An Interview with Friends For Life Winner 2018

Vanessa Holbrow and Sir Jack were the very worthy winners of the Kennel Club’s Friends for Life competition this year. We chatted to Vanessa about her experience and how winning the competition has changed her life.

You were such a deserving winner of the Crufts Friends for Life 2018 competition – what were your feelings when Geri Horner (nee Halliwell) read out your name?

I was dumfounded, stunned. In no way was I expecting to hear “Vanessa and Jack” due to the incredible stories behind my fellow finalists. I could not believe it or take it in, my heart was pounding. I could not believe it was happening to Jack and I – it felt like a dream, a staggering moment which was hard to comprehend.

Did you and Jack do anything special after your win to celebrate?

The whole experience; travelling to London for the press launch and the day at Crufts (I’d never been before) was a celebration and an infinite treat in itself.

After our win in order to celebrate we watched Best in Show from the sky gallery, a significant privilege and spectacle in itself. We then went back to the hotel for celebratory drinks (of the alcoholic bubbly variety) with some of the finalists who we had made great friends with, and I felt like we were all winners. I sneakily admit Jack had a meal of dry kibble from the exquisitely engraved glass bowl which we won! His trophy to christen! 

We further celebrated the following week by completing our annual fundraising event raising money for Beat (the UK’s leading eating disorder charity). We completed 7 miles raising £1,500, which Crufts helped enable me to complete.

You are truly inspirational in working hard to break down the barriers to how mental health is perceived – do you feel that winning Friends for Life gave you more strength to be able to do this?

Winning Friends for Life has undoubtedly instilled confidence to further the strides forward I yearn to make happen and in some respects have made happen. That is to speak out in order to raise awareness, understanding and breaking down the stigma still attached to mental health illness (with particular emphasis to issues pertinent to myself, namely eating disorders, complex PTSD and dissociative disorders) together with a historical view of treatment within the mental health system from 1993 to date.

The whole experience forced me to do things I would normally avoid and be fearful of doing: for example travelling to unfamiliar places, attending a social occasion, talking to unfamiliar people, staying anywhere unfamiliar overnight, let alone a hotel – a first for Jack and I. It gave me evidence that if I put my mind to it I could in fact ‘achieve’ some things people take for granted. Doing anything (even if it was local to me) out of my normal routine is an understandable trigger for symptoms related to complex PTSD and dissociative disorders. 

Have you done much media work since winning the competition?        

Since winning, my passion to be a voice for those who may have yet to find theirs has intensified. Due to my own fight with anorexia and the remarkable lack of support available in my locality (which is reflected across the UK for all ages) a sense of urgency has instilled me to find an outlet so that my voice could be heard, done out of fear of my demise and needing to do something proactive whilst alive to do so.

As well as being able to approach the media, I have set up a blog (ComplexNess: A Campaign for Complex/Chronic Trauma & Dissociative Disorders)

Winning Crufts and the engagement I had to make with media, answering questions, working with cameramen etc has given me the insight in to the fact that I could face a camera. Without this remarkable experience which the Kennel Club gave me I would never have found the courage to do.

Following Crufts and all the media we attracted, Jack received a Highly Commended in the Animal Star Awards at the beginning of November. This was in the Rescue Animal of the Year category. 

What is Jack’s favourite thing to do?

Jack’s favourite thing aside from the obvious – walking with his buddies, a raw meaty bone, his squeaky toys, looking out for and chasing squirrels – is to be out and about, by my side as my owner trained assistance dog for mental health. He adores people watching and meeting people, unknown as well as those who are my trusted friends. Posing has always been a natural activity he loves to adopt and if he sees an appropriate prop then he’s there ready to be photographed 

What is Jack’s favourite food?

Jack is not at all fussy and it is hard to know what his favourite is. As a veggie myself he is particularly partial to roast chicken and our neighbour is very kind and quite often gives him his left overs! Jack also enjoys homemade treats including ingredients such peanut butter, cheese or liver, and his bedtime biscuit is a MUST!!!

What makes Jack so special to you

He is my first dog and has had a remarkably profound impact on me continuing a journey coming to terms with who I am. I am someone who was once wholly institutionalised having spent years sectioned in both old style psychiatric asylums and ‘modern’ units. I am no longer on my own in light of a 35 year history of complex mental health illnesses. I have never been able to make an attachment to anyone or anything (due to unbelievable extensive traumas for many years which I was exposed to from an infant) and Jack has enabled me to make that essential attachment necessary for an infant/child’s solid foundation for optimum all-round healthy growth. Jack’s determination, patience and ability to change has inspired me in ways it is impossible to put into words. He has enabled me to locate and pursue trauma work I need to work through in order that I continue alive and move forward. This will be a lengthy process. Without finding Jack I doubt very much this stage would have ever been reached, and in fact wonder if I’d be here to even tell this.

Jack for me reminds me very much of the one positive in my past, my late grandmother’s dog, a Norwich Terrier. He was my world and I had a very special relationship with him. I surmise that is why I fell for this breed. Prior to rehoming a dog I had done my research on breeds and the Border Terrier was a breed that continued to strike me as the right match for me.

The Border Terrier is a breed of dog that thinks for himself, independence and survival mechanism I related to. Border Terriers are known to be social, sensitive, they like to do right for their owner, as well as being social, biddable and equally obstinate! These characteristics, in my eyes are qualities resonated with me. Their characters are smashing and their intelligence astonishing, Jack is by far the better half!

What advice would you give people that might also be suffering from mental health illness and finding it hard dealing with the challenges that life brings.

There is so much advice I wish to convey and it is impossible to pick out the one which is most paramount, and not a cliche. I could write so much more on this, but will keep it brief.

The biggest most important things that have made the most profound difference to how I live with my suffering is to learn not to compare yourself with other sufferers and believe that just because someone appears to suffer to a greater degree, and ‘manages’ that therefore you conclude yourself to be worthless. Try to work towards never belittling your reality at any one time. Just because someone else suffers and seemingly manages better or has achieved more, this is irrelevant and comparing only serves to hurt yourself more, and make you feel worse.

Replace self-hatred with self-compassion.  Give yourself permission to treat yourself with respect and be kind and compassionate towards yourself. You are no different to any other human at the end of the day and we all require self-compassion.

Telling those you trust how you feel, and that you suffer from mental illness (an invisible ‘illness’) takes courage and strength. It is important that others know, for this validates how you are feeling and who you are as a person. A person suffering in the face of invisible adversity. Do not become a stranger to yourself, leaving yourself behind by wearing that mask “I am fine”. Even if you find your voice, it truly isn’t a fault of yours when you speak to someone who is ‘deaf’ by choice. Take those baby steps towards disallowing the opinion of others restraining you. I was a voluntary patient in a Therapeutic Community for a year and was introduced to some profound truths. For example, you can’t change others, only yourself. Others may not like that change, but that problem is with them and not you. You are not able to stop people from passing opinions or judgements. However, they cannot build your prison – you do. Know you can never please everyone, some people you can never please and you certainly have no obligation to answer their questions. Walk away. 

There are bad days, these cannot be avoided. Give yourself permission to seek support, buy yourself some flowers, have some time and space just for you. I’ve found that I need time purely for my mind to process, this alone takes time and is exhausting but it absolutely necessary in order to move on. It is absolutely fine to stop and pause for as long as you want or able to. Lower the expectations you have of yourself remarkably and work towards lessening the negativity you may hold of yourself – this does not happen by accident, only by choice.

These words may well feel empty – a message of hope, surviving and thriving may feel unobtainable. So at very least personally I do my best to keep holding onto a small thread of hope. The precedent for some is not just getting ill, it is also recovery. In the midst of some mental illnesses, that illness lies. And I suppose I remain determined despite numerous phases where I sense, entirely, complete hopelessness that life today (despite being very poorly) has so much more worth. Every day is certainly a gift and I am so fortunate to have survived to a time where I own a dog, for example and have experienced the wealth a dog brings. I am glad I survived. All I need now is to continue on with those baby steps.

How do you feel living with how you suffer has shaped you as a person, and what kind of impact do you think Jack has made on that?

How do I feel? To be honest this is something I work towards coming to terms with. This is a big question. I live each day as though it is my last. I am overly appreciative of those who show kindness towards me as I still cannot understand why and due to criminal abuse someone appreciating me is overwhelming (in a good way). I hold enormous empathy for others who suffer in any way, and that includes animals. I intuitively understand what they may need – some people think they need to make people feel better (understandably) – to make those feelings go away. But ironically some people actually need to feel those feelings, have them validated, so sit beside a person who is feeling in their suffering, instead of trying to fix them. People need to feel in order to heal. 

With no recognition of complex PTSD and very little understanding by professionals into dissociative disorders this is something I have recently had confirmed and helped me understand myself and validate the terrifying existence I have negotiated and survived alone up until finding Jack. Of course all experiences have shaped me as a person. For the majority that has been a person whose only purpose was to self-destruct. I had no worth – I did not matter I had no sense whatsoever of this. 

Jack has initiated an inquisitive part of me to find out who this person is others seem to warm to, because they have said that it is not due to Jack alone. Although I always say people like me, only because i have Jack. But with Jack, I have become someone as opposed to a nobody. And for the first time I tentatively make steps with the help of private counsellor to seek out who I am. My past has shaped me into someone I definitely had not asked for, but on the other hand I am able to perhaps see how determined I am. I have survived against all the odds stacked against me. So although I feel very uncomfortable admitting this, my suffering has made me a strong person, and someone who does not give up. Surviving what I was exposed to in my early life, and then to go on and survive the many attempts on my life and the extreme malnourished state I’ve been on more than a handful times, I suppose displays strength. I honestly should not be here, and unlike my contemporaries (who I have been alongside on numerous hospital admissions) who have passed on I’m fortunate to still be here, and to have found my voice thanks to Jack.

Jack is pivotal to my story. Jack has enabled me to empathise with one or more selves of mine, as I can relate to Jack and the poor start he had.           

Jack has been pivotal to my survival and has consolidated my want for a future, replacing a total absence of want for one. Jack has initiated me to engage with the outside world and to be curious about who I am. As a consequence, I have immersed myself into wanting to find out why I turned out like I did, to have that validated, for me to process that in order to move on. Jack continues to support and partner me on what is a terrifying existence which occur in unpredictable waves. Jack has empowered me – this remarkable little dog has changed entrenched behaviour so I owe it to myself and him to follow in his steps.