Hearing Voices With Berta Britz
by Berta Britz
Recently we featured part one of an interview with Peer Specialist and Advocate Berta Britz about her views on listening, trauma, and being human. The interview continues here, beginning with a question about Berta’s relationship to her voices.
Relating to One’s Voices
Gabriel Nathan: Can you talk a little bit how your relationship to your voices, or with your voices, has evolved over time?
Berta Britz: I totally felt like I was a victim for many, many years. I felt powerless. I didn’t question it, so that both the messages from the voices, and the truth of the messages in the voices was so powerful, and I was so much just at their mercy. In my teenage years the medical profession told me, “Take this medicine and try to fight your voices.” I took the medicine and, whenever I had any energy, I fought. The harder I fought, the louder and meaner the voices would be.
This psychiatrist that I had for many years who prescribed lots of medicine, and hospitalized me many times, but also really, really cared about me; I would beg him to find the right medicine. I begged him to do surgery to take out the voices, and whatever was going on in my brain. I’m so glad that he heard my desperation but didn’t agree to some of what I was willing to do.
I had to wait like forty years to discover the World Hearing Voices Movement approach, that network approach that says aggression brings on more aggression. That so much chimed with my experience, because if I yelled at my voices they could always yell louder, and they always did.
I changed my relationship from one of victim, [who] accepted their declared omniscience and omnipotence. I had to struggle to form a relationship that wasn’t one of victim. Once I stopped fighting really feeling powerless, and accepting their power, I started trying to form a more equal relationship [with the voices] where I would set up boundaries, and say “I want to be spoken to respectfully, and I will respect you more. I won’t yell at you, I will listen at such-and-such a time.”
It’s kinda like a biblical battle, or a battle in the Middle East, where two enemies have been fighting full out for centuries. It’s not a simple flipping the switch, going from victim to sh. I’m still in process, but it’s a process that’s very hopeful, and nurturing.
I’m still human and learning to really be open to that humanness in everybody, and their core spirit, that gets elevated beyond one person’s goodness. I really believe that there is that of God in everyone, and that we are a loving community that’s capable of engaging with others.
I really believe that we are all equally pure and good at heart. We need to make friends with our enemies, and my voices are no longer my enemies. They are a part of me; sometimes they’re uninvited and a pain in the ass. They’re not perfect and I’m not perfect, but the more you communicate and keep your promises, the more possible everything is.
Gabriel Nathan: That was really beautiful. You talked about how changing that relationship from victim to friend, and you compared it to another situation in the Middle East. People always say, “Well, how is peace in the Middle East even possible?” And so I ask you: how is it possible to change this relationship where you had been subordinate for so long to your voices? How did you convince yourself that it was possible?
Berta Britz: Connecting with other people’s experiences. There are so many people who have given me so much. I think that you’ve had to have lived without hope to really value what hope — the difference that feeling hope and experiencing it can mean. Just like taking in all of the things like a sponge, all of the negatives that I always took in; I had to open up to take in some positive too, and it really was a choice that I exercised, and continue to exercise, and I’m able to take that responsibility to choose to open to hope, because of that connection that I experienced with therapist Martin Mayman.
Then later on — before it was with animals, and nature, and it’s continued with animals, and nature, and significant human beings, who build my real firm belief in possibility and hope. I carry that for other people and it strengthens within me as well. Enemies can choose to find the value in the other. Usually I think it’s fear that keeps us from taking in the whole of the other.
Just like changing your relationship with a nasty voice, changing my relationship with fear; it means opening up to it and engaging with it differently, so if I’m two people — if I’m at war I have to make a conscious decision to stop fighting; to let myself feel how scared I am, why I’m fighting. I can’t say exactly how that translates out in the Middle East, but with myself I felt a constant terror that I never acknowledged as terror. I’m still afraid, but it’s different now.
This is the thing with people who use distraction and avoidance and suppression which is how the psychiatric system has taught us to deal with challenging experiences, so that people who are labeled psychotic are taught to structure their time, be very, very busy. When things are upsetting; distract yourself and get active in avoiding, and I feel like getting active is very important, it’s not in avoiding, it’s opening up to that which we’re scared of. As Grover said in the “Sesame Street” book, “The monster at the end of this book is… me.” When you really get to know your monster you can be friends with him.
The Hearing Voices Movement
Gabriel Nathan: How did you become familiar with the Hearing Voices Movement in 2007?
Berta Britz: I’d been working with horses and people, and I’d been on disability, and the people I was teaching horseback riding to started telling me about recovery, and that led me to coming to Montgomery County, and getting hired by Betsy Gorski to work three hours a week, one of which was as a consultant, one of which was transportation. I was working two hours a week.
I was feeling that I was learning all kinds of neat recovery stuff, and as I was identifying myself to other people at work that I heard voices, people were then asking me to support other people who heard voices. That was the one area that I felt most – still a mess with, I felt most powerless still in relation to my voices.
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Whatever work I was getting done was because the all-powerful voices were granting me that opportunity. It wasn’t that I had found some strategy that was different or helpful. So, I really hesitated when I started connecting with people in Montgomery County or heard voices to say this is a useful approach. Because what I’d been doing for 40 years was a very un-useful approach. So, it was probably 2008 when I started really reading and learning about the Hearing Voices Network Movement — and I did it all online and by material from a website, Working to Recovery.
And because I didn’t know how to use a computer well, I got confirmation that I had ordered two of everything I had ordered and I had ordered: books and videos and curriculum and things that I was going to use for myself and others. And I was terrified because I couldn’t afford two of everything. So, I wrote this email back to Karen Taylor at Working to Recovery, saying, “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it! I only want one of everything!” And I got this friendly email back, “No worries. I’m in Australia, I’ll sort it out when I return.” And we started a long distance [friendship]. I was just somebody who didn’t know how to use computers who was trying to purchase material.
By the time of the second World Hearing Voices Congress in England in Sherwood Forrest, I was there. I was supposed to introduce myself to Karen Taylor’s husband, who would be there. He’d be selling books and he’d be speaking and I was supposed to introduce myself. I watched him sell books. I watched him, listened to him speak. I didn’t go close. I was very shy.
And after that, we had Paul Baker – and Karen’s husband, Ron Coleman – come to Montgomery County. The next Hearing Voices Congress, I talked to them about who I was and that I invited them to come and that they were coming.
I’ve gotten very, very talkative since then. I’m still, basically, a shy person, but nobody believes it because I talk to everyone. And I try to stay open to listening and I try to hear the messages that are loud and clear and also those that are garbled and even silent. And I know there are people who did that with me studying with Martin Mayman, make it so possible to really take in another person’s experience and respond and be open to accepting them, learning about them, making peace with them, making change with them, making community with them, building peace.
Stigma, Recovery, and Belonging
Gabriel Nathan: I feel like there’s so many hurdles that can prevent someone from changing and growing and learning and loving oneself and others – and I think one of those things is stigma. Could you talk a little bit about how stigma has impacted your recovery and what you’ve done to subvert it?
Berta Britz: I really hate the word. It must say something about me. Stigma, I guess, is a sign of one’s difference, somehow marking that one’s got something to be ashamed of. I have to say that, besides fear, shame has probably been[an] extremely hard reality for me. And, again, I don’t feel that human beings are born with anything to be ashamed of. There are some things we do that merit shame; genocide, murder, that kind of thing.
My family was a family that was very ashamed. We were Jewish people in a Christian country with Jewish relatives who were killed because they were Jewish. It wasn’t a particularly supportive culture to feel that one is an equal with everyone else.
I feel like shame is really at the root of a lot of what I was afraid of because my mother had an overwhelming amount of shame and she was one who never looked afraid. I accepted that I had plenty to be ashamed of. I found my home in being a patient in mental hospitals, and that’s a status that is considered less than and either to be pitied or blamed or definitely not one to be proud of.
So, as an adolescent that’s how I identified, as a chronic patient, because that’s what I had become. So, I definitely swallowed an identity of worthless, less-than mental patient-hood, and wore it like a stigma. But, again, I think it says a lot about who I took it from more than about what I really was.
I don’t like the word stigma because stigma is internalizing other people’s fear and hatred, and I did internalize it and I had to learn to spit it out. And the only way that happens is a process of becoming proud: being open, acknowledging frailties, cracks, brokenness, strength, power, vulnerability. The whole human mess that I am, that I share with other people who are mixtures too, and I really, I have to do something with my response to the word stigma because I have to change my relationship to that because I just don’t like the word. Because I really feel that we can choose to define ourselves as real people, and discriminate against behaviors and actions that are wrong, even evil, but that you don’t need to discriminate against the person.
And I know that I don’t like stigma used in mental health because it’s primarily used around mental illness and it assumes the less-than this or the other and gives a simple explanation that is one that we don’t blame people for being sick. It’s not something that they asked for or deserve. So, we should be charitable, tolerant people and not stigmatize. Overcoming stigma is about living proudly, acknowledging failures and sins, transgressions, acknowledging joy and love and growth and not denying either. Part of my struggle was accepting my strength. It was much more challenging as a female to accept my strength than it was to accept my vulnerability and my weakness and my less than-ness. I’m not more than. I just want us all to find equality and share it.
Gabriel Nathan: Do you think that’s where recovery begins?
Berta Britz: Again, recovery has been used and misused as a word so much. I really believe that recovery is about equality and liberation and about finding that we all belong together. Nobody needs to be in the state hospital behind iron fences. We belong in the world and the world needs to be a more compassionate place that has corners of refuge for when we need to be particularly held and cushioned during dark periods, knowing that we’ll come through and be able to enjoy the light and create more light.
I think recovery is about reconnecting with who we are and celebrating it and sharing it and expressing it. It’s about joining with others as equals with equal responsibility to build a community that has space for everybody to belong. I think that’s why I feel I’m in recovery now because I have a feeling that I belong in the world. I feel that I belong here now with people as an equal.
Gabriel Nathan: You helped me feel like I belong too. Thank you.
Berta Britz: Thank you. I told you I can’t get to the point!