The voices inside Wanda Lindsay's head sound like muffled party chatter.
They are layers of whispers that can drown out the voice of someone standing next to her.
When they come, Lindsay tells herself they're not real, the first step in a plan to cope.
It's a routine honed after years of living with schizoaffective disorder. Lindsay has found a way to keep from drowning in the depression and paranoia that come with it: She has found her voice in the midst of it.
Lindsay, 52, of Sellersville, has taken her illness public. She talks about it at churches, community meetings, and conferences to increase understanding and combat what she calls a perception - buoyed by recent news events - that people with mental illness are to be feared.
"Yes, there are some terrible incidents that happen," Lindsay said. "But there needs to be [balance]. We need to tell our story so that people know that we can do good, and not just evil."
Abraham Lincoln battled depression. So did "the guy from World War II" (Winston Churchill), Lindsay said recently to students in a clinical pastoral-care class at the Penn Foundation, a Bucks County behavioral health services organization where Lindsay serves on the board.
She was speaking to students taking the course as part of their requirement to earn seminary degrees or be eligible for ordination or chaplaincy.
In her presentations, "Wanda's personality comes through, [not just] her illness," said the Rev. Carl Yusavitz, director of pastoral services at the Penn Foundation.
Lindsay's illness surfaced more than 35 years ago after her grandmother and mother died in the same year. Lindsay moved in with an aunt and worked with her at a factory in Lansdale.
"I started to go out drinking," Lindsay said. "I think it was because of the depression I felt from my mother passing away. And then I heard voices."
She was hospitalized first at Norristown State Hospital - "hell" as Lindsay calls it.
"I remember nurses laying across my body to hold me still so that they could give me shots," she said. "I was locked in a room by myself, and all I could see was people's feet when they walked by."
She was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a condition in which neurotransmitters are dysfunctional, said Vernon Kratz, Lindsay's psychiatrist. Symptoms include depression, paranoia, hallucinations, and hearing voices, Kratz said. Treatment includes medication and therapy.
After a week at Norristown State Hospital, Lindsay was transferred to the former Eugenia Hospital in Lafayette Hill, where she stayed for a month until her insurance ran out. Later, she entered Grand View Hospital in Sellersville, where she was referred to the Penn Foundation.
Through the organization, Lindsay secured an apartment and had access to a staff of therapists, doctors, and training to help her with life skills. She has been able to work intermittently and has received Social Security disability benefits.
"In the early days, Wanda was very quiet. I thought she would learn to do the things she would need to manage her illness and live her life quietly," said Chris Shannon, residential director at the Penn Foundation. "I never thought she would become the advocate she has become."
A turning point came when Lindsay got plain sick and tired.
"One day I asked God, is this all there is?" Lindsay told the pastoral care class. "Am I going to just be eating TV dinners, rocking in a rocking chair, and watching TV?"
She decided to do more. She began speaking out.
Lindsay lives in a small Sellersville apartment decorated with pictures and items that reflect her religious faith (she attends Perkasie Mennonite Church) and "the Indian music" made with Native American flutes that calms her during the dark times.
Lindsay experiences paranoia and delusional ideas and at times becomes deeply despondent, Kratz said. The episodes are often brought on by stress. Supporting herself while managing her illness is a constant concern.
When the voices come, "I say to myself, 'Wanda go home. call your [health-care] staff. Listen to your Indian music.' It centers me," Lindsay said.
She also writes poetry. One poem, "Try," focuses on mental illness. It begins, "Try to understand me for who I am. Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you."