Walking and talking to challenge stigma
Can anyone put me up for the night? Well, when I say ‘me’, I mean me, Hubert (my trailer), Darth 2 (my rucksack) and Wilson (the cuddly turtle donated by my cousin’s grandson), who all help me on my way.
You’re looking a little nervous. Gazing at your feet, avoiding eye contact. And you’re in good company.
When I started my sacred ramble back in 2011, around 90% of folk said they’d feel uncomfortable about welcoming someone with a mental health problem into their home.
Hold that thought.
Let me take you back to 6th April 2011. A bunch of my friends had come to see me off on my secular pilgrimage from the Cramond Brig Inn, a pub on the northern boundary of Edinburgh. Ella, my lovely partner (now wife) got my old friend, Jim, to take me outside while she smuggled £5 into my first aid kit, along with a short note saying, ‘Jim made me do it!’.
I was joined by my friends Naomi and Ellie for the first leg of the journey. They waved me off as I took my lone steps towards the Forth Road Bridge. I immediately noticed the sign on the, in my opinion, very low fence that hugs the side of the bridge. ‘Distressed? Call Samaritans on...’
This was the second time I’d walked across this mighty, mile-long, suspension bridge spanning the Firth of Forth - a vast expanse of water that divides the Lothians and Fife in central Scotland. And it was still a tad nerve-racking.
At a guess, there’s about a 100-foot drop to the water below. So, my mind was obviously put at ease as I looked down to find that there are gaps in the bridge! OK, they’re only about a centimetre wide - they’re there to allow the expansion and contraction of the bridge due to heat - but you can still see the water below!
It was a slightly anxious start to my odyssey, but I got across the bridge without incident and I was met by a woman getting off a bus. She looked me up and down, taking in my full man in a skirt (black kilt), carrying a 35kg rucksack full of ‘what if?’ secured to my back.
“What on earth are you doing?”
It was a great question. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t spoken to anyone, other than close friends and family, about what ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’ was all about. I babbled, explaining my story to her.
I was a senior social worker until the end of 2007, when I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) - which, for me, is a severe and enduring mental health problem. I’d wanted to be a social worker since I was 12; my mum had died of cancer and my dad, unable to cope, turned to alcohol. When I looked for help from an adult, a close friend of the family, I was sexually abused.
I wanted to be there for people when no one was there for me.
I was disabled out of the job I loved (but frequently hated) as the perfect storm of stress at work, unresolved childhood issues and difficulties at home all came together. I had to experience the horrible wrench of leaving the family home, presenting as homeless. I was put in a third floor flat, with windows big enough to throw a cow through, even after stressing how suicidal I felt.
I had to go through the hell of applying for disability benefits - going through two appeals before I got the money to which I was entitled. And I had to wait a full year for group psychotherapy.
But, it was off the back of all that, the love of a good woman and the support and belief of friends, that helped me hatch ‘Walk a Mile’.
Through conversations with friends and professionals, I realised that prejudice against people with mental health problems was still rife - not through malice, but through ignorance.
I told all of this to this poor woman, who was probably thinking a combination of, “Bloody hell, I wish I hadn’t asked” and “I really should be getting home for my tea”. Nonetheless, I went on to explain the two standout experiences I’d had that helped propel me towards my journey.
Having been given the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, I’d scoured the internet to look for support, groups and advice. I gleefully told my psychiatrist about a peer support group of people with BPD who met up monthly in Edinburgh.
“No, you mustn’t meet up with them,” she declared, “These are very sick people…”
I remember thinking how much I resented that remark.
The second event was equally eye-opening. I’d met an old colleague of mine at a school’s parents evening. She was a mental health officer - a specially trained social worker who works with people with mental health problems.
“I hear you were disabled out of social work?” she said in a friendly, non-judgemental way. “Was it depression?”
“No,” I smiled. “Turns out I’ve got borderline personality disorder.”
Her hands went up to her face as she backed off saying she had to get off and iron the children… or something.
I decided I was going to walk around the edge of the UK to highlight the experience of people with mental health problems - who often feel on the edge of society.
I told her about my friends, Maggie and Jim, and how they’d got me to read ‘No Destination’ by Satish Kumar before I embarked on my journey. In his book, he describes how he told his guru he was going on a peace march, and how his guru told him not to take any money with him - if he did, then he’d have no motivation to talk to people at the end of the day, and the only people he’d meet would be hoteliers.
I thought, if this Jain Monk could walk from India into Pakistan when the two countries were at war, receiving hospitality from the people he met, then I should expect no less from this wonderful country of ours. As such, apart from the £5 hidden away in my first aid kit, I took no money with me - just a belief that the fine people of the UK would help me on my way as we challenged mental health stigma, one conversation at a time.
The woman? Yes, she was still there after that cascade of consciousness. She told me she couldn’t put me up for the night because her husband wasn’t at home, “but here’s £10, go and get yourself something to eat at the pub in the village.”
And with that hit and run kindness, she was gone. 'Walk a Mile in My Shoes' was officially underway.
I’ve got so much more to tell you. So much so, I wrote a book, ‘Walk a Mile: Tales of a Wandering Loon’. It’s a positive tale of how, although my mental health problem curtails what I can do at times, it doesn’t define me.
Spoiler alert… I’ve had no, I repeat NO, bad experiences from the people I’ve met on my way. Take a look and let’s continue the conversation.
Walk a Mile