Today is World Storytelling Day. A day that is marked across the globe by people from different cultures, speaking different languages, as they tell each other the stories that matter to them.
Think of it as a global campfire that happens every March equinox.
To me, these personal stories have always been the best kind of tales. Growing up, my Mum would tell me about the places that connected me to my roots; the fauna of Antigua, the people of Liverpool. I used to walk around in an imaginary world, fuelled by the oral stories of my family, often passed down through generations.
Life storytelling is an obsession that never left me. Pocket money was spent on taking short taxi rides around the city when I was a teen, so that I could listen to the delicious tales of cabbies who were always willing to spin a yarn or two.
I drank in the most uninviting looking pubs when I was a student, because I knew it was where the locals could be found, and the stories they could tell together were unparalleled in their humour, shock, and life wisdom.
Sharing our stories with one another is vitally important. It is the best tool we have at our disposal to truly enable us to understand other people’s lives. To discover the surprising and often vulnerable things that connect us.
Stories show us that we are never alone; every single experience you have been through – every thought, every feeling – someone, somewhere, has also been through it too.
This month, in honour of World Storytelling Day 2020, I have gathered five very different stories from women of different backgrounds, who have offered to share stories from their lives with you.
Take from them hope, and wisdom, and reminders that you are not alone. See how much of yourself is contained within the narratives. See what you learn or gather from the places where you do not find yourself.
Whether you have ever spent your nights singing Beatle’s songs as you walk the corridors of a mental health unit or not, or whether you have or haven’t ever regretted your decision to become a parent; these stories are for you.
Either parts of yourself, or a deepening of your humanity, lies somewhere within them.
Each of the tales below is a reminder of the universality of human experience. The comforting connections we all have, no matter where our lives are playing out.
Keep telling stories.
It’s only one drink.
It’s only one hour.
It’s only one night out.
No more ‘tries hard’
No more ‘quiet one’
No more ‘gets her head down’
It will make you seen.
It will make you noticed.
It will make you one of them.
One day I won’t need to have your cocktail to be noticed.
One day I won’t need to be on that night out to be remembered.
One day I will be accepted on merit, effort, and not how many pints went down my throat at Christmas.
Until then… bury the nerves, the anxiety, the stress, the introversion, the sickness rising through your ribcage to strangle you. Stop working harder, doing more, helping others, stepping up.
Deep breath, smooth your dress, fluff your hair, smile, and drink.
You want that promotion after all, right?
I remember parts of being sectioned but not all of it.
I remember thinking I was in a production playing the part of Linda McCartney and singing Let It Be along the corridors of the hospital ward I was on.
I remember thinking a period was the loss of a baby, and the only thing I would have left of the partner I had just ended a very turbulent relationship with. I was never pregnant.
I remember the fear, that even though I was in a secure unit, people were after me. I would soon be killed because I knew things I wasn’t supposed to know. I remember seeing a man coming to shoot me and waiting for him to pull the trigger – it was all in my mind.
I remember hearing cats cry and comments about ‘harming me’ which were the voices happening in my mind.
Psychosis is a very scary and traumatic mental health condition that anyone can experience!
Before I was sectioned my symptoms were lack of sleep (I hadn’t slept for weeks), voices saying I would be killed, cats crying, living in constant fear—too afraid to leave the house.
When I was sectioned I entered a place of unknown expectations:
Would I ever get right again?
Would I ever leave the hospital?
Or was my life now walking about corridors looking for a way out of the horror happening in my head?
Medication and 6 weeks in hospital helped, but it’s been years to fully recover from everything that went on.
My psychosis was triggered by an ex’s comments that were a threat not meant, but enough to cause massive fear at a time when I was already completely at breaking point due to the end of that relationship amidst other things.
In the years since I was sectioned, I’ve completed a course of CBT. Got back to working full-time.
I feel I’ve actually got away from the illness – but I am aware it can and might return one day.
Hopefully if it does I have the tools to seek help if needed, to avoid the crisis I was once in.
Should anyone read this and feel in a similar situation or if you want to end your life or feel unable to cope head to your nearest A&E crisis team, Samaritans can be called for free from the UK on 116 123 and you can talk to them about anything you are going through, suicidal or not.
If you read my story and can relate, or are having other mental health issues, all I can say is keep going, keep fighting, I promise it’s not forever. It will take time but your life can and will be better. X
Julia Küntzel, Germany
I had to give myself permission to get excited about art and illustration again. You think that when you are not active within yourself, you can’t be part of this world.
I had grown-up surrounded by music, art, literature, and so naturally I instinctively followed.
But at some point, I noticed I had stopped. I no longer drew or painted. For seven years, I didn’t touch a pencil.
I think it was the universal process of exploring your identity as an adult once you finish school that did it. That, and in my case also a hurtful pressure to abandon silliness, playfulness, gentleness, dreaming, that came from peers and family expectations about studying; pressure to decide on a career and STICK with it.
I had become passive, impatient, splintered when it came to trying to create. It hurt so much because it was such a large part of my identity, and what I had considered my only actual talent to pursue later in life.
I had planned to apply for art school, but suddenly felt a gap between the idea of me as an actively creative person and the reality: I was paralyzed. The curious, expressive and loudly singing, colourful child I once was, had disappeared.
The way in which I overcame my creative paralysis was small and unglamorous. I came across a comic book by Philippa Rice one day by accident, that suddenly awoke the excitement again.
I picked up my pencil and began to draw. Holding the pencil between my fingers felt incredibly strange and difficult at first. I tried to recreate the style of the comic and didn’t like what I saw. But something had awoken – a creative curiosity, a hidden excitement within me that I realised was worth pushing through for.
The only way to do it was to keep trying to draw again, and again and again.
Not long after I found myself unconsciously doodling in my bullet journal, something which I hadn’t considered as actual art before. I felt like it was I, myself, who was drawing again for the first time in all those years. That’s when I had my real break-through moment; trusting that I didn’t need to accomplish anything when creating. I just needed to take the pressure off, allow myself to experiment with little things. Just start.
I repeat to myself very, very often these days Carpe Diem. Seize the day. It serves as a reminder to be grateful that it was not twenty years lost to crippling perfectionism and internal and external pressures.
Just as much as during that artless period I felt miserable, sometimes feeling almost nothing, now filling each day with the creative process makes me feel pure euphoria in some moments. Isn’t that the most precious feeling?
(Julia will begin studying at art school this month. Her work can be found on Instagram at @whyisthisnamestillfree ).
I stared at the last page of the calendar. 2019 was ending. Finally. I decided to not look for my notes with resolutions I had made at the start of this year, it would be too depressing. No, I didn’t lose weight. No, I didn’t meditate more. No, I didn’t go back to work after maternity leave. No, I didn’t make new friends. There wouldn’t be many boxes to check.
I scrolled through my social media highlights of the year. The first picture showed my tall blonde husband, my chunky cute baby and I, blowing a candle on top of a mouth-watering chocolate cake.
I had made it – for one year, I had kept a human being alive.
I breastfed, I co-slept; I spent hours playing with him on a mat on the floor.
He was healthy and happy.
He was walking and talking.
Birds was his first word.
What a beautiful family, people would say. Would they judge me if they knew that I regretted becoming a mum? That my favourite hobby that year was to think of different ways to write my own suicide letter?
In the next picture, a crowd of intellectual people looked hypnotized by me talking on a microphone. My marine blue dress hid my belly, and my straightened hair was shining. I was giving a speech as a finalist in a literature competition. How interesting, people would say. Underneath my dress was someone embarrassed about everything she had written, a woman just hoping that no one would laugh at her like her mother did when she found her writings back when she was ten.
I smiled when I looked at the last photo. Eight children of different ages posed on the side of my baby’s pram. They wore sandals and colourful summer clothes. I remembered that day. I took my young neighbours to the circus nearby. How cute, people would say. Would they judge me as much as I do if they knew that apart from those kids, I didn’t have many friends?
No one to send the baby gifts, no one to come and visit and no one to give me a hug or make me soup when I felt so tired that I wanted to give up? I looked at the photo again. At the right side, stuffing herself with sweeties, there was a young, ginger girl. My neighbour’s daughter, Sophia. When we were back she told me, “I wish you were my mum. I love you, street Auntie”. My inner child smiled inside my heart. I wasn’t a bad mom after all? The judgement of a little girl eased my biggest fear.
I stepped into 2020 determined to help myself recover from postnatal depression. The only resolution I have made this year is to help myself feel good, to feel peace.
I’ve learnt now that we can’t foresee the things we will need to focus on when we are stood at the start of the year. The things we really need, will be learnt along the way.
I will always advocate for women to be more open and less scared about our smear tests and gynaecological health in general. My first smear test saved my life.
I went into my first smear test really unsure what to expect. No one had sat me down and told me what it was like, even though I’m in my twenties and we live in an era where things like this are talked about a bit more nowadays.
My test results showed abnormal cell changes so I was monitored for six months, during which time I met my now fiancé.
My fiancé’s mum died of cervical cancer when he was a teen. She died in an era where we didn’t talk about these things. No one was reminding her to have a smear test, telling her it was important and not to fear it. I’m so grateful that we live in a different time now but there is still work to be done.
After further monitoring and testing (a punch biopsy and more smears), I was told my cells had advanced to early stage cervical cancer.
I was working a really big event at the time and had to be on site for ten days straight so I didn’t have a chance to process the news fully at first. I had some great friends around me though who supported me and I took the time to find out a bit more about what this news meant before sharing it with my partner.
Luckily the cancer was very small and well placed so my Doctor was able to use a cone biopsy to cut it away, rather than me having to have surgery or even chemotherapy.
I’m glad my story has a happy ending, not everyone’s does. I’m so grateful that history didn’t repeat itself for my fiancé, he was naturally terrified it would.
After this experience I will always make my health a priority for myself and my family, and I will spend my time encouraging other women to do so too.
Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that we really stand a chance of beating so long as we are vigilant about keeping on top of our appointments!