Hearing Voices

In early August of 1990, about ten days before I left New York City and childhood for Arizona State University, I began hearing voices. By that I don’t mean I suffered auditory hallucinations. At no point did I imagine that literal, living people were speaking to me. Rather, I began arguing with myself about the direction of my life and the moral implications of every choice I faced. Nothing was beneath consideration; everything counted. Here I am, for example, critiquing my own taste in music:

Me: “Well it’s been ten years/ and a thousand tears/And look at the mess I’m in/A broken nose and a broken heart,/An empty bottle of gin…” Really, Max, do you think you ought to be glamorizing failure? Now that you’re facing so many opportunities, hadn’t you better listen to music that celebrates success?

Me: Huh? Who’s glamorizing? It’s just a freaking song. I mean, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it! And who in hell celebrates success, anyway, Robert Palmer? I mean, geez-Louise…

Three things are worth noting about these exchanges: First, they invariably took the form of accusation and denial. Second, the denials were never half so eloquent or thoroughly thought through as the accusations. The general effect was of a brilliant trial attorney pouncing on a yokel of a witness. Third, I — that is, the person of established habits and familiar tastes being cross-examined — always lost.

I’d have dropped the game if I’d been able, but it had an addictive quality. Once I moved into the dorms and began settling into my new routine, my critic began assuming a new character. From a swaggering, snarling prosecutor, it transformed into a girl I’d been involved with during sophomore year of high school. Like me, she was a shrink’s kid from Upper Manhattan. (We’d lived only five blocks apart; during the summer after graduation, she made a habit of turning up on my doorstep at the most unnerving times.) Also like me, she cultivated a knowing air, only hers was much more convincing. As I adjusted to the hardships of living among palm trees, I brought her back for a curtain call. The witness stand became an analyst’s couch, and the questions more brutally intimate:

Me (as her): What, exactly, do you mean to prove by getting your hair cut in a flat top like this Elliot Ness person? Do you really think adopting a macho façade is going to help you separate yourself emotionally from your parents, who —

Me (as me): It’s Mike Ness, and fuck off.

Me (as her): Someone asks you a probing question and this is how you respond. How juvenile. How typical. And you look like Vanilla Ice.

The inquisitorial voice began sounding off so automatically that it seemed to be operating quite on its own. Before long, I could experience no pleasurable sensation without a spasm of fear, since I knew something like this was coming:

Fried chicken and soft-serve with rainbow sprinkles from the buffet at the Memorial Union? Really, Max? This satisfies you? Can’t you do better than this?

SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP! I don’t care if you think I should be drinking chai tea and talking about the environment! I’m going to eat my soft-serve and read the funnies and like it!

Oh, I’m sure you’ll eat it. But you won’t like it. Not while I’m around.

The more my concern-trolling interlocutor seemed to take on personality and agency, the more our exchanges came to resemble battles of will. It, or she, aimed to trip me up, make me quit, make me fail, thus exposing some weakness and confirming some thesis she’d worked out privately. (Exactly what this was I never did discover, but the gist was that I was a helpless idiot.) My attitude turned openly defiant; I began gloating over successes.

I told you we’d beat Saddam and create a New World Order. What do you and Professor Chomsky have to say to that, huh?

Several times I called home to beg help. Every time I reached for the words to describe what was happening and came up with “hearing voices,” I shut up for fear I’d be locked up. Yet the record will show that, somehow, I finished the year with tolerable grades. I also played middie on the lacrosse team — we swept the Pac-10′s second division — went to Mazatlan for Spring Break, made some friends, hooked up a few times, and tried a couple of new drugs. I even nosed around the Marine Corps Platoon Leader Class until it became apparent they’d be no more willing to waive me in despite my bad eyes than the doctors at the Ft. Hamilton MEPS center had been. Despite suffering what must have been very close to a schizophrenic collapse, I managed to become, for the first time in my life, an all-rounder.

Sometime during the summer, which I spent hawking beach toys and Traci Lords videos door-to-door in Hasidic neighborhoods, the voice decamped. I began sophomore year more or less fully in possession of my ears and head.

Just yesterday, a friend was explaining to me why my conversion story failed to satisfy him. “You talk about its sociological context — your Jewish father, your Irish-Catholic mother, your sexual frustrations and disillusionment with materialism. But I don’t hear the voice of God, the one that woke Samuel in the night and made him say, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ Where’s that voice in your life? That’s what I’d like to know.”

It’s an excellent question, and I suppose I’m writing this to explain, finally, why I have no ready answer. I must have heard God’s voice clearly at least once, on the day I decided, almost out of the blue, to attend Mass in a strange church. But I can’t recall hearing it since. I haven’t been listening, you see; indeed, you could say I’ve plugged my ears to it. I go to Mass and begin each day with the Our Father and try not to commit too many mortal sins, but I prefer to keep my conversations with God strictly one-way. I’m scared to death His voice, when I do hear it, is going to sound like — you know, like that.

Monday Mourning Coming Down
Five Reasons I Despise Listicles
In Praise and Defense of Catechists
Lent and the Lame Evangelist
  • Mom2Teens

    Which IS exactly my experience of his voice. I know it’s his, because it’s telling me to do something I DO NOT WANT to do. Then, even when I do it, I figure it doesn’t count because I did it with such bad grace. Kind of like Jonah . . .

  • michelangelo3

    What you fear hearing from God really comes from Satan, whose name means “the accuser.”

  • Anna

    The voices you describe sound exactly like standard depression self-talk. Hyperbole and a Half described it well too.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    This is an absolute classic! You’ve out done yourself with this one Max. My thought as I was reading was, don’t we all have those nagging voices running through our brains? I do, even to this day. Have I heard God’s booming call? For me it was a whisper, more like that of Elijah in Kings.

  • Devra

    @michelangelo3:disqus, you took the words out of my mouth. The reason the Accuser is able to pull off sounding so plausible is the grains of truth he uses, but he gives himself away by the tone: “It, or she, aimed to trip me up, make me quit, make me fail, thus exposing some weakness and confirming some thesis she’d worked out privately.” If I thought God was going to sound like that, I’d plug my ears too.

  • Anna

    Um, if your experience of “God’s voice” is as snarky and full of put-downs as Max’s description, perhaps it isn’t really from God. As michelangelo3 above said, the devil is the accuser; God loves us even in our bad moments (or, you know, bad years…) and while what he wants us to do might sometimes be against our inclinations, it won’t ever be in the form of berating us into it.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    michelangelo3 nailed it most succinctly, Max.

    When I was dating my wife, I
    was tormented by the same phenomenon. I didn’t have a voice in my head,
    carrying on a conversation; instead, it took the form of suggestions
    that bubbled into my conscious mind. It began with the notion that I
    urgently needed to break up with my then-girlfriend. No expense was
    spared to create the most possible drama; the idea came to me while we
    were praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary together. I went to
    talk to a priest I trust, who knows both of us well, and he told me to
    ignore this voice. It then switched tactics and began to suggest that I
    needed to become a priest. This time, the suggestion was easier to fend
    off, as I had fruitlessly discerned a priestly call at various times
    since college; still, the nagging doubt caused much pain.

    Things continued in this way during our engagement. To give one notable
    example: a couple days after we had mailed out the invitations, I began
    to be tormented with the thought that my true vocation was to be a
    celibate unconsecrated layman, dedicated to an apostolate for Gregorian
    chant. (I still direct a schola cantorum, with my wife’s enthusiastic support.) Looking back after seven years of marriage, that was obviously a
    fairly standard case of cold feet, but the Accuser used it to great
    effect and the suggestion took a bit of effort to ignore.

    In no case did I
    receive anything but fear, doubt, and uncertainty from these
    semi-conscious suggestions. The voice was trying to “trip me up, make
    me quit, make me fail,” just as you said yours did. That’s the devil’s
    work and the devil’s voice.

    If we were Lutherans, I’d tell you to plant your rear in Satan’s face and break wind. Come to think of it, Luther may have been on to something with that one….

  • anonymous

    I like your conversion story and I think it is convincing and easy for me to relate to. Your writing fills me with faith and reminds me to pray.

  • Mary E.

    Your internal inquisitor accused you of looking like Vanilla Ice? Now that IS tough love.

  • ucfengr

    I still like that song.

  • Michelle

    My initial conversion sounds similar to yours, nothing earth shattering. I was always scared God was like the voice you heard. I have finally had a beautiful experience at a retreat given by Fr. Scott Traynor, the new rector of St. John Vianney seminary in Denver. This man is on fire with God’s healing love. Listen to this series of talks he gives on prayer:


    There are five and he may upload more. Scroll to the bottom for the first.

  • Mike

    This was awesome! Great writing; interesting and I don’t know, just right. Thanks for sharing. I sometimes think something similar about God speaking to me. I think it would be too much; it would impose too much and would overwhelm me. I guess I feel alittle like St. Aug. felt when he prayed “Lord, come into my life and transform it and take these lustful thoughts away soon but not quite just yet.”