It had been a 5 am start, scrambling out of bed, still dark outside, before getting on the road to see our UK performance team in action. I was standing at the back of a modern school hall in an Academy in the Midlands of the UK as our performance team was in the final scenes of one of our most popular touring productions, Hold Me, which addresses issues relating to sex and relationships.
As the last scene played out, I found my eyes almost filling with tears. I had seen the scene so many times, even performed the lead role in this particular production, but there was always something about the order of the words, the song Right the Wrong1 and then the song Rain2 that caught in my throat and made my heart want to jump out of my chest and make sure every person watching knew that there was no situation that they might face that they couldn’t open up about, get help with, or see a change in.
Taking a breath, I controlled my emotions, pressing my back against the hard wall, focusing my mind on the job I was there to do. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, a girl ran out of the room clearly distressed with a friend following behind. Quickly, a teacher came to me and asked if I could help this pupil who was upset. I stepped out of the hall, into the corridor to a room where the girl and her friend had been taken.
¨Upset¨ is not the word I would use to describe Grace3; she was distraught, sobbing uncontrollably in between loud gulps for air. As I began to try and speak to her, nothing I could say seemed to help.
I felt completely out of my depth, but it wasn’t because I had never seen anything like this before. In fact, quite often our productions provoke a response in students – this is part of the beauty of the work we do as Pure Creative Arts. The productions we tour often unlock issues surrounding identity that have been buried deep, deep down, that those we work with often don’t know what to do with, so they keep pushing them down. But this suppressed pain evidently affects everything: performance at school, relating to others, self worth, sleeping, eating, mood, the list goes on. The reason I say the beauty of the work we do, is that the productions provide an opportunity for what has been hidden and pushed down to be brought into the light, into a place where it can be properly dealt with, usually for the first time.
But even though I have seen this many times before, and have seen amazing things come from these very moments of distress, every time I am faced with a real person in front of me – in pain like this – it seems impossible again. That was how it felt in that moment with Grace. Because of the theme of the production she had just watched, I knew that what had triggered her response was most likely around the area of sexual assault. I could see her shaking frame as she sobbed violently, the red blotches on her skin evidencing her very real anguish. And, as I asked her gently if she could tell me something about what had happened, the four words that tumbled from her mouth chilled me to my core:
“It won’t change anything.”
I felt sick that she could feel like that; that she was stuck in a situation where she vehemently believed that nothing could change. So partly to encourage her, and partly to remind myself, I began to tell her about others I had worked with whose stories had seemed so impossible, so broken, so painful, like they could never change… but how they had changed. I told her how as these others had begun to open up and speak about what had happened, how little by little the darkness they had faced had been overcome in the light of change, of hope, of a fresh start, a new beginning, a way forward. About how from this initial act of opening up, it had turned into support, into people who could help. And I told her that even though I didn’t know her story, I believed it could change; there would be a way forward and that we could help her get the support she needed.
After what felt like hours, and with the help of her friend, Grace bravely told me what had happened to her. And as those words fell from her mouth, she changed. It was like a visible weight lifted off her shoulders; the dark black brooding clouds shifted and she honestly looked like a different girl. I told her about the hope I had for her future, that she was not alone, and her openness was just the beginning of change for her and her situation. Following this, I worked with the school to connect her to a mentor who she could begin to meet with on a weekly basis and would continue to support her.
As Grace got up to leave, she was laughing with her friends, and the only thing that had changed at that moment was that she had opened up. She talked about something that minutes before had her locked up, bound and knotted into a ball of tears because she thought she had to handle it alone, that she was stuck, that her identity was tied up in her situation and what had happened to her. But as the sun broke through the dark, and the truth prevailed, with hope, her healing began right there.
As I left the school that day, thankful that I had the privilege to speak with this girl and play a tiny part in her journey, I was reminded of the many other stories like hers I have encountered.
“Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior.” – Brené Brown
There is such power in opening up. The voice of fear whispers that we have to hold these dark secrets in; that no one can know; that if we tell, it will be devastating. But the truth is that these fears are an illusion that keeps us trapped in the dark. As soon as we open up and begin to speak, light permeates those dark spaces. Opening up our shame in the right way, to the right people is utterly transformational and in doing this, we come to discover that we are not alone;
That there are people who can help us;
That other people are going through similar things;
That we can get through what we are facing.
And in the hardest moments, this is what we need to be reminded of. There is always hope, no situation is ever too far gone.
1From the album This is… Lindsey by Lindsey Cleary
2From the album No Compromise by Pure, written by Tamsin Evans with Shane Beales
3Name changed for confidentiality