Michelle – Christmas Light Queen

Michelle and Ian have been displaying their Christmas light extravaganza outside their house for four or five years. “We started nowhere near on this scale.. it’s just got bigger and bigger!” says Michelle. Over that time they have raised around £2.5k – £3k for Rennie Grove. It takes around two months to prepare the lights and decorations. Ian then has to take a full week off work to put everything up. Michelle is quite relaxed about strangers walking around the front garden, looking at the display. She tells people to, “please come down the path and don’t be afraid!” Last year the ITV news weatherman, Martin Stew, presented the weather report from outside the house. “Suddenly all our neighbours wanted to come out!” giggles Michelle.

“When you’re told you’ve got cancer it’s the worst thing you want to hear”.

But the fundraising side of their Christmas lights is more than festive spirit. Michelle never forgot the support and advice that the charity Rennie Grove gave her when she was diagnosed with aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer in 2011. Her youngest son was six months. The doctor initially thought the lump in her breast was mastitis, common in breast feeding mothers, so the diagnosis came as a massive shock to her and her family. “When you’re told you’ve got cancer it’s the worst thing you want to hear,” says Michelle. She had to have a mastectomy, the lymph nodes in her armpits removed and multiple rounds of chemotherapy. “Just coping with having one breast and no hair at one point, I think that was the lowest I felt”.

Michelle and Ian didn’t want to hide anything about Michelle’s cancer from their two children. They also wanted their children to be familiar with how Michelle would now look. To a point the children were involved in that process. When Michelle started to lose her hair after her first round of chemo, Ian, helped by their eldest son, shaved off the remainder of Michelle’s hair. The children became use to her shaven head as she didn’t like to wear a wig. She found them itchy and hot. The children were also familiar with the scars of her surgery from her mastectomy.

“They know lots of people get better and lots of people don’t”.

Today Michelle is still on medication and will be for another three years. Her immune system isn’t as good as it should be and she picks up colds and flu more easily. The concern that the cancer will come back is always at the back of her mind. “You do always worry. It potentially could always be there, but you try not to think about it.”  Her children are very pragmatic about it, as children tend to be. They see that, “Mummy is better now”. When the children see something on the television, like Children in Need, highlighting children who have lost a parent to cancer, Michelle says, “they know lots of people get better and lots of people don’t”.

Michelle and Ian’s Christmas light show is an amazing sight. I am not sure how to even start to describe it. And it is so much more than the 100 or so light decorations. On the drive there is a Santa’s sleigh that you can sit in. There is a large Christmas lego scene displayed in the front of the garage. There are snowmen, angels, grazing reindeer, a train, penguins, three wise men and elves, all dotted around the front garden. There is Santa in his sleigh with Rudolph in front, perched on the roof of the garage. There is a polystyrene nativity scene on one side, which Ian’s dad built. There is a Christmas fun fair scene set up in the front window of the house. There are lights on the sloping roof and even Christmas music playing as you walk around. Ian has put together a quiz for the younger visitors, with a red post box to post your entry in for the chance to win a prize. Even the tree on the public pathway outside the house didn’t get away from the Christmas make-over, with a string of lights wrapped around its trunk. This description doesn’t do it justice so just go and see Michelle’ and Ian’s house on Blair Close for yourself.

“It is like a street party and we all love it”.

Like all good Christmas light displays, Michelle and Ian have an official switch on of the lights and invite all their friends, family and neighbours. This year the neighbours opposite organised mulled wine and mince pies on their driveway and Michelle organised a raffle and two tombola’s, with local businesses chipping in with prizes. One of the other neighbours was the MC for the evening – DJ Nick. Father Christmas even made a guest appearance. “It is like a street party and we all love it…It makes us feel quite blessed that people think of it like that.” The friends and neighbours all know the reason behind the fundraiser and, as Michelle says,”they know what we have been through”. To me, the coming together of Michelle and Ian’s friends and neighbours to light up this dark winter night parallels the community support that embraced Michelle and her family during one of their darkest times.

RAW publishes interviews regularly about a community member from Hemel Hempstead or the surrounding villages. To keep up to date with RAW’s interviews, click follow at the top of this page or like RAW’s Facebook page, highlighted at the side of the page.

Zane – Olympian basketball player

“The Olympics is still like a dream. It was amazing. You would be walking in the campus and you would see all these superstars from all over the world.” Zane is a 6’6’’ Latvian professional basketball player, and she is the last person I would have expected to find living at Amaravati Buddhist monastery in Great Gaddesden. She played for the Latvian national basketball team and represented them at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At high school she had won a scholarship to play basketball in the US and was drafted in to the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) after university. She married a professional basketball player in the States; “he was tall, he was good looking”. They were the envy of many, this perfect couple travelling the world, being paid well, driving expensive cars and following their passion. She was ticking off the list of her ten wildest dreams she thought would bring her the happiness she craved.

Zane felt her world had broken down

Zane’s early life was very different from this life as a globe trotting basketball star. She grew up in a suppressed environment in Latvia. For the first nine years of her life the country was part of the Soviet Union. Her family struggled with money and their attitude was that life wasn’t to be enjoyed, you just had to get through it. Her parents worked, but sometimes they didn’t even receive money, instead they were issued with ration tickets for food. The family grew extra vegetables in the summer and tulips in the winter, to supplement their income. Zane had a very difficult relationship with her father, who emotionally and sometimes physically, abused her, and she carries the scars of this today. Her father was very critical of her, instilling her with low self esteem and blaming her for everything, his actions included. Also being tall for her age she was bullied by her peers for her height. Growing up in this environment Zane felt her world had broken down. She had no where to go and was having suicidal thoughts. Her saviour was a teacher who had just graduated from university and wanted to coach a basketball team. She walked in to Zane’s maths class, looking for students to coach, and that was the moment that Zane’s life changed. Basketball made her feel useful for once in her life and good about herself.

Moving to the USA for her full scholarship, her basketball skills went from strength to strength and she started to earn good money, playing in the top women’s teams. But her insecurities her father had instilled in her were still there, just below the surface. She couldn’t believe she was worthy of this perfect lifestyle and every time she signed a new contract for a team, she would think to herself, “I am not this good to get this money”.

She found herself crying on the bathroom floor.

As her and her husband’s careers progressed and they started playing in different countries, Zane found out her husband was having affairs. Because of her low self esteem that had been conditioned in to her by her father, she felt the affairs were her fault. “I was always looking for the fault in me”. Her relationship with her husband was becoming like the relationship with her father, being bullied and criticised and always feeling she was the one in the wrong. “I was trying my best (in her marriage), until there was a point where I couldn’t move on”. She found herself crying on the bathroom floor, not knowing what to do. Eventually her and her husband agreed to divorce and although she knew it was the right thing to do, it was a very painful time for her. “I could feel my heart was broken”. The other hard part of her divorce was that her husband took all of their money, leaving her with 20 Euros to her name.

Zane first connected with the Buddhist principles when she heard the Abbot of Amaravati speak. She had stopped playing basketball in the summer of 2016, due to a knee injury. Having played professional basketball for 11 years, she really didn’t know what to do. Some friends were coming to the monastery for a short visit and one pulled out, so they asked Zane. She wasn’t really that interested at first, but decided to go. From the first day she loved the place. By the third day she asked one of the nuns if she could stay longer. She has now been there for over a year.

“Don’t believe everything you think”.

Zane felt the Buddhist philosophy was exactly how she wanted to live her life. It was “very close to my heart, even though I had nothing to do with Buddhism before”. For the first time in her life Zane felt like she was in the right place. She didn’t have to worry about what other people thought, a concern that had been conditioned in her since childhood. She realised she couldn’t live a happy life if she wasn’t happy within herself. And she realised she didn’t need other people’s approval to feel good about herself. Although the experience with her ex-husband was very painful, she feels it was one of her biggest lessons in life. It opened her eyes to her childhood conditioning. She needed to break the cycle of self criticism and low self esteem. Having lived for thirty years in one mindset, she knows now that “my mind is limiting me..I am learning to make peace with it”. And as one of the monks told her, “don’t believe everything you think”.

After her divorce Zane found her teenage list with her ten wildest dreams on. Although she had achieved 90% of them, even down to the specific detail of owning a BMW, what she realised is that how you appear to the outside world doesn’t make any difference if you are not happy within. Re-reading this teenage list, a year after her divorce, she still felt “in the same miserable place as before”. So now with regards to her future she doesn’t worry about what will happen. She isn’t looking to be a millionaire, which was the one dream she didn’t achieve on her list. “I just want to feel good, I want to feel peaceful, I want to feel happy. First I need to start with myself and make myself feel like that.” Only then will she be able to move on.

RAW publishes interviews regularly about a community member from Hemel Hempstead or the surrounding villages. To keep up to date with RAW’s interviews, click follow at the top of this page or like RAW’s Facebook page, highlighted at the side of the page.

 

Rebekah and Caroline – Living with dyspraxia

Rebekah had a traumatic birth. She was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and wasn’t breathing when she came out. After the initial panic though, there were no real concerns for her. The only sign that something might be wrong was that Rebekah never really babbled as a child, but Caroline thought it may be a genetic trait. “My aunt didn’t talk until she was five and she hasn’t stopped since!” It wasn’t until Rebekah went to nursery that her condition was recognised.

Rebekah has moderate learning difficulties and profound verbal dyspraxia, which means she finds it hard to make sentences and hard to remember words. She can’t sequence things, which also means she can’t grasp the concept of time, so any event she talks about is last week. There is no obvious pattern to her thought process, she will just talk about unconnected things. She also has slight physical dyspraxia, which means her brain knows what she must do to move her body, but the messages to the body parts gets muddled up.

“You always feel on edge, you have to say ‘this is Rebekah and she has special needs’”.

I ask Caroline about other people’s prejudices towards Rebekah and if this presents problems. She does find day to day encounters with strangers hard, because people do judge her and Rebekah. “You always feel on edge, you have to say ‘this is Rebekah and she has special needs’”. She remembers one time when Rebekah was younger and singing in the school concert. “She couldn’t say the words, she’s tone deaf and has one volume, which is loud. I was blubbing my heart out as I thought it was fantastic and I could hear other parents saying, ‘what is wrong with that child?’. You get that all the time.” She finds solace with other parents who have children with similar needs, and the various disability sports groups that Rebekah is involved with offer that informal support network. “It’s like therapy; we all chat together. You don’t feel like you have to justify anything at all”.

Caroline, and her husband Matthew, have made a conscious effort to treat Rebekah and her older brother the same as much as they can. They are disciplined the same and participate in family activities together; the family go skiing every year and run the 5km Park Run every Saturday. There are, of course, some ways they are unable to be treated the same. Rebekah wants her own house key and although her brother at age 12 could be responsible in the house by himself, Rebekah is not able as she wouldn’t be able to react to an emergency. “There could be a fire (on the stove) and she would just sit there and think it’s getting a bit warm, but not know what to do”.

The Special Olympics is a multi-sports event for athletes of all ages with intellectual disabilities.

For a girl of 12 though, Rebekah has already achieved so much. She competed in the Special Olympics in Sheffield in the Summer and was one of the youngest team members from the Eastern Region. The Special Olympics is a multi-sports event for athletes of all ages with intellectual disabilities. Rebekah entered three swimming races and won a bronze medal in the backstroke. I ask her how it felt to stand on the podium. “Happy. Sad”. Happy for the obvious reasons but sad because she is very competitive and wanted to win the gold.

Another benefit of training with the Special Olympics team, which is based in St. Albans, is that the team have a good social life. They go to concerts and participate in different activities, so as Rebekah gets older she can hang out with others who have intellectual disabilities like her. “Nick,” interrupts Rebekah. Caroline sheds some light, “She met him and had a bit of a holiday romance (at the Special Olympics)…she talks about Nick a lot”.

Caroline has recently started working at the school and has now become use to the normality of sheep walking through the corridor.

Rebekah now attends a Special Needs school, which has considerable grounds and is resident to numerous animals. Rebekah tells me about all the animals; rabbits, a snake, insects, a chameleon, donkeys and sheep. Her favourite animal is the red labrador, Maple. Caroline has recently started working at the school and has now become use to the normality of sheep walking through the corridor, a parrot perched on the shoulder of one of the staff members as he goes about his daily life at the school and a school nativity play with real animals. “The children don’t even bat an eyelid, no-one does,” laughs Caroline.

In some ways Rebekah is just like any other 12 year old. She argues with her older brother over incidental things, winds her parents up playing loud music (its Bars and Melody at the moment, which she plays “24/7” according to Caroline), participates in sporting activities and falls in love on holiday. But Rebekah’s journey to adulthood and independent living is full of a lot more hurdles and anxieties for both her and her family than the average teenager and their family would ever face. However Caroline seems to face these anxieties in a very practical way, and as she says, “you do have to have a sense of humour if you’ve got a special needs child”.

RAW publishes interviews regularly about a community member from Hemel Hempstead or the surrounding villages. To keep up to date with RAW’s interviews, click follow at the top of this page or like RAW’s Facebook page, highlighted at the side of the page.

 

Denise – Losing a loved one

“It’s very sad, but at the same time, to work together, then you fight together and then you die together, there is something poetic about that”.

When Denise started writing a story set in World War I, she couldn’t have anticipated where the journey would take her. There was something intriguing about that particular war that really resonated with her. She then discovered two great cousins and a great uncle had died in World War I. “It was almost like fate or an omen and it made the story more profoundly powerful and personal”. The protagonist in Denise’s novel is killed on the Somme; in real life, one of her great cousins, Clifton, was injured in the Battle of Pozieres in July 1916 and sadly died from his injuries. Clifton’s younger brother Hamilton was 18 at the time of his brother’s death. Two years later the same fate befell on the family, as Hamilton was reported Missing In Action after the Battle of Soissons; his body was never located. When Denise conducted further research, she discovered there was a war memorial in Apsley. It commemorated those who had worked at John Dickinson’s and had died in the war, including her family members. She located the memorial hidden behind the undergrowth on the Paper Trail Trust site and visited it one night, by herself. “I felt scared.. but I thought I am with all these men, with all these brave souls. I didn’t feel alone.”

Shining a light on those who were previously hidden in the darkness.

Not one to forgo a challenge, Denise felt she couldn’t leave the war memorial garden in its neglected condition, so she enlisted numerous volunteers and solicited generous donations of materials from local companies to enable her to restore and landscape the garden around the war memorial. “We had giggles and laughter and blood and sweat and bruises!” Even her mother, who is in her 70’s, helped by bringing sandwiches and drinks for the volunteers. The transformation in 19 days was astonishing and the design has been carefully thought through; a gravel path, a small stone bench and some wonderful small metal sculptures that represent the army, the navy, the air force and the paper mill workers. At night the memorial, and the names of the deceased, are lit up, shining a light on those who were previously hidden in the darkness.

The doctors said when he turned 16, they would be able to give him a new heart.

Denise has more in common with some of the soldiers that survived, and the families whose children died, than I first realised. At the age of five, her older brother, Carl, was diagnosed with a narrow aorta. It was the late 1960’s so initially there wasn’t the technology to perform any surgery that would help. When Carl was around 12, he had an operation to open up his aorta, which gave him more oxygen. “Once he had the operation he shot up, he got taller and could do a lot more things, he had the energy”. As his heart was so stressed, the doctors said when he turned 16, they would be able to give him a new heart. Weeks before his 16th birthday in December, he died. Denise was 14 at the time.

It was an extremely difficult period in her life, “so profoundly painful”. People around her, especially her parents friends, said she should be strong for her mum and dad,. “I felt I couldn’t mourn in front of my parents”. Her only place of solace was her bedroom. “If my mum came in, I would be begrudging her, as it was my isolated domain, that was my time to grieve. I would be wiping away my tears.. I didn’t know how to handle it really”. She could talk to Carl’s friends, and they were supportive, but when they came to the house she felt it was to see how her parents were coping, rather than how she was. She felt her parents grief was overshadowing her own grief.

“I think, is that what they really thought of me?”

She admits that she went off the rails, “I was a horrible teenager, not very nice”. She found her old school reports from the year before, and the year after, Carl’s death. The year before his death, her reports described how well she was progressing, noting how she was focused and keen to learn. The year after Carl’s death, her school reports describe how she was not learning and was being disruptive. In those days there wasn’t the counselling that is available now or the understanding of a student’s behaviour due to their circumstances. She sounds slightly bitter when she thinks of those reports, as it showed the lack of empathy from her teachers. “I think, is that what they really thought of me?”  She wonders how different her life would have been if her brother hadn’t died. “It took a lot out of me, psychologically scarred me”. To make up for her lost education, she went back to night school in her late twenties and studied for her English and Maths GCSE’s. She then went on to obtain a degree in Molecular Biology.

It took her twenty years to seek professional counselling. She felt that for the best part of that time she had lost so much of herself. “I needed to close one door..not on my brother. I closed the door on the pain and the confusion”. Like some soldiers who have lost friends in battle, there was also an element of Survivor Syndrome. “You start saying to yourself ‘You were so much brighter, why did you go?’ .. It’s almost like you feel guilty for living”.

“You could I say I am living for my brother, for them (the fallen soldiers), but I am living for myself ultimately.”

She now feels she is catching up on her missed opportunities. “You could I say I am living for my brother, for them (the fallen soldiers), but I am living for myself ultimately.” She recently walked the Three Peaks Challenge, over six days. She tells me this as if I shouldn’t be too impressed, because it wasn’t in the prescribed twenty four hours that climbers normally aim for. I am still impressed. She still walked up (and down) each highest peak in Scotland, England and Wales. And the first two peaks she went to alone. She initially embarked on the challenge to get herself both mentally and physically fit, as she would like to attempt Everest Base Camp. However she decided to do the challenge as a fundraiser for the British Heart Foundation, in memory of Carl. In May she participated in Women V Cancer – Ride the Night, a 62 mile bike ride. The other catalyst for Denise’s change in lifestyle was seeing her parents grow older and suffering from heart disease and diabetes through lifestyle choices. Sometimes parents become our role models in terms of what not to do.

Denise is still writing her WWI novel and I am keen to read it when she has finished. She understands the emotion of losing a loved one in the prime of their life, and a community who are unable to understand the pain that those who are left behind, are going through.

RAW publishes interviews regularly about a community member from Hemel Hempstead or the surrounding villages. To keep up to date with RAW’s interviews, click follow at the top of this page or like RAW’s Facebook page, highlighted at the side of the page.

Eve – Life in the 50’s

85 year old Eve once performed the Can Can at Claridges, for the launch of the comic Swift. “I can still high kick,” she says. I watch amazed as she demonstrates in her living room, with a perfect pointed toe. It was 1954, in the days when job descriptions for women were quite fluid. The bosses at Hulton Press on Fleet Street were looking for female staff who were “fairly tall and slim”. Her and four other work colleagues were deemed to fit the bill, so they downed tools and were sent by taxi to a dance studio near Piccadilly to learn the Can Can. They were fitted out with dresses, petticoats and frilly knickers from the west-end theatre costumier Berman’s. Each pair of knickers had one letter sewn on the back, for the final climax of the dance, when they turned around and bent over to reveal the word SWIFT. “It was great fun!” recalls Eve. She was actually a Lettering Artist on Fleet Street, in the days before computers revolutionised the industry. She would be given the final comic strip drawings the artists had sketched and had to fit the script in to the speech bubbles.

Eve has numerous strings to her bow and her creativity is the thread that pulls everything together. When I visit her at her home in Boxmoor, her living room is littered with all of her work – lace she has made, pictures she has painted, a photo of one of the many wedding dress she created, patchwork cushions, knitted hats and silhouettes of fashion designs she has sketched for talks she gives about fashion and costume. Keen on art, “I always loved drawing, even as a little girl”, she left school at 13, when she won a scholarship to the Watford School of Art and Music. “We did millinery in the morning and dress making and drawing in the afternoon”. At the age of 16 she attended an interview for a job in the art studio at John Dickinson’s in Apsley. “Mother came with me (to the interview) as one did in those days..you didn’t go on your own”. Although she landed the job, when she first started, the lady she was meant to replace decided to stay on a bit longer, so Eve was given administration work in the office for a short time. She was told to do some typing. I guess at the time the feeling was that as she was female, surely typing was in her genes. “I said ‘I can’t type’. ‘Never mind, you’ll learn’ and they gave me an old typewriter”. She also had to answer the telephone, but was clueless as to what to do; she didn’t have a telephone at home. “I pretended I didn’t hear it!”.

At home her toilet was down at the end of the garden. “We use to call it the Thunderbox”.

It was also the days before soft kleenex toilet paper and inside toilets, so she was delighted that John Dickinson’s had an inside washroom. At home her toilet was down at the end of the garden. “We use to call it the Thunderbox”. Curious I google the term Thunderbox and I find out its a slang term for an outside toilet, so called because if you fart in the small box that the outside toilet was, it sounds like thunder. One of Eve’s chores at home was to tear up newspaper in to squares and put string through it, so the paper would hang up like a toilet roll. Apparently though the best toilet paper was tissue paper and when you bought fruit from the grocers this was what it came wrapped in. Eve and her mum would keep the tissue paper for themselves as a special treat, whilst the rest of the family and lodgers had to do with the newspaper.

John Dickinson’s was where she met her husband Peter, at one of the many departmental dances. “He asked me for a dance, I wasn’t too sure,” she chuckles. Luckily she accepted and they have now been married for 61 years. You can see they still have a real affection and admiration for each other. Peter proudly shows me a watercolour Eve painted of The Railway Hotel (now The Mallard) where they held their wedding reception all those years ago.

Geoffrey was thrown the other way in to the traffic. It is the nightmare that all parents dread.

Eve and Peter had three children – a girl and two boys. Tragically their eldest son, Geoffrey, died in a motorcycle accident, just before Christmas 1979. “Christmas will never been the same for us because we always think of Geoffrey”. It was a stormy, windy Saturday night and Geoffrey was taking a friend back to his house to get something he had forgotten. Geoffrey lost balance and both boys came off the bike. His friend was thrown on to the grass verge, but Geoffrey was thrown the other way in to the traffic. It is the nightmare that all parents dread. “They came and told us at 4 o’clock in the morning, on Sunday morning, and it was three days before his birthday. He would have been 18… He was a lovely lad”, she sighs heavily.

One of the things that clearly angers Eve about her son’s death, was other people’s reaction to her. “It’s awful because people ignore you, they cross the road, they don’t want to talk to you..they don’t even say anything, and that hurts, so I’ve got use to that bit”. Eve found relief talking to others whose loved ones had died suddenly. She shows me a school photo of a smiling Geoffrey. He didn’t normally like having his photo taken, “he would put his tongue out or turn around,” so she treasures this photo. “He had beautiful brown eyes and black hair”.

Eve comes across as a strong woman in many ways. She didn’t give up on her creative desires in an age where women were obviously sidelined. She studied for a City and Guilds in Fashion and Drawing as a mature student, when her youngest son, Stephen, started school aged five. Familiar to many mothers at home looking after little ones, and at a time when there was not the availability of childcare facilities most people take for granted now, she felt that “now I want to be me”. As part of her course work she was given the designer Thea Porter to research. Porter was credited with bringing the kaftan to the London catwalks and dressed stars such as Elizabeth Taylor. Knowing nothing about Porter at the time she started investigating. She found out Porter operated from a small shop in Soho, next door to a sex shop. “I didn’t dare wander up and down looking for the place as they might think I was on the game!” However she summoned up the courage and found the shop. Porter was in Paris at the time but the staff were happy to show Eve around the shop and the workshop downstairs where the clothes were being made. “The shop was like an Aladdin’s Cave. The fabric, good lord, was absolutely out of this world”. In the workshop she was stepping over pieces of discarded fabric strewn all over the place. She grabbed as much as she could off the floor to use as illustrations for her course work. She shows me the portfolio she made, with all her drawings, fabric designs and black and white photos of Barbara Streisand dressed in Thea Porter for the film A Star is Born. Eve also made a dress in the Thea Porter style, which she shows me. It is exquisite.

Eve would love to find a photo of that night in 1954.

I can’t even start to do justice to Eve’s story with this short piece, but she has started writing her memoirs. Although she is already a published author with a number of books that document the local area, at the moment her memoirs are “just for family and friends who want it”. Her publishers are keen for her to publish them but I will leave it up to Eve to decide whether she fills in all the many gaps for a broader audience. For her memoirs she would also love to obtain a photograph of herself and her friends dancing the Can Can at Claridges. I did to try to track one down, but Hulton Press has been sold quite a few times and is now owned by Time Inc. They couldn’t help me and suggested I contact Getty Images, who own a lot of their archival photos, but no luck there. So if anyone is a better investigator than I am, Eve would love to find a photo of that night in 1954.

RAW publishes interviews regularly about a community member from Hemel Hempstead or the surrounding villages. To keep up to date with RAW’s interviews, click follow at the top of this page or like RAW’s Facebook page, highlighted at the side of the page.

Andy – Homeless but happy

Andy came to Berkhamsted to end his life; “my intention was to step in front of a train”, he says very matter-of-factly. A few years previously he took a day trip by train to Berkhamsted and saw how the fast trains flew through the station. At the time he thought it would be an easy way to end his life. So in 2016, with this thought still lodged in the back of his mind, he arrived at the station.

In the context of a long history of mental health issues, life had been spiralling out of control for Andy, and he ended up having a breakdown in 2014. He had enough savings to survive a couple of years without working, due to his career as an engineer. He tried to recuperate over these two years, but when the money ran out he knew that was the end, so he boarded a train to Berkhamsted. Arriving at the station he felt he couldn’t face ending his life right away, so he went off to find somewhere rough to sleep for the night. “I thought I would just lie down on the ground and I would do it tomorrow.”

His fear of death was now stronger than his fear of homelessness.

He had realised the platform at Berkhamsted wasn’t the best place to jump from. There was too much light and he didn’t want to be visible. He found an area further along the track that was more suitable. Twice he stood on the track in front of a train, but he couldn’t go through with it and moved out of the way. He sat by the side of the track contemplating why he couldn’t end his life. “Is it going to be painful? – well you’re not going to survive much longer if a train hits you. Is it the fear of the unknown? – but I’m curious to know what happens when we die, so I just came to the conclusion that it’s death itself, the actual act of death we are programmed to fear”.

Having been homeless and sleeping rough for a week, his fear of death was now stronger than his fear of homelessness. He had previously thought homelessness would be so traumatic that it would push him over the edge, but it was the opposite. For him, his homeless situation was “like walking out of one of the James Bond films, where he walks out of the rubble and then walks off in to the sunset, leaving this rubble of my life behind”.

“I am not trying to be anything at all…I just am”.

His relatively new nomadic lifestyle is much more compatible with his nature. “(Previously) I was trying to fit in with society and I was playing my role in society and it was contrary to my nature.” He comes back to this point again when reflecting on his past mental health issues and especially his anxiety. He sees a lot of his anxiety was to do with the self, “about who I was or who I was trying to be. Whereas now I am not trying to be anything at all…I just am. This is why I find my current lifestyle very comfortable: I don’t have to be anything”. The paradox of his situation is that he use to get anxiety when there was no rational reason for it. Then he had a good career, money coming in and a roof over his head and that is when he suffered from anxiety. Now, homeless, he has genuine reasons to be anxious about his situation, “where is my next meal? where shall I sleep tonight? will someone attack me? and I have no anxiety at all. That is a bizarre thing”.

He says everyone he meets has been very supportive and in his nearly two years of homelessness he hasn’t once had a bad experience. Early on when he was homeless, he was sitting in Gadebridge Park on a bench and a man with a shaven head, tattoos and a pit bull terrier approached him and asked if he was homeless. Andy, who is quite well spoken, replied he was fine, but the man insisted. “I thought ‘oh no, he’s going to get me dealing drugs!’, but this bloke reaches in to his pocket and says ‘Go on, have a fiver. I’ve been homeless, I know what its like’”. Andy says he felt so guilty, thinking the worse of this stranger. He is genuinely touched by the kindness that people have shown to him.

“I had accidentally fallen in to a kind of Buddhist lifestyle”.

Andy doesn’t see himself as a religious or spiritual person, but he has been drawn to Buddhism. When he first discovered the Amravati Buddhist Monastery outside Great Gaddesden and heard the Eight Precepts (the original teachings of Buddha), he felt a real connection, a parallel with his own life. For example in Buddhism there is a rule against using ‘high, luxurious beds’ and as he put it, “I was sleeping on flagstones!” Buddhist’s also only eat between dawn and noon, so before noon they consume a main meal. Andy had been attending the day centre that is run by DENS, who give out food to the homeless from 11.30am so he was also eating before noon. “I realised I had accidentally fallen in to a kind of Buddhist lifestyle, a lifestyle which was a very positive experience”. Buddhist’s also believe that nature will provide for you. “I don’t claim welfare and I don’t beg or ask for anything. I wait for things to happened and somehow it has. It’s extraordinary. For not a very spiritual person, that’s quite a weird feeling.” People have given him coats when he needed them for the winter, others have given blankets and one person gave him a bivouac bag to sleep in, so he has never been uncomfortably cold.

Andy spends his weekend at the monastery, where he gets a shower, a bed and can wash his clothes, in exchange for volunteering in the library. During the week he spends his days in Hemel, visiting the library and going to the day centre to receive food. At night he walks back to Berkhamsted to find somewhere to sleep. The library have been very supportive and are happy for him to sit and read all day. He chews through books, so he often is reading one whilst he has a request out for his next book to read. He also reads The Guardian every day, “I use to be an Independent reader. I bought the very first issue when it came out in 1986 I think it was!” but the paper version has ceased printing. The other vital thing he does every day at the library is to check the weather forecast on the internet, so he can plan his night. “If a storm is coming later on, then I leave earlier”.

It is like he feels he has been given a second chance at life.

When I ask about what the future holds this doesn’t concern him. Again he finds the Buddhist philosophy helpful. The Buddhist lifestyle is very much about living in the present moment and letting life unfold in front of you. “I feel there are these forces taking care of me. I am quite willing to say ‘let’s see what happens’”. He deliberately doesn’t have a plan and is fascinated to see what happens, who talks to him and who provides him with the things he needs, at the time he needs them. I worry about his glasses he wears, as reading is such a big part of his life. What will happen if his glasses break, or as his prescription changes. “It’s all for nature to sort out,” he laughs.

Andy is very matter-of-fact about everything – about his mental health issues and his previous desire to end his life. I think this is because he is so settled and content with his new life. He sees himself in this new exciting chapter, free from the anxieties and depression that plagued him since he was 15. It is like he feels he has been given a second chance at life.

RAW publishes interviews regularly about a community member from Hemel Hempstead or the surrounding villages. To keep up to date with RAW’s interviews, click follow at the top of this page or like RAW’s Facebook page, highlighted at the side of the page.