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  • The day I left home for the first time

  • to go to university was a bright day

  • brimming with hope and optimism.

  • I'd done well at school. Expectations for me were high,

  • and I gleefully entered the student life

  • of lectures, parties and traffic cone theft.

  • Now appearances, of course, can be deceptive,

  • and to an extent, this feisty, energetic persona

  • of lecture-going and traffic cone 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 skilled at hiding 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 began,

  • there was no way that anyone could have predicted

  • what was just about to happen.

  • I was leaving a seminar when it started,

  • humming to myself, fumbling with my bag

  • just as I'd 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 unmistakable.

  • 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 of it, on and on,

  • narrating everything I did in the third person.

  • "She is going to the library."

  • "She is going to a lecture."

  • It was neutral, impassive and even, after a while,

  • strangely companionate and reassuring,

  • although I did notice that its calm exterior sometimes slipped

  • and that it occasionally mirrored my own unexpressed emotion.

  • So, for example, if I was angry and had 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 told a friend about the voice, 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 was very seriously wrong.

  • Such fear and mistrust was infectious.

  • Suddenly the voice didn't seem quite so benign anymore,

  • and when she insisted that I seek medical attention,

  • I duly complied, and 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,

  • and was met with bored indifference

  • until I mentioned the voice,

  • upon which he dropped his pen, swung round

  • 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 always wish, at this point, the voice had said,

  • "She is digging her own grave."

  • I was referred to a psychiatrist, who likewise

  • took a grim view of the voice's 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 which was running very late,

  • I said, "I'm sorry, doctor, I've got to go.

  • I'm reading the news at six."

  • Now it's down on my medical records that Eleanor

  • has delusions that she's a television news broadcaster.

  • It was at this point that events began

  • to rapidly 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 a symptom,

  • my fear and resistance towards it intensified.

  • Now essentially, this represented taking

  • an aggressive stance towards my own mind,

  • a kind of psychic civil war,

  • and in turn this caused the number of voices to increase

  • and grow 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,

  • and a series of increasingly bizarre tasks was set,

  • a kind of labor of Hercules.

  • It started off 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:

  • "You see that tutor over there?

  • You see that glass of water?

  • Well, you have to go over and pour it over him in front of the other students."

  • Which I actually did, and which needless to say

  • did not endear me to the faculty.

  • In effect, a vicious cycle of fear, avoidance,

  • mistrust and misunderstanding had been established,

  • and 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 the whole frenzied repertoire:

  • terrifying voices, grotesque visions,

  • bizarre, intractable delusions.

  • My mental health status had been a catalyst

  • for discrimination, verbal abuse,

  • and physical and sexual assault,

  • and I'd been told by my psychiatrist,

  • "Eleanor, you'd be better off with cancer,

  • because cancer is easier to cure than schizophrenia."

  • I'd been diagnosed, drugged and discarded,

  • and was by now so tormented by the voices

  • that I attempted to drill a hole 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 with the people who've helped me.

  • The fellow survivors, the fellow voice-hearers,

  • the comrades and collaborators;

  • the 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 who 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."

  • Fourteen minutes is not enough time

  • to fully credit those good and generous people

  • who fought with me and for me

  • and who waited to welcome me back

  • from that agonized, lonely place.

  • But together, they forged a blend of courage,

  • creativity, integrity, and an unshakeable belief

  • that my shattered self could become healed and whole.

  • I used to say that these people saved me,

  • but what I now know is they did something

  • even more important in that they empowered me

  • to save myself,

  • and crucially, they helped me to understand something

  • which I'd always suspected:

  • that my voices were a meaningful response

  • to traumatic life events, 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 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

  • from what I'd previously interpreted to be a literal truth.

  • So for example, voices which threatened to attack my home

  • I learned to interpret as my own sense of fear

  • and insecurity in the world, rather than an actual, objective danger.

  • Now at first, I would have believed them.

  • I remember, for example, sitting up 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 of the cutlery in the house had been hidden,

  • so I ended up arming myself with a plastic fork,

  • kind of like picnic ware, and sort of sat outside the room

  • clutching it and 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 could do something positive about it --

  • but go on to reassure both them and myself

  • that we were safe and didn't need to feel frightened anymore.

  • I would set boundaries for the voices,

  • and try to interact with them in a way that was assertive

  • yet respectful, establishing a slow process

  • of communication and collaboration

  • in which we could learn to work together and support one another.

  • Throughout all of this, what I would ultimately realize

  • was 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 place of this pain

  • and gave words to it,

  • and possibly one of the greatest revelations

  • was when I realized that the most hostile and aggressive voices

  • actually represented the parts of me

  • that had been hurt 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 shall we say

  • isn't bad for a madwoman.

  • In fact, one of the voices actually dictated the answers

  • during the exam, which technically possibly counts as cheating.

  • (Laughter)

  • And to be honest, sometimes I quite enjoyed their attention as well.

  • As Oscar Wilde has said, the only thing worse

  • than being talked about is not being talked about.

  • It also makes you very good at eavesdropping,

  • because you can listen to two conversations simultaneously.

  • So it's not all bad.

  • I worked in mental health services,

  • I spoke at conferences,

  • I published book chapters and academic articles,

  • and I argued, and continue to do so,

  • the relevance of the following concept:

  • that an important question in psychiatry