Matter magazine takes a beautiful, touching look at living with brain injury

by Grace Wang in September 2018
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Mental health

Some of the best magazines come from the most surprising places. Published out of Headway East, a Hackney-based charity that works with people affected by brain injury, Matter magazine combines essays, art, short stories and editorials by the centre’s members, staff and volunteers.

People with disabilities are often talked about in the media, but Matter has intimate accounts to do with memory loss and fatigue, all written in an accessible, personable tone, from the people who actually live with illnesses on a daily bases. There’s a genuine sense of warmth from features like lunch reviews — feedback regarding the centre’s shared lunches (“It’s like somebody’s tried their best”) — as well as hand-drawn art with daringly honest messages. It is a look at people who have grown to accept and even embrace life’s hurdles. Find out more below in our conversation with Communications Manager Laura Owens and Headway East member Chris Miller.


Headway East London is a charity supporting people affected by brain injuries. What are some common effects that your members live with on a daily basis?

Laura: At our day centre in Hackney we welcome around 150 members each week; adults who have survived strokes, car accidents, assaults, falls and illnesses such as meningitis. As a result, they live with long-term disabilities which can affect their movement, speech, memory, behaviour, emotions, fatigue, concentration and more. Quite a few of the pieces by our members in the magazine talk about their individual experiences in great detail, so I’d urge people to have a read and hear directly from them.

"It’s not about brain injury, it’s how you can express your character despite the bad things that have happened to you"

There seems to be a lovely art studio and a friendly, creative atmosphere at Headway — you feel it by reading the magazine. Why did you want to make it?

Chris: What’s good about the magazine is that it represents Headway as a whole. It doesn’t represent the whole of Headway, but it represents Headway as a whole. So some of the articles are more theoretical, others don’t seem to make any sense, and others are exercises in creative writing. Some are nice and some are horrific.

What we’re trying to say is that Headway is made up of people who have acquired brain injuries, but they’re also human beings. That’s what the magazine is about — it’s not about brain injury, it’s how you can express your character despite the bad things that have happened to you.

Laura: Our members are a hugely diverse mix of people, from all walks of life, with different opinions, interests and talents. For me, personally, the motivation to create Matter was inspired not only by the fantastic things we already had going on at Headway, but also to give our members a voice in talking about this place and their experiences (in a creative way).

What’s a typical day like at Headway?

Laura: I don’t think a typical day exists! Every day we welcome a different group of members to our centre and run all sorts of groups and activities, based on people’s interests (that’s in addition to all of our traditional services such as therapies, support groups, community support and hospital outreach).

Some days there’ll be a choir, dance, tai chi, or a memory group. We’re lucky to have our beautiful art studio in a converted railway arch, so that’s open every day for members to use. We’ll always sit down for lunch together at one o’clock, which is cooked from scratch by a different group of members; it’s an opportunity for the whole centre to come together and share something.

What are some magazines that inspired you while you were putting the issue together?

Laura: We actually didn’t really use too many other magazines as a guide! The aim was to be quite free in how we structured and approached the project. The only one that really springs to mind is Creative Growth Magazine (below) – this is a predominantly art-focused magazine by a charity in California supporting artists with developmental, physical and mental disabilities.

Someone I must also give a shout out to is Alice Snape; the editor of Oh Comely magazine. She was a huge help to us in the early days; she helped us to get a flat-plan together using the pieces we had already (alongside one of our own members, Billy, who used to work in publishing). We also liked and replicated the idea of grouping the contents page into themed sections (such as ‘Heart of the Matter’ and ‘Dark Matter’), which is something Oh Comely also does really well. When we had a skeleton framework for the majority of pieces we sent them over to our fantastic design team at She Was Only.

Chris: I was inspired by a book called Notes On Blindness because it combined bits and pieces of things – not just a narrative story, which is just like our magazine.

I’m curious about the decision to open the issue with Chris’ powerful words: “Let me come clean about what I think. I look on my brain injury as a bad thing.” What does this feature say about what Matter aims to do?

Chris: Some people who come to Headway look on their brain injury as a good thing. For me, that’s not true. For me, it’s a bad thing which you cope with. What I’m saying is that it’s OK and I have to get on and live my life despite that. And that’s what the magazine says: it’s OK. It might not be good but it’s OK. I have to cope with it as it is. This is true for other members at Headway too. Headway is an important part, for me, of coping with this and feeling like a human being.

How can readers get involved with Headway? 

Laura: Buy the magazine! It sounds an obvious one, but it directly supports our charity’s work, as all sales go right back into the charity. Over the past two decades, we’ve grown an incredible amount, but it comes at a price and every year we need to raise nearly £200,000 through fundraising to keep everything running. So every person who buys a magazine or a piece of artwork (many of our members sell their work on our art website, donates to or fundraises for us is hugely appreciated!

We also have an amazing team of volunteers in our day centre — some were involved in this project too – and we’re always in need of more, so you can visit our website if you’re interested.

At the very least, give our social media accounts a follow and keep an eye out for what we do next. We’re always planning new ways to support our members to raise awareness of brain injury (be that workshops at the Science Museum or exhibitions at Southbank Centre), and we’d love to welcome more people along the way.

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