Health TED Conferences

Living with voices in your head: Eleanor Longden at TED2013

Posted by: Helen Walters
Photo: James Duncan Davidson

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.’”

Eleanor Longden’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »