I woke up on August 1st feeling anxious, yet to pack my bags and having to be wherever Brentford is at 9am. I was about to embark on two weeks of residential work and adrenaline activities: supporting young people access a personal development curriculum and facilitating an inclusive experience. I stayed up till 1am that morning doing online courses in manual handling and administering medication. After a few hours of sleep I woke up calm, packed my suitcase and left. Kick off was a blur, the young people drizzled in with suitcases and shy faces, we played get-to-know-you games and before I knew it I was riding to the countryside on a minibus with 5 people I had just met, tired and deeply inspired by a young woman I was getting to know.
The first week comprised of canoes and campfires and cream marshmallows roasted black at the top. The fire wood crackled like slow sparklers in the dark and I wished I could capture the rhythms in a seashell. There are around 50 young people here on this adventure. I joined the team as one of 3 support workers and our wake up call was 6am. On a good night we would finish between 10pm and 12am and outside of that we’d work all through the night. One morning me and two young people were the last to leave at breakfast, as the Café lady cleared our table I told her the butterfly tattoo on her forearm was beautiful. Her voice broke with softness as she told me that her husband has a brain tumour, and that butterfly is the sign of awareness; she got it in his name. The next two days were the best two days and since I cannot take photographs of the young people, I will try to paint the perfect picture with my words…
The team built a shelter with wood from the forest and huddled underneath as it rained. They built shaky rafts with rope and barrels and the sun came out when they rode it into the reservoir. They fall in and get pushed in and jump in and laugh in and I am laughing too. In-between the raft breaking and Titanic jokes a young girl edges forward for a closer view on her wheelchair and we share our secrets of seduction. And I realise; my mind is not on him or rent or how work will unravel for me come September; I am just here.
Week two brought on a rodeo of challenges, we stayed in university halls of residence and had the teams cook our meals in their flats. They got rushed by a gang of 4 foot nothing year olds when we visited a children’s outdoor play centre in one of the greenest areas I’ve seen in London. There were slides and slings and ropes that swung like vines and a little man who was mean with the water pistol. Here it is a matrix of adventure; dirt, danger, play, laughter and it is beautiful because where better can they learn to fall? More than anything they need their scars.
On the 11th day I woke up with a pain in my stomach too strong for me to leave the bed. When I was not curled up under the sheets I was beside the toilet seat; knees on the floor, hair in my face, fingers scratching the wall sick. I lay straddled to the mattress all day in quarantine. While I am here I think about everything; the time when I fell sick for a week, and spent that week in bed behind closed curtains in the dark. I think about words that have pierced me so deeply I lose myself trying to run from their shadow. ‘Maybe you should see a doctor’, my friend says, ‘at least that way we know what it is.’ So I call and then wait for the duty doctor to call me back. As I wait and my mind meanders through all the little tributaries of my life that have led me to where I am now. It hits me in the realest way. My wake up call. This is my wake up call.
I need to take better care of myself. I need to put my health first. At work I chase spirals that leave me dizzy, and with people I open doors that lead no where. But the truth is, when you are in bed in darkness, or a hospital bed in pain, hungry on the floor or even grieving in a beautiful hotel, it is never the people who judge you who show up for you. It’s the people who give and give and forgive and understand you. These are the people that see you. These people are your soldiers.
Two days later I am on a bench near my home, smiling as I think of my friends. I call Betty and she asks me what’s going on. I tell her I had food poisoning and returned home yesterday and that work was slow last month so there is no food or electric in my flat. I tell her that I went to the library to charge my phone and asked my neighbour if I could come over for some toast. We laugh like we did seven years ago, only then we were in the hostel in each others arms. I lean forward and cradle my stomach, slap my thigh and my throat tightens and we giggle until I lose my breath. Our experiences are so beautifully intertwined.