Growing up, 'storyteller' was never an option of the possible professions presented to me. There were options such as veterinarian, teacher or maybe musician. When it came time to head to University my peers, my parents and the wider society had a unanimous agreement, working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) was a surefire way to ensure my future success. Nevermind that I was an avid reader with a deep love for story and for performance.

"Feeling as though my passion is being legitimised is so meaningful."

So in 2013, I headed off to the University of Edinburgh to study Ecological and Environmental Sciences with Management. One would think that might have cemented my future as an ecologist but instead it sparked a personal journey that has seen a huge shift in my understanding of myself and my purpose, a journey which I’ll explore here.

It is now February 2018 and I have just started the TellYours 2018 storytelling troupe, a development programme for storytellers from places other than the UK and I could not be more thrilled. Its an affirmation that I have deviated from the path for all the right reasons and it is an investment in the future I hope to create, where storytelling and mental health come together to promote wellbeing.

When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder after being admitted to a psychiatric ward. Cue four years of being heavily medicated, four years of self harming and disordered eating, and deep-seated feelings of self hatred, isolation and shame (things I’ve only been able to name in hindsight).

Such an impactful event at a pivotal time in my life was traumatic, and unpacking what happened then is becoming an increasing part of my recovery journey. Looking back, the power that stories and reading held in keeping me alive has become clear. I’m the type of reader who can read anywhere, on moving vehicles, in crowded rooms, even at bars. Being able to live another life, to be transported to different realities is a crucial coping mechanism I use at various states of wellness.

Ironically then, I used to be so disconnected from my own story, silenced by the stigma and shame that most who have experienced mental illness will speak to. Yet in 2014, in the midst of my studies, I had the opportunity to speak with TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh and ended up speaking about experiences of mental illness. It had not been my intention but catalysed this 180 degree flip, where I emerged convinced that we need more spaces to speak authentically and listen openly to stories of mental ill health.

Immersion

After much consternation, I left my degree early and founded Real Talk, a social enterprise that aims to reduce mental health stigma and empower individuals who have suffered through the power of storytelling. We run mental health storytelling workshops and evenings. One of the most powerful pieces of feedback that has been received is “keep this event going, it saves lives.”

Connecting into this love of personal stories reconnected me to my love of traditional stories I held as a youngster, when I devoured Greek myths and the entire anthology of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Serendipitously, I had migrated to Scotland from the US and discovered the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. I signed up to their storytelling apprenticeship programme in 2016 and have been immersing myself in the tradition ever since.

This is where TellYours 2018 comes in. I am so proud to be a part of this troupe and it comes at such a transitional time for myself. Being able to learn from so many talented artists, producers and directors has left me humming with excitement. I know these are skills I will apply to cultivating my own performance craft and also to my work with Real Talk.

Feeling as though my passion is being legitimised is so meaningful, I am building the foundation for success beyond the constraints I formerly perceived. And I am not just a migrant to the UK, my grandparents were refugees to the US from Hungary. I can’t help but feel that what I am about to embark on will be an incredible exploration of my identity and history, something I have craved since I was little.

I’ve seen stories cultivate empathy for fellow humans, empower individuals who thought they had nothing to share, spark rich conversations and hold space for imagination and escape.
I recognise that not all are ready to share their personal stories as the continuum of what one needs for recovery is broad. This is exactly why I think traditional stories are so relevant, they hold space for us to explore what makes us human, what drives us and what challenges us. It is an art form that holds the power to reduce conflict and help us heal wounds.

For those looking to explore how storytelling can be relevant for them, there are many possibilities. Research the hero’s journey and contemplate how it connects to your life, read some articles on Mental Health Today or The Mighty to learn of other people’s experiences or see what traditional storytelling is happening in your local area.

Storytelling has altered the course of my life and while I can’t promise it will do so for everyone, I thoroughly recommend you give it a chance.

Learn more about Real Talk and TellYours 2018.

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