At 26-years-old I was married with a son. I was a sound engineer, session musician, and my band was weeks away from signing a recording contract with a major record label for a lot of money. That was my life. And then I was put into a psychiatric hospital.
By the time I was released, three years later, my wife had left me, and my son was in foster care. I’d been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and programmed to believe I’d never recover, that every time I had an episode it would take a piece of me away. I was a wreck.
I’d experienced neglect, abuse, and bullying in childhood and started hearing voices aged 8 when I was sent to live with my grandfather. I felt safe and loved with grandad, but when I was 11, he became unwell and I had to move back home where the mistreatment continued.
Aged 29 I was unemployed and on psychiatric drugs to the extent that I couldn’t think or feel. All but one of my friends had deserted me because I’d gone from being someone who liked a laugh and a joke, to someone talking about devils and demons with lots of paranoia about the police. Not many people knew how to deal with that. I thought this is it, I’m going to spend the rest of my days in a bedsit on medication and nobody’s ever going to look at me in a romantic way again. That’s what made me want to end my life.
Things started to change when I met a social worker who said one of the most profound things I’d ever heard in the context of my life. He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. Given the things you’ve experienced, the fact that you hear voices, that you have these fears, is normal.’
A lot of people had given up on me, including the medical professionals advising my social worker not to bother with me because I was too far gone. But he helped me understand that I could have a life away from a mental health diagnosis. While others were saying, don’t try to work or study because it will create a lot of stress, he was saying, if you work or study I can help you through the stress. So, he was taking a very different approach.
When I decided that I wanted to study he put things in place for me. For example, I found it very difficult to go into exams and so the Open University agreed to let me take exams at home and sent two invigilators to my house to help.
I graduated after six years and went into voluntary work, did a Master’s, and then went from part-time work into full-time work. I worked as a lecturer for 10 years with Sheffield Health and Social Care recovery education unit until the funding was cut. I now work in the education and training department, creating learning packages and supporting staff with their technology needs.
Nine months after being discharged from hospital, I also had a massive piece of luck. I met the most incredible woman I’d ever met in my life, and we’ve been happily married for 24 years. She made me realise that I’d still got a lot to offer and with her support I went to court and won custody of my son.
People get themselves to rock bottom and it’s like a spiral, one thing leads to another. I’ve come to realise that that can also happen in reverse. One little thing can lead to another little thing and another little thing. People believing in me and seeing beyond my diagnosis was the starting point.
One of the things that surprises a lot of people is that around 10% of the population will hear voices at some point in their lives. But once it’s medicalised it becomes a problem, a symptom, and we have to get rid of it.
I work extensively, all over the world, in places such as Australia, America and Greece, helping people who hear voices to understand them in a non-medical context, and using my own experience to show how the voices can be managed.
For example, I hear one very funny voice that makes me laugh. I could be talking to a room full of people and he’ll be trying to make me laugh. But just occasionally that voice will change and become very negative, saying you’re useless, worthless, things like that. When you’re hearing that all day, you can imagine how bad you feel about yourself. In the past I’d isolate myself and the voice would become more intense.
Over time, I’ve noticed that the voice becomes critical when I’m under stress. It’s saying, You’re doing too much work. You know that pile of bills that you’re ignoring, they’re not going to pay themselves. If I step back and take a few days off, the voice starts making me laugh again. So, it’s about understanding the context, including the role of stress and trauma, and learning to manage that.
I can’t point to one thing that’s helped me; it’s a collection of things that build up over time and it’s a slow process, but people pushing me a bit beyond my comfort level and being there to catch me when I fall (which everybody does) has been vital.
When I was in hospital, I had a support worker. She could be a bit stern, but she knew exactly when to put an arm around you and when to give you a kick up the backside. There was a time when I’d pretty much given up. I’d walk around the hospital staring at the floor and wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. She’d say to me, ‘In the years to come I’m going to bump into you in the city centre and you’re going to be walking with your head held high looking straight ahead.’ And I said, ‘No, that’s never going to happen.’ I bump into her quite a lot in the city centre now, and she was right: my head is held high and I’m looking ahead.
Where to get help
Image credit: ha11ok from Pixabay