Yesterday swimming in a ceaseless and delicious sea at Osmington I thought more about the central metaphor running through Restless - the sea as activism and the power of continuous collective action. The waves keep coming each one surging forward quietly or fiercely but definitely and reliably. Then drawing back into the swell until the time is right and powered by its relentless drive it pushes forward again. Meanwhile other waves do their thing.
This week I am a wave throwing myself forward - this is scary and urgent, joyful and hard. Because I do this work sometimes people ask me how I have recovered enough to be able to speak out. Make no mistake I live with the impact of my abuse everyday - I do activism to meet my rage and devastation - to harness it - own it and call for change. I have in place an enormous amount of support to enable me to do this.
Last night - 3.30am - exhausted and unable to sleep - squashed in our tiny tent - buffeted by the wind coming off the sea - feeling too much - anxious not to disturb Sarah (which I did repeatedly) and other campers (I think I didn’t) - I had a full on panic attack. Sitting sobbing under the stars and feeling so alone despite being here with one of my best friends in the world and a wide circle of loving friends and family who have my back - I felt how dismal it is to be a survivor.
Today I need to draw back after 3 days of surging forward - we have Beth and Dave hip hop artists and Becky from the SW coast path joining us - we will walk in the rain - and I will need to be gentle with myself.
Anyone who is surging forward today in whatever way know that I am with you and would love to hear about it - you can tweet on @VivGordonMFD or email me on email@example.com
I’m writing this the morning after as it was to much to do it yesterday.
In fairness yesterday was easier.
Day two was crazy, I think I’m fit and strong but I wasn’t sure I would make it.
I have loads of reflections that I think are easier in bullet points, I’m wary of sounding like an arty farty, badly written, attempting too many metaphors type
I woke last night to find Viv crying, she was distressed and needed to get out of the tent. It was hard for me to watch and feel helpless. I also feel angry. Fuck you you fuckers. How dare you have done this to my beautiful friend.
This walk isn’t easy; physically or emotionally; it’s beautiful and we are here for each other but it’s challenging and thinking about / living with abuse is never far from our minds
Today we walked 20 miles carrying full camping kit in a landscape the coast path info describes as a rollercoaster. They’re not joking. Some of the hills were so steep Sarah was crawling on her hands and feet and I was taking micro-rests every 10-15 steps
My reflections on resilience include:
A. When something is overwhelming it serves me well to only think about the next step
B. Trying to work out how to do anything but A is impossible
C. Feeling overwhelmed and worrying about what’s coming next takes up more energy than is available
D. Pushing through hurts - my feet ache like never before.
E. Listening to myself and taking rests whenever I need to - even if I need to embarrassingly often - helps
F. When you get to where you want to be it’s satisfying
G. I like the feeling of pushing myself beyond what I think I can do and finding out I’ve got more in the tank than I thought
H. Friends are good
I am too tired to write more or post this until the morning
Words fail me
My title says it all.
We walked 20 miles today
I crawled some of it, the hills were vertical at points and my rucksack was very heavy.
We ate oatcakes and a tin of squid for lunch with some cucumber that we bought from the campsite this morning.
Quinta walked with us today.
I’m really excited about working with her, we found out we have mutual friends in the arts and she is/ was super cool.
She has left me her roll mat so tonight I won’t be sleeping on a hard floor with a deflated roll mat.
The coast line is stunning.
Sometimes it’s hard to see that when you’re so weighed down with your baggage.
We’re camping in the garden of Lulworth YHA.
We are so tired we couldn’t even face walking to the pub and ate a packet mix risotto. (it was tasty).
I thought a lot about resilience today as the hills kept coming.
At a hard point today I found out that an application that I have been making for a project has received its funding. It’s the fourth time I have made the application.
I can be resilient.
I have found today hard on many levels, the walking/ weight and ultimately thinking about abuse stories.
Viv’s, the people that we have started to meet and talk to and my own experiences of working with/ living with these stories. Personally and professionally.
The sun shone today, my boots are protecting my feet and my shoulders are pretty strong.
The sky and sea are stunning but I am going to bed tonight aching.
So Day 1
We walked from Poole to Worth Matravers
Legs aching and knackered so will be brief
Struck by us being here on this mission surrounded by holidaymakers and day trippers who are here to relax and have fun
We are having fun too but with this bigger purpose. Restless is about visibility - we are wearing our project t shirts and starting conversations about childhood abuse and domestic violence.
Here (as in life) those conversations are incredibly hard to start - as a survivor it is always hard to speak up - I do it all the time - probably everyday - but it never comes out of my mouth without a moment of thought, of hesitation. The taboo and stigma, the silencing, secrecy and shame, the coercion and actual real threats made by perpetrators are still very much something I have to consciously overcome .
Let’s face it the subject of abuse is still very much what I call “a downer at the dinner party”. Something we all know is happening but find it hard to engage with.
So the question with me today is - when is the right time to talk about abuse? And why do I as a survivor have to carry the burden of worry of spoiling the holiday/dinner party/day out?
Camping next to some slightly rowdy young men ( I just was a little firm with them)
We walked 16 miles
Funny mix of holiday makers/ nudists (many penises) within the first hour
Glad I bought proper boots and shoes
Rucksack hurting my shoulders a lot
Cried in the car on the way
Hard/ big/ brave conversations with Viv
Ideas for show
I was Stroppy at the end
Pint and a pie for supper
(my roll mat has a hole in it, it’s bloody self inflating and new)
Thank god Carl packed some gaffer- will it last the night?
A bit scared for tomorrow
Quinta has arrived
She’s super nice and super cool
Her tent looks like a tomb
Our tent appears to be designed for small children
What if I need a wee in the night
Glad for my down sleeping bag and thank god I brought a head torch
Viv’s legs ache
Please let the gaffer hold for the night and my mat not deflate
I have written a heavier blog which needs more thinking
Tonight I can only do facts
No blisters today
Good night world
Viv and I have been friends since we were 11, we did amateur dramatics together, my dad was our head of 6th form and I am now her producer. I didn’t know that Viv was an abuse survivor until we were both in our 30s. In hindsight it makes sense, certain behaviours over the years, triggers, anger, what I sometimes thought was weird shit in our theatre studies A level class.
As a theatre maker I have always made work about tricky subjects, injustice and have often been drawn to telling womens stories. In this process I have seen myself as an ally but as the walk approaches I have started to consider whether we all sit on the spectrum as survivors, in differernt ways . In no way do I want to claim my story as a survivor, or be seen to be jumping on the band wagon but as a 47 year old woman I too of course have my own baggage, history and scars.
For me the idea of a walk has always felt very primal, a protest, a walk out of our lives because the shit has got so bad that the only thing that we have left to do is walk, walk out, drop everything and go.
In 2014 I remember reading a news story of two indian girls who had been gang raped and then hung in their village. At the time I was working on a large scale domestic violence project in Gloucestershire. I felt so outraged at the scale of this global violence against women that I felt compelled to walk out of my life and walk to India. To invite people to walk with me, walk out of their lives as a protest against this continous violence against women. My son pointed out that my geography was so bad I would never make it, he was of course right and of course I didn’t do it. But the urge to walk out in protest against violence and abuse has not gone away.
So here I am, two nights before we leave, wearing my new walking boots around the house and having just walked 5 miles with a 12 kg rucksack as a practise. The baggage is heavy and without sounding like a wanker of course I have started to feel what it is like to carry baggage, really heavy baggage and it hurts!
It’s hard and I feel that the week is going to be hard but I’m also excited as it feels like a week where we can start to think about what walking out means. What carrying your own baggage up and down hills feels like and what walking on the edge is. I’m curious to sit with my own stories of baggage, abuse and family history and what conversations Viv and I will have with each other and the artists and participants that join us.
I’m about to embark on a new arts activism project called Restless - read on to find out more....
Restless is what it says on the tin. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and as a woman who lives in a society that still wants to sweep the scale and extent of abuse and violence under the carpet - I am restless for change.
My new arts project is a campaign and protest and also an attempt to bring survivor voices (including my own) into greater visibility and community. So much abuse and violence happens in private, behind closed doors, the victims isolated, coerced and silenced, the shame, the secrecy, the fear - all making it incredibly difficult to forge community and find our voices.
With an estimated 11 million adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the UK (take it in - it’s not a typo - it’s 11 million) and two women a week murdered by violent partners and ex-partners - there is no place for societal denial and taboo propping up abusive power relationships anymore.
The most radical thing I feel I can do as a survivor is speak out, connect, rise up and call for change - each of us do that as and only when we are ready - as and only when we feel safe and supported enough.
For me that moment is now.
Stage one of the research project is an 86 mile walk along the Dorset Coast Path - walking with other survivors, artists and allies - walking in protest in a long tradition of marginalised and oppressed people voting with their feet, using the most primal means of movement to express opposition and solidarity and demand change.
You can find out more about the project on the Restless page of this website, where you can also find details of our participation day for survivors and allies on 12th August 2018. Me and my producer, friend and ally Sarah Blowers will be posting blogs here everyday - WiFi permitting.
Join us in body, online or in your thoughts.
Is Theatre Just for Posh People? was an industry conference hosted by GL4 & Strike a Light Festivals in Gloucester on 12/10/17. Here is the full transcript of my talk from the event.
I love the title of today’s event because on face value it seems like the simplest of questions. Of course we’re all here because we believe that the answer is “Absolutely not – theatre is for everybody”. But like so many conversations about diversity and inclusion in the arts what we believe is the truth and the actual truth, are two very different things.
The actual truth is that theatre – the theatre establishment, theatre making and theatre going - is still so dominated by “Posh People” (if what we mean by that is people who are privileged in contemporary life) and these are the very people most poorly equipped to talk about or understand diversity and inclusion, the causes of inequality, the experience of otherness or what to do about changing anything.
In her book, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge gives a great example of this by citing her experience of recognising her own biased ableist perspective. She tells us about a time in her life when her commute to work consisted of a train journey followed by a bike ride. It was not until she had to navigate a train station with a bike on a daily basis that she became aware of how hostile the physical environment was for anyone dependent on wheels to get around. It was only her lived experience of the disabling environment that helped her to see it for what it was.
She tells this story to try to explain to white people that we cannot understand the racism that pervades the very structures of our society because we do not live with the consequences of that on a daily basis.
I love it that she has reached for an analogy about physical access because I do that too. It’s something we can all easily grasp – and while I stand fully in solidarity with those with physical access needs – what interests me and what is maybe harder to articulate is those experiences of “otherness” where the barriers are not physical but cultural, attitudinal, semantic and intangible. The barriers we can’t see and can’t pin down because they exist in the subtleties of language, of behaviours, of dominant ways of seeing and doing and being. These barriers are intimidating and undermining and so hard to put your finger on that it is easier as someone who is different to question whether maybe it is you that is wrong or the barriers themselves.
So I am aware at this point that I probably sound quite “posh” so I just want to tell you a bit about myself and how I identify – if only to demonstrate how complex identity is. When it comes to class I am confused – I was brought up in a very low income single parent family. My mother was born in a working class family in the East End of London. My father was an immigrant, a holocaust survivor and largely absent. Having been forced to leave school early my mother had very aspirational middle class values placing importance on education, culture and travel. We went to the theatre.
When it comes to race I am also confused. My father was Jewish, which means I am not, as it passes through the maternal line. Like lots of people of Jewish heritage are I’m not sure if I count as a person of colour but I was racially bullied at school. I live with the consequences of anti-Semitism and the atrocities committed against my ancestors without any of the plusses of Jewish community or culture.
I am a cisgender heterosexual woman raised in an unequal and sexist culture and I am still learning that it’s ok to take up space and speak my mind.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and live with a hidden disability, the long term mental health condition Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Living with a mental health condition is where I feel most marginalised. The conversation is shifting - as a culture we now at last acknowledge that mental health is a thing. We talk a lot about stigma and discrimination but we don’t often talk about where that comes from, about the countless horrific violations of human rights against people like me throughout history often enacted by well meaning people in the name of doing good.
Like Freud’s “hysterical” women (women who were interested in intellectual pursuits like reading, or showed an interest in sex) who were subjected to enforced cliterodectomies or genital mutilation as a cure. Or the countless women incarcerated in lunatic asylums because they were victims of rape. Or the arbitrary electroconvulsive therapies and lobotomy’s carried out not so long ago. Or current practices like the holding in police cells of people in distress because of a lack of beds in mental health units. Or the somehow legal medication that treats people for depression but has the side effect of making you feel suicidal. Or the fact that right now 1000’s of victims of childhood sexual abuse receive a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder – problematising the victims’ personality rather than the perpetrators behaviour. Or that people with mental health conditions are being screened out of the benefits system by the new PIPs assessments leading to a spike in the suicide rate and increased distress, deprivation and marginalisation.
When you start to think about it all it’s no wonder that someone might find it difficult to speak up about their mental health, articulate their needs as access needs or believe they will be treated fairly or even safely.
I think the first thing that’s important about this for the theatre establishment to understand is that if you are “other” – you have experienced the oppression that goes with being different consistently over a long period of time in a lot of different contexts. When society has made you “other” in this way you might not have much faith or trust in the institutions of that society or the people who run them - the very people who benefit from the systems of privilege that disadvantage and marginalise you. Being “well meaning” or trying to “do good” is not enough
If you are anything like me, you will have heard cultural institutions speaking the rhetoric of equality while failing to address exclusionary practices. You might have taken the risk to speak up and challenge discrimination and been fobbed off or ignored or told to shut up or judged as being too sensitive or told that maybe you have a chip on your shoulder or been asked to express your valid point less emotionally or told that your anger about your experience of oppression is getting in the way of you being heard.
When theatre organisations talk about "audience development" – they are rarely talking about any of this. They often assume that people could access conventional theatre going if only they knew about it and so audience development activity looks at opening the door to what exists rather than looking at systems of privilege and access that make theatre going inaccessible to many – sure sometimes the barriers are pricing, transport, physical access but sometimes the barriers are cultural relevance or any sense of a theatre as a safe or welcoming or democratic space.
My early life was chaotic and through my teens and 20’s I lived with a range of addictive and compulsive behaviours. I found myself homeless, I drifted between friends sofas, protest sites and festivals – and then finding myself at home in these unconventional environments I lived for several years completely detached from mainstream society as a new age traveller living in trucks and tipis and benders. During this time I didn’t see any telly, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, go to a cinema, museum or art gallery. I did not go to the theatre. But I did experience some of the richest, most alive, most innovative culture I have ever experienced.
And this is the second important thing that the theatre establishment must understand to do anything about diversity. We have to re-examine what counts as "theatre" - and how these decisions are completely value laden with the white, straight, male, middle class, non disabled privileged aesthetic and perspective. In this - the cultural expression of marginalised groups gets overlooked. We think of theatre as something that happens within organised spaces, at specific times and with specific parameters and conventions rather than valuing the theatre, colour, texture and narrative of the everyday life of people who may not have access to the cultural establishment or feel it relevant. Like a sort of cultural colonialism which decides how creativity is expressed and valued.
If we want to level the playing field we have to take the radical personal and political step to reject these unequal power relationships. We have to recognise how arrogant it is to think diverse groups are out there just waiting to be included. At the end of the day, it’s down to the arts sector to become relevant to those groups, to adapt and have something to offer, not the other way round. After all, it is mainstream culture that loses out, becomes bland and monotonous, when we accept exclusion. It is not the marginalised people who are missing out necessarily – many of us have embraced our disenfranchisement and created thriving, liberating, mind blowing subcultures – we are courageous, we have learned to do it for ourselves, found our own role models, stepped into leadership, gathered our community around us, resourced ourselves and defined our own values and aesthetics.
Obviously I love conventional theatre making too and see the power of developing access for all. Some of the best moments of my career have been in theatre spaces with people who have never been in those spaces. Including seeing a show with some people in addiction recovery and over hearing them in the interval marvelling at what they were seeing and saying emphatically "This is what people do when they're not off their face on drugs". Or the many people I have accompanied on their first ever trip to the theatre some of whom have gone out in the evening for the first time in years and needed a great deal of support to do so.
These people don’t just wake up one day and decide theatre is for them. The people in addiction recovery for example had been offered free tickets – but that in itself is not enough. They were there because of relationships developed over a number of years that actively sought to remove barriers. They were there because they felt safe enough together to venture into the alien space of a theatre. And because they trusted the mental health service they used that provided the tickets which in turn trusted the theatre company who offered the tickets. Trust earned over many years.
As someone who has worked in the arts with very vulnerable people since 2003 I know that if someone takes the step to engage they may have been thinking about it for months or even years. They may have tried to attend a performance or a workshop previously and failed to make it through the door. They might have had to summon every ounce of their courage to get themselves there this time. Such is their vulnerability that we could blow it in an instant if we don’t welcome them safely and appropriately. If we don’t – they may leave – and it might take them years to try again. If ever.
We all like to think we are nice welcoming people but the headline news is - that may not be enough if someone is very vulnerable. The truth is if we are not working consciously and consistently to remove barriers then we are unconsciously persistently propping the up.
So if we want to work towards a theatre sector that isn’t just for the privileged, which is properly accessible and inclusive – we need to start by having a long hard look at ourselves. What’s gets in the way is that for anything to change we have to start by acknowledging what we personally are doing wrong.
We have to find our willingness to listen and learn how to do things differently. We have to find the time and the resources to do more than lip service, to move beyond cold cynical targets, or the robotic churning out of politically correct messages or shifting responsibility onto specialist organisations, staff members or sub groups.
We have to allow ourselves to become vulnerable. We have to learn how to be curious, open and responsive, how to feel comfortable not having all the answers, how to live with not knowing the right language, with making mistakes, with being corrected and being humble.
It’s such a wonderful opportunity to challenge our own expectations and preconceptions we should delight in that as a creative act – maybe the most creative act.
At last in the arts we are learning that embracing diversity is not about targets or worthiness but about removing structural barriers so that previously marginalised voices are foregrounded. So much innovation happens on the edges of the arts sector influencing those who have the privilege and resources to run with new ideas. This tendency, which stinks of cultural appropriation dressed up as cross-fertilisation, is so out of date: to be honest, we really should know better…
But my, oh, my – those structural barriers are robust and the obstacles facing artists with mental health needs are varied and deeply entrenched.
When I talk about arts and mental health 3 things usually happen:
First, there is the irritating assumption that the work is “therapeutic” and its value lies in “helping” people. If we were talking about ANY OTHER minority group in these terms we would be in deep water. But somehow it is still acceptable to talk about people with mental health conditions in this way rather than in terms of voice, inclusion and good quality art.
This is often followed by the hackneyed response that the arts are full of people with mental health needs – the “you don’t have to be mad to work here” mentality. To a point that is true – art mirrors life and life is full of people with mental health needs – 1 in 4 adults in fact – officially we are the largest disabled population in the UK. But when we talk about disability rarely are we thinking about mental health. Unfortunately, unlike any other disabled group the onus is still very much on us to normalise than on the sector to enable.
Finally, it never takes long for someone to point out that the arts are already full of mental health narratives – so what is the problem? The issue is one of ownership, of people like me reclaiming the right to tell our own stories - to tell them with courage and authenticity from a inside experience. So many representations of mental health in the arts are watered down oversimplifications that are at best well meaning and at worst perpetuate stigma and discrimination.
If I sound frustrated - I am. Artists like me have grown up internalising the stigma that we really ought to try to be “normal”. Until we have an arts sector that actively engages with our needs as legitimate access needs, this frustration serves me well. It’s meant that I can start to do things differently. In all my work I am experimenting with a mental health friendly making and touring processes, finding out and addressing what my needs are to do a good job. A broader dialogue between artists with lived experience of mental health is now long overdue, to enable relevant steps forward in developing new ways of doing, a sense of community, voice and representation within the sector.
So – as I pack my bag ready for my first ever Edinburgh Fringe I’m seriously looking forward to engaging with other artists and companies who are also hungry for that conversation.
I'll be posting my personal reflections on creating work as an artist with mental health needs, my work with the wider sector and interesting developments in arts and mental health