The decorations have been taken down and stored away for another year. The turkey’s been made into sandwiches, stir-fry, soup, and the remainders fed to the dog. The tree’s been stripped of its twinkling lights and dumped in the street for the council to collect. New Year’s celebrations are behind us, and the hectic, unforgiving daily rhythm of life is upon us once more.
Some of us will go on holiday – somewhere hot, or to mountain slopes, to escape those gruelling early weeks of January, this longest of months. Most of us, though, will grit our teeth, put our heads down and get on with it, the dark nights, frosty mornings and long days in between stretching ahead. We’ll get through, knowing that February is just around the corner and the green shoots of spring will soon be poking through the snow.
For me, January is a month of anniversaries I’d rather forget – emotional tripwires that can send me spinning off kilter without warning. Early in the month is the anniversary of the catastrophic stroke that eventually killed my father. The same date marks the death of my sister in a car accident a few years later, and the last day of the month her funeral in a packed church, her coffin barely visible beneath a blanket of flowers. Midway through the month comes the anniversary of that awful morning, twenty-eight years ago – when my husband casually announced he’d been having an affair and walked away, leaving me and our three-month-old baby daughter to fend for ourselves.
And then, towards the end of January, the much more recent anniversary of me saying goodbye to the job I loved after twenty-five years, leaving behind the structure my life had revolved around, the work ‘family’ I’d grown to know so well over so many years, and my identity.
Of course, it’s not just me. At any moment of the day, any one of us could receive news that will blow our world apart – a devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job – with all the shock and fear that comes with it. This is the month when enquiries to divorce lawyers will soar; behind every call lies the pain of relationship breakdown, of families torn apart, of anger, recrimination and estrangement.
And then there are those for whom the struggle to cope is a daily challenge – those who may be living with mental health issues, disability, addictions, long-term depression, or who may be lonely and isolated as a result of having become dislocated from friends and family for any number of reasons. And those whom society excludes on account of their ‘differentness’, for any number of reasons.
None of us gets to live a perfectly glossy and flawless life. We’ll all find ourselves buffeted by headwinds at some point, and even the strongest among us might need a helping hand to get through. Even the Queen – who famously described 1992 her ‘annus horribilis’, and must rank last year as one of her worst – has had years she’d rather not remember, when she must have wondered what she’d done to deserve so much sadness and confusion.
So let’s get this clear: it’s no admission of failure if you find yourself needing to reach out for support at any time – nearly all of us will have been there at some point or another. None of us is immune.
Two years ago, after leaving my job as an award-winning magazine editor, I found myself in a dark place. Gripped by anxiety and panic attacks – both wholly unfamiliar to me, a naturally optimistic and buoyant person – I needed support to get through. Although I recovered quickly, I realised how frightening these episodes can be, and how useful it may be to talk in confidence to someone neutral about issues that can be deeply personal. I wanted to see if I could help others going through difficult times.
And so it was that in January last year, I explored the possibility of becoming a Samaritans volunteer. After an interview and selection day, I undertook ten four-hour training modules. A couple of months later, I took my first call in my local branch, a cosy upstairs room in an unprepossessing office building tucked behind a busy south London thoroughfare.
Since then, I’ve completed more than forty three-hour shifts answering calls and emails, as well as face-to-face callers, and helped to raise funds and awareness for Samaritans at summer county fairs and community events.
It hasn’t all been hard work. My role as a Samaritans volunteer has introduced me to a wide group of new colleagues – my fellow volunteers – people from all walks of life, all ages, all backgrounds; people who are interesting, lively, fun, kind and thoughtful. Every shift has felt like a privilege. And the work certainly puts any problems I might have in perspective.
I think of the young woman, calling from her car at the edge of a wood as the rain came beating down, intent on taking her life. Estranged from her family, her boyfriend had broken up with her and she found herself literally alone in the world, with nowhere to sleep that night, and no roof over her head.
And the elderly lady, widowed a few years ago. She knew she was fortunate, surrounded as she was by the love of her children and grandchildren, and with no money worries. But – through tears – she told me how desperately she missed her husband. She hid her true feelings from her family, who wanted her to ‘move on’ and be happy, but nothing could fill the void of grief deep in her heart
The man, clinging to the embers of his dying marriage. Communication with his wife – now in a relationship with someone else, but still living under the same roof – had broken down. He still loved her; all he wanted was for things to go back to the way they had been in their early days together, and the thought that that might never happen was unbearable for him.
Or the caller whose brilliant brain should have guaranteed him life’s glittering prizes, yet whose gender issues had instead earned him a lifetime of disappointment, humiliation and rejection.
As Samaritans volunteers, we aren’t able to wave a magic wand and make these caller’s problems disappear. All we can do is offer them a safe space in which they can talk about their troubles, and listen – actively listen – without judgement, interruption or offering advice; to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their moment of need.
For many people, this might be the first time that anyone has ever really listened to them, taken them seriously, and empathised with their position and the depth of their despair. For that reason, calling Samaritans can be a lifeline. Simply talking through a problem can sometimes give a caller a fresh perspective on their situation, and sharing their troubles can help diffuse some of the anxiety and stress around them.
January can be a difficult time for many of us. That’s why on January 20th Samaritans is launching ‘Brew Monday’, a fundraising initiative encouraging people to reach out to others who may be lonely and invite them to share a cuppa through January and February, and raise vital funds for Samaritans. All you need is a kettle, a teabag or two, and a couple of mugs. Such a small act of kindness can make a huge difference in someone’s life, and you would gain something immeasurable from it, too – the knowledge that you’ve offered the hand of friendship to someone when they needed it most.
Sign up for a free Brew Monday fundraising pack, here. Anyone can contact Samaritans FREE any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch, where you can talk to one of our trained volunteers face to face.