Telling Stories and Myths on Kindness
I grew up in a house of stories and books. I believed in knights and princesses, where dragons were slayed, baddies got their just desserts and if you were good and nice all would work out in the end. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all The Wonderful World of Disney, my parents as working class socialists taught me about injustice. I was born a few miles from Aberfan and so stories of what happens when those in power fail to serve the people they are paid to serve, when people don't listen through arrogance or abuse of position, were drilled into me. Nonetheless I still believed that there were people you should trust, that there were things in place to protect you from injustice and harm. Tell the truth, be honest, be kind and all would be well.
At the age of 46 I still held on to that view, perhaps naively. Then something changed all that for good. In 2014 my daughter took her own life. Let me explain that again , my 16 year old child who was supposed to be under the care of services, whom I had informed was expressing a continuing desire to end her life, who was self harming, was discharged with no follow up care. I had been dismissed as an over protective parent .Those people I had entrusted with her care had not believed me and 8 months later she killed herself. Those people I had trusted because they were doctors and social workers and they were "the good guys", lied at her inquest, they then vanished into thin air, I was told "lessons had been learnt" and in my grief and misery I was left to my own devices. There was no support, no comforting blanket of protection. I had lost my beautiful girl, then I lost my job, friends left me alone, my GP had only pills to offer and I found myself in the middle of this bomb blast with everything I had believed in blown to smithereens and there I stayed for about 5 years. Can you imagine that? can you imagine going through the worst trauma and nobody makes any attempt to dig you out. Let me put that in perspective, say you had cancer and people whipped up the next aisle in the supermarket to avoid bumping into you, your GP gave you some pills and the NHS counselling service suggested you have a go at yoga and left you to get on with it?? There would be a public outcry if we treated people like that. But it was suicide, and as I began to learn, this most awful traumatic event that rips peoples lives apart , is shrouded in stigma. It's complicated, it takes time and effort to support those left behind. It involves real listening and in this digital age of Tweets, lazy metaphors and instant gratification , real listening is something we are not very good at.
After 5 years living in my fall out shelter I decided to emerge. I found other parents who had lost their children to suicide and through shared experience, this big hand of compassion and empathy came out of the blackness and lifted me out my loneliness and isolation. I've always been loud mouthed and opiniated but by God, suicide silences you, it really does take your breath away. Through peer support though, I found my voice and realised the only way to keep standing was to tell my story so that other parents, other families and friends wouldn't have to spend 5 years living in a big hole with their heart ripped out and trying to fix it with an elastoplast and bottle of Merlot.
For me, art and crafting helps me deal with anxiety and it helps me tell my story in a way that makes it more simple to understand and it soothes me. Sometimes words are not enough, sometimes we have to paint pictures to breathe life into tired statistics. In 2020 Greater Manchester Health & Social Care Partnership commissioned me to produce the Speak Their Name Suicide Memorial Quilt. Over 100 people bereaved by suicide came together and we told our stories of those we had loved, of our experiences and through that gentle process of sharing our grief through quiet stitching we created something powerful. That is what Craftivism is, it's telling stories to implement change, it's bringing a community of those disadvantaged together in peer support to allow their voices to be heard and it is incredibly powerful.
When we encourage people to "Tell Your Story" we have to be careful of the intentions behind that action, particularly if that story comes from a place of trauma. The quilt project was to raise awareness around not only suicide but the experiences of those left behind. Behind that sat skill sharing, empowering people to find activities that could heal and alleviate anxiety and also to provide peer support and help people form their own community and support network. The group continues to grow, it may not be for everyone, we are not all crafters but it shows peer support does not have to be a "one size fits all" and that we can have options and choices in what that support looks like.
I do believe using the voices of those with lived experience is a tricky one, done well it can inform and affect change for the better - done badly it can wound and add to the trauma of those who are vulnerable and are struggling to find their voice. When I talk about Elspeth and my life after suicide , it is a precious gift. This is the story of my child who I loved with all my heart , deeply personal and private , I tell it not for attention or to entertain. I tell my story so that I can challenge that awful expression, "lessons have been learnt". When I hear that phrase it translates as "we have cocked up, we are not going to admit that but now we'd like you to go away and not make a fuss so we can close your file". I tell my story so that people in positions of power and authority can listen and learn, what I mean by that is don't put your head on one side and make the obligatory sad face , listen to what I say about how things can be done differently and use that information to do things better. Do not wheel me out to tick a box because I am not a stupid woman and I will see you. The story teller of ancient times was the one who held the wisdom and power, they were venerated and respected and maybe we have lost sight of that
I have emerged from the bomb blast, I have seen hell and darkness and through fire I have found my voice.
I will tell my story, on my terms. Ssssh, feel the silence, feel the firelight flickering, we have all night. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin....