Every day this world teaches me that life is too short.  We never know how long we have left to roam this planet and we never know what hurdles may appear in front of us that might stop us from living a life that we can truly appreciate.

A few months ago I made a vow to myself that if circumstances permitted me to do something I would love to do, then I would try my best to make that happen.

I had an English teacher in secondary school who was a big fan of the Eagles and when he was telling the story of a concert he’d been to, I have always remembered him saying that the band were amazing musicians, but they didn’t get along and had to be flown separately in private jets whenever they had to do a show together.  Now, I don’t know if that’s true because any snippets I’d seen of them playing on TV, they always looked as if they were getting along just fine.

I viewed the Eagles as being a band too far out of my reach.  I believed that I would never be able to warrant paying the cost of a ticket, never mind be in a position to pay for one.  So when the 4th June came around and I had a ticket in my hand for The Long Goodbye tour, I was pretty much the definition of…

…the Kat that got the cream.

I don’t know if anyone reading this knows who the Eagles are or if they know any of their songs, but this isn’t just about music; for me this concert was about sharing something with Mum.  It was about coming through a lifetime of misfortune mixed with those momentary flashes of joy you wish they sold behind the counter in Boots!

When I was in hospital in 2011, all I had in my possession was a little personal radio that I could plug my earphones into.  I found five radio channels and each station played a different genre of music. There was Pop, Rock, Older Rock, 80s/90s Pop and Classical.

Each station had one or two songs that my tortured Bipolar brain clung to and I would sit for hours flicking through each station waiting for a specific song to come on. 

When “Take it to the Limit” came on by the Eagles it brought a whole new meaning to that song.  I don’t know what the band intended the lyrics to mean but for me, it was about being in hospital.  It was about finding a way through the darkness of being in a psychiatric ward and coming through the other side into a brighter world.

Take it to the Limit

At the concert I wanted to film the band singing that song because thirteen years later, I am in a brighter world.  Even when I’ve had those dark days; these days, the brighter ones outshine the bad.

I know people will say…

“You don’t need to film it, you should just enjoy the moment.”

Well yes, I see your point.  But when you’re sat on a psychiatric ward for weeks on end with only five channels on a personal radio for entertainment and your lifeline is one song… let me tell you now, I wanted to have Take it to the Limit on my phone so I could remind myself as each day passes, that I am not the same person I was back then.  I am not peering out of the window of my room, looking at the metal fence, too tall to climb, thinking…

“Is this it?  Is this my limit?”

Because the truth is, there is no limit, not really. Even when people say…

“The sky’s the limit…”

That’s not necessarily true either, because who knows where the sky begins and where it ends?  Who gets out their measuring tape?

Over the last few months I’ve been given the opportunity to do more talks at work than I have done in the last four years, and I love being back in the driver’s seat.

As each talk has got bigger in capacity I have reminded myself of what my initial intention was ten years ago.  I told myself, that if I was going to speak in public and tell people a story, then I would only do it if I was going to do it well.  Being just “okay” was not enough, being “okay” wouldn’t make people remember what I’ve been through and it certainly wouldn’t make people remember me!”

So I went back to the beginning.  I got in touch with my good friend Richard McCann and I booked myself on to his Storytelling Retreat in Leeds, 21st to 23rd June 2024. 

Oulton Hall, Leeds

It was three days in luxurious surroundings, fine dining, good company and intensive training on how to stand, deliver, and tell your truth. 

Oulton Hall was out of this world, tall ceilings, chandeliers (you all know how much I love a good chandelier), I had a suite!  With a bed twice the size of my own at home, a walk-in shower as well as a separate bath, big sink, wide mirror, massive TV, a desk to set up my laptop on.  I had a coffee table to accompany my sofa and armchair, and to put the icing on the cake that already had far too many tiers… I had a fridge and free flowing tea and coffee!

Winning!

The suite!

There was a spa with a pool that was at my disposal so I went swimming every single day.  As I sat in my suite, in the centre of the biggest bed I have ever seen, I thought to myself…

“This is the only time I will ever get to experience something like this.”

I promised myself I would get the most out of the weekend.  I would follow Richard’s guidance, I would write down everything I needed to remember, and I would become the best speaker I can become; because after this, I was on my own.

Day 1…

I travelled to Leeds the day before the retreat started and spent an extra night in my little paradise.  I went swimming and then dined alone in the fancy restaurant, pretending to be Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun, only without Tuscan sun.

I was very quick to realise that my appearance did not match the décor or the attire of the other diners.  Dressed in my jeans and a £3.75 T-shirt I bought from Temu, I told myself, I may not be Diane Lane, but my money was as good as anyone else’s money.  I was still eating a fancy meal and drinking a 200ml bottle of diet coke that cost £4.00.

When you look different to other people, it doesn’t take much effort to notice when you’re being ushered out of a near empty restaurant by a waitress taking your plate away before you’ve been given the chance to confirm whether or not you’ve finished; which is why, the next morning at breakfast, I wore another £3.75 T-shirt from Temu and ate my Coco Pops like a rock star, but refrained from drinking the remnants of milk from my bowl thinking that it might just be a step too far.

Let it be said, when I went up to the conference room to see Richard and meet the eight other delegates, I did not wear a £3.75 T-shirt from Temu.  What do you take me for people?  Of course I didn’t… I wore my H&M jeans, a pair of £11.00 kids boots from Tesco and a £5.75 blouse from Temu. 

Who said I’ve not got class?!

When I walked through the door, I realised my world as I knew it had already changed.  For the next three days I was to become a version of myself that I knew was in there, but I had forgotten existed. 

When I booked myself on to the retreat Richard told me not to tell anyone that I have Bipolar Disorder and at each opportunity we were given to get up and speak, I should talk about something different.  My initial thought was…

“What do I talk about when the only reason I wanted to become a public speaker is the one thing he’s telling me not to speak about?”

When I asked my friend Steve, he told me to dig a bit deeper and talk about an experience.  Like the Eagles concert.  What did I do? What was the sound like?  What was the atmosphere like?  How I did I feel being in the same room as the Eagles? 

Steve was right! 

I have always known I am more than just my diagnosis; I am more than my stoma, I am more than a ward clerk.  I preach in my talks that I am a person!  And the weekend at the storytelling retreat reminded me of that.

For two whole days and two whole nights I was Katerini.  No Bipolar, no mental illness, no hospital, no mess.  I was a 42-year-old woman who talked about wearing glasses, being made redundant and went to watch wrestling matches with her husband.

Sometimes I look at my life and I wish it was simple.  I wish I didn’t have the complication of a mental illness that never really takes a back seat.  I wish I hadn’t lost all those friends that I loved so much at the hands of my condition and I wish the relationships I make these days were not based on a scenario Bernard the Bipolar creates. 

I wish my life could be more like it was at Oulton Hall. 

Day 2…

I thought I’d up the anti with my dress code and I wore a skirt I bought in the sale from Lucy and Yak that I’d never had the courage to wear before and a £4.57 top from Temu.  I sound like a Temu addict, but really, I did one shop and that was my entire summer wardrobe kitted out for at least the next three years.

We did five to six quick talks a day.  It was a case of think on your feet, remember what you’d just been taught, pick a story but remember not to tell the story you thought you’d be telling.

Believe it or not, this was the easy part.  What was the hard part?  I hear you ask?

Meal times!

Wilomena was her usual picky self, to a point where I couldn’t eat anything at all from the starter menu so I had to ask for bread and butter (don’t worry guys, it was the best bread and butter I have ever had in my entire life!  I was not disappointed) but not just that, I was so nervous and so aware of everything I was and wasn’t doing, that I couldn’t eat anything anyway.  This meant the majority of the biggest burger I have ever laid eyes on went to waste, trust me, my heart cried when I told the waiter I was full after about two bites.

In addition to the task of eating the meals, I was also faced with the reality that people change for dinner.  I thought that was only in Downton Abbey, so when I turned up at the posh restaurant in the same top I’d been wearing all day, I bowed my Bolton head in shame and vowed to eat quick and head back to my suite where there was free tea and a biscuit waiting for me.

There were onion rings hiding behind this beast!

I don’t know whether people know I’m shy or not but I am.  When you come from a background of simplicity, conversing with people I deemed to be far more interesting and successful than myself, is a hard task.  So I listened, I listened to the stories from the people around me and I knew, that outside of the walls of the retreat, I would never have met those people, and I would never have been able to broaden my horizons in the way they needed to broaden.

Day 3…

Every day Richard showered us with his knowledge and expertise.  I have always said over the last ten years, this man has taught me everything I know about standing in front of an audience, and over the three days at Oulton Hall he taught me so much more.

I knew I had become lazy within my talks, so now I won’t be.  I know I need to be louder; I know I need to pause more; I know I need to move about the stage more, but most of all, I know I need to have more faith in myself.

On the third day we were set our biggest task yet.  We had to speak for up to eighteen minutes.  Granted, I had half of my presentation ready but it needed tweaking, it needed a different angle and I needed to somehow convey to my fellow speakers that the person they had got to know over the last few days was still the same person, I just had an extra something to talk about.

Public speaking is something I never imagined I would ever want to do, never mind love to do.  But I came out of the retreat with an even bigger passion for it than I had before and a greater drive to make a change that the world of mental health still desperately needs.

In 2011 I looked out of the window of my room on the psychiatric ward, and when it came on the radio I listened to Take it to the Limit.  I stared up at the metal fence where a bird had landed on the top of it…

(For dramatic purposes let’s say it was an Eagle, it wasn’t, it was a grubby little pigeon but just go with it…)

…and I thought of freedom.  Freedom to do whatever I wanted to do and be wherever I wanted to be.  Caged in the walls of misery from my own making, I listened to the lyrics of that song, knowing there was a story behind it.  I told myself, if I could get better, if I could get out of hospital and live a normal life, whatever normal might be, I would make my own story.

After spending three days in the kind of luxury I have only ever written about in the stories that came from my dreams, I feel privileged to have been able to experience it.  I never thought I’d be sleeping in a suite with a bath to my left and a walk-in shower to my right.  I never imagined I would be sitting in the same room, breathing the same air as a rock band that have been singing my favourite song for more than fifty years.

Eagles 4th June 2024

I may not be rich, but my life is richer for everything I have despite the challenges I have faced.  When life is balanced and the shadows move out of the way of the sun, I think I know now where the “limit” might be, maybe be the limit…

…is where eagles fly.

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