Well, we had it all. Strong winds and rain didn´t dampen our enthusiasm for individual and collective growth at the 2017 Mental Health Recovery Camp!
We travelled from far and wide to gather in a most spectacular setting and for five days, Barnutopia, on the border between England and Wales, and the surrounding hills became a home to over fifty individuals who wished to make fast progress on their recovery journeys.
Each morning began with breakfast, as people slowly awoke, showered and began to rouse themselves from sleep in clear country air. Clouds formed and passed overhead, horses cantered about on the nearby hills and sheep contentedly nibbled their way into yet another bucolic and pastoral day.
We were far from the madding crowd and didn´t we know it! No traffic noise, unpolluted air and just the quiet work of mother nature growing all around us. A perfect setting for a week of workshops, talks and campfire sharings, all designed to facilitate wellness and recovery.
The morning community meetings set the tone for each day, We greeted and welcomed one another into the big barn circle of seats with a Zen parable and a reflective reading to quieten the spirit and create an atmosphere of gentle expectation for a day of growth. The Zen bell rang, we sat in silence for a minute and off we went.
What did people wish for the day? Were there any issues that required support and dealing with? Who might care to offer a recovery related workshop or a round table talk?
The open hearted sharings and suggested ideas meant that we could be flexible and adapt to meeting the needs of participants. Plus we had a team of elders and guest speakers who all brought their own individual skill sets, many with lived experience of mental health challenges and now functioning and flourishing in their daily professional and personal lives.
As Recovery Camp participants often told me, we were spoiled for choice as to which workshops we would attend and which ones we had to miss out on. It was like being at a really cool music festival where all your new favourite bands are playing on different stages, but simultaneously...choices, choices, damn it!
Our hosts at Barntopia, Steve and Katrina, did all in their power to make us feel welcome.
If you didn´t want to cook your own food up in the little camp kitchen, there were tasty options available and endless refreshes of coffee cups. Evenings meant a home cooked meal, served with a smile through a stable door into the farmhouse kitchen.
The farm cats would turn up as if on cue and waltz their way around the dining rooms and open air spaces, no doubt hoping to find generous gifts if not occasional spillages and droppings of titbits. It was hard to say no but...we managed it.
As the days rolled by, I noticed something that always happens at these remarkable events, the development of a self-supporting community and the blossoming and flowering of supportive and empathic friendships. It was a lovely thing to witness and filled me with feelings of hope and optimism that what we were doing had great value and really did make a big difference in creating more self confidence and belief in individual lives.
Slowly but surely, people stopped describing their allocated "illness labels" and focussed more fully on what was possible in their own life stories.
And this process was accelerated by the many inspiring talks and workshops covering such diverse subjects as: working with voices, sexual abuse survivors groups, getting in touch with your bodies, Chi Gong sessions in the mornings, protecting yourself from negative energies from too much computer and phone use.
There were talks on Open Dialogue and self esteem as well as safer ways to express inner anger and much more besides.
I offered some stimulating workshops on finding the hidden treasures in negative labels, as well as an introduction to basic concepts relating to NVC - Nonviolent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg´s concept), which was eye-opening and great fun.
I laid out laminated cards with words describing needs that we might have and invited participants to take a walk and, on looking at these cards, decide on the need they wished met while at the camp. For me it was a first to be able to share this model of communication (NVC) and include it in my mental health work and I am so happy to have learned about it. This really is a model encouraging empowerment, personal growth, healthy communication with others and transforming painful inner dialogue into new strategies forward for each individual.
I was so pleased when someone told me they were witnessing lots of "NVC moments" outside the workshop where camp participants were asking each other "what needs do you have right now" or "could you make a clear and concise request?" as opportunities arose. It was like NVC magic gently permeating everyones consciousness in the most beautiful way.
We then regathered around the campfire and shared which needs we had chosen and why. This proved to be a useful focus on how we would strive to get those identified needs met on the following days and focussed minds more clearly on our intentions and purpose.
The good news on NVC sharing was that some folk were given fast chances to turn the principles of Non Violent Communication into practice when they visited a large and busy supermarket in nearby Oswestry and were amazed at how effective using NVC had been in helping to resolve a difficult situation really quickly. In fact they could hardly wait to return to the camp site and track me down to share their news!
In summary, Recovery Camps work well for a number of different reasons.
There are no judgements and everyone is treated as an equal. People are not their illnesses but they are unique and fragile human beings with potential that may not always be evident when we become trapped in a narrow medical, reductionist system that, accidentally or not, reduces people to labels and symptoms and leaves little room for growth and optimism.
The slow-cooker approach of working on your own recovery in a beautiful countryside setting gives a chance to escape the daily grind of life and live for a while in an oasis of calm and tranquility, all the more conducive to self-focus and personal development.
The workshops and sharings were engaging, inspiring and productive, giving folk much to process, think about and debate as we sat around the campfire at night and drank our teas. The sense of individual and collective growth became palpable as we worked our way inexorably towards the final days of the camp.
And then we were there.
Somewhat sadly, and as they say, all good things must come to an end.
We had a fun filled "No Talent Contest" on the final evening with songs and jokes, poems and even cabaret magic tricks. A few folk enjoyed a beer to celebrate a successful week. And so to bed.
The next morning the rain had stopped falling, the skies blue and clear and birds wheeled overhead, their cries called out as we started to pack up out tents, empty out the yurts and a final community meeting.
We gave thanks to the land, the site that had cradled us all for a week and the owners were presented with a thank you card and a small speech for their support during our stay.
Goodbyes and hugs were given as folk left for train stations and airports and slowly, the site emptied itself of Recovery Camp participants. We had memories of much laughter and occasional tears, escaped horses and wild, wild winds. The horse was easily returned to the stable and no harm done and that dear reader was that...Recovery Camp 3 was ended..Now we have to think and plan ahead for 2018 and number four!
I take off my hat to the others in the hard-working team of elders who strived to make everyone welcome and dealt with any issues as they presented themselves for resolution and, of course, to Karen and Ron of workingtorecovery.co.uk without whom, none of these camps would have been even possible.
Now they take a back seat to fpcus on other priorities and allow the new steering group (contact me if you´re interested in helping us organise) to grab the wheel and steer Recovery Camp 4 into being for 2018!
Meantime, I am still recovering from my exertions at Camp 3!
Care to consider attending or contributing in 2018? Get in touch to learn more about these amazing and inspiring events : firstname.lastname@example.org
Activist/ Health worker/ 20 years. Specific interests : wellness/ voice hearing/ coping/ exploring/ sharing/ stigma reduction.