Recently, I received an email for an event called ‘Real Talk’ in my work inbox. Thankfully working in the mental health field you occasionally get this kind interesting stuff sent out in the office. The event is hosted by people who suffer or have suffered in the past from ‘mental health problems’ and allows space for them to open up and speak candidly to the audience about the topic of mental health in relation to their own experience.
Something about it resonated with me, maybe due to the impact had by watching speakers on the TED YouTube channel in relation to my own perspective of recovery, and I decided, for that reason, to jump in at the brave end and sign up. What transpired was in equal parts daunting, uplifting and life affirming.
I attended the first story telling workshop with my fellow speakers, and we got to know each others lives fully. The first day barriers collapsed gradually, through the introductory exercises and theatrical warm-up exercises to prepare our voices and minds, but the walls between us disintegrated pretty quickly as we each took turns to run through our first ‘improvised’ story draft.
This is what we were here for.
The stories were hard to listen too, as listening to others suffering should only be. My turn came, and I found it equally difficult to deliver, but for a slightly obtuse reason. This was a story which I had only disclosed a small number of times in my life. One I had felt fear to disclose for many years thanks to shame and a desire to protect both myself and others. And now here I was, forming this torture in to a narrative which I had just that day been taught the basics of crafting into something cohesive and captivating.
It felt… invigorating. I left the Scottish Story Telling Center that day and strode up The Royal Mile admiring the spring in the air. It felt like I had just arranged a first date, both scary and at the same time electrically exciting.
I had often had a desire to perform, musically, socially, theatrically. This desire I was remembering in full. It had been buried under so much value from others right back to school and mid-childhood. These values of being ‘not good enough’, ‘not looking right’, ‘not confident enough’ were sitting, like a heavy blanket, on that playful outgoing child. Who I had turned my back on. I had listened to ‘them’… and it was hard to shake ‘them’ off.
I decided to turn my attention to that child, and that this would be the crux of my story.
I had made a reference to breaking out of my shell during my first meeting with the group which had been commented on by the story teller in residence who was teaching us, and on arriving early to the next workshop, I decided to run with it.
Through the use of extended metaphor I transferred my story in to the form of a child’s picture book. In this way I felt I would have the distance to perform, and that my inner child would be allowed to ‘play’ again too.
It is that story that I told, and I will tell you now, my only regret is that through using metaphor I am withholding some detail due to my own need to preserve myself from it still. Although I feel it is protected unjustly, and repressing the truth can in many ways be detrimental, I will feel ready to tell it fully at the right time. As I learned through my Real Talk experience more than ever, expression is both liberating and purging.
Gary the Chicken
Gary sat nestled, within his egg, within the nest. It was warm and cosy, he was surrounded by the other eggs, and the mother hen sat above, keeping him warm.
All was well in Gary’s world, but then one day the other chickens hatched from their eggs. They fluttered their wings and bumbled and tumbled out of the nest towards the watering hole and the seed left for them by the farmer.
Gary saw this, but he felt warm and comfortable in the egg. He decided to stay a while.
The other chickens began to grow and flourish, and the mother chicken had long left the nest, she didn’t know Gary was left behind in the egg.
He could hear the chickens squawking and playing, and wanted to join them, but the egg had grown hard and brittle, and was hard to break free from. Gary pecked at the shell, but could only make a small crack. He squawked back at the other chickens, but they could hardly hear him, and didn’t pay him much notice as they played. Did they not want him to come out to play with them?
As Gary grew within the shell, it became tight and constricting. He felt sore. So with one last push he decided to break free.
He stuck out one foot…
Then the other..
And fell out on to the floor.
Gary’s wings were weak, he was covered in bits of the old hard shell which he was too tired to shake off, and he was so sore and shocked he lay sprawled on the grass, beneath the nest.
The other chickens gathered around, they were worried about Gary. “That’s not how a chicken should be” they said. So they took him to the Battery Farm.
The Battery farm, though, was just another shell for Gary. But this one was made out of steel and glass. The other chickens looked sick and bedraggled in their cages, and were mean to young scared Gary. One day he walked up to window of the battery farm, and decided to try and fly again.
But his wings were weaker than ever, he tumbled and tumbled and tumbled to the floor. This fucked up his legs and had to wear chicken crutches for a number of weeks.
It was not a good place for a chicken to be.
After a long while, the farmers let him out in to the field again. However, they had clipped his wings and tied his beak, after feeding him so much seed he was now a very fat chicken.
He wandered through the farm, but the other chickens treated him differently. He looked all funny, and he couldn’t squawk or fly like them. He walked around alone in silence. But inside was not silent. Inside he was screaming.
The yoke of the egg had all but run out. But with a last push he stretched the old rubber band on his beak so far that it snapped open. And Gary opened his beak, and he sang. He sang the pain he had felt all those days in the egg, he sang the pain he had felt in the battery farm. He sang, and the other chickens looked up from the feed. ‘That’s not how a chicken should act!’ they said. But he did not care. He walked around the farm and he sang louder and louder, at his joy to be free from the rubber band, and the battery farm, and the old egg.
One day Gary saw another nest, and in the nest there was another lonely chick. Gary walked over and spoke through the crack in the egg. ‘Come out to the farm, come out and sing with me!’. The small chick inside told him ‘I don’t want to come out, and besides Gary, all I want to do is to dance, not sing’. Gary thought about this for a while, then said ‘fair enough, if a chicken can sing, then surely one can dance too’.
And so they walked through the farm, and when the other chickens looked over at them, ‘those birds are crazy’ they would say before shaking their heads and returning to their feed. But Gary and his friend didn’t care. They were expressing what they were.
And that, children, is the story of how Gary came out of his shell.
What is your shell?
Real Talk Story Telling can be found on
look out for future events to attend or participate with
Many thanks to Lily Asch, Allette J Williams and the other speakers for making it happen, and the attendees for coming to listen and share.