Voices carry

By S.I. ROSENBAUM  |  October 21, 2011

To Hornstein, it's a revelation. "The gap between what I was taught and what I'm starting to understand about mental illness is widening," she writes later.

Back in her office at Mt. Holyoke College, Hornstein looks for local organizations similar to what she saw in England. She finds the Freedom Center, a mental-health resource network in Northampton.

Founded by two former psychiatric patients, Oryx Cohen and Will Hall, it's an outlet for people with mental-illness diagnoses to talk freely about their experiences. "We started out hiding out in basements and whispering about how we didn't like psychiatry," Cohen recalls wryly, "and then when we realized the psychiatric police were not going to arrest us, we got a little more public."

Cohen's hippie parents named him after an African gazelle, but like most very tall men he's a little gawky, with a gentle, toothy smile. When he was in graduate school, Cohen decided that his car could fly, wound up in the emergency room, and embarked on an inquiry into the nature of insanity. Now, he says he "experienced altered states."

He and Hornstein become colleagues. In 2008, they start their own Hearing Voices group in downtown Holyoke. It's one of the first of its kind in the US.

***

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The woman with the scars sits in the corner chair and rocks, and doesn't look at anyone.

She is here because she typed the words "peer support" into a search engine, after nearly 10 years of doctors, of mental wards, of medications. She wanted to quit that circus. She found a listing for this group, and chose it because it's close enough to walk to.

Sometimes when she's here, she feels like she's floating above her body, watching the group like it's a TV show. Sometimes she feels herself shut down, go flat and numb to the present.

Oryx Cohen keeps an eye on her. She looks like a wreck — "Not somebody I would expect a whole lot from," Cohen will recall candidly. But he doesn't write her off. He and Hornstein have both had too many experiences with people who have been written off who end up surprising them.

So they let Marty sit in silence, while the group members — there are about 12 — talk about the voices they hear. No one tells them they're imagining things, no one suggests they're sick or ill. The group members make suggestions, swap ideas: write down what your voices say. Talk to them. Tell them to come back later. They don't tell anyone to stop taking their medications, but if someone wants to, they help them ramp down safely.

From the corner chair, Marty takes it all in. It's months before she starts to talk. When she does, Cohen is amazed at how smart she is. He also notices that she has a gift. "Even though she was having a very hard time, she was always able to listen to other folks in the groups," he sayys. She gives little pieces of advice, things no one else would have thought of. Often, it works.

Say a guy comes in trembling with adrenaline, telling them his house is staked out, he hears people talking about him on the telephone, he knows he's being targeted. It's because of his secret job with the CIA.

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