Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Eleanor Longden's TEDTalk, "The Voices in My Head," provided insight into a world I know all too much about -- living with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia can be characterized by irrational thoughts, bizarre behavior, hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis, or lack of understanding of reality. Hallucinations can come in all five bodily senses -- sight, hearing, feeling, taste, and smell. Despite popular belief, not all people with this type of mental illness experience hallucinations. Sometimes people with different mental illnesses including bipolar disorder, depression, and schizoaffective disorder experience hallucinations too.
Eleanor's experiences seemed to parallel some of my own which helped me identify with her even more than simply sharing diagnoses. Schizophrenia struck both of us in early adulthood while attending a university. And like Eleanor, I am thankful to my many supporters who have "empowered me to save myself." In agreement with Eleanor's inner unexpressed emotions the voices vocalized, I also heard voices that seemed like an extension of my subconscious and more.
However, Eleanor discovers hope within by gaining control of her voices and striving for academic excellence and advocacy. I found Eleanor's understanding of the voices to be very profound, instead of taking the voices comments literally she translated them into metaphors of her inner fears, emotions, and past traumatic events. Although she described the voices, "her commentator," as both her "persecutors and companion," she learned to sympathize with them. She believed even her most disturbing voices needed the most compassion since they came from a place of hurt, anger, low self-worth, and guilt. I never heard of anyone reading between the lines of their voices.
Despite living with a mental illness, Eleanor earned academic excellence by graduating with the highest masters in psychology. This demonstrates her competitive edge to thrive academically, and her willingness to take on any challenge life throws at her. The underlying philosophy we share is hope that we can and will continue to live life in spite of our schizophrenia diagnosis.
I knew my friends were laughing at me, at least that was my perception at the time. This belief led to extreme suspiciousness that tortured my peace of mind daily. -- Ashley L. Smith
I was a student at an Atlanta University when I first heard auditory hallucinations. Initially I did not know who was laughing, and I could not grasp the concept of hallucinations let alone understand that I was experiencing them. I tried to rationalize the voices in my head by belief that I had the ability to read minds and to hear people's conversations long distance. I knew my friends were laughing at me, at least that was my perception at the time. This belief led to extreme suspiciousness that tortured my peace of mind daily. I struggled to understand how could this seemingly godly gift be so ugly?
I did not understand mental illness or know how serious my condition was, and I assumed my symptoms and experiences were emotional and spiritual challenges. Eventually I lost interest in school because I could not concentrate and complete assignments. I did not trust anyone, my paranoia consumed my well-being. I dropped out of school my junior year and I felt guilty, lost, and ashamed. Still unaware of my mental illness and in hopes to recuperate from my many emotional and spiritual stresses, I relocated back to California to be with family.
My undiagnosed mental illness made everyone I usually trusted a threat to my livelihood. Relationships were either strained or nonexistent. Without proper treatment my symptoms worsened. Whenever I heard the voices I thought they were the people around me or someone on my cellular phone playing a prank joke on me. Sometimes the voice sounded like an evil exaggerated cartoon character. The voices vocalized my fears and were very discouraging, "You are a dishonor to your family...you can't afford an apartment the rent is too high... you will never make it," the voice snickered condescendingly in my head. Other times the voices made references to people and things that did not make sense. For example, I may have seen a stranger looking at me and the voice would say something like 'he's from Baltimore.'
Similar to Eleanor's public message of hope by sharing a different perspective on the voices, I am also open about mine. About a year after receiving my schizophrenia diagnosis I started to open up about what happened to me. It started out as an anonymous blog where I focused on life surrounding my mental illness. As readership grew I was inspired to share my story in-person and therefore I started a non-profit organization, Embracing My Mind Inc. that offers self-help groups and workshops.
Eleanor's unique understanding of the commentators, and ability to articulate her way of coping with them, has already helped many people through her work with the Hearing Voices Network. The Hearing Voices Network offers hope and empowerment to individuals living with the voices and is established in 26 countries around the world. Finally, Eleanor discovered how to manage her voices by setting boundaries for them, but in an "assertive and respectful" way by a "slow process of communication and collaboration." Eleanor's accomplishments inspire me to have hope within my journey of overcoming schizophrenia and to continue to strive for endless possibilities.
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