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Introducing Melissa

TRIGGER WARNING This article contains information about suicide, sexual assault and violence which may be triggering.

Amplifying the voices and stories of those close to us is at the core of what Reform Radio is all about. 

During this year’s Black History Month we announced our new – and first ever – Artist In Residence, Melissa Dean. Through this programme the artist will receive a small bursary and free space, while we support them to secure new paid work, both within and outside our organisation. In celebration of this exciting new residency we have invited Melissa to share her story. Featuring topics of race, trauma and the arts, in this piece Melissa guides us through her life from childhood to now, presenting the environments, cultures and events that have shaped the person she is today.

Introducing Melissa…

When Reform asked me to write an autobiography to introduce me as their first Artist In Residence, it was no easy task. It’s taken me several weeks to unravel the right stories that shed some light onto who I am, how I got here and to highlight how poignant this residency is for me, at this moment in my career, as I discover my voice through writing.  

This is the first time I have publicly shared a piece of writing and it feels essential to shed some light onto some of my journey, in the hope of empowering others.It is also a celebration that perseverance and hard work pays off.

Up until the age of 13, I was a very shy child, who cried every day when I was dropped off at infant and junior school. Everyday. I was a very sensitive child and am still the same sensitive, but strong woman. I believe sensitivity is a super power.

I grew up in a loving home in Leyton, East London. A melting pot of cultures. My dad is Black and was born in Guyana. He arrived in Britain in the Windrush generation, searching for bigger opportunities. My mum is white, Northern Irish and came here with her family when she was 11, after the death of her mother. My dad worked hard in factories until he retired. My mum was an office worker throughout her career with bigger dreams, but lacked confidence. The 60s was hardly a time when women or black people were encouraged to dream. 

My parents threw me into the swimming pool at age 4, and as I grew – karate, Irish dancing, piano and much more. I was lucky enough to have such privileges, although we were far from wealthy. I spent most school holidays at my dad’s zip factory and every weekend at cricket: my dad, a West Indies cricket fanatic. Yearly visits to Ireland and Spain to see my mum’s family were our holidays, and I only met my dad’s family in the Caribbean once, when I was 20. 

I went to junior school in the 90s; the years of The Spice Girls, Tamagotchis, mega drives, Yoyo’s, cats cradle and The Goonies. The days before high tech camera phones and social media, thank God!

When I was growing up, our house was full of my parents’ friends, my mum’s two sisters and the sense of laughter, 60s music, Caribbean food and dancing lived within our walls.

I was really into football, which I played each lunchtime with my class. My mum took me to a football club at our local green one Saturday. I stood there, feeling a bit… Stuck. At 10 years old, the voice in my head said, “Go, run, get the ball, do something”. But I just couldn’t move which was embarrassing and impossible to explain. Shyness often felt paralytic and controlled so much of what I wanted to do, but just… couldn’t. This same shyness stopped me defending myself against some of the worst bullying at secondary school.

Going from a mixed sex primary school where Black and mixed race was a minority, into an all-girls secondary school, full of predominantly Black and Asian women was a real shock to my system. I saw a multitude of mixed race teenagers for the first time. Everyone had curly hair except me and I noticed I was much lighter skinned than others.

My 13th birthday came around and my parents let me have a big party. 100 wonderful people squeezed into our home, my brother Wayne (17 years my senior) DJ’d and was on ‘grinding too close patrol’. Literally. Lol. The party was a hit and I felt popular and cool. But this joyous Princess feeling didn’t last long, as in the following weeks, I was raped.

I’d like to start by defining rape, as I believe the area is cloudy for most. The 2003 sexual offence act (which I think needs updating so the language around rape is gender neutral) says:  – https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/42/contents

A person (A) commits an offence if –

  1. they intentionally penetrate the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis – 
  2. or B does not consent to the penetration, and 
  3. A does not reasonably believe that B consents. 

As a society, I believe that we are afraid of the word rape, as we imagine the worst but there are different levels to it, it’s not always as black and white as our imaginations.…  

“A does not reasonably believe that B consents”.

Many people think rape is being held down, whilst you scream no, which is not always the case. So often, people don’t say no. And until we begin having these essential conversations as a society, the cycle will just continue. 

We often make excuses for the predators and think about the pain it would bring to our loved ones. It could be a friend, a stranger, a family friend. “We were drunk, I wasn’t clear enough, I chose to go there, I didn’t leave, I went back again. They’re my partner”. We allow ourselves so many excuses, as to why it was our own fault and why we shouldn’t tell anyone.  

You may wonder why I chose to talk about this in my biography, but it has affected my entire life and is part of what makes me the strong and empathetic woman I am today.

Trauma and pain create walls in our minds that affect us in every way and I believe therapy is a great way of breaking down those walls. It’s hugely affected my understanding of boundaries. It was only coming to Manchester at the age of 32, a city where I didn’t know anyone and in having to meet new people that I have really learnt about boundaries. Other peoples and my own. 

Rape being my first sexual experience, I sadly went on to think that these behaviours were normal and hiding this from my family gave them no chance to teach me otherwise. Over the years I have shared my story with others, and unexpectedly others have shared their own experiences in return, asking me if their stories are also rape – which they each were.    

An experienced therapist of 30 years apologised to me last year for denying in her mind I had in fact been raped until she read the sex act, which to me was mind blowing. 

It was only going through a bad break up last year, triggering some sessions with said therapist that she thought I had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to flashbacks I mentioned having sometimes during sex. I was actually thrilled by the discovery as there was now a potential solution. I was offered a therapy called EMDR, which worked wonders for me.

It was during one of these beginning sessions that another rape, around the same time as the first, a much more traumatic one, came to mind. I had pushed it deep down in the hope to forget. I was so distraught after a particular session that I decided to call the police. The idea had been put to me over the years and I always thought, “I’ll do it one day, when the time’s right.” But there’s never a right or easy time.  And going to the police isn’t for everyone.

I could go on about attempting suicide, of bunking off school and turning into a horrible teenager, but I’ll park that for another biog. I will be clear about one thing. My parents tried everything to reach me, but I was inaccessible due to fear. 

Around the time this happened, by chance I watched the film, ‘Meet Joe Black’ and I felt an emotional connection to the beauty of the classical soundtrack. I went on to research other classical soundtracks and was introduced to Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Listening to this music alone in my room in the evenings, out poured a river of tears that wouldn’t stop. It was a cathartic release of sadness, of pain and anger. 

Between that and my love of GCSE drama, and my incredible drama teacher Ms Owen, I knew I wanted to be an actress, at 13. GCSE drama was one of the things that saved my life and GCSE drama has now been cut from my secondary school and others due to government funding cuts.

A year after these events things began to look up. The older girls left school and I joined a church youth group. We’d come together once a week and play games, dance and have discussions. We became a team of volunteers that would work in the community. We went to Lourdes, in the South of France yearly and assisted older, less mobile members of the community, in this place of pilgrimage. I went every year for 7 years.

This group really changed my life and so much healing came for me during these trips, where I began to form my own relationship with God. I didn’t know it then, but this introduced me and my core to community engagement, something that would come back around when I started my own theatre company, 11 years later. This shy young girl having trauma shoved in her face at 13, I became a loud, crossing boundary madness of a personality. 

Between that and my parents paying for me to go away with the school choir each year, to places like South Africa, Barcelona, Austria, a love for travel and escapism was born, which I have carried into my adult life. My parents and I spent my two years of Sixth Form fundraising for a trip to teach drama and English in Zambia, in my gap year. 

I auditioned for drama schools before I left for Zambia and I was lucky enough to get a place and a full DADA (dance and drama award) to pay for my £36,000 drama school fees. Drama school was hard work. It was not what I was expecting. You’re in lessons all day, everyday and you rarely get a night off. You get out what you put in. I was one of the very few actors from a diverse background (being in Oxfordshire), which was another uneasy shock to the system. 

You can never really be prepared for the reality of not getting work as an actor, of the unspoken rejection that comes with the industry. Around a full time job, audition tapes for big shows can take you a week to do and you mostly don’t get a response. You learn to accept that it must be a no after two weeks of hearing nothing.

The reason I am still in the game after 11 years is because I have the full support of my family and I am proactive in my approach.

At 26, I was fed up with not having control of my career and started my own theatre company. I wanted to use theatre as a way of encouraging discussion around human rights issues.

As you can see with this biog, I am still trying to do the same, in another art form.

Over the years, I began to book small roles on TV including; Line of Duty, EastEnders and Doctors. I set up my own voice over studio in our spare room, which after years of hard work is proving fruitful as I am now a voice over for the Guardian Newspaper. I’m producing much more of my own work these days, which 11 years on has become more important to me than just booking an acting job. 

I’m trying to stay connected to my creativity and things like Universal Credit have become a support for me in the last year, as I put all of my efforts into my own work and into looking after myself and my mental health. I have gotten by through waitressing, bar work and teaching assisting which have all helped shape who I am today and planted within me a love for working with children. 

I moved to Manchester in late 2020 during the second lockdown to take some space for myself and to have a mental break from acting. So many people had told me I’d love Manchester and they weren’t wrong.

I took the lockdown opportunity to stay in my room and write. Moving to a place where I knew nobody, I was reintroduced to that shy Melissa and I realised she is still a part of me and has a voice. I was soon offered the chance to have my own show on Reform Radio and this new opportunity here as their Artist In Residence seems the perfect timing to tap into that voice. 

I also discovered hiking, new great friendships and wild swimming which alongside writing gave me a chance at 33 to heal from my traumas. In these past few months, I have also produced a filmed piece of theatre, ME YOU US THEM, that looks into stories of race in Northern Ireland, with the support of Arts Council England and Terra Nova Productions. Between that and starting my own collection of creatives (Melting Pan Productions) I have been keeping busy.

The Black Lives Matter movement helped me question some of my own ignorances and how I occasionally projected my rapists onto other men that spoke or dressed a certain type of way. The movement also encouraged me to start doing my own research and after reading books such as ‘Why I’m No longer Talking To White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘Natives’ by Akala and watching programmes such as ‘Uprising’ by Steve McQueen, I have really had my eyes opened to the systematic racism in the UK, which I had been blind to before. I am so sorry for that.

I have come to understand and accept, over the past year, that people are always going to put their labels on us. Whether we ask them to or not. Sometimes the people we love the most, and that’s ok, it’s just part of life. It’s how we respond and reject the world’s labelling or projections onto us that matters. We have to set boundaries and hold onto what we identify as. 

It’s taken me 20 years to reconnect to self.It’s good to finally be here, finding peace, at 33, wearing my crown with pride.

I hope that this autobiography empowers others to realise you are not on your own. We all have trauma which has its own domino effect, on each of our lives. 

I must celebrate that this residency comes at a time where my hard work is beginning to pay off and take this new journey with writing.  Of my 11 years in the Arts, Reform Radio is the first company to offer me artistic support. Thank you so much for that. I am excited for this new chapter of life. 

If you have been affected by any of the above, here are links I hope are of use –

British Association of Counselling Practitioners

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Confidential Emotional Support SUPPORTLINE

Rape Crisis

The Survivors Trust

Samaritans – 18+ confidential listening service available 24/7 everyday – Call 116123 or email jo@samaritans.org

Shout – a free, confidential, 24/7 text messaging support service – Text ‘Shout’ to 852 58

National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247

The Men’s Advice Helpline – 0808 801 0327

Papyrus Hopeline UK – helpline for young people under 35 who are having suicidal thoughts – 0800 068 4141 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org

The Silver Line – helpline for people over 55, available all year round 24/7 – 0800 470 8090

Childline – up to 18 years old 0800 1111

NSPCC – If you’re worried about a child call 0808 800 5000

CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) – specifically for men – 0800 58 58 58

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