To Smile Is to Heal

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| This is the 387th story of Our Life Logs |


I grew up in England in the ’80s, in various small towns and villages. My mom had five children to two different men, and I was the second. We were all girls and close in age. While we would often fight like cats and dogs, at the same time, if one of us got into trouble or was getting picked on at school, we would all stick up for her. That’s the good thing about coming from a large family.

Zoe and her sisters circa 1995
Me (second left) with my sisters, c. 1995.

Yet, life was not all good. My stepdad was in the army, which meant that our family moved every couple of years. With each move, I had to start a new school, something that I dreaded. I felt shy and self-conscious, and that made it hard for me to fit in and make friends. I always felt like the new girl, different from other people. When I was small, my teachers would make an effort to include me and help push me towards other kids, but as I got older, things seemed to become harder.

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 My teenage years were difficult. I was bullied in a couple of the schools, as I was quiet and an easy target. I didn’t seem to be able to make any friends and was often sad and lonely. I was relieved every time I moved schools, but then, the same situation seemed to present itself at each new place. I tried to stay invisible and would hide in the cloche room at break and lunchtime. I didn’t want any trouble, so I kept myself to myself.

When I was 15, my family moved to Dover, a beautiful town on the coast which had large chalk white cliffs. It was a lovely place where we could play on the beaches and run around, having all the freedom we needed. However, again, I struggled with making friends at school and dreaded being there. Negative thoughts started to fill my mind, and bad memories from my previous schools plagued me. I didn’t trust anyone and detached myself from everyone else.

dover where her family moved and mum still lives
Dover. My mom still lives there today.

During that time, my mom and stepdad split up. This affected me greatly as I had always called him dad. I hadn’t seen my birth father since I was a small child and could hardly remember him. I felt abandoned and angry. I could see that my younger sisters were troubled as well, as he was their biological father.

It was a hard time for the whole family, and for a while, I stopped going to school. My mom hardly seemed to notice or care what I got up to. I would hang around on the beach or in the forests near our home. It seemed that everyone else was doing better than me, and I started to feel worthless. Any friends I’d had in my young life were only temporary, and knowing this stopped me from making an effort to make new friends. I felt very low and would sit on the beach crying every day.

A few times, I even considered jumping off the cliffs. Once, I walked right up to the edge and looked over at the waves crashing far below. Yet each time, I didn’t jump. I knew that I couldn’t leave my mom and sisters. My younger sisters looked up to me, and it would affect them for the rest of their lives if I killed myself. They were already sad about their dad leaving, and I didn’t want to add to their anguish. I just wanted to stop the emotional pain I was feeling, but how?

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After a few phone calls from the school, my mom got stricter with me and told me I had to return. I would still skip the odd days as I was angry and rebellious and didn’t like being told what to do. Then winter came, and the weather was so bad that I was forced inside, so I started attending school regularly again.

I studied hard to catch up as I had exams approaching. I also threw myself into cheering up my three younger sisters. I would make up funny songs and rhymes to make them laugh. My family seemed to be doing okay, we were getting ourselves back on track, and I passed my exams despite everything. My mom got a permanent job, and we got settled in Dover. I was happy to have a stable home finally.

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Two years later, when I was 18, I left home and moved to Exeter to study geography at University. It was a subject I had always enjoyed. I didn’t really know what I would do after graduation, but I took that first step and moved anyway. I found the course interesting and enjoyed the study trips to the coast that we went on every now and again. However, I still struggled socially and found it hard to connect with other people. I only had a couple of roommates that I was friends with, and I traveled home every second weekend to stay with my family.

Soon, I started to struggle more. All the feelings I’d had at school began to return, and I felt that I wasn’t coping with the changes I’d made in my life. I felt nervous and worried a lot of the time. There was nothing to worry about, my mom often told me. But I couldn’t help how I was feeling. I briefly considered suicide again but pushed the thought to the back of my mind. My thoughts were anxiety-ridden and I just wanted to be able to feel calmer.

During my second year at university, things changed from bad to worse. I often felt flat and like I had no energy. The winter came with awful weather and I just wanted to stay in bed. My roommates were worried about me, and my grade started to suffer. Eventually, I went to the doctor and found out that I was anemic.

I was later diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I was prescribed iron tablets and sent to get counselling. Gradually, with the help of the medicine, my energy levels returned and I started to do better physically, but I was still having negative thoughts and constantly felt bad about myself.

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After graduating in 2005, I traveled around the UK because I felt restless and wanted to see new places. I had always wanted to visit Scotland, so off I went. I was offered a job in Glasgow and decided to stay for a while. I saw it as a temporary stop. It was a job in a shop, and I thought it would tide me over until I found something better. Finding a geography-related job seemed impossible at the time.

Glasgow looked like a nice city, there were lots of things to do, such as art exhibitions and concerts, and the people were friendly. I was able to make a couple of friends and they introduced me to other people. I felt happier in Glasgow than anywhere I had stayed in my life. As I started to make friends, my attitude towards people changed, I found that people were nicer than I’d thought. I wanted to hold on to that happy feeling inside me.

However, it didn’t last. As I got into contact with more people and started to go out more, I began to feel overwhelmed again. This feeling got worse when I started a new job as an admin assistant in 2007. It felt like I wasn’t doing well enough at my job. My anxiety deteriorated, and at one point, I didn’t leave my flat for almost a week. I felt shaky and nervous and always had this feeling that something terrible was about to happen.

In 2008, the doctor prescribed me anti-depressants, and my anxiety calmed. I was able to return to work and gradually built up my confidence. Yet, I continued to suffer from bouts of depression and anxiety over the years.

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A couple of years ago, I was feeling very down. But one day, I found a poem online that made me smile—it felt nice, as if my heart was suddenly lightened. I decided to copy it into my notebook so that I could read it whenever I needed a boost. As I copied it out, I noticed a big difference in my mood. I couldn’t believe that something so simple had such an impact on me. I went on to copy the poem onto cards and send them to my mom and each of my sisters, who had by now all left home and were in different places in England. After writing the poem out six times, I felt much better.

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The poem that made me smile.

That same week, I saw an advert for a calligraphy class and decided to attend. Writing the letters out was relaxing and rewarding. I met some lovely people in the classes too. The course ran for six weeks, and we had to choose a poem or inspirational quote to write during the last class. We were going to make it into a piece of artwork that we could hang on our walls to inspire us. I immediately knew which poem I would choose. I created a beautiful piece of art using this poem, which still hangs on my wall to this day, reminding me to smile and be happy no matter what life throws at me.

I also started to write the poem out several times a day as I found that this helped my mood. I sent the cards to everyone I knew and then began leaving them for others to find; on the train and on park benches. Sometimes I would hang around and wait for someone to find the card so that I could see their reaction. They would always smile as they read it. This made me happy. The poem was doing what it says—passing a smile on.

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Today, I feel much happier and continue to write the poem as much as I can. Looking back, I can see how my childhood affected me and made me distrustful of other people. Now I see it differently. Now I see strangers as being friends that we have yet to meet, rather than people to fear. By changing my attitude, I’ve been able to connect with people better and made more friends. It was a long process that took me years, but it was all worthwhile.

Along the way, I’ve also realized that sometimes the simple things in life can make us the happiest. I thought I needed to make significant changes in my life to feel happy, but in the end, something as simple as writing a poem has brought me the happiness I was seeking. I hope that I can continue to inspire and help others through my calligraphy.

 

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 This is the story of Zoe Smith

Zoe now lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and works as an admin assistant for a law firm. Zoe’s family moved about a lot when she was a child, and she often felt like she didn’t fit in and had difficulty making friends. She was also bullied at school and never felt happy. Her mental health got worse as she grew older, eventually leading to her being diagnosed with depression and anxiety which she struggled for 10 years. She has now come up with a unique way to make herself happier—writing out a poem that makes her smile. Zoe sends these poems to others who are having difficulties in life, to cheer them up. She also writes for Refuweegee, a charity that sends letters of support to refugees, and Love for the Elderly, an American non-profit that distributes letters to lonely elderly people. Recently, Zoe has also started sending the poems to prisoners through a prison penpal scheme she’s joined. She hopes to have an exhibition of her artworks in the future. Zoe volunteers in her spare time.

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One of the cards that Zoe wrote.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on July 14, 2019.

| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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