Thursday, March 21, 2013

Eleanor Longden at TED2013 - Living with Voices in Your Head

Eleanor Longden is one of the creators of Inter.Voice: The International Community for Hearing Voices. The video below is her talent audition for TED2013, in which she discusses her own experience of hearing voices (more on this below the article). Hearing voices is a more extreme version of the multiplicity we all have inside of us - but most of us do not hear our parts as distinct voices.

The full TED video is not available yet, but Helen Walters posted a summary of the talk.

Living with Voices in Your Head: Eleanor Longdon at TED2013 

Posted by: Helen Walters
February 28, 2013 

Photo: James Duncan Davidson 

Eleanor Longden did well at school, and gleefully entered student life at university in England. By all appearances, she was a happy, typical student … but it wasn’t true. Underneath it all, Longden was “fundamentally frightened,” and while she did a good job of concealing her fear, she was about to come undone. She started to hear the voice in the second term of that first year, a narrator in her head calmly describing everything she did in the third person. The voice was neutral, impassive, even reassuring, though it would sound frustrated were Longden to hide her anger. “It was clear that it had something to communicate to me about my emotions, particularly emotions that were remote and inaccessible,” she says.

Longden’s first fatal mistake was to tell a friend about the voice. That didn’t go so well–the implication was that normal people don’t hear voices–and she was persuaded to go to a doctor, her next mistake. ”She is digging her own grave,” the voice said at the appointment. Doctors don’t like voices in heads, and things began to unravel. Hospital admissions followed, then a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and then a “psychic civil war.” The voices increased and grew menacing, and Longden retreated into a nightmarish world. It’s hard to listen. “A vicious cycle of fear, avoidance, mistrust, misunderstanding had been established.”

Two years later, her deterioration had been dramatic. The voices had turned terrifying, and her mental health status was a catalyst for verbal, even sexual assault. A doctor told her, “Eleanor, you’d be better off with cancer; it’s easier to cure than schizophrenia.” She even attempted to drill a hole in her head to get rid of the voices.

Yet Longden is a survivor: “Many people have harmed me, and I remember them all, but the memories grow pale in comparison to the people who helped me.” With a group of supporters around her, she began a long journey back to health. She first had to understand that the voices were a reaction to traumatic childhood events. “Each voice was closely related to aspects of myself, sexual trauma, anger, shame, guilt, low self-worth,” she says. Crucially, “the most hostile and aggressive voices represented the parts that had been hurt most profoundly. These had to be shown the most compassion and care.”

Eventually, she came off medication, and returned to psychiatry … as a professional. To this day, she argues the relevance of a particular approach. The important question in psychiatry isn’t “what’s wrong with you?” but “what happened to you?”

Now Longden lives with her voices with peace, respect, compassion and acceptance. She is a part of Intervoice, the organizational body for the hearing voices movement. The group has networks in 26 countries on five continents, and it promotes a sense of dignity, solidarity and empowerment for individuals in mental distress. “We don’t have to live our lives forever defined by the damaging things that have happened to us,” she concludes. “My psychiatrist said: ‘Don’t tell me what other people have told you about yourself. Tell me about you.’”

Tweeted after the talk:
TED Live @TEDLiveHQ@junecohen asks: Did you hear voices during your talk? Eleanor Longden: Yes, they reminded me of parts of the talk I forgot. 

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From the Inter.Voice site.

Eleanor Longden

May 12, 2011

How I tamed the voices in my head

When Eleanor Longden began hearing things, she soon found herself drugged, sectioned and labelled schizophrenic. Then a psychiatrist taught her how to talk back. 
By Kate Hilpern, Published: The Independent, 06 March 2007
Eleanor Longden, 25, started hearing voices when she was a teenager. But, contrary to the usual perception of inner voices, Longden says hers weren’t destructive: “It was rather mundane, simply giving me a narration of some of the day-to-day things I was doing. In many ways, the voice was companionate because it was reminding me that I was carrying on with my responsibilities despite feeling so sad inside. There was something constructive about it.”

People like Longden who admit to hearing inner voices can generally expect two outcomes: a diagnosis of insanity, and potent medication. But a group of psychiatrists and psychologists believe it’s time we reconsidered labels such as schizophrenia and the drugs used as treatment. In fact, they believe we should get people to listen to, and actually engage with, the voices inside their heads.

Longden believes her biggest mistake was in telling a friend she was at university with about her experiences. “I explained that the voices were actually quite positive, but she was horrified and insisted I see a psychiatrist, who ignored my unhappiness and homed in on the voice, assuming it meant I had no sense of normality. For example, I was quite involved with the university television station, and the psychiatrist stated in her notes that I had delusions of being a broadcaster. The second time I saw her, she suggested that I admit myself to hospital for three days for tests.”

Three days turned into three months, during which time Longden was told that if she left, she’d be sectioned and forced back. The drugs she was coerced into taking did little except cause weight gain, and the terrifying label of schizophrenia she was given was, Longden believes, directly responsible for the arrival of 12 very hostile inner voices.

Like most multiple-voice hearers, Longden says one voice was dominant. “He was demonic, and had a visual manifestation of a huge grotesque figure swathed in black. His threats were graphic and violent. The other voices, which were less clear, would back him up.”

As if this wasn’t enough, back at university Longden found herself the victim of a bullying campaign. “People had heard about where I’d been and within a week, my door in the halls of residence had been defaced, and I was spat at. I started to self-harm. The worst instance was in the student bar when a group of people asked me to stub a cigarette out on my forearm. When I did it, they cheered.”

Longden became suicidal and was sectioned. After seven weeks back in hospital, she went to stay with her parents in Bradford, where she continued to self-harm and her voices were louder than ever. Her psychiatrist told her it would almost have been better if she’d had cancer because it would be easier to cure.

Finally, the breakthrough came. “Everyone had treated me with this total lack of hope, and as completely passive. But then I was put in touch with a psychiatrist who asked me what I thought would help me. When I said I felt I could deal with the voices better when my mind was clear, he supported me to reduce the medication. Better still, he suggested that I engage with the voices because they probably had a symbolic meaning that might help me recover.”

Longden began to recognise her voices as a representation of unconscious feelings of self-loathing. This helped her to fear them less. “If they were metaphorical, it stood to reason they couldn’t have any control in the external world,” she says.

The psychiatrist encouraged her to talk back to them. “I began to question them, and their replies gave me great insight into my subconscious feelings – enormously helpful in my therapy – and then I started negotiating with them. Sometimes I’d say to the dominant one, ‘I’ll only talk to you after EastEnders,’ and he’d agree!”

Three years on, Longden is off medication. She says she’s happy, and is studying for a doctorate in clinical psychology. Although her voices sometimes return, she feels in complete control of them. “I see them as useful – almost like a stress barometer. My mum’s clue to feeling stressed is a migraine; mine is the voices.”

Dr Rufus May, a clinical psychologist, says the aim of getting people to connect with their voices is to enable them to incorporate them into their daily lives so they are not distressing. “Voices themselves are not a problem; it’s people’s relationship with them that’s important. So, rather than voices being something that we should avoid at all costs – the traditional psychiatric view – we should be trying to get people to face them, understand them and work with them.”

May says negative voices can be turned into a positive experience. “If a voice is telling someone to kill themselves, that could be signifying rage. So the voice-hearer could say, ‘Thanks for flagging this up. I’m not going to take you literally, but you’ve shown me there are things I need to change about me.’”

He even talks to his patients’ voices himself. “I ask the person to tell me verbatim what each voice is saying. I’ll ask questions such as, ‘How long have you been in Mary’s life?” and ‘Why did you come along?’ Sometimes, they’ll tell me something about the person they themselves are unaware of. After all, we’re dealing with the subconscious here.”

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