Changing The Story – personal and political reflections on letting go

We carry stories about ourselves. But we should let them go when they no longer serve. Letting go is hard for me.

Coming off my twitter addiction, saying goodbye to an account with 5,000 followers where I was able to pontificate every day was an ‘interesting’ challenge. And not without its withdrawal effects.

But I have vowed to look after my own health and energies better this year. That means letting go of the entanglements, triggering and casual cynicism of social media.

Meanwhile, the background narrative to my life is about me being an ‘outsider’. This stems from being a younger brother, having a Jewish background perhaps, anger at injustice, my early career as an activist and mental health problems.

This narrative has served my passion for a cause, like patient leadership. But, as depicted in the film Three Billboards, ‘not everyone is the enemy’. My anger has been burning me up slowly and can prevent a generosity of spirit that is growing stronger as I get older. I need to let go of the old story. I want to be more healing than divisive.

This is showing in my poetry, the ultimate enabler of a different lens. This for example:

This story of injury

has bled long. I have walked it
into a path
across a bright field

You can see it from above
crimson wide solidified and trailing
through the stolid woods

Yes I was good serious and determined
so much so that
others tracked mine

But I cannot remember the cut
and must take back
my steps

to find and follow another’s

I have been trying to support friends who have been unwell. Many of them are also people who have taken up roles trying to change the healthcare system. And I have been wondering again how best we look after ourselves while doing this difficult work.

I continue to see that people in healthcare leadership are, well, ‘normal’ people who make erroneous assumptions about patients and citizens. But I don’t know whether I can be bothered any more to raise my head above the parapet. I am tired and want to let go.

Nationally, instead of the NHS crisis leading to a reassessment of how we plan, design and deliver healthcare with patients and communities, it is leading to a hunkering down. There is a rearguard action to preserve the status quo and a risk-averse national leadership ill-equipped to adapt and take advantage of what ‘outsiders’ can bring. Maybe there is fear of losing power.

Instead of ‘saving the NHS’ through bold community investment and the opportunities inherent in finding new solutions with patients, communities and citizens, the NHS is behaving like a wounded animal. And patient leadership – like many bright ideas – seems like it is dying before it is born. The NHS won’t let go. I have been thinking maybe my ideas, our ideas, have failed. So, maybe I should let go on this level too.

However, perhaps I am wrong to have equated my personal need to let go, with a political assumption that patient leadership is dead. I need to disentangle the narratives – personal and professional.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter says: “Everything can look like a failure in the middle” and points out that it takes 17 years for innovation to take root in healthcare. My guess is that if initiated by patients/users, communities and citizens it will take even longer!

So, with the sense that I may be wrong about the patient leadership thing – that we are still at the beginning of the journey, I sent an email to over a dozen of my ‘patient leader friends’ asking whether we should get together informally again. I am delighted by the response. Most want to crack on – and they seem to have no less enthusiasm for the cause than they have done previously.

All we need is space to come together, with gossip, whinging, cake and a sense of belonging. But I have let go of wanting to organise it all 

My path is set to change in the next year – it may include both a shift towards mental health and/or towards arts and health. So, yes I’ve let go in some ways. But whatever the direction, the path is still one that is about seeing things in new ways, using creativity and connection, fostering healing relationships and equalising power.

Heifetz, who talks about adaptive leadership says that it “requires us to hear the song beneath the words”.

So, let’s change the story, rather than negate everything about it. And, here’s a poem on that too. Let go when you need to. Change the story if it does not serve. Be gentle.

His Special Twice

Amongst your favourite ghosts
there is one
with bright blue holes for eyes
now no taller than you are.

He says: I was with you the day
Pele almost scored
from the halfway line, his family
golden and shimmering on your new colour TV.

I saw all that was set and said
at the turquoise kitchen table
and loved it when the budgerigar
sat on your shoulder.

I waited while Pink Shield Stamps,
toys in cereal packets, Hillman Imps,
milk floats and sad rag n’ bone man
disappeared. I wasn’t sure

we would bear
your granny going slowly demented
or when you did your back in
or your mum and dad divorced

but remember Grandpa Joe
striding down the garden path
ringing the door bell his special twice?
The second ring was mine.


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© 2018 David Gilbert