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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A Returned Person One Year On (an appeal to a missing person)

One year ago this Sunday, a month after returning home from being a missing person, I embarked on a life changing walk. I had suffered a mental health breakdown and instead of accepting more treatment, I started to walk. I felt free under the sky, untethered. As I walked more and more miles from my home with the dog each day I reflected upon my missing experience and would constantly awake in the night thinking of those still out there. People who I had met during my own time away and people who I had heard about through the Missing People charity. I had been a social worker for twenty years, my heart was an empathic one, I couldn’t just gratefully bow out and forget, return to life and move on, I had to do something.

One evening, sat eating dinner with my wife,I quietly muttered under my breath, “I want to walk back to London for Missing People”. She smiled that encouraging smile, the one that says “ well, if you’ve made up your mind, who am I to stand in your way”. And so, over a two week period we sat around our table, maps spread across it and together we fathomed how, after a major breakdown, weakened from self neglect, having never used a map before, I could walk 183 miles from our home in Staffordshire to London. I would follow the waterways, GPS tracked, my supportive wife would come behind in our old retro caravan, so delapidated that every time we shut its door something else fell off it, a window, a shelf. But it provided shelter, a place to soak feet, sleep and prepare for the next day and I became extremely creative with gaffa tape!

The walk would take me through several counties, during the hottest summer on record for years, I would reach breaking point on more than one occasion and on some, especially at Bridge 101, I would emotionally remove the baggage that had weighted me down for decades and dump it in the cut. On day two I injured my ankle badly due to a long term congenital problem and the constant physical stress and the blister plaster under my heel melted and burned into my foot on the 32 degree tow path. I would do the whole walk on crutches. I was no athlete to start with, now I was a hopping one, a doggedly determined hopping one!

I became lost under motorways bridges, met dead end padlocked gates with no means of escape from the steep overgrown embankments, used my crutches to hack out pathways, sat on snakes, siddled past rats in dark tunnels and saw a side to the canals I nievely never knew existed. I met people who were lost and people who had lost others, it was a deeply humbling journey. As I walked I could hear the distant echoes of the weeks before, the kindness of strangers, long nights, lost days, police, hospitals, inertia.

What I initially thought would be a process of walking from town to town with a thankful spring in my step became a pilgrimage, a mental mountain where the pain of every step made me concentrate purely on the now, the next mile, the next bridge and where I had to face some of the harsh realities of my past, a past that had been peppered with loss and challenge . When it got too much, my missing people mentor was on the phone urging me on, listening to the gasping tears of exhaustion and grief. And the music I played in my headphones pushed me on one step at a time. Every day I spent time reflecting on the last ten chaotic years as a carer for my best friend and confidante, my mum, tormented by dementia and reliant on me for her security, protection and care. I had rarely left the house for years,I had no idea how to exist without her, no voice to listen out for in the night, no more battles to fight as her advocate, no one to sing to in the day when she held her head and cried, no one to encourage to eat, reassure with a gentle stroke of the hand. Every step mattered, every painful step pushed me nearer to the city where I had lost myself and I thought of those still missing and wished them home.

I made it, two weeks later I arrived in London, met by the lovely Bryony from Missing People. That night my wife gave me a beautiful bracelet engraved with these words; “Sometimes you have to fall before you can fly”. I could finally find closure on my missing time.

So, it has been a year now and that year has been spent recovering and finding joy in the rhythms of life that had for so long been neglected. Where I have been enabled to I have thanked those who helped me. We have learned to live with little after losing our work and income, an impact of caring that I had ironically lectured on in university so many time before. We have found joy in the purest of things, fresh air, birdsong, playing ball with the dog, watching a flower grow from seed.

I have returned to my first love as a writer and musician and have been writing a memoir of my missing experience, 40,000 words on and I am looking forward one day to finding a literary agent and to hopefully seeing its publication. I am writing music and working with a wonderfully creative producer in London on an album and I continue to be committed to the supportive and ever present charity Missing People.

To those reading this who have loved ones missing, I have a heart bursting with love and respect for you and anything that I can do in my daily life to spread the word of those who are still lost I will. If by any miracle there is anyone reading this who is away from home, I know how lost you feel in your head, in your heart, in every step you take. The paranoia, the lack of self care, the aloneness of it all. Equally I understand that every one has a different story and different reason if indeed you had any control over that in the first place. But, if you can, make contact with Missing People, it’s a safe place, you won’t be judged, you won’t be told what to do but most importantly you won’t be alone anymore.

My mum used to say “I love those walks where you just put one foot in front of the other”. It doesn’t mean there won’t be pain or cost or implications, only last week the last toe injury healed, a reminder to go gently, but it’s just what we need to do, take that first gentle step, make that first call, someone is there to help. People need to hear your stories, we’re listening.

With love, Ju

 

 

 

Cherish the young people in care systems of all kinds

Its 7th June, today is a day for remembering someone special. Every year on this day I visit the graveyard in a nearby village, I kneel beside a gravestone and I chat to my friend.  I think of his cheeky smile, broad accent, thick black hair and laughing eyes and I remember him. The day he died is etched in my memory you see. We were both patients in the same unit for treatment, he died there. I often think of him, especially when the sun is shining and today it is, as it was on that day, the day he left. Writing my memoir is such a cathartic journey, digging in to the past and breathing life back through it. But today, as I quieten my mind and close my eyes to the rest of the worlds noise, I shall listen for only him because today is the day for remembering. Never underestimate how the experiences of today will influence the thoughts of tomorrow for young people in care systems of all kinds. Those memories are packaged up and taken with us, they never leave. The kindnesses shown or the pain witnessed, we can influence that, we can make sure that things change. But just for today, I shall be taking my sixteen year old self and sitting by the graveside of my nineteen year old friend who never got the chance to grow old xxxxx

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