Out Of our Heads- NZ Herald 13th May 2010

There is a great article today in the New Zealand Herald today written by Chris Barton, an interview with Rufus May who is here , and running a workshop for us next  week.

Here is an edited excerpt – – To read the whole article- see it here

Former psychiatric patient-turned-psychologist Rufus May has been shaking up the treatment of mental illness by talking to the voices people hear.

 Rufus May’s recovery from delusions – that he was an apprentice spy for the British secret service with a device in his chest that was being used to control him – took time.

He was 18 when he was admitted to Hackney psychiatric hospital in London, diagnosed as schizophrenic and not allowed to leave.

Initially, he believed he was in a place for burnt-out spies. “Eventually I thought people are being treated too badly for it to be a place for burnt-out spies.”

Surely burnt-out spies wouldn’t be humiliated, degraded and forcibly medicated – pinned to the floor while their trousers and underpants were pulled down to their ankles for an injection in the buttocks with mind-altering drugs?…

May had been getting messages about his mission from the Bible and the radio. Between the age of 15 and 16 he was a heavy cannabis user, but he wasn’t smoking at 18 when his troubles began – his first girlfriend left him after a nine-month relationship.

Instead of getting depressed, May drifted into a dreamlike reality, where he was spied upon and felt he had special spiritual powers. In hospital he still thought he could communicate with his girlfriend via the Bible. When he stopped getting messages back, he cried. The dream was over.

“I realised that actually I wasn’t that important and that I was in pyjamas in a psychiatric ward, dribbling. And then I started to think, ‘well, you’re in the pit of society now – the only way is up’.” Coincidentally Yazz’s 1988 pop hit The Only Way Is Up was playing on the radio.

Over 14 months May was admitted to hospital three times. His recovery began with going to church.

“I was religious with a capital R, then. I was trying to be a nicer person. I thought, ‘I need to find a way to be of value to society so they don’t lock me up again’.”

When he was discharged, he was put on two-weekly injections for about six months, as an outpatient. He decided to become a clinical psychologist. “I transformed, maybe not intentionally, but I found my mission – to try and change society’s approach to mental health. In a way he did become a spy. “For a while I infiltrated mental health services.”

It was cloak and dagger – when training in the East End, not far from where he had been sectioned, he was recognised on a couple of occasions by nurses. Fortunately they didn’t blow the whistle.

He didn’t tell his university about his illness until he was qualified. “I separated from my delusions and they became metaphors that I could use symbolically.”

May is in New Zealand doing some teaching with Hearing Voices Network Aotearoa NZ – a group dedicated to providing a better understanding of what it is like to hear voices and have visions and to reduce stigma around the experience.

During his mental illness, May didn’t hear voices. He had delusions and unusual beliefs. But that didn’t stop him being diagnosed with schizophrenia. “I was given that label when I was 18 and I had a psychotic episode.”

May argues the diagnosis of schizophrenia is a meaningless construct – a catch-all that does little more than label people with incurable hopelessness.

Is the label “psychotic episode” any better? “A bit. I had a breakdown. I quite like the lay terms: ‘I went crazy’ or, ‘I was mad’ – I don’t see them as any less scientific as saying ‘psychotic episode’.”

Though May can unpick the nonsense of psychiatric diagnoses, what’s really radical about what he does is his therapy. He talks to the voices that schizophrenics hear.

The idea developed from Accepting Voices by Marius Romme and Sandra Escher. It also builds on the work of people like Dirk Corstens, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist from the Netherlands, who runs voice dialogue workshops.

“I believe people’s voices are beings from their unconscious,” says May. “We all hear voices in our dreams. We all meet other people in our dreams – sometimes people we know, sometimes they’re not known to us or they are other creatures.”

He says people who hear voices are able to access their dream world when they’re awake. “They’ve got these characters talking to them.” He talks to the voices through a kind of role-play adapted from couples’ counselling techniques where different “parts” or personalities speak verbatim from a selected chair.

May says initially the voices often find him very threatening and do tell the person to hit him or worse. But so far, having spoken to hundreds of voices, it’s never happened. “I guess because I’m there to help the person and I’m being respectful. The first thing I teach people is that they don’t have to do what the voice says.”

The other thing May does is the opposite of what happens in exorcisms. He tells the voices he is not trying to get rid of them. When that message gets through he finds the voices often calm down.

Though the voices are like nightmare figures, mostly May finds they’re trying to protect the person – albeit in a macabre way. “So I don’t see them as the enemy. I’m just saying we need to have peace talks with those experiences, not have a war trying to shut them down with medication.”

May regards most mental health problems as some kind of post-traumatic reaction – be it the trauma of being alone, not having meaning in one’s life, or be having been abused. If voices are part of a person and the therapy is designed to get people to accept and understand their voices, how does May go about integrating an evil voice?

“It’s a destructive voice. I would define evil as causing harm. A destructive energy is a very frightened energy coming from some place of fear. So I don’t want to demonise it, I want to understand it.”

He describes the case of a placating and gentle man who had a an angry, commanding voice telling him to harm himself.

“I asked him to ask his voice why he wanted him to harm himself. The voice said, ‘to show people how powerful you are’.” The man then asked the voice whether, if he was powerful in other ways, he would still have to self-harm.

Would the voice be happy if he was powerful in other ways? “The voice said: ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for years’.” On face of it, the voice was evil, but what it represented was the man needing to reclaim power in his life.

In another case, May spoke to a person’s voice which was claiming to be a demon – an incubus. It said to him, “When you go home, take a long good look in the mirror”. May was a little threatened, but a few weeks later the person had a memory of her adopted mother saying, “look in the mirror, look at the evil in your eyes”. Here the voice was an echo from the past of a time of oppression.

“I see them as messengers,” says May. “They may appear as evil, but they’re messengers about injustice. Evil is part of life. Destruction and violence are part of our lives and we need to understand it, not cast it out.”

May believes people have different coping mechanisms for stress in their lives – “different ways of retreating from the world, or looking after ourselves that can sometimes turn into problems”. Problems we don’t really understand and which we call schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or manic behaviour. It’s a view that flies in the face of the “chemical imbalance” theory of mental illness that sees patients medicated to redress chemicals supposedly missing from their normal functioning.

May is not against the use of drugs in treating mental illness, but he does think they are used with too heavy a hand. “We are over-convinced of their value.” He is a fan of combining body therapies – running, walking, swimming, Tai Chi, dance or boxing – with other treatments.

“A lot of psychiatric therapy is moving to the idea that we should work with the body as much as the mind – we’ve probably got to get out of our heads.”

In in his own case, an obsessive preoccupation with his problems didn’t help. “The more one obsesses about something, the more real it can get.”

Yes, he agrees providing scientific evidence for his approach is difficult. “But we didn’t need an evidence base to show that slavery was wrong. We know people’s sadness or confusion is related to their lives. We also know that pills aren’t the final answer.”

What helped in his recovery was people accepting him and not giving up on him. “I think we could have brilliant mental health services, but still people would struggle because the community gives up on them and says, ‘We can’t help you, go to your doctor’.”

May says his work is about building an emancipatory social movement that frees people to help each other more.

“I am idealistic,” he says. “What I try to teach people with their voices is how [they can] appreciatively separate from these experiences and use them, but not be used by them .”

www.hearingvoices.org.nz

What a great article. We  at the HVN are grateful to Rufus for all his support for our organisation.

 

A First class recovery: from hopeless Graduate- Independent

This article was printed in the Northern Advocate this week. It is also viewable here at Independents website

Here is an excerpt

” Eleanor Longden was a diagnosed schizophrenic and heard menacing voices in her head for 10 years. Now, she has fought back and has graduated with a brilliant honours degree in psychology.

Eleanor Longden was revising for her final university exams in May when she was interrupted by a hostile middle-aged man, who barked: “Stop! You can’t do this; you’re going to fail. You’re not good enough to get a degree.” Nine other people joined his tirade in a chorus of noisy abuse as Ms Longden, 27, tried to concentrate on studying.

  “You know what?” she replied. “You’re right: I do need to stop for a break. Thanks for reminding me.”

 Ms Longden has been hearing the same critical, often menacing, internal voices for about 10 years. Every day, the dominant male speaks to her in an authoritative tone. The others back him up and the messages are always the same: you’re not good enough; why bother with anything when you’re such a failure? Except that she is not. She recently graduated from Leeds University with a first-class honours degree in psychology, the highest ever awarded by the department. She now works part-time with people who are hearing voices and is preparing for her PhD next year.

 But it has been a long, hard struggle to where she is now. The psychiatrists and mental health nurses Ms Longden first encountered agreed with her voices. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, forced to take high doses of powerful medication and written off as a hopeless case.

 “My family mourned me as if I were dead,” said Ms Longden, from Bradford. “They were told that I had a degenerative brain disease and they should prepare themselves for the worst as I might end up in a care home. I was told there was no hope, that there was nothing I could do apart from take medication.” How did she go from a hopeless, mentally ill patient to a brilliant academic? A new wonder drug? A lobotomy? Years of therapy?

 It was much simpler than that. She was referred to a consultant psychiatrist, Dr Pat Bracken, who encouraged her to listen to her voices and try to understand what they meant. He helped her to reduce her medication so that she could think more clearly. Slowly she worked out the connection between previous traumatic experiences and the messages the voices communicate. She also discovered her voices were worse when she was stressed. “This was the first time anyone in the psychiatric system had talked about recovery. Before that I’d been labelled, medicated and left; my past didn’t matter and I had no future.”

 Yet between 4 and 10 per cent of the population hear voices and fewer than half of these people ever see a psychiatrist, according to research by the Hearing Voices Network. Between 70 to 90 per cent of voice-hearers do so after traumatic experiences.

 Voices can be heard in the head, through the ears or through the environment. Conventional psychiatry tries to eradicate them using medication. But a growing number of critical psychiatrists, psychologists and voice-hearers try to listen, understand and accept them.

 Dr Bracken, the director of mental health services in West Cork, Ireland, said: “As professionals we need to help people who are depressed or dominated by voices to find a path out of that state. That could be through medication, therapy, religion or creativity. It is completely wrong to try to use one template for everyone.”

 Ms Longden now has an agreement with her voices to listen and respond to them at 8pm for half an hour. If they come earlier she reminds them of the agreement. It works. She hears menacing voices every day, but fits them into her busy life. Talking to them hasn’t made them worse. Stopping her medication hasn’t made her dangerous. Yet some psychiatrists would section her and force her to take medication.

 She said: “My original psychiatrist told me I would have been better off with cancer because it was easier to cure. She still says that to people. What happened to me was catastrophic, and I survived only because of luck. If I had lived one street to the right, I wouldn’t have been referred to Pat Bracken. That can’t be how people’s lives are determined. I’m not anti-medication; I’m pro-choice. Hearing voices is like left-handedness; it’s a human variation, not open to cure, just coping.”

 

By Nina Lakhani Independent

ELYN SAKS WINS MCARTHUR GRANT- Los Angeles Times

Another inspiring story. Another highly intelligent genius among us! See the full article on the LOS ANGELES TIMES

Artist Mark Bradford, USC’s Elyn Saks win MacArthur grants

They are among 24 who will each receive $500,000 in the next five years. Bradford specializes in collages with found objects. Saks’ schizophrenia has informed her advocacy for the mentally ill.

A Los Angeles artist who specializes in incorporating found objects into his pieces and a USC law professor whose own battle with schizophrenia has informed her advocacy for those suffering from mental illness are among the 24 winners of this year’s “genius” grants from the MacArthur Foundation.

Mark Bradford, Elyn Saks and 22 other winners will each receive $500,000 over the next five years to spend any way they please…

Saks, 53, suffered from schizophrenia all her life, but kept it hidden while excelling in her academic studies, receiving a philosophy degree from Oxford University and a law degree from Yale University before joining the faculty at USC. She is also an adjunct professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, where she does research about society’s rejection of the mentally ill and how high-functioning schizophrenics cope.

Saks came out of the mental health closet with her 2007 memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.” The book described the night terrors she had suffered throughout her life, her earlier beliefs that she had mentally caused the deaths of thousands of people, and the often-inhumane treatment she had received at mental health facilities.

Saks said in an interview Monday that she would use at least some of the prize money to extend her memoir by interviewing other people with schizophrenia who are doing well.

“When I’m traveling, people always say, ‘You’re unique.’ Well, I’m really not,” she said. “I would just like to tell other people’s stories as well to further give people hope and understanding. . . . Some of their stories are just so inspirational.”

The awards have been given for nearly three decades by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to celebrate and support exceptional men and women of all ages and in all fields who dream, explore, take risks, invent, and build in new and unexpected ways in the interest of shaping a better future for us all.”

It is pleasing to see more and more people standing up to change the perceptions abound on hearing voices.

 

Quote of the Week- Fighting the Good fight

Quote of the Week

Fighting the Good Fight

I believe that any individual who has spiritually awakened in our time, to the degree that he or she finds a higher and deeper motive for living, is going to be driven to fight the good fight in one way or another. Whether it is through engaging with the struggle to evolve consciousness or fighting to save our world from climate change or nuclear war, the spiritual impulse cannot be separated from the moral compulsion to make the world a better place. And in order to fight the good fight, we have to engage, we have to get into the ring, not just stand outside it and be philosophers.

It takes guts and integrity of motive to fight the good fight. It takes a passionate interest in life itself. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines, shaking your head and commenting on how tragic things are. But if you really care, you are going to be in the ring, trying to make the world a better place. And only from that position will your words and your thoughts and your insights have weight. When you live an engaged life, your sense of self gains depth and power and authority, and your philosophy is no longer abstract. You become a person who can really make a difference, because you are actively participating, you are digging deep, and you are pushing up against the edge of your own potential.

Andrew Cohen