"Through the great literature that we share… it makes all the difference’"

Q&A with Helen Cook, Volunteer Reader Leader of a shared reading group with The Reader

Content produced by Helen Cook

Edited by Richard Snowden-Leak

We spoke with Helen Cook, a Volunteer Reader Leader of a Shared Reading group with The Reader in Liverpool. Helen first came to The Reader as a group member after struggling with chronic pain and being referred by a pain consultant at Broadgreen Hospital.

Helen shared with us her experience of taking part in Shared Reading both as a group member and a group leader, reflecting among other things on the ‘priceless’ value of this arts intervention for her own health and wellbeing and the importance of her group being held within a healthcare setting.

Q: How did you first access shared reading as a participant?

I was part of a Coping College, the pain clinic that Broadgreen Hospital were running. I mentioned that one of my coping strategies was to read because I can disappear into a book and while my brain is focused on the book, it can’t focus on the pain. As a result, the pain consultant put me in touch with The Reader, and it absolutely changed my life.

Photo: The Reader

Q: What’s it like to be part of a shared reading group?

We’ve talked about things that we tend not to talk about with other people, just because they don’t come up in conversation. But through the great literature that we share, we also share different emotions and situations. We’ve all been together for so long now in our group that we are like family. I think because we’re all in chronic pain we all understand each other.  So, if we are having a bad time, we know the others understand, and that really is invaluable. I think that’d be brilliant for anybody with any condition to know that you’re not alone, because I’m sure other conditions like chronic pain are very, very isolating. The only people you see are doctors, nurses, and family, and whilst you appreciate them all, you need more for it to be a life rather than an existence. And I think if you have other people going through what you’re going through, it makes all the difference.

Q: What are some of the benefits you’ve experienced with Shared Reading?

I used to notice If I had to miss a week (because I had a hospital appointment, or I wasn’t well, for whatever reason), I didn’t feel so good. So, we meet on a Tuesday, for example, and I’d noticed by Thursday I was a bit grouchy, didn’t have a lot of patience, and that was just because I’d not been to Shared Reading. It’s therapy without the therapy. You don’t have someone say ‘Well, how does that make you feel?’ or ‘Well, what did you do then?’. You’re not sort of questioned and pressured like you are in therapy. Yet you find yourself sharing really deep innermost feelings and experiences with the other people in the group. And that, it’s therapeutic. It really is priceless.

Photo: The Reader

Q: Where do Shared Reading groups take place?

Shared Reading groups take place all over the country, with over 700 groups across the UK, taking place in a variety of settings. Usually, our group is held in the pain clinic in Broadgreen Hospital. And that was so important, because I found you go into the hospital a lot if you have a long-term condition, you see a lot of doctors, and  whilst we appreciate anything and everything that all those doctors, nurses, and therapy departments do for us, you don’t want to see them anymore, you don’t want to deal with doctors, and you don’t want to deal with the bad news. And I found that when the car pulled up, and you were getting closer and closer to the hospital, I’d feel heavier and heavier and frustrated not wanting to go to routine appointments.

But because the reading group was in the hospital, that started to change. After just a few short weeks, I noticed that that didn’t happen as we approached the hospital anymore. And it actually didn’t happen when we approached the hospital for an appointment as well. It wasn’t just because I was going to the group. It was because I was going to the group in the hospital. The whole look of the hospital changed. And when you spend a lot of time in hospitals and in doctors, that’s important.

Q: How did you become a Reader Leader?

Because I got so much from being a group member, I looked into doing the training to be a Reader Leader. I stood in for our Reader Leader when they were off (they were furloughed during the pandemic), so I started our group on Zoom so that we had something during the pandemic to look forward to: a little bit of normality. And then our Reader Leader retired, so the group was suddenly mine. I was concerned when I was first becoming our group leader, because I worried that I was going to be losing my therapy. Shared Reading is not really therapy, but it has therapeutic benefits. And I was worried I was going to lose that, but being a Reader Leader gives me everything I had—if not more than I had as a group member. I really love it. I look forward to it every week.

Photo: The Reader

Q:What training is on offer to support Reader Leaders?

The Reader provides training in Shared Reading, which is easily accessible through the website or, if you’re in Liverpool, by contacting Calderstones Mansion House. The training is very user-friendly, very accessible: it gives you everything that you need. There is access to so many short stories and poems and great literature that work as reading material, because not all books, short stories, etc, lend themselves to Shared Reading. So, it’s important to do the training to know what to pick and how to access it, and how to lead your group through exploring the literature.

There’s always support there for you. There’s a whole support team that you can phone and email, and they’re there to help you with anything and everything that they possibly can. Reader Leader training also helps you think about creating a space where a difference of opinion can sit next to somebody else’s opinion: you can have ten different ideas about one story in one room. I found that invaluable, because it’s great to hear other people’s perspectives and opinions and how they differ from yours and why, because they’ve had different life experiences than you and come at things differently—it’s so enriching.

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