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.
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.
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.
I am home, lost for words, emotional and tired. When we reached Lyme yesterday a massive part of me just wanted to keep on walking.
I really will struggle to articulate anything very coherent here but there was a rightness and simplicity in just putting one foot in front of another as a way of campaigning, raising awareness, being with my own story of childhood sexual abuse and all the other stories we met and heard on the way.
We met and spent time with so many incredible people. People who shared their own stories - not in hushed voices or private spaces - but out in the everyday - at work, on holiday, down the pub.... it felt like a small microcosm of an imaginary, possible world where survivors are not in hiding, burdened with the keeping of other people’s terrible secrets, carrying the shame of other people’s incomprehensible and evil behaviour.
Walking and talking. It felt primal. I felt embodied. I felt like after the confusion and chaos of survival, I knew clearly what my body was for and that I could give my whole self unequivocally to this action. Maybe that doesn’t make sense - I guess it’ll take time to process the whole experience.
I’m sat in my own bed drinking tea, it’s a luxury.
We finished our walk yesterday, 110 Miles (more than we thought).For the last two days we walked with Tom Roden, choreographer and Director; talking through artistic ideas, the landscape, sore knees and blisters.
I don’t know how I feel now we have finished.
Mixed, it was intense at times.
It’s easier to reflect in bullet points!
-Wear good socks, they protect your feet
-Check your kit before you go, it might have holes in it
-People will be kind and help you, particularly if you ask
-You can walk further / carry more / than you imagine, it hurts but you can do it
-Sometimes it’s ok to let people help you, we don’t need to be strong all the time
-Walk with good friends,
-Silent walking is golden
- Abuse and violence is everywhere and people are hungry to talk about it
When we arrived in Lyme Regis we had a celebratory drink; the young barman asked us what we were doing. We told him. As we sat outside in the sun with our drinks he came out and thanked us. Of course, the themes resonated for him and he was moved to come and tell us. As we made our way to the car to drive home I felt tearful and overwhelmed with the scale of abuse and violence that sits so firmly in our society.Whether we are allies / survivors or indeed both - it is time.
I’m restless for change.
Wow wow wow
What an uplifting day we had yesterday on our participation day. Despite the rain a small and perfectly formed band of brave warrior souls rocked up to walk with us in the morning, with more joining at lunchtime and yet more walking from or waiting at West Bay to meet us.
We walked together (obvs), talked and took space to think and feel.
The sea was fierce and the cliffs were high and dramatic. On Freshwater beach we made the word RESTLESS from found objects - rocks, driftwood and seaweed. On the beach at West Bay we lit a fire, formed a circle and made the simple empowering statement that each of us was there to say no to abuse and violence. One participant sang to us. Her song, about the sea, traced a metaphor for deep emotions and returning to feeling after the numbness of shock and trauma. Another read to us from Marianne Williamson “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”
We made a dance together, each person contributing a movement inspired by their day - simple and beautiful gestures of crashing waves, soaring birds, reaching hands and open hearts.
Coming together as survivors and allies feels like a daunting prospect - isolation, secrecy and shame are hard wired into us - but the actual act of gathering, sharing and bearing witness was warm and affirming. I take my hat off - a very stupid cat hat with ears -to each one of us, to all living with this story and each transgressive step out of silence.
Yesterday was great and sobering.
I know I’ve already said this but it feels overwhelming, this is everywhere, every pub, every campsite, the scale of it, always sobering, over breakfast at the B and B we talked about our project with a couple who were staying, guess what?
The themes of abuse and violence strongly resonated with them.
Again and again and again, it seems that every time Viv speaks up; even when we’re both tired and I secretly think “ shall we just drink tea and not say anything this morning?”
It lands, and over and over we hear about the affect of abuse on lives.
We walked with a fantastic group of people yesterday, past an old row of cottages that I used to go on holiday to as a child, over big drop cliffs, a rainy lunch spot and finally West Bay.
We made a fire and all spoke out the same words
My name is Sarah
My voice is powerful
I say no to abuse and violence.
It was hard not to cry hearing others say it and harder to say than I thought it might be.
It’s our last day today,
My blisters are sore and it looks like rain; every step is saying no to abuse and violence.
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.