Happy Birthday! Time to Change!

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It’s my daughter’s birthday today. She came in our bed at half six this morning, cuddled in; had to wait for her older brother to wake up before she could open her presents. Fragments of that day nine years ago float back … the telephone call at work; the drive home and to hospital; Anna standing with her palms flat on the car roof, waiting for another contraction to pass, before risking the slow walk to the maternity unit; clenching teeth; beads of sweat on her brow; tears streaming down my own face when it was over, and we discovered we’d been blessed with a baby girl to go alongside our boy.

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It’s an important day – one of the most important in our family. That’s why, when I was asked to consider a date in March for writing something about mental health, I chose today. When I was younger I considered myself pretty indestructible. Looking back now, I could have died on a number of occasions; mainly through excessive drug and alcohol use, but also by putting myself into dangerous environments. I could quite easily have become more damaged, physically and mentally. These days, I realise life is much more delicately balanced than I would ever have dared imagine.

My daughter is a perfectionist. If something’s not right, she’ll rip it up and start again, or rip it up and storm upstairs, slamming the bedroom door after her. So far, she’s always been popular and a high-achiever; being very successful in all her school subjects, in her swimming lessons and her various dancing classes. She yearns to please teachers. She needs them to like her and praise her. Next year, she moves up to Middle School and things change. There’s less creativity. There’s less warmth. There’s not the same connection between teachers and children. The kids are older and there will be more bullying; more violence; more pressure to look a certain way; act a certain way. There will be plenty of kids she has never met before and she’ll want to fit in. We will cross our fingers and hope she talks to us if anything happens. We do the same with her brother but he rarely tells us anything about his school experience.

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Time to Change is an organisation whose mission is to inspire people to work together to end discrimination surrounding mental health. “Time to Talk!” they announce, because they understand that communication is the life-force that streams through everything; the stories we listen to about others; the stories we tell about others; the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I have friends who have mental health issues. I know people who judge them. I don’t think it’s my place to point out someone else’s mental health issue though – is it? It’s a tricky one. So I offer this advice – an anonymous quote:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Life is full of tipping points. All it takes sometimes is a nudge; a wrong turn; an ill-thought or malicious comment. A once seemingly perfect life can split apart due to unforeseen and unalterable circumstances. The news is full of heart-breaking stories. I wonder what would have happened to my children if their Mammy’s cancer had destroyed faster. I still wonder what will happen to them if it comes back. I know it will be my job to cushion the fall as best I can, but I worry if I will be up to the job. I coped last time by getting on with things and by writing it down. They coped because their Mammy explained everything to them. She talked about it and made it all seem quite normal. Interesting then, that in both instances, communication was vital.

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Now there’s a quiet and peaceful house, I will continue on my next book, provisionally titled ‘Swallows and Black Streams.’ It’s a book for all those people who feel suffocated by bureaucracy, smothered in paperwork and instead dream about living a simpler life. For the past few years, it’s been fused to the dream that exists within me; that of making my name as a writer. I sometimes wonder what will happen if I don’t “make it”, after so many years of emotional and physical effort and time. But I put that thought out of my head, because I’m lucky, I can; and it’s not a good thought. But yeah, I know the stats. And yeah, there’s history of mental health issues in my family. But isn’t there with all of us, if we’re honest?

I will also exercise because I know what will happen if I don’t. I’ve been there before. If I don’t exercise I start to get depressed and lethargic. I will drink more alcohol and likely turn back to cigarettes. When I do exercise, I feel mentally more positive. Body and mind.

And then our daughter will come home for her birthday tea and it will be lovely – I hope. She’s growing up, just like her brother. Time goes so fast sometimes. The months just slip on by into years. There will be good times. And there will be hard times. I don’t ask much of them. Be kind to others. Don’t judge them too harshly for you never know what is really happening inside someone else’s head. And it may be ‘time to talk’ but actually, one of the most respectful things you can do for anybody is to listen to them; really listen to them, without jumping in and making comment. If we’re going to help people with their mental health, if we’re going to help our own mental health, then we need to foster an environment where everyone can feel safe to talk about things that can too easily be pushed under the surface.

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Walking for Forgiveness – Part 2

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Frankie Owens is walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise money for the Forgiveness Project. Along the route he’s giving talks to Universities, Probations and Youth Offending Teams about his experiences inside prison, about the book he wrote when he was inside and how it can help first time offenders and their families. Day 26 is Newcastle to Durham and I’ve answered his call for company along the route…

Newcastle has a cosmopolitan feel when the sunshine is out and Frankie’s soaking up the autumn rays, enjoying the warmth more than most.

“It’s an easy walk today,” he says, “just sixteen miles.”

I’m certainly feeling lucky. In the last two days Frankie has walked from Carlisle to Newcastle, following Hadrian’s Wall and the old Military Road across the North Pennines in howling gales and driving rain.

But today is another day, thankfully. Off we trot at a leisurely pace, past The Mining Institute and the Literary and Philosophical Society, where Frankie stops to tweet a photograph of the sign stating it contains the first public room to be lit by electricity during a lecture by Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the light bulb, in 1880. Over the Tyne Bridge we go, looking down at The Sage and the Baltic, remembering the Tuxedo Princess, a disco boat with a revolving dance floor. Five minutes later we’re in the centre of Gateshead.

“Which way now?” asks Frankie, assuming the person on home turf knows the way.
“Err…I’m not sure.”

And so, less than a mile into the day’s journey, we’re inside a pub asking directions.

“Just gan oot there and turn left,” says an old feller nursing his morning pint. “And just gan straight on, all the way. Ye cannot go wrong.”

We walk up the hill past the police station and the town hall. And then I ask Frankie, “what the hell are you doing this for?”
“I had a six-month manic spell where I was arrested more than thirty times,” he says. “I was a successful person with a beautiful wife and house, three gorgeous daughters….I should have gone down the mental health route but was sent to prison. As a first time offender I had no idea how the system or a prison worked. I was clueless to it all, and it was hard for me going in and frightening for the family and loved ones I left behind. To save my sanity and give me something positive to focus on I began writing about the process I was going through. It was like self-help.”

Out of this writing came the ‘Little Book of Prison – A Beginners Guide’, an award-winning book for first time offenders and their families that can act as a guide as they try and get through a difficult period. Having said that, I’ve read the book and anyone vaguely interested in prison would find it an absolute eye-opener, as the Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust obviously did…

“It is a practical and totally frank introduction to real life in the British prison system – probably the best introduction there is. But it is also a wonderfully human narrative and a sharply argued critique – the wit and wisdom of one inmate who turns out to be a born writer. I was gripped from start to finish – roared with laughter one minute, winced with pain the next, and was left wondering why we have prisons at all’ – Tim Robertson, Chief Executive, The Koestler Trust.

Through Gateshead we walk, following the main ‘A’ road, stopping for an interview with Metro Radio at the Angel of the North. It’s not the most scenic of routes but it is the most direct and after his experiences of the last two days Frankie is happy to have a safe pavement to walk on.

But why this walk? And why The Forgiveness Project?

“I was going round the country promoting the book anyway,” says Frankie, “jumping on a train back and forth all the time. So I thought I might as well do it all in one go and just walk it. I’m doing 1170 miles, not 880 which is the shortest route, because I’m zig-zagging across the country, speaking at Universities, Probation and Youth Offending Teams along the way. And of course, when I decided I was going to walk the whole way, I needed to find a charity to raise money for, and when I came across The Forgiveness Project they fitted perfectly.”

The Forgiveness Project is a UK based charity that uses storytelling to explore how ideas around forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution can be used to impact positively on people’s lives, through the personal testimonies of both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence.

We talk about Frankie’s event at Northumbria University the previous night, where he spoke eloquently and honestly about his experiences in prison, and had to adlib because his laptop wasn’t working after getting damp in the storm. Criminology students listened intently as he talked about the macho environment inside. ‘You can’t show emotions on the wing,’ he told them, ‘because they can be seen as weaknesses and preyed upon. And so many prisoners put on this hardened ‘I’m not bothered’ mask whenever they’re near anybody else. And then of course you’re usually sharing a cell with someone anyway, so you might not allow your emotions to come out any time. Lots of prisoners don’t put pictures of their children or their wife on the wall either, because they can’t handle it. And when they speak on the phone to their family they tell them everything is fine because they don’t want to worry them. And what happens is that, over time, they start to withdraw from their own emotions, or smother them in drugs to keep them down, and either way, that can be a very dangerous thing. But creative writing and other kinds of arts are an outlet for your emotions. They allow you to express them in a safe and positive way.’
And this was music to my ears, being a writer who has taught creative writing in prisons for the last five years. Prisoners writing may have caused some controversy in recent years, such as John Darwin trying to sell his tale of faked death, but most prisoners write because, in times of crisis and despondency, the pen is indeed a mighty instrument. When your life is curtailed through incarceration, your future blocked by concrete walls, it is natural to turn backwards and ponder, to investigate decisions and actions that led to such a predicament. And it can often be reassuring and warming to gather up some of those good memories too. A piece of paper won’t tell you to get your act together, won’t say you’re being stupid. It won’t walk around the corner and tell others, turn into chinese whispers. Writing is an exercise for the mind that can be worked upon and changed, added to when the writer feels comfortable enough to continue. And all you need is pen and paper!

But it seems the society we live in and the governments that rule us often don’t fully appreciate how crucial creativity is to individuals. In this era of increasing tick-boxes and targets, of huge cuts in community arts funding, the importance of agencies that place artists and writers inside prisons and other community settings continues stronger than ever. For in difficult times the arts work in ways that speak to the self. And as Frankie himself said, most of the support he received whilst in prison came from outside agencies.

We turn left at Pity Me, head towards HMP Frankland and HMP Low Newton. Our plan is to walk between the two of them and then across the fields into Durham. Frankie slows as we approach huge concrete walls on either side, damp lichen curling over the tops, climbing out from inside, rising from the bottom too, as if reaching out fingers to help. What look like barnacles crust into the middle, standing their ground, fixed into position to keep the two growths apart. The singing of birds in nearby trees is disturbed by the barking of guard dogs stretching their vocal chords. Prison officers step out of cars, slam doors shut and walk towards work.

“It feels a bit weird, being on this side of the walls,” says Frankie.

He tries to send a tweet about the size of the walls and the razor wire that can be seen on the other side of them, but his phone’s not working properly. It survived twenty-five days of walking, often through terrible rainfall and passing cars that sent waves over the top of him. But then, when he arrived at my warm and dry house last night after the event at Northumbria University, he dropped it into the dog’s water bowl. Eventually, it works though, and we continue on our way, through fields of floodwater, my legs starting to ache but Frankie, sensing the end of day 26, picking the pace up.

“What have been the highlights of your journey so far?” I ask him.
“Day four from Brora to Golspie,” he says, “on the North-East coast of Scotland, way above Inverness. There was a 60mph wind in my face. I was getting sand-blasted and cursing this woman who told me to walk along the coast. And then I turned round a corner and there were about eighty seals lying on the beach. And day seven at Loch Ness was amazing – this big beautiful expanse of water that’s so immense it makes you realise how small and insignificant you are.”
“Any more?”
“Yeah, climbing Ben Nevis on day twelve. It wasn’t on the schedule. I just climbed it because it was there. It took me over two and a half hours to get up. This old man with a dog beat me up there. Then it poured with rain at the top and it took me four hours to get back down again. One slip and my whole walk would have been ruined and over.”
“And which places are you looking forward to visiting next?
“Liverpool,” he says instantly. “My dad’s family are all from there. Walking into Liverpool to see my relatives will be something special. And meeting up with friends in Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Sheffield.”

Durham Cathedral and Castle appear before us, framed by fields and blue sky. My journey is coming to an end but Frankie has another thirty-four days walking ahead of him.

“What next?” I ask him. “When you finish this? Will you need another challenge after this one?”
“I need to write up this journey,” he says. “And then I need to move on. I don’t want to dwell on the past. I want to have a positive future.”

But there’s something else he needs to finish first. He’s written the first draft of a book detailing his experience of going through the mental health system. He believes he should have gone down the mental health route instead of the prison one and eventually he was sectioned under the mental health act. And although that path did work for him and he’s not been arrested since, he found much of the experience similarly frustrating.

“You’re told you will get five hours per week with a senior psychiatrist but you get twenty minutes and the rest of the time with student nurses. What they say they do and what they actually do is miles apart, just like prison.”

And then we’re there, walking along the River Wear, climbing the steps with aching legs up to the Market Square. And Frankie’s chatting to locals and handing out leaflets, explaining to them what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. And I’m wishing my time with him wasn’t so short, because like most people he meets, I’m in awe of someone who believes in something so much they’re prepared to walk the length of the country for it.

Richard W Hardwick is the author of ‘Kicked Out’ and ‘Andalucia.’ In January 2012 he published ‘Shattered Images and Building Bridges’ – a collection of artwork and writing from three Durham Prisons.