Living with Voices
Presentation to the International Mental Health Congress
18th & 19th July 2017, All Nations Centre, Cardiff
by Hywel Davies
Could I ask the meeting to be upstanding to observe one minute’s silence on behalf of all the people in the world diagnosed by psychiatry with schizophrenia who have committed suicide in the past hundred and ten years or so.
It’s nice to see you.
To see you nice.
If I had known that there was going to be so many people at the conference today, I would have worn my wig.
However I didn’t and I haven’t.
You’ll have to accept me as I am.
I am a voice hearer, a retired lecturer of Spanish, a poet and a benefactor.
Born on August 3rd 1954 in St Thomas’s Hospital in Haverfordwest. I was a breach baby and it was a long and difficult birth. The trauma of the birth may have affected my brain and my consequent development.
I was raised at Upper Robeston Farm in Robeston West near Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, the only son of Mr. Hugh Davies and Mrs. Henrietta Davies (nee Howell). Educated initially in Milford Haven, at North Road Primary School and then in Gloucestershire at a boarding school called Wycliffe College. I obtained a Combined Honours Degree in French and Spanish at Birmingham University in 1977, then a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Aberystwyth University in 1978.
I have heard voices since about the age of 11. I heard them for the first time at Wycliffe College. There was a nice voice that helped me cope with the fears I had of being in a boarding school and being away from home. The first time I heard a voice was after being told by a boy that he was being bullied. The voice I heard told me to tell the boy to “take no notice”. I duly told the boy to take no notice of the bullying. I continued to hear voices and experienced them as generally helpful throughout my school life until the age of I8.
My life in school was generally happy, productive and successful, occasionally affected by trauma.
During my University days I became religious and regularly attended a Welsh speaking chapel.
I enjoyed some of the courses followed at University and the social life. However I kept a little bit of myself to myself at University. I was active in education as a teacher and lecturer in Wales, England and Spain again as a consequence of hearing voices.
Teaching was a vocation (a calling) as at this time I considered myself to be Jesus (and I still do). I heard a voice say “O come unto me little children” and the voice told me that I was a teacher. Some years later I taught Spanish with humour, grace and success to over 350 adults in Milford Haven and Haverfordwest between 1987 and 1996. I am now retired.
Voice hearing is the hearing of a voice or voices inaudible to others. It is not necessarily a sign of a severe mental “illness”. Triggered by bereavement, physical illness, unemployment, divorce and/or some other traumatic event, voice hearing is experienced by 10 – 15% of the population in their life time. 5 – 7% of the population hear a voice or voices at any one given moment in time. 1% of the world population are labelled by psychiatry as “schizophrenic”. 53% of people who are labelled by psychiatry as “schizophrenic”, are voice hearers.
In terms of my mental health milestones, I had a nervous breakdown in May 1983, and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Carmarthen, where I stayed as a patient for three months. At the time I was labelled by psychiatry with the diagnosis of “schizophrenia”. For me this was the beginning of a journey of change, discovery and transformation.
Even though I was diagnosed as having “schizophrenia”, I was never told this, however my mother was.
Generally I had good psychiatric care. People were attentive and kind.
When I first entered the hospital I was in a single room, initially for two weeks. I lost my ability to speak and I was very frightened. I found the experience of being hospitalised frightening but I found fellowship amongst some of the patients and ancillary staff and my parents visited me in hospital.
In 1985 I was admitted for three months into the psychiatric unit of a general hospital in North Devon. Again I found fellowship amongst one or two of the other patients and staff. Colleagues from the school where I was teaching visited me in hospital.
In the community, on my return to Pembrokeshire, I had contact with a psychiatrist and a Community Psychiatric Nurse. They did not talk with me about my voices and visions.
My main treatment was medication and attendance at Bro Cerwyn Psychiatric Day Hospital in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire.
People and relationships with other people helped me to get direction, hope, and friendship.
My mother was a key person who helped me in my recovery. She bought me a book about “schizophrenia”. She encouraged me to think about my experience of “mental illness” in different ways. She encouraged me to see a counsellor who dealt in astrology. My mother also encouraged me to attend my first meeting of Pembrokeshire Mind, at the time, a fledgling mental health charity. She also encouraged me to attend the international hearing voices conference in Maastricht, Holland in 1996. She said that it would be like attending Sunday School.
There are many key individuals, colleagues, relatives and friends who have helped me as an educator and mental health activist. To name a few:
Keith Miles, the Nurse in charge of Bro Cerwyn Psychiatric Day Hospital in Haverfordswest and Richard Robson, the Mind Project Officer in Dyfed, encouraged me to be involved in mental health voluntary work. And I did so.
Sally Clough, an art therapist, humanised and sensitised me and encouraged my love again, of music and film.
David Morgan, a United Reform Church minister gave me Christian love and leadership and David, as Chair of Pembrokeshire Mind, played an important part in my recovery. At this time I helped Pembrokeshire Mind as secretary, vice Chair and Chair.
Guy Norman a worker with West Wales Action for Mental Health was one of the people I reported back to on my return to Wales from the international hearing voices conference in Maastricht, Holland in 1996. Guy ran with the approach of the hearing voices movement and a hearing voices group was established in Pembrokeshire, one of the first in Wales.
Another individual who was and remains a key part of my recovery journey is John Stacey , he is a colleague, friend and confidant with whom I work closely in the hearing voices movement in Wales and elsewhere.
I would also like to acknowledge and thank Ron Coleman. He helped me through his lived experience and he showed that it is possible to get ones life back.
Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, founders of the Hearing Voices movement and editors of the pioneering books “Accepting Voices” and “Living with Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery” were and are key leaders in my recovery. They looked beyond the illness model and created a new reality for voice hearers, one in which voice hearers recovered.
It is my firm belief that voice hearers have a contribution to make to society. Or they have the potential to make a contribution to society. According to David Horrobin in his book “The Madness of Adam and Eve: How Schizophrenia Shaped Humanity”, people have been hearing a voice or voices since 100,000 BC. According to Julian James in his book “The Origin Of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, people have been hearing voices since 15,000 BC. Voice hearers shift human consciousness.
Voice hearers from the past and present include the Prophet Ezekiel, the Prophet Isaiah, St Paul, Teresa of Avila, Zoe Wannamaker and Sir Anthony Hopkins. The cave paintings of early man in the South of France and Northern Spain were, according to David Horrobin in the aforementioned book, inspired by voice hearers.
Voice hearers are, in my assessment, saints, prophets, shaman, gurus and/or geniuses. Or the potential for such. As writers, poets, dancers, actors, artists, musicians, composers, singer-songwriters, believers and/or scientists, voice hearers have been or have been people of worth. Or the potential for such.
For myself, I write poetry and this is an important and healing part of my life.
I take ownership of my experience and feel content. I am proud to be a voice hearer. I believe that I have lived before as Judas Iscariot, a Cathar, a 13th century French “heretic” and James I of England/ James VI of Scotland. I believe that I am Jesus.
I was labelled by psychiatry in a certain way in 1983. However, I think that reincarnation, astrology, spirituality, and complementary therapies can help society in the 21″ century.
I make choices and take responsibility for my own actions. I have been a mental health activist since May 1987. I knew what it was like to suffer and I wanted to make the world a better place. I am a philanthropist and I support a wide range of charitable causes. For instance, l help children with clefts in poor countries of the world (SmileTrain UK) and Christians globally. This has also been a productive and healing part of my life.
I am patron of INTERVOICE (the international network for training education and research into hearing voices). It is a UK registered charity and limited company that is the organising body for the International hearing voices movement.
In support of their work I funded the establishment of the INTERVOICE website and the Hearing Voices Network Cymru website. In 2011 I set up the Hearing Voices Information Resource Pack Fund, this provides financial support for the distribution of the Hearing Voices Information Packs, consisting of books, CD’s and DVD’s about hearing voices from a variety of perspectives. The Resource Packs are distributed globally, to date more than five hundred and eighty Resource Packs have been distributed to five hundred and forty five successful applicants from fifty four countries across the world.
More than thirty years ago in the Western World one would have been locked up in a psychiatric hospital or psychiatric unit, for a considerable number of years for admitting that one heard a voice or voices. Today that is not the case. The hearing voices movement is an idea whose time has arrived. In the words of Victor Hugo (the 19th century French writer): “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come”.
The World Hearing Voices Congress was successfully held in Cardiff, in 2012. The Congress attracted important enthusiastic pioneers from all over the world. It was with pride that I, as Chairman of Hearing Voices Network Cymru presided over a public meeting at which Professor Sir Robin Murray spoke bravely and eloquently about his change of attitude towards the concept of “schizophrenia” after a distinguished professional lifetime in British psychiatry. For Murray, “schizophrenia” is not now a bio-chemical imbalance of the brain. He now regards it as a social construct and believes that new ways of supporting people with unusual and extreme experiences, such as those developed by the hearing voices movement, need to be utilised by mental health services.
Spirituality has emerged as a key issue in the hearing voices movement over the years and by occasionally liaising with Dr. Simon McCarthy-Jones, an academic writer , lecturer and activist in the hearing voices movement, Simon has become possibly more aware of spirituality from a variety of perspectives. In the Koran it is stated that “suffering purifies the spirit”. George Clooney, the American actor, once said that:
“Religion is for those who do not wish to go to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there”.
I have no reason to doubt Mr. Clooney. By opening up the possibility of new ways of regarding the experience of voice hearing outside of the medical model we are creating more accepting and hopeful ways of considering so called psychotic experiences as meaningful and resolvable.
By involving users and carers creatively in the decision-making process in terms of policy, legislation, healthcare system and evaluation, we can bring about a more sensitive and humane approach to mental health in the western world. I believe that the lessons learnt over the last thirty years by the Hearing Voices Movement have much relevance to mental health services across the world. Furthermore, ensuring that the experience of people with lived experience is at the centre of thought and action in the recovery process is crucial to the successful development of emancipatory and effective mental healthcare systems.
I may be right in terms of what I think. I may be wrong. Miguel Unamuno, the 20th century Spanish philosopher said that a religion that does not doubt itself is not a religion. Similarly, a man who does not doubt himself is not a man. A woman who does not doubt herself is not a woman.
I am recovered, a traumatised good.
A principle lesson from my experience is the importance of encouraging voice hearers to talk and share experiences. The voices are not in themselves the problem, it is our relationship with our voices that can at times be overwhelming.
A problem shared is a problem halved.
Waldo Williams, possibly the greatest Welsh-language poet of the 20th century. He is from my home county of Pembrokeshire. I shall read the first verse of a poem he wrote about voice hearing:
Cân imi wynt: Sing to Me Wind
Cân imi, wynt, o´r dyfnder ac o’r dechrau,
Cân imi, y dychymyg mwyaf maes,
Harddach na golau haul dy gerddi tywyll,
Y bardd tu hwnt i’n gaeaf ym mhob oes.
Sing to me, wind, and from the deeps, from the beginning.
Sing imagination, greatest of all,
Your dark songs lovelier than sunlight,
Poet, in every age, beyond what we know.
(p. 172 – p. 173: The Peace Makers: Waldo Williams; translated by Tony Conran, published by Gomer, 1997)
In conclusion, people have been hearing a voice or voices and seeing visions for thousands of years. Voice hearers have a contribution to make to society. I look forward to the day when to hear voices is no longer regarded as a symptom or a problem but embraced as part of what it is to be a human being.
Thank you for listening.
Hywel Davies, Chair of Hearing Voices Network Cymru (Wales)