For #VolunteersWeek, our volunteer Helen generously shared her story:
I knew that I needed help but the help I needed could only come from me. I had reached a stage in my life where I was stuck and had slowly, by degrees, crept into a deep rabbit hole of self-doubt and lack of confidence which manifested itself in a terror of social interaction. If I had to speak to anyone who wasn’t family or a few very close friends my mouth would go dry, my stomach would churn and the hammering of my heart would feel as if I’d just run up several flights of stairs..
The problem had evolved incrementally through almost two decades of working alone and at home. I immersed myself in my job and my family, saw close friends occasionally, extended family rarely, and the rest of the time I was running my own small artistic business and looking after my children. Those years were also spent living abroad and moving around so that I never built up a network of acquaintances – I was either talking to my husband and children in the house or composing sentences in a foreign language when I walked out the door.
On moving to Edinburgh I found that I had lost the ability to communicate on the simplest level. Things got so bad that if a stranger commented about the weather in the park I would seize up. Once, during a casual conversation I found that I was focusing so hard on trying to keep my face from locking into a mask of fear, that I couldn’t understand the simple sentences that the other person was saying. It was at that point that I knew I needed to do something.
In a previous life I had worked as a journalist and it was clear to me that one reason things had deteriorated to this point, was because I had been too isolated for too long. The answer was to find a volunteer job in an office environment. I could squirrel myself away in a corner, do my work and hopefully get used to being around other people again.
As it turned out, I was very lucky to come across an advert for a volunteer job at Cyrenians posted on Volunteer Scotland. The post was to help with the charity’s social media and website. I was still busy with my own work, so I filled in the application form offering to do one day a week.
Right from the moment I joined Cyrenians I felt included and appreciated. My manager and her assistant got me involved straight away. There was no sitting around wondering if there was any point in me being there. I was assigned the task of being a volunteer story teller, going out to the various branches of the organisation to speak to service users, collecting their stories and photographs to post online.
I immediately loved the work and loved the atmosphere. One of the reasons I felt at ease was because Cyrenians’ core message is about inclusion, about helping people find their way out of difficult situations. Needless to say, my situation did not remotely compare with the difficulties of coping with life on the streets or having to rely on food banks but I felt that I could slip into my role, being quietly helped by the people I was meeting, by hearing about their lives. I met people whose courage, humour and resilience touched me to the core.
I also found that my old journalist instincts automatically kicked in. I don’t find it nearly so challenging talking to someone about their life experiences where all I have to do was ask the questions and record the answers than I do attempting to exchange pleasantries with a neighbour. My experience at Cyrenians has been an invaluable part of the process of helping me adjust and find my voice again.
As for the office and that corner I longed to find for myself? Well, I’ve found it. It is a hot desk in an open plan room full of banter and laughter interspersed with bouts of concentration and productivity. I still keep a low profile and I still don’t talk much but I am hugely grateful to be here.