Interview with ISPS member Gregory Shankland

One of the things I like most about ISPS is the diversity of its members. We are truly a creative mix of people including (but not limited to): people with lived experience of voices, visions & extreme states, researchers, students, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, academic scholars, sociologists, nurses, social workers, artists, family members, friends, allies, activists and community leaders.

In “The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In”, 19th century polymath Sir John Lubbock once said:

“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. … In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportmen the cover for the game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.”

Each month I will interview a member of ISPS to highlight the uniqueness of perspectives within the organization as well as see how each person views the “field” of psychosis through their own eyes. 

This month I interviewed Gregory Shankland. Greg is a voice-hearer,  business strategist and the creator of MADSense a unique model for helping voice-hearers, their family members/friends and mental health professionals better understand and cope with the experience of hearing voices. 

Gregory Shankland

So, tell me a little about yourself…

I grew up in small towns in South Africa which made for a great childhood close to nature. We (I have two brothers) had plenty of room to play and explore, going fishing and canoeing somewhere most weekends.

I did well at school and went on to qualify as a Civil Engineer, which wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped for. I studied Business Economics and Operations Research as a route toward something more stimulating and found my niche in business consulting – which had the right balance between science and people for me.

Consulting can be a nomadic life and working for an international consultancy gave me the opportunity to work abroad – I moved to the UK in 1997 and then to the USA in 1999.

It was while living in New York City at age 55 that I suddenly began to hear voices, out of the blue. The first year was hell!

Quite early on in my experience of voices I realized that I was coping better than most, and doing something different. I was responding directly to the phenomenology as it happened, applying the neuro linguistic programming (NLP) skills I had learned as a business consultant to maintain healthy thinking patterns.

I realized that my response could be turned into a structured methodology and tools for a break-through approach to reducing the lead time to recovery and now offer workshops for clinical professionals and those who experience all types of intrusive phenomena.

How did you find out about ISPS-US? What made you want to be a member?

I wanted to make a difference on a larger scale and decided that the best route for doing so was to tailor my “expert by experience” services toward service delivery professionals and researchers. One professional can reach many customers and I think the recovery movement can be most successful helping the established professionals be more successful too.

ISPS is the obvious group to work with – members are already engaging in searching for innovative alternatives.

What advice would you give someone that just started hearing voices?

What the voice hearer thinks and believes is important – that’s what shapes the relationship with voices. I may be a little unconventional here in that I refuse to be bullied by my voices and assert my right to be happy, in spite of them.

It is a scary, confusing and complicated experience – until you discover:

  1. That many have recovered and you probably will too – be optimistic
  2.  Agonizing over finding an answer to what voices are or what causes them adds fuel to their abusiveness. We haven’t answered this question in millennia, so instead, focus on real world relationships and activity where you have the power to shape your life
  3.  Voices can make your own thoughts scary, that’s the crazy part. Know that you can retreat to a safe couch and say to your voices “Do your thing, I will be here when you are done”. It won’t be pleasant – though it gets easier every time.

How do you think family members can help support their loved ones?

Most of all, believe in your loved one and be yourselves – bring attention to the real world and appreciate it together – shared experiences displace voices.

Voices introduce distortions of expectations and extreme emotions that become difficult to explain or talk about because we have no constructive frame of reference for doing so.

Make it easy by talking about this ‘unwelcome friend’ that arrives when it arrives, in a matter of fact way. Think of it as an anomaly of short duration and reduce the drama you attach to it. This helps you be objective, avoids making the voice hearer the problem and helps shift attention the real world.

Acknowledge that there may be occasional acute phases . Here, we hearers need to feel secure – knowing that there is a safe space and loving support will reduce the severity. Call this a plan – “if this happens, then we will… ”

Better still – learn to identify early warning signs and use breathing to bring the focus to the body and prevent anxiety from escalating to fear.

Have your own life – it builds the resilience you need to offer care to others.

What about the role of mental health professionals? 

As it relates to the experience of heard voices and other intrusive phenomena – I find it much more helpful to think of hallucinations as unusual inputs and madness as a predictable brain/mind response to unusual information. Our brain works fine – a constant stream of weird information leads to strange outcomes in quite predictable ways. The bio-medical model misses the mark in that it does not consider the relationship between information and emotions (body) – and ISPS members are open to this challenge.

Mental health professionals play an invaluable role in that they offer someone to talk to that isn’t personally and emotionally invested in the voice hearer – as friends and family are. They can ask different questions, offer different insights than those we are closest to and help move us out of the experience of voices and into a more objective perspective.

Having said that, I think we benefit more from a forward looking, coaching style than from “analysis-paralysis” focused on our past.

This is what the recovery movement, Hearing Voices Network, first episode programs, open dialogue all share – a way to provide support while people focus their mind on moving forward.

Looking ahead is what brings hope and optimism.

What type of research do you think we need more of? 

I would like to see and work in research in three areas in particular:

  1. Everything flows from the phenomenology – in quite predictable ways – there are transactional patterns that we should be studying
  2. Stories are our outward expression of the experience. There is a structure to them shaped by the nature of the phenomenology and content of voices
  3. The success factors underpinning recovery.  I believe we can learn much more from success stories.

Other than ISPS-US, what resources have you found helpful and want to share with others?

When I first started to hear voices, I found it very difficult to find practical help in dealing with voices. Online searches offer a wide variety of opinions – which isn’t always helpful.

With this factor in mind I would highly recommend a book I recently read: “On the Frontline with Voices” by Keith Butler

It has sections that highlights factors for the three communities you listed in these interview questions: voice-hearers, friends and family, and clinical professionals.

My own book will follow in the near future!

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About Marie C. Hansen

Marie C. Hansen, MA is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Long Island University Brooklyn. She is a co-founder of Hearing Voices Network New York City and chair of the ISPS-US Student and Early Career Committee. Her scholarly and research interests include integrative (CBT/psychodynamic) approaches to psychosis, peer support and postpartum psychosis.
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