The day I left home for the first time to go to university it was a Friday, brimming with hope and optimism. I’d done well at school, expectations for me were high. I gleefully entered the student life of lectures, parties, and trafficking and theft. Now appearances of course can be deceptive, and to an extent this feisty, energetic persona of lecture going and traffic and stealing was a veneer, albeit a very well crafted and convincing one. Underneath I was actually deeply unhappy, insecure, and fundamentally frightened; frightened of other people, of the future, of failure and of the emptiness that I felt was within me. But I was still disguising it. And from the outside appeared to be someone with everything to hope for and aspire to, this fantasy of invulnerability was so complete that I even deceived myself.
And as the first semester ended and the second begun, there was no way that any one could have predicted what was just about to happen. I was leaving a seminar when it started. Humming to my self, fumbling with my bag, just as I done a hundred times before, when suddenly I heard a voice calmly observe, “she is leaving the room.” I Looked around and there was no one there, but the clarity and decisiveness of the comment was unmistakeable. Shaken, I left my books on the stairs and hurried home. And there it was again, “she is opening the door.” This was the beginning, the voice had arrived and the voice persisted. Days and then weeks, on and on, narrating everything I did in the third person. “She is going to the library,” “she’s going to the lecture.” It was neutral, impassive and even after a while strangely companious and reassuring. Although I did notice that its comments were mysterious, sometimes slipped, and that it occasionally mirrored my own unexpressed emotion. So, for example, if I was angry enough to hide it, which I often did, being very adept at concealing how I really felt, then the voice would sound frustrated. Otherwise it was neither sinister nor disturbing. Although even at that point it was clear that it had something to communicate to me about my emotions, particularly emotions which were remote and inaccessible.
Now it was then that I made a fatal mistake in that I talked to a friend about the voices and she was horrified. A subtle conditioning process had begun. The implication that normal people don’t hear voices and the fact that I did, meant that something very seriously wrong. Such fear and mistrust was infectious. Suddenly the voice didn’t seem quite so benign any more and when she insisted that I seek medical attention, I duly complied, which proved to be mistake number two. I spent some time telling the college G.P. about what I perceived to be the real problem, anxiety, low self worth, fears about the future, which was met with bored indifference until I mentioned the voice. Upon which, drops the pen, turns around, and began to question me with a show of real interest. And to be fair, I was desperate for interest and help and I began to tell him about my strange commentator. And I almost wish at this point that the voice had said “she is digging her own grave.”
I was referred to a psychiatrist, who likewise took a grim view of the voices presence. Subsequently interpreting everything I said through a lens of latent insanity. For example, I was part of a student TV station that broadcast news bulletins around the campus. And during an appointment, turning very late, said “I’m sorry, doctor, I’ve got to go, I’m reading the news at six.” And it said on my medical records, “oh, that’s delusions that she’s a television news caster.” It was at this point that events began rapidly to overtake me. A hospital admission followed, the first of many. A diagnosis of schizophrenia came next. And then, worst of all, a toxic, tormenting sense of hopelessness, humiliation and despair about myself and my prospects. But having been encouraged to see the voice not as an experience but as an symptom , my fear and resistance towards it intensified. Now essentially this represented taking an aggressive stance towards my own mind, a sort of psychic civil war. And in turn, this caused the number of voices to increase and very progressively hostile and menacing. Helplessly, and hopelessly, I began to retreat into this nightmarish inner world in which the voices were destined to become both my persecutors and my only perceived companions. They told me, for example, that if I proved myself worthy of their help, then they could change my life back to how it had been. A series of increasingly bizarre tasks were set. a kind of labour of Hercules. Starts out quite small, for example, pull out three strands of hair. but gradually it grew more extreme. Culminating in commands to harm myself and a particularly dramatic instruction, “see that tutor over there, you see that glass of water, you have to go over there and pour it over him in front of the other students.” Which I actually did. which needlessly to say did not endear me to the faculty.
In effect a vicious cycle of fear, avoidance, mistrust and misunderstanding had been established. This was a battle in which I felt powerless and incapable of establishing any kind of peace or reconciliation. Two years later and the deterioration was dramatic. By now I had whole, frenzied repertoire. Terrifying voices, grotesque visions, bizarre intractable delusions. My mental heath status would be a catalyst for discrimination, verbal abuse, and physical and sexual assault. And I’ve been told by my psychiatrist, “Eleanor, you’d better off with cancer, because cancer is easier to cure than schizophrenia.”
I’ve been diagnosed, drugged, and discarded and was now so tormented by the voices that I attempted to drill a whole in my head in order to get them out. Now looking back on the wreckage and despair of those years it seems to me now as if someone died in that place. And yet someone else was saved. A broken and haunted person began that journey, but the person who emerged was a survivor. And would ultimately grow into the person I was destined to be. Many people have harmed me in my life, and I remember them all but the memories grow pale and faint in comparison to the people who helped me. Fellow survivors, fellow voice hearers, comrades and collaborators. My mother, who never gave up on me. Who knew that one day I would come back to her and was willing to wait for me for as long as it took. The doctor, who only worked with me for a brief time, but he reinforced his belief that recovery was not only possible, but inevitable. And during a devastating period of relapse, told my terrified family, “don’t give up hope, I believe that Eleanor can get through this. Sometimes you know it snows as late as May, but summer always comes eventually.”
Forty minutes is not enough time to fully credit those good and generous people who fought with me and for me and who always welcomed me back from that agonized lonely place. But together they forged a blend of courage, creativity, integrity, an unshakable belief that my shattered self would become healed and whole. I used to say that these people saved me but what I now know is that they did something even more important in that they empowered me to save myself. And crucially they helped me to understand something I always suspected, that my voices were meaningful response to dramatic life trends, particularly childhood events, and as such were not my enemies, but a source of insight into solvable emotional problems.
Now, at first this was very difficult to believe, not the least because the voices appeared so hostile and menacing. So in this respect, a vital first step was learning to separate out a metaphorical meaning where I’d previously interpreted to be a literal truth. So for example, voices that threaten to attack my home, I learned to interpret as my own sense of fear and insecurity in the world rather than an actual object of danger. Now, at first I would have believed that, I remember for example, sitting out one night on guard outside my parents room to protect them from what I thought was a genuine threat from the voices because I`d had such a bad problem with self injury that most cutlery in the house had been hidden. In terms of arming myself with a plastic fork, like picnic ware, and sort of sat outside the room watching it, waiting to spring into action should anything happen. It was like don’t mess with me, I’ve got a plastic fork, don’t you know. Strategic. But a later response, and much more useful, would be to try and deconstruct the message behind the words. So, when the voices warned me not to leave the house, then I would thank them for drawing my attention to how unsafe I felt because if I was aware of it, then I can do something positive about it. But go on to reassure both them and myself that we were safe and didn’t need to be frightened anymore. I would set boundaries for the voices, and try to interrupt them in a way that was assertive, yet respectful. Establishing a slow process of communication and collaboration in which we can learn to work together and support one another.
Throughout all of this, what I would ultimately realize is that each voice was closely related to aspects of myself. And that each of them carried overwhelming emotions that I’d never had an opportunity to process or resolve: memories of sexual trauma and abuse, of anger, shame, guilt, low self worth. The voices took the places of this pain and gave voice to it. And possibly one of the greatest revelations was when I realized that my most hostile and aggressive voices actually represent the past of me that had been hurt the most profoundly. And as such, it was these voices that needed to be shown the greatest compassion and care. It was armed with this knowledge that ultimately I would gather together my shattered self, each fragment represented by a different voice, gradually withdraw from all my medication and return to psychiatry. Only this time, from the other side.
Ten years after the voice first came, I finally graduated, this time with the highest degree in psychology the university had ever given, and one year later the highest Masters. Which I would say isn’t bad for a mad woman. In fact, when the voices actually dictated the answers during an exam, which technically possibly counts as cheating. And to be honest, sometimes I quite enjoyed their attention as well. As Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.” It also makes you very good at eavesdropping when you can listen to two conversations simultaneously. So it’s not all bad.
I worked in mental house services, I spoke at conferences, I published book chapters and academic articles. And I argued, and I continue to do so, the relevance of the following concept, that an important question in psychology shouldn’t be what’s wrong with you, but rather, what’s happened to you? And all the while I listened to my voices, with whom I’d finally learned to live in peace and respect, and which in turn, reflects a growing sense of compassion, acceptance, and respect towards myself.
And I remember the most moving and extraordinary moment when supporting another young woman who was terrorized by her voices. And becoming fully aware, for the very first time, that I no longer felt that way myself. I was finally able to help someone else who was.
I am now very proud to be a part of Inter-Voice, the organizational body of the international hearing voices movement. An initiative inspired by the work of Professor Marius Romme and Doctor Sandra Escher which locates(?) voice hearing as a survival strategy. A sane reaction to insane circumstances. Not as an aberrant symptom of schizophrenia to be endured, but a complex, significant, and meaningful experience to be explored. Together, we envisage in an active society that understands and respects voice hearing, supports the needs of individuals who hear voices, and which values them as full citizens. This type of society is not only possible, it’s already on its way.
To paraphrase Chavez, once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. For me, the achievements of the hearing voices movement are a reminder that empathy, fellowship, justice and respect are more than words, they are convictions and beliefs. And that beliefs can change the world. In the last twenty years, the hearing voices movement has established hearing voices networks in twenty-six countries across five continents, working together to promote dignity, solidarity and empowerment for individuals in mental distress, to create a new language and practice of hope, which, at its very centre, finds an unshakable belief in the power of the individual. As Peter Levine has said, “the human animal is a unique being, endowed with instinctual capacity to heal and the intellectual spirit to honour innate capacity.”
In this respect, for members of society, there is no greater honour or privilege than facilitating that process of healing for someone. To bear witness, to reach out a hand, to share the burden of someone suffering, and to hold out hope for their recovery. And likewise, for survivors of distress and adversity that we remember, we don`t have to live our lives forever defined by the damaging things that have happened to us. We are unique, we are irreplaceable, what lies within us can never be truly colonized, contorted, or taken away. The light never goes out. As a very wonderful doctor once said to me, “don’t tell me what other people have told me about yourself, tell me about you.” Thank you. (applause)
Transcription by Andrew Filotas