The importance of making your story useful to other people

Not so long ago, back in May this year, I had the privilege of accepting an award. Not on my behalf, you understand, I was a stand in. But it made me reflect.

The award was at the Design in Mental Health Conference, where I sit on the steering group, and was for Services to Mental Health. In recognising Marion Janner’s brilliant work with Star Wards it picked her out for her contribution to improving lives for service users in terms of design of wards and the activities that they facilitate. As service user representative on the steering panel, I was suggested as an appropriate person to pick up the award as she wasn’t able to make the award dinner, and I sat throughout the dinner fretting about the fact that I felt I should say something on her behalf and not just accept and sit down. I used to work briefly with Marion at Mental Health Media, and have followed her journey with interest, and the impact that she has made has been striking.

It was when she was an inpatient in an acute unit in Tottenham that Marion made a list of 65 things that would have made her life on the unit better. Simple low cost solutions that required thought, like laughter therapy, cookery sessions, and of course pets – as exemplified by her gorgeous dog who goes with her everywhere, Buddy. Not only did she list them, she then, on leaving the ward, went about setting up Star Wards to implement them in wards around the country, improving the lives of service users up and down the UK. Marion’s story made me reflect on what it was that my mental health heroes have in common, and then I knew I had the key to what I wanted to say and could stop my fretting and enjoy my dinner.

What I realised was that the thing that I said over to myself when I had my very first episodes and dropped out of college and everything went to the wall, was that this interruption into my life, however brutal it seemed, had in some way to be made useful. That if I didn’t find a way to make it useful over the long term then it was just a bloody waste of the most precious thing I had, time. And I’ve tried to do that.

But that’s what my heroes all have in common. They take their own story, messy, bloody, chaotic at the time as it may have been, and they make it universal enough, useful enough, personal still and born of experience, but applicable enough to have a positive impact in the lives of others. The critical first step that you have to take in that is to acknowledge your story, and be brave enough to tell it, first to yourself, then to others. That’s how you make it useful. Documenting, diarising, noting, drawing, film making, coming with your whole self to your present situation, and not leaving a scrap of yourself behind.

So these are my heroes, people like Marion, like Sarah Wheeler of Dragon Cafe, James Leadbitter of Mad Love, Clare Allan of Poppy Shakespeare and an exciting upcoming new novel to be released at the end of the year – all of whom were at the conference and made such an impact through sharing their experience. Amazing thing to do, and an amazing inspiration.

As I stood a bit blinded by the lights and with my piece of sweaty paper clutched in my hand on which I’d written out word for word what I wanted to say, I felt the preciousness of this moment to pay tribute and to be inspired. And I said something along those lines, and I wrapped up what I had to say; “on behalf of Marion, many thanks for this award, and on behalf of Buddy – woof.” I hope he got a special treat for it – and Marion too. They both deserve it.

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