However, it was made very clear to me that it was my decision and mine only. I could see Mark getting frustrated with the lack of progress, and I knew that he could well be under pressure from senior managers to drop me and declare me a no-hoper and failure. He may argue that this was never the case, but I am certain he was told this in team meetings. Somehow, and luckily for me, the relationship continued. 

Luckily a breakthrough was soon to come, and was startling only in its own simplicity. During the autumn of 2001 I was given a copy of a Lambeth Mind newsletter. I was totally unaware that a local Mind association existed within the borough, and I always felt my own problems were so all-encompassing and utterly exhausting that the thought of once again trying to help others was out of the question. However, I did notice they were advertising for volunteers on their help-line. I thought that might be good, as I had good knowledge of mental health issues from my own experience and from my previous nurse training. Not to mention that I could talk for Britain on the telephone given the chance. This was a chance too good to miss. 

Much to my bemusement I was accepted, and the second part of my journey began. The very fact that I was a user of mental health services meant my past experiences were valued, not ridiculed, and I ‘belonged’ - something that had not happened for a long time. Put quite simply, once I had made the first move, found something of interest and value, then the process afterwards was relatively straightforward. I had stopped taking all medication about nine months before this new beginning, so I was able to feel ‘real’ again and this volunteering work was the cherry on the cake. I still had a number of very bad times, but I now had some balance in my life that was previously missing - things such as new interests, meeting intelligent, caring individuals, and helping people. All this helped me to regain feelings of self worth for the first time in many years. 

Throughout my time at Lambeth Mind my confidence blossomed. I took helpline skills training courses and gradually embroiled myself in the world of vocation through involvement in the local Vocational Providers Forum. This was set up to engage service providers in a mutual learning environment and find ways to enhance vocational opportunities for service users. I remember feeling claustrophobic and very self conscious in the first few meetings, however as Mark was a key figure in the Forum I felt welcomed and valued. I had felt that as a service user I would be sidelined and my views ignored. However this was not the case because, as my confidence grew, I realised my knowledge and intellect were equal if not greater than a number of the professionals. 

With my confidence growing, although still experiencing some awful low days, I decided it was time to spread my wings. I felt a great appreciation for the support I received at Mind but still felt restless. It was time to move on to the next stage. It had become obvious during my time working on the help-line that vocational issues were at the back of the queue in Lambeth, and that something needed to happen. I was lucky enough to see an advert for the King’s Fund Millennium Awards. I had an idea to set up an information service for service users, carers and professionals called Vocation Matters. Luckily my project idea met the Award criteria for enhancing social inclusion and giving service users a say in their own lives. I was interviewed and such was my enthusiasm I nearly talked them out of the room. 

The result was a ‘yes’, and so began the third part of my journey. In spring 2003 I started a Leadership Development Training programme. This was quite daunting because for the first time in nearly ten years I had to get up early and attend a whole week of training, and then a further seven days over the next six months. Luckily the course was not too taxing and I developed a number of close friendships which were mutually supportive with regards to the training. 

At the same time I had been given office space in a day centre in Brixton ran by social services where I could base my project. It was only at this point that I realised I was quite naïve around the issues surrounding vocation. However I was not daunted, and with much support the project began in earnest. 

Over time the project grew organically, but with a purpose. It was aided greatly by the publication of the Social Exclusion Unit Report (ODPM, 2004) which focused minds on social inclusion and vocational issues. I developed strong working relationships with service users and professionals alike. This was borne out by some of the written feedback I received. For example…

“You are a great, inspiring guy and the fact that I’ve gone all that way into voluntary work soon after contacting you proves it” 

This is one of many, wonderful comments I received during this period. I also had a very good response rate from evaluation forms, almost 60% returned forms. The ethnicity of service users attending was also very mixed, 64% were from ethnic minority backgrounds.