Eleanor Longden's TEDTalk: "The Voices In My Head"

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Damage is not destiny. That is Eleanor Longden's lived experience and the message delivered in her warm, poignant and illuminating TED talk.

She casts a striking figure, statuesque in the beam of the TED lights with her long, golden blond hair and crystal clear blue eyes, telling a story about psychosis -- her own. I watched, mesmerized, and saw both her confidence and her fragility as she revealed how what started as benign voices commenting on her behavior escalated to sinister, accusatory and demoralizing demons. She was told she had schizophrenia, a severe and persistent mental illness. Like many people in a psychotic state she was given medication that -- while generally necessary -- left her feeling more "drugged and discarded" than having assisted her in overcoming a serious illness.

Longden speaks with eloquence about how each color of voice (e.g., angry, shaming, guilty, abusive) represented an aspect of herself that she had tried to bury but they had not died. -- Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

Longden, already a media journalist, deteriorated. Her capacity to work and her self-respect drained slowly over two years of progressive symptoms and illness. She tells us she was hospitalized, more than once, but she did not give up. She would not be victim to her condition but rather become a survivor of it. The turning point, as she describes it, was catalyzed by three things: her search for meaning, not going it alone, and finding hope.

Her search for meaning began with the perspective that the voices were ways by which her inner emotions, long buried, found a route for expression. They were not to be fought but rather understood. Longden speaks with eloquence about how each color of voice (e.g., angry, shaming, guilty, abusive) represented an aspect of herself that she had tried to bury but they had not died. She remarks that the loudest of the voices called for the greatest of respect because their amplitude was a measure of their need for recognition and response. As she reframed the voices, viewed them through a lens of metaphor, she could work with them, set limits on them, and appreciate the trauma that, for her, was instrumental to their genesis.

Not going it alone, a message fundamental to all human pain -- mental and physical -- was another adaptive path Longden found. She especially credits her mother who stood by her despite the catastrophe her life had become. She tells doctors and other clinicians that her doctor steadily held to a conviction that recovery is possible and that too made a deep impression that helped her keep going during what must have been many a dark moment. She urges others to become a survivor, to find others like yourself who face similar feelings, experiences and struggles and not go it alone.

Hope is the other essential ingredient to her story, and to her recovery. She urges her listeners to ask "What happened to you, not what's wrong." Wrong is antithetical to recovery; it is destructive of hope. Hope can emerge when a person can see that what is happening to them, in the form of symptoms or illness, has an element of a survival strategy, a "... sane strategy for insane situations." Hope, I have learned in my work, is the essence that separates the winners from the losers, the survivors from the casualties, the leaders from the followers. Longden is a winner, a survivor and now she is also a leader.

Among her activities in her reconstructed world is Intervoice -- "The International Hearing Voices Network." Check out their website: It is not only for people hearing voices -- and there are millions who do; it is also for families, friends and those seeking inspiration.

Trauma is ubiquitous in human experience. Sometimes voices emerge in its wake. Or there may be nightmares, self-abuse, alcohol and drug dependence, and many other forms of suffering. What Eleanor Longden shows us is that damage need not be the final word, that damage need not be destiny.
Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, published by WW Norton, is now available, as is his even newer book (with Jay Neugeboren and Michael Friedman), The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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