Morgan Cataldo: loneliness, Warmth and connection

interview by isabella moore

Morgan is a BTL team member and currently works as Policy & Strategic Projects Officer at Melbourne City Mission. She also sits on the national Young Women’s Advisory Group (YWAG) for the Equality Rights Alliance, advocating for young women’s voices in policy and sector development both in Australia and internationally.

Morgan works to channel her own experiences into advocacy for creative policy development within the not-for-profit, NGO and government sectors, working alongside others in sharing stories of growth and resilience. She believes wholeheartedly in supporting people to share their stories as a form of leadership development and as a tool for systems co-design, with a particular focus on lived experience. 

Morgan generously shared her story as part of our 'BTL Live Talks: Creative Storytelling' event on 1st December 2016. 

 

How did you get to where you are today?

As naive as it sounds, I followed what felt right. I have a deep curiosity about human behaviour and about understanding myself. I developed an interest in social justice at a young age and at around 16 began volunteering with a local paper, doing interviews with bands, writing about issues I felt were important and submitting my photography. I loved the creative outlet. That then turned into contributing to a street magazine. 

I began studying photography straight after finishing high-school, but I burnt out and didn’t realise until it was too late. From there, I dropped the idea of studying for a while and worked – realising my favourite part of the jobs I was working at was connecting deeply with people. I then went on to study massage and aromatherapy and also worked in an alternative healing and crystal shop for a couple of years. About five years ago, I went back to university to study Applied Social Science, majoring in Counselling. That’s where I found my fire lit up most.

After leaving the crystal shop, I began working at a not-for-profit called Melbourne City Mission. I started in reception and administrative positions, but outside of work, I was involved in a lot of volunteering (focusing on youth, women’s rights and mental health).  Another volunteer role that I had was talking to young people about drugs, sharing knowledge and information, and being able to support others through sharing my own experiences. 

I’ve always followed my curiosity.

As I learnt and grew and my skill set developed, my role at Melbourne City Mission began to expand and I was offered different positions. I’m now working in Policy and Strategic Projects and love the work that I do.

A few years ago when I was reflecting on what was looking like quite a random CV, I began to see the common threads in the roles I worked and volunteered in were people and relationships. I’ve also always wanted my work to involve creativity, because I’ve always been a creative person. So, at Melbourne City Mission I do a lot of system design work.

A lot of my current work involves storytelling, advocacy, supporting people to understand what they’ve been through and I can see how all of the threads of my past roles and life experiences marry up in what I do today.

Why is storytelling important?

Often, when people have been stripped of their rights, what’s left is their story.

What we can do to support others is help them to tell their story in their own words. In doing this, it’s important not be paternalistic or to think you can somehow write it better on behalf of someone else. 

Sometimes in my work, I have to edit small things like structure, but to me – a real story is one that captures a person’s spirit, with no hidden agenda or intention other than to listen and understand.

I really believe that raw stories can, and do, transform people. Both the teller, and the listener. I think we don’t fully understand their power. I see Behind the Label as a space for sharing without an agenda. Where do people want to take their stories? How can we support others in sharing? What does the sharer want people to know or understand? What has the sharer learnt?

I believe people need to share at the right time. Some people aren't ready to tell their story and, if forced, it can be traumatising to do so. People need to remember that when we share our stories, we are releasing truths about ourselves and our lives that can be incredibly confronting. Have you ever had something you know in your heart and/or head, but when you say it out loud to someone else, it becomes more real? More terrifying, somehow? From what I see in our community support systems, we've gone from "you don't need to talk about what happened” to “you need to tell us everything – now, and then repeat it to multiple people you don’t know or feel safe around". But, it really should be up to the person. There's no such thing as ‘best practice’ for everyone unless it captures, and is inclusive of, people’s complexities. 

You write poetry/prose in your spare time. Why that particular medium for storytelling?

It started as a teenage journal when I was around 13. I’d been bullied for a long time and also at around that time I underwent three stages of spinal fusion to treat my Scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Coming out of hospital, it felt like I came out into a new world – probably because I had completely changed. I felt very alone and isolated. One way of making sense of how was I was feeling was to talk to myself through writing, which evolved into poetry.

I saw the world as confusing and harsh, so I went inside myself. I was also diagnosed with depression and anxiety the same year I exited hospital. Although I had some wonderful friendships, people often became upset with me because I couldn’t reach them. I seriously struggled to communicate how I was feeling.

My counselling training really helped with communication. I studied Applied Social Science and we had to practice on each other. So, I feel I’m much better at communicating now and know I can still get better. I see communication as a really complex art form.

How have your brought your own experiences to your volunteer work?

Every volunteer role that I’ve had, I’ve had some experience with the subject. Like working in women’s rights, I came with my own experiences of violence against women. So in that way I’ve always been able to bring a perspective of lived-experience. I honestly think that to truly get through to people, that’s the only way. In terms of social justice, I don’t feel comfortable personally identifying with issues I haven’t directly experienced. This doesn’t mean I don’t support issues that I am passionate about or those around me, but I think that for every issue, the voices that should be heard the loudest are those who have lived the experience.

How have you benefited from the leadership training you've done?

I’ve undergone a lot of leadership training through my work and outside of it. It’s helped me to take steps forwards in my own life, and taught me how I can support others to do the same in theirs.

We have a Youth Action Group at Melbourne City Mission, which I co-facilitate. We developed it to be a leadership training program for young people and the participants all have incredibly varied life experiences. We wanted to work to develop an environment where we somehow neutralised the group power dynamic, so that no-one comes in thinking they are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ or somehow valued differently than anyone else – they just see things differently, like we all do. We wanted to communicate that leadership training is just as impactful for a person exiting the homelessness system as it is for a person completing a Master’s degree. Each young person learns to understand and unpack who they are, their values, strengths, things that need to be worked on. Our capacity to develop personally affects every part of our lives.

What did you take away from your time as a counsellor with Lifeline?

It humbled me. I think I had a really sort of naïve view of what telephone counselling would be like, and I came out of that experience feeling like an altered person. I didn’t realise how many people are hurting. A lot of people think Lifeline is mainly suicide calls, but in my time, I rarely got any. The most common type of call was from people who were lonely. I didn’t appreciate the epidemic of loneliness – it truly shocked me. Loneliness was what was at the centre of everything that made people depressed, anxious, suicidal etc. It was heartbreaking, but sobering.

There are callers that I’ll never forget. I remember one earth shattering experience was an older man who’d lost his wife, and he’d had an injury so couldn’t look after himself. He wept over the phone to me, saying “You don’t know what it feels like not to be wanted.” There are no words for me to convey how painful holding space for that kind of agony is. It is both sacred and gut-wrenching all at once. It’s completely devastating to hear a person in that state. You can try to move them out of it, but how? There’s no ‘safety plan’ for loneliness.

Those conversations changed me forever. They split me open, and also made me more resilient.

One particular call was my very favourite. It was a man who lived with schizophrenia, and he had this incredible awareness of his condition. He was talking about suicide and so I was looking for what’s called, ‘reasons for living’’. I was asking him, "Why did you call today? What makes you want to work through this?"

We somehow got onto the topic of religion and I realised that this was what was keeping him here. I’m not a religious person, but I put that aside. When I’m in this space with people, I’m able to take myself out of my shoes and try theirs on for a while – get into their world as best I can and work to support them from there.

I asked him, “How does God make you feel?” And he replied, “Warm”. I just cried. It was the most profound and moving thing I’d ever heard.

When we think about the human condition, warmth is a sign of life – of our aliveness. When a person is going through a breakup, for example, they feel cold because they’re feeling isolated. 

Disconnection and loneliness can physically affect a person’s temperature. And so warmth, in many ways, equals connection. Feeling genuinely connected to another person, or thing, is a huge part of how we get through life. When you think about love, it feels warm, doesn’t it? You have that connection, that belonging. People care for you because they see, understand and treasure you. What comes to mind is that line from the poem [by E. E. Cummings], “I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)”.

I truly believe that we underestimate the power of love and connection, and what happens to people when they don’t have it in their lives. I’ve seen so many people in crisis because they don’t.

How can we better understand and respond to the needs of people who are in crisis?

We need to develop support systems that manage trauma effectively, because there’s not much you can do if you’re in a traumatic state every day. Our systems must have a human focus at the centre. Our society has developed systems with the person at the perimeter – the person has to somehow fit the system rather than the other way around. Effective systems are designed when the person informs the systems they use. I’d like to see social systems genuinely remodelled towards a ‘person-centred’ focus, so that when people reach for help, they feel safe, comfortable, listened to and respected. When people are experiencing trauma in their lives, the last thing they need is to be forced onto a conveyor belt. 

When I think about homelessness, for example, what strikes me is that ‘home’ is not just about having a house, it’s about having a sense of belonging. So, when we're looking at just the idea of a house, we’re completely missing the human aspect and I think this forms a large part of why our society doesn’t know how to effectively respond to the issue. We’re forgetting the human being and focusing on a structural deficit. There’s no focus on the trauma that leads to homelessness, and I really believe this is part of the reason the system doesn’t work. Homelessness happens when a person’s ability to support themselves is depleted and it can happen as a result of a variety of different life experiences.

There needs to be a greater understanding of epigenetics and ‘intergenerational trauma’ – the way trauma can be passed down through generations and affect people’s make-up, because this isn’t taken seriously enough. The therapeutic measures we use should encourage people to talk. As I see it, two core things on the journey towards recovery are to make sense of what’s happened, and to accept that it’s happened. This doesn’t mean accepting that it was ‘right’, that a person ‘deserved’ it somehow, or that other people shouldn’t be held accountable – it simply means that there is an acceptance of what is. It’s important not to purely focus on the fact that something shouldn’t have happened. In my own personal experience, this can be a huge block to unravelling and recovering from trauma, because the person refuses to reach the stage of acceptance and this prevents exploration.

The best way I see to make sense of something is through expression: art, creativity, talking, getting it out and not dealing with too much inside – alone. 

For me, what has been instrumental in my own recovery journey has been stepping back and reflecting on what meaning I can make from what I’ve been through. What has it taught me? How can I learn from it? How can I share it to support others?

People often speak to me about how systems re-traumatise them. They come out worse off, because what they needed at the time wasn’t there or offered to them – and what they needed was most commonly compassion. The problem with many existing systems is that they’re too rigid and assume what people need, instead of asking them. They don’t catch up to what’s already happening in the world, and it takes so much time and work to alter pre-existing systems, even slightly. So much money and so many resources go into adapting established systems, but the work should have been done 20 years ago, not now. So we’re always behind. We want systems to be flexible and nimble. To be capable of being reviewed and restructured quickly, to keep up with the way the world is changing. Systems should be in a constant state of flux because so are we.

How can we develop more responsive and appropriate support systems?

By getting to truly know, care for and understand people. I remember reading an article about a man, who lives in a place near the ocean where a lot of people go to contemplate suicide, and he has saved lives by going outside and saying "Come in for a cup of tea and a chat first, and then see how you're feeling."

I think part of why so many people are in crisis is because we're living in broken apart communities. People who don't 'fit' and are ‘different’ are raised in groups that harm them, and so they have to leave. We're missing communities that are accepting and nurturing, ones that don't lock us in to one way of thinking and/or behaving that is harmful to us. We need to sit down and extend the care that people need in whatever context. We need to dare to care about people we don’t know. Our fear is why we walk past someone on the street looking for connection.

As a society, we have to stop thinking and believing that people’s suffering is somehow their own fault. This thinking is so cut off from our compassion and I think stems from people who have it better being able to point fingers at what, and who, they don’t understand or are afraid of.

We also have to stop pretending like we have all the answers or that we’ve ‘seen it all’. We have to let people who are suffering figure out their own answers, and just be there as a support. Some people do need some direction, and in that case it's about working to create empowering environments where people can take back their power and actually thrive – not just survive or conform. There's a power imbalance that currently exists, where some people don't have material things to offer and so are used, because they need something from those in more privileged positions than they are.

It's important to remember that support workers are also transformed by the work they do – that's the power of sharing experience.

I remember another caller from Lifeline reflecting to me that the way to live a relatively good life was to ‘not be afraid of having a big heart, and to just keep going’. I wholeheartedly agree.