‘I just want people to understand’ is something I’ve told myself time and time again and occasionally verbalised, when I’ve been going through my own mental health difficulties and confusion associated with a diagnosis of Dyspraxia. I’ve rarely hoped for my friends to find answers or indeed to fix it, I just wanted them to be there and listen. I’m often met with frustration when people can’t ‘fix’ my problems for me, I know they can’t mend with a magic wand, but being there to listen and trying to understand means the world to me. (and is probably in some ways better than making them go away all together) I’ve seen several articles flying around on social media with similar headings to; ‘What to do if someone is having an anxiety attack’ I have mixed feelings about the sudden attention anxiety seems to be getting, as lovely this seems, the best thing you can possibly do (and I’m sure I speak for many others here too) is to listen. You can’t make it all go away, it’s difficult to know exactly how it feels unless you experience anxiety yourself and you’ll never truly understand- but you can offer an ear. I don’t think dealing with someone else’s anxiety requires a two page list telling you how to do so.
A year ago I started volunteering for Samaritans on their helpline, who offer a listening service to those in distress or crisis and others who just want a good chat 24 hours a day. I didn’t know what to expect to begin with but I knew that I wanted to do something to help others. As a Dyspraxic woman something that has always come natural to me is empathy, from a young age I learned to play to my strengths, struggling with some basic tasks has given me an ability in other areas that come less easily to others. Growing up the one thing that would have made my life so much easier is for others around me to show a bit of empathy, rather than make me convinced that I’m not ‘normal’ or a bit ‘weird’ and will always stand out compared to everyone else- the best possible way to support a Dyspraxic young person as a teacher, parent or youth worker is to show empathy, and to do this you have to listen. I decided to become a listening volunteer because I wanted to be there for others when they have no where to turn during some of the darkest moments of their life, I am honoured to finally be that person at the end of the phone. I’ve always wanted to stand up for those often marginalised within society, who feel unheard and provide opportunities for them to have a voice. As a teenager I relied heavily on a text service, giving me the support I needed to get through some difficult A levels that seemed very touch and go at some points. Being a 17/18 year old, dealing with lots of confusing and scary emotions, that at the time I didn’t realise were anxiety- and being unable to talk about it compounded how I felt even more. Feeling physically ill, but at the same time being pretty healthy can be a very lonely place to be for someone so young. I lost count of the days when I felt like my world was going to collapse and I hovered outside the school gates, hiding behind a tree trying desperately to control my anxiety symptoms so that I was able to face going into lessons. I needed someone who wasn’t going to judge me or try and fix my problems. I didn’t want to feel guilty about how I felt and I was terrified of letting others around me down. Although I declined calling helpline numbers that I was given many times, I know that it’s at times like this when mental health helplines are the most valuable places to turn. I chose the next best option for a teenager who at the time was massively confused about herself, worried about failing all four A levels, feeling insurmountably lonely and increasingly aware that I struggled to fit in, so I began to text my worries of the day. I made sense of my A levels, the stress of exams and the sheer fear I felt about my future (mostly translated as ‘shit I’m an adult now, what am I meant to do with my life?’) because I had someone to talk to who would listen. I didn’t feel judged or that I even had to justify how I was feeling- I could just be me. I’m sure all teenagers/young adults will experience these feelings at some stage in their life but few are able to talk about them or even admit that they’re just a bit freaked out by what the future may bring. This was all magnified for me because I’m Dyspraxic and anything new or unpredicted scared me more than a flock of geese running towards my sandwiches (my ultimate fear by far.) I will never win a pub quiz if the specialist round is spontaneity.
When I started my training to become a listening volunteer, I thought that I knew how to the listen- I assumed that anyone can listen if they wanted to, but the truth is I didn’t and we can’t. This is why we had weeks of intensive training before we were allowed anywhere near the phones. I have always been a caring and empathic person, but here I realised that there is a lot more to listening than you might think. Before training commenced we had a selection day, that I was dubious about even getting through- not because I am particularly bad but because there are so many people (in my eyes) that seem so much better and more capable than me. The experience when I practically worshipped a ‘friend’ ten years older than me, who I looked up to and saw as someone I should aspire to, when in reality she couldn’t care less about me, often flashes before my eyes. I also thought that my own anxiety and to a lesser extent Dyspraxia would make them less likely to take me on, so I kept quiet about this during those early days. When the letter came through the post informing me that I had passed selection and inviting me along to initial training, I was excited and pretty scared too- will I be able to deal with it all? I thought. Will doing something like this exacerbate my own existing anxiety and mental health? As soon as I started the initial Samaritans training, I realised that everyone shared these worries. We were told that it’s up to you as the Samaritan whether you choose to disclose your volunteering role, the days are far gone when being a Samaritans volunteer remained very much a secret. During the initial training phase only my family and a few close friends knew exactly where I was scuttling off to every Monday evening. As the year has gone on, I’ve gradually started to drop Samaritans into conversations- there’s so much stigma around mental health as it is, so there’s no need to make it any worse by keeping your Samaritans status hush hush as well. It’s important that people know what Samaritans do, who we are are and that we are just ordinary people from all walks of life, who’ve gone through quite an intense training process, to give up our time so that others can have the space to talk. It doesn’t matter if you are suicidal, manic, grieving, stressed about exams or feeling lonely- we won’t judge, or offer advice or an opinion about how you should ‘fix’ your problems- we’ll just be there to listen, and that is why a Samaritans service is so important. In the fast paced society we live in today, we’re often so busy trying to make things better and deciding what others should do- but sometimes we forget to just take the time to lend an ear.
As soon as I walked through the door I made the decision to leave my life outside, just as you would with any job, as a youth worker I focus on the young people I work with and compartmentalize circumstances in my personal life- I have adopted this same principle in my role at Samaritans. When I started my initial training that lasted for ten weeks I was terrified about how I’d cope on the phone, having been through recent bereavements, my own anxiety and difficult experiences when training as a youth worker that nearly broke me again (and has taken almost two years to get over.) I worried that I’d struggle to come to terms with the more distressing calls, and especially with upsetting calls from young people. In reality we very rarely deal with active suicides at Samaritans, it’s a bit of a myth that we’re always talking people down from a bridge – they do happen, but in the time I’ve been independently taking calls I haven’t had one yet. However most people we talk to are in some kind of emotional distress, but a very small percentage are suicides in progress. During the first few sessions of training we were introduced to the ‘listening wheel’ that formed the basis of what was to follow.
The above diagram demonstrates what we should all do when we are listening to people in distress or trying to support and understand friends or family when they are upset or overwhelmed. So many times, we are so quick to judge or offer an opinion, before actually listening to and reflecting on the situation. One part of the training that I found the most striking was silence, knowing when to use it and using it well. I know when supporting people in distress, we naturally want to say something- or do something, but sometimes the best thing we can possibly do is to say nothing at all. I struggled using silence to start with, but sometimes there are calls when we need moments of quiet- this gives the person you are supporting and yourself time to reflect on what has been said and gives them reassurance that you are there, this can in some ways mean so much more than language. I know from personal experience having someone there, at the other end of the phone or in person- can be all we need to make us feel comforted and safe, rather than being told to do this or that and expected to explain how you are feeling. Sometimes we can’t and that should be okay too. When things become difficult to talk about- and often mental health can be something that we just don’t know where or how to start, short words of encouragement and open questions can help them go on, and feel comfortable sharing their anxieties with you. My wonderful friend Rosie talks about social anxiety in her recent blog post, and how for so many people it can be difficult to express themselves, despite having so many thoughts bubbling away. Growing up I was, in a similar way to Rosie, known as quiet and shy, who didn’t say a lot. I always remember a History teacher telling me, to ‘keep building that confidence, so that you can shout at more people in History debates’ (She was one of the good ones, who always had time for me- but sadly not everyone is as understanding) My social anxiety reached it’s most extreme when I was at university and I found myself sitting in meetings on placement, unable to get my words out and feeling physically unwell.
One thing that Samaritans pride themselves on is not giving advice, people may think that we do, and I’m often thanked for the advice I’ve given someone- but what we actually do is support the caller to come to their own decisions and conclusions. This is so important in everyday situations, it’s often difficult to listen but not offer a solution. I’ve had occasions both personally and professionally when people have asked me what I think they should do, occasionally I have reflected on their situation using personal experiences, but since I’ve done my Samaritans training my reply is often something similar to ‘What do you think is the best thing to do for you? This allows them to reflect on what they have already told you, to develop their own strategies and way forward.
After the initial training I spent six weeks listening in to other people’s calls, this gave me the time to learn from experienced listening volunteers, and to pick up techniques and phrases to eventually use in my own calls. This process eased me in gently to life at Samaritans as I gradually began to get a feel of the place, and understand how it felt to listen to a call for the first time. Following on from these listening in duties, I spent six months as a probationer, when I started taking calls independently but always with an experienced volunteer present. I have now recently passed my probationary period and have become a fully fledged Samaritan, this comes with more responsibilities and the expectation that you know what you’re doing, at a time when mental health charities are needed more than ever.
Growing up I found it very difficult to find a sense of belonging, and as the years have gone by I’ve started to find so many places where I can fit in- and feel that I belong, Samaritans is very much on that list, somewhere that I’ve felt accepted and valued. Similarly going to recent Dyspraxia Foundation conferences, has helped me to meet people who quite frankly should have been in my life years ago. I have used my natural empathy and understanding nature to make this volunteering right for me- my worries about being too sensitive are far outweighed by the positives, that taking the plunge and having a go has given me. I’ve developed my listening skills and an awareness of myself and those around me. I’ve always had a can do attitude, that has helped me get to where I am today. It’s so important to not only understand your own mental health but also that of others, and by learning how to listen has really done that for me. My Samaritans training will stay with me for the rest of my life, as one volunteer recently put it ‘you never forget how to listen, once you learn’ I will never forget some of the calls I’ve had, but I’ll also remember the thanks I get when we end a call ‘Thank you for listening to me- I feel so much better now’ These words are the most poignant of all, a total stranger being grateful for my time really makes my day.
I wanted to write this (what’s turned out to be a pretty lengthy blog post) because mental health has always been something close to my heart, particularly as it’s so common amongst Dyspraxics, and very rarely recognised as early as the physical and coordination difficulties. It now feels right to share my experience of Samaritans, something that I have hinted at a few times but haven’t really gone into great details about. I’ve heard people say that they are embarrassed when they experience anxiety and are worried that people won’t know how to react towards them. During those moments of panic we may feel overwhelmed, want to hide away from the world and appear irrational. We often just need someone to be there, not necessarily to say anything, but who can offer acceptance and understanding.
It would be really lovely if you could take the time to vote for me as positive role model for disability in the National Diversity Awards: https://nominate.nationaldiversityawards.co.uk/nominate/endorse/29906. This nomination has given me a further platform to talk about issues that others feel silenced by, and if in anyway my blogs have struck a chord with you, your vote would mean the world to me.