25 November 2021
Gerry and Paula discuss Paula’s severe social anxiety
This Disability History Month, staff from across the British Library have collaborated on a series of blog posts to highlight stories of disability and disabled people in the Library’s collections. Each week a curator will showcase an item from the collections and present it alongside commentary from a member of the British Library’s staff Disability Support Network. These selections are a snapshot insight into the Library’s holdings of disability stories, and we invite readers to use these as a starting point to explore the collections further and share your findings with us.
This selection has been made by Dr Madeline White, Oral History Curator.
At the British Library Sound Archive the oral history collections contain many interviews with people with disabilities, talking in their own words about their lives in full including – but not restricted to – their experiences of living as a person with an impairment. Our collection guide on oral histories of disability and personal and mental health showcases some of these collections – and we’re adding new collections in 2021, such as Whizz-Kidz’s ‘30 years, 30 stories’ oral history project.
Despite these efforts, some stories remain hidden. As people with disabilities exist in all spheres of life, their experiences and stories can be – and are – detailed in collections besides those which are explicitly labelled as ‘disability collections’. These stories are not always easy to find. The words we use to write text summaries to help make an audio recording more searchable are not always the same words that the user of the archive will search for in our catalogue. This is particularly true of the word ‘disability’, which may not have been used in the same way by interviewees and cataloguers several decades ago. It is also possible that an interviewee discusses a health condition or an impairment without specifically identifying themselves as ‘disabled’.
As I searched for these stories I reflected on one of the themes of UK Disability History Month 2021, ‘Hidden Impairments’. My challenge was to uncover stories of disability that have been twice hidden – once in the social sense of stories that often go unnoticed or untold due to the hidden nature of many disabilities; and again where the description and words in the catalogue might make them difficult to find.
The story I highlight here is of one woman’s experience of severe social anxiety, as told in conversation with her husband. Paula and Gerry recorded a 45-minute conversation on the subject of Paula’s impairment as part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of personal conversations recorded and broadcast by BBC radio and archived at The British Library. The project seeks to preserve intimate conversations between two people on a subject of their choosing, with a view to building a collective picture of the lives and relationships of people in Britain today. This methodology lends itself to very open and honest storytelling. It is unclear if Paula has ever identified herself as disabled, but her conversation with her husband is a powerful account of the impact of a hidden impairment on them both, as individuals and as a couple.
In this first extract, they describe how Paula’s anxiety manifested as constant stress, before during and after a social situation:
The whole recording charts the development of their relationship from the early days of their dating, through their wedding, to the present day, and the role that Paula’s anxiety – and eventually her attempts to overcome it – played in that development. Here, Gerry talks about how the extent of Paula’s anxiety wasn’t obvious to him in the early days of their relationship and the process by which he gradually came to understand the severity of Paula’s anxiety:
What is particularly moving about the one-to-one conversational style of The Listening Project recordings in comparison with more traditional, interviewer-interviewee style oral history interviews is the insight it offers into a situation or experience from two different perspectives. Some of the most touching moments of Paula and Gerry’s recording occur when Paula offers Gerry the opportunity to reflect on her condition from his perspective, as she does in the following extract when she invites him to talk about how he felt about their wedding, which was a particularly low-key affair to accommodate Paula’s anxieties:
Far from what Paula anticipated when she asked the question, they conclude that as much as there were moments of a traditional wedding that they’d missed, there were many ways in which Paula’s anxiety had enabled them to have the occasion that suited them both.
At the time of recording Paula had largely overcome her anxiety, having embarked in 2012 on a challenge to learn every sport at the Commonwealth Games in an effort to confront her own anxiety. Her conversation with her husband is nonetheless a valuable record of the experience of living with a hidden impairment, as well as a reflection on the social perceptions of invisible conditions and a challenge to negative perceptions of disability.
Reflection from British Library staff Disability Support Network member:
Paula’s story really resonates with me, as someone who has depression and anxiety, social situations can be a real trigger for me. When people experience poor mental health, it is very much a hidden, or invisible disability, and therefore makes it harder to talk about with other people, either to explain it or to seek help. I feel that sharing first-hand accounts like Paula’s is really important to raise awareness. Most disabilities and impairments people live with everyday are invisible to most other people, there are more invisible disabilities than there are visible ones.
Find out more
You can listen to Gerry and Paula’s full recording on the British Library Sounds website. This recording is part of The Listening Project, a collaboration between the British Library and BBC local and national radio stations which has been capturing the nation in conversation since 2012. A selection of recordings made by The Listening Project is available for remote listening via the internet on British Library Sounds. For more information on the wide range of disability oral history collections at the British Library, consult our oral histories of disability and personal and mental health collection guide.