Hanging on to hope

My dad came to England from India in the 50s on a ship that docked at Southampton. It took around 10 days and he was coming to ‘The Motherland’ for a better life. To a place where the pavements were covered in gold and where he would be welcomed with open arms.

This is the dream he was sold in the days of the British Empire. He died recently at the age of 89, having lived in Britain for 63 years. He was a committed trade unionist and anti-racist (it’s where I get it from), but he was also cautious. I still remember him saying, don’t rock the boat too much as they could always send us back. He was right. Just look at the damning report into the Windrush Scandal, and the hostile environment we are living in.

I remember my dad every time I’m in discussion with someone who wants to dismiss me and defeat my real experiences of racism. People who drop into the conversation, why don’t you go back home then if you don’t like it here (and they don’t mean Coventry)?  I tell them, I am here because you where there.

As a child I always felt othered, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was I was feeling. I can now call it racism. My mother stayed up late, worried while waiting for my dad to return from a late shift working at the textile factory because of the skinheads going round ‘Paki bashing’ and the colour bar in operation in many establishments.

She lived in constant fear of what might happen to us, scared for her safety – and ours. This is something my mother never came to terms with and, eventually, she lost all hope. I remember her taking to her bed for days or flying into a rage and then dissolving into tears. I had no idea what was going on, but I had to step in as the main carer of the family, and that’s when I probably took on the role of rescuer.

I became responsible for fixing everyone and everything, except myself. As a Recovery Focused Peer Supporter, I can now see my actions as a natural response to the traumatic environment we were living in. When the only support my mother ever received was heavy medication and ECG. This was in the 60s. I wish I could say things have changed for the better, but I can’t.

In 1977, me and my sister were at school when the police came and collected us. They told us that our mother had killed herself. Two weeks later I returned to school and no-one mentioned it; neither did I. The most important person in my life had died. Everyone was devasted and in pain, but the shame, guilt and secrecy around suicide silenced us all. We all retreated into ourselves, not coping in different ways.

It feels important to share the backdrop to my story as people only see the strong Anita who is often challenging, and whose passion is interpreted as anger or  being difficult. I can see people’s eyes glaze over when I relentlessly challenge injustice and inequality.  My life experiences won’t let me give up but at the same time, it’s hard to keep feeling the pain as the work can be emotionally draining.

My experience, my struggles and my courage has made me who I am now. I haven’t got the time to share more about the shame attached to me as a South Asian woman who challenged patriarchy and who was seen as worthless because she had an opinion. I didn’t have an arranged married, and I couldn’t have children, though I’m an adoptive parent of a wonderful daughter Tasha and grandmother to the amazing Aniya.

I could sidestep how all this rage, guilt and shame took its toll on me and broke down my resilience and led to me start losing hope. When I remembered my mother and thought, maybe she had the right solution and I attempted to take my own life. But in the words of Maya Angelou: “I have faced many defeats, but I remain undefeated.”

Without a doubt my professional is personal and my personal is professional. My lived experience and my journey – from surviving to thriving – informs my life choices. I have been a human rights activist for over 30 years, working across the third and statutory sectors. I’ve designed and delivered a range of policies and practices to tackle inequalities and challenge mental health stigma and discrimination with recovery focused peer support training to address recovery from trauma due to racism and/or violence against women.

As an Associate Trainer for the Institute of Mental Health, I deliver their accredited 11-day Peer Support Worker training. Peer support saved my life. More recently, I have worked with NHS England to design and deliver a new programme to look at ways of providing peer support for black men in forensic services in Birmingham.

But what I have learned is, we cannot wait for the state to look after our mental health, either as citizens or service users. Although I will continue to fight for service change, I also think we have the answers to heal ourselves and provide a community response and support each other.

I am part of that solution, building the skills capacity of black communities to provide compassionate, non-judgemental, accessible peer support recovery support services. You don’t need to be an expert to support someone. Active listening, walking alongside someone, holding hope for them until they can hold it for themselves again, are things we can all do for each other – and model for future generations.

I currently work as a Regional Community Equalities Coordinator for Time to Change, an award-winning evidence-based campaign to fight against mental health stigma and discrimination. In my work, I break the silence as silence is the biggest killer and conversations can save lives. I work alongside Time to Change Champions to build capacity and to develop local strategic partnerships to tackle stigma and discrimination.

As a motivational speaker I share my story to encourage everyone to be more open and honest about mental distress as speaking out saved my life. I aim to inspire hope, regain control and create new opportunities for growth as all of this is driven by a passion to make that difference – and to honour my mother’s memory.

Anita Kumari is a Regional Community Equalities Coordinator for Time to Change, based in the Midlands. You can read her full biog here