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.
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I'll be posting my personal reflections on creating work as an artist and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, my work with the wider sector and interesting developments in arts and mental health.