Listen Up! Workshop #2- Pieces and Reflections

You might have seen my previous blog where I expressed my joy at going to a creative workshop especially for young voice hearers

I was absolutely over the moon to get an email saying that due to the high demand there would be one more workshop at Art Link Leeds. 

The amazing Mary Robson came prepared with canvases and mirrors to make one of the ideas from my book into a piece of art. I was (with safety precautions taken) given a mallet and some mirrors to smash. 

On the first canvas I wrote in between the glued on shards a Groucho Marx quote: “Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light”. I have always found this a really inspiring quote- no matter how damaged or cracked you get in this world, the light will still come through.

The second piece was more personal. My reflection (literally) on trauma, illness and affirmation.

“The pieces stay together because they have to. They don’t work together quite the same though. We are all still me, we just got splintered into other things too.” 

It was great to meet up with Rai, Mary and the two other participants again. Smashing mirrors was highly therapeutic; and I’ve decided it isn’t bad luck as it is for creative purposes! Next stop- the exhibition in Durham! 

Mental Health Communication Cards

A few months ago I did some work with Hannah Ensor of Stickman Communications to design some communication cards specifically to help people with mental health problems.

Hannah is amazing and one of my favourite people to throw ideas around with. She is very patient and willing to consider anything no matter how ‘Out There’ it may be. I was honoured to be consulted about these cards. 

The new cards in the Mental Health range include: 

  • “I think I need a hug”
  • “I don’t feel able to talk right now”
  • “I have depression…” (+description)
  • “I don’t feel safe right now”
  • “I have an anxiety disorder…” (+description)
  • “I have a condition which means I see the world differently…”
  • “I don’t feel able to talk right now”
  • “Please may I talk to you?”

Plus the poignant: “Cuppa Needed!”

These cards are incredibly handy and provide a quick way to indicate how you feel or what you need. I find that they are really useful if you want to discreetly make someone aware that you need some extra support. They are also great for explaining what would help on an ‘off’ day. I have a lot of cards from Stickman Communications split between two lanyards, one for home use and one for in public. Hannah has so many amazing cards in her shop that are helping people deal with a huge variety of different medical conditions.

I’m hoping that this could be the start of a great partnership between Stickman Communications and Upside Down Chronicles to get helpful products out there for people with mental health problems and other invisible illnesses.  

What would your ideal card say? 

369 Days

Two years ago I was in the back of an ambulance.
I waited in A&E for my turn.
I got out 369 days later.
That’s a bloody long turn.

In the first six months I learnt:
That they could physically restrain me,
They could drug me,
They could detain me,
But I would survive.

I could survive:
Violent patients,
Being forced to eat,
24/7 surveillance,
and my heart would still beat.


After the tyranny freedom was elected.
I was no longer an animal- held down and injected.
I found that words made me lighter,
Each time I said or read them I shone a little brighter.
My talents lay in living not dying
and every step forward is a person I’m defying.

Once it is broken the glass does not fear the floor.
Tell me I shan’t.
Tell me I can’t.
I’ve heard them all before.

A Creative Workshop for Young People Who Hear Voices or See Visions

If you read my last post you will know that recently I have been on a mission to find other people, particularly young people, who see visions and hear voices like I do. It was while googling for voice hearing and the arts that I came across Hearing the Voice. It just happened that in browsing the site I found that they have been running workshops in order to create an art exhibition called “Hearing Voices: suffering, inspiration, and the everyday” at Durham University. They are aiming to create two cases for the exhibition- one of young people’s experiences of voice hearing and vision seeing and another of what young people would like others to know about these experiences. All of this will be portrayed through the arts.

So to Leeds I went and (joyously dodging roadworks) I arrived at Artlink. The two co-ordinators were lovely ladies; Mary Robson (a creative facilitator) and Rai Waddington (who has experience of voice hearing and provides training on the subject). There were also two other young participants and, funnily enough, one had travelled all the way from my home city! The other two girls had also been to the workshop previous but were incredibly welcoming. The group started with a discussion on what hearing voices is like and the unhelpful things people have said to us as voice hearers in the past. The notes speak for themselves.

"Aren't they just imaginary friends that never went away?" Don't use the fact I hear voices to back up your beliefs. They've got sanity around them like a bubble, they don't get as hurt as we do. "Oh we all have a voice inside our heads!". "You'll never have children".

"You're mental" "Just ignore them" "Have you tried eating kale?" Voice hearers don't always do what the voice is telling them. When you are really hurt by people you just talk to the voices and do what they say. "It's like Butlins but bonkers". "Voices don't change who you are". You are just attention seeking.

What really stuck out to me during this discussion was how little people understand us. How we are constantly having to explain ourselves or even defend ourselves. Whether it is an underestimation of our ability, a snide comment or an off hand ‘suggestion’- people’s responses can really hurt. To talk to strangers who experience the same as me was amazing and hearing someone else say that they know what it is like for reality to not make sense at all sometimes was extremely validating. To meet complete strangers yet share such personal experiences is a very powerful thing.

I believe arts can change everything for people with mental health problems and I believe it fiercely. This belief grew when I saw the things people had produced when given the materials. Mary provided everything under the sun you could possibly need in a creative flurry- wooden boxes to decorate, tiny blank faced cloth dolls, sharpies and stencils. We were also given a brown scrapbook each. Later Mary said: “These aren’t just books, they are time and space to create and simply be”. How true that is. The fact that this lovely book had been gifted to me by these lovely people, who know and understand that I’m this misfit person that the arts can soothe, was amazing. So for the next two hours we all worked on our books, drawing and writing poetry about our experiences.

The workshop was amazing. I could have stayed there forever and I cried several times at the pure ‘wow’ of it all. There was chance to talk to the lovely Rai 1:1 and her story is living testament to the fact that people who hear voices can still fly high. I’m likely going to meet with Mary again to turn one of the ideas in my book into a physical piece of art. Everyone in the group is planning to go and see our work at the final exhibition at Durham in September. I’m so glad that I found this project, purely by chance, in time to take part. I am however intensely aware that these opportunities are few and far between and for every person who found the workshops there are many more who did not.

We need more places like this. Places where you can be with people who understand you and who share a common interest in creating. The work we did as a group had an impact on us all and I think the session was a real game changer for me. I feel stronger than ever before that having access to the arts can help people with mental health problems. I am certainly going to find a way to fight for this for everyone who needs it.

Is Anybody Out There? The Support Group with One Member.

I hear voices. I don’t say it often, but I do. There are voices and characters who I can see and hear that you can’t. It’s sometimes scary, sometimes comforting but it is always isolating and confusing. I’ve not properly met anyone who experiences hallucinations before. Not knowingly and certainly not for a sit-down chat about how on earth they survive this thing.

When I was referred to the local support group for voice hearers I was intensely nervous. Hovering in the hallway of a dingy community centre that smelt like a mixture of damp and table polish a man approached us. He was in his seventies and walked with a stick. “You’ve got the wrong place love. This is bingo.” Sure enough the main hall appeared to be filled with elderly folk dabbing bingo sheets. After a while of trying locked doors a woman appeared and ushered us into one of the rooms with an air of secrecy. There were models of ships on every side board and the room looked like we had accidentally stumbled onto the set of ‘Dad’s Army’. The woman’s name was *Rosa and she was a CPN. She told me in hushed tones that this week it seemed I was the only attendant of the support group. Trying to swiftly move on but jarring slightly she added: “Voices. What’s going on with those then?”. What a conversation starter.

The next week I was really hoping to meet a voice hearer but after half an hour of waiting it looked increasingly unlikely. After several phone calls to the team’s office it seemed that not even an organiser was going to turn up this week.

For the next two weeks it was just myself and not one, but two organisers. *Dana, was also a nurse with a degree in voice hearing (something that I didn’t know existed). She accompanied Rosa and seemed equally friendly. As they eagerly told me that there had been ‘as many as’ five people in the group in the past; I began to wonder if they experienced hallucinations and delusions themselves. Yet another week passed and in the absence of real life voice hearers they gave me names of ones to research like Eleanor Longden and Ron Coleman. They assured me that I wasn’t alone. This was really hard to believe given that I was the only member to turn up for the support group four weeks running. They encouraged me to go to an official Hearing Voices Network group in the next city to continue my search for real life people.

I was so nervous. This time I was almost guaranteed to meet a voice hearer in the flesh. Nervous anticipation had built up in my chest. This group was reportedly very well attended and had been for several years. I didn’t know what to expect. Do other voice hearers scream and shout like they do in films? As the car stopped outside I prayed there would be no screaming or wailing. When I took a seat in the circle of chairs facing the centre I realised the obvious: the people opposite me were just people and they hear voices. Like me.

The meeting started and I was FULL of questions to ask. “Does anyone else find that distraction technique can be really exhausting? Do other people’s voices get angry if you talk about coping strategies? Am I weird for not wanting to become compassionate with my hallucinations?”. Yes, yes and no.

It felt so good to meet real life people, some managing to work regular jobs and many having been in hospital like I have. Men and women, young and old. I learned that every week the group was facilitated by a rotation of psychologists and they followed rules to ensure the group was a safe place for all. I really enjoyed the group, though, as predicted, the residents of my head were angry that I went. They hate being spoken negatively about.

I hope I can go again, I just need to stop my head talking me out of it. As the lone member of my local support group I feel obliged to keep going. 1:1 care, let alone 2:1 care, is hard to come by in the NHS and as they are funded until December I may as well soak up the support. Plus if someone else does show up, at least I will be there!

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Oh-See-Dee Irony… (a series of unfortunate paradoxes)

Through scrubbing my skin my hands become infected.

I was scrubbing at my hands in case they were infected.

I’m too scared to eat in case it makes me ill.

Then not eating makes me ill too.

I use hand gel to kill bacteria.

The gel cracks my skin and it’s infection prone.

I know my night meds make me feel better.

Yet when I take them I panic in case they kill me.

When the thing you use to stop freaking out gives you cause to freak out more; where do you turn?

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original image © UDC

And to think people think it is about being neat…

Please note: I am safe and okay. Just struggling a bit at the moment. I’m keen to keep the authenticity in this blog and after writing I decided to publish this in my ‘recovery notes’ area. Good news… crisis services (and services in general) are a lot better where I live now!

I Know You Feel Down Right Now

But I promise that it is okay for you to feel like this. You don’t have to pull yourself together.

I know everything is too fast and you feel too slow. The world hurts you every time you leave your bed. You feel pain physically and mentally as you bound between every anxiety-made impossibility. You feel completely awful.

So I want to tell you something: it will get better. Even though it doesn’t feel like it now and it sounds like a cliche: this feeling will pass. You couldn’t feel any worse at the moment so the only way is up. I can’t tell you when or how your mood will shift, but it will. Remember that you have a 100% success rate of surviving every tough day life throws at you. You are a fighter.

Look after yourself. The more you care for your mind and body the quicker they will recover for you. It is like having a pulled muscle. Maybe you overdid it. There are ways to make the pain lessen and you will (at the very least) feel just a little bit better than you do now. Even if you think you will never heal completely because the depression is longterm, try to master the baby steps. I’m not going to tell you to do anything radical for a ‘cure’. I don’t want you to go vegan or meditate or ‘find yourself’ in a desert. I’m just going to tell you to fuel your body with good quality food. Even if you can only manage a little bit. Drink water or juice to flush out your brain. Even if you can’t leave the house, open your window, open the curtains and get some air.

Make yourself feel nice. Get in the bath and wash your hair, brush your teeth and all the other things that you do before you go out somewhere swanky. Don’t worry- you don’t have to actually go out. Just make yourself feel great in a clean pair of PJs with awesome smelling freshly-shampooed hair. Practice painting your nails or use really nice moisturiser. Make your body feel special.

Breathe. Dearest person please breathe. Every now and again count your breath, breathe longer out than you breathe in and pause for a second in between. Get music in your ears, happy and sad. Scribble in a notebook. Re-watch anything you fancy. You need to look after yourself right now. Do the things you wish you had time to do. Invest time in yourself.

Find a cuddle. Even if it is just with a blanket or a teddy. A pet or a person, get a hug. You feel numb right now but other people can still feel you. You are still with the rest of the world, no matter how much it feels like you aren’t.

You are never alone. So many from all over the world, past and present, have been where you are right now. Find them. Get on social media, read books and watch documentaries. People are out there. The internet is a fantastic resource and people going through similar experiences can provide amazing support for each other. There will be people in the same dark place as you and also people who have escaped it using methods that you don’t know about yet. Knowledge is power so learn from them. Don’t cut yourself out of the real world though, keep talking to your friends and family even if it feels like you have nothing to say. Tell someone you trust how you feel and you will find even the most unlikely people have suffered with mental ill-health.

I might not see your face or know your name but I care about you. I don’t know if you are like me: with the knowledge that you will to and fro between this place and a better one for the foreseeable, or if this is the first time that you have ever felt this way. Either way it is frightening. I can validate here and now that what you are feeling is really tough to deal with. I don’t know the details of your situation but I know you feel broken and it really hurts. You have survived every day in the past that you thought you couldn’t. I know that you can do it again today.