Sunday Independent Interview with Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett of HVI gave an interview with Joy Orpen of the Sunday Independent in April 2013. You can read the article here.

SUNDAY INDEPENDENT 21st April 2013

VOICE YOUR CONCERNS

Some people, like Brian Hartnett, can hear others talking to them inside their heads, says JOY ORPEN
, and it can be a sign of mental illness. But don’t bottle it up – speak out.

Hearing voices may seem like a sign of madness to some people. Yet, those same people won’t bat an eyelid when it’s claimed the Pope has a direct link to the Almighty, or that Aboriginal people communicate with ancestors. So exactly where is that fine line between sanity and madness?

That’s a question Brian Hartnett (48) doesn’t need answered; he knows from personal experience that we all have a spiritual side, not always explicable in earthly ways. It’s a lesson he learned in his 20s. Following a stable childhood in Limerick, Brian did a degree in product design in Dublin. That’s when he began smoking cannabis while immersing himself in the local music scene.

In 1988 he moved to London and soon found a good job in Old Bond Street. Meanwhile his love of electronic dance music led him towards the rave scene where illegal substances were as readily available as Smarties.
And that’s when his two worlds began to collide. “Those hard drugs and the hedonistic lifestyle of rave culture didn’t promote a healthy attitude towards work,” he says.

A couple of years later he was fired and totally shell-shocked returned to Ireland. But London soon lured him back and that marked the beginning of his slow descent into “mental illness”. By now he was using cocaine and taking ecstasy regularly. He says the drug culture combined with the frenetic dance style at these raves made him euphoric. “When I was on ecstasy or speed I got this feeling that I’d become spiritually enlightened. Ecstasy gives you a feeling of great empathy and I began to think I was tuned in to other people.”

Given the popularity of those raves, which attracted hundreds if not thousands of revellers at any one time, Brian thought he was “tuning in” to a massive number of people. But there was an equally shadowy side to this drug culture.
“In 1991 things began to go from bad to worse,” says Brian. “It was very dark; living in a poor part of London. I was getting involved in a heavy underground scene.”

It was around this time that “voices” began to hijack his consciousness; it was a gradual process, which became a living nightmare. “I was hearing voices, I was delusional and distracted. It was like a battle going on in my head.”
Brian describes the experience: “They are mostly people you don’t know and they talk to you in a very derogatory way – as if they know everything about you – as if they can hear your every thought. Now, imagine that when you‘re talking to somebody in reality, or watching television, that this layer of voices overlaps, confusing and changing what you hear.”

Then complicating matters further, paranoia set in. “I started seeing shadows and distorted faces out of the corner of my eyes. Over the next few years I retreated further into this inner world until I was convinced that everyone else was also possessed by these evil spirits, and that … (one day) the evil spirits would destroy the world. The voices reflected the desperation I was feeling.”

Brian managed to alienate most of the people he knew, but fortunately his parents Michael and Marie Hartnett were there for him when he returned to Limerick in 1996. “One day my dad came into my room and found me crying and said it was time to get help.” Shortly afterwards, a psychiatrist diagnosed Brian with drug-induced schizophrenia and prescribed anti-psychotic medication. “I was with him for only 10 to 15 minutes. I was surprised. ‘Wham, bang thank you mam; here’s the diagnosis, here’s the prescription and come back see me sometime.’ It was just too simple. What about all the things I’d been through?” asks Brian while commenting, “but that’s what was on offer.”

He says the diagnosis was only a small part of the bigger picture and while volunteering the prescribed medication made the voices seem less insistent, he didn’t personally find the visits very helpful. “Psychiatry’s view of mental illness tends to be black and white. I believe mental health is a combination of being well, mentally, physically and spiritually. Anyone who expects to find all the answers in psychiatry, is not getting the whole picture.”

Instead Brian, a highly intelligent and articulate man began to study the nature of his own chronic condition. He believes his initial experiences in the rave scene were positive but then tipped him into paranoia and schizophrenia. “I’ve come to the conclusion that drugs can give you a glimpse of heaven but will then take you to hell.” He also believes they can heighten receptive experience and that the voices in his head may have some substance in terms of his personal spirituality. “People think the experiences that come from street drugs are caused by the chemicals, but I believe they’re more spiritual. If someone says God is talking to them, then maybe God is talking to them. If the Pope or a priest says God is talking to them, do we say they are psychotic or bipolar?”

Brian’s dissatisfaction with conventional psychiatry led him to meetings run by an organisation that supports people living with mental health difficulties. “That group gave me more help than anything else I had tried,” he says. Over the years he regained his career and began working for the Irish Advocacy Network supporting people experiencing mental health issues.

In 2006 he started Hearing Voices Ireland to “promote and foster acceptance of voice hearing as a valid human experience.”
Now he is fully supporting an HSE funded initiative to create support groups for “people who experience voice hearing”.
Douglas Ross of the Dublin Hearing Voices Network says, “voice hearing experiences often lead to very troubled states of heart and mind. Voice hearing dialogue can be an effective and compassionate way to do this.” He says such support groups have been in existence in other parts of the world for 25 years.

Brian concludes by saying he deeply regrets not talking about his problems earlier. “If I had I could have got help sooner.” And although he has given up recreation drugs and is very careful to eat well, to exercise and meditate daily, he does still hear voices. But he has come to terms with them. “I continue to live with a heightened experience of reality which is personal to me. I’ve got used to them. If they went away I’d be lost without them.”

Brian Hartnett; see www.voicesireland.com
Dublin Hearing Voices Network; email Douglas Ross at dlross@eircom .net or tel; (085) 782-7596