The Sheffield Flourish writing group is aptly named.
I always had a passion for writing but never much direction or reason to write regularly. On my release from prison I joined a work-based recovery program attached to Sheffield Cathedral’s Archer project and I was writing a poem just once a year for the project’s carol service. I knew I needed some guidance.
All my life I have suffered mental ill-health. An abusive childhood, chaotic life and military service led me down a familiar route of alcoholism and heroin addiction. Spiralling drug use and a psychotic mental state invariably led me to prison. But it was prison where I changed. I quit drugs and got fit. Always an avid reader (books were a refuge of safety for me during the difficulties in my youth) I worked in the prison library and it’s there I began to write. Sitting alone in my cell for eighteen hours a day with pen in hand I could escape the confines of my steel and concrete tomb.
I finished my formal education at fifteen years old and left school to begin work and prepare for military service. At that time I took the ability to read and write for granted and so later I was shocked at the level of illiteracy I found in prison. It was this, and wanting to put my time to positive use that prompted me to volunteer for a programe called Turning Pages, a prisoner peer-led reading and writing mentoring programme and a part of the Shannon Trust charity. We were trained by facilitators who came to the prison, teaching us the techniques and giving us tools. The joy that I shared with other forgotten men, as we sat in our grey prison issues in our library and watched a fellow prisoner read the first few lines of a book for the first time, will stay with me forever.
It was my support worker Terry who saw an advertisement for the Sheffield Flourish CAST creative writing group and suggested it was something I would benefit from. I had just returned from a few months absence and I was not in a good place mentally. In fact my world was quite dark if I’m honest. People were worried about me and I had been to seek help help from mental health services that same week. Given the group was aimed at mental health sufferers made it feel more accessible to me. I wanted a distraction and to do something positive with my poetry but had no idea what.
The fact that Flourish is literally across the street from my work and I was allowed to go whilst there had me sold. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Neil, the group facilitator, made me feel so at ease. It was his “make yourself at home” and “fancy a cuppa” genuine niceness that made it easy. Everone was so supportive and so sweet and we all shared a similar story in lots of way.
Neil was inventive with his games and creative prompts and always kept it fun. I knew after the first day that I would be back for more and I was a regular attendee right up until the pandemic. I got some wonderful feedback, lovely support and fellowship, and I actually enjoyed being around people again. I genuinely miss them all quite a lot and am eager to see them again. Flourish enabled me to flourish and develop my skills as a writer and poet. And it gave me an opportunity to belong.
Flourish have kept in regular phone and email contact with me during the pandemic, sending lovely thoughtful gifts at Christmas and, most importantly, giving me the long term loan of a brand new tablet (the one I am using to write this very article and many others besides). I have had tens of thousands of views on some of my poems on Facebook. I write about mental health, addiction and politics. I have also just finished my third blog for South Yorkshire police where I try and give offenders’ perspectives on criminal justice. Recently my poem about male suicide was featured on BBC Radio Sheffield and I was invited on to discuss it.
My journey is just beginning and I am excited to see where it goes. I don’t think I would be doing what I am now without the skills I learned from Neil and his group. The confidence Flourish instilled in me as a bone fide writer, and the practical, emotional and moral support of all the staff and people involved in that wonderful, calm bastion of creativity.