I couldn’t sleep on Thursday night: it wasn’t excitement that woke me up at 4am either, rather trepidation. The last time I’d driven to Leeds was over three decades ago. This was already making me nervous: there was a point, just before the M1 was joined at 6.45am that it almost didn’t happen. A moment of fear rose, unexpectedly, to challenge twelve weeks of counselling. I wasn’t good enough to do this. Go home.

My now ex-counsellor’s learnt coping strategies however have been embedded well into a brain that knew that this exercise wasn’t about the journey. Being so far out of my comfort zone that it was painful, what else would a little more inconvenience bring? Suck it up, and get on with it. There were regular breaks to ensure my recovering hip injury did not scupper movement, and by 11.30 am I’d done the hardest thing of all: self-propulsion.

There was also a sandwich, some faffing about around the new Trinity shopping centre and realisation that accommodation meant literally going back to student digs. All those memories of that first trip here come flooding back again, but the more overriding priority became a cuppa. The last one was drunk the night before… and when I met Carol and Rebecca at the Mslexicon reception area, the former made me one without prompting.

Honestly it was the best tea I’ve tasted for quite some time

Friday was cautious introductions and nervous energy, feeling empathy in odd situations. The volunteer staff were beyond amazing (which was the case across the entire weekend) and that first quiet, helpful support had the required effect. I began to relax, and as it happened the desire to speak to people increased. There was some mooching, uncertainly watching other people connecting, as fear rose again.

The coping strategies were there to support me: everybody will be nervous, not just you. They will all find it hard to connect. It may be superficial but look at someone and find something they are wearing or doing to start a conversation with. There’s a woman on her phone over there, by the entrance, on her own. She’s looking at Social media. You know summat about that. Start here. I introduced myself to Sophie, and soon afterwards, Sally turned up. When Sheila arrived, things got really interesting.

That was the rest of the evening, as it happened. Talking to people, listening cautiously to others, eating, drinking and laughing. There was a remarkable amount of laughter, and after dinner the weekend began in earnest, except I was exhausted and so slipped away back to a room whose bed was a lot larger than expected. I should have stuck stuff up on the pin board for old times sake, on reflection. That was an opportunity missed.

Travelling is always difficult for me, but on reflection there was remarkably little stress. What mattered most on that first day was not to feel alone: it never really happened either. Even when wandering about in the afternoon, this didn’t feel uncomfortable or unnatural. All that was preparation, rehearsal for what would eventually be inevitable. Allowing myself permission to be vulnerable has been an almost impossible ask for several years, but not on Friday.

That process dissolved last remaining fears: all these other women were like me. They were uncertain or unsure of their abilities and capabilities. Over dinner, Sophie and I talked about her novel: cautiously, I offered some advice on how she could deal with an issue. Then she turned to me and confided that this discussion had solved a different, unrelated problem in her narrative and my heart soared.

I’d been able to help her, and that meant the world.

Then, as I tried to sleep, came the memory of those I’d connected with on Twitter before arrival. Cat and I had passed briefly, and I promised myself we’d find the means to chat. Bridget too, would get met and greeted… and then began the slow trickle of new online follows. This wasn’t just learning, it was networking. Those flyers that were made were doing their job, and being read.

People were interested in being more than they were alone.

It only took a day, and suddenly there was a more capable, professional and determined version of me prepared to use Saturday’s talks and 1-2-1’s as means by which directions would be marked and set going forward. As an introduction to a weekend of discovery and self-awareness, Mslexicon was virtually perfect.

3 thoughts on “First Steps

  1. It was a pleasure to meet you Sarah. I’m so glad a small thing like a cuppa helped you to settle in. As a volunteer I had a marvelous time and I’m glad you seemed to do so also.

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