UNISON’S Bridges to Learning project has become one of the best-known providers of health and social care focused conferences and workshops in recent years. Its programme of workshops focuses on the needs of the staff in local authorities and healthcare to provide relevant and up-to date continuing professional development for the workforce. Its reputation for a high-quality and varied programme means that it can call on learned experts in fields ranging from British Sign Language, Diabetes and Dyslexia to Suicide Awareness, Assertiveness and Leadership Skills.
Pearl, who delivers a whole day workshop on Borderline Personality Disorders, is unlike many of the other presenters, who have developed their knowledge throughout their career; Pearl is an ‘expert by experience’ whose knowledge and insights come from her everyday life. She recalls:
“I didn’t have the best of starts as my family was quite dysfunctional and when my parents split up I lived with my dad and my brother, in you might say, quite a challenging and sometimes abusive and bullying atmosphere. As far as my dad was concerned, I was always the black sheep of the family, although I think he meant it jokingly.”
This poor self-image was reinforced at school:
“School for me was an escape, I felt safe, but it wasn’t a learning environment. I had severe articulation difficulties; I was bottom of the class, not clever, had no confidence and didn’t get any encouragement at the time.”
Over time, Pearl became more and more withdrawn, sitting at the back of the class to be as inconspicuous as possible. She was so effective in doing this that she escaped the attention of most of her teachers too and, as a result, learned very little.
Slight then as she is now, Pearl found that school was an escape from home but developed strategies over time to avoid the limelight.
“The only source of solace I had at school was that I was a monitor, organising the books for the next lessons. I knew though that that teacher in the learning centre was the someone I could go to if I needed help and, that way, escape the bullies in the playground. The bullying was mainly verbal. It all started when they laughed when my name was read out by the teacher, but it upset me so much that I couldn’t say my name at registration; it still affects me now.”
By the time she turned fifteen, her coping strategies had led to her choosing isolation and being seen as a misfit and an oddball, often divulging in drugs as another escape. After several episodes of self-harming and attempted suicide, Pearl was taken into the care of her local NHS Mental Health Trust. Undergoing a vast array of ‘unresponsive treatments’, from counselling to electric shock treatment, for the remainder of her teenage years she was informed that she was suffering from borderline personality disorder and that the conclusion of the professional staff was that she would likely be successful in the future in ending her own life.
However, Pearl spent her time in hospital gaining the qualifications she’d always dreamed of when she was at school, attending the local college during the day to achieve a National Diploma in Health and Social Care, which then gained her admission onto a degree course in Psychology and Criminology at her local university by the time she was twenty-one, followed by registration for a Masters degree in Forensic Psychology.
Unfortunately though, Pearl hit a bad patch in her mid-twenties. Having enjoyed a much more stable life with a fiancée and a home during her undergraduate years, it all went terribly wrong when he left; she lost all of the structure that had helped her to cope. Pearl left the Masters course without finishing it and spent a year and a half living on the streets of Manchester, York, Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She found herself further ostracised from the community she’d grown up in, now with a criminal record from trying to survive and overcome years of systemic abuse from family, peers and others. Life by then had become so bad that, though she had just managed to move into a flat of her own, her lack of coping skills and support led to her being admitted to the local A&E department suffering from malnutrition. Though this must have been tough, Pearl now sees it as the vital turning point that helped her get her life back on track:
“There I was back in hospital with people and staff I’d spent some of my teenage years with, but it was completely different from ten years before. For the first time. I felt that the staff were listening to me and interested in my dreams and my determination to get back into learning.”
In fact the staff listened to her so intently that, given her knowledge of mental health services and excellent powers of self-expression, she was invited to become an ‘expert by experience’ for the Trust, attending management and strategy meetings to explain her patient’s insights and taking part in videos and developing patient assessment questionnaires, all aimed to improve the services for other patients. This voluntary role not only provided her with an honorarium for attendance and paid her travel costs, but also gave her access to e-mail, got her back into learning and led eventually to a part-time role with the Trust.
“I saw e-mails from UNISON about the Bridges to Learning short courses and I couldn’t get enough. Even though at university I’d been diagnosed to have mild learning difficulties and dyscalculia I absolutely loved and did well in courses in counselling, eating disorders, aromatherapy and psychotherapy and the fact that they were often home-based self-study gave me a focus and structure back again.”
Though still feeling nervous and vulnerable, Pearl made her way from part-time voluntary into paid roles over the next few years:
“I saw a job advert for an ‘expert by experience’ harm minimisation trainer and bit the bullet. I learnt to drive in three weeks, as the job involved travelling between different sites, and worked hard to get my knowledge up to date and, to my amazement, I got the job! It’s amazing that spending years of studying subjects to help me understand my own situation gave me the skills and the drive to help other people too.”
Undeterred by her early challenges, Pearl had set her sights on being a psychologist and after fourteen applications and interviews, was successful in getting a post as an assistant psychologist with a Mental Health Trust:
“It’s still hard sometimes to believe that I’ve managed to do this, but it’s the encouragement and support that’s made all the difference. Janice, the UNISON Bridges to learning project worker, has been my grown-up learning centre teacher from school. Once she understood what I was aiming for, she was a bit like a personal mentor, not just letting me know of any courses coming up but really egging me on.
And now, here I am running workshops to help other people understand borderline personality disorders, dialectical behaviour therapy, positive approaches, training treatment for borderline personality disorder and harm minimisation. There’s nothing I love more that thinking through the content and then delivering the courses, it’s unbelievable really, but I’m passionate about it!”
Though Pearl still struggles with self-doubt and confidence she is an extremely articulate, impressive and engaging person who has achieved so much, largely through her own determination. It’s a struggle to understand in a way how her abilities were not recognised in school as she was clearly absorbing knowledge ‘like a sponge’, as she would say; with the right support she might have been top of the class. Pearl says:
“Now I love my new post as an assistant psychologist; it was something I never believed in my darkest reality could ever become a possibility. I find people want to talk to me about my own experiences and have often said during their therapy how inspired they are and realise that there is true hope too.
Best of all I now have a meaningful life that means something to me. I can find connections with people and a place in the community. I’ve friends at work and at home, even my dad has said he’s proud of me, something I never thought I’d hear.
I would say to anyone; don’t be afraid of learning, grasp any and every opportunity that comes your way!”
Janice, UNISON Bridges to Learning’s ULR is thrilled with Pearl’s progress:
“When I began this role I thought I was here to help the people who lacked the confidence or the skills to get back into learning. Pearl’s different; she had heaps of skills but not the confidence and I’ve been at her side at every step of the way to getting that dream job; I couldn’t be more delighted!”
Perhaps, after all, the other children were jealous of her name as she has quietly grown in her shell, you could say, into a unique individual whose whole purpose in life is to improve the life of others.