Trapeze: An Autoethography
The lights were so bright. So bright she could be a star. Stella Star, a Brighton burlesque dancer. She was so important and the people surrounding her were a higgle piggle of famous people or random relatives. The ultimate ending of it all was that Prince Andrew was going to collect her in his helicopter, free her from the Irish Police Station she was detained in, and take her to her star.
Six months later she was wading in the Thames, after ending up in a crack house in Lambeth, shiny sports car and art in the garage, stereo screwed to the walls, swanky apartment on the top floor. She only knew it was a crack house because her friend was a drug and alcohol worker; she’d never been in one before!
I write ‘she’, as the woman in the paragraphs above doesn’t feel like me. People ask if I remember my hallucinations and I do generally, once the booze had ebbed away. The crack den story, when I found a shotgun, and ended up in the Thames was a definite turning point. Not my usual New Years Eve that’s for sure. Not that I have ever been much of a wallflower, this turn of events was an all time low, even for me. My friends, frantic, had reported me missing. My 3 year old daughter was with her father for a few days. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
Before the crack den event, I had been psychotic two times in three years. This time I got some actual help and I actually listened. I had an amazing trainee social worker, who was on placement in mental health. He came every week for an hour, for two months. He listened to my worries and fears, of which there were many at the time and soothed me with the advice that things will feel different given time. It did. It does. He also advised I take up a sport. A hard sport. One which pushes you. A close friend also advised I gave up drinking. My standard coping mechanism of old. I had never learnt how to deal with life’s blows without it. Every time something bad happened I turned to it and when I was feeling high this was a very bad combination. It still puzzles me that this was never mentioned by any health professionals I came into contact with. It also puzzled me that, previously every time, I had an assessment my life history was taken. I never felt that this information was ever put to a therapeutic use. Time and time again I delved deep into the depths of my murky, tumultuous past, dredging up horrors, disappointments, trauma. As far as I can remember these were never used to help me forge a new path for my future. Each time I felt my utterances were a complete waste of time and why hadn’t someone documented it the first time so I didn’t have to keep repeating myself!
However, this time I did listen, for the first time. I began to accept there had been something wrong. My daughter was starting school and this freed up week days. I started to run, got addicted to that for a while. I ran by the sea. I became hypnotised by the changing scenery by the waters edge. How every time it was different, how many birds I saw, how many things I could ruminate about, in time to the gentle plodding of my feet hitting the concrete. Then the circus came to town.
The tag line for the show was ‘the circus you’ll want to run away with!’ I went to the show, only going out with close friends at the time, due to the shame my last bout of mania had brought upon me. My friend and I decided there and then that we would do this; we would become aerialists. A festival girl at heart, I’d always longed to be part of a show, on the stage, a performer. Puberty and a messed up childhood got in the way of those dreams. As a young girl I had longed to be in the Kids from Fame. Longed with a passionate young girl’s heart! As soon as I finished my A levels, I bought a £50 ticket to Glastonbury Festival, hitched a ride in a pink Fiat Panda and got lost in the mayhem of that world. I went back year upon year in various different guises, but always wondered how I could be a performer. I never believed in myself enough to be able to do it as an adult.
My first classes were a dream come true. The teacher was experienced and kind. I had my friend in tow too, my little security blanket. My daughter safely deposited at school, I would drop her off then don my leg warmers for my trapeze class once a week. I felt liberated. I felt like I was coming alive for the first time since perhaps puberty. I was discovering my body again, and also my mind. This time, the third round of recovery from mania, I was ready. I had more to lose. With the booze safely tucked up and away in the naughty corner, I could see more clearly I think. This last time I had pushed the boundaries way too far. I had a daughter now and she had to come first. Social services had become involved in our lives and it scared me that if I didn’t find a way back to wellness I might lose her. The threat felt very real. I had to find a way to make it work without medication. Trapeze was my way.
After a time I started to train very regularly. I soon met several local aerialists who trained around the city. I loved it. Not only was I becoming very, very strong, I was doing something exciting, bold and daring. I have never been a member of a gym, the idea itself sends me to sleep, but trapeze, well that’s more like it. I love its hardcore nature. The danger aspect. The fact you have to become very fit. I love the calloused hands you get, the bruises, the odd face plants (literally falling on my face). The skills I have learnt from the several teachers I have had, and from sharing my experiences with a lovely group of people has rewarded my mental health immensely.
I set up a children’s circus skills group, funded by the Scarman Trust, and we met weekly. I trained four times a week. I perform a little, work teaching at festivals and at an international aerial convention in Edinburgh. I worked hard. The training gave me hope. It built up a new version of myself, one in which I was proud. It was the closest I had come to fulfilling my dreams in my entire adult life. I have to concentrate. I have to be present in my body and mind. I get to express all those tumultuous whirling emotions in movement and a display of my strength. I spend a lot of time choosing the right music tracks, fitting my dance in. The enforced music searching, is therapy in itself. It took a long time to be able to play around with all the moves I had learnt. I learnt to dance up in the air, throw shapes, like on land. I feel like I can fly there.
There is all the rush and danger that I felt in my mania, but in a safe, methodical, creative outlet. When I work on a performance, I have to marry up a lot of different creative mediums: performance art, circus skills, music and I need to be brave. All the time I was training as an aerialist, my social situation didn’t change. I was still a single parent; I still had a very, very low income. I still suffered stigma and abuse on a regular basis, even from my close friends. I still lived in a small community that judged me as a mental health patient. Trapeze made me rise above it. Literally. That combined with the alcohol abstinence changed my life. I have found new friends. I discovered a route to a better, more stable me without medication, or contact with mental health services. I was still the woman coping with a life which had seen not only herself abused, but also her daughter. The pain of my reality was a lot to bear; my imagination leaking out was my escape. It needed to be contained but in a creative way. The thought of not being able to get out of bed, to do all the busy things a single mother has to do in a day to keep afloat, kept me off medication. I wanted to be healthy, not on route to a shortened, deadened life, where I had no way of navigating through my difficulties. I have always thought if the roots of a problem aren’t tackled, then the symptoms, psychologically will remain. Medication was just not an option. Besides, I was 33, I might want more children, and all the medication looked too toxic for that.
I began to think that I could share this gift I had been given. I kept meeting women who had had a troubled mental health history, but had discovered the healing properties of aerial circus. It might sound evangelical, but circus demands so much dedication and rewards you so utterly, so you want to sing it’s praises from the roof tops. More and more signs were pointing to me training to be a professional within mental health. I applied to be a mental health nurse. It was not an easy decision. Ever since I started I have been desperately trying to tailor it to my own interests and wonderings about the world. Whilst on the course I visited a project in London, a mental health trapeze project. It blew my mind and I swore I would replicate the amazingness of the London project in Brighton. I met people there who oozed happiness and pride. They all stated how much they enjoyed it, how proud they were of themselves, how fit they felt. All the participants were very vocal about how they had benefited from the trapeze experience and how it was transforming their lives. This is better than psychiatric drugs, I thought . This is something that I believe in, that I care about. Something I respected.
It validated my own experiences and was a way for people to work in a therapeutic, creative, possibly medication-free way. I applied to Southdown Housing, who now run Brighton and Hove’s day recovery services, for funding. The Women’s Only Mental Health Trapeze Project starts on June 4th 2014, with funding for an initial 6 weeks. I arranged it to be in the day time, so mothers can attend, and have ensured there is a creche space for their children also. I am so happy, as I truly believe this works for people.
My own experiences of trapeze and my journey to better mental health were my inspiration for the project and now my next challenge is how to bring my unique standpoint of ‘service user’ or ‘survivor’ and connect with my professional status as a mental health nurse. I am a very creative person, and hopefully my continuing work within creative performing arts will aid my transition into the profession of nursing. I am certain it will help. I hope my new venture with trapeze and mental health will inspire others and bring hope that a different future is possible for them, away from the constraints of the standard mental health system. ‘I would never have chosen to be taught this way but I like the changes in me. I guess I had to go to the edge to get there’ (Hobler Kahane 1995, 83).
Theoretical and methodological background
Writing this piece for me has been positive for my mental health in many of the ways that Taylor and her colleagues outline in their work on recovery writing and narrative restorying (Taylor, Leigh-Phippard & Grant 2014). Their idea that this process might challenge ‘social justice issues of disempowerment, isolation and diminished sense of self worth’ (Grant, Biley & Walker 2011; Grant, Biley & Leigh-Phippard 2012; Grant et al. 2012; Taylor, Leigh-Phippard & Grant 2014; Costa et al. 2012) resonates deeply for me. The act of writing about my mental health history in relation to art has made me consider things differently and the actual documenting of it has made me see my history in a slightly different light, a more positive one. This contrasts with the fact that as a person who had been given a psychiatric diagnosis I had for several years felt defined by this. As a student nurse I have used the technique of story telling and poetry on a psychiatric intensive care unit to great effect. I hope to use it as much as possible in the future.
My life story, which includes episodes of psychosis and hospitalization has been re-written as a positive one (Grant and Zeeman 2012). It is a hopeful story, not just for myself but others who may still be awash in the murky depths of their minds. Work such as Our Encounters with Madness (Grant, Biley & Walker 2011) and Our Encounters with Self Harm (Baker, Biley & Shaw 2014) are inspirational books which will hopefully help direct the world to a kinder place in regard to those, like myself, have suffered from mental distress.
Amy Barlow Mental Health Nursing BSc(Hons) student
Baker, C., F. Biley and C. Shaw (eds). 2013. Our Encounters with Self-Harm. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
Costa, L., J. Voronka, D. Landry, J. Reid, B. McFarlane, D. Reville and K. Church. 2012. Recovering our stories: a small act of resistance. Studies in Social Justice. 6(1) 85-101.
Grant, A., F. Biley and H. Walker (eds). 2011. Our Encounters with Madness. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
Grant, A., F.C. Biley and H. Leigh-Phippard. 2012. The Book, the stories, the people: an ongoing dialogic narrative inquiry study combining a practice development project. Part 1: the research context. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. 19: 844-851.
Grant, A., F. Biley, H. Walker and H. Leigh-Phippard. 2012. The Book, the Stories, the People: An ongoing dialogic narrative inquiry study combining a practice development project. Part 2: The practice development context. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. 19: 950-957.
Grant, A. and L. Zeeman. 2012. Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity. The Qualitative Report. 17(72) 1-12.
Hobler Kahane, D. 1995. No Less a Woman: Femininity, Sexuality and Breast Cancer. 2nd edition. California: Hunter House.
Taylor, S., H. Leigh-Phippard and A. Grant A. 2014. Writing for Recovery: A practice development project for mental health service users, carers and survivors. IJPD (International Journal of Practice Development). 14(1) 1-13.