Volunteers' Week: Our Friday Volunteers!
To celebrate Volunteers' Week 2017, we will be posting interviews with some of the wonderful people who support Headway and our members throughout the year. Our volunteers make a huge difference to our team, and we couldn't do what we do without them!
Today we catch up with Friday volunteer Zara, who has been working with Headway for a year.
What made you want to volunteer with us?
It was my own experience of brain injury. I was diagnosed with a tumour in 2013, and within a week I was in surgery. I recovered very quickly and got back to ‘normal’, but obviously my life had changed a lot. It was huge – I was 24 at the time. You just go through the motions when you are told something like that, and you don’t really have time to panic. There was the pain obviously, but there was a weird peacefulness around it as well. You’re just taken care of by this great institution and these very talented people. The psychological recovery was harder - coming to terms with what had happened but also the fact that I looked the same.
It took me a while to get to a place where I actively wanted to do something. I went to the ward where I had been a patient, and asked them if there were any opportunities to volunteer - I had been so supported by the nurses – but it didn’t work out. At the time I lived in a shared house, and there was a party and I found out that someone there had volunteered at Headway. I’d never heard of it before, but he started telling me about it and I realised it was exactly what I’d been looking for. I just love this place. There’s nowhere else like it really, it’s such a supportive community.
What drives you to keep volunteering?
It’s a very life-affirming place I suppose. People here have had these huge things happen to them that have completely shaken up their life and identity. Then they come here and really do something with that experience. The art room for me was such a wonderful introduction to Headway. I was struck by people making and trying things out. Some would have never picked up a paintbrush in their life before – apart from maybe at school. Watching Headway support them by having the pop-up shop, the exhibitions and Submit to Love Studios. Even having B [one of our long-time members] coming around telling me how his potatoes are doing – there’s such a nurturing quality to everything here. People aren’t overlooked, which is really special. To have that level of support is unusual.
It helps me to have a bit of a touchstone for what happened. It’s a reminder. When something that major happens to you in life, you think about it every day. Your identity has been so affected by it. Sometimes you can still get swept up in the superficial things, but then you come to a place like this and it helps put things into perspective. I've learnt a lot from the people here - how resilient the body and mind is, even after trauma. It's inspiring.
So has volunteering here given you a different perspective on your own injury?
When I first started, I struggled with the term ‘brain injury’. I felt that it wasn’t related to my own experience, but after a while I realised that what happened to me is termed a brain injury. It’s a choice of words I would never have used, but now I do. During volunteer meetings the word ‘tumour’ would come up and people would talk about attention spans… and I’d get a little lump in my throat. I realised this isn’t just me being altruistic and giving, this is actually touching a bit of a nerve because it directly links to my own experience. That was quite hard at the beginning but it’s actually been really good for me.
Every so often I’ll be talking to a member and they’ll open up about what happened to them, and I’ll feel this slight distance. Then I might say something like ‘I remember when I was in hospital…’ and they’ll look at me and realise that I’ve been through something that’s comparable. That’s golden. There’s this moment of empathy and understanding, and it feels really good.
The interesting thing about brain injury is that you don’t always wear your injury on your sleeve. It’s hard when your family and friends see that you look fine and you’re even saying “I’m fine” but there are so many layers to it. With me, my scar is under all my hair. I couldn’t even witness the healing process myself. If you get a paper cut, or an injury on your hand, you’ll probably look at it 50 to 100 times a day, just checking in on it. It’s really important for the healing process to see that. But for me, it was all happening in my blind spot. I would try and hold a mirror up and not really be able to see it. Headway talk a lot about brain injury as a ‘hidden disability’ and that’s helped me in quite a personal way.
I think there’s quite a lot of misunderstanding around brain injury, and even when I tell people about Headway they often think it’s something to do with mental illness, schizophrenia or dementia. While those things are obviously all linked to the brain, it’s not what Headway is about. I have to explain it’s for acquired brain injury.
Are you planning to carry on volunteering with us?
I’ve really found my place and my role here. I lead relaxation group on Fridays, and look forward to that. It’s really special and I love it. I decided to research my own scripts to use, and I’ve brought in my own music. Having bits of feedback from the members has been rewarding, and they seem to like the music that I play. I’ve just done a three day course in guided imagery and music therapy, and I work in a music venue up the road, so it’s all linked to my interests. I like the idea of exploring how music can be used for brain injury. It’s fascinating.