by Jojo Furnival
You shared your life story with the community recently, which is a pretty daunting task. What sort of process did you go through in preparing for this?
The preparation alone was surprisingly challenging, and brought up a lot of hurt and pain. I kept writing a bit, then leaving it and coming back to it a couple of days later because it was just too painful. Then I’d stop again, and so on. But by the time I had it all down on paper I had already found it to be very healing. And that was just the writing process!
I also attended the community public speaking workshops twice a week. I was terrified to talk in large groups when I arrived at New Life, but in these classes we learned to put into practice a variety of different skills and strategies to boost our confidence when speaking in front of others. One of my favourite techniques was affirming ‘I am safe’. I even had it written on my arm when I did my actual life story! And when there was doubt or fear in my mind, I used the technique of remembering my purpose – why I was telling my life story – which helped me to see that there was something more important than my anxiety, and a reason to do what I had signed up for. The classes also offered a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment to practice, practice, practice!
Sharing your life story has been described by many as cathartic. What did the experience mean to you and how do you feel about it now?
When I decided to do my life story, I thought long and hard about why I wanted to do it. I realised that shame had plagued my life for years. I felt a lot of shame towards the conditions in which I was raised, the life events I had lived through, as well as shame about my battles with anxiety and depression. I’m a big fan of shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown’s work, and I know from her findings that silence feeds shame. I decided that by telling my story, talking about my childhood and my mental health issues out loud, I had an opportunity to take on shame. And who better to tell my story to than the most supportive group of people I have ever met, my fellow residents and volunteers? And what better place than the safe environment of New Life?
I seriously considered pulling out on the day though, but after some supportive words from fellow community members I decided to go through with it. Life Stories are always held in the Forest Hall, so I went there 45 minutes beforehand to set up with one of my friends. Together we were able to light it so that I could just see the first row of people, while the rest of the group was in darkness, which was much less intimidating than seeing all those faces staring at you! I had already asked my closest friends to sit in the front row for moral support, so when it came to actually beginning my life story, I just felt as though I was having a chat with them – I felt at ease very quickly.
Forty minutes later, I had finished. Everyone clapped and I just felt this massive weight lift. Then community members were invited to give feedback, and they formed a queue to give me hugs (which I had okayed – you can choose not to accept hugs if you don’t want to) – it was lovely.
I woke up the next day feeling as though my whole life had changed. I felt indescribably closer and more connected to the rest of the community. So many people came up to me and said something along the lines of, ‘You know when you said that thing? Well I totally relate to that. I remember when…’ It was so humbling to hear people’s stories and witness them having the courage to be vulnerable. I felt closer to these people after 3 weeks than to some of my oldest friends!
In the days that followed, everyone commented on how different I looked – healthy and glowing. I felt different too. I’ve always known myself to have quite a negative, critical internal dialogue, so to hear people say such kind, encouraging things about me really made me question that negative self-talk. I’ve always wanted to do something involving public speaking. I love the way that a speaker can motivate and engage with large groups in such short amounts of time. But I was always so scared to talk to more than a couple of people, and figured that even if I overcame this fear, people would only think I was boring anyway. So to actually have been able to face my fear in such a way was huge for me. And then when people described my story as ‘inspiring’ and the way I told it as ‘enticing’, commenting on my ability to put a comic twist on even really upsetting, shocking things, making things that should never be funny, funny… Well, I was blown away.
I saw my life coach a couple of days later and I explained that although I felt amazing, I felt as though I’d lost something. We spoke about it some more, and we came to the conclusion that, for the first time, I was seeing my self-limiting beliefs for what they were, lies. And although this was a massive, extremely positive step, it didn’t change the fact that I needed time to adapt to this loss.
Of course it hasn’t all been a walk in the park since I did my life story, but it was still an utterly life changing experience. The biggest thing I took from it was the positive effects of sharing in a safe, supportive environment. I had always been very private and secretive about my past and medical history, even with my closest friends. But I was able to see and feel first hand how much closer I was to the people around me once I had trusted them, and had the courage in myself to show them another side of me.
*New Life Foundation respects individuals’ right to anonymity, and in this case names have been changed to honour the wishes of those concerned.