Somehow I’ve ended up in a recording studio singing on a track for the Restless project - a song I have co-written with composer Quinta and rapper JPDL based on a poem I wrote after walking 110 miles of the South West Coast Path. I'm not sure how this has happened. I have definitely agreed to it - everything is necessarily very consensual in my work, focussing as it does on telling stories about my lived experience of childhood sexual abuse. My work is about voice and visibility for survivors so, much as I would like someone else to sing the song, I know that it needs to be my voice with all its authenticity and vulnerability.
The thing is I can’t sing. Or at least I believe I can’t sing - to the point where I sometimes mouth the words of Happy Birthday.... My voice gets stuck in my throat - it closes up and I start to panic. It's hard to sing if you’re not relaxed, your body needs to be open and my body is rarely relaxed or open. Such is the impact of abuse.
I didn’t sing at all - not in the shower or anywhere - from around the age of 8 - two people laughed while I was singing (not necessarily at me - they could have been sharing a joke about anything) and that was enough to stop me for the next 20 years. Having my son changed things - baby him found my voice soothing and it became less about me or being good at it and all about being a mum. The other thing that shifted things was living on hippy camps and road protest sites where singing was a connection with spirit and community and cause. It became less important what sounds I was making and more important to just join my voice with others. The first time I went to an actual singing workshop I just sat and cried throughout. I discovered I didn’t really breathe properly and have had to learn to release my diaphragm and let breath into my body.
I’ve been having singing lessons with my friend and singing coach Maya Love. She’s been brilliant - patiently helping me to approach it technically and overcome the emotional blocks. We explore what’s happening in my body when I sing and how to manage that. How the tightness in my throat mirrors the tightness in my pelvis - how both need to open together - the reason we focus on breathing when we give birth. As the lessons progress I start to be able to experiment, fuck up and work with the material in a way that was unthinkable when we started.
In the space of a few weeks I’ve gone from being unable to sing on my own in front of Maya to a recording studio where I not only have to sing but I have to sing well enough for it not to feel like a vanity project. We’ve booked 2 days in the studio mindful that its my first time - I’ve broken it down as half a day getting to know the sound engineer and the equipment, half a day for crying, half a day to drink tea and smoke anxious fags, half a day to get my voice out in the room, and half a day trying to record something - that’s too many half days I know…
Anyway - I’m here - everyone is being super kind, bringing their own incredible skills to the table and holding the belief that I can do it. Meanwhile my husband is sending me Beyonce gifs and I have cocktails in the fridge “just in case”. I’m utterly mortified but giving it my best shot trusting my team, trusting the equipment and letting my voice and all its perfect imperfections out into the world.
It's been 2 weeks now since I got home from the Restless walk along the West Somerset coast from Steart to County Gate - a stretch that soon takes you past Hinkley Point Power Station - a blot in the beautiful wildness that works for me as a metaphor for abuse experiences. On the first day I wrote in my blog:
“It seems fitting to start - as my life did - with a big, ugly, toxic scar in the landscape. The rest of our journey will be leaving that behind, walking away from it albeit somewhat in its shadow.”
Walking past Hinkley is no picnic - it's a vast intimidating site that vibrates with a constant audible hum. The path here is diverted away from the sea but - rightly or wrongly - me and my companion decided to ignore that and walk along the beach. This made our experience a bit furtive tapping into familiar hyper-vigilant mind states. We skirted the high wall looming over the beach, picked our way gingerly over stepping stones to avoid the waste water spewing out and genuinely wondered if we might be cut off by the tide unable, as we were, to see our way back to the path. These feelings resonate strongly for me - we often talk about trauma so casually that we forget how consuming fear is, that overwhelming feeling that we might not make it out alive. We’re called survivors for a reason - we don’t all make it.
The rest of the walk made distance between us and Hinkley but it remained present both physically and as an idea. To start with every time we looked back there it was. Then the path started to undulate, the landscape became soft and beautiful and Hinkley was hidden from view. My body was lulled by the gentle up and down, the steady left right left of my feet on the path, the sounds of the sea and the gulls and the scent of blackberries on the breeze. All the ugliness was forgotten until I turned at the top of a cliff and there it was again, a shock of metal reaching arrogantly into the sea and sky. This experience was repeated throughout the walk - sometimes visible, sometimes hidden but somehow constant, permeating everything.
And so it is that abuse permeates my life - I’m not thinking about it all the time but it's always there - it has shaped so much of how I am in the world - it pops its ugly head up at unexpected times and casts its shadow. I think my work is a way for me to not be cowed by it, to look it in the eye, to vote with my feet and decide how I position myself in relation to it. It's a reclamation of my body and its autonomy and of my voice and its truth. As a child I was catatonic with trauma, unable to walk or talk until I was 3. Now every step is a victory - and the poetry and songs that emerge from my body in this landscape is my rallying cry for change.
The last day (for now) on the Restless walk took us from Porlock to County Gate where Somerset meets Devon high above the sea on the edges of Exmoor. The landscape is stunningly beautiful - wooded cliffs plummeting down to deserted beaches, waterfalls a go go and a rich symphony of raindrops, birdsong and the ever present churning tide.
The coast path takes you through Culbone Woods, a place with a poignant history. Local historian Joan Cooper tells us that over the centuries different groups of people considered to be a “nuisance to society” have been banished here and left to fend for themselves. In the 13th Century “dis-believers, practicers of magic, the mentally insane”, in the 14th & 15th centuries offenders of petty and moral crimes like theft or adultery, in the 16th & 17th centuries lepers. People who posed a threat in some way made outcasts.
Othering is a process where difference is used to deny individuals or groups basic human rights. I had to look it up (I’m tired and struggling to explain it - I expect many of you could do better!) The philosopher Richard Rorty put it, “everything turns on who counts as a fellow human being” - who gets to participate, to have dignity, power and autonomy. Ultimately it is a way of maintaining the status quo and existing power structures by discrediting and stigmatising different viewpoints, beliefs and lifestyles.
Survivors have been othered forever - outcast not to the woods but to the fringes of society - disbelieved, blamed, silenced, shamed, denied justice, labelled as mad, locked up in asylums - the list goes on and on. I believe that’s because abuse is so embedded in the patriarchal status quo - so deeply pervasive in our society - that our voices are dangerous, radical and revolutionary. Otherwise why work so hard to keep us quiet and seperate?
I’ve only got one thing to say to that - let's make some noise....
It's been a beautiful day here on the Restless walk from Minehead to Porlock, a different kind of landscape altogether - woodland, high cliffs, moor, craggy headlands and a wide pebbly beach with the biggest waves we’ve seen this week, drizzle and bright sunshine, misty clouds blanketing everything then clear views for miles. We started with a steep ascent that accelerated my heart and breathing rates, made me sweat and my calves burn. There’s nothing like an energetic climb to get me in my body - somewhere that has not always been a very comfortable place to be. It's where the abuse happened, where all the trauma, pain, shock and memories are stored. Over the years I’ve hated my body, picked at it, starved it, neglected it and numbed it with drugs and alcohol. I still do those things sometimes...
Like many survivors my response to abuse was to dissociate, to effectively “leave my body” - people describe this in many different ways such as feeling as if they are floating above or outside of themselves, spacing out on objects until they are all that exist or feeling unreal or robotic. It is a natural response to trauma, a protective mechanism that helps us survive - I used to be cross about it - now I’m grateful. When I’m triggered I still dissociate often - for me recently it's felt like dissolving, my body feels fizzy and I don’t know where the edges of me are.
Being physical really works for me. Connecting with nature also really works for me. Today’s walk REALLY worked for me. It brought me out of my busy head and into my body, into the present moment and able to connect with all the beauty and sensations. For a few miles, I walked barefoot across soft earth, through cold streams, down stony paths and on spongy grass. I ate foraged bilberries high up on the moor and tasted salt tinged blackberries down by the sea. Smelling the gorse flowers. Listening to the birds and the rumbling sea. No traffic noise, not a house in sight. Just me, my body and the glorious landscape (and Fiona and some other lovely friendly hikers)
This is what my body is for. My body. Mine.
Today has been a sad and weighty day - not horrible - just in a soft, reflective, non specific kind of a way. I woke up feeling sad which is just part of life sometimes eh…. I’m trying to accept it, or more than that - embrace it. Surviving abuse comes with a massive side order of grief for all the relationships that weren’t as they should have been, for all the years lost to dissociation, addiction, depression, silence and secrets, for the me that could have been if I hadn’t been interrupted. So yeah - why wouldn’t I feel sad about that???
The start of our walk seemed to mirror my emotional state - a gentle rain, a close mist, a soft palette of greys and browns and pinks, a whispery sea - everything felt muffled and muted. The beach outside Watchet is incredible - an ever changing landscape - the cliffs tumbling onto the beach. Everything broken…. Everything beautiful….
It's a cliche to say that there is treasure in our brokenness, but there was treasure on that beach if you took the time to look. Ambling along we found ammonite after ammonite, deep shiny orange opaque rocks and translucent glass like shards. I found a stone the size of my head - a near perfect triangle with an ammonite at it’s centre - and decided to take it home. The weight seemed worth it, at least for the first 5 miles then became wearing and I wondered why I’d turned an easy day walking into a harder slog than necessary.
The primary purpose of walking for me is to be embodied - to feel my body - and the weight of the beautiful rock certainly helped with that! At times I took it out of my backpack and cradled it like a baby to give my shoulders a rest. There was something resonant for me in that - like I was carrying a very young part of myself that has been formed under intense pressure, buried deep in an unreachable place for a long time. Now re-emerged into the world - I felt I was carrying myself home.
Today we walked from Kilve to Watchet - a beautiful stretch of the West Somerset coast. Truly incredible geology that I don’t claim to understand - a chaos of colours, shapes and textures- you can see the earth crumbling into the sea - the layers in the cliffs and the complex jigsaw of long shelving rocks jutting out into the water. Both give way to boulders then rocks then pebbles then sand - all stages of the transformation are clearly visible even to the most untrained eye (mine). The sea here in Bridgwater Bay is muddy and brown, the waves small and gentle and deceptively powerful.
It’s made me think about how lacklustre I sometimes feel in my activism - sure I’d love to be a wild intense white horse of a wave crashing forth to demand change (and sometimes I feel that way) but today I’m honouring how small quiet acts of resistance also change the landscape.
Like this morning I chatted to the landlord of the Hood Arms where we stayed last night about the walk and the Restless project. This conversation - answering his question about what we’re doing honestly - would have been unthinkable to me only a few years ago. Such is the conditioning around childhood sexual abuse - you cannot, must not tell - you will upset or embarrass people - or something terrible will happen.
Well the sky didn’t fall in - it was fine - it nearly always is - it’s something I practice doing often (but not always - not if I don’t want to for whatever reason). The first step in making change is to unearth the issue name it make it visible - as a culture we need to get better at talking about abuse - I reckon.
It's amazing to be back on the Restless mission after a long pause. The project is all about using walking and coastal landscapes to talk about my experiences of living as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Today we started a 5 day walk along the West Somerset coast - our first day took us from Steart Marshes to Kilve past Hinkley Point Power Station. It seems fitting to start - as my life did - with a big, ugly, toxic scar in the landscape. The rest of our journey will be leaving that behind, walking away from it albeit somewhat in its shadow. Hinkley looms large, feels dominant, intimidating and callous. For me, there are obvious links between environmental abuses and CSA - that greedy, disrespectful colonisation of pristine territory - how people’s short lived consumption impacts on and on into the future…..
The landscape around Hinkley is wild and ancient - there is a submerged petrified forest older than Stonehenge. My companion this week, producer Fiona Fraser Smith found a piece of prehistoric wood that just happened to be shaped like a large penis which was ironically hilarious. I looked down at lunch to find I was sitting next to an ammonite fossil. The beaches here are chockablock full of incredible geological features - telling stories of the past - of where we come from. What will be our legacy?
By the end of the day I was dozing on a warm smooth shelf of rock on Kilve beach listening to the tide - my body tired but relaxed from a day’s walking. There is such freedom and release being out in the elements and in the simple, primal act of walking. Living with abuse is an unimaginably horrific experience of being trapped and out of control - feelings that have been triggered strongly by lockdown - so I relished today - every spacious, uninterrupted, autonomous step.
Spilling The Beans
Telling the truth about mental health discrimination, exploitation and gaslighting in the arts.
In 2018 I was a supported artist with an NPO and part of their Critical Friends Group. Mental health access and inclusion was never on the agenda (unless I put it there) which I challenged when they called a meeting to discuss their Equality Action Plan. I received 2 responses: one from another group member saying she didn’t consider mental health to be an equality issue; the other from the CEO saying we’d talked about mental health before and including a list of everything the organisation had ever done for me (I read this as her demonstrating how inclusive they were, suggesting I should be grateful and maybe that I should shut up). Turns out they weren’t really interested in critical friends - just weird, arse-licky, transactional tick-box relationships. I resigned from the group. 15 people blanked my resignation email. No-one thanked me for my volunteered time.
Soon after, I had a residency booked in their space to work on a show about my lived experience of childhood sexual abuse - work I needed to feel very safe to do. As the residency approached, I felt increasingly anxious. My producer called the CEO and lead producer to ask if we could meet to talk things through - they agreed but didn’t respond to our date suggestions. I rearranged the residency costing me £700 of a small funding pot I had to make the show. Additionally, therapy to process the anxiety caused by the interaction cost £300.
The following year I was on a development scheme led by the NPO and my anxiety resurfaced as a weekend event approached. My producer asked again for a meeting that never happened. I’ve no idea why I went on the weekend but I spent a lot of it in tears - its hard to explain to someone who hasn’t faced a lifetime of discrimination what it feels like to be ignored because you have raised an issue, the sheer rage of seeing the bullshit tagline about inclusivity on their conference banner, the humiliation of feeling emotional in a space that is not safe - where you are stigmatised as being “difficult” or “irrational” read “mental” and “unprofessional”. Over the weekend 2 other artists on the scheme approached me angry and upset at their own experiences of discrimination at the hands of the organisation. The icing on the cake was when their entire staff left the room during an active listening exercise saying they’d “done it before”. It would be funny if it hadn’t cost me another £300 in therapy, sleepless nights, a missed opportunity to connect with peers on a level playing field and my sense of dignity.
I no longer work with that organisation - I just won’t put myself in that position anymore. Objectively I can see they are nice people doing good work. It's a constant mystery to me how many nice, progressive people in the arts find it hard to listen, be humble, say sorry and make changes. If I’ve learned one thing working in disability arts contexts for the last 20 years, it's that it's impossible to get it right all the time for everyone. Disabled people are not a homogenous mass who all agree on what equality looks like - beyond some basics, access is very individual - accessibility and inclusion are all about relationship, listening and responding. What happened in this case wasn’t initially that bad but it became terrible because no-one was prepared to listen - if they had it could have been sorted in 20 minutes.
I’ve never spoken out about it before and never outed them because naming and shaming just isn’t my bag - noone here is bad - just unaware of the impact of their actions. In any case it’s systemic. This example highlights the difficulty of challenging a whole organisation as an individual artist - even one with producer and access support. Organisations often don’t understand the power they hold - to support you or not, to employ you or not, to book your work or not, to champion your art or not..... The money, resources, buildings, networks, job security and organisational structure they possess give them power. This power imbalance is, in itself, incredibly triggering to anyone who has been raised with abuse, inequality and discrimination. In order to call yourself an inclusive organisation, you must be willing to be conscious of your power, to learn and reflect on feedback about how your approach is replicating oppressive cultural structures and to make a commitment to change. If an artist comes to you with a problem, they will have overcome significant barriers to do that. That means the issue is important enough to warrant that effort and deserves to be heard. What was it they said in the active listening training again?
Experiences of mental health discrimination, exploitation and gaslighting are alarmingly commonplace. Another NPO chief exec questioned whether it was safe to allow adults with mental health needs to mix with other adults on a project and could not see this as discriminatory. Artists with mental health needs (probably all marginalised artists) are asked constantly to volunteer to speak at events, sit on panels and committees as if we should be grateful to be included (sometimes this is actually stated) which devalues our professionalism and expertise. If we get angry we get tone-policed. If we get emotional we are stereotyped and made to feel deficient.
There’s some interesting conversations in the Freelance Taskforce about how we reduce the burden on individuals to navigate these experiences alone with all the emotional labour, financial costs and potential career disruptions that come with that? More coming soon. It amazes me that funders don’t have a way of monitoring this as funding criteria increasingly emphasise diversity? Shifting a whole arts ecology towards equality is not a numbers game but a subtly nuanced journey that
requires time, kindness, honest communication and a mitigation of risk for artists who feel able to call out their experiences of discrimination.
If you’re a freelance artist with mental health needs who has experienced discrimination, exploitation or gaslighting please do get in touch on email@example.com. I’m collecting stories to call this out and bring it into the light. I’m also interested in ideas for new approaches and hearing stories of good practice that can be shared.
These are your options:
Over the last year I have had the great privilege of working with philosopher Havi Carel and the Life of Breath team to develop a new piece of theatre work The Book of Jo.
Havi wrote a book in 2008 called Illness which uses phenomenology to chart her lived experience of being diagnosed with sporadic LAM - a serious, rare and random lung condition that affects women of childbearing age - random in that it is not caused by any lifestyle choices, exposure to toxins or genetics. Illness reflects on what it is like to live with a terminal condition, to receive treatment and deal with the responses of friends, family and strangers. It reads as a call for more empathy in health care but also in the world. It asks important questions about finding wellness within illness - anyone with a long term condition will confirm there are better or worse days, that our experiences aren’t linear or one dimensional. I say that as someone living with a long term mental health condition.
When I read her book, it reminded me of the only bible story I know well The Book of Job. In the old testament story Job is seen by God as the best of men and he is blessed with a wife, lots of children, loads of sheep and property. God and Satan make a wager where Satan states that it’s easy to be good when you have it all. He encourages God to test Job by destroying his herds, home and children, to then see if Job is still so wonderful. When Job proves unshakeable, Satan pushes God to test him further by afflicting his body. Job sits in the ashes of his life covered in pustulent sores and maintains his faith.
His friends come to comfort him but prove pretty useless - they doubt him arguing that he must have done something wrong to deserve his plight, in a no smoke without fire kind of way. As he maintains his innocence - they question God and Job’s faith. To cut a long weird story short, Job is steadfast, God wins the wager and in the unsatisfying ending he restores Job’s life - new sheep, new children etc.
Both stories propelled me to think about how we make sense of life, misfortune, injustice…. How do we find hope within adversity? Why does bad stuff happen to good people? So these are the questions that I explore in the piece which draws on the bible story, Havi’s book and my own lived experience to animate the Life of Breath research and contemplate something about our humanness. It’s quite dark and wry, simmering with anger but also humour and love. I have written it with mentoring from Dramaturg Chris Fogg and I selected quotes from the bible story to link the scenes which have been brilliantly composed by Tom Johnson. I’m looking forward to performing it - I hope that audiences can see something of their own journey in it. No life is straightforward - none of us has certainty - especially right now. We all need some perspective and ways to understand life’s imperfections and challenges. Stories are great for that.
The Book of Jo is commissioned by www.lifeofbreath.org and funded by The Wellcome Trust
I’m walking along the South Dorset Coast Path. The walk is the beginning of a project called ‘Restless’ part awareness raising campaign and part choreographic response to the Coast Path.
I’m with my friends and colleagues, the artist and activist Viv Gordon and producer Sarah Blowers. We have been walking for two days. My feet are swollen and each step hurts. We have walked cliffs so high that at the top you can see how far you’ve already come and how far you have to go.
Viv has come a long way.
On this walk. Seven days, carrying her kit and sleeping in a tiny tent.
And in her life. Her tale is extraordinary. From being sexually abused as a child, to bravely talking about her life through honest and challenging theatre shows.
Only her story isn’t extraordinary. In fact it’s very ordinary. I’m reminded that everyday, everywhere in every town and city and village abuse is taking place. And that this abuse happens in a vacuum of silence, because thats where it flourishes. A number that often comes up in conversation is 11 million. 11 million abused people in Britain today. Today. I can’t take it in. That is enough people to fill not just this coast path, or the beaches that we can see laid out beneath us, but the whole of Dorset. To most of us its invisible. Not to Viv. She sees it everywhere. The paths and benches and rock pools all seem to hum to the sound of the millions of voices with similar stories of abuse.
We walk shoulder to shoulder. She is inquisitive and funny and always seems to hold within her a deep understanding of the tidal, surging, world of emotion we all live in. On the path and in life Viv has a long way to go. She believes that these 11 million peoples voices need to be heard. I sense she is slowly and persistently gathering the force of these people. Through walking, talking, theatre making, writing and at every moment in her life she is affecting change. This project is just the beginning.
As we walk into Lyme Regis to finish our walking for the day she recounts a story from her younger days traveling in Kashmir in her 20’s. A border control guard was trying to extort money from her and her friend, eventually she grabbed their passports and yelled “run”. She is surprised by her own actions because she “isn’t brave”. I’m amused by the story and we laugh but I disagree. She is as brave as anyone I know. For telling her story. For helping others to tell their story and for supporting those who for whatever reason can’t tell their story.
At some point in the future she is planning a larger event. I’ll be there and perhaps you will be too.
welcome to my blog
I'll be posting my personal reflections on creating work as an artist and survivor of childood sexual abuse, my work with the wider sector and interesting developments in arts and mental health.