Amy's account, below, contains frank talk of alcohol and other abuse that some people may find upsetting. Despite that, it is a heart-warming tale of how the trapeze helped Amy to overcome many problems in her life.
Trapeze Made Me Rise Above It
The lights were so bright. So bright she could be a star. Stella Star, a Brighton burlesque dancer. She was so important, the people surrounding her were a higgle-piggle of famous people or random relatives. The ultimate ending of it all was 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 stories above doesn't feel like me. People ask if I remember my hallucinations, and I do generally, once the booze has ebbed away. The crack den story, when I found a shot gun, and ended up in the Thames was a definite turning point. Not my usual New Year's Eve that's for sure. Not that I've 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 story, 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 water's 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. 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, 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. 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, we would do this, we would become aerialists.
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 had just started 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. 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, we met weekly. I trained four times a week. I performed a little, worked 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 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 tracks, fitting it in with movements. 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.
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 had found new friends. I discovered a route to a better, more stable me without medication, or contact with mental health services.
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, you want to sing its 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, 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. I thought, this is better than psychiatric drugs . 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 take care of Brighton and Hove's day recovery services, for funding. The Women's Only Mental Health Trapeze Project started 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 I ensured there was 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 a 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 marry it up 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 to others, 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” (Kahane 1995 83).
About Amy Barlow
Born in Oldham, I am the founder of the Brighton Women's Mental Health Trapeze Project, and co- run the project with Victoria Mcmanus at The Circus Project in Hangleton, Brighton. I train regularly with High Top Circus in Falmer, Brighton. I also teach aerial at festivals and events. When I have the time I am a maker, especially clothes. I am also a student mental health nurse at The University of Brighton. I thrive on exploration of this beautiful planet and representing it through photography.