Saturday, 23 March 2013

How Guiding Changed My Life

Eight years ago, I found myself the victim of gender-based violence. 

One of the things that amazes me is not just how hard it is to say that in a public forum, but how uncomfortable that disclosure will make you as a reader. 

Statistically, that fact is far from shocking. 1 in 5 women experiences domestic violence, 23% of women face sexual assault as adults (it's 33% for teenagers) and 75% of teenagers face emotional violence in their relationships. All these statistics are from right here in the UK.

Yet society's taboos make all this hard to stomach and hard to accept. Violence doesn't happen to us, it doesn't happen in our nice, suburban communities, it doesn't happen to the people we know. Except it does.

I did what a lot of women do (not that I knew it back then), I holed myself up. It's a natural defence when you lose that ability to trust, even to trust your own safeguards and instincts. I missed most of my fourth year lectures, very much struggled through my PGCE year, and had a horrific time as a Newly Qualified Teacher.

I haven't been a complete recluse for those eight years, though. The journey started with conventions, as I was (and still am!) a huge sci-fi fan. I began to socialise and to trust again, and I met a wonderful group of friends, who all happened to be involved in Guiding, as well as crewing these events.

Over time, they began to convince me that rejoining Guiding would be a great thing. But it was co-incidence that got me volunteering. After a school reunion in 2010, I received a phone call from the mother of one of my old classmates, who happened to be a local commissioner.

The thing is, I probably shouldn't have said yes. I was still operating behind a very fragile facade; my teacher mask that operated as an everyday front to hide the pain. I had never been for counselling, never regained my life properly. But as the mask worked well enough in my daily pattern, I figured it would be good enough for Guiding.

What I didn't bank on was Guiding's penchant for getting under your skin. If you know people in the organisation, they will tell you that it's not just an hour a week (or if they do, it will be heavily laced with sarcasm or recruitment posters!) but that it's a way of life. I soon found myself at the local Guide unit as well as the Brownies, and that entailed a whole new set of problems.

I was meeting in a large church hall with separate rooms, where I was expected to go into isolated parts of the building to do tasks. I was supposed to be able to lead clue trails on winter evenings, supposed to be able to camp - the mere thought of which sent me into blind panic. I was supposed to be Wonder Woman, or so it seemed.

The cracks in that well-practised facade began to widen, and I really struggled. It felt like all the things I had learnt to control were spiralling, the problems resurfacing, when really I hadn't dealt with the issues in the first place. I confided in M, our Unit Leader, who slowly helped me get the support I needed.

Some people might be skeptical at this point, say that I would have reached that point anyway. Perhaps that's true, though as I hadn't sought help in six years at that point, I doubt it. Besides, the weekly challenges that Guiding presented me, and my determination to provide the best experience I could for the girls, were what really motivated me to make that change.

It took another year before I got the regular, face-to-face counselling, but that has been difficult in itself and I've felt like giving up so often. I always feel like I'm not making progress, or at least not making it fast enough, and that is compounded by the attitude of certain leaders in my area. But the evidence is irrefutable.

I lead a Senior Section group now, meeting in another large building in a village I don't know very well. I'm often the last person to leave, on my own with just an occasional caretaker around. Week after week, I poke my head into unknown rooms, walk down the dark corridors, lock up after everyone. It will sound so simple to most, but for me that's a huge achievement.

Last year, I led several sessions at Guides for the Personal Safety badge, even running a question and answer session that touched close to home. I think M and the other leaders were far more stressed about it than I was - they really didn't think I'd cope! I've also run a couple of research activities on gender-based violence and girls' opinions - another thing M didn't think I'd cope with!

I went to Roverway in Finland. On paper, that should have been a complete and utter disaster! Terrified of camping, terrified of woodland. But it was a fantastic opportunity and one of the most memorable events of my life. 

I slept in a box at a local stately home, went camping with the unit, even reassured a girl who had the same fears that I had!

The biggest change, though, came through the girls. My Senior Section unit approached me, telling me that they wanted to be involved in the WAGGGS Stop The Violence campaign. They gave me the contact details for the local Women's Centre, with whom they wanted to work, and spoke to me of empowerment and the power of girls' voices.

I was terrified. This was worlds colliding. Especially the Women's Centre, where I go on a weekly basis for my counselling sessions. Not that I told them that. 

I went on a seminar, learnt about educating others, acting for change, working with men, working with young children. I came back and, with the girls' help, began contacting the organisations they had spoken about, and making contacts.

In September, the city is holding a conference about violence against women and girls. We've been invited to attend, and also to run related fringe events. We've got contacts with the Women's Centre, Women's Aid, Platform 51, Rape Crisis and even with a women's kickboxing group! We have a professional photographer on board who will come to all our events. And on International Women's Day, a group of us from Girlguiding joined the Soroptimist Group on their bridge campaign, raising awareness of gender-based violence.

I still get attitude from certain people. People who think I've bitten off more than I can chew, that Guiding and the work against violence is going to break me and send me on a spiral to a place far worse than when I started. But I know different. Because it's not just about me, and it's not just about my life. 

It's about empowering others, giving them a voice, and making sure that girls in the future don't have to go through what I have. If I can change the course of just one life, give just one woman the courage to speak out or give her the knowledge that she's not alone, then it's absolutely worth it.

People don't realise the impact of their actions, or how much their volunteering means to the people around them. For me, the responsibility and privilege of providing for these girls and young women gave me the strength to change and the support of leaders around me provided me with a safe environment in which to make that change. 

I suppose, strictly speaking, that would have been the place to end the post. It was neat, came back to the title, and it was inspirational (as far as anything of mine can be!). But I'm not one to play by the rules, not when there's another bit to the story.

Last week, after seeing the local Gang Show, I was invited out with the cast and crew. I was hesitant. I was tired, ill, and, quite frankly, terrified. I hadn't gone out clubbing properly since the night before "it all went wrong". The few attempts I've made at going out over the years have either ended in quick retreats, or me sitting quietly on the smoking terrace, praying for them all to call it a night. 

But this was different. This was family. For the first time in eight years, I went out and I had fun. It was my night out, why should he still control my life? And when a guy got over-friendly? He got one hell of an ear-bashing.

Though I hadn't seen these people since I was fifteen,it was like nothing had changed. They showed me that I was still the same person behind the fear and self-loathing, that I was cared for and loved. They were family. My Guiding and Scouting family.

You see, the real way that Guiding has changed my life is that it's allowed me to be myself. It's changed me because it hasn't changed me at all. It's not just motivation, but revelation. Guiding is me, it's my story, it's the story of how I've grown over the years, from being an obnoxious little Brownie, to being a German Ranger in the DPSG, to being a Leader. Guiding is the thread that has brought me back to the beginning; a little older, a bit wiser (sometimes), but still the same person.

And that is a point I'd never have reached alone.

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