Working alongside mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, Britt Pflüger has curated a beautiful and inspiring collection of 101 stories of hope, but it’s the life experience of her rescue dog, a 16-year-old staffy called Matilda, that’s made the most impact upon her…
If 2021 had a guiding word or theme, I believe it would be ‘hope’. It’s what every single one of us needs right now. Hope that the pandemic will slowly disappear from view, hope that those who’ve worked so hard to keep the rest of us safe finally receive the rest and recognition they deserve, and hope that we can collectively emerge from this crisis with more awareness of how we can support each other.
As restrictions on movement and meeting loved ones start to lift, a beautiful bundle of hope will be delivered to bookshops near you (yes, we can go to actual bookshops!). Award-winning mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE, and writer, literary consultant, and editor Britt Pflüger have curated a collection of stories from 101 people who’ve shared their experiences of mental health and reasons to find hope.
Jonny and Britt previously worked together on The Stranger on the Bridge, a retelling of Jonny’s own experience of mental illness, and the moment he met Neil Laybourn – the ‘stranger’ who struck up a conversation with him as he contemplated suicide, which ended up saving his life.
Britt and Jonny met after she saw him talking about his experiences on a morning TV show. “It was almost exactly five years ago, and he spoke so eloquently about his schizoaffective disorder and mentioned that he was living with Crohn’s disease. I have Crohn’s disease and severe depression, and my partner, at the time, had schizoaffective disorder.
“Like a lot of other people when they see Jonny, I was just amazed at how positive he was, and how much he wanted to help other people,” Britt explains. “So I connected with him on Twitter, and he was super helpful when I had concerns about my partner’s condition.”
Britt, who has a 25-year career in publishing, began to think about Jonny’s experiences, and believed that they would make for a wonderful book that could really help other people. They met for a coffee, and the professional chemistry was instant. Jonny was open to collaborating for The Stranger on The Bridge, but also had a second idea: The Book of Hope.
“The idea was conceived back then,” she shares, smiling. “I thought it was brilliant, to have an anthology of pieces by people who have gone through adversity in terms of their mental health, but for the focus to ultimately be on positivity and hope. It was really important to us that each piece ends on that note.”
The length, as well as the focus, of each piece was important. “We all know that when you struggle with your mental health, it can be hard to engage with a longer narrative.” Britt understands this from her own experience of severe depression. “I work in publishing, but when I’m not well I can’t really read a whole novel or a memoir.”
The idea of The Book of Hope, Britt reveals, is a little bit like pick and mix. Readers can constantly dip into it and take what they need, at any given time. There’s a huge variety of personal stories for them to choose from and Jonny shares a list of 101 things that give him hope.
There’s so many other brilliant stories too, including the final piece from Britt herself, in which she shares her experiences of mental ill-health and burnout over the past 30 years. “I was quite cautious about what I was going to say,” she explains tentatively. “But I thought that because everyone else had been so brave, and Jonny has always been brave, that it would’ve been a farce if I hadn’t been honest and shared some of what’s been happening in my own life.”
I couldn’t ask other people to open up and then not do the same myself
The fact that Britt has both contemplated suicide and lived with an eating disorder, she says, will be a shock to some of her friends and family, as she’s always been very guarded about those aspects of her life. “I had to consider what I wrote really carefully, but I couldn’t ask other people to open up and then not do the same myself.”
Britt’s offering, Be More Matilda, explores the importance of kindness and features her beloved 16-year-old staffy, who’s a rescue. She’s been Britt’s “saving grace” during lockdown as she’s navigated living alone in these uncertain times.
One key part of this, that many pet owners will relate to, is that Matilda ensures she gets up and outside every day. “You have to go out, whether you want to or not,” Britt says laughing. “We all know that feeling when you want to just pull the duvet over your head in the morning, but dogs don’t give you that option!”
The story of this senior staffy’s role in Britt’s ongoing recovery is heartwarming. In her piece for The Book of Hope, she writes: “Matilda has also given me a reason to live. Even when I’m at my lowest (and I still am at times), I tell myself that I can’t leave her behind.”
It’s not just Matilda’s physical presence that helps Britt on a daily basis. She’s imparted some serious canine wisdom over the years.
“We don’t really know her past,” Britt says. “She appears to have a cigarette burn on her thigh and she’s clearly been bred, but she really loves people despite what she might’ve been through.
“Matilda greets everyone wagging her tail, wanting to say hello. Even people who don’t like dogs, she will try to convert them! She’s quite thick-skinned and doesn’t take on board other dogs' aggression either,” she explains. “It's theirs to own, not hers. I think that’s an approach we can all learn from.”
It’s often said that when someone gives a home to a rescue dog, the dog rescues them back in return. Britt’s story seems to confirm that theory. Matilda has shown her the ability to find optimism and hope, even after the bleakest of times – or as Britt writes: “If Matilda can overcome her difficult start in life and still show others kindness and live every day to the full, then so can I.”
The Book of Hope:101 Voices on Overcoming Adversity is an inspiring and moving collection of 101 honest stories that illustrate human strength and resilience, compiled by Jonny Benjamin and Britt Pflüger (bluebird books for life, £14.99). Out now.
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