On May 10th 2014 around 100 people gathered to celebrate the Past In Mind project and the launch of Kate Lack’s fascinating book: Past In Mind: A Heritage Project and Mental Health Recovery.
Whitbourne Village Hall was buzzing with excitement and anticipation as faces old and new filled up the room.
It was very heartwarming to meet up with people we hadn’t seen since last year, and to hear their news. Past In Mind became a very close-knit group and we all believed in the project so much that it has left a definite imprint on each of us.
After some luxurious refreshments there were a few short presentations from a cross-section of people involved with the project. True to the ethos of Past In Mind this included some thoughts from volunteers…
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I have had my guide dog Trudy (AKA The Hereford Hoover) for just over five years, and we’ve reached the time that I’ve been dreading most – her official retirement.
When Trudy bounced into my life I was living in a residential home and had got used to the fact that I would probably be there forever. I rarely went out on my own, and feared strangers to the extent that I could not tolerate busy streets or crowded rooms. I spent most of my time indoors listening to music or the radio. The big wide world was virtually inaccessible to me.
Of course the furry whirlwind that filled my small room in May 2008 changed all that. Time for a cliché – it really was love at first sight. I knew Trudy was special. I knew she would radically change my life. It was breathtaking. Three days after that momentous first meeting we began our four weeks training together, and life has never been the same since.
Less than two years after training with Trudy I moved into my own flat and immersed myself in a new life. With Trudy’s help I overcame my fear of people and trained as a volunteer Speaker for Guide Dogs. Sometimes I wonder if I am the same person when I give a talk to an audience. I remember the me who refused to go into a room if there were more than two people in it.
Before I had even met Trudy I was told that she was a stubborn dog who loved her food. I had no concept of the Hereford Hoover then. Trudy’s trademark is her pinkish brown snout, glued to the ground wherever she goes, sniffing, snorting, and snuffling her way forward. There has been countless occasions where the Hoover has been offered cleaning jobs in various public buildings. (And as many where she has narrowly escaped being ordered off the premises). But despite her penchant for hoovering, Trudy was always a first-class guide dog. She has guided me to Scotland, London, Devon, Essex and all over the West Midlands. Together we have mastered ferries, trains, buses, trams, the London Tube and even a carousel in Hereford High Town at Christmas. Before I met Trudy, I would have preferred to die than go anywhere via public transport. (And I definitely never would have tried the carousel!)
Trudy stopped walking in harness about three months ago, but is due to retire officially next week. Her guide dog harness will be taken away for good.
Five years ago I never envisaged the emotional turmoil this would throw me into. A guide dog provides so much emotional and practical support that as a team you begin to function as one being. Picking up the harness and fastening the buckle under Trudy’s stomach is second nature to me. We just used to get up and go out. Being out and about with a guide dog is a real joy. I was forever finding reasons to go out with Trudy just to experience the unbroken communication between us.
I loved the feel of her body bobbing up and down under the harness, the different signals she used to give me through the harness handle as we explored the streets of Hereford, and her sneaky attempts to procure food from the pavements wherever we went. Hoovering aside, I knew that I could trust Trudy with my life. The trust between us is mutual and it unites us. In her guide dog heyday Trudy was a keen worker and would always fly into her harness (quite literally!). She used to cock her head as if to ask me what our plans were for the day. No two days were ever the same. One day we could be in Worcester, the next in the park, the next on a coach to London and the next in the theatre. (I regret to say that Trudy often graced musical performances with her own vocal arrangements, so I always made sure we were right at the back near the exit!)
Reflecting over the past five years brings home to me how much Trudy has transformed my life. In 2010 she was runner-up in the Life Changing category of the Guide Dog of the Year Awards, and in 2011 she won the Life Changing category. The 2011 award was in recognition for Trudy’s role in helping me to cope with Breast Cancer. She unquestionably speeded up my physical and emotional recovery.
Trudy is notoriously inappropriate on official occasions. She nearly ruined the photo shoot in the 2010 ceremony when she dived to retrieve an apple stalk and refused to drop it. And far worse, when we met the Duke of Edinburgh last year during the Royal visit to Hereford, she stuck her snout inside his raincoat to sniff a certain part of his anatomy… Less said of that the better. (For the curious among you, he remarked: “Something must smell nice in there!”.)
Our precious moment of un-glory.
It’s very hard to acknowledge the end of an era with such a character as the Hereford Hoover. Trudy is not quite ten, and probably could have continued as a guide dog for longer had she not effectively retired herself. About a year ago I began to notice subtle changes in her demeanour when we were out together. She seemed fed up, and became more and more distracted. She started meandering instead of walking in straight lines, and frequently led me up the garden path (in fact every garden path in the street!). I got the distinct impression that she was no longer enjoying walking in harness. Eventually this was confirmed when she lay down in the middle of the pavement on strike. (Not once, but three times on three separate walks!) A guide dog on strike needs to be listened to.
So three months ago I decided to stop taking her out on harness. Since then Trudy has found her inner puppy, and bounces through the park revelling in her well-earned freedom. I know I have made the right decision.
But although Trudy is benefiting from the redundant harness, I am finding our new way of life quite difficult. The guide dog harness is a freedom ticket, and without it I have lost a lot of confidence. I still have my lovely dog and she gives me so much in the way of affection, humour and companionship. But our roaming area has shrunk from UK unlimited to a small corner of Hereford.
I am reasonably competent at using a long cane but this way of getting around ignites my old fears and anxieties about going out. I find using a long cane quite an ordeal, and it makes me incredibly nervous. After being dependent on a guide dog a long cane seems clumsy and lonely. I have tried taking Trudy with me on my various practise expeditions. It is better than being out on my own, but the slow walking speed and numerous crashes into bins, bollards and boards continue to put me off. In addition (and this may sound ridiculous) relying on a long cane is a constant reminder to me that I cannot see, whereas walking with a guide dog enables me to forget it. So my current solution is to go to the park every day with Trudy, but nowhere else. And after five years of freedom and increasing confidence, this is a set-back. If you imagine someone who has been used to walking with a prosthetic leg suddenly losing that leg and having to rely on crutches – that is how I feel without a working guide dog. Thankfully I still have Trudy, and she has prevented me from becoming a recluse.
And that brings me onto the pivotal question. What next? This is the question that has caused me untold agonies. My first decision was to keep Trudy as a pet and train with a new guide dog. Guide Dogs have been very supportive and in March they loaned me a dog for a week to see how I would manage with two dogs. The week went well and I coped.
But I knew deep down that I would not be able to sustain it. When you have a guide dog on harness you’re not allowed to walk another dog at the same time. I tried to imagine myself on a really bad day where I
struggle to make it out of bed. Could I honestly say that I would be able to go out and about with the guide dog and then come back and take Trudy to the park? There are days when I just manage to take Trudy out to the grass and then to the park gate where I let her off the lead. With a young guide dog raring to go, and Trudy needing and deserving a quality retirement, I know the pressure would get to me eventually. Not only that, I remember so clearly my first year with Trudy. The first year in a new partnership takes every ounce of time, patience, energy and determination. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it would not be fair on either Trudy or the new guide dog to have the two of them.
So the reluctant decision I have had to make is that when the right guide dog is found for me Trudy will go to live with a friend in Hereford. Subject to approval by Guide Dogs, this would be a brilliant compromise. Trudy will have a fantastic retirement with people she knows and loves. I will still have contact with my Hereford Hoover, whilst benefiting from having a guide dog to help me fulfil my remaining dreams. This way Trudy and I will both be winners. Someone advised me recently to imagine that Trudy is going off to University rather than leaving for good. (Look out St. John’s College, Oxford!). Bizarre as it may seem, this has helped me with the heartache. Trudy will still be a huge part of my life.
In the meantime, Hoover and I are spending some quality time together and I have no regrets about her retiring. I have my fingers crossed that my new guide dog will be an anti-establishment, rule-bending and reliably subversive canine with a character to rival the Hereford Hoover. As Miranda Hart might say; “Such fun”.
To find out more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, please click here: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/scarlett3/?gclid=CI_KgorL9bcCFfLHtAodYyYAqw
I was contacted in December by someone who wishes to share his family’s personal story. This truly inspiring account written by Cameron Von St. James demonstrates the power of hope. It has also inspired me to revitalise this blog. Thank you Cameron.
Standing by my Wife Through Her Cancer Journey
On November 21, 2005, my family’s lives changed forever. On this day, my wife Heather found out that she had malignant pleural mesothelioma. It had only been three months since we celebrated the birth of our first child, and instead of getting ready to celebrate our first Christmas together, our lives were heading into a chaotic period.
Before we even left the hospital, I knew that I would have an important job ahead. Caring for a cancer patient would be extremely difficult. After the doctor told us about mesothelioma, he gave us three places we could go for treatment. My wife was speechless after learning about her diagnosis; therefore, I made the decision to go to Boston under the care of Dr. David Sugarbaker, a renowned specialist in the treatment of mesothelioma.
During the next two months, we were living in a very chaotic situation. Heather and I both used to work before she was diagnosed with cancer; however, after her diagnosis, she could no longer work. As for me, I could only work part time. I had to care for my wife, travel to Boston, and take care of our daughter. I was so overwhelmed and often thought about the worst possible outcomes. I was terrified of losing my wife and being left alone to raise a daughter who would never really know her mother. On several occasions, I found myself breaking down and crying when I was alone. However, I never cried around Heather because I knew she depended on me to be strong for her.
We were blessed to have so many people to help us. Many people would give us both words of comfort, and financial assistance which we so desperately needed. I was so hesitant to accept their help at first, but as soon as I let go of my pride and started accepting the generous offers that were coming our way, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. If there is anything that I would tell people dealing with cancer, it would be to take any offers of help offered to them.
Caring for someone with cancer is difficult, and most people will experience a ton of emotions; however, it is important to not let the fear and anger take control. By continuing to have hope, life is easier to manage. It was the most difficult journey of either of our lives, but after Heather’s intense treatment involving surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she miraculously beat mesothelioma, a feat so rare it is almost unheard of.
After this ordeal, I decided to go back to school to study Information Technology. My experience as Heather’s caregiver helped prepare me. I graduated with high honors, and at my graduation, I was the student graduation speaker. During my graduation speech, I informed the audience that I would have never imagined giving a graduation speech five years prior; however, by having hope and never giving up, people can accomplish more than they have ever dreamed of accomplishing. Heather and Lily were in the audience to cheer me on, and that was the best reward of all.
I’m writing this post in some haste. Trudy and I are embarking on an adventure early tomorrow morning which is making me feel electric with excitement and apprehension.
In November last year when life was pretty bleak I responded impulsively to an e-mail which was offering a discount on a Murder Mystery Weekend in Dunoon.
I realised today that I have been wanting to go to Scotland for thirty-five years, so this trek across the border feels momentous. Trudy and I have been told to arrive at Gourock Railway Station by 4.30pm tomorrow. The whole trip has such a thrilling, mystifying, alarming uncertainty about it that I am almost beside myself.
The sense of adventure is gripping. I have no idea what to expect – or even if we will get there. This journey is truly putting Assisted Travel to the test! My public transport experiences have been so varied that I am prepared for anything.
I do not know anyone in the holiday group so that too is fuelling my imagination. Who will be there, and what on Earth am I doing? Whether I’m experiencing some mid-life crisis or latent travel bug is immaterial now, for I am all packed and about to go to bed so that I won’t sleep past the alarm (set for 5.30am).
No time to think about the whys and wherefores. The Hoover and Bag go forth!
I had to get up earlier than usual – never a great start to the day. Trudy got up too, wondering if breakfast was going to be extra early. After some tense anticipation she grumbled and slumped into her day-bed in the lounge. How I envied her, lying curled up in all that fur just waiting for breakfast to be served.
An engineer from the Housing Association was supposed to be coming to fix my shower which is slowly detaching itself from the bathroom wall. So while it was still dark outside and the birds were feebly trying out their vocal chords, I was polishing taps and shower fixings, and almost got to the point of cleaning the floor. But procrastination filed away that noble idea before it had time to flourish.
I was told the engineer would arrive “AM”. According to the Tenancy Handbook, that can be any time between 7am and 1pm. So I waited. And waited. And waited even more until AM turned to PM. No engineer! When I phoned to ask what was afoot, I was given no explanation, just an apology and a re-scheduled appointment for tomorrow morning. The waste of an entire morning and the likelihood of a repeat performance tomorrow fuelled my Monday melancholy into despair.
But today is one of those cold days with an icy sun baring its bald head in the sky. So I decided to take Trudy to the park to give her a free run and to give me a blast of cold January air. Even before I had reached the metal gate at the park entrance my spirits had risen in line with the sun. The sharp breeze was flushing out my lungs and giving them new life. I gulped like a goldfish to take in as much air as possible.
Standing still in the open field which spans the bottom of the park, I felt invigorated. Monday melancholy was insignificant here. She began to lose her power and before long I could no longer sense her shadow. Trudy was tucking into an earthy molehill, her back-end was vertical and her collar-bells were clinking rather than ringing. When I whistled her she was reluctant to come, but eventually the prospect of a titbit was more alluring than a mound of earth and she bounced towards me with her ears flapping.
Within seconds she was off again, investigating some new scents which she had not noticed before. If only I could learn from my Labrador and live for the moment. No anxieties about the long-term future, no regrets about the past, just the here and now. Something about Aylestone Park in Hereford always brings me back to the here and now. There’s a magic in this park that stills Time, calms the spirit and frees the soul.
Minutes later Trudy came brushing by in the hope of another titbit. I ruffled her fur, it was damp and smelt of winter grass. Her wagging tail thumped against my legs and I counted the beats – one, two, three, four. It was like a slow drum-roll at the start of a dance. While we stood there together the ice on the sun began to thaw and I felt a warm glow drizzling over my shoulders. I realised that I was truly happy.
When Trudy and I ventured home we were both transformed. Trudy was tired and slow, and could only manage a very slight wag with the tip of her tail. I was at peace and ready to start my Monday afresh, even though it was half past two in the afternoon.
As I write this, Monday has ebbed into the early hours of Tuesday. Trudy is stretched out on her bed lost in Labrador dreams. Before I start to slide into my own dream-world, I thank God that I am alive.
Stage fright is a sickening, draining, sudden rush of terror that causes our hearts to hyper-beat. Stage fright steals our composure and threatens to steal our credibility. Stage fright makes us feel as if we’re about to die, right there on that cursed stage. Stage fright causes us to shake and sweat, to stumble and stutter. Stage fright attacks the strongest man as well as the weakest child.
The feelings associated with stage fright are unpleasant, but that does not mean we have to fight them. Neither does it mean that we need to avoid them at all costs. I recently heard an established Comedian recount in a radio interview that he has died on stage a number of times. That gave me heart, for I realised that dying on stage is commonplace yet it does not signify the end. Death on stage is nothing more than a temporary phenomenon. It only becomes permanent if we never stand on stage again.
As a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs I have experienced dying on stage. I have been so terrified that my whole body quivers, the sweat pours off me and I cannot control my shaking voice. Yet even on these occasions the talks were not disastrous. I have been incredibly moved by the spontaneous generosity of some of the audiences who have witnessed my raw fear. So it is fair to say that success cannot always be accurately measured by our own perceptions and feelings. I might consider a talk to be a disaster because I experienced terror, but the outcome of the talk may be extremely positive. .
Giving a presentation or lecture is very similar to doing stand-up comedy. Both Comedians and Speakers seek to get the audience on their side and then keep them interested and entertained. An audience is like a blank sheet of paper, and it is up to us whether we leave it untouched or bring it to life.
Experiencing stage fright may well lead people to think they can never stand up in front of an audience again. But avoiding the unpleasantness of stage fright is no solution. Equally if we become confident in Public Speaking it does not necessarily mean that stage fright will never return. Accepting that stage fright is normal, temporary and indiscriminate might help to restore self-belief. Experiencing it does not signify failure or incompetence, but succumbing to it by running away from it allows the beast to continue its reign of terror.
Stage fright is powerful and emotional, but that visible emotion could possibly captivate an audience. My shaking voice which I know to be a symptom of my terror, has been described as passionate and emotional by people listening, and at times it has moved them to tears. Is it possible then that stage fright can help us to stir the hearts of an audience, or to reach people in a way that we had not anticipated?
This week I gave two talks to two very different audiences. Both times I experienced the familiar symptoms of terror beforehand, but even though I could hear my voice quivering, stage fright did not dominate either talk. The adrenalin buzz which raced through me afterwards completely annihilated my memories of previous stage deaths. I know that stage fright may decide to suffocate me in future, but for the moment I am enjoying my exhilaration.
To thrive on stage fright we need to face the monster head-on, allow it to roar and even knock us to the ground, but walk away afterwards knowing that it has not beaten us.
All dogs have their favourite toys, but unfortunately these toys are the ones whose lives are destined to be short and painful. They must endure being tugged, chewed, disemboweled and ultimately decapitated or mortally wounded. Some manage to escape into the depths of the dog’s bed or under the fridge, but even these are eventually sniffed out to meet their fate. It is never play time for a dog’s toy.
When I trained with Trudy, my Guide dog Instructor warned of the dangers of giving dogs soft toys because their inner stuffing can potentially choke a dog. Likewise if a squeaker from a toy becomes lodged in your dog’s throat it can be fatal.
I took note of my Instructor’s advice and endeavoured not to buy Trudy any soft or squeaky toys. But Trudy is a seasoned thief, and it wasn’t long before I caught her stealing my own cuddly toys from the bedroom. (Yes, I do love teddy bears, and frogs, and beanies..!). My old favourites began to lose the shine on their fur and to develop a slightly bedraggled, manky appearance. Occasionally I would discover one of them lying dead in another room. In the end I decided that I would buy Trudy a couple of soft toys to play with under supervision.
Three and a half years later I have some gruesome scenes imprinted on my memory. Last Summer for example I bought a large dog-shaped doorstop. One morning I was shocked to discover that Trudy had blinded the dog and totally defaced its snout. I have had to remove it from my lounge because it is too disturbing. Its empty eyes and ripped snout speak of dastardly deeds. Was Trudy ensuring that the doorstop dog would never take her place as my Guide dog?! Suffice to say that the motives of Labradors are not always clear-cut.
In addition to the eye-gauging incident there have been numerous spontaneous massacres resulting in limbs and heads strewn all over the floor. Wads of stuffing have appeared in the most unlikely places. Eyes, ears and tails are frequently left abandoned in the hallway. Many toys have ended their sad lives in the bin. But there are some characters which have been consigned to the Sick Room, AKA “The Invalid Box”. These are the all-time favourites which have treasured memories embedded in their remaining body parts, and which I am unable to throw away. The Invalid Box is a very macabre collection indeed. Several of Trudy’s “Invalids” are in fact headless, and many are just a torso.
Trudy’s Invalid Box is now bursting at the seams. With this in mind I have reached a momentous decision. I have decided to undertake a mammoth project to repair those Invalids which have enough body mass to tolerate a needle and thread. I am hoping that Trudy’s excitement at being reunited with some of her loved-ones will overcome her critical eye – for the truth is I cannot sew to save my life. In fact, I cannot even thread a needle. But with the help of the RNIB shop (from which I’ve purchased an automatic needle-threader), Amazon and Google, I have high hopes.
Some of the torsos may find themselves attached to different limbs from before, and some may even end up with more limbs than they started with. But Trudy (fingers crossed!) will be gobsmacked to see the return of such legends as Myrtle the Turtle (the prize she won at the Guide dog of the Year Awards 2011). Myrtle unfortunately suffered multiple organ failure in the early Autumn.
If the Invalid Project is a success, I may progress to sewing up holes in my own skirts and darning my Trudyfied socks. The days of asking friends to mend things for me could soon be a thing of the past. That would really boost my confidence. Who knows what lies ahead in the sewing sphere of 2012? Watch this crafty space!