The Heart & Soul of Listen Up: A note from the creator
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
The idea of Listen Up materialised in October 2017, after The Kindness Collective had been running for about a year and we had begun facilitating workshops and speaking at some of the local high schools. Working at the university one day, I was called by one of my school contacts who discussed with me the need for a greater mental health focus in her school, after one of the young students had sadly taken her life the day before. Like most people these days, I was no stranger to these stories, whether it be the loss of family friends, or more personally, my own experience with suicidal ideation during a difficult experience in my late teens. It always hurts to hear of the ones lost, but the thing that shocks me the most is wondering why that person felt like they had nobody that they could turn to before taking that irreversible final action.
I reflected on my own years at an all-boys high school, feeling largely uncomfortable with expressing any emotions that didn’t fit the masculine persona. It was a feeling that carried over into my post-school years, and at age 19, while living overseas, I went through a period of high anxiety and depression linked to drug use where I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could turn to. I was with mates that I had known for most of my life, and I still didn’t feel comfortable reaching out for help, out of both a fear of judgement and also because I thought it would be difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced those feelings to understand. As a result, I was dealing with it mostly alone, and had basically convinced myself I was crazy and that my life would never be the same again. On a particularly bad night - Christmas Eve in Scotland - while surrounded by friends, I was thinking about taking my own life. My anxiety was so high, and I was so distracted mentally, that I couldn’t speak to anyone. I sat in silence, with a fake smile on my face so nobody would know the crazy thoughts swimming around in my head, and was taking frequent trips to the bathroom where I would hit myself out of both self-hatred, and as a means of causing some physical pain to distract myself from the mental pain. While suicidal thoughts played on repeat in my head, I still knew deep down that I couldn’t act on it, and the reason was my family. I knew that, no matter how messed up I felt, they would love me and support me unconditionally, and I couldn't leave them behind. When I decided that suicide wasn’t an option though, it meant I had to find a way to deal with my predicament and the thoughts I was having.
I’m not sure how I got the knowledge or the phone number, but that night I made my first ever call to a phone counselling service - the NHS hotline. I cried, I shared everything I was thinking and feeling, and the person on the other end just listened. It was the first time I had felt how valuable it is to be vulnerable and share our pain with someone, particularly in an environment that is free of judgement. As Brené Brown says, "if we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive." After that phone call, I realised something important. I wasn’t crazy, and I sure as hell wasn’t alone in the way I was feeling. To lift the weight of that shame off my shoulders was a huge first step to my recovery. It meant I could remove much of my self-hatred and focus instead on the environmental and situational causes of why I felt the way I did. It took months, maybe even years, to feel like I was completely back on track, following the introduction or removal of various behaviours - healthy eating, meditation, yoga and exercise, and an initial complete removal of drugs and alcohol. But I got there. And then, years later as life tends to do, I fell back into it. But the relapses never lasted as long, because the foundations of self-awareness and vulnerability had been laid, and I knew that sharing my pain with someone would allow me to work through it much quicker.
It remains to this day one of the most intense growth experiences of my life. When I looked back, years later, I realised several things. One, is the importance of a support network. Had I not felt that love from my family, even while being on the other side of the world, things may have been very different for me. I know that not everyone is lucky to have that support from their biological family, but here’s the other thing I realised as I grew older, and why the tagline of Listen Up - “The Game That Turns Strangers Into Family” - is personally meaningful to me. With the right eyes, we can find family everywhere. When I went through my most recent period of turbulence, I didn’t need to reach out to my biological family. The close friends I had developed had become my family, and I had the courage to know that I could share anything with them without fear of judgement or disconnection.
I believe vulnerability is such an important first step in finding those people. We have to talk about the big things. We have to share the bad times, as much as we share the good. And not just over social media, but with real-life, authentic connection in person that comes with all the juicy non-verbal communication too. It’s not always easy, especially for young kids who are dealing with completely new emotions and challenges. If they can’t understand it themselves, how could they expect anyone else to? I know so many parents who can feel when their child is struggling, and who want to be more involved and able to help, but the communication is distant, and the child believes that his or her parents could never understand. Maybe that’s what that young girl felt. I’m not sure. But I thought there had to be an easy way to bridge those gaps in communication, and make sure that people would never feel so alone in their struggles.
And so, Listen Up was born. It’s a game that allows us to practice vulnerability, so we can develop the courage to speak up when we need help. It’s a game that celebrates all the aspects of life - the good, the bad, the challenges, and growth - so that we can normalise all of it and remove the shame that is often associated with some of life’s more difficult experiences. And, most importantly, it is a game that brings joy. Because if life is not filled with joy, what’s the point of living it? We should be able to look at every experience that has happened to us and smile, or laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. We are talking monkeys on a floating spaceship, trying to control and find certainty in a natural world that is uncertain and constantly changing. We had a one in a trillion chance of being born, and for a short time, we’ve been gifted an opportunity to experience every painful, awesome, challenging, and ecstatic human experience and emotion that comes with it. Though it may be easy to forget that sometimes, especially in the midst of life’s unpleasantness, I think sharing those stories and experiences with both friends and strangers can be a good reminder :)
Nate L'Estrange is the Founder of The Kindness Collective and Creator of Listen Up. After graduating from the University of the Sunshine Coast with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science degree in 2016, and amidst some challenging life circumstances, Nate developed an appreciation for the important role of community in boosting mental health. He began bringing people together through a range of free yoga classes and outdoor events on the Sunshine Coast, where the only payment was for people to take a kindness card and pay forward a random act of kindness to a friend or stranger. The idea grew, and with the help of many amazing hosts and compassionate community members, the events have become a source of enjoyment and connection for thousands of people.