The real story of my meeting with the DFM

On Wednesday, I had the tremendous good fortune to speak with the  Depute First Minister John Swinney about the work that Scotland is doing in relation to supporting children who have experienced trauma and the opportunities and challenges facing education within this.

It was certainly one of those once in a lifetime opportunities.

I know that lots of people are really pleased for me. They know that this opportunity is one that I have been striving to get for many years: the chance to speak truth to power; the opportunity to share my expertise and experience and the space in which to be listened to.

I also know that some people will be looking at me and thinking “who on earth is she to think that she has anything worth saying? She is not an expert in trauma, she is just a teacher and not even properly that any more.”

I know that some people have those thoughts and feelings because in the past, when I have written about my views on matters relating to trauma and education, in the Times Educational Supplement, for example, those are some of the responses I have had. And worse. 

The thing is that I don’t pretend to be anything other than I am. I am just a person with a combination of experiences, skills and knowledge that have led me to want to try and make things better for children and families. But also, there is no denying, better for myself and for others like me, who have struggled and continue to struggle with bouts of mental ill-health or, what I have sometimes referred to as “mental snot”.

The professional views I shared with the DFM are no different to what I have written or spoken about previously and you can find those in previous blog posts, particularly this one. (It was the one that upset quite a few people).
I am not going to write a post about the content of the conversation.

But as it is World Mental Health Day this week, I thought that it might be useful/entertaining to break the bubble of that momentous meeting by sharing with you some of the mental snot that was generated by the anticipation of it. Because, as many of us who have experienced childhood trauma and still struggle, well into adulthood, with self-sabotaging tendencies, feelings of worthlessness and physiologically embedded shame, life events like this aren’t quite always as they seem.

If you read my writing and tweets or other social media posts, you will know that I very rarely use expletives. In fact, there is probably a sum total of about 3 swears in amongst everything I have ever written.

But the negative, sabotaging “voices“ (which are actually a combination of thoughts and emotions) inside my head are very fond of expletives, particularly when they are trying to undermine or de-rail me.

So in the story below, the word chuffing will be used to denote more colourful, expressive and aggressive terms; please use your imagination but be guided by knowing that the voices are particularly fond of a word that begins with the letter ‘f’. I do not write these words with any intention to be disrespectful to anyone who reads this, or to cause anyone offence but simply to highlight that the shaming voices are never at pains to avoid offence; in fact, they feed on it.

The real story of my audience with John.

So, to start at the very beginning, let’s rewind in time a bit to the meeting of our authority trauma training steering group last month, in which a social work colleague announced that he had been asked to present to the Scottish Government Trauma Training Group and DFM John Swinney on the progress made in our local authority.

“That is amazing! Well done you!” I say out loud.

Inside: What the actual CHUFF! John Swinney! How many years have you been trying to get a place at his table? How many times have you retweeted the open letter and shared blog posts with him! An open letter to Mr John Swinney | lenabellina But obviously THEIR ideas are good enough and mine aren’t….. aaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!

And then, from the meeting, a suggestion that someone else should be part of the presentation.

“Well, I absolutely think it should be her, as she will be able to provide an educational perspective but also be the voice of a psychologist who has been training staff around trauma and nurture for years” I say out loud.

Inside: Don’t even dare to think that it might be you. Who are you after all? Just some out of the classroom teacher who is a jack of all trades and master of none.

And then I hear: “so we all think that it should absolutely be you Lena.”

A pause. A moment. An inability to accept what I have heard and then an

“Oh, gosh, thank you, I’d love to.”

Following that came a bit more discussion around the fact that it was sharing my “lived experience” which would be a particularly welcome part of what I might offer to the presentation (as I had the previous year at a couple of conferences) and questions about how I’d feel about talking about that.

“That’s fine, sure, I have no problem with that. That is, after all, what this work is REALLY about. So yes, fine.” I say.

Inside: Ah, and there we have it. Tokenism. You are just going to be there for your “lived experience” and not because you are a respected educationalist whose views they want….

And then, another voice inside who, little by little is getting stronger, with the help of therapy and friends and supportive colleagues:

Shut up. This is going to be the time you get to talk about the thing you REALLY know and believe in. And embody. Courageous Leadership as a Professional Human. 

And so we planned the presentation, over email and Skype. There were some amicable disagreements and some moments where I wondered if I was barking up completely the wrong tree and wanted not to do it after all. 

We sent off our slides and they were circulated to the group, with one that had almost been cut, but put back at my gentle insistence.

A picture of me, aged 7, at the age when things had changed for me and triggered my strategies for coping in a world that no longer felt safe.

Without that picture there, I might have been able to back out on the day, not talk about the thing that I needed to and just waffle on about the number of training units delivered and hits on a website.

And so, the day of the presentation drew closer.

Inside, the voices were at their most mischievous:

This will be the end of whatever career you have left. What the CHUFF do you think you are playing at? Do you really want the Government to know how broken you are? It probably won’t happen anyway.

And then, on the day of the presentation, the email that appeared at 10am played right into their cognitively biased little hands.

Mr Swinney was only going to be able to stay for half the meeting and would leave before our presentation.

Of course he would. Why wouldn’t he?

The meeting went ahead. Mr Swinney was there for the first part and came across as genuinely supportive of and committed to the agenda of making Scotland a trauma responsive country.

He left and then we were on. I managed my disappointment and reminded myself of how honoured I was to have the attention of those present. And then I remembered my friends Shumela and Alex in the room, as well as every child who needs to be seen and heard and told that abuse is never their fault… and I told my story of courageous leadership.

At the end, silence.

Inside: You see, you absolute idiot. They have turned you off. You overstepped the mark. You went too far. You are a disgrace. They know it. And now it’s too late.

And I hear myself say: “oh sorry, have I sent you to sleep? Are you still there? Have I gone on for too long?”

And then, some re-assurance and thanks and a sense that maybe it been ok after all.

I felt proud. I allowed myself to feel proud. 

Some lovely things were said on Twitter and in emails. 

And so, that night, I wrote a blogpost:

My almost moment | lenabellina

I shared it on Twitter and tagged the DFM, never expecting that he might see it.

As usual, after I post a blog, I kept an anxious eye on the likes and comments and several times considered deleting it.

But on the Wednesday, I was absolutely bowled over by a response to my tweet sharing my post:

“Hi, I am very sorry I had to leave the discussion yesterday before you spoke. I have now read what you said. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to share such a painful perspective but so deeply grateful to you for helping to improve the lives of others. Kind regards. John”

For a while, I felt a kind of pride, joy and acceptance that I can’t remember feeling for a long time.

And then, the next day, this was added to by an email stating that Mr Swinney wanted the opportunity to speak further with me about my ideas.

Unbelievable. A moment of feeling that I had finally achieved something.

And then, of course, the voices:

Chuffing hell! That’s you going to get a telling off, then! What WERE you thinking, assuming that you could try and get to someone as important as him through a pathetic blog post. That’ll teach you to know your place.

I even rang the Government officer who sent the email to double check whether I was in trouble. Her gently laughing re-assurance that I wasn’t was such a relief.

And so, a date and time were set.

Given that these ended up being on the same day that the DFM addressed the Scottish Parliament about this year’s exams in the light of COVID … and in fact, just about an hour before he was due in the chamber, it is a miracle that he managed to honour his commitment to me. I am hugely grateful and indebted to him for not breaking this commitment. It really, really means a lot.

When he appeared in the meeting room, admitting that he was feeling under pressure, the voices were jumping backflips:

How DARE you take up his time when he has IMPORTANT things to do! Why don’t you just let him go and do things that MATTER? WHO THE CHUFF DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

But the other, small voice, there, quietly:

Or maybe this is just what he needs in this moment. Some calm, eloquent and honest discussion about what we might need, more than ever, to heal the world right now.

And then, a conversation that might just make a difference.

An honest exchange. The voices of two knowledgeable and caring adults who want to help all the children in Scotland thrive and overcome the challenges that face them.

And one also sharing a bit of the voice of a little girl who was nearly destroyed by her challenges.

I don’t feel ashamed talking about what happened to me. I don’t feel ashamed talking about the fact that it made me very ill.

I do feel sorry that I still can’t seem to shake off the voices in my head and the embodied shame that means that even a massive achievement doesn’t feel like one.

I am sorry that I often feel resentful, jealous and sad, even though you probably would never see those feelings. 

I am sorry that, at 51, I still take two steps back for every one forward.

But for those of you who continue to love me, re-assure me and understand that understanding trauma is partly about understanding people like me, I am hugely grateful.

This is what will genuinely help the children who are the adults of the future.

8 thoughts on “The real story of my meeting with the DFM

  1. Food for the soul, cause for hope, stoked by honest reflection on stark reality and lived experience. Authentic you, Lena, as ever ~ a voice to he heard, listened to and acted upon. Truth to power, indeed. Thank you!


      1. … which reminds, this time, of the words of the Serenity prayer by St Ignatius of Loyola, “[God], grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


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