What an extraordinary week at the Cork Life centre for our annual Edmund Rice Conference. We have welcomed some wonderful guests into our community. As you enter our door you will see the following words ‘May all who enter as guests leave as friends’. We could not wish for better friends and advocates for children and young people than Deirdre Burke, Shane Griffin and Dr Tony Bates.
On Tuesday Deirdre communicated the need not to give young people just a voice but also an ear. Yesterday morning Shane generously shared his lived experience in the care system where more often than not he felt heard rather than listened to.
In the afternoon we were fortunate to have the support of Dr Tony Bates in giving a voice to one of our own young people by launching ‘I’m Fine’ by A.Wootten which is available to buy-contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further details. This important piece of work chronicles a dark and difficult journey through the education system, through mental health, self-harm and thoughts of suicide. Who better to understand, validate and honour this journey than Dr Tony Bates. His words yesterday were so powerful we have asked his permission to share them.
I’m Fine by Amy Wootten
Book launch in Cork Life Centre | May 3rd, 2017 | Tony Bates
It seems like everybody’s talking about mental health. For the most part, I think this is a good thing. For too long this issue was not talked about. “Not a word” was a phrase that quickly followed mention of someone close to us who had any hint of a problem with their ‘nerves’.
Shame about our emotional struggles has certainly receded in this country, but it’s been replaced by fear. We’re may be talking more about mental health, but we’re still very spooked by it. Maybe because we know how bad things can get, maybe because we know how that a personal crisis can end it tears. Or maybe our fear is based on something more fundamental: we fear being judged, being rejected or thought less of, if we were to admit just how vulnerable we feel.
Amy tackles this fear head on, in her own unique way, in her memoir, ‘I’m Fine”. This is her story of how she gradually stopped denying how bad she felt and acknowledged the hurt in her mind and body.
Writers are concerned with truth and what moves us. For Amy her inner life was often a dark place. She wrote to make sense of her experience. She wrote to hold back the darkness:
My mental state continued to get worse until eventually I decided that writing about it really couldn’t make things any worse. I was desperate yet I didn’t have a clue what to write. It took a while but I began to get really comfortable writing and things just seemed to flow once I developed ways to reassure myself that no-one would have the ability to stumble across my journals.
I write because I can express myself, honestly, without fear of immediate judgement or retribution. I write because I find it much safer than talking. The paper on which you confess your secrets won’t judge you or mock you. The page on which you share your opinions will not become confrontational; it will not raise its voice or get defensive. It will always remain neutral. In a nutshell … writing allows me to express myself and explore my thoughts and opinions in the most honest and vulnerable way that is possible.
Writing calmed Amy. It turned her distress into words which she hand-wrote onto a blank page. Seeing her pain captured on that page wasn’t easy. It made her difficulties harder to deny and harder to run from. But it also brought some relief. Her thoughts were no longer trapped inside her head. And the pain in her body eased a little.
Another writer fond of putting things down on paper was Shakespeare. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with him but he’s worth checking out. When it came to distress, he believed very strongly that words opened the door to healing.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”
When we are able to express our experience in words – or through whatever medium comes most naturally to us – we give ourselves a way to step back from whatever is happening, to hold it in our minds, so that we can think about how to respond. In contrast, distress without words gives rise to symptoms and reactive behaviours that keep dig us deeper into the darkness we are trying to escape.
Amy turned her distress into words, which in turn became a bridge to a few key trusted people with whom she shared what she’d written. Words gave her a way to express her truth and turn her conflicts into conversations.
For most of my life I have struggled to keep up the act, the facade of being ‘fine’. Even in the midst of a panic attack, I was ‘fine’, I had to be ‘fine’. A few years ago I met people who weren’t prepared to accept that I was ‘fine’. People who saw through my facade and who not only told me, but showed me they cared and that it mattered to them that I hurt. It took two years for them to earn my trust but once they had it I was able to be honest with them and show them that I wasn’t fine, that I was struggling.
People think mental health is about feeling good. It can be and there’s nothing wrong with feeling good. I tried it once; it was fun. But genuine mental health is about facing what is difficult in our life and finding ways to deal with it. When we turn towards, rather than run from, what is difficult, we feel more real. Gradually we see our problems as workable and we feel alive in ourselves. Our problems may seem huge, like a vast mountain looming up before us, but when we take even one step up that mountain, our stress level drops; that mountain becomes one step lower.
There is another way that writing can help. ‘Suffering can be born when it is made into a story’ (Karen Dixon). Recovery in mental health means being able to weave the raw elements of our lived experience into a story that makes sense of our lives and connects us with other people. Mental health is a story that can be told; mental illness is a story that’s never been told.
We’ve been telling each other stories for years in this country. At the edge of a wild Atlantic where our very survival was always at stake, we told each other stories. These stories were not merely to entertain or distract us. People like Peig told stories to validate suffering and give people hope, to give them a map. Her stories also reminded her community they were in this together and that they needed each other for survival. “Ar schath a cheili a mhaireas na daoine”, she wrote.
As Amy crafts her story – over two years of journaling – we see her change in important ways. Her earliest entries are marked by self-loathing and pretence, but in her later writing she owns her truth and speaks without apology:
From: People want to think that everyone is okay. They are more comfortable believing that everything is okay; and you do not want to shatter that. So you play along and pretend that everything is fine, you lie. Those two words have become a part of you, a layer of your armour. You try your hardest to make sure that that is the only thing that others see.
To: I am a self-harmer, to be precise I am a ‘cutter’. I have only recently stopped cutting and begun trying to recover. I am a realist though; I know that if I get ‘clean’ the urge may always be there. Anytime something happens or I feel anything that isn’t ‘positive’, the first thing that will probably come to my mind to deal with it is to cut.. . Trust me when I say this, it might help for a little while but it takes over your life. When I started I thought I could control it, but I quickly realised that it controlled me. I also firmly believe that no one should ever have to feel the immense shame, fear and guilt that comes with self-harming.
Amy stopped pretending; she doesn’t minimise or romanticise her pain; in her story there is no magic bullet, no prince (or princess) who rides in on a shiny white horse to save her. I imagine that what’s happening here today must be her worst possible fear. She’s has dropped her armour and has chosen to be here today and share her truth with you. This is an enormous act of trust, for which we all thank you Amy.
Another striking feature of this story is the shift from mistrust to trust; from intense loneliness to relationship. Reading each page, I was struck by Amy’s persistent longing to communicate, to be heard, to be accepted. Running alongside this longing was an equally strong reluctance to trust others. This pull-push conflict was exhausting. But she persisted as did people around her who gave her a feeling of safety, and the time she needed to risk opening up.
FROM: My problems are my own burden. No-one else need know how messed-up I am. I won’t be anyone’s problem, anyone’s burden. I’ll sort my own issues out.
TO: As unrealistic as it may be, you want someone to care enough to try and see through your charade, your facade. You want someone to prove to you that you matter, that you are worth it… a part of you wants someone to be there when your defences crumble. You want someone to physically see how much you are hurting, how much you are struggling…Admitting that I wasn’t okay, that I wasn’t fine was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I felt so vulnerable and guilty, so exposed.
This centre forms the backdrop to Amy’s story. It plays a vital role in her journey. People like Don, Rachel, her mother and many others in this centre believed in her from the moment she stepped through these doors. The hung in with her when she hid from them and were there for her when she chose to share her truth. They are also heroes in this story.
The Cork Life centre is viewed by some people as an example of alternative education. But what is alternative education? I’m sure there are many definitions and descriptors but what distinguishes “Alternative” education are at least 4 things: A personalised curriculum; close working relationships between teachers and students; negotiated programmes of learning; collaboration and mutual support.
This is surely what is meant to happen in genuine education. it’s the alternative to this ethos – what we call ‘mainstream’ education – that is causing real problems for many of our young people.
The writer and poet Anais Nin wrote a line that resonates with Amy’s story:
“There came a point in my own life where I had to be true to myself; there came a point when the pain of remaining tight in a bud was greater than the pain it took to blossom.” Anais Nin
We each come to mental health when the pain of pretending and hiding becomes too exhausting. Sometimes it takes a crisis in our lives to puncture that defensive umbrella we hold over our heads and mistake for ‘sanity’.
Mental health is the slow sometimes painful struggle to step into and own our own truth. To settle for some false persona, some socially desirable version of ourselves is unbearable, particularly to a young person. But to be real with others takes a lot of courage. You risk everything when you trust your broken self to others.
This book is Amy’s experience of taking that step. I’ve no doubt it will resonates with each of our journey’s. Because we have all been ‘FINE’. And we’ve all had to learn the true meaning of that word. Which isn’t really a word at all, but an Acronym: F***ed up; Insecure; Neurotic; and Emotional!
We all want to get to a place where we stop apologising to the world for who we are. Where we can stand in our own truth and echo Martin Luther King’s words: ‘I am somebody and I do count. I refuse to allow anybody to tell me that I’m nobody. I do not need to be ashamed of myself, ashamed of my heritage, ashamed of my body, ashamed of my hair. I have dignity. I have worth. I am beautiful’.
MLK was a star for an oppressed and alienated people. In Amy’s world, stars are critical.
In my mind, as long as there are stars, there will be hope and there will be guidance. I guess you just have to hold on to that shred of hope that if the stars can survive and shine through the darkness then you can survive your darkness, your struggles.
Amy, you have described the darkness and the importance of the stars in guiding you. What you should know is that we’re all stumbling around in the dark. Today you are a star for us.
This book will light a path for many others who are trying to see a way forward through some darkness. They will get it because you write in a way that is utterly believable. You don’t water down the pain of living you don’t make recovery sound like something easy. Those who are really hurting will feel validated by your story. They will see themselves in lines you’ve written and feel less alone. In your refusal to deny the darkness – but also your refusal to give in to it – readers will recognise a strong woman whose courage is infectious.
So follow your star Amy. Keep writing. This story isn’t over. This is just Season One. There are many others to be written. You make us all less afraid, you give us hope.
Thank you Amy.