I would like to write a few words of encouragement and challenge for anyone considering spending some time at the Recovery House in Habost on the Isle of Lewis.
My name is Ruth. Up to about 6 years ago I had a notion of who I was: I was a psychotherapist, a wife, I sang, had a friend or two, laughed a lot and adored my family. About 6 years ago I suddenly started experiencing flash backs, or trauma responses, from some unusual and difficult things that happened a long time ago. I also started seeing things that other people couldn’t see, shadows, then scenes from the traumas, then actual people that I didn’t recognise but who followed me everywhere.
About 9 months after that I started hearing voices. First one, then 2, then 5. I now have 15 and I think that’s as many as are going to emerge now. They were all hostile and debilitating, getting louder and more aggressive the more I got stressed. I began to regularly see my face, left hand and stomach decay. I shook constantly, left humiliated, a freak, became reclusive and odd to people that had known me. I walked for miles every day to deal with the agitation, getting myself into any number of scrapes because I was so “out of it”. I lost my job as a psychotherapist and struggled to maintain my few, but precious, relationships. I also experienced constant and often severe nausea and phobic reactions to eating and so making myself sick to relieve the nausea, I was soon diagnosed with bulimia.
A good and well respected psychiatrist diagnosed me with severe PTSD with psychosis (auditory, visual, olfactory and tactile hallucinations) but I didn’t tell him about the person that followed me around at the point as I thought he was real and stalking me. I didn’t tell him that I was evil and had been since I was born (something I now know is a belief rather than a fact). He prescribed increasing doses of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and sedatives to try and help me minimise or silence the voices and reduce my panic and nausea. Another psychiatrist was considering diagnosing me with a personality disorder, changed my medications to try something new. A new locum psychiatrist changed my anti-psychotics to lithium and yet another wanted to experiment with medication for epilepsy, which led to an argument with another psychiatrist who had admitted me to hospital.
I understood all these attempts to find something that worked and have no criticism of individual practitioners all trying to do their best, but the lack of understanding about voice hearing with psychiatric services, in the area I was treated, was profound. I was hospitalised again as a consequence of a psychiatric breakdown where more voices and visions evolved over a terrifying few days and I surrendered to the massive doses of anti-psychotic, sedative and sleeping medications. I felt like life, again, was sliding down into a meaningless but scary and unpredictable hell where my mind was literally coming apart and fighting against me audibly, instructing me to self-harm, cursing me and repulsing me. I felt like a sack of mad people turning on each other and on “me”. I struggled every hour to hold onto a sane looking face so people couldn’t guess what was happening under my skin, in and around my head and where my fear was leading me.
All I could do for the sake of protecting others from me and to protect a bit of dignity, was to be meticulous about my appearance and try and smile whenever possible. I talked of hope, whilst planning a suicide to look like a fool-proof accident. Every day I wanted to give up and kill myself and every day I decided I wasn’t going to.
This is not an uncommon story. If you are reading this, chances are you may identify with some of what I’m talking about or know something similar about someone you know who are keen to help.
A very special friend discovered this website, out-lining thoughts about voice hearing, about the possibility of managing them and talked about recovery rather than existing and cycling around psychiatric services. I was both desperate to believe it and sceptical that anything could work. I was very fearful of speaking to other voice hearers in case they were going to tell me it will always get worse, or I didn’t have what it takes to manage them and improve. But I attended a course about talking with voices run by Ron and a few of his team. I was then invited to stay at the recovery house but wanted to put it off. It felt too difficult and overwhelming, what if this was the last chance and I couldn’t make to work for me? What if I was going to look an idiot? And worst, what was going to happen when I had to look squarely at the reason for the “symptoms”. I am a psychotherapist and knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere unless i was going to be honest and dig for some courage that I didn’t really have. What if it didn’t work and I got worse after all the effort? Hope is funny thing when you feel on the edge of desperation. But I also knew I couldn’t carry on being what I was.
I spent 3 months at the recovery house in winter 2012. When I arrived, I was greeted by Paul, an associate of Working to Recovery. He showed me around the croft, how to feed the pigs and birds, how to light and keep the rayburn going, how to drive the quad up and down the track to tend to and talk to the pigs. They are remarkably bright and do look you in the eye before hoofing off to gobble their breakfast or supper. Heart-warming moments on freezing and wind-blown mornings if your head is foggy with distress. My head was full of dozens of words from my voices repeated dozens of times a day, and an empty voice of my own because of them. My head was full of the memories and sensations of the past few years, full the psychiatric system and a place in it as a professional, then a patient – neither of which I could connect to. I was full of confusion and Paul let me spill out so much of this jumble and gave me the space to start sifting and making sense of it.
A vital ingredient for Ron and Karen, in choosing such a place to support and facilitate people’s recovery in the environment and the community. The island is a strange mix of the same colour bracken brown of the peat moors, and intense colour in the oceans, the wildlife, the sky. Huge skies with a chaos of cloud, or mist, dreich or sometimes clear azure, seemed to help give my voice more space to rabble rouse not quite so close to my head and gave the sense of new expansive horizons. Hope and breath. Rainbows, so intense with colour and so immediately close that seems as if you touched them, you’d pull out your hand, dripping in colour. Walking to the foot of the croft and across the Makah, with its dozens of rabbits, sheep and cattle, lapwings and gulls, led straight to the edge of the kingdom. On scaling the dunes the view was breath-taking. A magnificent cream sandy beach with crashing surfer waves, skirted by the oldest and hardest rocks that you could ever touch in the world. You know you are standing on the edge of something, and you have come to stand on the edge of something: yourself; your dilemma; you stigmatised experience. You’re at the edge of your own strength, somewhere between giving up, collapsing and trying to find some strength to move forward again and walk steadily.
Standing on the edge of the shore underlined the reason why I was here. I could breathe air that was less contaminated, feel the wind pushing me and exhorting me to push back against it and not give way to the pressure from the world, from others but to literally stand up for myself. To lean into the force with my own force and learn about it. To feel the guttural surge of powerful ocean waves resonate in my bones, in my heart and soul, and in my intention. The power to face what I had to face needed the strength of guttural power. The desperation to repair my life and the need to surge forward flooded me like the spring tide. I looked up and saw the lighthouse, perched on the very northern tip of the most northerly hebride. An ever present beacon that stood brightly, marking the line between devastating catastrophe and safety. Exactly the line I needed to discover to protect myself. It’s a sentinel, the concept of which, helped support my shift from experiencing my three watchers as menacing persecutors into sentinels guarding my safety and alerting me to danger. Whilst I know these are only metaphors, they stand as powerful, immovable and eternal memory marks, for when I lose my way and reason and for when I succumb to believing aggressive and abusive voices.
Part of the recovery process here, is to keep a journal and to write your life story, in order to help rapidly identify the places that need support and healing. I found this hard as it resurrected many buried things. Keeping the journal helped me make sense of the things that emerged in my story, helped me get a new perspective and take charge of things that had been chasing me for decades. I began to make links between what I heard my voices say and the traumas I’d experienced. Some days I couldn’t face it and on those days the beauty and wildness of the island could speak when I couldn’t. Trucking off down the track and being greeted by 10 squealing piglets, ears flapping and surrounding you like a hold-up for pig rolls, is a joyous thing!!! It helps structure and ground you, lift your spirits a little and help you get back to the ever serious business of writing your story. It’s what gives Karen, Ron and others that volunteer to support the work, the real material to work on. It helps people see themselves in a new and often rapidly empowering way. It gives fresh perspective, and sometimes an opportunity to ponder re-writing the ending of their life, starting from today, now, this minute. That’s the real purpose. To give you a chance to understand and own yourself, own your own life and all its good and bad events, all the things you can’t change, like your past and your essential self, and use them to help decide a new PATH. To not let the old negative scripts of your life keep repeating. The love, encouragement, challenge and expectation that you can recover is all present in the physical and emotional work at the recovery house. People are here to believe in you, support you through change, cajole and encourage you when you lose confidence and confront you when you’re being a nuisance to yourself and maybe others, and then wildly celebrate the hard-earned break-throughs. The bravest and best people in the recovery business are the ones that dare to tell you the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable, but are very ready to champion all your efforts that move you in the direction of health, well-being and finding a way of being truly yourself.
I was living on the croft on my own for most of my stay and when a beautiful blonde girl from Australia moved in to share the cooking and animal feeding, the recovery was enhanced. Learning to be open and vulnerable in an equal way was also developmental. She was the funniest girl I’d met in a long time and we formed an abiding and mutually supportive friendship. She was a definite bonus to the recovery experience. The importance of sound relationships was really underlined for me. She inspired me to keep going because she was going through her own hell with such dignity and humour. We could learn to trust each other with our own histories and not rescue each other and so avoid doing the necessary personal work. Everything and everyone you meet on your recovery journey can lend energy and help you keep making good choices IF you let it. It’s all up to you.
It’s over a year since spending three months in the recovery house. I continued after this period, getting better at managing my voices and the things that I could see that others can’t. Hallucination is a clinical and stigmatising term, but it’s just the way my brain has learn’t to alert me to trouble. I’ve learn’t their code and language and now I am half way to believing that I’m better with them than without them. They still trouble me BUT they do not control me, my life or my decisions any more. I can now share what I’ve learnt, integrate my psychotherapy knowledge into a new way of helping people, can live with more freedom, can sing again, can experience joy again, can write again, can love again. I can say confidently that I hear voices, without feeling the appalling shame and judgement, that the world still makes, but doesn’t now floor me. I feel I now have choices other than maintaining a functioning body and cycling around the psychiatric system in waves of “progress” and relapse. I have my life back in a better way and my brother says “I’ve got my sister back”.
It’s a different story for everyone coming to the recovery house. But a universal principle is, the more you bury things, the more they will keep trying to surface, in unhelpful thoughts, behaviours and feelings that block your life path. Courage to go into the dark places and face the reality of the things that are causing the difficulty is essential. I would say that those that aren’t quite there yet, should review their timing. Come when you’re ready to face yourself. When you are prepared for challenge and prepared for the exchange of support for the necessary work and responsibility on the croft to look after the animals, the garden and peat but especially yourself.