I am an adult, but a large proportion of my responses to situations, no matter how trivial, are very childlike. As I navigated and passed through adolescence to adulthood, I learnt to disguise my immediate response, most of the time, sometimes my face will still give me away. My unadulterated go to emotion in any given situation will be raw. Painfully raw. Followed rapidly by ‘it’s not fair’ thoughts and lots of self-pity. Even someone’s light-hearted comment about what they cooked for dinner last night can release my jealous inner brat. He’s normally sent to his room without any dinner for reacting so childishly and rational thinking is allowed to return. More paradoxical thinking.
Much of childhood is spent learning to be an adult. Not the understanding credit card APR, mortgages and pensions type of learning, but how to behave appropriately and responsibly in society. And most of us have nailed it. But sometimes to the detriment of the inner child. Feeling childlike joy, playful happiness and innocent wonder is something you should never grow out of. I got this back in abundance when I started to swim with the Salty Seabird flock. We bring out the child in each other, pulling moonies, doing handstands, diving through waves accompanied by loud laughter. Lots of loud laughter.
Having always had mental health issues and episodes of poor emotional wellbeing I am always checking in on how I feel. Now I have a new worry. I worry about other people’s mental health. Particularly the mental health of my flock of Salty Seabirds with the removal of their regular cold water swims. And we are most definitely having to act appropriately and responsibly at the moment. Just when we need it our escape hatch has been firmly closed.
It isn’t just the company, connection and community that make our daily dips such an adventure. Cold water swimming means we regularly subject our brains and bodies to a risky environment and our fight or flight reactions are triggered. I do it because this repetitive behaviours demonstrates to my brain that I can and will survive when the worst happens. So I know I will survive the current situation. What worries me is that everybody has the capacity to experience poor mental health and as a direct result of social isolation and lock down regulations some normally sound and stoic people will. I have had years of therapy, counselling, reading books and articles exploring mechanisms to manage my mental health. But others are not as well equipped as me to deal with it.
But we do all have a childhood. And that has equipped us to deal with the current situation in more ways than we probably realise. Whether we had a good or a bad childhood, we had one, during which we experienced new things. Our first snow, our first kiss, our first swim. I listened to a podcast recently in which Dr Gabor Maté said the response to C19 crisis has seen the removal of distraction from our everyday lives and that the emotions we are feeling are not new. We have experienced this uncertainty before. Everything we experienced in childhood, at some point, was a new experience. And it got me thinking. I have experienced a much more insular world, insecurity, boredom, simple pleasure, waiting and day dreaming all before. As a child. And I realised I was experiencing it again.
I had a rich upbringing in the 1970s and 80s. Not rich, as in financially well off but rich in substance. I haven’t experienced any childhood trauma and look back with affection on my family life. Over the last few weeks, I realised I have readily drawn upon the skills I learned as a child. Bought up in a large family by a fireman and a teacher, self-sufficiency was encouraged and to make do and mend was a necessity rather than a response to environmental concerns. A make ends meet philosophy has seen me regularly whip a meal from leftovers and tins just like my parents did.
I can also deal with the seemingly endless same old, same old day by replicating my childhood activities. This is not a time for learning new things. It is a time for remembering how to do things you used to do! One of which was the skill of being bored. So you will not see me joining zoom anytime soon or partaking in a Facebook quiz. Don’t get me started on top 10 albums, they are for listening to and reminiscing, not posting on social media. Instead I am remembering how to grow carrot tops and mend my favourite cut off jeans. I can read quietly in a corner, I can go for a walk and recognise sky lark song, I can cloud gaze and I can watch rain drops run down a window pane. All these things I have done before as a child. Even my relationship with the sea was borne of my upbringing.
My mum asked me recently if my mental illness is her fault. ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact, the way she raised me has given me a huge range of tools and coping mechanisms including my love of the wild and the water. But the most important lesson she taught me is that children need to be bored. Because it is through that boredom that your brain can create a whole new world of experiences and you can feel all the emotions it provokes. I’m struggling with the uncertainty and insecurity of it all but I have accepted that being frightened is a ‘normal’ response and reaction rather and I’m going with the flow.
So, let that inner child have a tantrum at the injustice of it all. But also let that imaginative, curious, self-sufficient, problem solving kid have a turn at the helm once in a while. Seeing things through their eyes, feeling the emotions they experience will remind you, you’ve been here before and you survived. Just with a few grazed knees and great stories to tell.
The inner teen!