"Trust yourself, that you can be a part of something."

After completing our flagship course, The NEXT Project (now called Psychology for Change), in 2014, Tonya decided to embark on a Level 3 qualification to work professionally in the drug and alcohol field, having discovered a skill and a passion that drew on her lived experience.

Despite dedicated voluntary work to further her skills and knowledge in order to be eligible for paid roles, pressure from the Job Centre to get back to work – any work –  began as soon as “treatment” ended leaving Tonya feeling unsupported, undervalued and defeated. She explains how a combination of determination and resilience meant neither her recovery nor her hope ended up getting derailed.

Tonya joins us as our newest member of staff, our feminism lead, responsible for delivering our Feminism for Change course.

What did you discover about yourself, doing The NEXT Project?

I was holding onto a lot of awful stuff that wasn’t mine, most of all. I had internalized all these negative core beliefs about myself. They came from what I knew and grew up with but all that was put upon me, it wasn’t actually me. No one in therapy or treatment had told me about core beliefs – how they work unconsciously to drive negative thinking. I’d never heard of them until we did the day on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). That’s the power of knowledge; once I understood how these internalised beliefs fuelled constant negative thought patterns, I was able to let go of all this bitterness I had towards my family, my mum, the father of my children who was a heroin addict…It took time, obviously, but once I developed understanding of what was going on the bitterness just left me. It’s gone now, all that heavy sh*t weighing me down, and made way for a lightness.

The course brought up so much for me. I didn’t share in group necessarily – I was uncomfortable with that, it was very powerful just listening to others doing so. Being in group means you get to have your mind opened. I became more accepting of ideas – that if these other people could, perhaps I might be able to let go of the bitterness eating me up. That allowed me to share and be honest in my one to one tuition with Liz. There was trust between us and I knew I wouldn’t be judged.

It was only after NEXT that I became strong. Or rather, I felt unafraid to BE strong. I probably was strong all along but was scared to use my voice.

What changes did your family and friends notice in you?

Before I didn’t used to think very much before doing things. Now I am a lot more considered, more organized, more adult. For my friends, I am the one that’s stable, that they come to, I think because they can see that I am OK with myself – with my own company, with my household, my family…I am grounded, happy, content with my lot and that shines out. My kids are so proud of me. We wouldn’t have the relationship we have if I had not let go of all the sh*t I was holding onto – I’d have passed it straight down onto them. We have a very healthy family dynamic. Talking about things is normalized. We ask each other advice. My two brothers are amazed; they are very different to me but have suffered a lot too and in some ways stayed the same. What’s amazing is that my teenage son can go around theirs and spend time with them and bring a whole new way of being into their household – the changes I’ve been able to make have a ripple effect on those around me.

For me the most important thing for my kids was to have them grow up in one household, go to one school, have a consistent group of friends – to have roots and a sense of belonging, which is what I missed out on. I wanted them to feel as though they know where they’ve come from, rather than have to go and look, and I think they have that.

I’ve noticed that I deal with things differently. I am not angry inside or bitter anymore. I’ve let go of a lot of sorrow relating to my mum – to the things we never got to say or talk about before her death, the relationship we never had. I know I’m not going to get answers to the questions I have about why she brought me up in the way that she did, which means that I can let it go. I can recognise what’s HER stuff doesn’t need to be mine. She didn’t know how to ‘own’ being a mum.

My ex says I think I’m “too good” for everyone else (ie him), a bit above myself or something. I can rationalise him saying things like that – in many ways I am, my problem was I couldn’t see it! He spent 15 years trying to bring me down. Now I stand taller and have got stronger and what he says or thinks about me just doesn’t affect or bother me anymore. I don’t internalise it or batter myself with it. I don’t feel anger or resentment, in situations where I used to feel such bitterness. I let it glide over. I’m content with myself!

How did you continue your development after completing the course?

At the beginning I had no interest in working in the field. I did the course because it was recommended by my key-worker. It was purely for my own recovery – I needed to look after myself. I had had lots of therapy and was sceptical about whether a psychology course would benefit me but gave it a go anyway.

Graduating was so exciting. We got all dressed up and were awarded our certificates at the House of Lords! Afterwards I started volunteering at my kids’ school. I did it without really thinking about what I wanted or what I was good at – I was just used to being in “mum mode”. I didn’t particularly want to work with kids as I was with them all day! But it got me showing up every day in a professional capacity, and seeing myself as part of a workforce, which was a new and valuable experience.

What brought you to the decision to go for a professional qualification?

At the House of Lords event Liz had mentioned the certified practitioner-training course and said I should do it. I trusted her I suppose, and was willing to go with anything she would throw at me. Doing that course completely changed how I saw myself. When you are training to work in the field you cover a lot of the psychological theory and material in more depth, but more importantly you have to consider it in relation to working with others, rather than how it relates to your own experience, so you have to learn to separate and own your own stuff.

How did you begin gaining experience working in the health & social care field?

My placement was at the drug and alcohol charity WDP and I absolutely loved it. There was me there and one other person from the course, although we worked in different departments. I was a Family & Carer’s Support Worker; I organised the parent and carer’s weekly groups and had 121s with women mostly, working with families, children, that side of things…it was perfect for me. The role was about empowering women – I wouldn’t say “help”, because people help themselves. I threw myself into it full time and knew then that my forte was guiding people to discover their hidden voice, to gain confidence. When you have lived experience it gives you a completely open mind.

What obstacles did you encounter or have to overcome in order to find work that was meaningful for you?

Before I finished the placement my son Ryan turned three. Immediately the Job Centre took me off Income Support and put me onto Job Seekers Allowance. I had to sign on every few weeks and be looking for work, even though I was completing a placement as part of my training that would hopefully result in paid work on a career path. Their attitude was “well that’s your choice to be volunteering in your spare time” – completely just “computer says NO” kind of thing, and insisted I apply for and take any work going. The life path I was on was irrelevant. WDP were amazing and tried to help me find part-time work so that I would be able to continue with them but in the end I just caved into the pressure and got a cleaning job.

I have to say it brought back all those old feelings of being defeated. I was so angry at the system again – that I’d just wasted all that time and still, it felt like “I’ve ended up here and I can’t get there”.

But, I kept all my paperwork from the course. I bought myself a CBT book and always went back to my folder. Somehow I never fell completely back down – there was something pulling me out of the situation and getting me to look at it again. I kept in touch with Liz and one day she pulled me into her office and just said “look, you can’t just stay cleaning, Tonya!” My friend who had gone to WDP with me after NEXT had ended up getting a fulltime job with an organisation called Look Ahead, after 25 years out of work! It had taken persistence, encouragement and support but he did it and I couldn’t believe it! I just thought “f*ck it…I’ve got to try applying”

And I got the job! It was working in a hostel for people with complex needs. It was incredibly hard shift-work but I shone through it. The people I was working with shouldn’t have been there really; they’d been going round-and-round the [mental health, drug & alcohol and homelessness] systems like a washing machine, passed between services where no one had been able to help them in at least the last 10 years and suddenly I was expected to come up with something.

I built a great rapport with them though. Some of them would just laugh at the patronising questions I was supposed to ask for their ‘support plan’ and just say, “Tonya, you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me?!”. I’d laugh right back and say “I know, I know! Shall we just have a chat?!” That’s what worked, just being real, building a relationship with people. I hated the whole treatment model. I didn’t want to issue them “warnings” about their behaviour or threats about terminating their support if they didn’t comply because it felt like that was punishing, and setting up people with difficulties to fail…I would just explain “look, this is what they want to do if you don’t stick to the rules, I don’t agree or like it, but if you go along you might stay out of trouble”.

In some ways it was frowned upon, the way I worked with my heart on my sleeve, but I got great feedback from the people I worked with. They said I was the best support worker.

Towards the end, not only was I exhausted, my family was really suffering; I was working almost every weekend and had no time with my kids, who were practically looking after themselves. My shifts were often 7.30am – 4pm so I wouldn’t even get to see my youngest when I got home at night or before leaving in the morning. The balance was all wrong and something had to give. I asked to pop in for a chat with Liz again, and she told me they were looking for someone to work on the Feminism for Change course full time. It was such an incredible opportunity, I had to go for it.

That must have been a big leap?

It was really scary! Not only the role and responsibility, but it would involve changing my hours to fulltime and, as a consequence, coming off the last bit of housing benefit I received. When you’re a single mum, supporting three kids, that’s terrifying. You can’t help but worry about the future. In some ways it’s kind of a relief, but undoing that last buckle of the security ‘belt’ was enough to stop me in my tracks for a bit…In the end I had to just go for it and accept “this is a change that’s going to come and I am going to be able to deal with it.”

If you were giving advice to someone trying to make a big change – start a new career, rebuild their lives – what would it be?

Go for it. You have to do something you don’t think you can do. Don’t stay comfortable but oppressed. You will be scared – that never goes away! The only way to overcome fear is just to do it anyway. You’ve got to, for your own peace of mind. Trust yourself, that you can be a part of something. There is no need to feel ‘less than’. Before I worked at WDP I’d never even used a computer! I felt way out of my depth! It was surreal at the beginning being sat there at a desk with a PC and a phone – not me! You’ve got to fake it ‘til you make it a bit.

When I was talking to a potential participant for the Feminism for Change course the other day she was looking at me as though I was someone with power, who’s in control, who has their sh*t together – that’s how I used to look at my key worker, all suited and booted and professional. It’s not like that any of that comes naturally to me! I was with a heroin addict 20 years older than me, 3 kids and no self worth. I didn’t know I was capable of anything, until my eyes were opened to it.

What makes you optimistic about the future?

Life is still scary and challenging. But not so much that I can’t walk through it. I have to keep riding through my fears. I would like to stay within the field of guiding people. I’m not creating plans that are too fixed or too rigid, but rather feel as though I am following a path.

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