The Big Issue

When I lived in Aberdeen (Scotland) in the late 90s/early 00s I regularly talked on and off to a man that sold a magazine for the homeless or those in vulnerable housing called The Big Issue outside the supermarket I would go to. To many he was invisible, not even a face in the street or another human being. He was not much older than I was so really hit home to me how life could be different, he was still someone else’s son or brother. I never learnt his name and he never learnt mine but still would stop to see how the other was. Now and again I would buy the magazine but usually I would give him the ‘free‘ from my “buy one get one free” offers in my food shopping, usually fruit such as oranges, bananas or apples, as rather give him that than money as a student I did not have and felt it was better to give him something to eat as could see how thin he was. By my final year in the city I moved away from the area, however, one evening I saw him walking along the main street, we recognised each other and to my delight he had got a home a few months previously. He was grateful for what I did, which to me was nothing but giving the time of day to another human being, which was only a couple of minutes once a month or so.

Fast forward to the present; for the last two years now I have been talking to another Big Issue seller but this time it is similar but different. For a start I know his name is Donald and we discuss his bad health, his history that made him homeless, to the world around us. When I first started to give him my ‘free’ tea from the supermarket I again saw the invisibility I had seen in Aberdeen, to which I was uncertain if was due to the upper-middle class nature of the area or that people had developed a blind spot to the homeless, and simply do not want to acknowledge such people exist. However, my actions prompted others to see us talking, which I will admit caused a few funny looks at first as not the sort of thing a Morningside lady would traditionally do (I grew up in the neighbouring Grange that has a similar reputation). However, a few regulars realised that the ‘free’ hot drink we got with a loyalty card was a way to pay to it forward as I was doing. In fact, he now has to turn down drinks or keep the cups as people are generous in their support, with many of us stopping for a good five to ten minutes to catch up with him. He also has been known to be given Easter eggs by children to other delights (sweet and savoury) from the store….he’s put on so much weight his doctor said he may need to go on a diet!

I will not give to beggars on the street for I have seen a few climb into their Mercedes cars after they have finished and some have become quite rude to me when I offered them something other than money. However, those that sell The Big Issue I understand how the selling works and the revenue they can get from it, dropping a random bar of chocolate or a bottle of water to them and catching their smile as I do is something I’ll never tire of…the gentleman who chased after me to say thank you could not understand at first as had not asked for it and that someone simply wanted to give to him. Equally I am fortunate in my city that there are places like the Social Bite that help the homeless by selling suspended drinks like teas or coffees and lunches, with one in four of their workforce formerly homeless and currently running a campaign to create a small village that will give them a home, job and the help to deal with issues they may have (details here). There are organisations such as Shelter that also help the homeless. However, what matters is we remember that these people could be any of us, our fathers or sisters, aunts to nephews, and be grateful for what we have now no matter how small it may seem compared with others as life can change in seconds. Do not judge or hate another for what they have as will never know their full story, and pay it forward because we can not for rewards (financial or otherwise).

© Fi S. J. Brown

World Health Day

On this World Health Day I have been thinking how many of us have so called “hidden illnesses”? How something that we cannot see lends some to act as judge and jury of how that impacts someone’s life, making them less “normal” and/or lesser of a human being. For example, if a healthy looking person came out a disabled toilet without a wheelchair, how many would tut because feel to use such facilities they should be as the image on the door? Really should be thought more as ‘accessible toilets’ as to remind us that they need to be exactly that – accessible. So those that need to use them are enabled to retain their dignity and independence whilst doing what all of us take for granted.

Our ability to live life despite apparent disabilities (physical/mental/hidden) do not change who we are inside. When someone gets a diagnosis today, they are still who they were yesterday or last week. It does not matter what the diagnosis or label says our inability is or because our body does not do or make the same as the textbook says it should in humans, does not make them less of human nor do people want pity. I can say from personal experience, it is often more of a relief to give it a name so can try to live life and adapt (if possible/applicable) to what this means. Please try to remember that for many illnesses there are no operations, cures or answers to why it happened.

For me the friendship, love, conversation, laughter, creativity, and acceptance of others gets me through the day. There are times when I want to give up as so tired from fighting to pain (mental and physical) but with my closest friends no matter where they are I know I will survive. Whatever health issues we may have, they do not matter, the world needs all of us. It is our differences that make the colours on the tapestry of humanity. It would be a very monochrome piece if we all were exactly the same, with so called “perfect” bodies, which did exactly as the textbook said – remember even machines need repairing now and again. So viva la difference and let’s paint the world every day in our multi-colours, showcasing that is what it means to be truly human.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Breaking the invisible wall

As someone with a visual mind I often found when studying for scientific subjects it was easier if I had a visual reference or way of seeing them. It is perhaps for that reason I was drawn to the environmental sciences, not just for my love of the environment and nature but the anthropogenic (human) impacts upon them could be seen, whether that be at the present time with my own eyes or elucidated using proxies for the past such as pollen, seeds, charcoal, diatoms etc under a microscope. When it comes to mental health for many it is the invisible nature of the illnesses I feel that contribute to the continued stigma associated with them. For unless we ourselves or have a close friend/family member it can be very hard to understand let alone empathise with. We see someone with a broke leg or having treatment for cancer we wish them a speedy recovery ot luck with their treatment, with diabetes or asthma although unseen too and for life we accept that they are common human illnesses; yet one in a four adults and one in five children in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, with 1 in 100 being diagnosed with bipolar or schizophrenia at some point in their life. What can be done? How can we break down these invisible walls that we have built to create a them and us scenario?

A bit of background to my own story. I was diagnosed in January 2007 aged 28 with depression and anxiety, however, you can look back to almost 25 years before and there were signs of both due to my acute sensitivity and bullying I experienced from when I first started school in 1983. I had counselling from 2006 to 2007 and psychotherapy from 2007 until 2009, which I have mentioned in previous entries on this blog. In the last few years as I have learnt to respect, appreciate, forgive and I guess love myself for who I am and who she’s not, I have also developed deep friendships that give back what I give them in love, respect and appreciation, which help me daily. The name of this blog is a tribute to one of them who encourages me and my creativity, so my little thank you back to him. For me, one reason I write, photograph, play or make music, and model with clay, is to let the feelings I have their own voice or become beyond what is inside me as would keep them bottled and been told in therapy how much they suffocated me for doing so, thus needed an outlet. I found creativity a great outlet, not just for my aforementioned visual mind but it allowed what I was feeling a way to be seen, they could no longer strangle/suffocate or even hurt me as they were now real and had their voice, but I retained the power that they were trying to take away from me. I also realised by sharing some of my creativity with others it meant it was no longer invisible to them, with some inspiring others to realise their battles were not alone or show how far I had come to become the person I am today.

I am currently job hunting, my past feels like a giant noose around my neck as found many do not understand that we do not fit simply into boxes and some of us do fit two at the same time. I am fed up feeling like the outsider watching in. Equally, having achieved academic qualifications while battling physical and mental illnesses is something I am proud to have achieve, but feedback I have I received is my past is intimidating but impressive…so what can I do? It is not helped by people thinking they can decide what is best for you, when you have tried and tried but just want to give up and only your closest friends saving you from going under completely. However, one thing I know is that I am determined to help inspire and help others, so they do no give up and break this stigma or invisible wall around mental health. As another way to break the wall is for us to work together, showcasing what we can and not what we cannot. In the past to try break the stigma we have created a glut of diagnoses that are really just descriptions of certain patterns of human behaviour, and have not helped. My dream? I am not sure, maybe one day I will be a creative and/or eco therapist of some kind using my passions to help others. Until then here is my hammer breaking down the invisible wall for today, will you join me?

© Fi S. J. Brown