International Women’s Day 2019- The Colour Blue (for the women who never knew)

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t concern myself with the infinity of space or the concept of eternity, these are elements of life that have travelled with me through time, since I was born. Neither can I recall a moment in my life when I haven’t been overwhelmed by the suffering of others or crippled with inertia at cruelty toward animals, or when I haven’t wondered about wars and treachery and conspiracy and corruption. Nor is there a time in my childhood when the wilting of a picked flower or a snapped twig from a tree or a random pebble found in my shoe wasn’t mourned for, worried about and set aside with gentle care as if burying a friend.

I remember the liberation at feeling breeze on my face and the taste of the salty sea air; spending my pocket money on the discarded torn, one eyed stuffed creatures thrown into bargain bins in charity shops that smelt of musty coats and lavender, delighting in the birdsong of the robin and the lark and lying down in the grass with a cabbage leaf over my face to see what a caterpillars world looked like. I felt a joy beyond human words at touching the colour of the sky that was blue and clear with streaks of white and the joy of burying my face into the tiny body of a purring kitten whose heart raced like the treadle of mums sewing machine, a tiny creature who understood my world and chose to dwell inside it with me. And, if I close my eyes, I can still see the intricate patterns on dresses worn by ageing aunts, their texture, design and contours and when I see those patterns now I smell the coal fire again and hear the sparks crackling. I remember hiding under the table at social events, talking through my teddy, running away from people in spectacles, wishing I could take flight like the birds and soar above the noise of incessant conversation, smoky pubs and people who told jokes that I didn’t find funny, people who laughed at my awkward gait and big feet and confidently told my parents that one day I would ‘get over’ my shyness.

I remember coming home from school and looking for my beloved cat who always met me in the street and finding out that he had been poorly, taken to the vets and put to sleep, my best friend, gone in a whisper without me being there to hold him, to say goodbye, and I gasped for air as if my world had ended, looking for his fur on the chair where he had sat that morning, collecting it in a jar and carrying it in my pocket. And years later, I would carry the ashes of my beautiful border collie to work in my rucksack, reassured that the one who had known me best was there beside me and I was looking after her just as she had always looked after me.

And then, as the years moved on, those memories of solitude and peacefulness and innocence of sensory delights were gone, overtaken by the rain clouds of winter and the ignorance of life, destabilised by adolescence and the expectation of ‘maturity’ and those anxieties from fallen petals were a distant thing as life crashed and banged and walloped its way into my psyche like a charabanc of frantic people skidding off course, bumping and bruising and smashing it’s way through pathways strewn with broken glass and noxious debris. Noises got louder, voices raised, the faces of strangers became contorted and hung like gargoyles on fence posts and garden gates and even a walk outside was devoid of its joy and beauty.I remember the etched lines of judgement, the morally superior and the effortlessly sublime all wrapped up in teenage angst and mystery. Listening to peers, comfortably linking arms and talking excitedly about their favourite bands, their romantic conquests, mirroring their focus, their expressive, vibrant eyes and their energy for each other as I snook away to listen to obscure pieces of music that made me weep and see the colour of orphans eyes, in the notes that swept me away to a land that had no time for chatter but that lost itself in a hope for a better world, a kinder world, a world that embraced uniqueness with gratitude rather than indifference or with a celebratory embrace rather than an ironic grin.

I can hear the banging of the doors now, doors that represent corridors of silence, loss of truth, identity and liberty. Corridors that told me that I was the wrong shape, corridors that told me that I had to conform, try harder, stop thinking, stop feeling, stop believing for better, corridors that told me that my esoteric ideology was indicative of ‘oddity’, my aloofness symptomatic of a disturbed mind, my need for creative expression an excuse for opting out of reality and my overwhelming anxiety at the world around me futile and hopeless, unless treated with sedatives and mind altering ‘therapeutic interventions’ with a blind eye turned to contraindications for the rest of my sorry, likely short lived existence. Crash, bang, wallop……….falling under the lights, the stresses of life, getting sent to places of ‘safety’ that were never safe at all, walloped with medication that rendered my spirit dried up and unrecognisable, morphed into someone else, anyone else other than my own truth. Subtly manipulated, moulded into an eclectic mix of ‘otherness’ that rendered me sufficiently altered to ‘fit in’ and yet far enough removed to no longer recognise my own face, the face of reluctance and disengagement, the face of an autistic child .

Well, I climbed out of those corridors, on every single occasion I climbed out, ran faster, sang louder, painted bigger, studied harder, achieved more, scaled greater career ladders, proved my worth, made my way, crashed, banged, walloped and did it all over again, year in year out. Crawling on my belly to the tune of an unrecognisable song, convincing myself that my own song was misguided and quietened for my own sake, humming it under my breath as a secret mantra, hidden, stifled, stilled. I was “Ju the cleaner, Ju the glue factory worker, Ju the artist, Ju the painter, Ju the musician, Ju the student, Ju the social worker, Ju the senior practitioner, Ju the lecturer, Ju the teaching fellow, Ju the carer, Ju the bereaved daughter, Ju…………the missing person”. I had always been a missing person.

So, as we near International Women’s Day 2019, I find myself asking how many more women have spent their lives battle ready, beaten down by misdiagnosis, medical intervention and the message that tells us that our ‘difference’ is a problem needing resolution? How many more women have lived and died and not known that their uniqueness was a gift to the world that chastised them? How many more women have left us not having told their stories, shared their wonders, lifted our spirits with inspirational contributions? How many of us have quietened the dance inside us and respectfully allowed society to bind our own hands and feet in the name of ‘normal’. I doff my cap to those women now because I am one of the lucky ones.

I close my eyes today and I focus on the fading silhouettes, the beautiful profiles of those women who have gone before us, those who have trodden corridors of silence, those who have withdrawn, battle worn, those who have protested and rocked and spiralled and faded without having had anyone truly listen to their stories. Well…….. I’m listening now!. And, if I reach out, slowly, tentatively, I can embrace them all in a whisper, the songs of angels unawares. Listen with me to the unique voices of wisdom, of humour, of collective empathy of stealth and resilience, of misunderstanding, of disbelief and of solitude. Close your eyes and see the lines on the faces of those who have been to this earth, this incredible experience of life and breath with the privilege of smelling the scent of the colours and tasting one’s own tears. Come with me my friend, to a place that will today choose to acknowledge those of us who have gone before and left us without having ever known the freedom of truth. Come with me, let’s walk together through places that make us feel lesser, hurt deeper, try harder, fight stronger because as we hold tight to one another we shall inadvertently be passing the fading silhouettes of those who have gone before us and we shall be stronger for it. Come with me, hold my hand, let me allow you in, offer me the privilege of accepting our shared truth, our difference, our diversity and our rainbow, for with each collective battle we shall be standing alongside those who never knew their own strength. Let me stand beside you when our darkness comes and run with you when our laughter rattles walls and brings down barriers. I close my eyes and I hear the ones who have gone before us, shouting us on, see them waving their hands on the sidelines and telling us to keep running, keep believing for better, keep standing strong, keep kicking back, keep refusing untruths, myths, misdiagnoses, character bashing, energy sapping shortcuts and rat runs that lead us up blind alleys and lock us into dead spaces in the name of bureaucracy, funding, assumptive, pre-conceptive, stereotypical labelling and instead, let’s offer up a rainbow coloured pole vault to the memory of lost women that gives us the stamina, energy and pure will power to traverse the highest line of resistance in the pursuit of our right to breathe and dance to the unique tune in our own heads.

Join me in remembering autistic women everywhere who never got to feel the colour blue.

With love,
Ju

In the Name of ‘Normal’ (the story of a broken fence)

IMG_7802It is this time of year when the memories of being broken come flooding back and respectfully I acknowledge them and can now gently embrace them as valuable jewels in my life. In a few weeks time it will be three years since my mum died, two years since I went missing, since walking to London for Missing People, a year since going into reclusive mode and starting to write my book, a year since being unable to walk, two months since foot surgery and a two weeks since receiving a formal diagnosis of autism.

How life can change in an instant. If you had met me several years ago I would have presented to you as a completely different person. My job title was Teaching Fellow at a very well respected University. I had a beautiful room in the Social Science and Public Policy Department and taught students who were studying for a career in social work both MA and BA and post qualified practitioners who were studying for a higher professional qualification. I was a member of the Higher Education Academy, I loved applied law and safeguarding practices and grabbed every opportunity for teaching them. It hadn’t been an easy journey and I would on occasion sit in my room, looking out over the leafy campus and wonder how on earth I had managed to achieve that status, prior to that I had worked as a Senior Lecturer in a city University that buzzed with energy and vibrancy and adrenalin.

I had left school in the back of an ambulance with no qualifications, I had spent the majority of my teenage years in and out of adult psychiatric care because children’s services were non existent and I had been told that it was unlikely that I would ever make my twenty first birthday. It had been a tough often devastating adolescence and I had witnessed things that no child should have been privy to, experienced abuses inside the walls of places that should have been protecting me. It had been a journey that had taken me to so many different places, I was a cleaner in a faith community in Wales, I worked in a glue factory, I became an arts graduate, a painter, musician, church going kid who was asked to leave for coming out as gay. I was often in a whirlpool of crisis, propping myself up with untold dangers, burying friends who left this earth too soon. My dad died when I was in my late twenties and it was that pivotal moment that changed me, made me apply myself with such force to prove my worth, to achieving more than others had long expected. I left my beloved arts and began to study. After years of practicing within a profession that I loved, I was given the privileged position of teaching at a level that was far beyond what I had ever dreamed possible. I was the kid who needed social workers and I had some mighty fine ones and some really terrible ones but I never thought it possible that one day I should spend my days in a lecture theatre encouraging and building others in the pursuit of their dreams or in tutorials listening to the doubts and challenges of mature students sacrificing everything to return to education.

Just as many women work and juggle family life and other demands, I was a carer too. My life was embedded within academia and looking after my mum who had dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Life was rich and full and busy and funny and challenging and all was well in our household. I enjoyed a generous salary and quality of life and pushed through each day until I eventually began to unravel. One of my biggest challenges was trying to manage the ideology and good practice that was embedded into my psyche alongside the ‘mish mash’ pothole of an experience that community care provided us with at home. It was a diverse and complex melting pot of excellence and horror, of wonderful kindness and ugly, judgemental otherness. It was at times simply heartbreaking and we fought and won many battles that cost us greatly. By now I was delivering a lecture in the morning and then lying, curled up on the floor of my university room, holding my head and trying to find some energy to engage with life for the afternoon, giving out and giving out to others, being the class clown and forgetting to top up myself again.

It has been a very cathartic time, writing my book and it is nearing completion now. Because for me there is no other way of making sense of what happens to us without the tools of writing and music and painting. I don’t know why I was afforded the grace of being found in London and when I think back now to that solitary figure, sat on a bench, tired, hungry, hearing the drone of the London traffic, clutching my mum’s lilac cardigan, I feel only sadness. When I think back to sitting in a doorway with a well dressed woman shoving the door into my back as she opened it to tell me to clear off because ‘decent people use this place’ and I couldn’t even look her in the eye when I whispered the word “sorry” and walked away. I had walked so far that when I was found the soles of my shoes literally fell off, the rubber casings disintegrated on the bathroom floor and I stepped out of them as if symbolically levitating away from the symbols of pain. That Achilles heel has stayed with me since as a close reminder of that pilgrimage, it was the last frontier, operated on in December. As a missing person I had never hurt so much in my entire life. I had never cried so many tears, felt such aloneness, had so little desire for anything. I couldn’t even read a line in a book let alone write articles, exam papers, law lectures. I was faceless, like the child sitting in a psychiatric ward wanting my mum.

“In my dreams, I see your face, walk with you, hold you safe. I close my eyes, I think of you, until the day I see you again”….I swear to God that every time I hear those words of The Missing People Choir I am right back there in that doorway, rocking and wishing that I could trust someone to help me and yet being so paranoid that I was in terrible trouble for having left in the first place. How could I ever not reach out my hands to the Missing People charity when they did just that for me? I will be forever indebted to their generosity and to the kindness of Amanda Holden who helped me stop running.

Time does heal. It has taken three years to recover but it does heal. And, as I embrace the slow rehab of walking again and rebuilding the wasted muscle from not using my leg, it has a strange correlation, you can’t run before you can walk. Rebuilding emotionally has been equally as important, learning to strengthen emotions, harness good, healthy self care, utilise the help and support of dear friends and loved ones. It has been three years since I have worked, engaged with society on a consistent level but it’s been a crucial time for recovery, one that has ensured that recovery is permanent and protected. I am no doubt stronger than I have ever been, more resilient, more self aware, more eager to engage with life in its truest sense. I may not have any money but I am rich.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to be able to spend time at a specialist centre for autism in Kent where, over recent months, the records and reports and history and trauma of life and all of the calamitous experiences had been gently and carefully and respectfully teased out, explored and acknowledged. And finally, aged 56 years old I was told formally that I am and always have been autistic. Within that moment I heard every slamming door in every hospital ward, every screaming echo in corridors of silence, every negative, misdiagnosed, sedated year of stigma and lost youth and my life made sense. I was referred to as resilient, strong, positive, creative, unique and a survivor and I cannot find words that fully express how liberating and endorsing that is. I only wish my dear parents were here to know that I was always meant to be different.

We couldn’t have done this without the love and support of our friends. I want to publicly thank Carrie and David Grant for holding us, guiding us and welcoming us into their tribe. Through those dark Missing days, before and after, they have simply loved us and now they continue to help us to understand what autism means and the beauty of its revelation.

This week, myself and my wife Jayne went back to the grounds of the old hospital and although in the main it no longer stands, amongst the new, luxury apartments built from the old asylum ruins are the same trees, the odd brick and a section of old railings that used to form the perimeter fence around the hospital. As a child patient I was required to dress in over sized overalls, on a busy main road and paint those railings in the name of Occupational Therapy. We were called ‘nutters’ and other words that I would never choose to repeat and we had rotten fruit thrown at us from neighbouring houses. I found those remaining fences, hidden under years of growth and debris and almost forty years to the day I could still see the layer of paint that had been mine. I’m not afraid of nor owned by those memories any more. I have a brick from the old hospital on my window sill, pine cones from an old tree in my fireplace and a photograph of my railings to remind me that no matter how lost we feel, how misunderstood we become, underneath all of the veneer our true identity holds fast to the hope of one day being allowed to show itself and to be free. I shall always remember the people I counted as my friends who never had the luxury of feeling that freedom.

My name is Ju and I am autistic and I shall spend the rest of my creative, quirky, ‘dance as if no one is watching’ gift of a life embracing just that.

To everyone who has been part of my story, thank you.

With love,

Ju

A Christmas Reflection on The Missing People Choir and Charity

On Monday evening my wife and I had the privilege of attending the Missing People Carol Service at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald OBE. Less than 5 minutes from where I was found in the Spring of 2017, transferred from a police car into a police van with wire mesh windows and taken to Charing Cross Police Station and later escorted to a psychiatric hospital under a section of mental health law that I had spent the last eight years of my career teaching to qualifying and post qualifying practitioners as a university lecturer in social work. I felt nothing and remember only the bright hospital lights, the kindness of the police, the interrogations of staff, the toilet filthy and filled to overflowing with paper that sat in the middle of a room with observation windows and no privacy. I felt utterly bemused at being asked to sign a blank section document and when I refused on the basis that it had absolutely no information written on it was advised that they would “fill it in later, after you have signed it”. I knew it was illegal and was trying to hold on to my sense of self whilst trying desperately to fight my way verbally out of a situation that threatened my freedom and my need for solitude and peace and safety. From somewhere inside of me the rhetoric of policy and practice that had inspired and driven my career, that sense of injustice, that anger at misrepresentation and stereotypical perspectives on mental health crisis were now the only defences I had left. I knew all of the right things to say and do to ensure that I got discharged and every last bit of energy achieved that because it was an environment that was threatening, frightening and disempowering. I was released late into the night with no coat, no glasses, no money, no idea of where in London I was, miles from the familiar territory I had taken solace in, my only crime being the devastation of my mums death and the realisation that I was a missing person. My wife was 200 miles away. I had to borrow a phone, ring her so that she could locate where I was on google maps, book and pay for a taxi to come and find me and arrange somewhere for me to stay until she could make the journey to reunite us the following day having herself endured days of police scrutiny including the searching of our home. When we were reunited we spent two days hidden together in a hotel room crying away ten years of caring for my beautiful mum whose own spirit of fun and vibrancy had too been stolen by the tortuous spirit of dementia. My heart was broken, bereaved, lost and unable to care for or think for myself. I had felt like a frightened child as if standing in the middle of a busy road, traffic speeding passed, invisible, vulnerable and alone.

The poignancy of that parallel world is almost beyond literary description as I sat listening to The Missing People Choir in this beautiful church on Monday evening singing the very same song that had spoken to my brokenness whilst I sat alone in Hyde Park all of those months ago, the catalyst for my asking for help as a man cleaning the park had stopped with his trolley to ask me if I was “waiting for a friend”. It is a song that quite literally touches my soul as I dare to consider where I might have been had I not been so comforted and reassured by it in my darkest of days. And I have such a mixed bag of feelings, feelings that range from guilt at seeing the pain and hearing the stories of devastated families of missing people, feeling as if I am in some way representative of their pain and distress and yet on the other hand deeply attached to those individuals who sing their hearts out in support of their missing loved ones. These are people who have found a strength and an energy collectively that unites and empowers and comforts them and yet each time I hear their voices I too feel comforted and reassured and bonded to a community that is devoted to searching, keeping hope, believing for change.

It is a strange, beautiful and extraordinarily precious thing to have been brought into this family of people and to sit alongside them in remembrance and resilience and solidarity. I have a sense of pride and humility, thankfulness, commitment and love for this charity because when traditional services failed me they quietly and unassumingly reached out their hands and reeled myself and my loved one in…and there they have stayed throughout the whole healing process providing back up, specialist counselling, the promise of a voice on the end of the telephone 24/7 and now, friendship, friendships that are developing as the months roll on, connections that are initiated through loss and endorsed through a shared sense of belonging and survival.

Yesterday we spent time revisiting those places where I had been lost and there are still lost people living there amongst the chaos where night meets the day in the cold and harsh realisation that today will be the same as yesterday, each with their own stories of loss and sadness. As long as I live I shall remember the individuals who I met and wonder if they too were rescued. We revisited places that had shown kindness and took boxes of ‘Heroes’ chocolates to say thank you. We stopped at the doorway where I was told to move one because “decent people use this place” an embassy office! And we cursed the cruelty of ignorance and selfishness and hoped for more kindness and empathy and humanity and grace.

So, on Monday evening we were shoulder to shoulder with those who have been lost and those who still search for the missing and we lit candles and prayed and sang and breathed the same air because we care about each other and that, in a world of such division and negativity is a gift worth cherishing.

Sending my love to all those who have missing loved ones, to those who support and care for those affected by ‘missing’ and to those who are not with the people they love this Christmas. You are thought about and not forgotten and may the breath that we share and the air that we breathe carry you safely home.

With Love, Ju xx

The Storms that Follow us

Its World Mental Health Day 2018, a poignant title for an all encompassing lived experience for many.  I would usually perhaps share a quote or a photo or make a comment about the importance of awareness but as the years change so am I changing and it feels right this year to be a little more open and to own what mental health struggle has meant for me personally all of my life. The climate is changing, people are becoming accustomed to reading about, sharing and owning their stories and I have spent the past eight months writing my own. But something struck me recently, something that was difficult to swallow, a revelation moment. The realisation that despite my own commitment to promoting change I have personally carried a burden of shame for my own story . I could hold up the metaphorical banners, stand on the virtual soap box even teach the applied law that linked to good practice, but I still held my own personal story in a box with a very tight lid on it, wrapped in a chain and locked from the inside. Why? Because I feared rejection, stigma, misinterpretation and a loss of control. It is only through writing that I have become enabled to open that box, hold my own pain in my hand, open it, look at it, own it and gently blow on it and watch it take flight. Those of you who have read my blog since it’s beginning will know that it started as a result of my going missing after losing my mum to dementia having been her primary carer for ten years. During that time I had become broken and diminished and all of the things that I had used to survive with had been taken away; a career as teaching fellow in social work; the security of work; the privacy of home; the identity as daughter and carer, my free spirited self as a musician, painter and writer, all gone in the passing of my mum. The day that I awoke and left my home I had no idea of who I was anymore. It has taken a very long time to reach a point of recovery that enables me to now share that experience, simply as one human being reaching out to others who feel the darkness too.

When  I was growing up, people with autistic traits like me were the ‘odd’ ones, we felt more deeply, hurt more easily, reacted more abstractly, saw the world through a prism of light and shade and sound and emotion that rendered us vulnerable to change and often misunderstood for our compelling need for transparency. We were  hidden away during times of crisis, smoothed over by regimes of ignorance, quietened by medication and labelled inaccurately. Those labels may have been transient words written on a page to those who chose them but to people like myself they were the defining elements of our futures. Some of us wriggled ourselves free momentarily, some of us became enmeshed in them like the beautiful sea creatures we see today, choking on the plastic debris casually disguarded by others. We were therefore not only living with the suffocation of sensory overload but also now weighted down by the negative anchors of poorly chosen words that became enshrined in our history well after the people who wrote them had gone.

Today is the day that I am going to stand on the very tips of my toes and say the words out loud to the world that I am a survivor of those very systems. I was a child who was misunderstood, I sat alone on squeaky chairs too big for my little frame  hidden away in a large psychiatric hospital for being different, for feeling too much, for caring too deeply for not being able to engage with expected routines and prescribed stages of education and social interaction.  In the 1970’s, if you were different you were treated as different and different in those times meant being placed on a production line of theoretical principles that would endeavour to twist, manipulate and remould you into a shape that would, if packaged correctly, fit you neatly back into the community you had left without them even noticing that you had gone. Have you ever tried cutting a perfect circle out of a piece of paper and the more you cut the more the shape you are aiming for is dimished until you’re left with a spiral of cascading, bouncing, dancing spheres that own their own space and move where the wind blows. It’s a little like that, the more we try to force a leaf to stop rolling in the autumn breeze the less likely we are to ever catch the essence of why it moves. We have need to catch it, stop it, stamp on it to make it stop when it was made to blow in the wind and to celebrate its colour and form and beauty and uniqueness.

Today it is Mental Health Day. Today parents are still battling for their young ones to be able to roll in the breeze as their authentic selves without fear of stigma, redress of ridicule. Today people are still fighting for the rights to services and treatment and understanding and educational systems that celebrate difference and capture the anticipation of what that creative difference can do to change our world view. Today there is a vaneer of progress that offers up hope of change but it is an ongoing battle of wits between bureaucracy, resources and enlightened practice. Today is a day for acknowledging that we still have a long way to go before we make it right for people who are misunderstood.

Many of us spend our lives using energy that is beyond human understanding in order to mask our real world experience and to cut it into the perfect circle that gives us a chance of acceptance, livelihood, relationship and community. But for many that isn’t sustainable, there will come a time when the energy runs out and the mask drops off and we are left dangling our legs from an oversized chair feeling bewildered and overwhelmed by a society that tells us if we’re not running with the pack the wolves will eat us.

Today I am standing with those who don’t run with the pack. Those whose feet have other paths to tread, those who relate to people from a circular perspective and yet feel as if cornered in a square. I am with you, I am for you, I am one of you.

The Dark has a Friendly Face

By Ju Blencowe 

Published by Jessica Kingsley, Spirituality, Values and Mental Health, Jewels for the Journey 2007

The dark has a friendly face

where each shadow knows its own place

And it sways to the pace of the night

As it rocks it’s way back into light

It will cover and shelter and hide

All the things that we covet inside

And it stills all the storms of the deep

As the world and it’s people all sleep

 

The dark has a friendly face

When nobody knows where you are

And the sky is as black as my soul

And the whistling breeze reminds me I’m here

And alive and in control

 

The dark has a friendly face

As it dwindles it’s way into dawn

And it tucks itself neatly away

Til the dusk and the evening are born

 

The dark has a friendly face

And it sits up all night like a friend

And it ticks and it tocks into day

When the lull in the chaos will end

 

With love, Ju xBF3B257C-C2C6-49AF-B617-44457C7B9732

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A message to new social work undergraduates

It’s just a month since we told our story on Songs of Praise having been invited by BBC via Missing People and I have purposely stayed away from social media since then as an act of self preservation. It was a really tough decision to render myself quite vulnerable but equally validating to have been given a voice to simply walk people through a series of events in my life that can touch any one of us at any time, there is no such thing as an ‘invulnerable person’. It was also special to be able to see my mum on her favourite programme, she would have been very proud of that. Telling my story publically and being able to thank the Missing People choir and the people who helped me to get home was the main reason for doing so, it’s important to say thank you and to acknowledge others who, behind the scenes, help to pick up the pieces for those of us who have lost our way for one reason or another.

This used to be the busiest time of the year for me as a lecturer on undergraduate, masters and post graduate social work programmes. As undergraduate lead it was a time for gathering up the new cohort of freshers and nurturing them through their first weeks of university life, many overseas students missing home, some mature students juggling families and work, all anticipating their newly chosen career in socially work. It really was such a privilege to be there and to be part of that process, particularly within the applied law for practice arena that I specialised in and in the pastoral role outside of the classroom.

As I think about those students who will this year be preparing for their new career, I wanted to offer some words of encouragement and guidance if I may and to wish you well with your studies. I hope that your experiences of the courses you have chosen are as rich and diverse and satisfying as my own experience of sharing it with so many was for me.

. Always try to remember that no matter how challenged you feel by the course requirements, content and demands, you are needed within your chosen profession and the contribution that you make to your studies will reflect the impact you will have on your practice

. Be kind to yourself. You will feel bombarded with so much information and some very disturbing and harsh realities. Take time for quiet reflection and relaxation because these are good skills to learn before becoming a practitioner. Absorbing the pain of others can batter your own energy if you allow it to and then your affectivenesss for others will suffer

. Pace yourself in the first semester, building up momentum with your reading and research. A steady pace is kinder than a laid back beginning and a frantic rush before submissions dates

. Find your passion. If the subject areas that you are introduced to don’t put a fire in your belly and leave you with a thirst for more self directed study then question wether or not you have chosen the right course. If you can’t find an energy for the material you are studying then you won’t find it with the people you support, an informed worker is an engaged one, you can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people but it’s not for everyone and it’s ok to say so

. Make good use of your tutors and support networks within the university, they are there for you and they exist for you, don’t be afraid to approach people for guidance and inspiration.

. Look after each other. The people sat beside you as strangers in week one will become friends for life if you nurture that friendship, the essence of good practice is team work, having your colleagues back. Learn to be a team early on, it will change your studying experience and create a brilliant environment for learning and teaching.

Finally, enjoy your journey into one of the most interesting, challenging and fulfilling careers on offer, a profession often villified and misunderstood, remember that the media don’t get to see the good work that sustains and enables and fights for change, the satisfaction comes from within, knowing that at the end of an exhausting day you changed something for somebody, even if it’s simply by being the kindness in a persons day or the advocate during a persons crisis.

Enjoy

Ju x

 

‘Found’ Dedicated to ‘The Missing People Choir’ – The Song that Sang me Home x

It was humbling being asked to tell my missing story on Songs of Praise and to have such a painful time in our lives treated so gently and with such dignity by those who filmed and created the piece, yet another example of the kindness of strangers. We hope that it will help others in some way just as in telling it we have been able to take another step toward recovering from it ourselves. Each time we return to this painful episode in our lives we are reminded that unlike us, so many still have missing loved ones or are missing themselves and that will always be at the forefront of our minds, everyday somebodies worst nightmare is realised may we always remember that.

We hold very strongly to the notion that you can’t be a missing person unless somebody misses you and the concept of  ‘missing’ for me personally was such a shocking one, I was too ill at the time of my breakdown to consider my own status and during that mental health crisis I had no understanding that I myself was considered to be a missing person. You see, I didn’t ‘go missing‘, I was already missing. Being a missing person was a status given to me in my absence by concerned others, the church cafe where I was given a drink, the police searching my home, those in authority, my friends. That is why the Missing People Choir played such a key part in my own return because on that day when I had received a text message from the missing people bureaux telling me that I needed to let them know that I was safe, the realisation that I was considered a missing person was an immobilising one, I went from being unconsciously lost to being consciously terrified of being found, thats when the grief turned to trauma, it was a dangerous time, running scared. The only safe source of reference in my distressed state was the choir and as I sat in the park that evening reading a text that in effect informed me that I was a missing person I knew that I wasn’t alone despite the paranoia at the realisation that I was not only battling with my own mortality but now also being actively searched for.

Music connected me with the present in a way that nothing or nobody else could, I had given up a musical career when my dad died because I needed to look after my mum it was the one thing that could always cut through, the thing that had been a constant friend throughout my complex life, throughout mine and my mums lives together, music shared by people who knew pain and yet sang through it with a depth and a resilience that gave me hope. I trusted no-one and yet felt in the pit of my stomach that I wasn’t alone.

It would be an understatement to say that such a short period of time has been life changing as it wasn’t until everything that had once defined me had gone that I was afforded the opportunity of starting all over again, literally one day at a time, reinventing myself. The tiny steps have been tangible, invaluable and strangely comforting, some have been far too abrasive and sore but all have played their part in recovery, teaching me what is really important in life. This last year has been a million miles from the crazily busy world of my past for in so far as I have often spoken of the kindness of others, the biggest lesson has been learning to be kind to myself and to embrace each day with a pragmatism that ushers in the present and respectfully accepts the past.

Walking to London was physically exhausting and yet emotionally liberating and after a year recovering from the foot injury acquired along the way I’m fortunate to be having surgery soon that will mean I can return to exercise, an essential pre- requisite for good mental health. Writing has been a great way of reflecting and as it has continued, a blog has now become a manuscript and through it an autobiographical novel has evolved. I have no idea whether or not anyone will want to publish it but in some respects that doesn’t really matter because life isn’t about achievement anymore, its about reverence and breath and the privilege of having been able to love and be loved even when at times that love has been cripplingly heartbreaking.

I don’t know what life holds for me now. I have spent the majority of the last year quietly at home venturing out only when absolutely necessary, thankful for life and quietly being family to my wonderful partner and our beloved animals and a friend to those precious people we have in our lives who know us well, we value our friendships as indeed we also value those who have helped us along the way both professionally and personally. Our joint prayer now is that we in turn might be able to be a bridge and offer a helping hand to someone else who may be sat in a doorway somewhere either virtual or actual being told to move on because “decent people use this place”. We are all ‘decent’ people, some of us have got lost and those who are still lost need nothing less than kindness, empathy and love to get them home.

This song was written with love to The Missing People Choir

Ever thankful , Ju xx

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