Mental Health Awareness Week Blog
TRIGGER WARNING for some readers
My mental health, my time with Access Community Trust, and what is next
I’m useless with dates, I don’t know what the date was when I tried to take my life in 2011 - if you want to know the date there was a Beccles South By Election count that day so it must have been a Friday sometime in late year - it’s significant because it began my journey with Access in a small way.
I recall that my initial response to surviving my suicide attempt was ‘damn’ but became ‘hmm ok then’ over the course of three days, I belatedly had myself checked for any damage and fortunately my size (24 stone at the time) and good fortune stopped me facing long term physical issues. It may seem odd in the context of the job I have now (working as a 'Mental Health Ambassador') that my response to surviving was not to connect it with having any kind of mental health issue, I mean there’s mental health issues and there’s trying as hard as you can to die... but we all know what we’d do 'if we knew then what we know now'.
But at the time I wasn’t in mental health, not really, I talked the talk and told people to focus on mental health, but I gave an implicit judgment on others when I was too afraid to share the impact my own life had felt from anxiety and a fluctuating sense of self (with which I occasionally still have to fight quite hard) but not sharing it with them and others. Though the issue has never been that I felt better than other people, quite the opposite I've never quite felt 'good enough'
I was a commercial person and a local councillor, I was the bloody mayor (and I genuinely got bored of saying that after a day with all due respect) for goodness sake but I didn’t have a single insight into the people I wanted to find support for because I had chosen to have no insight into my own mental health. Beyond the pop psychology of an alcoholic father, I essentially felt that I was more of a failure than anything else - empathy and sympathy have little value to healing without being accompanied by honesty.
So, to Access Community Trust... one of the first emails I sent was to Emma Ratzer MBE (though she wasn't yet an MBE) asking if I could volunteer so that I could perhaps become a Bank Worker. It may sound slightly odd that I as a former mayor and all that approached it that way, but I had already seen Emma and thus Access and had always felt that seeing inside the Wizards Palace would be quite fascinating. I had also heard Emma and on one occasion Head of Operations Barry speak about The Trust, and I had felt a shared passion for change. Although to this day I assume Barry thinks I am a moron and Emma wants to fire me (though that makes this an ironic blog).
Emma had replied but to my genuine surprise I got an interview very quickly and was offered a job in fostering, which at the time was perfect as I was an experienced foster carer. I could and would not have applied to be a Support Worker before volunteering as I could not have been confident in working with people in that setting without experience, and I respect too much the contribution of Support Workers to an organisation to be a bad one.
That lead to other opportunities which surprised me, a job running mental health services, a Churchill fellowship, travel to America, finding love and feeling it in my personal life, and of course a job with Access Community Trust. All of which I have always felt unworthy of, because when anxiety is an issue for you it doesn’t just make you jump it makes you freeze, and fight, and play dead sometimes. When you make a career of talking in front of people, it’s really bad if it’s one of your biggest fears.
Fears... fears are odd, I’m not an especially bright person but I do often find complicated things very simple, it makes people think you’ve got it together. So I’m probably measurably reasonably intelligent but that’s not a lot of use when you are the clumsiest person alive (check my bruised knees if you doubt me), or when a friendly email from your boss makes you assume that you’ll be fired immediately, or when you don’t face a failing business in a grown up way then that’s anxiety, that’s mental health, that’s the stuff that’ll kill you (or almost... trust me) if you don’t understand it.
And so eventually with incredible timing I was finally working at Access, with a job absolutely nobody least of all Emma and I knew would work, which to me is terrifying. My biggest fear is failure, the biggest emotion I struggle to face is shame, so feeing unsure of my role, feeling inferior to so many of my colleagues as they did proper jobs supporting people felt off in some way. Off other than when I spoke to Emma and she always encouraged me to learn, and to share, and to learn, and to share... and strangely I found that I’m a good listener and a good story teller.
The security of Access way also part of a promise to myself that I couldn’t ‘do business’ or self employment, that I had to place in someone else’s hands that responsibility, which is fair enough as it nearly killed me (ya know). But now thanks to Access, to Emma, but mostly to all of the people who I learned so much from (that’s the Access staff and clients), I am to face my greatest fear. It’s not all down to Access, love and trust in your personal life are transformative, and when that is a new experience it is one which takes time to adjust to - Asteri means star and we all need stars in our lives.
So now I’m leaving 'employment', I feel somewhat disappointed as I don’t feel I ever contributed as much to the organisation as I should to the great work I’ve observed. Working with Henry, Mark, and the Night Staff (finally I got to be a Support Worker!) whilst having night shifts to study and connect with American colleagues was a blessing and a stable night staff are an asset to any great organisation. But to all the colleagues, to Mary-Lou who inspired me as mayor when she designed leaflets for my charity ball, or chef Apple making Burgh Castle Almanac so special with her soup! All of them made an immeasurable difference to my life, to my outlook and to my confidence, that is the impact Access Community Trust has on people who are healing, people like me.
And so if I didn’t contribute enough when I was employed, I hope to give back after I leave. I will strive to share the stories of their amazing work across whatever network I have, if I can help the development of anyone within the organisation then I always will and if I can offer one piece of advice to them it is to amplify, amplify the voice of your clients, of your colleagues, follow Simon (the Marketing Guy he gets it) and let him help more people to help them.
I was the hardest to reach 'client' imaginable, I NEVER ask for help, but Access, and Emma, and Apple, and Henry, and all of the others helped me and I know they still will. I’m crap at goodbyes, so this isn’t really one, I'm beginning my own journey and making the most exciting but terrifying decision of my life - because I asked for help.
I welcome connection with anyone from The Trust who wishes to stay in touch. The easiest way is to go to asteri.org.uk or to wait until I see you around, I’m not hard to find. For anyone else reading this please do connect... and please ask for help.
Stay safe, connected, and heard 💓
I'm proud of my identity now, you can even see my tattoo if you look carefully.
Hello, I am:
Tod Asteri James CF FRSA
Senior Learning Partner
Asteri Learning Partnership
Pleased to meet you.