Mayor Lynne Sparks Speaks!
First Posted On The Herts. Hidden Heroines Project Website: 29th February 2016
It’s such a fantastic honour to be part of the Herts Hidden Heroines project. It’s a real privilege to be amongst such amazing women.
No one ever sets out to be recognised in this way. It’s difficult to put your finger on what it is that makes someone a “heroine”, “inspirational” & worth writing about. It’s even more difficult to see those attributes in yourself. I was telling my 23 year old daughter that I was being interviewed as part of this project and had been asked to write a blog post. I asked her what she thought was worth sharing about my life and what might be an inspiration to others. She, surprisingly easily, rattled off a number of things. So I thought I’d share them below.
No one ever sets out to be recognised in this way
My father died when I was 21, due to cirrhosis of the liver from alcohol abuse.
My dad started drinking heavily when I was 8 years old. He had a successful business which unfortunately had to close because of a recession. He became depressed & starting drinking.
For a while my dad was fun to be around, I have a lot of really great memories having a lot of fun with my dad. However, he got more belligerent as the years went by. He was never physically violent in any way but he became verbally abusive.
When I went to secondary school, I was embarrassed when I brought friends home because my dad would be stroppy or passed out somewhere. I found him on more than one occasion with his head in his dinner or leaning over the sink where he had started washing up and passed out.
My dad’s health became much worse over time. His weight ballooned even though he wasn’t eating. If he cut himself, he’d bleed for days. His speech was slurred. He would sometimes choke.
He used to take me with him to the off licence most nights, and he would not just buy his own booze, he would buy me alcohol too. I just thought it was a normal thing to do.
Being a child with an alcoholic parent was difficult. It was hard being a teenager without having to deal with that on top. It drove me to do things at a young age that I’m not proud of. I also became depressed, I did badly at school, I started smoking when I was young, I drank a lot before and after school, I had an abortion & I self harmed.
When I was 19, I began travelling a lot, I came home when I was 21. I was horrified by the man that faced me. He had lost a dramatic amount of weight, he looked so old and frail, he could hardly function. Even now all these years later it brings tears to my eyes thinking about this time.
At around the same time, he went to live alone in a bedsit. I would visit him every day. He was very disorientated and wasn’t always sure who I was. I would have to clear up where he hadn’t made it to the toilet and make sure he had food that wasn’t going off.
This time was by far the hardest. Seeing my dad who I loved dearly turn from a man who was lovely, intelligent and funny into a man I didn’t recognise, a man who couldn’t make it to the toilet by himself, was just heartbreaking. He died a few months later.
For a long time I never spoke about this to anyone. When I was growing up I swapped between thinking my up bringing was normal to thinking I was alone. I’ve learned, in recent years more than ever, that I certainly wasn’t alone. So many adults and children live in similar circumstances. I’ve used my time over the last couple of years to raise awareness of this subject as much as possible so if just one person feels less alone or decides to get help as a result, then its all been worth it.
My daughter always says that what she admired about me when she & her brother were growing up was my honesty. She reminded me that I’ve never told them what to do, I’ve never said ‘don’t do that because it’s wrong’, I’ve always said ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you because this is what happened to me”. I’d always tell them what I did and that for me these were the short & long term consequences; it gave them something to think about and they made their own decisions.
I also passionately taught them to not judge people. None of us know what’s going on in another person’s life so be understanding and supportive rather than judging & gossiping.
Making a life for us in Hatfield
During the 10 years or so that followed my dad dying, I got married, had two children, emigrated to NZ, split up with my husband and moved back to England. I decided to set up home in Hatfield, my kids were 7 and 4.
I had come back to England with nothing but my children and a few hundred pounds. I got a job and rented a small house. Looking back, my self esteem was terribly low.
I really enjoyed my job, the people I worked with were lovely and they valued me, rather than always being put down which I had got used to. My kids enjoyed school, they made lots of friends and we felt part of a community. I enjoyed being a single parent. We were all happy. Over time my self esteem and confidence grew bit by bit.
I had assumed, though, that at 30 with 2 kids, I’d be alone forever. Then at work I met Ian, who pretty quickly became my husband. Ian had a disabled daughter. When we first met her she was 5, but was no bigger than an average 1 year old. My kids & I fell in love with her immediately, and 17 years later we love her so much more.
Her disabilities affect her profoundly, at 22 years old she can’t walk unaided, she can’t dress or feed herself, she can’t take herself to the toilet. Although she understands everything you say to her, she can’t speak words. So I know on the face of it, it sounds dreadful.
In fact I’ve always been quite surprised by the frequency that people mention to me that I must be quite special to “take on” someone else’s disabled child and how much of a strain it must be. They often say that they don’t think they could do what I did. In reality, despite her many disabilities, she is a joy to have around, she is very happy & very funny, she makes us laugh everyday; having her in our family has been an absolute pleasure & a privilege and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
In 2005, when Ian and I had been married 5 years & our children were all teenagers I became ill. We had recently moved to a new house, our disabled daughter had just undergone her second major surgery, my daughter was very depressed because of ongoing bullying at school and my son was going through his own trials & tribulations. My job was busy, I had been putting in extra hours to keep up with my workload. I had been having stomach ache and nausea for months with tests not showing anything. It hadn’t been a good year – it had certainly been a stressful year. Then to top it off I started to get achey.
My hands hurt first, I kept dropping things, my grip got so weak that I couldn’t open anything. Then my knees started to hurt too, whilst I exercised or went upstairs. I felt exhausted all the time & slept so much more than normal. After a few months I came down with what I thought was flu but with all my joints hurting, and painful body wide nerve sensations. It was so painful – pain like I’d never felt before. It was time to see my doctor. I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis & Fibromyalgia.
It took 4 years after that before I really got out of bed. Then my medication had started helping, I had changed my diet, worked on my stress levels, I was getting better at pacing, my family better understood so I started to try to get on with life. It’s been a long road and a hard fight since then, with many ups and downs, at times I didn’t think I’d get through it.
I’ve now been living with daily pain in multiple joints, nerve pain & fatigue for around 10 years. In that time I’ve learned what I can and can’t do, what the main triggers are, I’ve got quite used to living with some daily pain despite strong painkillers. Winter is always far worse because of the cold, damp and number of infections flying around. I still spend a lot of my time with my feet up & I can’t rush anywhere. The biggest struggle is getting up every morning, I can’t walk or use my hands properly until my tablets kick in.
I could give myself an “easy life” but I know from experience that if I having nothing much to do I start to dwell on my pain & feel worse both physically and mentally. So I keep myself as busy as possible, despite the extra pain and fatigue that sometimes come with it, I find it’s better for my overall health & wellbeing.
For me, helping & supporting people in the community, building relationships, organising events, fundraising, solving problems are all great motivators & great reasons to get out of bed. It certainly keeps my mind off feeling sorry for myself and helps other people in the process, so a win:win situation I think.
Because of the need for me to do much more sitting down with my feet up or lying in bed resting, I started getting involved with trying to make the area where I lived nicer by writing to my MP, councillors & local organisations to try to get thing done. Very soon after I started doing this, in early 2010, I was asked whether I’d like to stand in an election to become a Councillor.
“No!” was my initial answer, but I did start thinking that actually maybe I could get more done as a councillor. So I reconsidered – since developing a chronic illness I had become emotionally stronger & thought “if I can get through this I can do anything” so I said “Yes!”.
When I was asked in 2014 if I’d like to be Deputy Mayor, leading to Mayor the following year, I was stunned that I’d been asked. It was so completely out of my comfort zone, I never considered that I’d be able to do it or have the confidence to do it, I’ve always disliked being the centre of attention & hated public speaking. But I thought an opportunity like that isn’t going to come round again so if I can get through everything I’ve been through in my life then I can definitely give this a go.
And I love it! I love being Mayor, more than I ever thought possible. I’m generally introverted, that hasn’t changed, but I’ve found I love meeting new people every day, I enjoy speaking at charity events, being on stage handing out awards and all the many other things a mayor gets involved in.
I’ve also really enjoyed being Mayor “my way”. Of course the mayors chain of office is a historic role and there are protocols to follow but there has been scope for me to try new ideas; particularly important for me was engaging with young people which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I have used social media throughout to tell people what I’ve been up to, who I’ve been meeting and how wonderful the borough is.
More than anything I love finding out about all the amazing, dedicated, hard working and talented people who live, play, work & volunteer in our borough. That’s what I find inspiring!
What has my life taught me? Never let circumstances in your life make you think “that’s your lot”. You can always change the direction your life is heading. A bad situation doesn’t necessarily make a bad life.
I sent this blog to my daughter to read before I submitted it, just to check that she didn’t mind me saying the personal things that I have. Her response was so lovely, I couldn’t ask for anything more:
“Mother, that is one of the most amazing things I have ever read. So touching and it is indeed inspirational! I have no fears about you writing about anything in your life mum, I will never be embarrassed nor ashamed of what you have been through because it made you the perfect mother and I have learned so much from it. If anything I ask you to shout it out, because I couldn’t be prouder of you! I love you mum xxxx”
Lynne Sparks, Mayor for Welwyn Garden City/Hatfield (2015-2016 Term)