that wasn’t one of them. Before I heard voices giving me a message of my not being human, and my badness, I’d already accepted that view of myself from as far back as I could remember.
So I had human beings who contributed to my viewing myself as being very bad; kinda wild and powerfully bad. I found lots of confirmation of that message in my detective work, so that when I started getting that message in my teenage years from voices that were considered auditory hallucinations, it was an amplification of a truth that I’d already absorbed from as far back as I could remember, from that initial relationship with my mother.
What I know now about trauma, and what affects me a lot, is this sense of my knowing that I’m a physical, spiritual, and mental being. My genetics have influenced me, and my biochemistry. They have been turned on, they have been stimulated by the experiences that I’ve had in my life, and the relationships that I’ve had in my life, both those who have nurtured me and those who have harmed me.
Trauma influences us across generations. What happens right now influences what we inherit genetically, that we carry something that doesn’t have to get experienced. At the genetic firing, if you are held in a safe nurturing environment, and you come from a history of oppression and abuse, the neural pathways that are affected, by the nurturing safety that you’ve experienced now, doesn’t have to turn on that stuff that you inherited from the prior trauma.
So I don’t think anything is either or; I think it’s all about including our whole selves, which includes our body, mind and spirit. I heard messages from people, who heard messages from their life experiences, and we all affect each other, and they allow for us to survive and to thrive, and also to suffer. I took in a lot of stuff, and I didn’t start getting help in making sense of it until my relationship with Martin Mayman, who was fully present with me.
And I try to be as fully present with others as I can be now. I practice being open and taking in, and listening. Some people would be surprised to hear that, because I do so much talking and responding, and reacting, and all of that.
Letting in the Light
Gabriel Nathan: Was it hard to let that message [of being human] in at first?
Berta Britz: Oh yes, I’m never done, letting it in. I mean I think that I’m open to hearing, but it’s an ongoing process, like opening and closing; some kind of plant and you need the dark, you need time to regenerate, you need to honor your fear. I’m not 100% open like a pupil that would stay dilated in the bright sun. I still struggle to learn how to be interdependent, which, theoretically, is what I embrace. You have to move from where we all start out as dependent and moving towards independence.
I didn’t get that in growing up, I didn’t get that realization of connection as being one that leads to greater growth and freedom. I thought connection led to my doom. Now I’m all about trying to be open and spread safety for connecting with other people, and that it’s through connecting that being human is most possible and that to live it most fully and practice the presence of being.
I had to be able to go through a lot, to get to this realization, and I have to keep practicing. It is a lot about being open to messages, and choosing one’s relationship to the message. I lived in fear that I didn’t acknowledge all those years I was scared; terrorized by everything in life and the people I depended on. The only way I knew to survive was to be a tough guy who didn’t acknowledge any fear. I never said “help” until I surrendered and was hospitalized and did nothing but receive help.