In the early 1980s, my mum was in her sixties and looking after my stepfather with encroaching dementia. They lived 200 miles away from my home. We were not archetypally close, and she wasn’t a “mumsy” woman, she had always stayed professional in style throughout our childhoods, her appearance as important as it was to us as teenagers. She had a rather self-critical standard to keep to. But the increasingly disturbed nights and long days combining care and work at their publishing business was taking its toll on her.
She came for a short holiday visit to me in Norfolk. We went for a beach walk, a sunbath, paddle, just as friends might do. I had my very precious SLR film camera, my pride and joy from art school days, and I took a “glamour“ photo of her in swimsuit sitting on the breakwater. This was an “event” before the days of selfies.
We packed up our things and walked on, and it was only later that evening I realised the camera was missing. Where was it? I reported it to the police, and very soon heard back that it had been handed in.
A man walking on the beach had seen us far in the distance, messing about playfully. He had seen my camera left balanced on the breakwater and retrieved it for me. The tide would have otherwise come in and taken it away. He could have kept this valuable item, but he didn’t.
Thirty years later, my stepfather long dead, and with another disabled partner to care for, my speechless immobilised mum went into a nursing home after a huge stroke. We emptied the house and brought her favourite pictures she had kept in her bedroom. There was the glamour photo I’d taken but forgotten about, her favourite view of herself, still vibrant, playful, happy.
If that very kind stranger had not made the effort to walk along and fetch and my camera, the memory of that meeting point with my mother liking herself, and the shared enjoyment we had, would have been lost.
To her, and to me too.
Since then, I’ve found and returned cameras, all in pre-digital days, and even lost another one on a world trip, and had it returned, meeting the finder that time. Each time, it’s not just the hardware, the dreary monetary value, but the thought of the lost images that stirred the desire to find the owner. Sharing our human empathic kindness.
It was Christmas Day in Melbourne, Australia. Claire was working the breakfast shift at a backpackers hostel. She realised that one of the guests had nowhere to go and would be on her own. “Come home with me” Claire said with a shrug, “there’s a few of us and plenty of food”. A good time was had by all. Claire – my lovely kind daughter.
Last year my mental health deteriorated. A lot. A lot of major life events, I suppose were the trigger (marital breakdown, dad diagnosed with cancer). Though the fallout with those around me due to a lack of understanding/unwillingness to talk or listen amplified things. I lost close friends, I felt entirely isolated and alone. I was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Then I started to have panic attacks. I didn’t know that’s what they were, but it was. The most severe one I had, I felt like I was going to die. I was hyperventilating, my legs went numb, and I couldn’t speak. I felt nauseous. At that point, I didn’t have a support network I could reach out to, so posted on twitter: ‘I don’t know what’s happening, I think it’s a panic attack, I don’t know what to do’. It wasn’t stopping, it was just getting worse.
Then someone sent me a message. My breathing was still too quick to calm down. I still couldn’t feel my legs.
“You’ve posted a picture of your cat. What’s your cats name?”
I answered. A bit confused.
Then a photo of a grey cat popped up on the message feed.
I started to breathe again.
“This is Monty”
I started to feel my legs again.
I didn’t know the person messaging me. I had never met them. I didn’t know if they knew me, or how they saw my desperate tweet. And I didn’t question it. But we talked for half an hour. About cats. And then we kept talking daily or weekly for the next month or so. On some days, they were the only person I made contact with.
I had truly felt I had no one on my side. I had no support network. My friends, finding it difficult to deal with my mental illnesses made the decision to cut off contact with me. My manager had made the decision to remove me from the team because of my mental illnesses. Talking about my separation from my husband was difficult to hear for my parents, so they preferred not to speak until things ‘settled down’. But a stranger on the other side of the twittersphere was in my corner. One year later and I can honestly say that single point of contact, and the conversation and cat photos that followed triggered an upswing in my recovery.
I met that person a few weeks ago. Incidentally, we have the same employer. Funny thing meeting a friend for the first time. They’re exactly as lovely and warm and overwhelmingly kind as they are on the other side of a social media profile. Be kind. It’s free, harmless, and you never, ever, ever know what people are going through – it could make the difference between recovery and relapse.
When I was 18 I worked in Sri Lanka for a year. Towards the end of my year, I was on a bus in the deep south and I didn’t feel very well. Then it all went black.
What I remember next is drifting in and out of consciousness in a hut with a group of worried Sri Lankan faces around me. I was too ill to consider what had happened or who they were and so I just trusted that I was going to be ok.
The first time I can remember being myself was days later when I realised I was in the home of a local family, who told me I had quite literally fallen off the bus as it was going through their village. I had dengue fever and was delirious so I didn’t know where I was and couldn’t tell them who they could contact to help me.
This lovely family looked after me with medicine, food and care for days. They did not ask for a penny for the help they had given and refused to accept anything I offered. They just made me promise to go straight back to people I knew in the capital, Colombo. They carefully put me back on the bus and waved me off at the bus stand. Just pure human kindness from one person to another and I have never forgotten it.
When in the late sixties some friends came to stay as they were between homes, my husband and I had 3 young children and had not ever had a holiday. So it was arranged that the friends would babysit for a long weekend. We hitch-hiked from Norwich to Liverpool as I wished to see the newly built Cathedral.
We had both been to art school – my husband to Hornsey and I to Norwich in 1962. So we took our sleeping bags and thought that we would easily find where the students hung out and be able to doss down for the night. Somehow that did not work out and we found ourselves in a night club at 1.30 am. Getting a bit desperate, we asked a friendly Rastafarian about B&Bs. He said, don’t worry, follow me, so we trotted along behind him, wondering where we were going.
When we got to his boarding house, he knocked on the Irish landlord’s door and explained our predicament. A single bed was duly placed in the bow window of the landlord and his wife’s (she was very pregnant) bedroom. We were given bedding, etc. Ignoring us, like this was perfectly normal to share your bedroom with complete strangers in the middle of the night, they got back into bed, turned off the light, chatted for a while, then went to sleep. Quietly astonished by this, we silently slipped into the single bed in their bedroom. In the morning, they were up early serving breakfasts for their other guests.