My talk given in Parliament

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Last week I gave a talk in the House of Commons to a bunch of Members of Parliament. It was only a four minute talk with the aim of convincing them to increase access to psychological (‘talking’) therapies for people with similar mental health problems to me, yet I managed to fit in references to wine and general boozing. This only a few days after an MP got too drunk to vote; rather satirical, eh?

The charity I was representing, Rethink, were most pleased with my performance and I had a lot of positive feedback from the MPs I spoke to once the session was over. I don’t think this was just because I was hilariously well dressed (see right for the ‘good for the ego’-large picture of me, it is my site so I have licence to put up big pictures of me if I so choose), but more because my talk was a pretty good effort for a lunatic.

Rather than let my words fade in the (booze-addled) memories of some Parliamentarians I thought it not unreasonable to preserve it by re-posting here. I hope it will give anyone who has the time to read it a bit more information about me and my experiences. It is a hard old job having paranoid schizophrenia, as I hope I make clear, so do be understanding should you know anyone who suffers from the condition. Anyway, here is the talk:

Hello, my name is David Strange. I am very pleased to be able to talk here today as I hope I can have some small influence in persuading you that people with serious mental health problems need the kind of talking therapy that I was lucky enough to receive. It may have taken ten years before I got the therapy, but it turned out to be unfeasibly useful.

After I gained my undergraduate degree I felt driven to pursue an academic career. I applied for a Wellcome Trust prize scholarship and was rewarded with one of the very few given out that year. Throughout my doctoral studies I travelled the world giving invited talks about epidemiology at conferences in addition to running collaborative research projects and making progress on my own scientific inquiries. Of course, life as an Oxford student isn’t all about work: I was also an unbeaten captain of the Oxford wine tasting team, wrote about the subject in a monthly magazine column and advised colleges on their cellar management. Life was an absolute hoot and I was grasping those good times with both hands.

Then, in the closing months of my doctoral studentship and with quite fearsome rapidity, paranoid schizophrenia wretched me from this rarefied, stellar existence, utterly annihilating my life in the process. I could not even hold down a job as even leaving my flat brought unimaginable terror. When I did make it outside I experienced everyone, even strangers in the street, broadcasting their thoughts for me to receive; they were always horrible, really horrible thoughts. Every waking moment I see nasty, dirty, evilly-warped rats swarming around me; when my eyes close I feel these rats teeming across my body. With these and other similarly distressing symptoms all I could think about was suicide. My repeated attempts on my own life resulted in me being a regular guest of psych-wards. Far too many times I got thrown in the bin; in 1999 alone I was sectioned three times. Even worse, at least as far as my aesthetic well-being went, I would regularly think I didn’t deserve wine.

For a decade this hellish pattern continued. As I moved across London the local health authorities would give me yet more varieties of medication, lock me up or just leave me to fight the florid terror of psychosis with little support. It is true that when the side effects of these drugs did not result in my quality of life deteriorating, some were quite useful. However, pills can only change so much of one’s outlook on life; I needed a more fundamental change than they could deliver.

The big change came last year. I had lived in the same area and managed to survive long enough to receive a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; a talking therapy designed to help people deal with difficult modes of thinking. It was damned hard work. Talking about and confronting my inner thoughts and view of myself was so arduous that I hated the sessions passionately. Indeed, it was often only the promise of a pint of quality, and reasonably strong, cider at the pub next to the hospital that would quell my fear enough to manage the sessions. Cider and a will not to prolong the course of CBT encouraged me to take all I could from the sessions and I did learn useful cognitive techniques.

I’ll give you an example of one of them. I hear a voice that constantly says horrible things about me. So when it says floridly nasty things about me I just remind myself that I don’t have to listen to such abuse and I rise above it with a little ‘No, no, no’ gesture. Another example: I often have intensely bad insomnia, and I used to get very stressed about going to bed in case it would be another endless night of tossing and no sleep. My therapist and I worked out that when I go to bed I should not try and sleep; rather than go to bed and try to sleep I should go to bed for a nice, relaxing lie-down and whether sleep comes is neither here nor there.

I am part of the lucky 16% of mental health service users who has received treatment appropriate for my condition. This percentage seems woefully low especially as the CBT has been so successful. The correct treatment has resulted in me discovering that life can be less over-whelmingly horrible all of the time and having fun is once again in my grasp. Indeed, I was in Burgundy last week and the wine tasted all the finer for knowing that I merited such pleasures.

I’m quite pleased with the talk. I don’t speak in front of an audience that often these days, but I managed to deliver this with little hesitancy and without burying my face in the script. I got some laughs too, which are a necessary component of any successful speech. I hope those who have made it this far are feeling a touch more enlightened.

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