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How Being Offered a Cup of Tea Launched My Community Service Career

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When I was admitted to hospital in the middle of the night, my life was in tatters. My fragile mind had shattered. I was lost and alone in a strange environment, not knowing what was happening to me, when a fellow patient offered me a cup of tea. That cup of tea was my life raft, helping to keep me afloat in a raging sea of fear and emotions. I knew then I wasn’t alone and there were other people who understood what I was going through.

While in hospital I took to writing a book I had started, using a beat up old laptop the staff kept in the linen cupboard for safekeeping.

My trips to and from the linen cupboard eventually aroused my fellow patients’ curiosity. I explained my laptop was there and that I was using it to write a book.

As the weeks went by I was asked more and more about my book, until eventually I was persuaded to read a chapter to them. I deliberately picked a humorous chapter and I can honestly say there is nothing more rewarding than have a ward full of people with depression laughing at something I had written.

The end of my stay in hospital coincided with the completion of my book. It had become a kind of therapy to me.

Buoyed by the support I had received from my peers in hospital, I nervously sent my manuscript to a publisher and was amazed to get a publishing contract by return post.

I then went on to have a successful book launch in Nottingham Waterstones and a full page article about me and my book in the Nottingham Evening Post.

This made me want to give something back and I started volunteering for Rethink mental health charity. As part of this organization, I campaigned at the political party conferences and got to meet Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary. As a result of this, I had a full page article in The Guardian newspaper about people power and mental health. There was a very fetching picture of me, sporting a Mad Hatter’s outfit, standing next to Boris Johnson.

Rethink then told me about a trial leadership program Radar (now Disability Rights UK) was running. At that time I didn’t know mental health could be classified as a disability. I also lacked the confidence to apply, thinking there must be far better leadership candidates than me. Despite this, I was persuaded to apply and was amazed to get accepted to the program.

The experience turned out to be transformational, for as much as I got out of the workshops and coaching, it was other people in the course who inspired me most. Although we came from a variety of different backgrounds and health conditions, we were all peers who overcame the odds every single day. It was this peer support and the amazing things people had done or were going to do, that were the keys to the success of the program.

After graduating from the leadership program, I felt inspired to do more to help other people like me and started volunteering for Radar. Through Radar, I took part in their MP Dialogue Scheme, in which you contact your Member of Parliament (MP) to discuss disability issues. I felt nervous about this. Even though I had spoken to Boris Johnson, I was, after all, disguised as a Mad Hatter at the time.

I arranged to meet my MP, who I thought must eat policies for lunch and quite possibly constituents too. He turned out to be a regular guy, just like any member of the public and he assured me he didn’t know everything. He explained he had a team to brief him on each new area in which he got involved. We had a good meeting, learning a lot from each other and setting plans in place to improve disabled access in the area.

On completion of the MP Dialogue Scheme, a reception was held in Parliament. I was invited along and also asked if I would like to speak about my experiences of the scheme. At this point I had done a number of things that had tested my self-confidence to the limit. This, however, was way out of my comfort zone! I politely suggested perhaps there was someone better suited to the task then me. I don’t know how they did it or why I agreed, but eventually I was persuaded to speak in Parliament.

On the day, I was a bag of nerves, not helped by the fact the room was packed to the rafters with Lords, Ladies, Baronesses, members of Parliament and OBEs (Officers of the Order of the British Empire) – to name but a few – with standing room only. In that room, where so much of history had been made, I nervously got up on the lectern and though Oh sh*t. I then went on to speak for about 10 minutes, at the end of which you could hear a pin drop, followed by the biggest round of applause I had ever heard. To this day, I have no idea what I talked about.

It was not long afterwards that Radar received funding for a full-blown leadership program and I was asked if I would like to apply for the Leadership Empowerment Manager role. After interviewing, I was amazed when I got a call the next day to say I had gotten the job! It turned out to be the best job I have ever had with some amazing success stories.

It wasn’t the high profile successes that meant the most to me, however. It was the people who, at the start of the program, had the stuffing knocked out of them throughout life. By the end of the program, they were standing in front of a hundred people saying what a difference the program had made to them and how they were now going to pursue goals they would never previously have dreamed of.

I am telling this story because it is not a story about me. It is a story about other people – people who were there for me at my time of need. It if wasn’t for that cup of tea, none of this may have happened. That cup of tea was a cup of hope, in which peer support was fundamental in changing my life for better and making me who I am today. It, in turn, has empowered me to offer the cup of hope to other people.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via KariHoglund.

Originally published: March 6, 2017
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