Childhood Pictures, a song written in memory of my mum and dad and sent out with love to the child in us all, Ju xxxxx
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
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
Ive not done the blogg for a while, I’ve been writing a memoir and now I’ve hit 30,000 words I wanted to stop and breathe and to say hello. It’s such a roller coaster, writing stuff, especially life stuff, but it’s a rich experience too, it’s like weeding an overgrown patch of land and finding the flowers you’d forgotten about. I’ve been pitching to literary agents as the writing continues, each day having an encounter with the past, remembering good and bad things, happy and painful things, just life really. This time last year I was at home recovering from a severe breakdown and preparing for a giant walk of 183 miles back to London for Missing People. It was a limbo time. When you have been missing, coming home is terrifying. Not because you don’t want to be there, but because you have to face the reasons why you left in the first place. Some people have been less than kind about my leaving without considering why, they based their decision on who I left behind. To them I say, that’s ok. Your judgement doesn’t change my experience and it is yours to choose, I have no malice. The irony here is that the one I left behind understood the most because she had been there through the chaos that preceded the crash, she got it. Others, professionals who stepped in to hold me up, called it ‘burn out’, a form of PTSD, after ten years of caring and after losing eleven of my closest people in quick succession. Good friends gently welcomed me back then gave us space to settle again, others pushed for more information, taking my leaving as a rejection of them. Others never mentioned it again. Others demanded more detail, more information, for their own satisfaction, creating pressure that we couldn’t carry. It’s a little bit like coming out, you don’t just do it once, it’s a lifetime event. Being missing becomes like a scar, either a public event or a dirty secret, the cowards way out. Trust me, leaving doesn’t afford you such strategies, it is an explosion in your head, like a map that’s spinning so fast that your giddiness stops you standing still for fear of falling. Every road is blocked, you can’t breathe. I hope that my story will shed light on the missing experience, although I appreciate that everyone who leaves has a different narrative. If I can leave you with some thoughts. Imagine your life, what makes you feel your authentic self. Society tells us that we are valuable if we have an identity as partner, parent, professional, member of a social network. What titles would you give to yourself? I mean the things that get you up in the morning, the reasons you are motivated. The routines, your dependents, your rhythms. Imagine a day, then a week, then a month, then a year of those rhythms. How does it look? Comforting? Validating? Reassuring? Affirming? Then, close your eyes and imagine that one day all of those patterns, those rhythms, those objectives, those traditions, those motivators, those identities, they’ve all gone, blown away on the breeze. The birds have stopped singing. There is no more colour. The cycle of the day isn’t turning. The routines you held are over. The battles you fought are won? The passions that held you have left. My friends, that’s the ‘Missing moment’. When the hearts that you beat for have stopped and you can’t find your way back.
Back to the book………….. xxxxxxxxxxxx
A day of quiet reflection, what a difference a year makes. It’s twelve months since my spirit broke and the clown mask fell off, the most singularly terrifying experience of my entire life where, after a three year battle with depression and being the strong one, holding everyone else together, I eventually found myself in the care of the metropolitan police under section for a night, in a London hospital -no longer a missing person. Trust me, it takes some processing, but I am nearing completion of my book and have many exciting opportunities ahead, with the love of a beautiful wife and incredible professional support I got well again. Mental ill health is still a taboo subject, it frightens people, but you can get well, I promise. You never truly come back from a big crash but you learn to adapt and breathe and live a different pace of life and you find out what friendship really means.I’m thankful today, because I’m here and able to help others if possible simply because it’s how we roll isn’t it, helping each other. Please don’t be a stranger to a friend who is struggling, they may not be in a position to tell you their pain but if you can see it, sense it, feel it, hold onto them, stand by them,it’s a lonely place. So, today I am grateful for life and holding my head up high as a survivor.
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
My Missing AnniversaryIts approaching the twelve month anniversary of the time I was missing. It would be the easiest thing to quietly let it pass by and there will be private moments of reflection and thankfulness but I can’t roll up such a significant life event and pack it away in an old trunk somewhere like some dark, dirty secret. That wouldn’t have the potential to reassure, empower, comfort people who may be walking that thin line themselves today and it wouldn’t be helping to dispel the myths around missing experiences either.
‘Keeping Faith’ aired recently on BBC Wales with the amazing actor Eve Myles was such a compelling roller coaster of emotion and deviation and it was also in the minutiae where the heart rending despair cut through; the holding and smelling of a loved ones garment, the rocking in the shower, the guttural cries, the repetition of listening to one last voicemail…….genius. It is art forms like this, alongside the narrative that we as survivors can offer that can change perspectives.
There is shame and stigma and stereotypical responses to many aspects of mental health crisis and vulnerability, ironically I spent a large part of my life teaching anti oppressive, anti discriminatory practice to people in professions at the sharp end of supporting people through those times and many of those passions and commitments and drivers were borne out of my own struggles and lived experiences, nothing is ever wasted.
After the death of my Dad as a young woman I moved away from my original life as a musician and painter to train as a social worker and now I find myself back with my first love, not just to create for its own sake but to weave those life experiences into genres and shapes that can be shared and heard and seen and read. Looking back I can hardly believe that I survived for so long on adrenaline alone trying to prove to those who told me as a child that I would never succeed at anything. How many others live life in the shadows of their own dreams and aspirations because someone, somewhere dared to rob them of those possibilities. I pushed and strived and despite leaving school way too early and being buffeted from service to service I remember the day when the tables turned and I thought “I’ll prove that I can”. Five degrees and a senior lecturers post later I found myself rattling around a cage of my own making where the creative elements were stifled and long gone and the bureaucratic tethering just a beast of a burden where I didn’t even recognise my own face anymore. You see, I went missing years ago, being missing was the beginning of finding myself again. I simply had a broken heart and it got fixed through the love of others.
I am fortunate, I came home, I got well, I processed my grief, recovered from the ‘burn out’ and I am here to tell the story thanks to the love of my beautiful wife, close friends and the charity Missing People. Life is rich and hopeful and real and what once seemed like an endless experience of loss has been restored to a daily embracing of second chances. It’s not something I take for granted but it’s a life that leaves me feeling for those who are struggling and joining with those who are standing up to be counted. I have always been a staunch advocate for people without a voice and I admire those who are willing to show their vulnerability in order to stand in solidarity with those who cannot. When it becomes the norm to talk openly and honestly about mental ill health without fear of being judged, deselected, discredited or rejected, that’s true empathy and there are so very many of us striving for that status of equity and civility, acceptance and acknowledgment that we have so much to contribute to this rich life.
We’re not square pegs in round holes, we’re people sat next to us on the bus, behind us at the til, at the desk opposite, at the school gates, on the stage, in the wings, in the football crowd, in the patrol car and in the daily lives of ordinary people, we laugh, we tell jokes, we care for others, we love, we lose, we aspire, we fall, we get up, vulnerability does not discriminate. Listen to our songs, hear our poetry, read our stories, watch our performances, look at our paintings, we’re your neighbours, we’re your partners, we’re your children, we’re your family, we’re strangers, we’re human. I have a friend who once said to me “show me the invulnerable” and as my wife’s favourite saying goes; “Broken Crayons Still Colour” xxxxxxxx