‘It’s good for sad people’ I hear when I (sometimes) reluctantly agree to spend a week on a wooden tarboat named Spey. ‘I don’t think I can go, I’m not very useful’ I often argue, unsuccessfully. My friends have always been supportive, and I’m incredibly lucky in this respect, that there’s a group of people who understand and if they don’t- they always try to. I’m often greeted with messages similar to ‘Come boating!’ even if previously I’ve turned down these social gatherings on water, due to anxiety or when I’m convinced ‘I can’t,’ despite others being pretty sure that ‘I can.’
I was first introduced to boating seven years ago. I was at university and travelled down to meet the boat in the Easter holidays, while others on my course were spending their time clubbing, I was on a boat- covered in crap (not literal crap.) I didn’t know what to expect, I had seen pictures and knew it would be very different to ‘Rosie and Jim’ but other than that I was relying on stories from others- I was prepared for an adventure, something different to add to my list of things that I could do. I was happy even before I got there, that I had the invitation in the first place.
As a Dyspraxic, a narrow boat with all of the water to fall into and dangerous bits to injure yourself on- seems like one of the most unlikely places to find me. Almost as unlikely as on a tight rope. I’ve always been aware of my difficulties with coordination and the comparison I make with others, how much longer I take to pick things up and that just walking along a moving boat, can be likened to a fish trying to swim without its fins. I knew all of this and if I’m honest it terrified me- but with the persuasion of someone who seems to have cracked the code to get an Alice to do anything and the threat of a flock of geese invading my bedroom – I was on a train. (If you ever want me to go anywhere, just tell me that the geese are coming to get me- and nine times out of ten, I will be there.) After a couple of anxiety attacks on the train because I was going into the unknown, I had arrived.
For years I’ve dealt with anxiety, and a diagnosis of Dyspraxia- at the time of my first boat trip on Spey no one knew about my conditions- I was always reluctant to go into details about my medical history, but a year or so later when I finally disclosed and continued to go on further boat trips, they started to understand (and so did I) why boating had been so good for me. On my first few trips, I spent my time watching everyone else and taking in what they do- I felt relaxed and as if the blanket of anxiety and negative emotions had finally lifted. As we travelled further into the countryside and through cities by canal, I saw the world go by, a world that had once caused my fight or flight responses to go into over drive, a world I often felt judged by and that I desperately wanted to accept me. A world, when in it I felt clumsy and awkward. Having dealt with being different my whole life, here I felt at peace with these feelings- that my differences didn’t matter to those that matter, and that they shouldn’t matter to me. I had a lot of thinking time when I was on Spey, watching the world go by- thinking time that at the height of my anxiety when my duvet became my best friend, would result in negative rumination, but on a canal, smelling of diesel- my thoughts were positive. I was calm. I was happy. I felt free from my worries, university and being lost in my own thoughts (often literally too). As I started to keep going back for more, I began to learn how to set a lock, I was told about the engine (but didn’t really understand it) and I even had a go at steering. It may have taken me longer, but it amazes me that as someone who struggles to get the lid of a blender some days without tears, I can use a windlass to set a lock with ease. Boating should be as recommended for Dyspraxics as much as physiotherapy.
After talking openly about my mental health for the first time, and trying to explain what it meant to be Dyspraxic- I was worried that this would increase the perception of me being hard work, that I’d be too high maintenance a friend and that they’d eventually cut me from their life. This possibility really freaked me out. I’ve had negative experiences like this elsewhere in my life, with different people- but here I didn’t need to worry. The more tied up I became with understanding myself or down I felt because of my anxiety, and the unanswered questions that kept me awake at night, the more welcome they made me feel. I went from being slightly wary and cautious, to a confident young woman on a boat. I became so confident, that I ended up falling into the canal one time, it was inevitable really- but after a (not so) dramatic rescue, being slightly shaken up, a hot shower and a pint, I carried on. Here I felt normal, I was accepted, I fitted in, I was happy, I felt safe and I was free. Boating has been better for my mental health, than medication or sometimes therapy (although the last lot of CBT has been wonderful.) Since I learned to set my first lock a few years ago, I’ve gone on to defy what is possible, I’ve started to see my Dyspraxia as a positive and stopped being embarrassed about something that is part of who I am, and will never go away. I’ve started writing about it, and made this blog something to really be proud of. I’ve wanted to write something positive, happy and shiny about mental health for a while now, but gave up concluding that doing so is like trying to make pancakes with just an egg- but I hope I have succeeded here. Every Dyspraxic should try boating, I learned so much about myself, because I was in an environment where I was given the patience to have a go- without others telling me that I wouldn’t be able to before I even tried. The only disaster so far has been falling in (once) and that wasn’t so bad really, Dyspraxia and anxiety shouldn’t have to stop you- a diagnosis or disclosure is only the start of discovery.