Dear Stranger: Jessica’s Story
How it started
When my mental health took a nosedive, I took comfort in making cards and other trinkets for strangers featuring inspiring, upbeat messages, and leaving them for people to find. It all started one bored evening in December 2016. I was writing out my Christmas cards with a glass of wine and I found I’d bought more than I needed. As I finished scribbling out a card for a friend, I found myself writing “Dear Stranger” onto a blank envelope.
The beginnings of the kindness project
And so began my first kindness project. I stayed up for hours that night penning cards for the ‘familiar strangers’ on my commute. These were people I spoke to very occasionally about the weather or even that I just knew by sight. Each morning I would get on the train to commute to my job and I would stand in the same part of the train day in, day out. So although I didn’t really ‘know’ the people on the train, there were things I knew about them. I made several ‘bespoke’ cards using the details I knew. I don’t remember them exactly, but the cards said things such as, “Dear man who grew the epic Movember moustache” and, “for the keen crossworder”. I also made some unpersonalised ones which just read ‘“Dear Stranger”.
I gave them out before Christmas, just as the train reached Bath. It felt nerve-racking if I’m honest, to pipe up and offer out the bespoke cards. I left a few of the unpersonalised ones on my journey as I made my way to work. The reaction from my fellow commuters was great. Someone even posted the card on Facebook and from there it was featured on the Metro and they were interviewed on local BBC radio about the act of kindness.
Acts of Kindness
I started doing these kindness projects more and more. On Valentine’s Day I left a bunch of roses on a bench with a note. I started crafting my own friendship bracelets in bright distinct threads for strangers and leaving them with messages such as, “Dear stranger, I hope you find this and it makes you feel less alone”. Sometimes people would watch me with curiosity noticing the heart-shaped sticky note I’d left on a window here or the friendship bracelet I’d left on a bench there. It felt good knowing that someone would find these things and that it had the potential to improve someone’s day.
Imagine feeling down and seeing an inspiring Post-it note on the seat next to you that lifts your spirit. Or feeling alone and finding a friendship bracelet someone took the time to make just for you. I know it’s not much, but these small acts of kindness were my way of communicating with others. I’ve always found talking to strangers on the bus or having a random conversation with someone in the park meaningful, and that’s how I think of these acts of kindness: as small meaningful exchanges with the power to make a difference. The way I see it, kindness became almost a form of activism for me.
The mental health benefits of kindness
Research shows that kindness can actually be beneficial for your own mental health. It can improve your own happiness levels as well as the happiness of others. It’s even been shown to reduce stress.
The truth is, at the time all this was going on I was going through one of the most difficult periods in my life so far. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and then, ultimately autism and psychosis. In retrospect, the autism diagnosis makes a lot of sense because it’s all about struggling to communicate with people and these projects had become my way of communicating. Similarly, psychosis is about losing your grip on reality and these projects have a pinch of unreality to them.
Although the projects were going strong, things in my own life deteriorated and by September 2017 I had lost my job but was still leaving upbeat messages for strangers everywhere I went. I would leave Post-its with inspiring notes on the seat next to me on the train (“Live your best life”), and on benches on my morning walk (“Take a second to just breathe and appreciate the day”). Somewhere between a fortune cookie and a motivational poster, the notes helped me feel like I was making a difference at a time when I felt totally powerless over my own life and outcome.
When I ask my friend if he’s ever hit rock bottom he always says, “there’s always further to fall”- and that’s how I felt, like I was in free fall with no end in sight. I was, although I didn’t realise it, showing all the symptoms of the ‘prodromal’ stage of psychosis, such as problems concentrating and difficulty telling what was real. Psychosis is earmarked by symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, and in my experience, it’s a little bit like being stuck in a nightmare you can’t wake up from.
The mental health journey
Eventually, in 2018 and then again in 2019, I was hospitalised under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act, with psychosis, and even through this difficult experience, these defiant acts of kindness continued. When I was allowed out briefly to the hospital shop, I bought a pack of Post-it notes and a permanent marker pen. I left notes around the ward saying things such as “you are worthwhile” and “I believe in you”. At the time I was so ill I thought I’d been kidnapped by a cult, or that I was on a television show like the Truman Show, so in retrospect, I’m surprised I found the lucidity to do this at a time when I had completely lost my grip on reality. At hugely difficult time, these kind acts gave me hope for the future and had the added bonus of improving someone’s day. They were a way to connect with people in a disconnected world.
I’m still in recovery from this period of illness. I have a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder now, which is a bit like a mix of schizophrenia and bipolar. I have a lot of time now as I’m not in work, so I’ve started making friendship bracelets again ready for a new project.
Mental health issues can make you feel helpless, but these acts of kindness made me feel empowered and improved my confidence at one of the most difficult times of my life.
A huge thank you to Jessica for inspiring words, ‘Dear Stranger’ will no doubt resonate with many of our blog readers.
Posted on: 25th May 2021