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AN AVERAGE-LOOKING, middle-aged man stood in the public meeting room of the downtown Multnomah County Library, asking a question. He was having trouble distinguishing "dream from reality," and he wondered why he should bother to do so when the information he is given turns out to be verifiable and useful. (Once, he was instructed to overturn an empty cup left in a phone booth—and when he did, he happily discovered someone else's forgotten pocket money left underneath.) A woman then stood and spoke of the series of spiritual transformations she has gone through, mentioning that her Catholic phase was initiated by a vision she had of the Virgin Mary. ("Why else would you become a Catholic?" she cracked.) Another younger man admitted that he has embraced the "spirituality of nothingness" after finding that meditation only exacerbated the noisy mind from which he hoped to find relief.
They were all attendees of the first-ever gathering held by Portland Hearing Voices, a new group that has formed to address the spectrum of circumstances surrounding the experience of hearing voices, seeing visions, and holding extraordinary beliefs. If the language sounds deliberate, consider that commonly accepted words like "crazy" and "deluded" are steadily developing the dark shroud of epithet among those who are beginning to recognize that our society's understanding of mental diversity is, at the very least, oversimplified.
Most people, even many of those working within the mental health system, are only dimly aware of the issues being raised by groups like Portland Hearing Voices (PHV). Nonetheless, the questioning of traditional approaches to experiences that are usually associated with schizophrenia has become quite common, particularly in the UK. (PHV's kickoff event featured a screening of the hour-long BBC documentary Hearing Voices, produced as early as 1995.) While the Portland group is among the first of its kind in the United States, intervoiceonline.org, an international network and online community for voice hearers, estimates that there are over 170 Hearing Voices groups in England alone.
Working across the world to spread positive and hopeful messages about the experience of hearing voices