My name is Zoe and I’m a Talking FreELY Volunteer. I got involved with Talking FreELY last summer; my husband had been involved with the group for a couple of months and I was impressed with what they were looking to achieve. I remember talking to him about it and learning about the training they were planning for their team of talking volunteers.
Talking volunteers spend time in the Pop Up Café refreshment area, greeting people as they come in, getting them tea, coffee and cake, and talking through issues that attendees may have. I remember being completely in awe that people could volunteer willingly do that. For me, talking with people I don’t know is one of the scariest things in the world! I’ve danced in front of large crowds of people, done Spartan muddy runs where I had to swim through lakes and have run a half marathon, but none of those things compared to the fear of the prospect of making small talk with people I don’t know!
At the same time, I was realising that life was pretty comfortable. I’d been doing my job for over 10 years, had been a parent for nearly 15 years, and married for nearly 20 years. Nothing much scared me on a regular basis, and I felt that on a personal development level, I was coasting. I’ve always believed that when we push ourselves to do things that are a bit uncomfortable we grow, and through growing we become better versions of ourselves. It’s not about being smug that you can do something that someone else can’t or hasn’t; it’s about doing something that you didn’t think you could. That sense of personal achievement is such a great feeling.
I also had experience of mental health issues on a personal level and had family and friends who had experienced problems too and part of the problem seemed to be that talking about mental health was still a taboo subject. It’s ridiculous that we can talk about diabetes or having a broken leg for example but not about depression.
So, with trepidation, I agreed to attend the training session held on a Saturday morning. I was so scared that the only way I could go through with it was not to think about it, so I didn’t. But, the day came and it was time to go and face up to it. Frankly, I was terrified, but I sat there with half a dozen other trainees waiting for the lightning bolt of information that would transform me into someone who was confident and happy talking with people about mental health…. And I waited… and I waited…. And nothing…. No spark of inspiration that changed me. The training was excellent and certainly challenged my perceptions of mental health and the stigma that surrounds it. I found out that mental health is rather like a spectrum that we all sit on and can move along from one day to the next, rather than being an on/off switch kind of thing. But I went home disappointed. I’d really hoped to feel positive about volunteering at the Pop Up Café, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to let anyone down so I agreed to take part and then did my usual trick of sticking my head in the sand and hoping it would go away.
Of course it didn’t and Pop Up Café day arrived. I felt sick; I felt like a fraud. Who did I think I was thinking that I could do this? Confident people who are happy talking with just anybody did this kind of thing. Not me. But I went anyway. I put the Talking FreELY t-shirt on and stuck my name label on and milled self-consciously around the café area, terrified that someone might talk to me. I did all I could to be as busy as possible rearranging cake and teacups and running errands for really anyone that needed anything doing.
Then it happened. Someone came in and said “I need to talk to someone, please can I talk to someone.” She looked so frightened and I can’t imagine the fear she must have felt saying it, so we got some tea and we sat down; and she poured her heart out to me. She told me things that she had never told anyone. I didn’t know what to say. I think we are so used to ‘fixing’ things that we forget that not everything can be fixed by ‘doing’ something. Some things are fixed just by being passive and just listening, so that’s what I did. She cried, I cried. It was a truly amazing experience, I think, for both of us. We also spoke about banal everyday things like kids and pets and prosecco being on special offer in Tesco. But we’d made a connection both with each other and, while it sounds twee, with something within ourselves too. She said she felt empowered to go home and speak to her husband who she had never told for fear that he may not understand, and she said that was thanks to me and Talking FreELY. I felt honoured and realised what a huge and powerful and wonderful thing just being heard is which is just what Talking FreELY is about.
So, did I go home feeling changed in some way and now confident to talk to people? Nope. I went home feeling very mixed emotions. I felt so pleased that we had made a connection with so many people but my own personal epiphany hadn’t happened. The lightning bolt still hadn’t struck.
I’ve now volunteered at three Pop Up Café events as well as a stall at Ely Market and a truly inspiring event at Ely College and still haven’t had that lightning bolt moment, but having reflected while writing this article I’ve come to realise that it’s not a lightning bolt that I should have been looking for. But over the last year I realise that I have slowly become more confident at talking to people and I have changed.
So have other people that have attended the Pop Up Café. It’s the combination of inspirational speakers, the chance to just talk and be heard and some of the best cake in Ely, I think, that keeps people coming back. I’ve seen the changes in people who return. Including the lovely lady I first spoke to, who has returned not looking frightened, but with a friend who did; they had been ‘Talking FreELY’ together and she was encouraged to come along.
We are truly making a difference here, both to ourselves and to others and we’d love to have you join us.