My beautiful wife spent time in Uganda several years before we married, as a physiotherapist, she was able to support women with their back care and became involved with health care, prison visiting and other work in Namatala slum, Mbale. Coming home, after building friendships and hearing the stories of people’s lives and daily struggles for the things we in the west take so much for granted, she experienced some real challenges on returning. Overwhelmed by a supermarket choice, overwhelmed by the absolute privilege of electricity and water and food, acutely in touch with our fragility as a universe. Only recently I watched her as she stood face to face with hundreds of chocolate Easter eggs on the shelves of our local shop, I shall never forget the look of horror on her face when asked to choose one, it overwhelmed something deep within that was borne out of one thing, experiencing the pain of others.
Last night we spent a wonderful evening with friends preparing to leave for long term work in Bangladesh, stepping out to fulfil a lifelong ambition to serve others now that their own family have grown and flown the nest. They are preparing to embrace a completely different culture with different perspectives on wealth and health and education and equality. They too recognise that when they revisit the uk, there will be inevitable impact upon how they perceive and make comparisons to life back in the western world.
Last year, we attended the Missing People memorial concert in St Martin in the Field, Trafalgar Square. It was attended by families and friends of missing loved ones and a time for reflection, hope and shared empathy. The Missing People Choir were performing and it was a time when supporters and families stood shoulder to shoulder with one another in the shared knowledge of each other’s pain. I was humbled that Davina McCall read out my story of gratitude to the choir to thank them for the impact that their voices had had on my own life. What I hadn’t expected to happen during that evening was to experience a deep sense of returners guilt. As I sat there, in that beautiful church, surrounded by people who were missing loved ones, I felt the onus of responsibility for their loss, I felt like the representative of their pain as if I had no right to be there. That wasn’t due in any part to the welcome we had received, it was an internal reaction to external stimuli. And, as we mingled afterwards, there was a very difficult dynamic to manage whereby, we as survivors of trauma were surrounded by people who were still very much living that nightmare and wanting answers from me about their own loved ones situations. We left with an overwhelming sense of having walked a mile in the shoes of others and it took several days to process that fraudulent feeling of cowardice.
Over recent months we have experienced varying reactions to my missing time, people have actually said things such as ; “How could your wife ever forgive you?”, or “You should’ve been celebrating life” and “How could you leave your wife?” People putting their own spin on a unique story that reflects their own interpretation or understanding of mental health crisis and bereavement. Each time an opinion is expressed we are either compelled to try to justify it or choose to walk away from it, either way, we are left with a sense of bewilderment at the fiery darts that come often as throw away comments.
Every story is unique and each with its own set of circumstances, I guess that the root of my own perspective is twenty years as a social worker, where you can be thrown into situations of having to make professional judgements that can be at odds with our own values or emotions and yet still faced with the reality that what we do today will have consequences far more reaching tomorrow.
Whatever our story, it is ours to tell and ours to wrestle with and find resolution to, wether it be being overwhelmed by the choice of bread in a city supermarket, gratitude at the freedom of our children to play without desease or hunger, or the sense of relief and humility at having recovered from a mental health breakdown that has given a second chance at life and helping others. We are all part of the same puzzle, the tapestry that looks a mess on the back but on the reverse is a beautiful landscape of diversity and brilliance, a world to be cherished and nurtured in whatever small corner we find ourselves.
“May we always be a friend to a stranger and never a stranger to a friend”
Ju Blencowe April 2018