John-Paul Flintoff




From Successful To Psychiatric Patient

Work as a public speaker took me around the world. But after a series of traumas, I had a mental health crisis in 2017. Speaking was a large part of my recovery

Originally published in The Irish Independent



I’ll tell you how I ended up in a psychiatric hospital, but forgive me if I sound like I’m showing off about the good years I had beforehand.

Here goes: I gave talks on four continents, to crowds of as many as 5,000 people at once. In Dublin I spoke at Trinity College and other venues, and in Belfast I was paid by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to speak to young and old, men and women, and – well, you can probably think of other ways to slice the community in the North.

To be clear: I was a reasonably confident speaker, and relatively in demand. I usually spoke about the books I’ve written.

But then I was hit all at once by a succession of traumas, including bereavement and loss of work. I lost confidence in myself, and in the world generally. Work became even more scarce. I got into financial difficulty. I couldn’t see a way out.

Only after several months believing that everyone would be better off without me did I admit to anybody that I was struggling. Calls were made, appointments booked. And I admitted myself to the care of a psychiatrist1.

***

Nobody calls it ‘suicide watch’

In hospital, nurses took from me anything with which I could hurt myself, including my iPhone cable. For several days, they looked in on me at 15-minute intervals – I was on what nobody officially calls “suicide watch”.

I wonder if you can imagine how much this altered my sense of self. How ashamed I felt.

Who would ever want to have anything to do with me? Had my whole life up to now been a sham? Was I going to have to start again? Did I have the strength?

I went in on a Friday, and nothing much happened over the weekend. I just sat in my room, numb. But on Monday, I was scheduled to have my first group therapy session in the afternoon. I yearned for the promise of recovery, but also dreaded it.

As it happens, that first group was small: the therapist, me, and two others. A woman of 40, and a man aged 20. They spoke first. Both had come into hospital after attempting to end it all, which they described with an eerie sense of detachment. When my turn came, I spoke a few words and then burst into tears.



I sobbed uncontrollably. Ashamed, I placed my hands over my face – and felt the two other patients place a hand on my knee, my shoulder. It felt good.

Afterwards I returned to my room, shattered but somehow also relieved. Over the next couple of months, there were many more group sessions, and one-to-ones with my own therapist.

But I want to tell you about something that happened soon after I was trusted to go out for walks on my own, around Regent’s Park, the green space nearest to the hospital in London. (My psychiatrist stressed that exercise was more important than all the therapy and pills together.)

***

Keynote speaker

I had a long-standing commitment to deliver a keynote speech at the AGM of a company in Sheffield. I’d already been paid, and being in debt, I didn’t want to hand the money back. I persuaded my psychiatrist to let me go and deliver the talk.

It turned out to be one of the most hostile audiences I have ever faced. But as I looked out at the angry faces, I thought: “You’re not half as scary as admitting myself to psychiatric hospital.”

The talk went remarkably well, and I returned to hospital.

It’s worth thinking about this for a moment. I was a wreck, scared of countless humdrum routines of everyday life. But somehow I was fine talking to an audience. How can that be? Public speaking is regularly considered to be as scary, for many people, as death itself.

I can only imagine the secret lay in all that group therapy. I was getting a lot of practice talking about what really matters to people who were (at least initially) strangers to me. Of course, there’s a very big difference between therapy and public speaking – but there are significant parallels, as you’ll see.

***

Talk for Health

When I came out of hospital, I dreaded losing the support of group therapy. A psychotherapist friend suggested I enrol for training with a local organisation called Talk For Health (T4H).

It was founded by a psychotherapist, Nicky Forsythe, whose eureka moment involved the discovery of research which shows that lay people, given an elementary but rigorous training, could help each other as much as – well – fully-trained psychotherapists.

Every individual she trained would benefit from the training themselves, and go on to help others. I was sceptical, but also desperate, so I went along.

There were about 30 of us, crowded together in the crypt of Hampstead parish church. In the first session, the trainers gave us an overview of the training.

I have subsequently heard Nicky do the same, including recently in an interview for my podcast2.

“In T4H, people learn three sets of skills,” she said. “One is how to talk more openly about your feelings in front of a group, which, of course, is public speaking. The second set of skills is how to respond to someone who does that. The third is how to set up and participate in an ongoing group, giving everyone space to talk and get feedback.”

There are real benefits to speaking publicly, Nicky says: “It’s cathartic to speak. Catharsis means the release of feelings, and that’s an important element of therapy. Also, by speaking publicly, you overcome your fear of speaking publicly, which is a big fear – and the more you face up to fears, the more possible it becomes to live an active and satisfying life.”

The first set of skills – talking openly – is not enough, she says. The benefit comes from speaking to attentive listeners. “If I talk and you listen deeply, we have an experience called ‘atunement’, which is really a sense of deep connection.”

To train people to listen well, you must start by giving them something to listen to. But what?

***

Almost painfully honest

In the crypt at Hampstead, the trainers asked for a volunteer to speak. Somebody else who was there told me recently what she remembers. “You were the first to stand up,” says Jo Gubbay.

“I remember thinking that was incredibly brave, in front of a group of strangers. And you didn’t just talk about yourself, but in those first two minutes, you said you were currently under psychiatric care. You were almost painfully honest from the beginning. And that set the tone for everyone else… people followed your lead.”

Jo knew that early expressions of cynicism, or facile comments, could undermine the entire training, because she worked in human resources for a major company. She had enrolled in the course to investigate what might be useful to her at work.

“[The course] created a safe space,” she says. “I know that’s a bit of a cringe-worthy expression, but they were so explicit about the rules of engagement, and that was very empowering. It really showed me the importance of setting boundaries and enforcing them.”

It was this that made me feel safe standing and speaking openly as I did. Honestly, anybody could have done the same, with or without prior speaking experience.

Days later, during a break for coffee, Jo approached me. “I think you have something very important to say. I hope that’s something you may feel able to share more widely.”

Middle-aged men are the highest suicide risk in society, she says now, looking back. “And I hadn’t come across any other middle-aged men sharing their stories in the way you had the potential to do.”

I believed that Jo meant well, but at that time I felt worthless, with nothing to offer. But time passed, and she invited me to give a lunchtime talk at her company3.

***

Some would have left

It was high stakes – for me, but also for Jo. This wasn’t a therapeutic space. The audience hadn’t trained in skilful listening. If my talk went badly, Jo’s month-long programme of well-being events might be discredited.

“There is nothing more scary, in a firm where people charge for their time,” she says, “than risking wasting their time. If they hadn’t found your talk interesting and relevant, some would have voted with their feet and left.”

They didn’t. Jo says I got some of the best feedback they’d ever received. (Sorry: showing off again.) I asked her what made it so successful.

“You connected with the audience immediately. You stood in front of them and started talking about rules of engagement… I remember you saying you’d had this incredibly painful experience you were going to talk about openly, and that you welcomed questions, but you would reserve the right not to answer them if you didn’t feel it was appropriate. And I could see people sit up and take notice, because that’s not something you hear very often. But you did it with a nice, easy conversational tone.”

Afterwards, there was a Q&A, and after that a few individuals came up to speak to me directly. Some had tears in their eyes, because my story had allowed them to recognise something about their own life, they said, or the life of somebody close to them.

It gave them a reason to seek help.

***

Nothing more powerful

I’ve spoken many times now. Doing it on Zoom, in lockdown, turns out to be even better than in real life, because individuals in the audience can send me private messages, and I share what they tell me without identifying them.

Believe me, it’s quite electrifying when I announce to the whole workforce that one among them is feeling lonely – or worse4. It creates “atunement”.

As Jo said to me recently. “There’s nothing more powerful, to improve your mental health, than helping other people.”

Looking back, three years after I was in hospital, I can confirm that. So if you are struggling, do the one thing you probably most dread: find someone to talk to. Ask them to listen, without interrupting, correcting, judging or offering solutions. And offer to listen to them on the same basis – it’s much better when it’s reciprocal.

If you can’t think of anybody to talk to, contact the Samaritans5. Either way, when you’re done, just say thank you.

***


Footnotes

1 Specifically, I went to see Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, at the Nightingale Hospital in West London. She asked me if I wanted to see her as an outpatient, or if I wanted to be admitted to the hospital. I had not anticipated the question, but realised immediately that I wanted to escape from the outside world. One of the things that Professor Bowden-Jones did very early was encourage me to keep making art. Nearly three years later, I interviewed her about our shared interest in art, for my podcast. I’m not aware of any other podcaster interviewing their own psychiatrist. You can listen to that interview here | Back

2 You can listen to the full podcast interview with Nicky Forsyth | Back

3 The company is actually a large commercial law firm, Slaughter and May. About two years after doing that talk, I asked Jo if she might tell me what she remembered – what she was hoping for, what she dreaded, and what actually happened. You can listen to Jo telling me here | Back

4 You can get a sense of how raw some of those messages are by looking at the screengrab I made from just one out of several pages of chat. I’ve edited it to preserve anonymity. You can download it with this link:
File: (anonymous) chatbox feedback.pdf [524.30 kB]
Category: coaching
Download: 25 | Back

5 You can call Samaritans on 116 123 (UK), and you can contact them by email. Please consider donating: samaritans.org/donate-now/. | Back


Keywords: breakdown, recovery, speaking



John-Paul Flintoff headshot, with Yours Truly written across it John-Paul Flintoff is author of six books, in 16 languages, including How To Change The World and A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech. He worked for 15 years as writer and associate editor on the Financial Times, the Sunday Times and other papers and magazines.


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