About the projectHidden Stories is an interactive arts project and graphic novel aiming to banish loneliness and challenge stigma among people living with invisible conditions.
‘I feel a little more comfortable talking about my problems and knowing others feel like this. I feel like my anxiety and depression are more legitimate – and not just something I have to hide and cope with alone.’
– Hidden Stories contributor
For millions of people who’re affected by invisible health conditions (from anxiety, to autism, dyslexia to chronic fatigue syndrome), ‘normal’ life is a daily struggle.
As well as managing their conditions, they face being misunderstood, isolated and stigmatised by society. As a result, they feel compelled to keep themselves and their conditions hidden for fear of being judged, feeding a vicious cycle of loneliness.
At Root Experience, an arts charity based in Brighton, we want to help break that cycle.
We want to help people explore their hidden struggles creatively, to help them find their voices. And in turn, encourage the curiosity and compassion needed in others to hear and understand those voices.
This is the idea behind Hidden Stories. An arts project-turned-book that’s rewriting ‘normal’ – by getting more people talking about what it’s like to live with an invisible condition.
Early on in the project, we ran a series of creative workshops in our hometown of Brighton, with a fantastically diverse and resilient group of people living with different invisible conditions. Through storytelling, visual arts and soundscapes, they found unique ways to explore, express and share their experiences.
This work inspired courageous, open conversation around things that had previously brought distress, shame or confusion for many people in the room. Some participants felt empowered to have found a voice through the stories they were telling, which in turn encouraged others to do the same.
One participant said: ‘I feel a little more comfortable talking about my problems and knowing others feel like this. I feel like my anxiety and depression are more legitimate –and not just something I have to hide and cope with alone.’
When we invited the public to be part of the project through an interactive exhibition at Brighton Dome, the response was incredible. We began to see the potential of what we were doing.
After winning an ITV People’s Projects grant, we were able to take our workshops to other towns in the south of England, to help more people share their stories. The next step would be to create a book, so the ripples of inspiration, encouragement and support could run further yet.
Making the book
After months of workshops, we began to piece together the pages of Hidden Stories. Root Experience artistic director Simon Magnus, along with collaborator Samantha Wraith (an artist and drama-therapist), had the gargantuan task of processing a treasure trove of writing, drawings, photos and recordings.
The wonderful diversity of people who’d attended the workshops shone through – in unique encounters, struggles and ways in which participants found support. Yet there was much in common about their experiences and the feelings they had about them.
We distilled all this into the perspectives of three main characters: Anita, Karla and Mike. Then our brilliant illustrator Tinne Luyten brought them to life beautifully and sensitively.
The result is an accessible series of interlinking stories offering a unique but universal window into the lives of people with invisible conditions.
We like to think of Hidden Stories as a self-help resource and compassionate conversation starter. Which is why we decided to give away all 8,000 copies printed to individuals, communities and libraries across the south of England. (You can still get a free digital version.)
Some readers may ask why the stories don’t refer to specific conditions. Quite simply, we wanted to avoid reducing people to what could be stigmatising or self-limiting labels. We wanted to let the participants’ own voices sing over those of their conditions. For them to be seen and heard without being defined by ‘disability’.
People in our focus groups said they were able to empathise with characters who didn’t necessarily relate to their own specific conditions. Their emotional realities were so similar regardless of their diagnosis. Exactly what we’d hoped for.
‘I have seen the audience of these courageous stories and artworks feel validated by hearing and seeing pieces that speak to their own experiences – or be challenged into thinking differently about invisible conditions.’
– Dr Helen Johnson, social scientist
Throughout the project we’ve benefitted from the academic perspective of Dr Helen Johnson. Helen’s a senior lecturer in social science at Brighton University – and author of the book’s foreword. Hidden Stories touched her on both professional and personal levels.
‘Over the course of this journey I have seen first-hand the power of the arts to connect with people, to transform the ways in which those who live with a wide range of invisible conditions understand their experiences, helping them to cope when they are struggling, and empowering them to speak out,’ she said.
‘On the other side of the coin, I have seen the audience of these courageous stories and artworks feel validated by hearing and seeing pieces that speak to their own experiences – or be challenged into thinking differently about invisible conditions, perhaps even thinking about these for the first time.
‘These are voices that need to be heard, stories that come from a few, but speak to so very many different people’s lives.’
About Root Experience
Root Experience is an arts charity whose purpose is to inspire people, of all ages, to positively connect with themselves and the world around them.
Whether taking interactive events to communities or running creative workshops in schools, our work is about encouraging people to see things differently.
Initially founded as a theatre company by Simon Magnus in 2008, today we use games, drama and events to help participants explore, learn and challenge with curiosity and compassion.
Thank you to everyone, named and anonymous, who has contributed to or participated in the Hidden Stories project.
Hidden Stories book
Illustrated by Tinne Luyten
Edited by Kelly Smith
Sharon Aprile, Tracey Bertram, Helen Brook, Tracey Ginn, Jonathan Hammond, Caroline Hilderbrando, Kelly Keep, Rosanna Lowe, Charlotte Meldrum, Jane Muir, Luc Raesmith, Sarah Saeed, Thomas Silk, Mat Smith, Robert Stedman, Jo Thompkins, Louise Tondeur, Christine Young and four other people who wish to remain anonymous.
Rachel Cohen, Natalie Scott, Emma Chapman, Jessica Cheetham and Kelly Smith.
Hidden Stories website
Artistic direction & video content: Simon Magnus
Illustration: Tinne Luyten
Photography: Sarah Hickson
Editorial & planning: Kelly Smith
Design: Michelle Allen Davey
Research: Rachel Cohen
Development support: Greig Cooke
Thanks to the Betty Messenger Foundation for funding the website.
Taking care of ourselves (and each other)
Whether you live with anxiety or OCD, autism or chronic fatigue syndrome, navigating the world with an invisible condition can be difficult and lonely sometimes. If you or someone you know has been affected, you might find some useful suggestions on our Support page.