‘Do you really want to go out this evening? Are you sure you’re up to it? You might have to actually talk, what if you say something stupid? Maybe everything you have to say is stupid.’ It seems to take on a darker tone. I scroll down to this evening event details: Real Talk, an evening of storytelling, connection and honesty, creating space to speak about one of our most beautiful assets, our minds.

More often than not, we find ourselves in situations of feeling before we can attend an event or a social gathering that we have to feel up to going to. In all honesty, after an emotionally challenging couple of weeks, I was struggling not to listen to the flatmates and stay home. Almost always, mental health issues cause an absence of connection in our lives, which has a major impact on our recovery. The paradox of needing company and connection, and at the same time wanting to be alone through fear and familiarity, is all too common.  

Real Talk took place in the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The venue helped me ease into my evening. It’s both welcoming and bright, allowing a daytime feel, casual and unintimidating. Light floods through the high ceiling opened space, lush green trees line the enormous window, creating a comforting natural barrier to the outside world. Helping me nestle in for the evening.

The room is set out in cabaret style, tables facing the speakers and the storytelling chair. The room filled up quickly and with some hesitation my boyfriend and I choose a table. Whilst settling myself in, I considered whether I had made a mistake. This seemed quite an intimate arrangement, which no doubt would involve some sort of table discussions. Before I allowed anxiety to make an appearance, I realised where I was, and if there was anywhere that I didn’t need to pretend I was okay, then this should be here, shouldn’t it? There are no expectations that anyone should contribute or take part.

After a brief introduction and welcome from Lily Asch, the founder of Real Talk – who with her gentle and reassuring voice, set the agenda out for the evening and made sure we were sitting comfortably – the speakers began. All were volunteers who had applied to take part in two workshops on storytelling, and they took their place at the front of the room.

Catherine, hesitant but brave, was first up, taking a seat in the large wicker storytelling chair. Hers was a story in its truest sense, with almost folk-like qualities, taking us on her journey through what felt like depression, isolation and disconnection. It was creative and beautifully crafted.

Catherine seemed to have given real time to the metaphor and mystical expression that painted a scene of what I only assume was her own emotional journey. She took us there with fine detail of the senses, giving us a real feeling of how she felt both emotionally and physically.

The story took us from her dark room of isolation and introspection, and back to her beginnings as a child. I felt throughout that we were moving backwards on a memory into her past. But then she brought us back to the now, to a safer and brighter narrative of warmth and shared space, and I hoped she wasn’t feeling as alone as she had on the outside.    

Catherine’s story was followed by a minute’s silence, which happened after every story. I really welcomed this moment, out of respect for the storyteller for what had just been thoughtfully shared, but also to take a breath and let the words pass over and around the space, to collect my thoughts and to glancingly observe the room. Noticing the change of energy, to witness a teary face, a shuffle to change position in a seat, to catch an eye and exchange a knowing smile.

Tony stood up and allowed us to experience his infectious vitality. Bringing a mix of comedy, poetry and prose. His light energy meant this story, despite having a painful subplot, was one of hope and love. His voice was motivational and humble. He could easily be the voice over for my Couch to 5km running app. Although I heard and saw his words of unworthiness, I also saw his strength and determination. His story showed us how he had dealt with his emotions and dark times through comedy and poetry. While listening, I recognised the power of this symbiotic process, realising that his story, delivery and bravery had altered my mood. This is the power of storytelling in action. Kudos to him for ending his piece with a song, self-consciously letting us share a piece of music that means a lot to him and allow us to witness and hear his beautiful singing voice.

Next to the stage was Archyana and the energy of the room shifted, transfixed and immediately hooked on the humour and humanity of this speaker. Relaxed in the storytelling chair, it seemed from where I was sitting, this woman was a natural and her story needed to be told. I couldn’t help smiling as she put the room at ease with her natural and sophisticated humour. She took us on a journey through her liberation and self-discovery.

I was able to identify with her experience, which straddled two cultures, battling with cultural expectations and the risk of rejection and alienation. Breaking free and leaving an abusive relationship were the main themes, but she beautifully brought us a saviour’s memoir, of heartbreak, rejection and perceived failure. She touched on themes of forgiveness and the responsibility of the self. How fragile our self-esteem becomes in intimate relationships and how writing has given her a source of strength to build confidence and create a new life for her and her children. Her story is about finding parts of yourself that have been lost in abusive relationships, parts of you that you never knew were there. This storyteller’s strength, sincerity and bravery shone out of her effortlessly.

The final story of the evening was from Stella, who was quieter and somewhat hesitant, paper shaking in her hand as she settled into the chair. Her preamble to her story was thought- provoking. She told us that she would cry, and she wanted us to know that it was okay and is part of the process, her process. This, whilst being a trigger warning of sorts, gave me an immediate admiration for her and I was rooting for her before her story had even begun. Sadly, crying openly in public is still somewhat taboo. Perhaps there’s an idea where it’s appropriate and not, through antiquated social and cultural norms, but there’s still a complex internal and external push and pull. What will people think? Not knowing how to respond to someone openly crying. Do we or don’t want we to respond, to console?

Stella’s story spoke directly and frankly about the experiences of depression. What struck me was how she told it, with a level of her powerful vulnerability, and how she owned it. She allowed us to sit alongside it, explaining how depression had been a constant throughout her life.

Stella told us a parable of the ditch, the one we fall into. We spend time identifying where the ditch is, how we can avoid falling in, but, despite knowing, we still fall and it takes a while for us to know our path well enough to circumnavigate it altogether. Her brilliant observation was that sometimes she wants to get in the ditch and give it a good clean, illustrating the struggle of relapse, self-sabotage and comfort in our dark places. 

Most inspirational was her willingness to share the thoughts that accompanied her in her darker moments. Although still difficult to do so, talking about our feelings of mental ill health, we can sit safer behind feeling words like sad, low, anxious and depressed, all valid in themselves, but this storyteller’s truth took this to the next level. Allowing us to hear and witness the scary and intimidating voices she heard, the unhelpful, irrational thoughts she was thinking that took her down a heavier frightening road. Our thoughts can be terrifying and humiliating and often are not easy or possible to share. Her warning had provided us with seats belts, so, by the time we had reached this point in her journey, it was easy to see how the room welcomed this level of sharing.

After this powerful story had concluded, we were invited to discuss with those people at our table, how the stories may have impacted us and what we may have gained from them. We were provided with pen and paper and a list of questions if conversation was running dry or hard to start.

This wasn’t the case on our table as we had already exchanged some small talk and established a space that I felt I could contribute to and, equally, felt I didn’t have to. I was lucky enough to be joined on this table with Bobby Temps host of MENTAL, a podcast to destigmatise mental health. It was really great to discuss all four stories with strangers, to hear different perspectives and be given the chance to share our experiences and views on how mental health issues are seen and talked about. This was unique to me and though I have been in this kind of setting vocationally, I haven’t found this safe structure socially with the same delicacy.

Our table could have carried on discussion long into the evening, but Lily brought us back to the questions and answers with the panel. During this time, we got to know a little more about their stories and them as people.

In a really moving moment, a member of the audience stood and gave testimony to what she had learnt this evening, that she as a Indian women knew the struggles of cultural expectations and suffering and how she admired the third speakers courage and strength. Through emotional tears, we witnessed a beautiful moment of connection and what this event can do for the speaker and audience both during and following the event. This interaction between audience and speaker and their shared dependency is what makes this a synergetic experience. A coming together in cooperation and sharing space in which time and emotions are a powerful thing.

The speakers have stayed with me more than their stories, through my own self-consciousness I didn’t reach out in the moment and express my admiration for them all. They all brought such varying dimensions to each story, but all brought hope and bravery. I would like to imagine that I could be brave, strong and vulnerable enough as the four that shared their stories.

We all have a story, all unique and different. We are the author, the editor, the narrator and the storyteller. So, our story can be told just how we wish it to be. If sharing helps us and those who witness it, this can only lead to a greater understanding of ourselves and others and, in turn, form a connection that is so greatly needed. I am glad I didn’t listen to my squatters, the voices that hold us back and keep us stuck and made it to this event, perhaps if I find my voice and feet and volunteer to sit in the storytelling chair, I will bring them along to listen.

by Nina Abeysuriya

Nina is an Edinburgh based writer, mother, barista, baker, candle stick maker! She has aspirations of singing to a bigger audience than her dog and is a keen jumpsuit enthusiast. She is delighted to be starting this new adventure of working with the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.
The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.
Real Talk is a social enterprise led by Lily Asch dedicated to storytelling for mental wellbeing. Events run throughout the year, and you can find out more by visiting the website or Facebook page