Hartlepool Marina

Knowing your story

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[1) Knowing your story, 2) Dazzling yourself, 3) A place of OKness]

In March 2016, my beautiful, fierce, funny, loyal mother who no longer knew who she was, was sectioned after giving one of her carers a black eye. I was rung late on a Friday afternoon and invited to a meeting the following Monday morning at the mental health hospital in Hartlepool where she had been detained.

I checked the trains and realised if I got the first train out of London on Monday morning on a wing and a prayer, without delays between connections, I could just make on time.

Sunday morning, I woke up with an overwhelming urge to get to Hartlepool immediately. I checked online and saw that the trains were leaving as usual every half an hour but still I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to go. So, I booked a hotel, bought an off-peak ticket, packed a bag and after kissing my little family and understanding husband goodbye, went straight to Kings Cross station.

By the time I surfaced from the tube around 11am, a signal had failed at Peterborough and Kings Cross was in uproar. I squeezed on the only train going north in and amongst delay, delay, cancelled ,and breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled out of the station.

After a massive holdup outside of Peterborough, where we all had to get off, I got on four more trains to places I didn’t want to go to with standing room only and ended up in an hilarious cab ride from Newcastle which cost me £72 whilst the driver regaled me with his love of old northern English women: Warriors, drink like Vikings, no clothing on a winter’s night out, not boots like yours, very short skirts. Why you wear trousers and big coat? – mercifully, I arrived in Hartlepool around 11pm.

Later on, I found out that I had miraculously managed to get on the last train out of London. Shortly after, the whole train network had gone down and all trains in or out were suspended for 24 hours. I was lucky to be in Hartlepool at all, as many people were stranded all over the country, not that I felt lucky. I only got a bag of crisps for tea.

I went early the next day to see my mother where a wonderful nurse greeted me with a compassion that made me cry as she said that being sectioned was just a label, just a piece of paper, it did not mean anything about who my mother was, it didn’t define her in anyway. It was comforting but crying, I accept now, is how I get through life, even though my mother used to shout at me: If you don’t stop crying, I will give you something to cry about. But I could never stop, so even when the nurse took me to see me mam, I cried again as I sat down next to her.

My mother looked at me, not knowing who I was, but, seeing my distress said: Would you like a hug? I was scared, not only because I have always been afraid of her in a fiery mood but also by then, I had heard a whole raft of stories of her behaviour. She had literally been raging for weeks. But, it was one of those moments in life where I had a choice: I could lean in or step back.

I leaned in and instead of strangling me as I feared, she held me in her bony embrace, her now thin arm wrapped tightly around my neck, and then when she let go and I sat back, she patted my hand with hers and said so gently, so softly and with so much love: Don’t cry.

Raging aside, in her core, in her very essence, that was who she really was. She was love and she loved me fiercely, even though she couldn’t remember in that moment exactly why.

I got a late train back to London. Apparently, normal service had resumed, but in the aftermath of trains getting back on track, as it were, I was put in First Class at a very nice table opposite a lady who spoke reet posh, all lovely and RP, as she told me that she was poet. I had a tin of g&t which I had bought waiting for my train and after offering her some before pouring it into my teacup (they have cups and saucers and free biscuits on the tables in First Class) I said to her that one got quite a different class of people up at the front of the train, which made us both laugh. Then I told her that I had newly discovered psychic powers for predicting train timetables – did she need to know anything about her journey home? (She would miss her connection but would definitely get home that night, I gave her my phone number, just in case.)

In return, she told me that she was a poet who specialised in storytelling for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. She would sit with someone in a nursing home or hospital and gradually collect the stories of that person’s life and together they would work it into a poem so that even on one of their worst days when prompted, the person would recite their poem: My name is Jean, I was born in Grangetown…. until their minds gradually tiptoed back into the story of their lives.

You would think that the relatives of said person and their story would be delighted, but apparently, our poetess said, not always. Some relatives would get quite possessive and say: She never told me that, or I have never heard that story about him before. How do you know that? Why would they tell you that and not me?

Grief is a complex emotion and can cause us all to behave in strange ways which is part of the story too. However, that day, on my way home, talking to this lady felt like a gift, as it gave me a new way to talk to my mam, so much so that when my mother died two years later, I didn’t feel that there was things left unsaid between us, or things I felt I should have known and when she finally went on the journey home, I was able to let her go.

This is the power of telling our own story.

We are the ones who give it meaning and in return, it gives us the promise of peace, acceptance, and hope. And eventually, we give up the hope that the past could have been any different. We look to ourselves and meet ourselves where we are, not where other people or society or the media think we should be and we are at home with ourselves.

This goes some way to explaining why digital storytelling, which is defined by Wikipedia, as short digital media that allows everyday people to create and share their stories online is so popular. We can all tell our story to the whole world in whatever form we choose. We no longer need permission from the cultural gatekeepers, nor do we have to be writers or artists, or poets. We can all create images, words, films, songs, stick figures if we want to in whatever medium we choose so that we can express ourselves fully as technology makes this so easy.

It is democratising and therapeutic and it fascinates me. I wrote a blog in 2015 about putting my CV into a storyboard format but struggled as the technology wasn’t yet in place and it would have taken me ages. Nowadays it is much easier.

Then yesterday a friend put this up on Facebook:

One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.

Brene Brown

At first, I thought ooh how apt for my blog. But, after thinking about it, sorry Brene but I have to disagree.

I will never overcome what I experienced as I watched my mam slowly and painfully leave this world. What does that mean anyway? I have no idea! Why would I put that pressure on myself? I may never get over the grief of losing her and my dad far too early to my mind.

As Christmas approaches once more, I am reminded of how much I miss them and how my girls didn’t get the opportunity to know them. I will admit I wept a little bit into the tinsel on the Christmas tree as we put it up this year. Then I dried my eyes and celebrated Christmas as if my life depended on it, because you know, it really does. My life is here right now, and it does depend on me paying attention to it, but I don’t have to be over anything, least of all my sorrow and sadness, it can exist right next to joy and gladness and the absolute glorious miracle of being alive.

So, I am beginning a blog series about digital storytelling, to explore how to tell our own stories in a way which gives us healing and hope without feeling the pressure of that overarching narrative of moving on, being a hero on a quest, and a Hollywood ending.

I can’t wait to begin.

[Part 2: Dazzling yourself]

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