A small woman, with short, white cropped hair, wearing a sensible pale blue raincoat, with a small dog, who was wearing an equally sensible raincoat, approached the bench I was sitting on. The woman put down her large bag and looked up. She had a friendly, warm smile and spoke in close to a whisper: “Would you mind watching my bag? I need to take Bonnie out for a quick walk.”
A few minutes later or so, the woman and Bonnie returned; Bonnie shaking off the rain, the woman pulling down her hood. I saw one of the ushers approach her. “Excuse me, madam, are you here for the event?" The usher spoke loudly and slowly – they way we do when we think someone is old, or older than us.
“Oh, I’m Patsy Staddon,” the woman told the usher. Oh, I thought. This was Patsy Staddon. Patsy Staddon, the former alcoholic, author and founder of the Alcohol Study Group of the British Sociological Association and the Women’s Independent Alcohol Support (WIAS) organisation.
And who the appearing as part of the event, as was I, talking on a panel about women and alcohol at the Women of the World Festival.
Somehow her life-changing story hadn’t eclipsed me to her, even though she’d have every right to snigger and disregard. Yet, somehow, despite the heavy stain of her past, she was almost floating with humility
Patsy, Bonnie and I made our way to the auditorium where the event was taking place and met the other panellists. Patsy told me that Bonnie was a support dog for her epilepsy and Bonnie could read her aura. Patsy also mentioned she had trouble hearing and pointed to her hearing aid. And, in that moment, I’m ashamed to say, along with her small stature, her soft voice and her seeming vulnerability, I patronisingly thought, "Is she going to be OK?"
Of course, the best people are always the most surprising and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of course, Patsy was OK. Patsy knew more about life and being OK and not being OK than I can ever even imagine.
The room filled and Patsy began to talk. The audience and I discovered she had been an alcoholic for 20 years; she’d lived on the streets, lost her children and become a sex worker. Since recovery, she had set up a support group for women alcoholics and had written a book on the subject – she was an expert on the subject in the truest sense: not only had she studied the subject, she had lived it.
As Bonnie sat still and calm under her chair, Patsy spoke with a calm acceptance of her life story. There was no drama, no badge of honour, no loud first-person narrative in which she saw herself as the protagonist; there was just life, just the way things had been, a series of events and choices and decisions that had led her here, recounted with a staggering humility. Just one human being talking to other human beings. A trace of sadness, as gentle as the pitter-patter of Bonnie’s paws, followed Patsy around, but that was all – no trumpeting declaration of “Here I am”; a modern infliction that normally comes from the loudest of voices, whether they have a story or not.
And, as I sat next to her, talking about my quest for moderation – a flippant, indulgent middle-class journey by comparison – I felt no judgement; I just felt encouragement. When I’d speak, she’d smile. She took everything I said at face value, with seriousness, and she listened. She even later said she was happy to be learning from the younger women on the panel. Somehow her life-changing story hadn’t eclipsed me to her, even though she’d have every right to snigger and disregard. Yet, somehow, despite the heavy stain of her past, she was almost floating with humility. Kindness poured out from her as heavily as the rain outside. And, sitting on that stage, feeling her compassion radiate, I almost felt I could see her aura too, like Bonnie could. I couldn’t tell you a colour, but it was a judgement-free compassion that was both restorative to my world view, but also to how I saw myself. This small, quiet woman, with her huge, painful background, almost broke my heart with her humility.
Our talk ended. She said goodbye to me. I thanked her for her honesty. And there was that smile, her warmth spilling out, her kindness filling the air. And then she and Bonnie went back out, the gentle pitter-patter of rain, of soft aura-reading paws, of sorrow-lined pasts and of honest, plain humility.