In Too Deep!
I have been looking for an opportunity to study models of good practice and develop my activism skills, but in order to do these things, I needed a platform and avenue for this work. I was honoured and excited that the SCI fellowship chose to believe in my potential as an activist, and awarded me with this once in a lifetime opportunity. Before I could make steps towards working with and for others, I realised that it would be of great benefit to me and my work to, for the first time, think critically about how I became an activist. And so, I shall begin at my beginning. Join me in (a condensed version of) my journey towards activism in the context of Northern Ireland – the land of visible division and conflicts that reverberate amongst our minds, our streets and our politicians.
My mother and father committed themselves every single day to protecting my family and I from ‘The Troubles’. They were both from large working-class families and wanted their children’s lives to be something different from their own. The Troubles – a period of civil unrest and conflict – has perpetuated the lives of almost every citizen of Northern Ireland since the 1960s. We are identified the world over for our ‘Catholic V Protestant’ culture and our divided society based on flags, religion (and even football)! I was one of the lucky ones. I was sheltered from the violence, hatred and bigotry. I learned in a school that was integrated in every sense of the word. I was embedded within a rich mix of races, beliefs, abilities, social classes and our differences were truly celebrated. I, with my classmates and family were the exception to the (sectarian) rule.
However, no matter how hard a family tries, there are some things that we just can’t be sheltered from. Life still happens, and I had my fair share of difficult obstacles I had to overcome. The death of my grandfather and my young cousin caused me to question the intentions of the God I had been told was looking after us all. Why would God cause so much pain and hurt? Why did I not get to say goodbye? Why did he put cancer into my friend’s brain? I internalised these questions, they travelled and spiralled around my head, and picked up velocity as they went. I didn’t talk to anyone. My doubts became fears, and my fears took hold of me. The recreational cannabis I had been introduced to by older mates on a wet weekend then became something that I adopted as a method of self-medication. I was no longer sharing a casual joint with a group of lads for a laugh, I was using it alone. And I used it to make me feel numb.
Cannabis provided me with a way to escape all the thoughts that were holding my mind to ransom. It took control of me, my thoughts and my happiness. Those around me began to notice massive changes in me – my behaviours, my attitude, the way I treated others had all took a turn for the worst. My whole life flipped on its head, and with the help of my family and friends, I realised I needed help. I had hit rock bottom and contemplated ending my life on several occasions. Thankfully I had a loving supportive family along with a solid group of friends who helped me when I was at my lowest ebb. But there was a lack of professional help. Doctors sent me home with anti-anxiety and sleeping tablets, but they weren’t ever going to cure me. I knew that I needed to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Even though my words might not have been understood, I needed someone to listen to them, or read them, or both. My older cousin Geraldine was a Youth Worker, and she became the person who wanted to hear the thoughts I was thinking and she wanted to know about the thoughts that had been held captive in my head for so long. She wanted to hear my story.
After a long and difficult struggle, I managed to get to a clearer and happier place where I was able to step back and reflect on my journey. I became able to turn my highs and lows into a learning experience. I was able to learn and develop coping skills, and these skills helped me to overcome the barriers that had caused me so much anxiety, fear and pain. Finally, I was able to see a glimmer of light in the darkness, and the power of sharing my story had taken me there. I decided to put my story to use, and a career path fell at my feet. I knew I had to help young people who where going through something similar to what I had experienced.
The school I attended didn’t have a support service for pupils who were struggling with poor mental health at that time, and so I set my focus on my own school environment. Challenging and changing this was my first campaign. I set up a group of young people who, like me, wanted this to change. With support from our vice principal Ellen, we were able to get an ‘Introduction to Counselling’ course offered within the school which offered opportunities for older students to become a peer mentor for those who were identified as being at risk of being isolated. The whole experience started a fire within me; I felt invigorated and eager to learn more about Youth Work and how I could make a change to individual lives.
My choice to study Community Youth Work at University of Ulster provided me with several placements where I could put theory learned into practice. I travelled all over Northern Ireland and America, adding to my toolkit everywhere I went. Everything came back to the power of storytelling for me – putting experience into words and sharing it with a group of open-minded others was the most powerful and transformative practice I continued to witness. Telling your own story in your own words empowers us. It changes us. It makes us stronger, and it brings us to a place where healing can happen. I have worked with people of all ages from many backgrounds, from those who are drug and alcohol-dependent, to those who have been imprisoned, and those who are struggling as the most marginalised groups/individuals in society. I have witnessed the innate power of (re)creating a story, where these individuals become the authors, editors and publishers of their own lives. Powerful ‘others’ have had their way with these people – some have been victims their whole lives – and the transfer of power from ‘other’ to ‘self’ during the storytelling process is palpable, tangible and visible for everyone involved.
Stories unite us – they connect the dots between who we were, who we are and who we want to be. They connect us to the people who are willing to listen, but in the context of Northern Ireland (and sadly many other areas), those who are making decisions on the ‘well-being’ of our wee country are choosing to ignore. We are in a position in NI at the moment where our politicians aren’t even listening to each other, which leaves the voiceless majority at risk of being completely forgotten and marginalised even further.
Many educationalists, sociologists and newsrooms will refer to Northern Ireland as a ‘post-conflict’ society, where The Troubles are a story from the past that we educate our children about. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 promised the people of Northern Ireland that brighter days were ahead. And yes, some lives have been positively affected by this legislation. But my work amongst groups from North and West Belfast has proven that these positive changes have not been felt equally amongst all communities. It is the privileged few whose lives have been transformed by the new pathways towards peace and reconciliation. Many families and individuals however, feel that they have been left behind. They have fallen through the gaping holes in our education system, leaving them with little or no qualifications and therefore limited opportunities for success. My activism project with SCI Fellowship will target these forgotten communities, and arm them with a toolkit that they can use to help themselves, help their communities, and help bring peace and a more just society.
“You promised me peace, but the war in my head still goes on. From I was eight years old, I have dealt with suicide, mental health and abuse.“— Forgotten victim, West Belfast.