When I was invited to Hereford College of Art to talk about my nomadic working life, as part of their ‘Jobs of the Future’ workshop, the timing was perfect. As Facebook reminded me, it was two years since I’d planned my new venture from an AirBnB on the North Norfolk coast. I talked to a group of talented artists about how I’d intentionally drawn on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome1 to plan my lines of flight, how engagement with thinkers (‘theory’) and many other relationships strengthened me and how it all worked out in practice day-to-day.
And, half planned, half carpe diem, I talked about how two months ago I had a stroke, which puts a different spin on nomadic life – on life in general, in fact. It’s not my first brush with mortality; I nearly didn’t survive my son’s birth and I came close to being swept away by pneumonia a couple of years later. Those experiences shaped who I am, someone who is affirmative daily, cheerful (most of the time) and open, so it was shocking to realise that my reaction to this latest health challenge was to stick my head in the sand.
Where did that fearful denial come from? As someone who tries to live a Thinking Environment, with En-courage-ment and the head-on engagement with reality demanded by the concept of Information, it certainly led to a few weeks of behaving quite unlike myself. Fear drove me, kept me awake at night imagining tiny flecks of fat, cholesterol and calcium proceeding slowly through my bloodstream. I went on a massive detox2 and catastrophised about a half-life future without dancing, or wine. I told no-one the truth except my very dearest, putting out vague messages about having an ‘electrical fault’ and scheduling a relentlessly upbeat social media output so that no-one would guess. Unlike my previous two close shaves3, although I was tremendously tired and felt really weird, I wasn’t so sick that I couldn’t plan my own funeral in detail. I googled and discovered that I was, in fact, in a coma4.
I’m not a stranger to health anxiety, usually at stressful times5 but this was on another scale. It took me a while to realise that what I was experiencing was shame. At the same time, I was bullish with people who told me to ‘slow down’, partly because in some cases that meant ‘slow down and just spend time with me’. As my hand began to rehabilitate and test results came back negative, I had to encounter the idea that I’d been on a damaging trajectory which meant that I had, to some extent, done this to myself.
Facing your responsibilities without doing the dance of shame6 leaves you wobbling along an emotional knife-edge and I’m grateful for the good people I had around me while I figured it all out7. All I’ll say here is that I’d been in an unprecedented period of adrenaline high, a purple patch of creativity, for several months. I’d been having a blast and I don’t regret a moment…and I’m not 23 any more and there has been enough shame in my life recently. I have written elsewhere about the shame and blame endemic in education; inevitable, I believe, in perfectionist cultures where outstanding is the norm. Becoming nomadic meant I stepped outside of that and yet here it was again – this time coming from another area of public service entirely. As I tried to research my condition, I kept bumping up against public health messages that told me it was all my fault: I ate too much, drank too much, weighed too much, worked too much…once again that echo of my schooldays – I was too much.
I jokingly describe myself as a ‘recovering public servant’ and life reminds me to look up from education’s siloes from time to time and think across the board, like Good Help8, a research project which is aiming to re-orientate public services. In my experience, a superb acute services response was followed by outpatient contact which reflected the perilous state of NHS funding; however there’s no excuse for the victim-blaming public health messages that framed my experience. And we weaponise these to shame and blame one another, as well as turning the gun on ourselves.
Brené Brown’s work9 helped me process my shame response to my last job ending and helped me to understand that whilst guilt is healthy10 (I’m sorry, I made a mistake), shame is not (I’m sorry, I am a mistake). Shame is at the heart of the mental health epidemic we are experiencing: addiction, depression, anxiety, self-harm. Advanced capitalism feeds us a vision of happiness and when our lives don’t measure up, shame sets in. My shame at being ill (faulty), frightened (weak), living alone (unloved), is what made me uncharacteristically reticent to face up to my truths. I wonder if every disabled human is made to feel this way? Every other ‘non-Vitruvian’ person who is othered by our society’s norms? Equality might work differently if we could demonstrate more empathy for the shame laid on others.
Shame drives us to feel bad about ourselves and the expectations of a ‘happy life’ drives us to shame. Shame makes us do damaging things, to feel better. I’m not spending time on sympathy for Theresa May but those tears were driven by shame. Not only shame at ‘failing’ but inside that Christian woman is the knowledge that on her watch, people burned to death, were deported, are destitute and/or homeless because of the corrupt ideology she follows. Shame means she can’t say, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” and neither can we, unless we are very wholehearted. We have to say, conditionally, “I’m sorry IF I hurt you,” because to be truthful would be to make ourselves vulnerable.
Boris Johnson can’t be seen to fail, Tommy Robinson can’t be seen to fail. Ex-colleagues who betray us can’t be seen to have messed up. It’s all shame – and sham. And, having survived a shame-show, I’d promised myself I’d never fall into that trap again. And yet here I am, ‘fessing up that I did just that. I hadn’t sussed it at all, I’m on life’s rocky journey, along with everyone else.
I’ve no masterplan to dismantle or replace capitalism, we are where we are. Talking up love makes nice memes, but it won’t get us anywhere. The only weapon of peace we have is vulnerability and we have to start somewhere. So I’m starting here, speaking into the unknown of a public space and saying, this happened to me and it changed me. I’m not quite the same as I used to be.
In this blog, I’m deliberately not making connections to education, because if you’ve been willing to read this far, you’ll be making those for yourself. Over-work is inscribed in our profession these days; an addiction. I think it would be easier to admit voting for Michael Gove right now than for some people to confess their workload is under control and so we collude, complicit in our own oppression, chipping away at our mental and physical health. Gramsci was right a century ago – the cleverest oppressors get us to do the work for them, they implant the micro-fascist in the head. Only you will know if your work is causing you to harm yourself, only you will know how to deal with that.
For me, that’s detox, yoga, meditation, swimming, lots of sleep (and veg). As the weeks pass, I can feel the miracle that is my brain forging new neural pathways, I don’t wake up terrified and don’t have to tell my pinky finger to press the A key any more. I still feel it when I’m tired – not the numbness or weakness the doctors asked me about but a sort of mental separation between my brain and my left hand side, a fighting for mental focus. Of course, that could just be menopause! But I know I’m changed.
I will still be a nomad. This isn’t going to send me scuttling back to the security of sick pay any time soon and anyway, I probably wouldn’t pass the medical. But to deal with this I needed to write it out, and my deeply held value of authenticity means putting my experience out there. It’s hard to make yourself publicly vulnerable about any aspect of health, but I drink from the well of Brené. To be vulnerable is to be whole-hearted. So in my whole-hearted way I’m saying, none of us are perfect, or even ‘outstanding’ most of the time. We’re just human and to be human in all its faults is to be glorious. If anything I’ve written here makes you step outside into the garden for a few minutes, or pause to call a friend (or your mum), or leave work half an hour early tomorrow, I’m thankful. Maybe we could all try to do a little more of that.
This very personal blog is dedicated to everyone who has supported me over the last ten weeks. Every lift, laugh, loving message, help around the house, shopping run, biscuit, tweet, has made a difference and it’s been lovely to have been really listened to. I’ve had a life full of love and never have I felt it more. You know who you are. Thank you.
Every cloud has a silver lining. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve decided to tell you about my new super power. From time to time since the stroke, both my ring fingers start tingling and the joints get sore, I have to massage to ease them. This only seems to happen in the presence of stupid…*
*I don’t think people are stupid. I just think some people do or say stupid things sometimes.
- Stubborn, persistent and creeping underground into your neighbour’s garden right now. See also deterritorialisation, lines of flight, cartographies, affirmative ethics, planes of immanence and the nomad war machine. The jury is still out on body-without-organs.
- Wine, caffeine, cheeky smokes, dairy (yes including cheese) are out. Yoga, meditation and green tea are in. 63 days in and I look sickeningly healthy but as I spent the first few weeks on the sofa I’ve hardly lost any weight *eye roll*.
- Reckon I’ve four lives left.
- My GP once had to remind me that I don’t have a cervix, during an QAA-driven panic about cervical cancer.
- Not *always* the people you’d expect and isn’t that one of the true joys of life? People are good.
- Full disclosure: I was a member of the advisory board.
- If you only watch the first ten minutes I think it will really speak to you (it’s not the original TED Talk). If you watch it to the end, you’ll get a feel for how gendered shame is.
- Weird for a Catholic to hear.