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This Is Not The Boat
TL:DR Grayson Perry and Mental Health
It’s Friday morning and I am typing this sitting at my mum’s kitchen table. I say typing. I am mostly staring out the window, watching a magpie with its mouth stuffed full of what looks like tortilla wrap, trying to navigate a gap in the fence. It is trying to limbo its head through without losing tortilla integrity. It bobs left and right, ducking and shimmying. A few moments ago, a large chunk of tortilla broke loose and flupped onto the ground. It stopped bobbing to watch the descent. What was left in its beak looked like a cigar, leaving the bird looking like it had just lost a particularly taxing round of poker.
I am back at the mothership and it feels odd.
I drove up on Wednesday after a morning spent dealing with stresses that trickled and dripped their way into every crack and crevice of life and left everything I attempted to do feeling sticky. As I drove north, the weather worsened and soon I was driving in a great cloud of spray, water churning round me in a halo of mizzle. It was about that time I realised I had left my coat back at the boat. It never ceases to amaze me what an incompetent mother I am to myself.
Luckily, when I arrived, my mum took over the job of looking after me. She’s had fifty years at the coalface so she was excellent. I was treated to a roast chicken dinner and a warm bed, which was very much needed at that point in proceedings.
I woke up in the wee, small hours and immediately panicked because I didn’t know where I was. My brain kept shouting: ‘This is not the boat. This is not the boat.’ ‘NOT THE BOAT.’ which didn’t help at all. I lay there until it had exhausted itself, whereupon my brain and I could calm down and go back to sleep.
Thursday morning started with a trip to see my friend, Jenn. We caught up on all the gossip, she cut my hair and then I took her out for lunch. We went home via Gelato Village as lunch had been rather too healthy. As I left she gave me some lavender bags made from this year’s harvest, an amazing smashed cucumber, chilli and peanut salad and a jar of chilli, peanut and sesame paste. She never fails to look after me. I always come away from a visit with Jenn feeling very cherished - and full.
The afternoon was spent visiting Andrea, who was also back in Leicester. I met her at her parent’s farm where we spent most of the afternoon rolling the dog up like a burrito and making each other laugh. Eventually it was time to go to the main event via my favourite Turkish restaurant. I had come back to Leicester because I had bought tickets to see Grayson Perry’s, A Show All About You.
It was great. I’ve seen Grayson do several talks over the years and he never disappoints. It was funny, charming and thought provoking. In the interval I bumped into an old friend that I haven’t seen since before the pandemic and we caught up. It was a good evening.
By the time I had dropped Andrea back at the farm and driven home to my mum’s house I had been on the go for about twelve hours, many of them spent in the car. I sat with a cup of tea and let my brain unfurl before heading up to bed. Grayson’s show, about what it means to be ourselves, gave me a lot of food for thought.
It has been a delight to catch up with my parents and some of my best beloveds. It was lovely to relinquish some of my grown-up-hood and shelter in my mum’s care for a few days. Having said all that, my main take from the last few days was still: ‘This is not the boat.’
Something deep inside me recognises that I feel better when I am on the water. It’s not that life is better on the water, it is that I am better. Life is, in certain aspects, still very much a cluster fuck that is set to continue for quite some time. Being afloat feels like the right way to face whatever the future holds at the moment.
Much like being force fed the benefits of yoga, I often get told that I need to be grounded. The phrases; ‘You think too much,’ and ‘You live too much in your head,’ have been shunted in my direction far too many times in my life. This is frustrating for a great many reasons, not least of which is that thought is the only way we experience life and nobody has ever offered a better alternative. These pearls are often followed with the sage advice to; ‘stop thinking too much.’ Again, there has never really been a satisfactory follow up discussion as to how this is to be achieved.
Another handy hint from these types of people is that I must; ‘learn to think in the now’. I am always thinking in the now. There is no other option available. I know that they mean that it would be great if I could stop worrying so much. The answer to my ‘how?’ inevitably involves talk of becoming more grounded.
A lot of the time, people who have important life advice for mental people like me, offer up sport as a way of becoming more present. As a woman who hates sweating, any games involving a ball and anything involving hand, eye co-ordination, this makes me sad. It has taken me forty years to discover that yoga can help - in very particular circumstances. It is fair to say that I am a late adopter to the benefits of the sporting life.
Mostly my feelings around sport are dread and fear, thanks to having grown up short sighted and dyspraxic in the Seventies where failed members of the Stasi flocked to the East Midlands to take up new careers as frustrated PE teachers. When you have been left on the netball bench while both teams shout; ‘You take her.’ ‘No, you take her.’ sport stops being about wellness. There is only humiliation and the ever present fear of the showers to contend with.
When I offer up vignettes of my life in sport, my well wishers refuse to be deterred and inevitably move on to gardening. Gardening is grounding, they say. It is literally and metaphorically an earthing process. I understand that. I grew up in the countryside with parents who were very much the Tom and Barbara Good of the Midlands. I know how to double dig potatoes. I can tell twitch from bindweed. I can deadhead roses and know that fig trees like to be root bound. I’d say I’m gardening competent.
What I am very much not, when I am in the garden, is in the moment. I do not find gardening soothing. It does not stop the chatter in my head. I don’t dread it, like sport, but I deeply resent it. Gardening is like having a toddler that never grows up. There is never a time when it isn’t demanding your attention.
I need gardening like I need a hole in the head. On bad days I have a job, a house, three kids, three cats, two parents and a husband to think about and navigate round. That doesn’t include looking after myself, which we have already amply proved I am incapable of doing. I don’t need to throw a stroppy hydrangea into the mix of things to worry about. My mum loves gardening but even she is stressing out about the gargantuan dock leaves massing in the borders.
Gardening does not ground me. It simply gives me a thousand extra jobs to worry about. Nobody ever feels better when they are already at breaking point and someone casually wanders up and gives them a five mile to do list to ‘ground’ them. When that has happened to me it has the opposite to the desired effect. Once grounding is mentioned in the context of gardening, I can be seen orbiting the earth in a red, hot ball of my own rage.
I just put this down to being mad. I am beginning to realise that I have put most things where I have failed to conform to societal expectations down to being broken and/or mad. It has taken me a very, very long time to figure out that perhaps in these circumstances I am not mad. Perhaps I am just different. My normal is different. When I accept this and stop fighting it, trying to force myself to love downhill skiing or growing orchids I start to feel better.
What I want to do next is stop listening to the well wishers and stand my ground. That is easier said than done but as I wrote in an earlier post, the people who wish me well are not always the people doing me good. Their intention is not really the point. The effect they are having on me absolutely is. I am learning not to apologise to people in these circumstances. There is nothing to apologise for. In the past I have always felt guilty and ashamed of the fact that I can’t do what is being asked of me. Guilt and shame are two of the biggest drivers that entrench me in my mad behaviours, rather than liberate me. I don’t need more of them.
Part of my guilt is that as a herd animal, it is much easier to survive if you blend in. I do not have that ability. I have always stuck out. That’s a very vulnerable place to be. I have had some harsh experiences of being highly visible in a world that prizes beige conformity. I have tried to beigeify myself at times, largely as a result of fear. I learned that I cannot conform without it costing me my sanity. The cost of being visible has also been incredibly high. Much of my life has been spent in discomfort, oscillating between two, highly stressful ways of being and trying to find a way to survive. Thriving was not even an option for a long time.
When these grounding conversations happen, I have noticed that I can become loud and forceful about my choices. I get angry. People get defensive. Things can spiral and bad stuff can happen. On further examination I realise that in these moments I am not angry. I am terrified. I am frightened that if I am not convincing enough, someone will hurt me. I have learned that fear is too vulnerable an emotion to show people. It just gives them ammunition. The moment someone says; ‘You know what you want to do?’ I am at fault. I am the person who isn’t doing the ‘right’ thing. I am back at school, which was not a safe or healthy place for me. It’s me or the bench, and the person speaking has chosen the bench. I feel the need to upsell myself to someone who has chosen to trust furniture over me. Somehow I have persistently believed that they have made the right choice all these years, which is madness. Not the madness they are attempting to fix though.
For me, showing fear can make a bad situation worse. People fear fear. I know I do. If my fear makes someone else feel frightened, they tend to get angry about it and blame me. Anger is a much more socially acceptable emotion to deal with. It’s like detonating an air bag in a crash. It cushions me from greater harm. More often than not, it simply pushes people away to a place where they can’t hurt me. They don’t need to. I am more than capable of doing that for myself. When things get this messy, the origin of the flashpoint is inevitably lost in the kerfuffle. Anger does deflect. It shifts attention away from something real to something imagined. For me, when the real thing that is being hidden is fear, it is inevitable that I remain frightened, because I have not resolved what was scaring me. The conversation, which was ostensibly about grounding, has shifted completely and is now so far from the ground it can see the Earth from space. While words are coming out of my mouth, I am having a completely different conversation in my head. Trying to reach resolution on anything in this situation is hopeless. It’s like indicating left and turning right. That’s why there is usually a crash shortly afterwards.
For me, fear and anger are so muddled up in my brain they are hard to disentangle. Both are immediate, lizard brain responses, so when they are deployed I am often clueless as to what my feelings are until after I have acted on them. I imagine them as a mobius strip of fear and anger that feed on and grow each other. If I am unable to break the loop I find I am endlessly driving myself round an emotional exhausting cul-de-sac. I am always travelling but I never arrive.
Some of the guilt has come from my need to please people. It’s a pretty strong driver in me. I want to be liked, even by people I don’t like. I particularly want to be liked by people who have power over me, who I believe can do me harm. Ironically, when I believe people have power over me, they do. When I believe people can do me harm, they can. When it comes to my mental health I have wanted to please people because for a long, long time I believed that if I didn’t do as I was told and get well the ‘right’ way, I might end up being sectioned. That was never going to happen, but I didn’t know that at the time.
My mental health fell apart when I was a child. I really didn’t have any power then, and people who wanted to help me, really did do me harm. I was repeatedly told that I didn’t know my own mind. I knew I was ill and that the things I was thinking were not normal, so I believed them. I put all my faith in their ability to fix me, and when I remained broken, I believed it was my fault. Some of the things that happened to me were so awful and frightened me so much, they haunt me to this day. I decided that the only way to avoid worse things happening was to appease them, pretend I was better and hide in plain sight. I’ve been doing it on and off ever since.
People pleasing is a strange one. It’s safer than standing up because I become a willing pupil. The bullying stops. Instead there is coercion. It’s a different kind of bullying, like being punched with velvet gloves on. It’s an ‘I’m only thinking of your welfare.’ It’s an ‘I’m hurt that you don’t trust me.’ It’s an experience that becomes about feeding the ego of the person helping me while I am starving to death. What’s more, because I have entered into this willingly, when I inevitably break and things get messy, the person will often say; ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ Because of course, it’s my fault. All of it is my fault all of the time.
What I am learning now is that it is not actually my fault. It is not my fault that under incredibly difficult circumstances I learned to survive, despite mine and some other people’s best efforts. It is not my fault that I don’t like sport or gardening. It is not my fault that other people do not feel comfortable around me. It is not my responsibility to get better so that other people can feel good. It is not up to me to vindicate the way other people choose to live their lives. I am not required to offer anyone else certainty and safety. It is not my fault that I do not feel grounded in a world that has existed to wear me down to the point of nervous exhaustion for large parts of my life.
What I am learning is that I don’t need to feel grounded when I can feel buoyant. I don’t need the earth when the water is a far gentler companion. What I am learning is that it is understandable that I am always afraid. My life has been frightening. What I am learning is that I can talk about that when I want to and that if someone else feels uncomfortable, it is not up to me to fix that. I am learning to lean into the ebbs and flows of understanding myself and to trust that the tide will carry me exactly where I need to go.