The terrifying ordeal of a brilliant student who started hearing voices and then fell into the abyss of insanity
By CLAIRE CAMPBELL
Last updated at 08:11 07 February 2008
- Eleanor Longden was 17 and in her first term studying for a psychology degree when she began to hear a voice talking to her.
Within weeks, she found herself diagnosed as a schizophrenic and forcibly confined to a secure psychiatric ward. Here she talks to CLARE CAMPBELL about this terrifying experience, and how with the help of a supportive psychiatrist, she has been able to reclaim her life.
Eleanor, now 25, lives with her sister Livia, a 27-year-old nurse, and parents John, 61, a retired research chemist, and Shirley, 58, a teacher, in Bradford.
„She’s so pretty – and from a good home, too … Such a shame!“
Through a drugged haze I heard the doctor’s words as he gazed down at me, lying in bed on a locked psychiatric ward, far away from my family and friends, and feeling more lost, lonely and terrified than I had ever done in my life.
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Eleanor Longden, aged 17, before she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia
I felt ashamed, too, as though it was my fault that I’d been diagnosed as mentally ill.
Getting out of bed, I stumbled to the bathroom, walking awkwardly and, to my immense embarrassment, drooling from the mouth as a result of the side-effects of the medication I had been given. I felt dazed, my thoughts confused, unable even to remember exactly how long I had been in hospital.
I looked at myself in the mirror and got a shock. I was scarcely able to recognise the person I saw there from the shy, 17-year-old who had left home for the first time only a few weeks before, full of excitement about her first term at university.
I wondered: „Why am I here?“ I still didn’t really understand. It was true that those first few weeks at college had been stressful for me. Like many of my fellow freshers, I had felt homesick and uncertain of myself. At school I had been diligent and conscientious.
Arriving at college, I felt torn between continuing to work hard or re-inventing myself as a „cooler“, more popular, party girl. All around me I saw other students pretending to be someone they weren’t, and the pressure of sustaining this seemed enormous.
But I had managed slowly to make friends, and find my way around the campus, as well as start speaking up for myself in tutorials.
Then one morning, out of the blue, I heard a quiet voice in my head, commenting: „Now she’s going to the library.“
After that I occasionally heard the voice again. It never said anything dramatic, and I didn’t find it threatening at all.
I remembered having listened to a radio programme which described this experience as one that sometimes occurred to lone yachtsmen, or prisoners in solitary confinement, and put it down to loneliness.
Sometimes the voice was also a useful indicator to me of how I was really feeling – such as the day it sounded angry following a tutorial in which another student had unfairly criticised me.
After I returned to class the next day and put my point of view across more forcefully, the voice in my head once more resumed its usual calm tone. This reassured me that far from being some sinister psychiatric symptom, the phenomenon was probably no more than my own externalised thoughts.
But then I made the fatal mistake of confiding in a friend. I will never forget the horror in her expression as she backed away, repeating: „You’re hearing what?“ when I mentioned the voice.
She looked really scared, and told me I needed to see the college doctor as soon as possible.
Her reaction frightened me. I made an appointment immediately.
The doctor’s face became very serious at the mention of the voice, and he insisted on referring me to what he called a hospital „specialist“, but who turned out to be a consultant psychiatrist.
What I wanted and needed was to talk to someone about my feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem since I had arrived at college. But the psychiatrist kept emphasising the significance of the voice – as though we were discussing a mathematical formula in which having this experience automatically meant I must be insane.
Even when I talked about my work for the student television station, I could tell from her face that she thought this was fantasy.
I felt I walked into that room as a normal, if slightly stressed and vulnerable young girl, but left it labelled with a diagnosis of a paranoid schizophrenic, my interest in broadcasting dismissed as „delusional“.
Even at that first meeting, the consultant was already discussing with me the possibility of in-patient treatment at a psychiatric hospital.
She also put me straight onto a course of Risperidone, a strong antipsychotic drug whose side-effects include weight gain, involuntary tremors and difficulty in walking.
From that moment on, I felt cut off, alienated not only from my university friends and teachers, but from my family and upbringing. Suddenly I was no longer a middle-class, educated young woman with a bright future ahead of me, but a potentially dangerous mental patient.
Feeling the stigma of this, I did not tell anyone that I had been referred for weekly sessions with a psychiatric nurse, as well as further monthly appointments to see the consultant.
During these meetings I tried again to talk about my search for identity since leaving home. But these very ordinary feelings of adolescent insecurity were immediately interpreted as symptoms of a diseased mind. Although I didn’t believe I was mad, I trusted – as most people would – the medical view of the psychiatrist over my own instincts.
At my second meeting with the consultant two months later, she suggested I admit myself to hospital „only for three days“ to undergo tests.
Not wanting to worry my parents, I confided in my personal tutor, who assured me that details of the nature of my illness would be kept private.
I was shocked when I arrived at the psychiatric hospital, which had once been a Victorian asylum. It was very old-fashioned, with bars on the windows, double-locked doors and, to my horror, mixed wards. I was by far the youngest female patient there and I felt very vulnerable.
I knew straightaway this was not somewhere I would get well. Four hours after I was admitted, I tried to leave, but was coaxed into remaining by a nurse on the ward who told me: „Everyone feels like this at first“.
Over the course of the next few days, I underwent a routine brain scan, which found no evidence of abnormality, but had no therapy of any kind. I was simply given medication and left alone.
At the end of four days, I felt I’d had more than enough of the hospital and asked to be discharged – only to find myself under the threat of being forcibly restrained if I tried to leave.
I was absolutely terrified, and contacted my parents at the end of that first week to let them know where I was and ask them to come to see me.
But by the time my mother arrived, the effects of the drugs had started to kick in, making me confused and sleepy. I felt unable to explain properly to her why I was there or what was wrong.
In the meantime, the one calm voice in my head had been joined by another more strident and critical voice. Over the course of the next few weeks, the number of voices, some now male as well as female, and far more frightening, gradually increased until finally there were 12.
Of these, by far the most dominant – and demonic – was the threatening tone of a man. At first, it was only his voice I heard. But one night during my second month in hospital, I awoke to a hallucination of him standing by my bed, hugely tall and swathed in black, a hook where his hand should have been – like a character from a horror film.
I thought this was the result of the drugs I had been taking and of my distress at being confined in hospital. But the consultant convinced me this was a further symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. I stared at my reflection in the mirror, wondering if it might be true that I was mad.
I felt as if I was trapped in a nightmare. Having needed nothing more than reassurance about my normal feelings of insecurity after having left home, I was now labelled as a schizophrenic, drugged and confined to a locked ward.
Yet inside I still felt sane. I knew I had to get out of hospital before I started to see myself as a mental patient. Each time a nurse asked me if I thought there was anything wrong with me, I had answered „No“. This was clearly not what they wanted to hear.
Now I decided to try answering „Yes“ and see what happened. As soon as I began acquiescing to treatment, taking all my medication and agreeing to do what I was told, I was finally allowed to return to college.
After three months in hospital, I went back to university – a very different and far more disturbed student than when I had left. As a result of the side-effects of my drug treatment, my weight had ballooned from 9st to 15st.
I also suffered from constant trembling and a stumbling walk.
I still don’t know how the other students found out where I’d been, but they obviously had. Within a week of my return, my door in the halls of residence had been defaced with graffiti and I had been spat at on my way to a lecture.
Worst of all was the tutorial where, after I’d had an essay criticised by a tutor, another student leant across to me and whispered: „That’s finished you off, psycho!“
I ran back to my room in tears, staying there for the next few days and feeling I wanted to hide from the world.
In the meantime, the dominant demonic voice became even more horrific, telling me the only way I would ever get better was if I agreed to follow his instructions.
These included not only self-harming but also cutting off my hair. He threatened terrible punishments, such as burning my room down, if I refused.
Desperate for some peace, I started to obey his bizarre instructions. Word now got round the university that I was behaving oddly, talking to imaginary people and cutting my arms.
Walking through the student bar one night, a group of students mockingly suggested I stub a cigarette out on my forearm. When I did it, they cheered.
I felt defeated and demoralised, no longer caring whether I lived or died.
At my next appointment with the consultant, I said I thought my medication was making the voices worse, and asked if I could stop taking it. But she insisted I had to continue.
When I admitted that I felt suicidal as a result of the way I was being bullied at college, she sent me back to hospital for a further seven week.
For the next four months I struggled on at university, as well as having another two brief psychiatric admissions. By the time the summer vacation arrived, I knew I could not carry on battling both against the voices and the cruelty of the students.
I returned home to my parents, my self-confidence totally destroyed.
My parents were wonderful – really supportive – but confused, because there was no history of mental illness in my family.
Over the course of the next few months, I was referred to the local psychiatric services in Bradford. My first appointment was with a male psychiatrist called Pat Bracken, who I later found out had worked with men and women tortured and raped in Uganda, and with child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
He asked me why I had come to see him and I replied obediently: „I am 18 and I am a paranoid schizophrenic“.“
Later on in my treatment, Pat told me he thought my answer was the saddest statement he had ever heard from a young girl – but at the time all he said was: „Tell me what you think would help you“.
I asked him to reduce my medication. To my amazement, he agreed immediately.
We talked about the voices and he suggested I stop seeing them as a symptom of mental illness and start looking on them as a way of finding out about myself. This encouraged me to tell him about my first experience of the female voice.
Up until now everyone had treated me as if I was completely passive, but Pat showed me a way of helping myself to get better.
Over the course of the next seven months I saw Pat for regular weekly sessions, gradually reducing my medication until I stopped the drugs completely.
During this time, I discovered that if I engaged with the voices, they became less frequent. I also learnt to challenge the more threatening voice, refusing to do what it told me and telling myself it was no more than a symbol of my own externalised anger.
One by one the voices gradually disappeared, until I was only occasionally hearing one.
Three years on, I am healthy, happy and perfectly stable. Schizophrenia is a frightening and misleading label which stigmatises people. While the doctors insist I was schizophrenic, I don’t know if the label really applied to me.
I think, like many young people leaving home for the very first time, I was stressed and unhappy. Going to university, and the lack of support there, tipped me over the edge. All I ever did was hear voices.
Now I have learned how to deal with them.
I am now studying for a doctorate in clinical psychology, as well as working on a medical team that helps teenagers suffering from the sudden onset of psychosis.
I often wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found a psychiatrist who understood how to treat me.
If I do hear a voice now, I am no longer frightened because I understand why it’s happening. My mother’s signal for knowing she’s stressed is an attack of migraine. Mine is the voices.