As our last blog entry, I shared my experience of hearing distressing voices and the strategies I used to manage them. However, not everyone’s experience of hearing voices is the same. The population of people with such experiences is just as diverse as any other population of people and so are the opinions folks hold – even when they have similar experiences and diagnosis. I have recently met people who hear voices and don’t find them distressing. This is something quite new for me. I have also met someone who shared memories with me about a person who heard voices that were much more positive than my own. This is one of the reasons why not everyone who has these kinds of experiences necessarily needs enforced treatment. The story below is a good example of a person who heard voices, was untreated and was not violent. There is a danger in making generalizations about people, even people who share similar symptoms and diagnosis. Diana Epperson has graciously agreed to share her memories of “Mrs. Dunnell” below – memories that are quite different than the experiences I shared in our last blog entry. These are memories of voices that were helpful. – Renea Mohammed
In good weather my mother and her neighbor, Mrs. Dunnell, would sit on the front stoops of their adjacent apartments in Queens, New York, knitting and talking. It was 1957, my mother was in her early twenties expecting me, her first child. Together the two friends knitted a full infant layette in greens, lavender, white and yellow. This set of fine wool newborn clothes included a blanket, cardigan, hats, booties and, as I was scheduled to arrive in November, a bunting*. By the next summer, “Dun Dun”, my garbled attempt at “Mrs. Dunnell”, became our beloved neighbor’s name. About a quarter century later, I wrapped my newborns in the same sure knitted pieces.
Knitted into the story of the layette is my mother’s story of a friendship. Having recently moved into the apartment in Queens, from a small room in Soho with a shared bathroom down the hall, she rarely saw her university friends and my father was mostly away at work and night school. After she met Mrs. Dunnell on the front steps, the two of them began to spend their days together, talking, knitting, drinking coffee, listening to the Boston Pops. The way my mother tells it, the two women relied on Mrs. Dunnell’s voices to help them through the most difficult parts of the knitting instructions, through the complex turns and knots of the yarn over and around their needles and fingers. She claims there wasn’t a conundrum Mrs. Dunnell’s voices couldn’t help them puzzle out. When my father came home in the evening, the three of them often ate supper together. Dad remembered Mrs. Dunnell’s coffee, cake and hamburgers as the best he ever tasted. The story goes, the voices recommended frying the hamburgers in butter, which explained their extraordinary flavor.
Though my mother remembers Mrs. Dunnell’s voices as a gift, she also sensed they were associated with the loss of her only sibling to rheumatic fever. Their parents were “older” and Mrs. Dunnell had been her younger sister’s playmate and caretaker. She was about twelve when her sister died and my mother had the impression that it was then that voices “from the other side” became Mrs. Dunnell’s lifetime companions.
My mother sought out the company of this delightful neighbor and remembers, “we became very much like a mother and daughter”. My mother says that Mrs. Dunnell was very natural in the way she would mention hearing voices when they were together, but “never spoke of them when your father or other neighbors were there. She and I really trusted each other.” I’ve heard my mother laugh and confess when remembering her friend, “I wish I heard voices to tell me what to do”.
After my parents left New York, Mrs. Dunnell moved to an assisted living building. She was clever with numbers and did some bookkeeping to help pay for her rooms. She died before I was six, but I remember her clearly: she’s in a light, button down dress: her hair is short and grey, bluntly cut with bangs; she is always bending towards me, always giving me something.
*a long-sleeved hooded sack that zips to the chin