I started going to the reading group in the autumn last year. Two friends had mentioned it; I was feeling a bit low and they told me to pop down. I thought about it for a few months before I plucked up the courage to come – it was quite a long process for me because I suffer with mild depression and anxiety.
I remember I arrived at the library and stood outside the room where the group takes place. I saw through the window that the table was full, the room looked packed and I was about to do a U-turn when Mina (the Volunteer Reader Leader) opened the door, smiled and said, ‘Hello, are you coming in?’. So it was inviting; I felt like the door had been opened – literally! – and so I needed to go in. If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have gone in that day.
I went in and there were lots of smiles, and everyone was saying ‘Come and sit down, have a cup of tea’. It was everything I love about kindness and hospitality. It was very quickly explained that you can participate as much as you want or as little as you want. No pressure, just pleasure – I instantly relaxed.
I’ve had two major bereavements in recent years and I have struggled with my mental health, especially anxiety. My physical health has deteriorated too. My confidence has been knocked and I’ve felt worn out and bruised. I’ve had to give up work: not being able to make that decision well-minded, but instead being forced to stop because you are not so well … that takes something away from you.
Finances are tight too, which only makes me feel more blessed and fortunate to find local activities I can join for free.
I’ve always had a fondness for reading, since I was a child, but the last ten years it’s been harder to read – I just couldn’t get into any books because I was finding it hard to focus and concentrate.
The group is helping me with that. When I’m at home watching the TV, I can rewind if I’ve missed something. But you can’t do that in the group, so it helps me to stay focused. I love the way people jump in with comments, but without interrupting – it’s well-mannered and people are kind, they include each other.
One of the key things to me is the element of surprise – no two weeks are the same and that engages me. Somebody else has prepared the stories and the poem, thought about where to pause and what the discussion points might be, but in a way that is inclusive of everybody there. That makes me feel great because it’s like I’m being given something in a way, like I’m being taken care of.
When you’re already dealing with a lot – loss of financial status, health problems, your own sense of credibility – it’s great that you can go to the group and it’s no questions asked: it’s not a continuum of “Are you ‘better’ yet?” and I love that.
I don’t need to make small talk and it’s not invasive. You can extend a little about yourself if you like, but it’s up to you. No-one talks in depth about their ailments – it’s quite upbeat. I really enjoy the lightness, warmth, laughter and ease of the sessions.
You can engage as much as you want or as little as you want. I’m in control – I could leave early if I wanted, but I don’t want to: I want to keep taking this medicine because it’s having a good effect on me.
I’ve started sitting in different places around the table. I realised when I moved seat it was easier for me to volunteer to read because I was nearer the water. That, for me, was a big thing – reaching out and getting water and saying I would read, it was like, “It’s fine, you are not going to drop it, you are entitled to do that, it’s there for everybody”. I feel like I’m trying to find my voice in a group environment and when I read a bit of the story aloud, butterflies were going in my stomach. But I did it and it felt…powerful.
And this week too I sat down in a slightly different place and had available seats either side of me; and as the seats filled up I thought, “Oh, people do want to sit next to me!”
I made a conscious effort to look at everybody as they walked in, just to smile and say, “Hi, nice to see you” – because that’s all part of the experience, for me, to be a little bit nurturing almost.
I saw this one group member was struggling with her coat and I looked over and said, “Do you want some help?” and she said, “Oh yes please”. Anyway, we sorted it out and she said, “Thanks ever so much” and I thought, “Oh good. . . you were helpful Nim!”
That’s what I mean about it not being about just reading, but about being more active in the group and about my whole wellbeing. It’s not only about making a connection to the stories and the poems, it’s also about making a connection with each other.
It’s about everything that surrounds it – the walk there, listening to other people’s experiences, having a sit down and cup of tea. It’s my natural thing to be a care-giver and the first few weeks I went to the group it was almost like being on the receiving end of care and I really enjoyed that and it was what I needed. But now I find I’m paying it forward – I’ve told a few people about the group now and encourage them to come.
What I see in the group is people showing their worth. People hit a certain age and sometimes illness comes into the picture and you start to think ‘What have I got to offer? Am I still useful?’. The group is about wanting to still keep achieving and not wanting ‘disabilities’ of any kind to hold you back: that one ailment, that one issue or diagnosis, that doesn’t define you. There’s still a brain in there, so don’t judge me, give me an opportunity and recognise that my wellbeing matters.
I really look forward to it. It’s almost like a therapy – because I know what I need right now and the group is ticking lots of boxes for me in that way. It’s my weekly challenge and personal achievement. If I miss it, I feel a little loss, like I didn’t get my treat. So now I put it on my planner as a must do, as if a doctor had given me it as a prescription to be taken for improving my health.